Wednesday, November 28, 2007

thanksgiving in durango

Peleg and I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my eldest brother's family in Drunago, Colorado. It was a lovely few days capped off with a light snow fall on the night before we left.

We stayed downtown at an old Victorian era hote, nicely renovated but preserving the Victorian decor. In the picture on the website our room was the bay window on the third floor.

Peleg made the Thanksgiving dinner - his first try at a traditional American feast. Everything was perfect: turkey with gravy, ,cranberry sauce, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, green beans, and an apple pie.

hunky santa

I got cast as the Hunky Santa for the Gay Men's Chorus Holiday Concert during our upcoming performance in Riverside, December 2. One of the production numbers features a traditional Santa character who at one point will walk behind a screen where I will be waiting and then I'll pop out as Hunky Santa with boots and red shorts and a hat as though the regular Santa had been magically transformed. Then one of the dancers jumps into my arms and I carry him off stage. That's it.

I'm actually the understudy to the understudy. We're doing two out of town concerts this series and the main Hunky Santa can't do either of the out of town performances and his understudy can only do one of them so I get to do the other one.

It's nice that somebody thinks I'm third hunkiest in the chorus. Of course this means I'll have to spend all week at the gym.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

doggie heaven

Several friends have expressed their sympathy on the loss of my dog by imagining him in some happy place where he is surrounded by dog friends and romping and playing with them, and looking forward to being reuinted eventually with me and my husband. I greatly appreciate the kind thought. I smile at the picture and accept the comfort intended. But I don't imagine Ness continuing to exist that way.

First of all, the thing that would make Ness happiest would not be romping with other dogs but to be back here with Peleg and I and our other dog, Sabrina. In fact we used to joke that one reason he had lived so long is that Heaven couldn't possibly be more attractive to him than the life he already had.

The other reason I reject that picture, as well as the similar picture of Heaven for people, is that it implies that the perfection of our existence is simply a happy version of what we already have. For the man who loved to fish we say after he died that he's in Heaven fishing at the perfect pond, and so on. The theology claims that we've already reached the spiritual goal, in whatever form we happened to find ourselves, and that the ultimate will simply be a better version of the present, and lasting forever.

I rather think that we have a ways to go yet before we achieve spiritual perfection, both humans and dogs. Ness had his doggie life; it doesn't serve him or the universe to keep having it forever. Instead, having fulfilled that challenge, and having lived his doggie existence admirably, he's now ready for the next challange. When a student passes the fifth grade the reward is not to re-do the fifth grade forever, but to go on to the sixth grade.

never enough love

Realizing that our eldest dog was getting older and would not be with us forever, my husband and I started a few years ago to become very intentional about appreciating the days that we had with him. We began to say when Ness woke up in the morning, or when we returned from being away from home to find him galloping up to greet us, "Not dead yet!" The phrase became a macabre joke, but also an acknowledgement of the reality of life and death, and a reminder to love him while we had him.

I imagined that the care we took to love Ness fully knowing that we would inevitably lose him would help to innoculate ourselves against that loss when it did, finally, come, as it did last Sunday. But that has not been the case. I'm shocked that he's gone. I miss him terribly. I want him back.

Love is never satisfied. There never comes a point in loving where we say, "OK. Now I've loved enough. I've had all the love of that I need." Loving fully, as my husband and I did of our dog, did not mean that when Ness died that we had already expressed all of our love and had none left over. Instead the extent of our loving only produced more of itself, and more and more.

This morning a friend sympathized with my loss and said he could see how much I "love" my dog, then corrected himself to say "loved." But I decided that he was correct to put love in the present tense. The end of the object of my love has not ended my love. The well of love still flows out and there is no reason to attempt to stop it, or to think that because Ness isn't here to receive my love that my love is any less worthy.

pedaling through life

I did a 14 mile ride this morning. it's a regular weekly ride. I met up with a friend who lives near me and we rode about a mile over to a local coffee house. There we met about a dozen other riders and then set out on a 12 mile loop that takes us around and into Griffith Park and then up from the valley side, over the crest of the hill and then down the Hollywood side, past the Griffith observatory and the Greek theater, and back to the coffee house for a coffee and croissant before cycling home.

