Weddings as Reconciling Events

Posted: 1 October 2017 in Uncategorized

There are several issues in this particular mix:

  • A brittle, if not already shattered, social landscape
  • A somewhat “old-fashioned,” even passe, rite
  • A resurgent nativism–politicized beyond imagination
  • A couple captured by an unlikely love
  • Three innocents who melt hearts and bring smiles to even cynical faces

I had no idea what the marriage ceremony would be like.  I attend so few of these (at my age).  I had a sense that my very creative and thoughtful daughter would put together a simple, yet meaningful and thoughtful ceremony.  And I was not disappointed on that score.

But it was more than thoughtful, more than meaningful.  It pointed a way forward out of the brokenness of our times and gave me hope.  For, despite some of the issues named above, and, perhaps because of some others, the event turned into a time of true wonder at what might be if we can stop taking positions and merely agree to be human with each other.

In the simple, even spare, space of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church, a group of people, so diverse, so different, so differing, so unlikely, met to celebrate the marriage of a young white woman and the undocumented father of her three children.

The diversity was political, social, ethnic, racial, sexual orientation, theological, age… This was, quite frankly, lion and lamb stuff.

People who would agree on very little; people who would not normally break bread (or tacos in this case), with the other folk present sat side by side smiling, singing, reflecting, eating (and later drinking and dancing) together.

Aware of the differences I could only sit and marvel at how this event–this traditional, age-old ritual–could act as a catalyst to unity.  For there was unity present.  At the end of it all we joined voices in affirming our commitment to this improbable couple.  We found our agreement in the simplicity of a promise to support them in any way we could.

Let’s pause on that point for a moment: we, in all our diversity, all our latent disagreement, all our commitment to excluding the “other;”  we found a way through the morass of that which divides us and AGREED to give ourselves to this couple in order that they might succeed.

This gives me hope…

There is a post-script to this happy event and it is the place of three children in making it all possible.  Because, at the end of the day our differences remain.  We can easily enough retreat to our positions and our commitment to mutual destruction (at least of ideas), rather than back down and continue to humanize the other.  But what we cannot do is ignore these children born of the implausible partnership.  Because while the commitment to the couple could be perfunctory and somewhat pro forma, our exultation in the simple goodness of these children could really know no limits.

They were the reminder that difference can and does yield a beautiful outcome.  In their innocence, they took us to a place where our anger and narrow commitment to “principle” could only seem petulant and small.  They reminded us of the depths our love can attain when we are committed to protecting and caring for the powerless in our world.  It was the children who helped create the space for the enlargement of our hearts and the melting away of all our fears.


20. The Why of it All

Posted: 25 September 2017 in Uncategorized

Twenty days ago, I launched this process, mostly to create a bit more discipline in my life, but also because I had some things that had been lurking in my mind that I thought I should get on paper. Some of that you have seen here if you have read any of the 20/20. Other ideas found me in the course of the days and helped me discover a few things that I needed to give some more thought to. 

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me during these 20 days is how often I have been thinking about my mom. I have mentioned her, I think, in only three of these postings but she has been with me for the last 20 days and, of course, a lot longer.

Is that the why of it?

Did I need to remember my mom—gone these 12 years? Did I need some time to remember her in light of everything I am experiencing today?

(On the train last night we had dinner, as one always does on the train, community style. The woman across from me was in her 80s [heard her say that], and she was clearly forgetting a great many things in these days. She could not remember what a baked potato was, and she confused sour cream with coffee cream. Her husband shepherded her through the meal but her look told me everything I needed to know—she was losing grasp of the near past [most likely Alzheimer’s]. She looked at my shirt with the City of Davis logo and said, “Nice town—but I know I already told you that.” No, she hadn’t. But that is just what people do when they know, THEY KNOW, that the near past is slipping from memory [the distant past, especially the emotive parts, are much more concrete than what happened five minutes ago]. I know this because that is what happened to my mom. Alzheimer’s stole her mind furtively over 10 years and when I last saw her, sitting at the end of her bed in a nursing home from which she would never exit alive; and I told her “I am your son;” and she looked at me and said, with no irony at all “you can’t be my son, my son is just a baby, he was just born,” I realized how terribly sneaky that disease is.)

