Tuesday, October 24, 2006

An Eye for an Eye Blinds Us All

Execution block
Originally uploaded by Andy Hay
This morning a fellow with whom I attended Sunday School as a teenager was executed by lethal injection in the state of Ohio. I've been pondering this today, recognizing that my opposition to the death penalty now has a personal face.

His is a sordid story of religious zealotry gone grievously awry. He was the leader of a small fanatical cult with familial and historic connections to the denomination we once shared. Sixteen years ago he murdered a family of five people, including three children, claiming God had commanded him to do so.

At that time I was on the staff of the denomination and was thereby involved in media relations around this crime, which had widespread national coverage. As a result his story intersects with mine at two points--as young teenagers in the blissful innocence of church campfires and Sunday School, and then later as adults when he was descending into the darkness of his psychological delusions.

There is plenty to be said about the cultural and theological underpinnings of a case like this. It has been examined in books and essays that attribute it to such things as twisted religious teachings, an abusive childhood, or criminal manipulation of weak people for personal gratification. Whatever the cause, Jeffrey Lundgren's crimes lead understandably to the position that if anyone deserves the death penalty he does.

I can't argue with that, which is the problem all of us who oppose capital punishment face. It is one thing to rally to the cause of someone believed to be innocent. It is quite another to generate energy on behalf of those who have butchered children or killed police officers, who have no remorse for what they have done, and who leave grieving families with a lifetime of pain and loss.

But this is an issue where one must keep an eye on the principle and not dwell on the particular. In the United States the death penalty is undeniably applied disproportionately to the poor and to people of color. Despite popular assumptions, it is far more costly to execute someone than to place them in prison for life. It is capricious and arbitrary in its implementation, there is absolutely no evidence that it is a deterrent, and there is no question that innocent people have been executed. Many useful facts can be found on the website of the Death Penalty Information Center.

All of those are compelling reasons to abolish the death penalty, but there is one more that trumps them all for me. When a state takes the life of a human being, whatever the reason, the result is to brutalize the state and by extension to brutalize each of us as individuals. I do not think we can overestimate the blot that places on the soul of our society. Revenge does not heal.

Jeffrey Lundgren was not a friend, but he and I walked in the same orbit of influence when we were young. I do not know what took him down the dark path that ended today at 10:26 a.m. His deluded mind led him to an incomprehensible and brutal act.

Now, in response, we have done the same. I feel no peace.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

On the Other Side of Perfection

Joe Posnanski is one of the best sports columnists I know. He has the ability to approach things from a new angle and then write about it in elegant style. You don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy his writing--the context is sports, but the real subject is life. We who live in Kansas City are privileged to read him several times a week. He can also be found at the Kansas City Star website.

This weekend his column was about one of the great moments in sports. Fifty years ago on October 8, 1956, New York Yankee Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in the history of the World Series, beating the Brooklyn Dodgers 2-0. That means no one reached base by any method--27 batters up, 27 batters down. A remarkable achievement.

What brought all this to my mind, however, was the fact that I watched this game on a small black and white television set at my grandmother's house in Toronto. I was nine years old. I don't remember who all was there, but I know it included my often missing father and a collection of aunts and uncles and cousins. I have an image of it burned into my brain.

But there is another feeling about that day that is visceral rather than visual. I remember being the only person in the room cheering for the Dodgers over the Yankees. In other words, I was rooting against perfection. And my team lost.

I wasn't really a baseball fan at that young age. I certainly had not yet come to understand that the Yankees were the personification of evil. Maybe I was just for the underdog. Maybe something was going on deep inside me--in those days my father's alcoholism was a major family issue. I don't know my reason for choosing teams. But here I was, taking a little family heat, and holding on to my opposition to perfection. I did so even when Don Larsen lept into Yogi Berra's arms to celebrate that very thing.

Well, fifty years have passed and a lot of experiences have ensued. I've looked around at life and culture. I've traveled wide and far. I've examined intentions, good and ill. I've done a lot of living and I'm sticking to my guns. Nobody's perfect!

Especially the Yankees.

Note: Photo credit for the image of Don Larsen and Yogi Berra is Academy of Achievement.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Forgiveness, Amish Style

Amish buggy
Originally uploaded by Wm Jas.
There was a remarkable story on the CBS Evening News tonight. It is only two days since a deeply troubled man walked into a small schoolhouse and killed five children, wounding others, before taking his own life. The CBS report noted what one might assume to occur in the midst of such a terrible tragedy:
"In just about any other community, a deadly school shooting would have brought demands from civic leaders for tighter gun laws and better security, and the victims' loved ones would have lashed out at the gunman's family or threatened to sue. But that's not the Amish way."

