12 December 2007

Another One Bites the Dust

I'm reading the book, Life of Pi, with my freshman honors students. It's a fascinating book--one that has burst onto many high school readying lists. I like it because it gives me two things: a chance to discuss faith/religion with my students.

We review the 20th Century. We talk about Einstein and how his Theory of Relativity opened the door to breaking all the rules. After all, if space and time is relative, isn't good and evil relative, too? If the speed of light was the only constant, I guess God/god was relative, too.

I had a great time today preparing my final lecture for this amazing group of students--a Top Three class of all the kids I've taught over ten years. We will study art, music, and architecture, following it from the Romantic Era (early 19th Century) to today. I'm grading their papers--topic: how I formed a belief I have today.

I'm still learning more. That's the cool thing. In her column in Salon.com, Camile Paglia made a profound statement. Paglia is a liberal, a feminist, and an outspoken lesbian (not that that matters much, I guess). She is one of the most outspoken people in Letters today.

In talking about Mitt Romney and the religious expectations Americans have for their politicians, she wrote:

Atheism alone is a rotting corpse. I substitute art and nature for God -- the grandeur of man and the vast mystery of the universe.... Secularism evidently cannot stimulate creativity as profoundly as religion does -- whether in the artist's soaring affirmation or angry resistance.
Paglia discusses Europe--a thoroughly secularized society. About the only thing she sees Europeans passionate about is soccer. Their art stinks, there is no moral authority in their actions. An emphasis on the environment or an open approach to sexuality only underscore the spiritual wasteland that it has become. Paglia calls it "a museum" where people from around the world can go to witness the grandeur of a society that once revered God and honored its kings.

What a fascinating thought. I don't think Paglia has been reborn as a Christian, nor do I expect her to become evangelical overnight. But here you have a confirmed atheist basically saying: "I don't believe in God, but I sure do want to live in a society where enough people believe in him to embrace life, to seek to create great works of art, who embrace the mystery of God through science and exploration.

08 December 2007

Advent Music

Every year I try to buy one new Christmas album. It's fun to get a fresh take on the familiar Christmas songs. Last year I bought an album Christmas songs featuring obscure medieval instruments--"A Christmas Collection, featuring The Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic and Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments" by Gregg Miner.

Far and away, though, my favorite Christmas album is Andrew Peterson's "Behold the Lamb of God" (you can either stream it on your computer or just take my word and buy it for yourself). It is comprehensive, weaving the prophecies of the Old Testament into the joyful story of the Advent Season.

He now has a number of videos of his yearly concerts online. I'll post "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" below. For those of you who can't make it to Nashville this time of year, this is a chance to hear that Nashville Sound on an ancient Christmas Classic.

Baker Jo

For Thanksgiving Jonah baked a pumpkin pie in his pre-kindergarten class. They set him up with a baking hat and an apron. He was so proud.

My dad snapped this photo of Jonah and Owen in his piano studio at the school later that day. The pie (which tasted great, I can assure you) is covered by aluminum foil.

I just love the photo because it shoes two silly boys--my two silly boys. They really have a close brotherly bond, don't they?

Advent Reading

This morning for devotions I was reading out of The Message Bible paraphrase. Mary's visit with Elizabeth was vividly brought to life. I wanted to share verses 42b to 45 with you:
"Why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!"
I just loved the line that the fetal John "skipped like a lamb" at the approach of Mary and the new-formed Jesus. It's a great foreshadowing of John's reaction when Jesus comes to be baptized.

This idea of sensing the incarnate God and 'skipping like a lamb' before him is echoed by St. Augustine, who wrote in The Confessions,
"...It is my belief in you that calls out to you--the faith that is your gift to me, which you breathed into me by the humanity your Son assumed, taking up his mission of proclaiming you."
It is also a reminder of the excitement of the Advent season, the enthusiasm with which we should welcome the Christ child into our lives this season. This time of year is a time to recapture the joy of Christ coming into my life--not only to celebrate Christ's birth but to be born again myself.

And those last lines: "blessed woman, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!" That's the key to gaining this new birth--to receiving this Christmas gift that the Christian calendar provides for us year in and year out.

02 December 2007

ROTF LOL

This comes courtesy of my very pregnant friend, Amanda's Shilling in the Serpentine.

I'm not a big fan of mimes or of elaborately rendered sign-language songs at church, but comic Johan Lippowicz just cracks me up every time I watch his "duet" with Natalie Imbruglia on her one-hit-wonder, "Torn." His facial expressions are hilarious, as are his motions (the one for 'man' gets me every time).



Don't worry, I have some awesome Christmas videos to send along, but I'll wait a little longer.

I hope you're all enjoying your first week of Advent!

01 December 2007

Oh By the Way: The Gospel of Judas

Do you remember last Easter? The popular "discovery" about the Christian faith at the time was the newly discovered Gospel of Judas, featured in a National Geographic television special and numerous magazine articles.

At least I think it was last April. I get the whole Gospel of Judas hulabaloo mixed up with the "just discovered tomb of Jesus, James and Mary Magdalene" melee and all the new discoveries that tend to make the covers of TIME magazine and the schedules of Discovery Channel during Christianity's most precious holidays, Christmas and Easter.

The New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece today by Rice University's April D. Deconick which provides a vital 'second opinion' to the claims of Judas promoters.

After examining the evidence herself (which was a difficult task, considering that NGC slapped nondisclosure requirements on the scholars it quoted in the show, and it refused to share life-sized facsimiles of the documents to non-contracted Bible scholars.

Anyway, these are some of the mistakes Deconick finds in the NGC translation:
  • NGC had implied that the Judas of the 3rd-centruy Gnostic gospel that bore his name was a hero. In fact this character is a demon.
  • NGC had claimed that the documents called Judas a 'spirit.' In fact, the documents use the word daimon for Judas (which we translate as 'demon;' the Greek word usually for 'spirit' is pneuma.
  • I know as a teacher of German that pronouns are hard to translate, but the key NGC claims had related Judas to a "holy generation," of which he was a part because he had a predestined role to lead Jesus to his own, messianic destiny. But the NGC had claimed that Judas was set apart for this generation, when the accepted translation shows that the demonic Judas was separated from it.
  • NGC has already, since the airing of the documentary, admitted that the gospel in no way associated Judas with a holy generation; but the only explanation Deconick can find for such a mistranslation is that "the [NGC] scholars altered the Coptic original."
So will we see a TIME magazine cover this Christmas (or next Easter) that will admit all the chicanery that masquerades as New Testament scholarship these days? In recent years we have unearthed the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospel of Thomas, the hypothetical "Q" Gospel, and many other works of more-questionable origin. These have led us no closer to the real Christ than we could find in the Gospels; no closer to the true, orthodox Christian church than the writings of its founders, Paul and James.

For all the archaeology and pseudo-science that goes into a study of Christianity, we still have no better sources for the life of Jesus than the Gospels. These sources received plenty of vetting and scrutiny by scholars in the 200-odd years prior to the establishment of the Christian canon. If you want to learn about Jesus, turn off Discovery or National Geographic, and get into the Bible.

29 November 2007

New Book: Passion and Principal

I just finished one of the most fascinating books I've read on the topic of American history: Sally Denton's, Passion and Principal, a biography of THE American power couple in the mid-19th Century: John C. and Jessie Fremont.

