Sunday, January 31, 2010

Latvian Pilgrimages or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love Capitalism

Mēs esam kā starp vārtiem,
Starp vārtiem uzcēluši savas mājas
Kur tautām pāri staigāt.

We are as if between gates,
Between gates we have built our home
For other peoples to trample over.
— Anna Brigadere, Latvian poet

"The Nazi invasion interrupted that brutal occupation—one horror replaced by another. When the Germans retreated, a choice of one evil over the other was the only option to escape the coming Soviet onslaught."

He came into the store to buy coffee and to complain about the bran muffins, which he insisted contained no raisins. His lapel bore the words, ‘Latvian embassy.’
Dillo: Do you speak Latvian?
Muffin man: Yes, I speak Latvian and Russian.
Dillo: My mom was born in Riga.
Muffin Man: Have you ever been?
Dillo: Yes, once during the occupation and once after independence.
Muffin Man: Occupation, that’s a funny thing to say, though, I guess, it was.
Both: Sveiks!

My first visit to Latvia occurred in 1978, the year I entered college. In 1978 the country showed on maps as Latvia, S.S.R. Military officers could be found on every corner, and it was common to see tanks drive down the street sporting trench-coated officers in black leather boots. The oppression was stifling; you saw it on people’s faces and the way they walked; shoulders stooped, steps plodding. It’s hard to move with a gun in your back.

The Statue of Liberty (seen above, holding three stars, one for each Baltic state: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) stood in the town square, facing outward. At the opposite end of the square stood a statue of Lenin also facing outward. The running joke was that there was a reason they stood back-to-back.

As tourists we could buy groceries in approved stores. These stores had a decent supply of groceries by soviet standard. You could find your bread, rice and salad makings. What’s more, you could get in and out in an hour or two. A citizen living in Latvia shopped at approved stores also. For them this meant long lines with no guarantee of finding what they needed once they actually entered the store. For the tourists and locals each was small with few shelves and minimum variety.

The zoo in Riga was a collection of animals in boxes. Some of the animals may have had runs and some space, but basic at best. The entire city was like this. No bright colors only grey and a pigment which Sherwin-Williams catalogs as Ancient City Poop Brown.

On August 21, 1991, Latvia claimed Independence. My second visit to Latvia took place in July, 2001. The first full day after arrival I went out for beer. After some strong encouragement and some, “You need to see this,” I also went shopping for groceries.

The grocery store took up nearly a block. Grab a cart and enter through the shiny glass doors. Right into the produce department which is bright with color, full of fruit of every type. If you had a child, you could push them around in the carts which were shaped like big cars, horns included. Whatever you wanted, whatever you needed. No approval necessary, and the tourists and the locals shopped side by side.

We took the bus to the Riga zoo. The old zoo has a new look which rivals anything found in San Diego, Portland or New York. The special exhibit that day was South African frogs and insects, I think. A huge display of grotesque and fascinating creepy-crawlies. As you meandered along a trail winding through tunnels each animal was displayed with appropriate lighting, and cages that were clean and spacious.

My conversion came at the lions den. Here were these large cats in a life-like setting with ample space, clear signage and interpretive video displays. Displayed behind the cats on the main wall were a number of large posters. Each poster was a brightly lit ad for the Latvian version of Friskies. It hit me then. Capitalism and a free-market supported an environment that allowed for growth.

Walking through Riga we could see a number of positive changes brought about by the new government and freedom. On the street though you could also see the older folks. They were easy to spot by their drab single color clothes, hopeless gait and bent bodies. It would still take some significant time for the oppression to lift. The shackles of coercion are not easily cast off.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Despots of Doom

I hesitate to ask. There are two women at work that I dare not greet with, “Hey, how are things?" Their talk targets tragedy. “The morning, no, it’s not good. Medical issues, you know, make it hard to get out of bed-lucky to be alive, really.” I ready myself, knowing the litany of medical issues will be addressed. The sky’s too blue, the sun too bright. The co-worker that they thought had their back---stabbed them. Their mom is an evil sorceress, their family tree full of traitors and thieves.

I am not one to always see the glass half-full. I have dark days and somber spells. Why do these despots of doom and tyrants of tribulation trouble me so much?

When invited into your space they enter in as thieves, violently seeking to rob you of joy. Their world is a world without hope.

