Sunday, October 31, 2010

Real People

I met some real people yesterday. On impulse mostly, my wife and I stopped at a yard sale on a busy street while driving to a Saturday morning errand. Walking from the car we heard a call, “Hey, don’t we know you?” and turned to see a couple in our age group (Boomers) that looked familiar to us but we couldn’t immediately place them. In the name exchange that followed we realized that our children had attended the same Christian elementary school in another town and we would see each other at school functions. In the great fall morning air we chatted and the topic came around to churches. This couple admitted they were “between churches” – funny so are we! They had recently left their church rather disillusioned over issues such as governance and leadership (the Pastor-as-CEO dilemma). Both had been highly involved and active church participants for years but were now seeking that new fit – that oftentimes hard-to-define mix of congregational community, fellowship, commitment, purpose, leadership, worship style, spirit and doctrine.

Ours was a similar story but with also a travel distance component involved. When you travel 45 minutes one-way to church, say what you want, but it gets hard to be involved in more than just Sunday morning services. Aside from the obvious cost of distant multi-trip travel, it is difficult to feel part of a spiritual community on a weekly basis. In New England, we aren’t bound together by a county or township orientation – we are made up of very individualistic cities and small towns that shape our activities and our identity. I saw this effect in the contrast between the township school system I attended in Pennsylvania and the single town-based school where I finished out my high school years in Massachusetts. At the church we attended that was 45 minutes from our home and effectively three communities away, most everyone there was local to the area. Their sense of community was their town (small city in this case). The congregants see each other around town during the week and can easily pop by the church for a mid-week committee meeting or a before-work men’s prayer session. Overtime, it makes a difference. (I fully realize that my friends and colleagues in the Southwest will chuckle at this since in places like West Texas they think nothing of driving an hour one-day to pick up some groceries or go to a movie).

Back to our chance meeting with the couple. They admitted that in seeking a new church home, they had visited some 15 area churches. Now these are committed, well-grounded and mature Christ-followers, not flighty or fickled teens trying to figure out if their next stop should be the Gap or Old Navy. We could absolutely relate to their situation – and that’s why we ended up talking extensively on the sidewalk in front of that yard sale and exchanged phone numbers when we parted.

An isolated incident? A case of bored Christians habitually church-shopping? No, Boomer Christians are having a difficult time these days wresting with the essence of their faith vs. the practice and program component. This restlessness is a wide-spread issue, at least here in the northern half of New England with our small towns, small churches and generally secular community atmospheres. Emergent Church, Simple Church, Missional Church, Return-to-Liturgy Church. Lots of discussions, lots of choices. Sort of.

It was heartening to unexpectedly meet and converse with some real people yesterday. Christ-followers on a journey, trying to be faithful to their faith. I can relate.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A Maine Puzzler

I’m a big fan of the radio talk show, Car Talk, but not so much Click & Clack’s weekly puzzler when it’s math-based (they are MIT alums after all). Math puzzlers just don’t hold my interest very much. So a few years back I submitted a suggested puzzler based on a true event. Hard to believe, but they never used my contribution on the air. So I recycle it here for any readers to mull over.

I was a graduate student at the University of Maine performing water quality studies with my faculty advisor one late fall day in a rural area. We completed our day's work and were just heading back to the university when we were involved in a minor traffic accident with another vehicle. (Fortunately for me, my advisor was driving the university station wagon at the time and the collegiate fathers could not later seek retribution on a lowly graduate student!).

We all drove to the town's police department to dutifully report the minor accident for insurance purposes. While waiting for the necessary paperwork to be filled out by the desk Sargent, I noticed a large wall map of the town with color-coded pins stuck into the paper map at various locations. The Sargent saw my interest and informed me that each color signified a type of accident or incident that had occurred within the town's borders. I noted that one pin was black and was located in what appeared to be the middle of a field, so I asked about it. Black, I was told, represented a fatality. Naturally curious, I asked the Sargent what had happened. He gave me a funny look and said:

"As near as we could tell from the scene, the deceased was alone, was the operator of two vehicles and was a pedestrian at the time of the accident."

How could that be??

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New England Shark Attacks

Just this past week a California surfer was fatally attacked by a 14 to 20 ft long shark, assumed to be a Great White. Worldwide, shark attacks (fatal or otherwise) are often concentrated in warm water areas. In the United States, such attacks tend to be concentrated in the states of Hawaii, California, and Florida. Of course these are also areas of long swimming/surfing seasons and maximum enjoyment of water activities by we humans. Fatal shark attacks in northern waters are a bit rare, though not unknown. The most northerly documented fatal shark attack on the east coast of the US occurred about 10 miles from where I was born.

