Friday, May 30, 2008


IT was back to the prison , for another Friday night Bible study. We've been having as many as eight and nine men come to these; tonight there were four. Three have been regular attendees, but we had a new arrival--Rhodes--passing through on his way out of this way of life and back home in July.

We're reading our way through the book of Job--that ancient and timeless text with so much to offer and explore. I have wanted these men to stop and savor the language of the writing, its rich metaphors and poetry. "By day they meet with darkness, and grope at noon as in the night". Yeah, they nod. Been there, understand that.
There is something resonant about Job for men kept in prison for many years. "When I lie down I say, 'When shall I arise?' but the night continues, and I am continually tossing until dawn." "I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul."

Bildad, growing restless with the lukewarm words of his buddy Eliphaz and the spirited defense of the pathetic Job, uses words as needles to prick the oppressed man: "How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a mighty wind?...If you were pure and upright, surely now He would rouse Himself for you..."
But in his zeal he errs: "Lo, God will not reject a man of integrity, Nor will He support the evildoers..."

Ah, says Job, speaking truth to error even from the pit of despair: "In truth I know that this is so, but how can a man be in the right before God? If one wished to dispute with Him, He could not answer Him once in a thousand times..." Bildad is mistaken in thinking he or Job or any man is righteous before God on the strength of who he is and what he has done. And Job proceeds to magnify the Lord, taking away from his friends their pet idea that God is their pal. "It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God," we reminded each other. And Job anticipates Christ when he laments at the end of chapter nine: "For He is not a man as I am that I may answer Him, that we may go to court together. There is no umpire between us, Who may lay a hand upon us both." Thus, Christ.

We'd read several verses, but I would make them stop to go over them again. "What is being said here?" I asked over and over. And much of the time, they didn't know. So we unpacked the metaphors and analogies, trying to grasp the meaning for such questions as: "Can the papyrus grow up without a marsh? " Yes, ah, the paths of those who forget God! I spoke of how much truth is spoken by Job's friends, and yet how in the end they conclude wrongly. False teaching is 90% accurate, sometimes more. Can we spot the heresies of Job's friends? And so we dig into it.

At some point, one of the men mentioned he had something on his mind he needed to talk about. We ended our study with enough time to hear him out. This is a white man, the scars of a hard life in his bearing. He began by saying he'd gotten a letter that day from his Dad, apologizing to him for raising him poorly. He didn't think his Dad had done that. He said, "I was the oldest kid. My Dad told me after he messed up with me, he just gave up on the other kids. I gotta write to him; tell him it isn't true."
The other thing on his mind was a growing conflict he'd had with other inmates. There is a cultural rule in this prison that, though the shower room has six stalls, guys shower alone. The only one who breaks this rule is this guy, who is slowly coming under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit but still maintains some old and powerful tendencies toward aggression that are what landed him in prison in the first place. So this guy breaks the rule and showers when he likes--"Hey! It's a stupid rule!"-- and it pisses off some of the other, more pugnacious inmates. Men bristle at him, and he bristles back.
So what to do? He has been having thoughts , since he's an ambassador of Christ, that he shouldn't really break a guy's nose, as he would naturally do. Actually, the tendency would be to try to kill the other guy. I mean, he frankly stated that if he went down that particular road with this particular dude, the dude would end up dead.
And, he remembers his daughter, living with a Baptist pastor awaiting his release. If he followed his instincts and the path he'd gone down throughout his life, he'd never be free to know her and help to raise her.
So we talked about it. The black guys were saying, "Hey, just walk away, dude. I'm just walking away from it." At one point I asked if the guy he wanted to kill was worth saving. I mean, we had to laugh. My guy chuckled and said frankly, "No, I want him to rot in Hell!" It was so pathetic, we all cracked up. Yeah. Know how you feel. Having confessed that, my guy was able to hear a little more clearly when I moved into the really hard-nosed words of Christ: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
"But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Jesus takes the gloves off when it comes to the impossible expectations he has for us. My guy realizes this. I pointed out to him that even though his thought process during this latest confrontation was confusing to him, his actions were ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit, and attested to by his little thoughts about his witness, and his daughter. And we all agreed we would pray for him even as he--and this was the big thing--decided to pray for the jerk he wanted to kill. I also suggested maybe, just maybe, finding a different place, at the end of a long and wearying day, to take a shower.

Monday, May 26, 2008


"I've worked every Memorial Day for the last thirty-three years. I see no reason to stop now."

A promised call to an elderly client to set up a furniture pickup led to my voice-mailed message explaining why I'd come by on Monday morning. I've been working for this formidable lady for twenty years, off and on. I'd repair something for her, forget about her; she about me, and then some years later I'd get another phone call. For as long as I can remember, her phone recording included the tagline, in a sweet elderly Alabama voice, "Please remember to speak slowly, cuz I speak Southern."