So, was this all—these 20 days—about my mom?

I am starting to think it was.

In nearly every reflection—especially the ones about brokenness and pain—I sought the face of my mother. I have always felt that the world needed more people like her: people with a winsome belief in the general goodness in people; people who assume the best; people who are willing to sacrifice what they want for the common good; people who desperately want peace to prevail; people who feel the pain of the hurt in others.

As I walk through these days and see the meanness and the anger, I feel naïve to continue to believe that good will prevail.

I always felt my mom was naïve.

She was not highly educated (though she was perceptive and smart in a way that people who have not lived through the Great Depression, an alcoholic father, and a sexually abusive great uncle cannot be), and she could be perceived as someone who could be taken advantage of—and she probably was. I feel the same way. In these days, I feel I am out of my depth, missing something essential, and being “taken for a ride” by people who are much cleverer and savvier than me.

Maybe that is why I am thinking of mom.

I guess what I am trying to say is I would rather be taken advantage of, duped, considered a bumpkin, laughed at as naïve, or taken advantage of by the cognizati, than fail to believe, as my mom did, in the potential for good to prevail. That is what drives me forward.

If someone who faced everything my mom did (see Great Depression, alcoholic father, and sexual abuse, above) could look on the world and proclaim peace and reconciliation, and healing and justice as inevitable (and she did), then who am I to complain about the transitory discomfort I feel from the tensions in my oh-so-privileged community.

Is this why I started 20/20? I am not sure. But it is where I end up after 20 days: wanting more of my mom, more of her love, more of her grace, more of her simple naiveté about the ordering of the world.



19. Notes from the Train

Posted: 25 September 2017 in Uncategorized

18. Five Lists of Five

Posted: 23 September 2017 in Uncategorized

Five Unique Events in Which I Have Participated.

  1. Hearing a griot perform “songs to order” on a three-stringed instrument on a moonless night in the African Sahel.
  2. Standing next to Jackson Browne at Outside Lands, taking in the same songs,  tapping our feet to the same beat—and shaking his hand.
  3. Eating a monkey harvested fresh from the bush and served up to honor a guest in Guinea Bissau.
  4. Dancing to exhaustion on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
  5. Thronging with tens of thousands at Place de la Concorde to shout the imperative “touche pas mon pote”


Five Largely Useless (to me) Things I Spent Hours Learning

  1. Econometrics
  2. How to mount a camel without serious injury
  3. How to shoot a layup right handed (I am left-handed and never did learn)
  4. Matrix algebra (see number 1 above)
  5. Doing a full tune up on my car.


Five Rather Small Things I Treasure

  1. The silky hair of a newborn
  2. My bike lock key
  3. My multi-tool
  4. My wife’s earrings (all of them)
  5. Contact lenses


Five Things I Remember about Bowmansville (my hometown)

  1. The old broken-down delivery truck in which we illicitly played by the hour
  2. The pine tree in the backyard that I climbed to its peak—swaying with it and the wind
  3. The “diamond” where all that baseball magic started
  4. The Sesquicentennial Celebration that Lasted all Summer in 1970
  5. Agnes Bowman, whom I believed to be a witch, until she saved me from ignominy in the winter mud


Five Things I Think About Every Single Day

  1. Restorative justice
  2. My mom
  3. How to help people stop being so angry about everything all the time
  4. What leadership means
  5. What I will do next

17. Pro(to)-Life

Posted: 22 September 2017 in Uncategorized

It is where the tail-end of the Bible belt dangles north above the Mason-Dixon into Amish country.  Not that the Amish have anything to do with it–this is fundamentalist Christian territory (that toxic Gnosticism that eschews the body for the spirit). A county that went GOP for many decades before the Reagan revolution, and dallied with Wallace at one point.  A place that went for Trump and is not ashamed.  Its residents are traditional marriage, pro-life folks who bought the Republican schtick about “family values” and never looked back.