I was so inspired, I published a review on Amazon.com, which I will include below. Let me just say that I found a kindred spirit in Fremont: a man probably too adventurous for his own good--and one far too ahead of the curve to succeed as a military man or a politician. Perhaps it's a sign of my age that I find myself spending more time sympathizing with the flaws of the individuals I read about than I spend aspiring to copy their greater attributes.

Does anyone else find themselves reading biographies in this way?

Like Fremont, I also married a powerful woman, albeit one who lived in a culture that was more accepting of brilliance in women. Jessie Fremont excelled as a writer and political strategist long before such occupations were appropriate for her sex.

Anyway, here's the review:

His career wedged between two American titans, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, John C. Fremont leaps into the his rightful place in history through this remarkable book.

Fremont's idealism both helped an haunted his career. He was the first American to systematically map the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin, and he played a remarkable role in the Bear Flag Revolt and the conquest of California. But the "Pathfinder" often found himself too far in front of his contemporaries: his failure to adapt to the changing military change of command led to court martial within a year of his California exploits; his adamant opposition to slavery cost him first his senate seat and later his position as commander of the Union's Western forces in the Civil War (he issued the first Emancipation Proclamation in the state of Missouri in 1861, and Lincoln punished him harshly for this); finally, he invested the huge fortune he had made in the California gold fields in transcontinental railroads, only to fail at every turn and die in poverty.

No better example of both Fremont's strengths and flaws can be found than the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado: a rugged mountain chain he tried twice to traverse, ending in failure each time, the first time in the service of the U.S. Army and the second time in an attempt to survey a pass for the railroads through the mountains.

This is the first biography I have read of Fremont, and I felt that Denton's tone was sometimes overly sympathetic. She seemed to play down obvious indications of both Fremonts' extra-marital affairs and the personality tics that prevented Fremont from succeeding as a politician (despite runs for the presidency both in 1856 and 1864).

All in all, though, Denton does a wonderful job of bringing this power couple to life. From beginning to end, I was fascinated by these two individuals and their contributions during a critical part of American history.

21 November 2007

Star Wars

"Dad, what's the name of the the pit that took 1,000 years to eat Boba Fett?"

"Dad, when did Luke find out that Leia was his sister?"

These questions and more have been echoing around my house as Owen develops a true love of Star Wars.

It's funny. I was Owen's age when Star Wars burst onto the scene in the late 1970s. It captured my imagination at the time: a universe far, far away with X-wing fighters, The Force, and Darth Vader, the most terrifying character I had seen in the movies.

Star Wars was the first movie I ever saw in the theater. I begged my mom to take me, almost from day one, but Adventists at the time frowned on visiting movie theaters. During it's second run in the Spring of 1978, she finally consented and took me, along with my best friend, Eric, to the theater in downtown Athens, Ohio. Afterward we went to Dairy Queen, and I had a Peanut Buster Parfait--it's amazing the things you remember thirty years later.

Owen took an indirect route to Star Wars obsession. He is currently fixated on Legos. At his birthday, recently, he received four or five different boxes of Legos. One Lego series is based on Star Wars. More importantly, they have a series of video games called "Lego Star Wars."

Owen is working his way through the movies. It's confusing now, because of course George Lucas released a three-part prequel to Star Wars between 1997 and 2004. Owen says that he likes Episode 1, but by that he means The Phantom Menace, not Episode 4, which was the original Star Wars. He likes to refer to the three movies of my childhood as "the original trilogy."

It is fun, though, seeing the movies through his eyes once again. Star Wars is for kids: the Jedi knights and droids and spaceships are tailor-made for a seven-year-old's imagination. As I grew older, I began to focus on the soap opera quality of the storyline. Watching the movie with Owen again, I realize, "there are worlds out there...all we must do is imagine them; there are monsters and heroes and robots and spaceships...all we must do is create them--and play, most of all."

Giving Thanks to God

I'll try to get caught up on my blogging this holiday weekend. Things have been tres busy here, and I need to recover!

If you're looking for something to be thankful for, look up. God has been great to my family this year. I'll enclose this new song from my favorite praise artist, David Crowder: "You Make Everything Glorious." Enjoy.

03 November 2007

Heart Warranty

I'm the chairman of the men's group at my church. We call ourselves the Men of Bethpage, a.k.a. "the MoB."

One of the cool things that I get to do as men's group leader is ask people to have the devotional at our monthly meetings. I always make it a point to pray before I seek, and God has led me to some inspiring people. Today I had asked Mike J., the harmonicist for our church band and a man who has come back from valve-replacement surgery, which he had back in June.

"I've been praying for a new heart every week for years," I said. "Now Mike is going to tell us what it's like."

Mike S. piped up from the audience. He's an engineer, so he's all about the technology. "That's a refurb' you've got there," he said. "A refurbished heart." He paused to arrange the punchline: "Did you get a warranty with that?"

Mike J. didn't miss a beat as he walked up and took his place at the podium. He looked back and winked at Mike S. "A lifetime warranty," he said.

28 October 2007

"When You Mix Religion and Politics..."

Fascinating story in the New York Times's Week in Review this weekend on the demise on the evangelical love affair with the Republican Party.

'The Evangelical Crackup" focuses on Wichita, Kansas, and the changing of the guard in the religious establishment there. Many of the ministers who led Kansas' backward political battles (closing a local abortion clinic and leading a statewide campaign against gay marriage) have either retired or been sacked by their congregations.

Those taking their place are younger, more moderate pastors who preach a holistic Christianity that focuses more on good deeds toward one's community and environment than on bad ideas. Consider this quote from Todd Walker, 42, who pastors the 7,000 member Westlink Christian Church:
“I don’t believe the problem of abortion will be solved by overturning Roe v. Wade. It won’t. To me, it is a Gospel issue.”
Walker's predecessor, Gene Carlson, who was a leader in the Rightist anti-abortion protests of the 80s and 90s, summed it up best, I thought: "When you mix religion and politics, all you get is politics."

I especially loved one nugget that David D. Kirkpatrick found. Considering how Wichita was ruled by right-wing Christian ministers for over a decade, the leader of the recent anti-lottery campaign turned out to be none other than the liberal minister of the First United Methodist Church! Well, the shoe is on the other foot, then, isn't it?

Clearly the blame for the popping of the Fundamentalist Bubble is the quasi-Fundamentalist Empty Suit elected to the White House in 2000 and 2004. Despite years of pandering, Bush's approval rating among evangelicals has fallen to 45% from 90% at the time of the 2004 election. (For the rest of the country, his approval rating is half of that.)

Questions remain, though. Will this affect the 2008 election with more-moderate evangelicals turning to Democrats? Is this "crack-up" due to the true demise of an unwieldy religio-political alliance or to the disheartening lack of quality among Republican candidates?

I remember one thing the late Molly Ivins said at a lecture I attended: "I've learned to never bet on politics." Of course after she said this, she went on to tell how unlikely it was that her close friend and Texas Governor would ever lose an election to a slavering incompetent like George W. Bush!

26 October 2007

Thoughts on James

A few months ago I blogged about the trouble I was having with a belief in Satan. (Who speaks Latin here? Would that be an adiablist?)

