I have a receding hairline. Actually, it’s in full retreat. I’m balding, so I chose to finish the job Mother Nature and testosterone have started. When I travel, I often use it as an excuse to get a hot shave from a real live barber.
Finding one has become more difficult as time passes, but in larger metro areas, finding a traditional barber shop with the red and white-striped pole and a couple of chairs (three max), with old guys manspreading on chairs against the wall, waiting for a sucker like me to walk in.
Said barbershop should smell vaguely medicinal, with whiffs of talc, aftershave, blue Barbicide with a bunch of combs in the jar, and something astringent. If it’s one in a sub street level shop, accessible by a few stairs down, it might have a slight musty basement smell, which is fine. Visually, look for calendars, usually a few years old, and pictures of grandchildren tacked around the mirror. The license on the wall is faded and aged, in a simple frame, hanging from picture wire. It has expired, probably, and the renewals are in a stack of mail in the back closet.
The barber himself, well, that depends on your locale. Sometimes they’re immigrants, in one case from Mosul, Iraq. Ibrahim was a wizard with a razor and given that he cut his teeth on middle-eastern hair that grows as thick as tree trunks, my wispy peach fuzz was no challenge. But in many cases, it’s an octogenarian, a man twenty years past retirement who would be dead in a week if you made him stop working.
When I arrived in Manhattan to visit my firstborn, I was already a day scruffy, and I use safety razors so traveling with blades is somewhat problematic, so when I arrived I started looking online to find a barber, I was overwhelmed with choices. Because this is Manhattan.
40 or so barber shops popped up below 125th Street, many in Midtown and the Financial District. Most of them clustered in the south end of the island, where there is more discretionary income (financial dudes, real estate tycoons, and movie stars). One place even bragged that George Clooney was a client, as well as a list of other manly men. A shave was $30, a haircut was $70 or more. Out of my price range, even if I wanted a place that gave me a shot of whiskey or a PBR before my salon treatment. A hundred clams for a shave, even if it does keep going for a while?
I wasn’t about to take the subway 40 minutes each way for a hot shave, so I started a little more selective Google search. Lo and behold, I find a place that isn’t on Yelp, has one comment on Google, and is four blocks away in East Harlem.
I love East Harlem. Downtown is cool and hip and all that, and the restaurants are great, the people beautiful, and the parks green and spacious. But it’s almost like being on a movie set. I love Greenwich Village, but I couldn’t live there. It’s as if Disneyland made its own Main Street USA but more swanky and avant garde.
East Harlem has families there. Mostly Hispanics, mostly from the Dominican Republic, and the rest a mixture of other minorities, except here they’re not minorities; I am. No supermarkets, just bodegas and fruit stands. No restaurant chains to speak of (except for the ubiquitous McD’s), but lots of little taquerias and bakeries. The streets and not spotless; in fact, there is a significant amount of micro-trash, waiting for a storefront operator to sweep it into the curb and scoop it up into the trash. Bags of trash are piled up here and there, but for the most part, I like it that way.
Yes, there are homeless people, but no more than any other place I saw in Manhattan. Yes, the storefronts are locked down tight with impenetrable doors and padlocks the size of hamburger buns. Yes, there is crime and inner city problems, but I walked around without blinking. I was treated with respect if not deference, which just made me uncomfortable. I handed out a little food here and there to the homeless folks I met, and it was graciously received with a God bless you, man.
But at the end of the day, I don’t know that it’s any more dangerous than any other place in a large metro area. I’m not setting my laptop on a bench and going to get a Coke from the machine, mind you, but I wouldn’t do that in downtown Madison.
But as usual, I digress.
Located on 116th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues, Claudio’s is as old-school as it gets. It was half a mile walk from my daughter’s apartment, which in New York is a short hop. In most places we’d hop in the car, sadly, but it was a nice morning so it was a welcome diversion. It was early Memorial Day morning. I passed a few folks walking their dogs, but that was it.
I peeked in the door and saw no one, but an older guy standing outside the door indicated that Claudio was in. Three steps down and I saw him, feet up, reading the paper.
I knew from the internet that Claudio was Italian, from Salerno, near Naples, so I greeted him in Italian. He ignored that and said “What do you want?” Not in a rude way, but he wanted to get to the point. I told him I needed a shave, beard and scalp. “Sit down here,” he said. I complied.
Then suddenly he started addressing me in Italian. In fact, he used voi, a strange and anachronistic honorific, used by older Italians, often to their parish priest or someone like that. I don’t know if he was pulling my leg or just super-polite. After a few minutes I decided he was just being super-polite. He was too sweet to be mean-spirited.