I have hope that Heaven, bought with blood, will come eventually. That God pours out blessing like the rain, falling “on the just and the unjust.” Can anyone look at a sunset, or enjoy their morning coffee without hint of hope? I delight in laughter with my friend; get drunk on hugs from my daughter. When the waves of life assail, these are the anchors that hold steadfast.

When you share your time they steal it away. Spewing selfishness, they seek to feed their aching hunger.

You’ve seen the movie, you know the scene; you are being sucked into the vortex. You stretch out your arms, your hands grasp whatever they can, your nails bleed as you are dragged along, deeper and deeper into the darkness.

Why is it always about them? Christ calls us to consider one another as more important than oneself. Most of us connect with one another as fellow travelers, encouraging each other along the way. How is it that some seek so hard to trip us up?

So, fellow traveler-Who are the thieves in your circle?

Be wary and consider the warning. Laugh, hope, and be thankful. Attend to your hearts and your time. Rejoice in your many blessings, renew hope daily. Be vigilant and ever on your guard. For thieves will come to consume, and use you to sate their hunger.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Drive With Me

Deprive yourself of sleep (the alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m.). Slurp some coffee. Inject adrenaline into your system. Now you are ready. You’re driving to work with me.

Hook up your Nintendo Wii. Strap into this video game. The drive to work has four levels. Success and safety at each level will advance you to the next level. Completion of all four levels will get you to work on time. Failure at any level and you’ll arrive late. Or die.

With one hand you control the stick-shift and turn the steering wheel. With the other hand, you hold your coffee cup. By the end of the first sip, you are ready to enter the highway. Easy does it. The speed limit here is 50, but most folks keep the speed up to 75.

Passing the Walmart on your right, the defunct auto mall on your left, you need to slow to 40. No, not 55 or 60! Officer Camacho is radar ready. Look for him in driveways. He hides anyplace. Don’t look too long though…Oh, you almost hit the pedestrian. Fortunately spilled coffee does not result in a penalty. A speed of fifty-three may get you a warning. Give him sass and Macho Camacho (aka “TicketMaster”) will write you up.

You made it through Mini Mall Canyon and into downtown. The speed limit increases. You leave the city behind, along with the city lights. The landscape opens up, as do you, up the hill to the top of the grade. Oh, no. While you were wiping the coffee off of your chin a pick-up truck spilled booms, beams and studs onto the highway. The darkness hides them. You go up on two wheels, slam back down, and cruise to the top of the grade in a state of shock. You advance to Level II.

Gravity tugs you down the grade to the table land. Moonlight bathes the basin, casting shadow on the foothills, reflecting off the snow-covered peak above the steering wheel. You sit solid on this road amidst this big beanbag of a universe. Lulled into daydreams, you fail to slow down when entering the next town. You blink and you are through town and spiraling down the next grade.

The drunk driver in the Yugo next to you wants to race. The truck driver behind you bears down on your bumper. You avoid the guard rail---moving the stick-shift like a drug addict with DT’s. You advance to Level III.

Wow. City lights are spread before you, blanketing everything to the base of the mountain. In the distance, the sky spread out like a sheet, bright pink, a flashlight behind it.

Pulling off the freeway, you crest the first bridge crossing the sand dunes. If a truck driver coming up the other side is asleep, you die. It is hard to tell with your eyes full of bright light from the oncoming car; but aren’t they presently in your lane?

Sand blows and swirls, dancing in your headlamps. It clatters on your windshield, obscuring your views of the oncoming traffic. The road widens as you reach the main city. You advance to the next level.

“Safety,” you think. A major city with good lighting, two-lane roads and traffic-signals; a major city with a population of tourists and retired folk. Beware the car in front of you. Why can’t you enter the parking lot from the left lane? Behind you, is that a police car? Taxi---and he obviously is not planning on entertaining the yellow light.

You pull into your employer’s parking lot on time. Congratulations. You have completed level IV. You stroll into work, facing customers with light-blindness and veins flowing with coffee and adrenaline.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Ten Years In Three Words

The wife urinates. Chemicals react. The stick changes. A baby’s coming!

Babies take preparation. Clean the room. Empty the room. Paint the room. Reorganize the house. Sort the stuff. A small house. Having two bedrooms.

Parents need training. We take classes. Friends get pregnant. Friends take classes. We are excited.