It is the county in which she–my daughter–works in child protective services.  A county service that reveals everything for what it truly is.

She texted today:

“Today was the agency-wide retreat. Very concerning messages…”

I ask: “Concerning messages?”

And it pours forth…

There is no state budget yet. New laws mean more investigations more kids in care. But we get no budget increases. So exec director needs us to use FEWER services for clients. Less money for everything, but by the way, expect caseloads to keep rising. Fewer referrals for evals. No more helping with rent and daycare. No more paying for therapy or counseling. Cut back on drug screens. Etc etc.

Also, bad news all of our judges are retiring in December.  Two of our new judges are known to be very anti-child services so expect more battles in court, direct calls on petitions from judges, etc…  Do more work with fewer supports and resources with less accommodating judges. We didn’t get approved for any case aides, any extra visitation worker contracts, nothing. But yet we are expected to offer more visitation. It’s unreasonable. I’m discouraged. I have a case that just fell apart this week. Mom has nuero damage from domestic violence. Sorry, can’t refer her for any further services. Meanwhile, I have another mom in prison for contact with her husband she had a no-contact order with. Domestic violence victim. Glad we are paying for her to be in prison. Really helpful. I have a mom who told me she’s going to go take her kid (baby) back by force. Exec director today offers this advice to us: if you’re feeling like you’re in a dangerous situation, um, call 911…

Call 911?  That’s all you got?

Let us pause.  This young woman tells me that this is her calling, that she loves her job.  She has a degree from a very good school.  Award winner. Smart.  Yes, I am proud of her.

So we are left with this.  She visits a father in jail who pimped his children (if I told you the ages you would not believe it).  She goes to a trailer without heat or running water and finds meth addicts “raising” children.  She calls the cops because the teenage kid in her car at 9:30 pm threatens her (this at an hour when my daughter should be home with her three little ones).

No one wants to pay.  They are pro-life (yes, I am going to say “They” here–that undifferentiated mass of souls who vote, and complain about taxes, and go to church, and pray to their middle-class god).  THEY believe in the sanctity of life as long it is a hypothetical thing without a name.  Once it is born then it is all about bad people and, “the parents need to be responsible,” and “they are all welfare cheats,” and…

Meanwhile, they seem to forget that those parents were children once.  Children they fought to bring into this world.  Children that they abandoned once they were here.  And the cycle of trauma perpetuates itself and this year’s pimped kids become tomorrow’s pimps.  Today’s beaten and abused children become tomorrow’s  beaters and abusers.

And they stand wringing their hands about how awful it is that people turn out this way, and they refuse to see a line, a straight line, a painfully traced line between their meanness and the abandon that lurks at the door.  I am tired of this shit–and not just because of my daughter.  They care about “first life”–the life they claim exists before life begins.  But they care not a whit about life at all.

My daughter stands in the breach between the uncaring proto-lifers and the children whose lives drain away into the fertile farmland of the piedmont.  She is my hero.  She is a lonely pro-lifer fighting in the outlands of death.

16. From the Train Southbound–February 2010

Posted: 21 September 2017 in Uncategorized

Note: This is the second (and last) post of the 20/20 that is a reworking of an older script.  This one a poem.  Recognize the risk that this non-poet takes in sharing a poem publicly.  Be gentle.


Tule (fog) hugs the contours while contrails etch the sky.

Dried blood sun slides in and out of the mist on its way up to kiss the dome

(It will crest orange before returning to ochre on its way back down)

Further south, sun retreats

Bested for now by Tule


Draped over the sprawl of another valley town that swallowed the earth

And spit out postage stamp size plots of pipe, concrete and pressed wood

From boreal forests far away

Back yards digesting the detritus of lives

No green to hide it

“Round up ready” orchards and fields

Producing “on demand”

Forced to bind up the nutrition in the dirt

So we can “feed the world” and

Throw away nearly half of what we grow.