I found some backing for this view as I was reading the Book of James. This is James 1.13-15:
Don't let anyone under pressure to give in to evil say, "God is trying to trip me up." God is impervious to evil, and puts evil in no one's way. The temptation to give in to evil comes from us and only us. We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust. Lust gets pregnant and has a baby: sin! Sin grows up to adulthood and becomes a real killer. (The Message translation)
As I said in my earlier post, I consider myself to be the root of evil in my life. I have a natural bent toward a number of sins. When I am tempted to lust or tell a lie, that comes from inside me, not from Satan. When I take Jesus' body and blood at Communion, I pray that He will conquer the sin inside me--not the Satan somewhere, wherever he is.

Yes, James is writing to those who claim "God made me do it" instead of The Devil--perhaps a nascent group of predestinites/Calvinists. But I think the logic holds up.

19 October 2007

Check out my school web site

I've been taking a learn-as-you-go course on Dreamweaver (a web design software). I'm lucky to have a number of web sites to try the stuff out on. My favorite is my teaching web site.

I'm really proud of this thing. If you cruise on over, you'll see movie-style banners on the home page and the English 1 Honors page. On the German I page, you'll see links to photos of our recent history project: "Crusading mit Barbarossa."

I worked especially hard this week on a 'paperless' research project for my English 1 Honors class. Students had to research social classes in the 19th century. I set up an HTML form for them to enter their answers. Then I installed a 'SEND' button. When they were done with the research, they clicked the button, and their research was immediately sent to my Inbox.

Now that's cool! Hopefully those of you who knew my teaching abilities way back in the 20th Century, will be impressed by the modern changes.

12 October 2007

I'd Like to Thank the Nobel Committee

Since I won't ever get a Nobel Prize (unless they start a category called "Teaching Homer to High Schoolers"), I have to focus my excitement to the prize awarded today to a fellow Tennessean I have long admired: Al Gore.

Therefore, I would like to thank the Nobel Committee for choosing an American. For good and for evil, my country is a leading force in the world today, and I am grateful when Americans can be recognized for the good generated on behalf of other around the world. Gore joins political leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jimmy Carter, along with cabinet members like Cordell Hull and George C. Marshall as recipients of this most esteemed of awards.

It is also as a Tennessean that I thank the committee. Gore is the 2nd Tennessean to win this prize--considering that my state is not among the most populated, I think that's pretty good. Cordell Hull, who made his home in Clay County, not 40 miles away from Gore's home in Carthage, won the Peace Prize in 1945 for his efforts in the founding of the United Nations.

Despite the common sense and clear science behind Gore's campaign to educate the world about mankind's impact climate change, he has certainly overcome great obstacles to do so. His own country has been misled into an abyss where contempt for fact and analysis is considered a political advantage. While no scientific studies have contradicted Gore's claims, he has weathered (pardon the pun) a string of personal attacks and hyperbole, designed to divert his American audience from his central message.

Frankly, if it had been easy, I guess he wouldn't have won the Nobel Prize. So maybe that's a good thing after all.

30 September 2007

A Worship Tip

One of the priorities a Christian faces is how to make worship more meaningful. I wanted to pass along one that is meaningful to me.

I've been singing hymns and praise songs for so long, I don't think there are many that I don't know by heart. I've started singing everything by memory. It's better that way, and it seems like more of an expression of worship than if I'm reading off a screen or from a hymnbook.

(My church has a modern early service and a traditional second service. On days when I sing with the choir, I go to both services, so I get to sing both praise songs and hymns.)

As I sing the songs, I often find myself looking down, rather than up at the screen where the words are. I find that when I'm looking down and to the left--in the lower left quadrant of my vision, the words mean so much more to me. I feel much more worshipful.

Is there anything to this? I've read in the past that you can often figure out what someone is thinking by the direction their eyes look when they look away from you. I'm not sure if I've ever found a connection between worship and where one looks with their eyes.

22 September 2007

Living Biblically for a Year

I have long enjoyed A.J. Jacobs work in Esquire magazine, as well as his book, The Know It All, about the year he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

His latest book is called The Year of Living Biblically. Here's the plot: Jacobs spent one year following every single rule found in the Bible. He consulted with a Hasidic Jew, an Amish, and a Jehovah's Witness to make sure that he had all his bases covered.

How did it go? Jacobs grew out his beard (see picture right). He cut out the cursing and the coveting. He built a hut in the middle of his New York apartment and tried to wear white, as recommended in Ecclesiastes. He celebrated the Sabbath. And when he met a man who admitted that he had committed adultery, Jacobs politely asked to stone him.

I'll look forward to reading the book, although I'll probably wait to borrow it from my local library. When asked by MSNBC if the book changed him, Jacobs admitted that he changed from "an agnostic to a reverent agnostic."

Having grown up in Seventh-day Adventist communities, I know my fair share about living biblically: what food to eat, what I can (and can not) do on the Sabbath, what not to wear, etc. It's easy for me to eat & dress like a fundamentalist, but like St. Paul, I felt that "living biblically" was an imperfect route to the Father; furthermore, when I 'lived biblically' it empowered people around me to criticize my actions and motivations. Now that I live for Christ, I don't have to put up with that stuff anymore.

Jacobs, however, felt empowered by the experience:
The experience changed me in big ways and small ways. There’s a lot about gratefulness in the Bible, and I would say I’m more thankful. I focus on the hundred little things that go right in a day, instead of the three or four things that go wrong. And I love the Sabbath. There’s something I really like about a forced day of rest.... One thing I learned is that the outside affects the inside, your behavior shapes your thoughts. I also really liked what one of my spiritual advisers said, which was that you can view life as a series of rights and entitlements, or a series of responsibilities. I like seeing my life as a series of responsibilities. It’s sort of, "Ask not what God can do for you, ask what you can do for God."
The book comes out next week. Jacobs also has a feature story in the latest issue of Esquire about his one-year efforts.

15 September 2007

A Collision Billions of Years in the Making

I found the following items in this week's TIME magazine:

New Look at Dinosaurs' Demise

A recent study pinpointed the interstellar collision that eventually led to the dinosaurs' extinction. The event was so deep in space that the meteorite it created didn't slam into Earth and kill off the dinosaurs until nearly 100 million years later. While the findings, if true, would "link the biological history of the earth to events far from earth," according to William Bottke, who led the study, they would also alter what we know about the history of dinosaurs:

(The pictures at right are of the Yucatan Peninsula, site of the Chicxulub meteorite site. In the top picture, a faint green line shows the extremity of the huge crater. The bottom picture has a white dot, which identifies the impact point.)

This brief was hard for me to really "get." My mind simply cannot conceive of the idea of one million years. I've tried. I couldn't. I guess my mind is just too small.

The article is based on science, however, so I try to understand. The timeline looks like this: 250 million years ago, dinosaurs become the dominant land animals.

Ninety million years later, on the other side of the Universe, two asteroids, one 106 miles in diameter, the other 37 miles, slam into each other and explode, creating a field of interstellar meteorites, The Baptistinas.

One of these meteorites, a six-mile behemoth, travels for 95 million years through desolate space. At the appointed time--the time mathematically destined since the collision that created it--it slams into earth, just off the shore of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Clouds of dust arise and blot out the sun for months, years. The dinosaurs go extinct.