Although I've been a cyclist for over four years now I'm still learning new things. Today I concentrated on two cycling skills I already knew were good techniques but haven't been consciouly putting into place. One is to try and pedal at a constant revolution per minute, using the gears to accomodate for the change in terrain but always pedaling at the same speed, and in particular avoiding coasting. It's easier on the body to get set into a constant rhythm rather than starting and stopping all the time. The other skill I'm working on is trying to spend more time in lower gears. It's a common mistake of new riders to use higher gears which gives both a satisfying sense of pushing (which is actually wearing you out) and the speed that comes from a little push translating into a lot of forward motion. But a bike is actually designed to be very efficient. Staying in lower gears and "spinning" the pedals allows you to save your energy for when you really need it, and not tire yourself out early on a long ride.

Life is the same way. The key is not to wear yourself out inventing stressful situations just for the excitement of the drama and the satisfaction of seeing how much anxiety you can take. Neither when times are easy should we lay off engagement with life. Don't coast, keep pedaling, but don't pedal harder than you need to.

into the universe

there's a scene in the movie Harold and Maude where Harold gives a little present to Maude as they are sitting together beside the ocean. I think it was just a pretty rock but it might have been something more precious. In any case Maude admires the present for just a few seconds and then throws it into the ocean. Harold is shocked, but Maude says, "Now I'll always know where it is."

I've been struck by the feeling since my dog died on Sunday that while his body is gone that his spirit feels just as much present around me as it ever did. Perhaps even more so. It's as though he's been released into the universe, and his loving energy far from being lost is now magnified. He's everywhere.

I still miss him. And he had a very cute body, which I enjoyed and am sorry I don't get to see and touch any more. But I don't feel that he's entirely vanished. if I can't hug him any more at least I feel that he is hugging me.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Goodbye to Ness

My dog Ness died on Sunday. He had turned 15 years old in September, so he was an old dog, but had not been ill. I came home from church on Sunday to find that Ness was unable to get out of his bed. He had been sleeping all morning and probably didn't know himself that there was any problem untill I came home and woke him up. I thought at first that the feeling would soon return to his limbs but when that didn't happen after 10 minutes or so I realized something was seriously wrong and took him to the emergency vet. The vet concluded that something had happened in the neck region of his spine, possibly a lession or a slipped disc, not uncommon for dogs his size and particularly for dalmations. The only treatment option was major surgery, not appropriate for a 15 year old dog, so later that evening when my husband returned from a conference he had been at all weekend we decided it was best for Ness to euthanize him.

I was glad that the day before Ness and I and our other dog, Ness's daughter, Sabrina, had all gone for a long walk. That evening they had slept together on a blanket in front of a fire in the living room while I wrote my sermon. Saturday night we had all slept in the bed as I let them do when Peleg is out of town. Sunday morning they had breakfast as normal and Ness had climbed up and down the stairs to the place where they sleep during the day. Ness had been fully alive, doing the things he most loved to do up until just hours before his death. Saturday he had eaten a persimmon that had dropped off the tree in our backyard.

Ness means "miracle" in Hebrew. 15 years ago, as a puppy, he had been a Hanukkah present to Peleg's brother from a girlfriend. He was my miracle boy. I called him "Sweet-ness" a pure expression of unconditional love. It's a strange system we're in the midst of, life and death, that the things we love we must lose. There's a hole in my life no amount of theology can fill. It's just sad, unreasonable sadness, my pain a consequence of love, and a testimony to it.

train the trainer

Saturday I did my second ride of this training season for the AIDSlifeCycle 2008 event, and my first ride as a training ride leader. We did a short route, and one that I had done dozens of times before, but I learned something new. We rode 24 miles, doing a double loop around the flat areas of Griffith Park to the north of the park. I and two other ride leaders from my group led a group of about 12 cyclists. Another group did a longer ride.