A bittersweet time. We are expectant. We share joy. We are stressed. We have fights. Stress levels increase. The battles increase. Demands, always. Insults, often.

I’m let go. A message left. Fired by voicemail. Typical Prudential. We retain insurance. The stress increases.

Hailey arrives! What? No instruction manual? Hailey turns yellow. We meet jaundice. Hailey loses weight. Kristina loses weight. Hailey breastfeeds badly. Mom’s frustration increases. Newborns should delight. Mom is overwhelmed.

The wife crashes. Not physically; mentally. The hospital awaits. Chaos, no diagnosis. No recognition either. I am Satan. Unknown to her. Follow the ambulance. The clinic awaits. As does sleep.

Newborn, without breast. Bills piled high. Impossible, balancing everything. Two jobs ongoing. Hungry baby cries. Cavernous eruptions inside. Open door closes. I quit training. Goodbye new job.

“Cabbage,” she cries. Breast milk recedes. Angrily she punches. Girl takes blow. She’s locked up. Fifty-one-fifty.

Baby on bottle. Emotional roller coaster. Let’s try Zoloft! The coaster continues. Try drug cocktails. Find measured success.

Things finally stabilize. God provides work. Managing medical management. Working nights also. Feed the baby. Sleep comes late. Mornings come early.

Hailey continues growing. I continue fathering. Rich blessing indeed. Hailey turns three. Money is invested. We change houses. Property is bought. House size increases.

Another layoff comes. Teaching has possibilities. I begin school. I work nights. Money is tight.

Doubts haunt Hailey. “I love you?” A question spoken. Awaiting an answer. The answer comes. “Love you too.” The ritual roars. The memories echo. The mother crashes. The baby traumatized.

Doubts haunt me. The assaults increase. Lips spout violence. “You are retarded.” Working, she escapes. We try counseling. She barely participates. She constantly berates. She works late. She avoids home. She avoids Hailey.

Grandfather’s house calls. “We must move!” She wants out. Everyone must go! Uprooting the family. Homestead is purchased. She desires escape. Flee the city. Flee the marriage. Grandpa built it! Logic isn’t important. Palm Springs or bust! Wife threatens divorce. Confused, I cave. I give in.

Chaos ensues. I cry out. Lead Lord Jesus. I seek resolution. The earth rumbles. Divorce is imminent. Blackmailed, I leave. Homeless, I wander.

The wife fornicates. Partners react. Life changes.

Today's Note on Resistance

Wouldn'tcha know?

Pressfield says, "Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids...." Todays attack of resistance came at work. One of my employees fell off her bike yesterday, and damaged her hand. Tomorrow being Sunday, my first writing post is due.

Todays' shift was a 12 hour shift. I'm tired. My back hurts-bad. Tempting to give in to resistance. I press on.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Rivers In the Desert-Resolutions for 2010

I made no New Year Resolutions in 2009. We’d celebrated Christmas eve in the hospital at my mom’s bedside, then moved on to a local restaurant. Come New Year I couldn’t see past the cancer diagnosis. The cancer stole my resolutions for last year.

I start this year with three simple resolutions.

The first has to do with the previous quote from the War of Art, by Pressfield.

I resolve to work at writing. That means fifty blog posts where I’ve wrestled with words and typed them at this keyboard. There will be other posts with pictures, or quotes, or postcards, but those do not count toward THE FIFTY. Furthermore, I will have at least one post up by each Sunday save special circumstances such as vacations. (Yes, this post counts).

There is a bike ride from Seattle to Portland (STP). Seven years ago I was talked into attempting said ride---in one day. We rode 185 miles of the 200 plus miles before running out of daylight. For my friend Glenn and I, this summer marks our turning fifty. We’ve resolved to finish STP this year.

Attempting Seattle to Portland in 2007 nearly killed me. So, before I go, I resolve to establish my Will.

God has a plan for 2010. Speaking in the book of Isaiah, He says, “Do not call to mind the former things, Or ponder things of the past.
Behold, I will do something new,
Now it will spring forth;
Will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness,
Rivers in the desert.”

I believe 2010 will be a life-affirming year. Let us resolve to press forward, drinking deeply of the new rivers that flow into our lives.

Quote of the Week-the War of Art

“You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”
Steven Pressfield, the War of Art