We did the usual chit-chat, me being more careful when his straight edge razor was hovering over my Adam’s apple. He started with the typical Italian fatalism surrounding the presidential election. “We are on the edge of a knife, he said, and things could go very badly.” He’s right there.
A local dude with a thick Brooklyn accent came in and asked if he could put up a political sign. “No.”
“Aw, c’mon, we’re neighbors.”
“I no nothing about the neighbor, capisci? No Powell.” He pointed a poster of retiring Congressman Rangel. “He have my back. No Powell.”
“Well, sir, I hope we can change your mind.”
Claudio made a sound familiar to people who have lived in Italy. It’s a cross between ‘meh’ and ‘nah,’ but more nasal. It means “I’m done with this conversation.”
Back to work. He was just finishing behind my ears when pretty boy came with his Powell poster. He never looked up.
He rubbed my scalp with some weird tonic, then stuff that stung a little, then talcum powder. Seriously, I looked like a mime. He must have seen my expression and dabbed away, muttering Maybe I put a little too much, eh?
It had rained earlier that morning. “Ah yes, boom boom and a lotta rain.” I asked him if clients stayed away during rainstorms. He smiled and said “Good! I have enough of the clients. My health is good. I have enough money. Why I need more client? I want to go home at two, I go home.”
Frankie (see in the picture) came in and they exchanged greetings. Frankie was a regular.
“Hey Frankie, you remember Johnny, come in here a lot, since he a boy? You know, him, yes?”
Frankie indicated that yes, he knew Johnny.
“He dead. He die at fifty, his brother, he die at forty-eight, his dad, he die before he sixty. They all sick in that family.”
Frankie said something about bad genes. Claudio said, “I don’t know nothing about the genes, but they all sick, and now they all dead.”
I went to stand up and he said “aspett…” which means “wait a sec…” He grabbed a pair of small scissors, grabbed my nose and lifted the end skyward and started snipping nose hairs. It tickled and I stifled a sneeze.
“Ecco,” he said.
I pulled out my wallet. “Quanto devo, signore?”
“Lessee, for the shave, seven…for the head, ten. So seventeen.” I handed him a twenty and said thanks, and I would be back again the next time I visited my daughter. “Arrivederci.”
He grunted a reply, I waved to Frankie who smiled back, and took off.
Two minutes later I was back. Forgot my glasses. Arrivaderci. Grunt.
Two minutes later I was back again.
“Why you come back? You forget something else?”
“No, I wanted a picture of you, for my daughter. The one who lived in Milano by your sister.”
“Sure! Go ahead. Frankie, it’s okay he take the picture, okay? Frankie gave his consent.
“Adesso parto per l’ultima volta.”
He grunted, turned back to Frankie’s haircut and said “I see you next time.”
Second installment of my podcast, this time on the lower Yahara River with my sweetie.
I like dead languages. I like sick and almost comatose languages too (Sicilian), but let’s stick with Latin. Because Latin is awesome.
Sometimes for yucks I read the Latin Vulgate. I am weird, I get it. The reason I like it is because it jars the brain, especially since it’s not my native language1 . I have to look hard at things, because I have to grab the dictionary a few times every verse.
What I like about Latin is that it’s precise. Texans get this, because you isn’t the same thing as y’all which isn’t the same thing as all y’all. In English, we get you, and you alone.
So here I am, reading Corinthians and I run across this awesome verse.
Temptatio vos non adprehendat nisi humana fidelis autem Deus qui non patietur vos temptari super id quod potestis sed faciet cum temptatione etiam proventum ut possitis sustinere.
Or in the King’s English (literally):
There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which ye are able; but with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.
So big deal. Yes, it is a big deal.
This is a scripture that I used to dislike. Maybe I hated it, I dunno. It was one of those chestnuts thrown out when a person is having a tough time with a problem, or struggling with a demon of some sort. It was thrown at people with addiction problems, which usually made them feel like garbage because obviously they weren’t able to have the faith to overcome their demon.
In short, it was a scripture that pious people used to attempt to make people feel simultaneous better and worse. Usually worse.
The modern translation of this verse is “There’s nothing God will ask you to do that you can’t, and if you can’t do it, you’re defective. Unlike me. I got this.”
This is why I love Latin. Here’s a rough translation:
…but God is faithful, who will not suffer all y’all to be tempted above that which all y’all are able; but with the temptation also make a way to escape, that all y’all may be able to bear it.