What I learned has to do with the most efficient use of the gears. Modern road bikes are usually set up now with two or three gears called "rings" at the pedals and 9 or 10 gears at the back. My set-up is a very common 2 and 10. What I learned is that the best approach to shifting gears when the terrain will be mostly flat is to pretty much leave the chain in the highest ring all the time and only shift up and down through the 10 options of the back gears. And when the terrain will be more varied and include some climbing, to leave the chain in the lowest ring all the time. It's easier on the bike to shift this way, and it's also easier on the brain to think about moving through a direct series of ten gears, then back and forth through the various combinations of 2 rings and 10 gears, many of which overlap in their ratios.

It's a subtle point but helpful. And it's nice to see that through the process of teaching others I'm also improving my own knowledge and experience.

Monday, November 5, 2007

St. Paul and the lying Cretan

I couldn't leave this subject until I pointed out one interesting fact. The Liar's Paradox (Epimenides the Cretan says, "All Cretans are liars") is a very ancient paradox. Epimenides himself lived in the 6th Century BCE, although whether or not he actually said the sentence is, of course, unknown. In any case the phrase was famous enough that St. Paul knew about it, and wrote about it in one of his letters that made it into the New Testament.

In the Book of Titus, Paul writes a letter to his fellow missionary, TItus, who is working to strengthen Christian congregations that Paul and Titus had recently established on the island of Crete. In Chapter One, verse 5, Paul writes to Titus, "I left you behind in Crete for this reason, that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you." Paul then describes the attributes of a qualified elder, and then warns Titus against the people on the island who would not make good leaders of the church saying that there are many of them and that, after all (in verse 12) "It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, ‘Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.’"

Paul seems to take Epimenides' quote at face value, and fails to see the paradox in a man calling himself a liar. On the other hand, Paul does assume that there are many honest people available in Crete who would be good church leaders, so perhaps Paul is following the same logic I did. Cretans, like every other race of people, can be liars or honest. Epimenides happened to be one of the lying Cretans. Titus should do his work carefully and find an honest one.

i'm not a liar (but Epimenides is)

In my post about the Liar's Paradox (Epimenides the Cretan says, "All Cretans are liars") I discussed the related case of "This sentence is false" but I didn't resolve the oringal paradox from Epimenides. In this case, though, the resolution of the paradox is even easier because although it's called, "The Liar's Paradox" there isn't actually any paradox.

The paradox is usually presented in this way (and I did the same in my post). Epimenides says that ALL Cretans are liars. Therefore Epimenides is a liar and what he says is a lie. Therefore Cretans are not liars, they are honest, and therefore Epimenides is an honest man who tells the truth. So then, all Cretans are liars, and so on forever.

However, if it's a lie to say that ALL Cretans are liars, it is not necessarily the truth that ALL Cretans are honest. The original statement would still be a lie if there were even one honest Cretan. If you take Epimenides' lie to mean that in truth all Cretans are honest men, then Epimenides himelf must be an honest man and you fall into the circular paradox. But if you take his lie to mean that in truth some Cretans are honest and others are liars then the solution is simple: Epimenides is a liar who tells a lie. All Cretans are not liars, but Epimenides is.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

I'm a liar

There’s a famous paradox that goes back to the sixth century BCE. A Cretan named Epimenides made the statement, “All Cretans are liars.” Epimenides, being a Cretan himself must be a liar. So his statement must be a lie. But if it’s a lie to say that all Cretans are liars, then it must be that Cretans are in fact honest. So therefore we can believe what Cretans say. And when one of those honest Cretans, Epimenides tells us that, “All Cretans are liars” we can be sure that he is telling the truth, which means, his statement about all Cretans being liars is the truth, which means he's a liar, which means his statement is false and all Cretans are not liars, which means he tells the truth and all Cretans are liars, which means he's a liar, which means he's not a liar, which means' he is a liar, and so on forever.

You can get the same logical self-contradiction by considering the sentence, “This sentence is false.” If the sentence is false, then it’s true, but if it’s true it’s false. Actually though, the sentence is neither true nor false, it’s simply meaningless. Although it’s correct grammatically, it’s not a legitimate declarative sentence, The problem is that the sentence mis-uses the word false. It’s like saying, “This sentence is cold.” Or “This sentence is eleven.”

Consider the sentence, “The sky is green.” I could legitimately say of that sentence, “That sentence is false,” which sounds very like the paradoxical sentence, “This sentence is false.” But here’s the difference.