It is true--this trend of working Memorial Day and Labor Day. It is old habit now, but goes back to the early, somewhat desperate days of being an unorthodox small businessman, doing it my own way. Taking off a Monday just because it is a national holiday never made much sense. When the times got better, I adjusted by stopping at 2 pm. That is not to say that I don't observe either holiday. I observe Memorial Day by remembering those who fought and died for my freedom, and I observe Labor Day by working.

"Happy Memorial Day!", Robin greeted me when I found her late morning having her Elevenses at the kitchen table. And later, when I drove her to her 4H meeting, I reminisced about being a young Boy Scout, somehow roped by my mother into memorizing some patriotic ditty and reciting it at a gathering, as I recall, of very old ladies in long dresses, and very old men in military uniform. They were gathered in an upstairs room above the hardware store on the square in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I was given a chocolate bar for my troubles, which seemed to me to be just about right.

My southern client, a widowed doctor's wife who has lived here part of the year for many an age, is selling her home and moving to Arizona. I asked her about this--selling this home she had herself designed on "a dry cleaner's cardboard." She burst into some few tears, confessing it was an awful thing to do. But she didn't spend enough time here to justify it. It was self-indulgence. Her home is in a beautiful, mature, gracious part of town, where the trees are in full fettle and people's yards are interesting. She is extremely proud of her home, and I had to secretly sigh: Would the yuppies coming to inspect it appreciate the turned wooden pillars of her porch, matched by the turned wooden newel posts and interior wall beams? Would they resonate with the flowered wallpaper, dark panelling, or sailor theme in the little boy's bathroom? It is altogether a gracious home, and reflects this woman's precise, determined, aggressive personality, as well as a certain softness for grandchildren. She showed me her (dowdy, aging) bathroom cabinets--she designed them herself! There is a cute hidden pull-out step for a child in front of one of the sinks. I could only think, "This is the first thing the new owners will rip out." Ah, me. She is selling it herself, using the heretofore neglected sales technique of haranguing realty agents and refusing to budge on the price. Her one prospective buyer is a female doctor, but " a weak woman" according to my large, edifical friend. "She couldn't just tell me she wasn't interested! She had to tell me her HUSBAND wasn't interested! Give me a woman who can make up her own mind!" This one does not gladly suffer fools.

I had to keep that in mind when, taking her Duncan Phyffe dining room table bases apart, she asked me the direct question, "Tell me about the quality of my table." I knew enough--and it isn't my habit to beat around the bush anyway--to tell her straight out what I really thought about it. "A nice table. Not top of the line. See the laminated curved legs? Those would be solid mahogany in the better pieces. But this apron is well constructed, and that is often the tell-tail of an above-average piece. It has nice, spiral-turned legposts. I like it." She grunted her approval, and pointed out the Grand Rapids Chair Company tag on the underside of the top, confirming my evaluation. Anyway, off to the shop it goes for refinishing, the final contribution I can make to the quality of her life.

I am her "furniture man". She will also have a plumber, an electrician, a general maintenance man for cleaning the eaves, doing the ladder work, or getting down or putting up the storms. They will all have been specific workers; will all have been carefully vetted, as I was. My politics weren't inquired of, but there was a proving time for me, years ago, when my Quality was evaluated and accepted. It was Understood that when I was under her roof or performing a service for her, I was to be on my best behavior. No fools allowed; any slipup officiously pointed out. Yes, ma'am. She's a Southern Lady, and there are certain things Southern Ladies expect of their certified servicepeople.

I make more of it than that, letting her know that I am interested in her life. This isn't marketing. It is what makes civic life interesting for me. And so we discuss the many things hanging on her walls; I take notice of her many visual memories. This is a life lived with a great deal of grace, and that is not at all common anymore. One must stop long enough to be blessed by it. She sat me down in one of her many comfortable rooms to show me the plans for her new home in southern Arizona. It is a beautiful location, with a view of Mexican mountains. So utterly different from the lush green maple Spring of her Wisconsin home just now. I think to myself, "I could do what this woman is doing. Just sell all and move to the desert."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

What I'm Working On

It has often been the case that this time of year I am designing and building furniture. Much of the rest of the year is taken up with on-site repairs, restorations, inspections for moving companies, etc. There are weeks when I barely see the inside of my shop.

That is part of what makes this time of year, and its coincidental shop-based activities, so unusual and enervating. The shop windows are opened, the birds are singing and occasionally flying into my shop (no screens). Fresh-mown grass, horses grazing in the fields behind the shop. Out in the country. Some would actually call it the American Dream.

It's pretty close. If one can look past tight budgets and tax deadlines, this is a nice gig to have. I don't think I'd be easily able to do anything else. There is the occasional client one wants to do in, but otherwise--and waiting for the mail to come to see if a check arrived--a nice gig indeed. If you like your paychecks arriving with punctuality, find something else to do. Work for the state.

There is an art to being self-employed, and an art to learning how to love it. One tends to crave routine, since it signifies productivity without complications. But routine rarely comes, and so the mind seems always on a quest involving details, details, details. I've been in a place where the details overwhelmed and exhausted me. That isn't such a nice gig. Part of the secret, I've noticed, is a trust in the system one evolves for running the business. That trust is something that for me has taken many years to acquire. Time may be its most important function. Time and good habits and observing what happens throughout the year.