In short, it’s all about all y’all. We are all in this together. Individually, we’re not able to bear everything that is thrown at us. Together, as a group, a church, a community, we are.
The word religion gets a bad rap, because it is tied to the crazies. Ignore that. Religion is (wait for it) comes from the Latin word for binding together again. It comes from the same root word as ligament; something that connects things, and align, to make things fit together in some sort of order.
Religion should be about binding ourselves together to allow us to achieve a common goal; for Christians, it’s coming to know and emulate Jesus. For Buddhists, to bring the sangha (community) together toward enlightenment, together. With a few exceptions, religions are the manifestation of a philosophy, that together we can do better than we can apart, so long as we show up to the game to love and support, not to judge.
After church today, I find myself thinking about the people who are struggling with problems that they can’t solve themselves. That would be, let’s see…everyone. We’re all struggling in one way or another, and I think it’s time to get rid of the judgement and just help bind ourselves together.
So give up your judgment to Judge Judy, she’s paid to do it. We few, we happy few, let’s just support all y’all.
1. Well, duh.↩
Dear gentle readers,
I’m inviting you to be listeners.
I love pictures, and a great image is definitely worth a thousand words. That said, I listen a lot to old radio shows and podcasts, plus audio books and other forms that make me create images in my mind. I wanted to see if I could take you along with me on a river trip.
There are technical difficulties, for sure, and I’m just figuring out sound editing. But take a listen. I hope you can feel what it feels like on my River.
Dear outdoor industry peeps,
In my former life I was an epidemiologist, working on breast cancer incidence and prevalence. I sliced and diced data by age, race, city, county, even neighborhoods. It was my job to find where there were higher rates so the government and private programs could mobilize forces, to help those populations increase screening, early detection, and reduce mortality.
It was also a fairly sterile process. I was studying two million women with the detachment that comes with the territory, but when I went to conferences shook hands with a survivor, it was fundamentally different. Those people weren’t data points or statistics; they were individuals.
The outdoor industry is rapidly changing, and there is a lot of angst and chatter about how to engage people who are not in the outdoor tribe and recruit them. Sometimes I think we are less concerned about the desired outcome (getting people outside) than the process (making/selling stuff so we meet financial projections).
So when I hear someone say, “We need to capture millennials,” I want to flash a red card and eject them from the meeting. Really? What are we? Trappers?Pull out the leg traps and get some of them eye-phones for bait, Frankie. Today we’re goin’ out for some of them mee-len-yuls. Like someone did here, but for real.
We need to use different language. We need to connect with a person who is from the millennial demographic, and then we need to do it thousands of times.Yes, we need studies and information about potential consumers, just like I needed to analyze data to see what was going on with cancer. But when you get down to it, the numbers are just a means to an end: to identify one person who needs us, and then help them.
We all hear people say, “We’re in the people business.” I wholeheartedly and vehemently disagree with that statement.
If you take away only one thing from this, take this: I am not and never will be in the people business. I’m in the person business. I’m in the person business over and over again, thousands of times a year.
It’s not only retailers who should be in the person business; it’s all of us, CEO down to a part-time sales staff at a big box.
Only connect: Those two words from E.M. Forster’s Howards End make a powerful couplet. We need to remember that behind the spreadsheets and studies and strategies to stalk a desirable population are real, live, complex people.
Get out of the people business and get into the person business. It’s more effective, and it’s a lot more satisfying. In the end, you’ll still make your projections and probably exceed them, but your focus will be on the person, not the people.
Person. Not people. Because a demographic doesn’t actually do anything. It’s just a bunch of crap on someone’s hard drive.
To the fans of the E.M. White Canoe Company, Gilman Falls, ME; I send greetings.
So I don’t know how it happened, but I mixed up my stories. I am trying to figure out how the canoe ended up in a burn pile, because it didn’t. That story is too weird to be made up, so somewhere in the world, a wooden canoe was saved from a conflagration. No idea when or where, but it wasn’t an E.M. White, and it wasn’t Jerry who saved it.
I received a nice email from Mr. Stelmok himself today with some of the back story.
That is a nice tribute to E.M. White and our work at Island Falls Canoe that you posted and nicely illustrated with your selection of photos.
I’ve obviously been a big White fan for a long time and have been fortunate to be able to build my life around the E.M. White tradition. I feel however that I should provide the real story behind the development of the Willow and WilloWisp.
I went back to my archives and found Volume 2, Number 4 of Canoesport Journal, a now defunct magazine that died back in the early 90s. I still read mine for the good articles and the anachronisms.