Now, I said before that I can't comprehend one million years in time, much less the distances of time and space, the mathematical precision, and the tens of millions of years between explosion and impact that this study explains. Anything that vast, I tend to ascribe to the Mind of God.

I mean, think about it. According to this scenario, life on earth developed, existed, thrived under a death sentences. Tens of millions of years earlier, an explosion far across the universe doomed life on this planet. My bounded imagination cannot explain this without God.

But what would an event like this tell one about God? Here's what I think:

I think these adjectives need to be forever banned from discussions of God: impetuous, arbitrary, and capricious.

In fact, His will is so vast as to understand causes and effects when they are separated by the tens of millions of years, miles, units of energy, etc. Mankind cannot understand this, and we deceive ourselves if we claim to do so. When God creates, He does so in a way that is timeless and mind-blowing. When God destroys, that too is an event set in motion eons and light-years away from those ultimately affected.

With a God who spans tens of millions of ages, then, 'what is Man that [God] is mindful of him?' (Psalm 8). We are probably a lot smaller than we think! We are too willing to exalt ourselves, considering the actions that God set in motion before our lives that may or may not come to fruition during our days on earth.

I'm reminded of this exchange, found in the book of Job (40.2-4):
The Lord said to Job, "Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!"

Then Job answered the Lord: "I am unworthy--how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth."
My mind is still trying to take it all in. Maybe your minds can help me with this.

11 September 2007

Speaking for the Dead

Her name is La Doncella. She has been asleep for over 500 years. Look at her. See the way her legs are crossed, her arms are wrapped around her tummy to ward off the cold. She looks as if she could awaken at any time, but she won't.

La Doncella was 15 when she went to sleep in a cave high in the Andes Mountains, along with a boy, 7, and a little girl, 6. They were willing, human sacrifices.

The best we can tell, the Incas needed guardians for their villages. Children, often the children of nobility, made great candidates. They were innocent, pure, almost godlike. They would be buried alive on a 22,000-foot peak overlooking the city of Salta, Argentina. They would join their ancestors, and their spirits would watch over their surviving kin.

The children were well dressed. They carried with them many artifacts to take into the afterlife. Their mummified remains show no signs of struggle. They squatted as the cave was sealed up, wrapped their cloaks tightly around themselves, and closed their eyes, never to awaken again.

What fascinates me about La Doncella and her tiny friends isn't the perfection with which they have been preserved at 22,000 feet: it's the unseen part of her--the spirit that allowed her to willingly offer up her life to be a guardian of her people, the spirit that cannot be found among the artifacts of her burial.

I know a little about the spirits and personalities of 15-year-old girls, and I wish that hers could be coupled once again with her body--to wake up, and see the world through Incan eyes. In some ways I hope her spirit can't see her remains, moved to a museum in Salta, and kept at 0 degrees Fahrenheit in a glass cylinder. From what I know, I doubt she would care anyway.

Our spirit is the only part of us that is eternal: it was created in the Mind of God before we were formed in our mothers' wombs. It is the only thing that will remain after our remains have rotted away--unless we can arrange ourselves a burial on one of those Andean peaks!

08 September 2007

Of Daddies and Daughters

You're never too old to learn, never too old to realize how the world really works. I've spent the summer having a lesson seared into my mind--one which contradicts one of the greatest goals of my life:

The ideal that my daughter would grow to cherish me.

It was much harder for me to write the sentence above than it could have been surprising for you (especially if you're a father) to read it. I've found it to be one of the coldest and hardest facts of life to come to terms with, yet I ask you...

Can you think of a grown daughter who actually cherishes her father?

I think it's a myth--one that I fell for hard the minute Ellie was born on a bright Arizona day in May of 1997. We have all these niceties in our culture--the expression, "Daddy's girl," is a prime example--that deceive fathers like me into believing a Lie.

When Ellie was nursing, I spent every night reading The Odyssey to her and Jenny. We took her everywhere--to Grand Canyon, Calfornia, Vienna, Budapest, and Albania--and both Jenny and I dreamed of raising a girl who would share our adventurous view of the world.

When Ellie was three, I read a series of books about world history to her. She showed a wonderful aptitude for history--any story, for that matter. "Daddy, tell me a story!" was her favorite expression, and I grew as a storyteller and a writer--my first manuscript, still unpublished, sadly, is a book-length version of one of her most favorite stories from that time: Nitokris's Sandal.

We returned from Albania when Ellie was two, and for the next four years of her life, I stayed home with her for all but one of them--a year I flailed away working for Catholic Charities. I coached her soccer team for four seasons. I went to incredible lengths to be a part of her life and to lead and adore as a father should.

And now it seems that it was really a waste of time. Ellie turned ten last May. Contempt followed soon after. "I don't think you really love me," she wrote me in a note at that time. It was a slap in the face, but I played along, trying to point out some of the things I've done for her, showing affection when I could. But to be honest, it was like telling me, in the middle of an epic road trip, "I don't think you've started the car yet."

Don't get me wrong, in many ways I've seen Ellie grow up this summer. She's taller. She takes a lot more responsibility at home, and her grades have improved. But I've also seen her grow apart. I'm the only person in the family who has a stronger personality than Ellie, which leads to far too many conflicts. She gets her way with just about everyone else.

The more I think of it, though. This is the way with little girls. They grow away from their daddies, pausing only for a brief, nostalgic display on their wedding day, before continuing life without them. I looked at the little girls that had grown up around me: Jenny, my sister, my close friends. I just don't see that any of them really love their fathers in the way that I wish my daughter would love me--the ideal that I mentioned earlier.

I talked with Jenny about this. She talks with her dad once or twice a year. He visited last summer for the first time in four years, and she's fine with that. She blames him for a lot of that--and, I agree that he made some major blunders with both her and her mother. But I asked her if she hadn't already started moving away before that. She figured that she probably had.

That is my major revelation of the week. It isn't a very positive one, but it is an important one, both for me and for Ellie. Since I came to this realization, I have treated Ellie with affection, but I haven't made a big deal about the insulting things she says or does. For example, when she planned a whole summer trip to go to EPCOT Center for just her and Jenny, I said, "Then I'm going to take the boys to Niagara Falls so we can be as far away from you as possible."

The 'Old Daddy' would have said, "Don't you remember all the road trips I've taken you on? Do you remember the places we've talked about visiting together?" The 'New Daddy' just volleyed the insult and went on with life, lower expectations and all.

Because that's the real way it is with daughters, and with daddies, and with life.

03 September 2007

Say Hello to my Blogging Friends

I've added a few new buddies to my blog list over the last few months, and I wanted to introduce them to all of you.

I think all of you know this, but The Sexiest Woman Alive is none other than my own, beautiful Bride, Jenny George. She's trying to use her blog to slow life down and take pictures of the only men in the world she loves more than me: her sons, Owen and Jo-Jo, and her boyfriend, Bart.... Wait a minute, she informs me that there is no Bart in her life. Whew!