With unbearable pain surely affecting everyone for miles around this peace-loving, simple people put their faith into action. You can hear them choking back their grief, and undoubtedly their anger, to proclaim their belief in forgiveness. I cannot understand their horse-drawn carriages or their taste in fashion. But I deeply respect their commitment to peace and reconciliation.

I don't have a lot to say about it, to be honest. What can one say in the face of a witness like that?

Thank you for reminding us that faith requires unconditional love, and that peace is birthed not by retribution but by reconciliation.

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On Walking Alone

Originally uploaded by plasticrevolver.
Every morning around 7am a friend and I walk a vigorous three miles. We've been doing this for almost two years, holding each other accountable for maintaining the discipline of a daily exercise regimen.

Having not worked out with any regularity during the years when my daily schedule was less flexible, I now tend to approach this with a measure of self-righteousness. However, I generally choose not to reveal that my walking partner is eighteen years my senior and has had hip replacement surgery. On occasion he has walked our route with the help of a cane. Admitting this tends to diminish the image of manly fitness my hubris demands.

The friendship with my walking partner spans over 35 years and includes personal, family, church, and professional relationships. The hour we walk each day includes conversation about our fairly compatible political views, the state of our families, the miscues of our local sports teams, and sometimes some deeply personal issues. His sense of humor spawns stories that would evoke groans in any audience. I'm sufficiently used to it that I respond with the shake of my head and a brief prayer petitioning deliverance. Once or twice a week we develop strategies for saving the earth, creating world peace, or getting the Royals to the World Series.

Sometimes, like this week, he is out of town and I have to walk alone. I do so at a nearby public exercise track, replacing my friend with a strap-on radio/CD player. I know it's not much, but at least it hasn't had a hip replacement. Usually I listen to NPR's morning show, unless there is some burning issue being discussed by one of the city's two 24 hour sports stations.

I can't deny that an hour of NPR has a higher intellectual and cultural content than an hour of Dick and me. That might even be true of the sports talk show, except listening to it tends to make me want to scratch my crotch and spit. That is generally not well-received by the senior citizens who constitute most of the walkers on that track at that time of morning.

But here's the problem. I keep wanting to interrupt the NPR hosts and guests so as to correct or comment upon things they say. My radio/CD player is not interactive. No matter how loudly I speak they just move forward without benefit of my viewpoint. This severely diminishes the marketplace of ideas. With Dick there is an audience of one, at least as long as I'm walking on the side of his good ear.

One other thing I've noticed is that the hour seems longer when walking alone. The give and take of conversation causes the familiar surroundings to pass by more quickly. Sharing that slice of each day with a treasured friend is a gift. It's not the topic of discussion but the bond of friendship that transforms a workout into a sacrament.

So hurry home, Dick. See you Saturday morning at 7am or thereabouts.

And you know that one about the three walruses who went into a bar? I've heard it.

Seven times!

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Baseball History and the Nation's Soul

Today opens the Major League Baseball playoffs, a sporting event that is under-appreciated by those of us who pass through life as Kansas City Royals fans. Our team accomplished another 100 loss season and was out of contention somewhere around Easter. We did have an impact on the playoffs, however. By sweeping the last three games of the season with Detroit we knocked the Tigers out of first place, relegating them to wild card status, with its attendant loss of home field advantage and other perks. Hey, at least we got noticed for something other than having fly balls bounce off the forehead of our outfielder.

So how do the baseball gremlins show their gratitude for our contribution? Those wins mean that our 100 losses were not the worst in baseball this year, an honor we had been working hard to achieve. But darned if Tampa Bay didn't go out and lose 101 and for that accomplishment they get the number one draft choice--likely to be a stud catcher who is seen as a "can't miss" prospect. So by winning we still lose, and now the Royals have to settle for contributing to a slice of baseball history. At least that's something to be puffed up about.

However, I had barely been given the opportunity to smirk about all of that before hearing a story on NPR this morning that took a little of the luster off historical smuggery. The story was a fine piece about what some call the greatest game ever played. It was the first nationally televised sporting event, occurring on October 3, 1951, exactly 45 years ago today. Many celebrities were in attendance and had a big emotional investment in the game, which ended when Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants belted a dramatic walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 5-4, thereby winning the National League Pennant. The story became one of the most treasured in baseball lore. Pundits called it "the shot heard round the world."