Turns out that the Willow came back to life because of Jack McGrevey, who sadly died just a short time ago. He bumped his head and forgot more about wood canvas canoes than I would ever know, and he had a canoe in the shop for repair that was not marked necessarily as an E.M. White, but was probably a Featherweight 15, not built past 1923.
Jack had this boat in his shop and recognized it for what it was, and it was he who painstakingly pulled the lines off the boat. They were so accurate that when they were lofted to a larger size boat they were almost exactly the same as the larger E.M. White boats.
To quote the article:
The result, which Jerry calls the Willow, is a superb small canoe rescued from oblivion…it tracked with little effort, held course well in a breeze quartering the bow, turned right now, and did it all with what could only be called panache.
So in one way, I stand corrected. I was wrong about the origins of the boat. What I was right about was how the canoe behaves. It behaves outstandingly well.
I like your story much better, but this is the more mundane and accurate version of Willow’s development.
Thank you again for the fine tribute, and I know you will continue to get the most out of your Willow, and Jim’s 18’6” Guide.
Thanks for the update, Jerry, I appreciate it.
Mr. Edward M. White started the E.M. White Canoe Company in the mid 1880s. He was one of the first people to build canvas over wood frame canoes, probably after seeing Evan Gerrish paddle one of his canoes on the Penobscot River where it flows through Old Town, Maine.
Canoes are things of beauty.1 I like the idea that water sculpted the canoe over hundreds of years of use. Native builders made modifications as they used canoes daily, and the evolution of canoe shapes was inevitable. No one knew this better than Edwin Tappan Adney. A Smithsonian scholar, Adney collected measurements and created line drawings and schematics of a hundred different variations on the canoe theme. Published in 1964 by the Smithsonian, Skin and Bark Boats of North America is the definitive scholarly work on birchbark canoes.
It was no surprise when some early Canadian builders in the 1850s replicated birchbark building techniques, replacing bark with canvas, which didn’t leak as much. These boats were built like a birchbark boat, outside-in, starting with laying canvas on the ground and adding structure to the inside. The boats were not consistent but were an improvement. Yankees improved the process by inverting the building process, creating first the framework and stretching canvas over the ribs and planks.
This is why my own birchbark canoe looks so, well, modern. Since water hasn’t changed its physical characteristics, why would a canoe shape be better because it’s modern?
Case in point: a few years ago a designer for a fairly well-known canoe company tried to make something “totally new.” It was a canoe-shaped object, and from the moment I saw the prototype I said “This dog won’t hunt.” We didn’t order any the next Spring, and the people who did (mostly big box stores with buyers who are more concerned with GMROI2 than paddlers) were soon disappointed that canoeists didn’t like them. They were ugly, and they paddled poorly. A double-threat to no one. The fact that I had to search far and wide for this image and finally found one on Sierra Trading Post is a good indication it didn’t meet sales expectations.
I have removed all names and logos. That way the designer and I can remain friends.
But let us purge our minds of such images (scroll down, quickly!) and focus on what is beautiful. Like anything E.M. White ever designed and built.
This is a photography of an E.M. White Wilderness Guide 18. The Guide was built in three sizes; 16, 18, and 20. The twenty footer was designed specifically for guides taking their clients into the bush in New England, so cargo room was paramount, and the ability to pole or paddle standing was of benefit for spotting a rising trout.
But the 18: goodness…I’ll just shut up and put up a picture.
Can you not see how this might be the object of desire of a canoelover? Or canoeluster? Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two. Suffice it to say I have been bending the 10th commandment to the breaking point for over a quarter of a century. I wanted a Wilderness Guide 18. Not just to have, mind you, but to actually use as intended. Not to put in a glass case, but to paddle on glassy water.
Last year a friend of mine asked me to help him sell off his canoe collection. He was in a nursing home and not long for this earth, and he knew it. He wanted to make sure his canoes went to people who would appreciate them. There were few people in the position to help him out, and I know a few people who love canoes too. His sister sent me a list and I scrolled through them. And there it was.
An E.M. White 18 Wilderness Guide, built by Island Falls Canoe.
This picture was taken from Jerry Stelmok’s Island Falls Canoe website. To my knowledge, Jerry is only full-time canoe builder in the world who builds E.M. Whites. And that lovely grey-green canoe in the background is my canoe, when it was new.
Yes, I said my canoe. I called dibs on it, checked to see if it was okay if I paid them in installments. My friend said he wanted me to have the canoe.