Below the Delta all is yellow

As the Tule/sun battle continues


Sun will win come summer but tule holds sway in this season

Until noon or until all the tomorrows of winter have ended their reign


Fenced pens of beasts

Who elsewhere might be bovine

But here are shit-caked parts of the machine

That we hide here


(They live in their excrement

Their “cowness gone”)

The TV tells us how happy these machine parts are.

Can a replacement part be “happy”

Strictly speaking?


And then faux clouds (Tule playing at being real “weather”)

Break down and the land begins to be revealed



For what we have imposed upon it.


Twine- and wire-bound-bumper-cars

Create traffic jams on field edge

Signs in Spanish

Reveal the origin of the drivers

Longing to go back

Unable to go back

Damned for not going back

Bound by the dream-turned-drudgery

That the fields and orchards and pens devise.

The drivers also part of the machine


Sun, now bone white

Stands behind Tule

A final warning that his time is almost up

Soon enough sun

Will win


And will batter this earth

(The hammer of heaven,

Pounding the anvil of summer ground)

We, meanwhile, wait for redemption of the whole scene

Seen from the train.

15. Smoking

Posted: 20 September 2017 in Uncategorized

Back then everyone smoked–even around the dining room table, out in the yard–in the kitchen for God’s sake.  Mom let them at that time but after we moved to our new house that all stopped.  Actually, they all stopped, eventually.  A couple uncles got emphysema, a few others heart disease, at least one lung cancer. The younger ones quit earlier and seem to be doing fine.  This was my extended family.  No booze but lots of smoke.

I remember when I saw my brother, two years older, smoking with some friends.  Made me feel sick to my stomach.  Smoking was okay for Uncle Don, but not for kids, like us.

There used to be a guy at the Reading Phillies baseball games (Double AA baseball, we had season tickets).  He was a very large man who would smoke these humungous cigars during the whole game.  I kind of liked the smell but as the evening wore on–long about the 7th inning–I always felt a bit sick.

I remember the last night they allowed cigarette advertisements on TV.  Sometime in the late 60s, I am going to say.  We stayed up late watching a movie and every commercial was for cigarettes.  I went to bed at 11:00 (it was a special treat to stay up that late).  My older brother stayed up until midnight when the test pattern came on.  He said after I went to bed it was one solid hour of cigarette ads.

The TV shows and most movies when I was a kid featured smoking.

The only time I really smoked in a semi-serious way was when I was doing my research in the Mauritanian desert.  It was exhausting work and all my research team members smoked and they convinced me that smoking would give me energy.  It did give me a buzz and a couple of times I threw up.  But… I did stay up later and get my field notes sorted out.

We knew way back that these things can kill you and I always wondered who invented this.  My dad said Indians did–they had peace pipes. But that still never explained how THEY got started.  Who thinks about inhaling smoke deeply into the lungs using a pipe or other means as a delivery system?

I used to think that people with cigarettes looked suave–successful marketing?

When we first moved to CA I remember billboards saying “Welcome to America’s Non-Smoking Section.”  Now it seems more people smoke everywhere.  They banned it at UC Davis, so people cross the street and stub out their butts on city sidewalks (Thanks UCD!)

Richie Allen once lit up a cigarette in the Philadelphia Phillies dugout.  I saw that and felt ashamed.  I knew Bob Gibson would never do that.  Athletes were supposed to be clean.

A propos to which, my mom always said that smoking was a dirty habit.

I have never bought a pack of cigarettes (though I purchased a “beedi” in India once for about a penny).  Yup, every cigarette I have ever smoked (about 50 I would say) was bummed off someone else.  I am not proud of that.

I can’t believe cigarettes are still around after all these years and everything we know. After the warnings on packs, the death of the Marlboro Man, and those awful ads showing very sick people telling us they wished they had never started.  I guess smoking will be around for the duration…