Pastor Mike's Thoughts come from On High, even though he's pretty smart in his own right. Mike Potts is a close friend and a theological sojourner--he's helping me with my "working man's MA in Theology" by providing me and Jenny with dozens of books. He was the pastor at Bethpage UMC when Jenny and I first started going there, and while we don't see him on Sundays anymore, we still keep in touch.

My newest blog buddy is also one of my oldest friends. Gavin knew Jenny and me at Newbold (I know of one banquet at which Jenny was his date). He spoke at our wedding, and he has been our close friend for over 15 years. He is currently youth director of the Icelandic Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. His blog, "Reflecting Jesus," demonstrates the deep spirituality I've come to respect him for.

Finally, Andreas Dittes is a long-lost relative of mine who lives in Karlsruhe, Germany. He is a technology nut, and most of his posts are about new software and hardware he's picked up. He is trying to build an online database of our far-flung Dittes family, and I'm trying to help him track down the "prodigal" American branches that emigrated away from our cozy Heimestadt of Diedelsheim-Bretten, Germany, between 1850 and 1905. There are many Ditteses still living near Karlsruhe, although Portland, Tennessee, may not be too far behind! (You need to be able to read German to really understand Andreas's blog.)

30 August 2007

Book Review: Angels & Demons

About a year ago, my mom gave me a book on CD: Dan Brown's Angels & Demons. Because my drive to work is so short, I failed to begin listening until the long drive back from Norman's wedding. It was a long drive--from 4 p.m. to 11:30--just long enough to get me completely hooked.

Like the rest of humanity, I read The Da Vinci Code, finding it a first-class thriller. I held back from A&D primarily because I'm not a big reader of thrillers. I can probably count on one hand the number of thrillers I've read in my life--my all-time favorite being Ken Follet's Die Nadel.

To be honest, I enjoyed A&D a little more than DVC. Yes, it has religion at its core: a plot by the secret group, The Illuminati, to destroy the Vatican with a superweapon. It isn't as enthusiastically heterodoxical as DVC, however. I felt Brown did a pretty good job of balancing believers with skeptics--even as he was killing off a pope, four cardinals and bringing St. Peter's Cathedral to the edge of destruction.

What I loved about the book was the tour of Rome he provides the reader. The art of Bernini, the Piazza Nuovono, the Pantheon, and the Sistine Chapel provide settings in the book. I thought the clues that Robert Langon (also the hero of DVC) had to decipher were a little more clever than those he solved in DVC as he raced from Paris to London to Scotland. The love story--this time involving a beautiful Italian nuclear physicist--is better told than the awkward relationship with Sophie in DVC.

Best of all, though, has to be Brown's pacing. Just when I was about to get to a key point, the reader would break and then say, "Chapter 34." One of the problems with listening to thrillers on tape instead of reading them is that you can't scan ahead. You have to wait!!!

All told, I give the book four of five stars. If you're interested in listening. I have the CDs here!

19 August 2007

Of Ghosts and Grandfathers

Taylor and Brandon are my neighbors, ages 10 and 11. They spent most of the past summer here at my house, playing with Owen and Jonah, and doing the kinds of 'boy things' (good and bad) that make summers memorable.

Yesterday they helped us to celebrate Jonah's 4th birthday. Jo-Jo had gotten lots of cool birthday presents, and they lost track of time. By the time they were ready to go home, it was dark outside.

"Can you walk us back home or drive your car?" Taylor asked. I tried to ignore him. They live two doors down from me, and while you have to go a ways in the dark, it isn't that far--or that spooky.

"Just follow the driveway," I said. "You'll go straight there."

They disappeared for a moment. Then they returned, asking with more urgency, "Can you walk us home?"

Just then Tascha pulled into the driveway, delivering her niece, Tristan, for a sleepover Ellie was having. Brandon was on a bike. "Just follow the car up the driveway. Once you hit the street, you're almost home."

A few minutes later, they were back. Taylor was gasping for breath. He was scared to death. "We lost the car," he huffed. "We need you to take us home."

I finally gave in. God gave me a mission this summer--a mission for the kids in my own neighborhood. I have been challenged daily of the sheer inconvenience of caring for kids who aren't mine, picking up after them, and overlooking silly little things. I walked out the door and headed up the driveway.

As a Dittes, I am programmed to do one specific thing every time I go out my front door at night: I look up at the stars. My grandpa used to do this when it was his house. He would walk us out as we left, and he would look up and point out a constellation. I find that it is a reflex now: go out, look up; walk down the sidewalk, look up. I don't think there has been a single time in 36 years of walking out that door that I haven't looked up!

As we walked down the driveway, I told them about Grandpa. "I love to walk out here in the dark," I said as we walked up the hill. "My Grandpa used to walk out here with me and tell me stories about the stars."

"Can I tell you why I'm scared?" Taylor asked.

"Sure."

One night both Brandon and Taylor had been awakened by their grandfather. He had shaken them in their beds, trying to get their attention. When they told their mother about the incident the next morning, she reminded them that he had been dead for almost three months.

They had seen a ghost--they insisted on this fact. Both had been awakened that night at the same time. They said their mother had consulted a fortune-teller who had told them not to worry: the ghost had been looking for mother, not them. (I don't think it had worked. They were still worried, obviously.)

I dropped them off at home. They thanked me several times.

But as I walked home through the gloomy pines on my way back home, I couldn't stop thinking about ghosts. It was quiet. The white gravel glowed in the starlight.

I thought about how much I missed Grandpa--how nice it would be to see him again and share one more walk under the stars. For a moment, I let myself wish that I might see his ghost--but I couldn't figure out if he would look like the robust doctor of my childhood or the hobbling old man of the years before he died last March 13.

There are a number of reasons why I don't believe in ghosts--and that imagination thing has to be one of them.

As I passed through the tall pines, gliding across the glowing gravel drive, I looked up at the stars. I remember how Grandpa would recite the number of light years for each of them. "The light you're seeing was created 30,000 years ago," he would say. "It is just reaching us tonight. That star could go out, and we wouldn't know it for another 30,000 years."

Grandpa's ghost is gone. Every physical and substantial part of him is buried, awaiting resurrection.

His spirit lives on, however, just like the light of the stars. It will burn--in me, my children, and my grandchildren--for many years more before anyone will be able to notice that it had burnt out long ago.

16 August 2007

Dangerous Toys

We were watching the Nightly News the other night and learned about the Mattel/China toy recall.

Checking on Mattel's web site, it turned out we had one of the dangerous toys: a lead-paint-spattered "Sarge" character toy from Jo-Jo's favorite movie, Cars.

I logged on and entered some information. They have sent me a mailing label to print out and sent with the package. They will also send me a $7 gift certificate.

The scary thing is that Jo-Jo's birthday is this Saturday (the 18th). I had already bought him three more Cars toys and a race track (all made in China, of course). Who knows if those toys are the next ones to be recalled (there have been three recalls of Chinese-made toys in the last two months)?

I honestly try to look at labels when I buy toys. It's to the point now, where it's almost impossible to find things NOT manufactured in China. What's a dad to do?

14 August 2007

Cousins in Chicago

Owen, Jonah and I have one thing in common: we love our cousins.

My cousin Norman's wedding (see below) was an opportunity for me to get back together with family, including my cousin, Donnie. When Owen & Jonah heard that my sister would be there with her kids, they signed up immediately. Ellie & Jenny stayed home.