In 1936 Joseph Troy Jr. was 16 years old and living in the Dorchester section of Boston. He went to visit his uncle who had a summer home in Mattapoisett on Buzzards Bay (the SE Massachusetts coast). On July 25th Troy and a friend were swimming off an area called Hollywood Beach in Mattapoisett about 150 yards offshore in perhaps 10 to 15 feet of water when a shark grabbed Troy by the left leg and pulled him underwater. Troy’s friend was about 10 feet away and went to his assistance. Ultimately he was able to get hold of Troy when the unconscious boy surfaced in a pool of blood. Other rescuers rowing out to assist got a good look at the 10 to 12 ft shark still milling around in the area. Once on shore, Troy was driven to St. Lukes Hospital in New Bedford (that would be my hospital). The boy’s femoral artery had not been severed, but his left leg was severely mangled and was being amputated when Troy passed away. From the eye witness accounts, scientist later concluded that the attacker was very likely a Great White.

Now there are some sketchy accounts of two shark fatalities closer to Boston in Massachusetts Bay in 1830 and in 1730+ but expectedly the records from those events in the 19th and 18th centuries aren’t as clear as the Buzzards Bay attack. But if true, New England has experienced a fatal shark attack every 100 years. I think I’ll be staying out of the water starting in 2030 – maybe even a year before – just to be safe.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Coffee in Brazil

Why do scientists like coffee so much?  I'll explore that question later in the week.  But first, let's set the tone with Sinatra and his rendition of the 1946 classic by Bob Hilliard and Dick Miles.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


This Spring I read Navajo Weapon (by Sally McClain) about the Navajo code talkers in World War II.  I have visited a small museum in Gallup, NM dedicated to the code talkers while I was there performing some environmental studies on the 17.5 million acre Navajo Nation.  Here’s my favorite anecdote from McClain’s book about one of the Navajo servicemen:

Pfc Carl Gorman was assigned to serve during the battle on Tinian. A concussion from a mortar shell explosion combined with a bout of malaria sent him to the hospital unconscious, away from the battle zone. When he awoke he found himself in a white gown tucked into white sheets in a bed.  He thought he had died and gone to heaven.

“There was a pitcher of water by the bed and I thought, people drink water in heaven,” Gorman recalled. “Then I saw a window and thought, there are windows in heaven.  On the opposite wall was a picture of a battleship firing a cannon and I knew that this was not heaven. There are no battleships in heaven.”

Gorman lived until the age of 90, dying in 1998.

Maynard G. Krebs

Before there were Hippies, there were Beatniks. And before there was Gilligan, there was Maynard, a central character on the TV sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63) .

Maynard G. Krebs was cool before cool. He coined the use of the conversational insert “like” before the Valley Girls did.  “Like, I'm getting all misty.”  One of his other frequent phrases was “You rang?” in response to calling, or mentioning his name.

Maynard's middle name was Walter. Named for his aunt, the "G" was silent.

Ice Cream

Over at Assistant Village Idiot ( we were speculating on why New Englanders consume so much ice cream per capita.  I wondered whether the good stuff reminds us (fondly?) of winter.  Maybe because it is considered a comfort food it reflects that we Yankees like our comfort and solace.  Gringo also thought maybe the winter angle made sense while both he and AVI speculated that perhaps it reflects the traditionally strong dairy industry in these parts. I think they may be on to something there. When New Englanders think cows they automatically think Vermont. Oh yeah, and where is Ben & Jerry’s headquartered?  Can’t be a coincidence.

But now I had always heard that per capita consumption of ice cream was highest in New England.  A little research told me not so. Its high here to be sure, but the Northern Central states top all of the regions in this country (think Wisconsin).

But then again, maybe ice cream is just a mass religious experience – reportedly, more ice cream is sold on Sunday than any other day of the week.

Flavors – we all know that there are more flavors out there these days than when Howard Johnson wowed us with his 31. Lots of off-beat flavors too; especially from the independent stands and ice cream parlors.  On the AVI site I mentioned that just this week I had tried Indian Pudding ice cream at a little shop in Bar Harbor, Maine (Indian Pudding – a traditional New England concoction of corn meal and molasses).  But around the corner from that shop was one that offered up Lobster Ice Cream to its patrons. No, we did not indulge, but we did observe them making the stuff so we can attest to the accuracy of the proprietor’s claims.

But my most memorable flavor by far is Moxie. As far as I am aware, there is only a single source on the face of this earth for commercially-made Moxie ice cream.  That would be  Kennebec’s House of Moxie  store in Lisbon Falls, Maine. Not coincidentally, downtown Lisbon Falls is also the site of the annual Moxie festival and parade every July (more on that in a future post).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why Live in New England?

While my heritage is New England, my family relocated to the South for work reasons back when I was a college undergraduate. My younger brother and sister were then raised in the South and it became their home and their culture.  My wife’s family is also anchored to the South.  My wife and I have remained in New England all these years, raising two daughters and a great crop of friends.  In our minds, the benefits of living in history-rich New England well outweigh some of the downside (taxes and often miserable late Winter-early Spring weather come immediately to mind).  We are frequently trading good natured barbs with our Southern family about which part of the country is preferable.  A few years ago I penned the top ten reasons why I’m a Yankee, and not a Southerner.  Here is that top 10 list.  Sometime I’ll post my brother’s response to my offering.  