It needed a lot of work. Sadly, the canoe had sat in his garage for years, with one side against a window, so the sun had oxidized the paint until it was white, and cracked the underlying filler. It would be possible to sand down to the canvas and reapply filler and paint, but I hate sanding so I decided to recover it and start over. This would also allow a few easy repairs.
I’ll be taking a trip with the 18 this fall. I can’t wait.
A lucky guy has the opportunity to find an E.M. White canoe once in a decade. A really lucky guy has the opportunity to find two in a year.
I am said double lucky guy.
I have wanted an Island Falls Willow since 1990, when I first read an article about them in Canoesport Journal, a now-defunct publication that was a great little rag about people who loved canoes, especially solo canoes. I am sure Jerry will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the story goes like this.
Jerry was at a dump and saw what he recognized as the stem of an E.M. White boat sticking out of burn pile. He pulled it out and kicked some dirt on it to put out the smoldering end. He took it back to his shop, pulled the lines off it and they matched up almost perfectly with other E.M. White designs he had. It certainly was an E.M. White; it’s just that there was no record of it being built.
There are conjectures, of course. Perhaps it was a prototype that was built but was too tippy for the average paddler3 . No one will ever know for sure, but its DNA screams E.M. White.
Since these boats are all symmetrical, it wasn’t hard to turn to recreate the canoe from the part he had. So the Willow was born. Because of her initial “tenderness,” Jerry also build the Willowisp, six inches shorter and a little flatter on the bottom to make the new canoe more friendly to the beginner.
I sold a Willow to a customer twenty years ago or so. He wanted to get a lighter canoe, as he was getting older, and wanted a Kevlar boat to get the weight down to 30 pounds or so. I was delighted to trade him for a slightly used ultralight canoe for the not-so-ultralight-but-not-really-heavy Willow. It has seen some action, but the hull is sound and ready for Spring travel. My first solo trip when the ice is out will definitely be in this boat.
I own a dozen canoes, more or less. I paddle all of them, or else I sell them so they can be paddled. While these wood and canvas canoes are jewels, they’re not meant to be kept in a box on the dresser or on a rack in the garage. They are to be paddled. They are to be loaded down with a hundred pounds of canvas tent and packs, sleeping roll, wool blankets and a cast iron Dutch Oven. As much as I like 22 pound canoes and 35 pound packs, I also like fresh biscuits and a nice flank steak three days into a river trip. While I might dehydrate carrots, that’s so they’ll travel well, not to save weight. Weight? Who cares! I’m on a river, and the river is gladly carrying my gear for me.
I have owned a few wood canvas canoes, but I sold them, as none of them really had the feel of an E.M. White. The good news is that I have two of them; almost an embarrassment of riches. But I also have two children, and each will inherit one of these canoes. Yes, I am a good dad.
1. One could argue that the Coleman Ram-X canoe is not beautiful, but I can just as easily argue that it’s a canoe-shaped object, not really a canoe. I would win that argument. Statement validity remains intact.↩
2. Gross Margin Return on Investment. Businesspeak for “Does the item pay its own rent?” Because box stores sell items, not canoes.↩
3. This is a likely scenario, as the Willow is, as some say, a paddler’s boat. Without a load, she rolls over to the gunwale easily and if you’re not paying attention, will spit you out into the water without a thought. Loaded down, she settles down and is as efficient as a Prius with a tailwind. ↩
In most of the aspects of my life, I have become competent. Competent is an interesting word, from Latin, of course, as are most interesting words. Competere is the infinitive verb, meaning to compete, to vie, to be owed. No small coincidence that the word competition comes from competitio, a meeting of rivals. But enough etymology.
I look at competence as a internal competition, to always try to excel at something. The problem I have found is that good is the enemy of great. I don’t need to be great at things to enjoy them, but to settle for mediocre is not in my nature. I want to improve myself.
Add to that the Impostor Phenomenon (the idea that maybe you’re just lucky and you’re not all that) and you find a complex psychological stew between my ears. I am told on a regular basis that my business is a model for the industry, that we’ve achieved something amazing that no one else has done. etc. I am called out as a leader in the paddling community. It makes me uncomfortable, since I really don’t know if I am or not. It’s not false modesty; I have no frame of reference.
On the other hand is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In short, thinking you’re a genius when you’re really just a dolt. A few presidential candidates, anti-vaxxers, and talk show hosts come to mind. To quote Shakespeare,* “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
Background laid out, I want to tell you about how much I sucked last week. A trip to the North House Folk School was in order. I needed to do something with my hands after a lot of brain work, and North House is the cure for that. Take a class there. Any class.