I left early Saturday morning (5:15) and drove straight to Chicago. I desperately wanted to show the boys the Field Museum and take in the natural history and dinosaur exhibits there. The trip took us a total of seven hours, giving us 2 1/2 hours to explore. It was so much fun: we viewed artifacts of Ancient Egypt, all the stuffed and posed animals (including passenger pigeons, which I had never seen before). The museum staff practically had to drag us away from there.

The highlight came that night when we saw my nephews, Jacob and Joshie. Jo-Jo and Joshie's birthdays are just a few weeks away, so we had a birthday party with lots of gifts. The boys swam in the hotel pool and later played in our hotel room until midnight. It was a party!!

We stayed in South Bend, Indiana. The next day we drove up to Berrien Springs, Michigan, to see my cousin Norman get married. We got back home near midnight Sunday--the night before the first day of school! (Yes, it may have seemed foolish, but there are three men in my family who think it was worthwhile, just for the chance to hang out with cousins that we love!)

Of course, I was very happy to see my own cousin, Donnie. He lives just three hours away, but we only get to see each other every other year or so, so it's always good to see him. I'll include a picture of him and my sister as well.

Honoring an Awesome Cousin--an Awesome Man/Husband

It's been way too long since I've posted on this blog. I hope I still have readers. I'm back from my cousin Norman McNulty's wedding at Andrews University in Michigan. I need to post at least one picture of the handsome groom, and his lovely bride, Joelle.

Norman is six years younger than me (I was thirteen years ahead of him in the marriage department). He's the first of my cousins that I can honestly remember growing up from cradle onward.

Norman & I bonded when he was in kindergarten and elementary school. My cousins and I loved sports, and Norman and I were always on the same team, whether it be football, baseball (in Grandma's garden), or basketball. I, the oldest, and Norman, the youngest of the first four boys, played against Donnie and Stephen.

It would take a book to relate all the Norman Stories of those years. He didn't act like the littlest. He was hyper-competitive. He cared more about winning than the rest of us, and he ended up hitting his first home run over Grandma's ivy-covered wall at the age of six. Like me, he loved Pete Rose--although he later abandoned the Reds for the Chicago Cubs. This, I believe, was the beginning of Norman's long fall from grace--into a top academy and college student, a passionate and well-spoken Christian leader, and, sadly, an MD. (He is currently in residency for neurology.)

Norm, if you'd stayed a Reds fan, you could have been somebody!

Last weekend, Norman married the love of his life, the former Joelle Darmsteegt. What can I say about Joelle? She's beautiful, thoughtful, and she has made my beloved cousin tremendously happy. Other than that.... There is no other than that at this point. I am really happy for them both.

Congratulations, Norman & Joelle!!

27 July 2007

Theological, Triune Elinor

Ellie and Owen went to vacation bible school at the Highland Church this week. (This is the church that thought that the up-tempo VBS music was inappropriate for the Sanctuary, so they have to have it in the school gymnasium, 1/4-mile away.)

Anyway, they learned this beautiful, beautiful song based on the Hebrew shalma (Deuteronomy 6:4):
"Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One."
As Ellie was singing it one night, I pointed out, "Now that is a really Jewish idea. Christians believe in the Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Ghost who act as one. Jews and Muslims like to claim that Christians worship three gods. We don't read that text in the same way Jews do."

Ellie thought about that for a minute. Then she started singing: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Three."

26 July 2007

New Web Site for Jenny's Clinic

The summer is almost over, and I'm trying to wrap up my many goals for the summer.

My sixth draft of my Egypt novel is in the books. It is now entitled Nile Borne: a Girl, a Sandal, and the Prince of Egypt. I've sent out five queries to agents already--and, I'm happy to say, I received my first "No thanks" this morning. Glad I got that out of the way.

I also set up a web site for Jenny's clinic. The address is HopeFamilyHealth.org, and you are welcome to check it out. I particularly recommend the picture on the "Meet Our Staff" page, because it has a beautiful woman in it.

21 July 2007

More Evil...Personified

I had some excellent responses to my last blog. I was going to follow up in the comments, but I think it merits a new blog. If you haven't read the earlier post, be sure to go there first.

I'm not going to try to ignore sections of the Bible. I'm growing as a Believer, and this blog was more of a reflection of my personal growth and understanding of temptation.

For example, when I read the story of Jesus in the desert, I'm drawn by the nature of the temptations, rather than the case for or against the Tempter. Here's a dynamic man with tremendous potential for good (and evil--let's face it), being tempted to satiate his appetite, his need for celebrity/notoriety, or outright power.

Now I'm not going to point at the Bible and say, "The temptations were real, but there wasn't actually a being who said that to Him." But I am tempted by those same things--and I haven't had Lucifer present them to me.

For example, I have seen a powerful extra-biblical rendering of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane in which the Devil appeared to Christ. His final temptation was to simply offer him a way out of the garden, away from the soldiers. I found this rendering compelling, because it gave me a new sense of just how difficult this was (and I later wrote a manuscript that incorporated the arguments of Job into the context of Gethsemane because of this very, extra-biblical scene).

Was Jesus tempted in this way that night? Almost certainly. Was it delivered by an otherworldly being or through the more conventional avenue of thought or appetite? Does the answer really matter?

I'll close with three points:
  • I believe that Goodness became incarnate, lived on this earth, resisted temptation, sacrificed itself for my sins, and then was resurrected to show me the goal of a grace-filled life. Is it possible to believe in Goodness incarnate without also believing in Evil incarnate? In other words, does a believer have to believe in Satan in order to be saved?
  • An analogy to the Lucifer problem would be the Hitler problem. Adolf Hitler lived and died long before I existed. Even though he died, people are still fighting against him today. We're always warned that 'he's coming back if we aren't careful,' and 'weak' leaders are compared to Neville Chamberlain. At best, this means that the spirit of intolerance that he embodied still exists, and we must resist it (I can accept this). At worst, he is a label that people can conveniently use. For example, Americans were told that by fighting Saddam Hussein, we were preventing another Hitler. Neo-cons refer to their enemies as "Islamo-fascists," promising more war, more bloodshed, more torture, more oppression, all in the name of Adolf Hitler.
  • At a church that I attended until a year and a half ago, the consequences of a string of terrible decisions by the church leaders were described from the pulpit as "Satan attacking the church." By association, then, members who didn't agree with the leaders were tools of Satan. By association, then, leaders weren't responsible for bad decisions, but Satan was. This was abuse, taking Lucifer's name in vain, and it may be the root of the reason for my antipathy to the existence of Satan.

18 July 2007

Do I Believe in Satan?

I was listening to Andy Gullahorn, one of my favorite prog-Christian-folk singers the other day, and this lyric came on:
If I were the devil, I wouldn't wear red
I wouldn't breath fire cause it might give me away.
I started thinking about the Devil, and I was surprised by what came to mind.

I realized that I don't believe in Satan, and I don't think I have for some time. Is this wrong? Do you have to believe in the Devil to get into heaven--or hell?

Let me explain.

A few years ago I read a book review about the History of Satan. It talked about how different cultures had tried to personify Evil, and it mentioned that Satan hadn't even been introduced into the Bible until people like the Second Isaiah came back from exile in Persia. The more I thought about it, the more I figured the Embodiment of Evil must be some kind of a cop-out--you know, an intellectually lazy way to identify evil and run with it.