When I say that the sentence “The sky is green” is false, I’m not talking about sentences, I’m talking about the sky. I’m not engaging in a philosophical debate about the truth or falsity of the sentence itself, but of what the sentence asserts about the sky. The sentence is false because it says something about the color of the sky that doesn’t match with my actual knowledge of the color of the sky.

So look again at the sentence, “This sentence is false.” The word "false" is mis-used. It doesn’t apply. It’s as though you had said, “The sky is false.” My response is not that you’ve created an ingenious little paradox. My response is that actually you haven’t said anything at all. My reaction to somebody saying, “the sky is false” would be to say, “What about the sky?” “What are you trying to say?” In fact, there is no way to form a meaningful sentence where you simply say some noun, like “sky” or “dog” or “philosophy” or “this sentence” is false. First you have to say something about the noun, “the sky is blue” or “the dog is noisy” or “philosophy is confusing” and then you can apply the word true or false.

“This sentence is false,” doesn’t actually say anything about “This sentence.” There is no content to the sentence, and therefore it isn’t really a legitimate declarative sentence. And so to label what the sentence says as “false” is nonsense. A sentence can’t be false (or true either) unless it says something.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

rescue garden

More garden work this week. I had finished in the back of the house so I set to work on the front. However, I had already used up my budget for new plants from the nursery and I had a lot of bare places to fill. What to do? I ended up canabalizing all of my potted plants. I had quite a few. Some of them had been left behind by the previous owner of our house. Many more I had inherited from a church member who was moving to a colder climate and couldn't take her plants with her. And then through my own tending many of the plants had multiplied and spread into new pots, particularly an aloe vera plant that had given birth to about 20 babies, and grand babies, all separated out to their own pots.

So i set to work transplanting all of these plants. 4 begonias, a spider plant, a daisy, a flowering tree I never knew the name of, another little plant that had been a thank you present from the car dealership when my husband leased his car, a bromeliad, the 20 members of the extended aloe vera family, an italian parsely and a thyme plant I'd recieved in honor of teaching a session of a Religious Education class at church (a gift of "thyme" - get it?) Many others. All went into the earth, wherever I could find an appropriate place.

They weren't the plants I would have chosen, but they were what I had. Like choosing a pet from the pound rather than buying an animal at the pet store. I've created a rescue garden in front of my house, a mutt, a motley family of odds and ends that nobody would have planned to put together but do have the benefit of looking a lot like life.

I bought firewood while California burned

Last Thursday I took delivery of a cord of Almond tree wood that I intend to burn in my living room fireplace. By that day the fires closest to me in the Los Angeles area were all under control, although several in San Diego were still blazing. The smoke lingered in the air for days. Today the Associated Press reported on a study that the carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere from the week of fires equals the output from the entire state of Vermont for a year. Each year wildfires contribute about 5% of the total greenhouse gases produced by the United States. ("Fire Spews Tons of Global Warming Gas" by Seth Borenstein)

My fireplace is one of those luxuries I allow myself while acknowledging its damaging effect on the world. Life is about balance. Even a commited spiritual life must find balance between self-denial at the service of the larger community and the enjoyment of life. The Buddha, in preaching the Middle Way, saw that the path to enlighteement was neither the excesses of his royal childhood, nor extreme ascetisim.

I forgive myself somewhat by noting that if I heated my home with the central heat I would still be burning fossil fuels indirectly at the power generating station. And by using the fireplace I'm only heating the room I'm actually sitting in, instead of the entire house. But those are half arguments. My fireplace creates a burden on the world. On the other hand, I'm part of the world, too. My enjoyment of life also counts as bettering the world. So it's a difficult calculation to make. The best path is to indulge, in moderation, in those activities that bring us joy, and then balance the negative effects with a recommitment to activities that improve the world in other areas.

God Hates Phelps

Fred Phelps, the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, follows a theology that characterizes every tragedy befalling human persons as God's punishment for our immorality. Hurricane Katrina, the recent wildfires in California, and the deaths of American Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are all proof of God's displeasure with the United States, principally our toleration of homosexuality.