My choice was the Scandinavian Turn Shoe class taught by Jason from Laughing Crowe. He’s a gifted shoemaker and an excellent teacher. Even with his expert tutelage, nothing about this came easy to me. It was frustrating, it was aggravating, it was irritating. I sucked at this. I figured out why on the third day.
Metal behaves predictably for the most part. Heat up the steel to a certain temperature, hit it with the same force, and it will do the same thing most of the time. Same with wood (at least clear-grain wood), where it behaves mostly properly and predictably. With leather, it can vary in texture on the same hide; heck, in the same square foot of the hide. That’s because cattle are not consistently one thickness. Go figure, neither are we. If you don’t believe me, pinch the skin on the back of your hand, then on your shoulder. Big difference.
I was doing my best, but the truth is that I was incompetent. I was really and truly stymied by the changes in texture and techniques and the inability to really be precise with the leather.
And, it was the best class I have ever taken. I experienced a lot of joy once I got over myself and embraced incompetence. I got to feel like my students feel sometimes. When you are highly competent at something you forget that some people are just as incompetent at what you’re teaching as you are at something else.
Without comparing myself to Wolfgang in any way talent-wise, Mozart was a genius composer, but an atrocious teacher. He had a disdain for many of his students, criticizing them in private letters to his parents. He just could not see why they couldn’t hear what he hears in his head. I can’t imagine taking lessons from someone who just couldn’t see why this isn’t innate.
Maybe Mozart would have benefited from making a pair of shoes.
P.S. In the end, I have a wearable pair of shoes. They have flaws but they’re super comfortable and the flaws are only something I would notice. The next pair I make will be much better. And, I can make shoes, which is a pretty rare thing. When the zombie apocalypse comes, I will be shod. That black stuff on the bottom is barge cement mixed with dust from reground tires. Should be awesome.
*Full disclosure: I had to look up that quote. I am not a Shakespeare scholar.
This has nothing to do with paddling. But nothing says that I have to only write about paddling. My house, my rules.
I remember when I was a kid over at some friend’s house. His parents were expressing outrage over those gay people ruining the word for them. “You used to be able to say you were gay,” they complained. I remember thinking “What, now you have to go with happy instead?” What’s the big deal?
I admit that I am starting to feel that way about the word Christian. It used to mean a person who believes what Jesus says is true Gospel. Now, I fear, it means narrow-minded bigots with martyr complexes who thinks anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a Godless atheist.
This is especially relevant right now as a few weeks ago one of the garbage-spewing televangelists was telling everyone the south is flooding because gay people are getting married. Or whatever it is that will get them ratings this week. It makes me sick to my stomach. The south is flooding because a) there’s a hurricane and b) the south is in its path. Now while I did not consult God on this, I’m pretty sure the hurricane wasn’t on the agenda for the day. “Oh, let’s see…yeah…let’s whip up a hurricane, those people have been pretty evil lately…”
Except the good ones who are being flooded out too. Maybe the best way to be a sinner is to lie quietly among the saints and hope God doesn’t notice you.
People ask me, “Are you a Christian?” as if they’re asking me if I’m a Freemason. I want to respond to the question with another question; What’s the real question here? Are they trying to determine if I think like they do (assuredly not), or if I really believe that Jesus was who He said He was.
So what’s a person who loves Jesus to do? Say, “yes, I’m a Christian,” and be lumped in with people who won’t bake a cake for someone who’s gay? Or someone who thinks it’s okay to beat your kids into submission (spare the rod, etc.), or not give them medicine because the Bible “says so”? Or someone who’s wife is a shadow of her former self because of his bullying assertion that he’s the man of the house (again, the Bible “says so”).
Sorry, I can’t do that. I won’t do that. These people may call themselves Christians, but their behavior is more telling than any self-appellation. They may be Christians, but they don’t seem to be following Christ’s example. As Gandhi famously said, he liked our Christ, but he wasn’t so sure about Christians. I have to agree with Mahatma on this one. Even as I am one, I’m not so sure about us.
In fact, I’m very much not-so-sure of it. I agree with Mahatma, as would Jesus. I don’t know everything, but I’m pretty sure of a few things. I’m sure that Christian who hold a God Hates Fags sign at a funeral isn’t loving his neighbor. I’m pretty sure parents who thinks that they have to home-school their fifteen kids so the Devil won’t teach them about the earth being more than 6,000 years old are not open to loving their neighbors either. People who claim to love the sinner and hate the sin usually get it half-right. They pick and choose from the scriptural smorgasbord and take the stuff they like (women, submit yourselves to your husbands…) and ignore the stuff they don’t (neither do I condemn thee).