As I was listening to the song, I thought about the whole "war in heaven," scenario where Lucifer was cast down, but instead of being killed--"the wages of sin is death"--he was allowed to live indefinitely. Human beings were created, then, to pay the wages of the sins of Lucifer and his angels. And when they messed up, they really got it, even though Adam was a "son of God" and both he and Eve had eaten of the Tree of Life. Jesus, the Son of God, came to save humanity, but will not save Satan, whom he will destroy in the Judgment Day.

Am I missing something here?

This is a story within a story. The story of humanity's creation and redemption happens within the meta-story of Lucifer's Fall and his FALL/destruction. I understand my part--and God's--in the middle layer. Does the meta layer really concern me? I can't imagine any way to actually prove either that this took place or that my understanding of it can in any way affect the very real battle I wage with Evil every day.

At best, it is a simplistic way to explain where evil came from and where it's going to end up. At worst, it is a trick, a diversion to take my focus off the real battle. "Watch out for the guy with the pitchfork. Evil comes from the outside, not from within."

So if there is no Embodiment of Evil, what do I believe in, then? I think I'm more pre-Exile in my approach to Evil. The world is full of false gods and overwhelming temptations. I serve the only God who can deliver me from that. I'm not sure that temptation comes from an outside source as much as it originates within my own corrupt character--my insatiable appetite, how easily I am distracted from pursuing Good. God's Blood and Body within me extinguish this corruption, and bring the evil of my own heart to light. I don't know that they have any affect on Satan.

Does this make sense? This is the first time I've really written about this or expressed these thoughts, although I've had them for quite some time. Some people can grapple with Evil better when it is personified. I don't have a problem with that. I do wish to call evil by its right name. I have seen what it can do, and I look forward to its ultimate destruction.

14 July 2007

The Losingest Team in Professional Sports

This week, the Philadelphia Phillies baseball will become the first professional team in any sport, any country to achieve their 10,000th loss.

How is this possible? Here are some facts:
  • Since their founding as a professional team in 1883, they have experienced fewer than 50 winning seasons (a won-loss record about 50%). Do the math: In 124 years, they have had 75 LOSING seasons.
  • The team won its first World Series Championship in 1980, its 98th season. (By comparison, the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, two dominant teams in the early 1900s have more celebrated streaks. The Red Sox's championship in 2004 came 86 years after their last. The Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908, a 99-year streak.)
  • The Phillies were the last team in baseball to integrate (add black players) in 1957, ten whole years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
  • In 1960, their manager, Eddie Sawyer quit after ONE GAME, saying, "I'm 49, and I want to live to be 50."
  • In 1964, they blew a ten-game lead in the last two weeks of the season, losing the chance to go to the World Series.
  • In 1993, they lost the World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays on one of the most spectacular home runs in history: Joe Carter's 3-run blast in the bottom of the 9th of Game Six.
Of course, this makes it easier for me to stomach the last-place performance of my own Cincinnati Reds this year.

02 July 2007

There is Pain, and then there is PAIN

I am a huge baseball fan (and a pretty good fantasy manager, my team recently reeled off a four-game winning streak).

Nothing could dampen my love for the game. Nothing...except perhaps this.



The hilarious part is the way the umpire comes up behind the player and can't resist checking to make sure his own manhood is still intact!

30 June 2007

Last Video: Summer Snowball Fight

I know what you're probably thinking by now: enough already with the video! You traveled. Great. We want more theological musings!

We left Great Sand Dunes on Tuesday morning. We had just one more day of fun before the gruelling, two-day drive back to Tennessee. We decided to complete our tour of Southern Colorado and headed north to Leadville.

Along the way, we got some great vistas of the Rio Grande Valley, took a tram to the top of the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass, and got to indulge Jonah with the one and only goal he had for this trip from the very moment he spotted the snow-capped Spanish Peaks rising out of the prairie: he wanted a snowball fight, and he wanted to hit me!

Video: Great Sand Dunes

Elevation is a killer. Taos was at 7,000 feet, but I hadn't really noticed any tiredness while I was there. Of course, I didn't really do any demanding physical activity there.

Great Sand Dunes, at 8,100 feet, really took something out of me. Our campsite was about 1/4 mile from the dunes, separated by a broad, shallow, sandy creek that carried snowmelt down from the mountains. The kids played there before we tried to climb the dunes--eventually stopping about 1/3rd of the way up the first, 500-foot dune.

Video: San Luis, Colorado

Julie and her family left early Sunday morning to fly back to their home in Savannah, Georgia. We spent some time in Taos after they left, purchasing some art on Main Street and visiting the Kit Carson Muesum, along with an Internet cafe (we hadn't had cell phone or Internet service at our condo in the mountains--alas).

One thing I discovered on this trip is what a wimpy traveler I am. If I can't get wireless Internet, I get really grumpy.

It is important to Road Trippers like me to stay off the interstates. You don't really get to see the country that way. We stick to the federal highways, and if we're really feeling it, we take state and county roads: the out-of-the-way routes.

Well, we took highway 522 from Taos into Colorado's San Luis Valley en route to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Shortly after we crossed the state line, we spotted an amazing, domed, white-walled building. On our arrival in San Luis, we learned that it was a shrine. The only way to get there was a 30-minute hike that passed statues celebrating the 13 Stations of the Cross. Extraordinary is the best word I can find to describe it.

Here is the video:

25 June 2007

Video: Cumbres & Toltec Railroad


The week ended with a bang on Saturday. We took a day trip on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life--and I know it was incredible for the four boys, ages two through six.

The locomotive was an old-fashioned steam engine that slowly tugged us from our starting point in Chama, New Mexico, up into the mountains across the border in Osier, Colorado. We sat in old-fashioned passenger cars, and then moved around to a dining car and an outdoor viewing car on which we could walk around and look in all directions. We saw snow melting in the woods, mountain waterfalls, high trestles, and even a beaver dam. Simply incredible.

Video: A Walk Along the Stream

I don't have any video of our arrival in Santa Fe! Thursday was eventful. We began at Bent's Old Fort, an old trading post in eastern Colorado, at which Cheyenne Indians, American dragoons (calvary), mountain men, and Santa Fe wagon trains met to do business and socialize.

Then, it was a mad sprint to pick up our loved ones. We rushed to Taos first, crawling up over the Sangre de Christo Mountains in order to pick up Julie's husband, Don. Along the way we spotted bison, pronghorn antelope, and coyotes out on the range. Outside the airport in Taos is a pretty busy prairie dog colony, and that just about filled out our wish list of prairie animals (no one really wanted to see a wolf, mountain lion or rattlesnake).

We then raced down to Santa Fe to meet Jenny, who was waiting on the square. We paused for photos at the marker which identified the end of the trail, but the plaza was full of marijuana smoke and hippies, so we darted into Santa Fe's sidestreets for some great food and fun shopping. The next day, I was tired of shopping, but the others weren't: Julie, Ellie & Jenny went into Taos to hunt for stuff. Don and Jacob went to the airport to fix some things on their plane. I stayed with Owen, Jonah and my nephew and namesake, Jacob Donald, for a hike along the mountain stream that rolled down beside our condo.