Here is a pattern that has developed over thirty years of my very small, one-person business: every four years or so there is a leap upward in gross income. The one time I can account for this is a year back in '89 when I restored all of the pews of a large and ancient Episcopal church. I expected my income the next year to retire to its previous level. However, it stayed at the new level and did not revert. Four or five years later, it happened again. Yeah, I keep raising my prices like everyone else, but not in increments that parallel the income jumps.

So: What I'm working on. I've designed and am building the reception office for a chiropractor. Initial pics below somewhere. For reasons that are too complicated to go into, the entire structure had to be designed to be disassembled reasonably easily, so I used steel bed rail hardware to assemble the wall units. The woods are native cherry, southern yellow poplar (I am SO risque!), Brazilian Cherry, and Purple Heart. It looks nice., I think The rest of the decor is Arts and Crafts style, so I followed along. Installation next week, which should be interesting.

Taking an idea from conception to reality is quite a thrill, either one of elation or dejection. I've had both experiences. HOW COULD I HAVE MISMEASURED BY THAT MUCH???? I mean, an inch??

We craftspeople have a saying: The True Test of a skilled craftsman is repairing his own mistakes.

There are other challenges: miscommunication between the carpenters and the woodworker. Being the last one in on a project usually means that whatever miscalculations the previous guys (framers, drywallers, etc) made are now your problem.

The flip side: it is really a gas to drop a new cabinet into a tight space and have it fit ...just...right! I've--often, fortunately-- also had that experience.

I'll post again on this once the project is completed.

2001 A Space Odyssey, Revisited

Cue The Music

Naw. I started cleaning up my shop, 'tween projects. Found my workbench. That moonlike surface is twenty-four years of glue build-up that just never reached Critical Height (in which case it would have been scraped down).

Yeah. You're looking at the fossil record of my career.

My Workbench

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A basic primer on the emerging church

Or whatever they call it these evangelicalism...Post Christianity?

To continue the primer, see this.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Excuse me. I've been away, here on the ranch, reading The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy and listening to Tom Waits. It is the Strange Season for a self-employed of my sort: enough work to keep me in cigarettes, if I smoked 'em. But not enough to buy that big boat. If I even wanted it.

Anyway, not a cultural diet for the faint of heart, nor for the committed romantic. But both artists I listed are amazing in their own creative, dysfunctional way. I'll get around to writing more about them soon.

Back in my transcendental meditation days--Hey! Did you hear Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died?--I spent a lot of time listening to the old Hindu master talk about ways to approach life whilst awaiting Enlightenment.

One of the cooler terms his most divine and majestic self spoke of was the concept of Tapas. I've been looking for a parallel idea here in the west. Here is what I remember of it: It is, of course, a Sanskrit term, but don't let that unnerve you. I've been there. There is a lot of awful stuff and some dangerous stuff and then there are a few things you can take away with you, should you escape. I think this is one of them.

Tapas. A simple translation would be "withdrawal" but not what you're thinking. It is better described as the sort of angst--spiritual or whathaveyou--that occurs when one leaves or is forced from one area of activity, for another. It is the discomfort of stepping away from what has engaged you. You stop sleeping and wake up. Captain Video (as we used to call Maharishi) spoke of it as a sort of harsh spiritual discipline that fostered flexibility, a gift life gives. Fasting would be a good example of the tapas he's speaking of. It is not normally associated with something pleasant, but is instead a rough, somewhat tearing experience. There is a separation from the norm; there is unsettling and disorientation. Extreme Tapas would be described by the bitter, sudden experience many Jews had when hauled away from their lives to go live and die in Nazi concentration camps.

Tapas is seen as an injustice to the mortal, fleshly man. It flies in the face of entitlement, position, accomplishment. That is why it is so startling, so resented. Maharishi would speak of it when we would complain of boredom, discomfort, disillusionment with the results of meditation--this would be months-long residential meditation. "Whatever tapas you are going through", he'd say, "Just remember to stay the course", and blah, blah, blah.

I know a man who lost his wife recently after a several-months-long battle with brain cancer. His tapas endured throughout her illness as the inevitability of her condition became apparent. It continues as he wakes up each morning to a new , strange life.

Tapas does not go on and on. It is the experience of the process of change, but life settles down again for most of us. I believe Jesus was speaking of something like tapas when in John 15 he spoke of the pruning that goes on in the life of a disciple of Christ. "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit." I've always been struck by the fact that the action for the believer and unbeliever is very similar: in one case the unfruitful unbeliever is pruned away. In the other, the believer is pruned in order to be fruitful. Tapas is the experience of being pruned, I think.

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
Nor faint when you are reproved by Him;
For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines,
And He scourges every son whom He receives.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Run the straight race
Through God's good grace,
Lift up thine eyes, and seek His face:
Life with its way before us lies,
Christ is the path, and Christ the prize.