Now the irony here is that some of these Christians will read what I write and will say one of several things, and maybe all of them:
1) “You need to repent.”
2) “You are persecuting us.”
1) Absolutely. But not for this.
2) No, I’m not. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t make you a martyr. If you show up at a funeral telling a family that their son was killed in Afghanistan because Americans allow homosexuality, you’re going to get beat up by a former Navy SEAL because you’re being a dick, not because you’re suffering like Paul before Agrippa. It’s the height of arrogance and narcissism to think you’re anything at all resembling an early church follower being martyred for their beliefs.
Because Jesus didn’t go around telling people they were going to hell. He told them what they could become if they wanted to.
He loved everybody. All of them. No exceptions.
So, agnostic or atheist friends (I have a fair number of them), I hope you remember that for every Christian who holds a God Hates Fags sign at a funeral or who thinks that they have to home-school their fifteen kids so the Devil won’t teach them about the earth being more than 6,000 years old, there are thousands of people just trying to be more like Jesus. Followers of Christ. Not Christians.
I am not perfect. I make no claim to anything of the sort. I am a mess, and thankfully, I have a good example of how to behave in how I treat other people and how I treat myself.
Back in 1915, Carl Sandburg must have felt a lot like me when he heard the tent-show preacher Billy Sunday use his particular style of preaching to “win souls for Jesus,” and to earn a little on the side, I’m sure. He saw through the theater and saw the lack of substance and emotional manipulation and saw what was really there. He wrote a poem about it, and I love that poem. While we are all hypocrites to some extent, we don’t all make a living at it.
Jesus had a way of talking softly and everybody
except a few bankers and higher-ups among the
con men of Jerusalem liked to have this Jesus
around because he never made any fake passes
and everything he said went and he helped the
sick and gave the people hope. You come along squirting words at us, shaking
your fist and calling us damn fools so fierce the
froth of your own spit slobbers over your lips —
always blabbing we’re all going to hell straight
off and you know all about it.I’ve read Jesus’ words.
I know what he said. Youdon’t throw any scare into me.
Jesus.He never came near clean people or dirty people
but they felt cleaner because he came along. It
was your crowd of bankers and business men
and lawyers that hired the sluggers and murderers
who put Jesus out of the running.
I say it was the same bunch that’s backing you that
nailed the nails into the hands of this Jesus of
Nazareth. He had lined up against him the
same crooks and strong-arm men now lined up
with you paying your way.
This Jesus guy was good to look at, smelled good,
listened good. He threw out something fresh
and beautiful from the skin of his body and the
touch of his hands wherever he passed along.
You, Billy Sunday, put a smut on every human
blossom that comes within reach of your rotten
breath belching about hell-fire and hiccuping
about this man who lived a clean life in Galilee.
When are you going to quit making the carpenters
build emergency hospitals for women and girls
driven crazy with wrecked nerves from your
goddam gibberish about Jesus — I put it to you
again: What the hell do you know about Jesus?
Go ahead and bust all the chairs you want to.
Smash a whole wagon load of furniture at every
performance. Turn sixty somersaults and stand
on your nutty head. If it wasn’t for the way
you scare women and kids, I’d feel sorry for
you and pass the hat.
I like to watch a good four-flusher work but not
when he starts people to puking and calling for
I like a man that’s got guts and can pull off a great
original performance, but you — hell, you’re only
a bughouse peddler of second-hand gospel —
you’re only shoving out a phony imitation of
the goods this Jesus guy told us ought to be free
as air and sunlight.
Sometimes I wonder what sort of pups born from
mongrel bitches there are in the world less
heroic than you.
You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to
fix it up all right with them by giving them
mansions in the skies after they’re dead and the
worms have eaten ’em.
You tell $6 a week department store girls all they
need is Jesus; you take a steel trust wop, dead
without having lived, gray and shrunken at
forty years of age, and you tell him to look at
Jesus on the cross and he’ll be all right.
You tell poor people they don’t need any more
money on pay day and even if it’s fierce to be
out of a job, Jesus’ll fix that all right, all right —
all they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.
I’m telling you this Jesus guy wouldn’t stand for
the stuff you’re handing out. Jesus played it
different. The bankers and corporation lawyers
of Jerusalem got their sluggers and murderers
to go after Jesus just because Jesus wouldn’t
play their game. He didn’t sit in with the big
I don’t want a lot of gab from the bunkshooter in
I won’t take my religion from a man who never
works except with his mouth and never cherishes
a memory except the face of the woman on the
American silver dollar.