How then will Phelps interpret the recent 10.9 million judgment against himself and two of his church members (both also his daughters). What is God trying to tell Fred Phelps by making him suffer so? The father of a marine killed in Iraq whose funeral was "protested" by Phelp's church was awarded on Wednesday 2.9 million in compensatory damages, 6 million in punitive damages, and 2 million for emotional distress.

Although it's hard to weep at Fred Phelps and his followers recieving a well deserved rebuke for their hate-mongering, I remain concerned that their first amendment rights in this case are being trampled to the eventual peril of us all. Although there are many legitimate restrictions on free speech, speech which is merely offensive (such as that which causes "emotional distress") should be protected in the interest of the free debate and dissension necessary for a democracy.

BTW. The actual response from the Westboro Baptist church to the judgment against them, featured on their website, is to praise God for helping them spread their message through the press coverage. "Not only did you [sinful America] fail to stop our preaching, but our message has gone forth to the ENTIRE WORLD on this day, because of your folly, like never before! Thank God for the $10.9 Million Verdict!" Of course this interpretation exactly contradicts themselves "God's judgement on others proves we're right! God's Judgement on us also proves we're right!" And if the court case had gone againt the marine's father and in favor of the church it would have generated just as much publicity.

yoga in schools

Why should prayer in schools be banned but yoga mandatory, at least for the senior class at Needham High School outside Boston?

The goal of Needham High Principal, Paul Richards, is perfectly laudable, trying to improve the health of over-worked, driven, competitive high school students, by getting them to ease up up their advanced plasement classes, and clubs, and activities, not to mention jobs, and learn to relax. The yoga classes are just one of a variety of relaxation techniques being put in place under advisement of the Stress Reduction Committee at Needham High as part of a movement involving 44 high schools nationwide under a movement called S.O.S. for "Stressed Out Students." ("Less Homework, More Yoga, From a Principal Who Hates Stress" by Sara Rimer, New York Times, p. 1, October 29, 2007).

I support the observation of the S.O.S. moement that we are doing our children a mis-service by demanding their academic over-achievement, at the expense of contemplative, creative, and spiritual ease. Our high school students should be allowed the same balance in life that their equally over-worked and stressed-out parents seek in their own lives. My problem is the mis-use of yoga as a "stress-reduction technique." Yoga does have that benefit but the benefit results from its primary purpose which is spiritual. It trivializes yoga to say that it is merely about "relaxing" or "stretching." Yoga is about linking human persons to the divinity within (the word "yoga" is a cognate for the english word "yoke"). In yoga the body is put in stressful positions in order to train the mind to maintain calm focus while facing spiritual challenges.

Our schools should help students find balance. Spiritual practice is certainly one way to do that, but whether a student chooses Christian prayer or Hindu yoga poses, or some other practice that is merely "relaxing" without being spiritual, should be the student's free choice.

blogger hero

What is a blog except an online diary? And so bloggers and blog readers should mark and mourn the passing of Robert Shields, dead at the age of 89 on October 15. Shields was not a blogger but a diarist of amazing productivity and obsessive detail. He was also for a part of his life a Protestant minister which makes him feel a little close to me. But from 1972 until 1997 when a stroke ended his ability to type, Shields kept a diary recording his life in five minute intervals. According to his obituary by Douglas Martin in the New York Times (October 29, 2007) Shields created a 37.5 million word document filling 91 boxes, including observations on basically everything he did, from changing lightbulbs, to bathroom visits, the junk mail he recieved each day, the fluctuations of his body tempertaure and blood pressure, and his dreams. Shields told a reporter from the Seattle Times in 1994 speaking of future readers of his diary, "Maybe by looking into someone's life at that depth, every minute of every day, they'll find out something about all people."

Theological work begins with the examination of one's own life. It is from our life experiences that we mine the data which we then use to construct our worldview. The first life to look at is your own of course, but additional data can be found in the lives of other people. Other people have different and more experiences than you have, so there's more data available, and due to our common humanity, their experiences can also illuminate your own life.

Sadly, for students of Robert Shield's life, his diary will be sealed for 50 years under the terms of the agreement whereby he willed the manuscript to Washington State University. Imagine the desire to record your life obssessively but keep your observations private! How very unlike a blogger.