Now comes NPR with its balloon popping story. Here's the link, well-worth a listen, but the gist of it is that the Giants were apparently stealing signs by placing a guy with a telescope out behind the center field fence so as to see what pitch is being called. He then transmitted that via a set of signals to the bench and ultimately to the batter.

The bottom line is that Bobby Thomson knew what pitch was coming when he hit "the shot heard round the world." Apparently some rumors of this have been around for years. But no one wanted to report it. No one wanted to diminish the story, which had become such an icon of baseball folklore. Thomson kept quiet about it, the opposing pitcher likewise. It is said the deception took its toll on the participants, who paid an emotional price for having to embrace the story, dishonesty and all.

It seems we need our mythic tales to remind us that life has its serendipitous magical moments. In general, I tend to feel that cultures need strong foundations of truth on which to build. When we suspend disbelief we risk losing perspective and making grievous errors that undermine and threaten the national soul. Witness the Iraq war as the most compelling example in our time.

But sometimes perhaps we can allow ourselves a wink and a nod and just go on as if the stories woven into our culture had no revisionists out there to besmirch them with the unwelcome truth. Bobby Thomson still had to hit the pitch he knew was coming, didn't he?

And the Royals? Well, we only need this small historical achievement for a few months. Once spring training starts all of our myths will be in the future, not the past.

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Photograph of Bobby Thomson home run is used in accordance with fair use standards. Copyright information can be found here.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

On Mowing a Straight Line

Mow, mow, mow your lawn...
Originally uploaded by bcostin.
I mowed my lawn this weekend. I've mowed this yard hundreds of times over almost 20 years. I know the contours of the lawn, where the tree roots push up into the grass, where some rock outcroppings lay just below the surface, and where the run-offs from hard rains have trenched ruts into the soil. I have a mowing pattern that I always use, cross-cutting in certain places and otherwise following the familiar path that seems most efficient. It's all mapped out in my head. I do it the way I always do it.

It gets pretty hot in Missouri during the summer and in July and August you have to decide whether to water extensively or let the grass go dormant. I compromised, keeping the front yard fairly green and letting the back yard go. It's a pretty sad sight out there--splotchy brown spots everywhere, grass shoots spindly and sickly, and some areas that may never bounce back without seeding.

All of that is bad enough, but what really gets me is what happens to my mowing pattern. In these conditions there are a lot of places that don't need mowing at all. It is silly to follow the pattern because you would be pushing the mower over dead grass. But then it gets to be a jumble. In some places the grass is so frail that you easily lose track of the line you cut on the previous pass. As a result you find yourself zig-zagging all over the place, then back-tracking when it looks like you missed some spots.

The mower ran out of gas. I started with a full tank and it never runs out. But this time the tank was empty before I finished, which means that I covered more ground cutting less grass. And at these gas prices no less. (Thankfully there is an election in a few weeks so the prices are dropping a bit so as to elect more Republicans. I can't imagine how disgusted I would have been had this happened when the prices were at full oil company gouging rates like they were a few weeks ago.)

All I know is this. I had a path that I always follow and when the state of the lawn did not allow me to follow it I wandered as if in the wilderness, unable to mow a straight and efficient line, doubling back on myself without realizing it, and even leaving myself unsure that I had got it all.

I thought of a story I had heard about a white missionary who found himself lost in an African jungle. He finally stumbled into a village, explained his plight, and asked for help getting where he needed to go. A tribesman agreed and led him into the jungle, using his machete to hack away at the thick brush. After a while the missionary, unable to discern where they were heading, began to quiz his guide. "Where are we going; where is the path?," he demanded to know. The guide responded, "Bwana, in this jungle there is no path. I am the path."

Sometimes life doesn't conform to the paths and maps with which we try to chart our way. The straight line may not always be the best way to journey between two points, or even if it is the best way it may not be feasible. Sometimes we have to look around and seek navigational help from places we never would have imagined. Sometimes that is deep within ourselves.

Staying on the straight and narrow is good advice I guess, even for mowing. But when scorching Missouri summers do in my yard my familiar Briggs and Stratton mower and I need to travel a different route. It makes me restless, feels aimless, doesn't seem right somehow. But maybe a little wandering in the wilderness is okay now and then. Keeps us humble, and hopefully nimble. There will be times when we discover that the paths we've come to count on may not always be there.

But the lawn still has to be mowed.