I ask you to come through and show me where
you’re pouring out the blood of your life.
I’ve been in this suburb of Jerusalem they call
Golgotha, where they nailed Him, and I know if the
story is straight it was real blood ran from his
hand and the nail-holes, and it was real blood
spurted out where the spear of the Roman
soldier rammed in between the ribs of this Jesus
Another Silent Sports column not on their website. With permission from the publisher. – DB
“I have a little BFF that showed up by my heart. His name is Mr. Hodgkins.”
That’s how Sarah told us she has cancer.
The good news is that she is young, healthy and fully recovered, and her BFF responded very well to the chemotherapy, a process of poisoning a person just enough that their hair falls out and the BFF gets the brunt of it.
Sarah is one of the Bush family nonbiological daughters. A friend of our biological daughter, she is as much a part of the family as anyone, and I was a little shocked and saddened by the BFF. I promptly renamed Mr. Hodgkins TLF, not BFF. TLF stands for The Little Fiend, or some other F-word, depending on my mood.
Chemo affects different people different ways, and Sarah, descended from stoic, German stock and the eternal optimist, smiles through the whole process of chemo juicing. She usually feels fine for a few days after.
I have a theory that paddling has anti-TLF properties. Since living in Madison, her grad school schedule had kept us from dragging her to the Wisconsin River, one of the most healing places on earth. It was there I went after my father passed away to spend some time grieving. I knew it would have a salutorious effect, so we grabbed a canoe suitable for three and planned a post-juice therapy session.
Sunscreen is critical for Sarah, as well as hydration and a few other cautions, but she’s no hot house flower. She was the paddler as well as the duffer, and being an introspective person, quietly absorbed the beauty.
Flowing water is therapeutic. The sound of it running through a pile of logs sings a song of comfort, the soft murmur punctuated by the humorous plops of turtles, too shy to stick around even when we were quiet. The water pushing us up on occluded sandbars with a soft kiss is even therapeutic, as we splash around tugging the canoes off the spots we high-centered.
Before you read any further, I don’t like reading river-as-metaphor-for-life stories and I certainly don’t want to write them. But sometimes even I go there. So here I go.
The river is unpredictable. Sandbars and currents change dramatically with every flood, and the slough that was so inviting last season is now a field of quicksand. The little sand spit where I used to enjoy a summer nap is gone, the tree that created a little shady spot is now a strainer, and an inhospitable one at that.
This constant change used to bug me. I would grumble that a favorite spot was gone, and not realizing that a new favorite spot was forming somewhere else. Unlike some of my more predictable regulars, the Wisconsin is a dynamic river. You can’t step in the same river twice, right? That’s doubly-true here.
My river has taught me many lessons, and one of them is that no matter how vigilant you are, you will run into hidden and unexpected obstacles. It’s part of being on a river; it’s what makes them interesting. Lakes are nice, but give me a river any day.
The day on my river was wonderful. It was a healing day, full of happiness and smiles and silliness, and, as the water was low, we ended up stuck in places where we didn’t want to land. We just scrambled out of the canoe, let it float free, then jumped back in when the obstacle was passed.
That’s right, here it is; the clumsy, ham-fisted, overworked metaphor. Life gives us sandbars. We can break our paddles trying to pry ourselves off a sandbar, or we can step out, get our feet wet, possibly splash and fall and look stupid, but ultimately float free of the obstacle with little effort.
Sarah is the step-out-and-float sort. She doesn’t have the energy to waste being inefficient, so she just works with what she has, which is why she’ll be okay. She is evicting the TLF, not with anger or frustration, but with quiet optimism. Funny thing; the best paddlers I know are the same way. If you get angry, it’s not that many steps from anger to a nice, long swim. You just take what the river sends you and deal with it.
I have now become one of those writers. You know what? It’s not so bad. Maybe resistance to being a cliche has robbed me of a more meaningful experience both on the river and while going through a rough patch in our family.
The day seemed to become more and more beautiful as it passed. Midwesterners know that perfect days are precious: it’s always beautiful here, but some days can take your breath away. 73 degrees, a light breeze, bright fluffy clouds that give you a little patch of shade just when you want it. The river opened up and still, no strong breezes, just a shimmering expanse of diamonds on the water. A dragonfly hatch of Midland Clubtails reduced the mosquito population, and white-throated sparrows provided a lovely soundtrack for the afternoon.
Thank you, Wisconsin River, for your Anti-TLF properties and for slipping past my defenses and teaching me that sometimes rivers are perfectly sound metaphors for life. They’re both beautiful, I know that much.