10.  Can delay cutting my lawn until May, sometimes June!
9.    I don't have to eat grits, or explain why.
8.    Can never remember if your president is Jefferson Davis or Davis Jefferson.
7.    I’m close to the source of that true heavenly sustenance, maple syrup.
6.    Tried but can't pronounce "dog" in three syllables.
5.    One hour from mountains, one hour from ocean, one hour from Boston.
4.    Can hone my driving skills to NASCAR level by dodging potholes and frost heaves.
3.    Air conditioning supplied by nature all summer long.
2.    Experience snow falling in dark woods on a crisp night, just like Robert Frost did.
1.    Somebody has to do it; I was one of the fortunate few selected among the many who applied.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Highly Recommended Site

A must-visit site, with a frequent rinse-and-repeat cycle, is the Assistant Village Idiot (AVI).  I occasionally post comments there as “akafred” (a story for another day). AVI mostly tackles serious topics with his keen insight and a conservative perspective. Always provides you issues and commentary worth mulling over.  Now, if he happens to be off on a tangent expounding on the virtues of ABBA, well then it’s OK to high tail it back over to my site.     

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hoover Dam Bridge

I’m not an engineer but I have an appreciation for difficult engineering feats such as the completion of the bridge that bypasses the old Hoover Dam route crossing the Lower Colorado River between Nevada and Arizona, not too far from Las Vegas (here).  I assist the federal Bureau of Reclamation with their environmental and sustainability programs, so Hoover Dam is one of my “clients” you might say (but Reclamation has nothing to do with the highway bridge, to be clear).  On business trips to the area I’ve observed the bridge’s progress through these eight years of construction – the highway approach on each side of Black Canyon was no small feat of development either.

Is this project an environmental plus?  Can a huge concrete structure and 3+ miles of roadway be environmentally friendly when all factors are taken into consideration?  I confess I haven’t looked into the specific environmental impacts of this bridge project, but just consider one component: the future vehicle fuels savings from travelers not creeping along the former six mile roadway that physically crossed the top of the dam. And after 9/11 for security reasons heavy trucks were not allowed over Hoover Dam and had to make a 23 mile detour through Laughlin, NV. How much petro will this bridge project save in the next 5, 10 or 30 years?  It would be interesting to know. 

Corporate Work-arounds

Back when I worked for a national (read "bureaucratic") engineering firm, company policy did not allow us to exchange any items of commercial value with our clients.  We couldn’t give or receive gifts in other words.  But the manager of our Ohio office wanted to send something nice to a client who was coming in to Cincinnati the following weekend, so he decided to send the client a few choice passes to a special event.  To disguise the gift from the corporate police he sent the tickets to the client with a letter that read:

Dear So and So:

As requested, please find enclosed your admission passes to the Mass Versus Distance Seminars in Cincinnati, Ohio on Sunday afternoon.  Both sessions of these Seminars focus on the theoretical trajectories of spherical objects under uncontrolled, non-steady state conditions.

Please enjoy.

Yours truly…..

Question: What did my colleague send to his client?

But I meant to say...

With a daughter who teaches High School English I’m always listening for interesting expressions of our language.

I think Yogi Berra could have said this.

On a recent Public Radio talk show about the long-term unemployed, a woman caller was explaining the frustration of sending out on-line resumes for jobs and why she’s turned more to personal networking in her pursuit of employment:  “On the computer, you’re just another piece of paper!”

The company I work for had a summer research internship that was filled by a PhD candidate in geology at a Midwest university.  The intern is a Chinese national, and she speaks and writes quite well.  But she recently e-mailed me to tell me that the schedule we had agreed upon for her research project would need to slip a few weeks and she closed her e-mail by writing:

“I am sorry if there is any incontinence caused.  Best regards,”  Nope, so far there’s no incontinence here at least!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Happy Meal Rant

OK, I’m not usually running to the keyboard to defend McDonalds’ Happy Meals but my disdain for pseudo-science drove me here.  That disdain is why I can’t watch the popular “reality” show Mythbusters. Stunts for the masses with a veil of science. Ugh.

But on to the Happy Meal Project:  Here and here

Admittedly this is an entertaining story, with the emphasis on entertainment.  Yet I’m sure 95% of good Americas who were exposed to this story will take it to their graves as science-based fact: McDonald’s food will not decompose.  Well, to get mold growth and bacterial decomposition you need Mr. Moisture.  How much water do you think there is in potatoes cooked by French frying?  And that hamburger in the story: Hmmm, no lettuce, tomato or sauce in sight.  Just a fried patty and a dry bun.  Hmmm again.  Dry food left out to dry in a dry apartment.   “Amazing, hey this thing is DRY!”

Even human and animal bodies will dry and mummify in low humidity (think Mohave or Death Valley). Why did the Dead Sea scrolls survive 2000 years?  Our old friend again, yep dryness.