This is what it looked like:

Video: Beyond Dodge City

Wednesday was a big day for us. After the morning in Boot Hill (below), we set off into western Kansas. Along the way, we got our last dose of wagon tracks near the Cimarron Cutoff, a place where many wagons took a shortcut through the sands of the Cimarron--a 60-mile trek with no water for the livestock and regular Comanche attacks.

In Garden City our trip found one of hits highlights: the Sandsage Bison Range, a bison sanctuary through which we drove in a Chevy Suburban. I had never been so close to a bison herd, and my imagination was filled by the up-close views of bison bulls, cows and calves.

23 June 2007

Santa Fe Trail, Day 4, Dodge City!

Our final day in Kansas was an eventful one. We awoke at the Dodge House Motel in Dodge City, surrounded by western brikabrak. Just down the road, we toured Boot Hill, a small theme park at the heart of Dodge City, which celebrated the town's heritage--western notables such as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson had to bring the town's anarchy under control in the 1870s.

The visit featured the kids getting deputized. Julie, Ellie and I learned the "can-can" dance at the town saloon. It ended with a gunfight right on Front Street!

Dodge City provides a fascinating study of the American West. It began as a town supplying whiskey, gambling and other vices to soldiers stationed at Fort Mann to protect Santa Fe wagon trails from Comanche Indian attacks. Later it was a center of the bison fur trade, which nearly destroyed the vast bison herds that had wandered the Great Plains. When the railroad arrived, it became a cow town, full of wild and raunchy cowboys (in need of Earp's famous Frontier Justice). Finally, it settled down and became the dusty farming town it remains today.

Santa Fe Trail, Day 3

This was the day we really got into Kansas. We had arrived in Council Grove late Monday night. There we at at the Hayes House Restaurant, which billed itself as "the oldest continually operating restaurant west of the Mississippi River." Indeed, it celebrated its 150th year of operation this year.

We camped beside a lake in Council Grove and awoke the next morning to showers (this always seems to happen when I camp). Still, Council Grove was a fine little town that supported its history as a stopping point on the Santa Fe Trail.

On the west part of town, we found the Last Chance Store, a building that had sold supplies to caravans and which, at the time, had been the last such store for the next 750 miles.

The video captures Council Grove. I regret I messed up the shot of the wagon ruts through the stream, but I felt that I just had to include it!

20 June 2007

A Bit on Immigration

It's one of my favorite issues. I've been debating it with a few college friends, and I've developed some ideas that I hope to work into an op-ed piece in time for the 4th of July holiday.

Don't worry, I have plenty of video from my trip to share with you. I'm planning to edit it and post it on the web when I get home, which should be this weekend.

Until then, tell me what you think of the ideas below:

Listen, nothing is given to immigrants--NOTHING--except the chance to work for the American Dream. That's the only reason why they're here, and that's why they will give our children a run for the money when they enter the workforce. They don't qualify for public housing. They don't get welfare benefits. If they receive health care, it is through the generosity of doctors and hospitals (notice that I used the words "generosity," "doctors," and "hospitals" in the same sentence!)

I have a Albanian friend, Toni, who would give his right arm to come to America and work 15 hours a day washing pans in a pizza kitchen. He registers for the visa lottery every year. He prays. He begs me for help. Frankly, I wish he would come.

You see, guys, if we were to move to Germany or Saudi Arabia or China and worked real hard, kept jobs, raised families and participated in society--even if we legally immigrated--we would never, ever have the chance of becoming Germans, Saudis or Chinese. We would always be considered foreigners, even our children.

The cool thing about being an American (unless you're a racist), is that it isn't really something that you're entitled to, it's something that you earn. The Ditteses were immigrants once. Racists tried to imply that we were terrorists during a time of war (World War I) and attacked our neighbors who had more German-sounding names, but we kept our heads down, we worked, and we gained the right to be called Americans.

(Honestly, can anyone provide one example of a terrorist from 9/11 or any other case coming across the border with Mexico illegally? There was the one that the Clinton Administration caught coming in from Canada, but the speculation of such an occurrence is race-baiting, I believe.)

Frankly, I think citizenship should be merit-based, mainly so I can get Toni into the country. If ungrateful, wealthy Americans don't like paying taxes, having them turn in their passports and move to Brazil or Bolivia, where taxes are lower. If a kid chooses to drop out of high school, give his/her place to an ambitious Nigerian girl and let them move to a country where the dropout rate is above 50%. If someone quit their restaurant dishwashing job because they had a hangover or didn't feel like getting out of bed, we should push them over the border with Mexico in a fair exchange for someone who will work.

It's a sign of the decline of our society that we are falling back on useless standards like race and legal status to define what American citizenship really is. The future doesn't belong to those who whine about immigration. It belongs, as it always has, to people who are willing to work hard and build this country into something better.

Incidentally, I'm a day away from the end of my trip now. We did the long, 600-mile drive today from Leadville, Colorado, to Lawrence, Kansas. At two points along the way (once in Colorado and once in Kansas) I spotted billboards advertising "Free Land" to people willing to emigrate there and farm/work!

What would someone from Albania or Nigeria think of this? They would think they had died and gone to heaven. What did this American think of it? I thought, "Who would want to live all the way out there? I don't even know how to do anything with my hands."

13 June 2007

Santa Fe Trail, Day 2

St. Louis was just an appetizer, the real fun would start in Independence, Missouri, the point from which all trails west lead across the western United States--to Oregon, to California, and to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Our stop at the National Frontier Trails Museum revealed a mother lode of experiences for the kids: they rode in a covered wagon pulled by a mule, they loaded up a wagon of their own for a trip across the prairie...there was lots of hands-on stuff to do (just what I like in a museum). Ellie would want me to add that there was a pretty good gifts shop, too.

Here's the video:

11 June 2007

Video Blogging Updated 6/13

We're on our road trip now, after eight months of saving and planning. I write this from a motel room in Boonville, Missouri. Just across the Missouri River from here in New Franklin is a plaque honoring William Bucknell, the father of the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1821, Bucknell--facing bankruptcy--took a load of goods and camped out on the border with Spain, which at that time was the Arkansas River. He had heard a hint that Mexico might soon gain independence. Under Spanish rule, the borders had been sealed from American aliens--and all men trying to trade in Santa Fe had been imprisoned or had their goods confiscated.

Bucknell was lucky. He scooted across the border just as he heard the news, and he returned to New Franklin with bags full of silver dollars. An important new trade route had been opened: the 950-mile-long Santa Fe Trail.

I'm shooting some video on this trip. It's not much, and I'm shooting it with my Canon digital camera. Let me know what you think of it (below).

05 June 2007

Summer Plans

It was the same question over and over again before school ended May 24: what are you doing this summer?

I've had an exciting summer so far (almost two weeks, so far), and it's about to get a whole lot better.

First, I am on a self-imposed teaching embargo. I'm not thinking about it, I'm not reading school-related books, I'm skipping all the professional development opportunities I signed up for during the school year. I need to detox from failure...and there was a lot of failure in my classroom last year, mostly on the part of my students. I had about 80 students, and I handed out 19 failing grades...not my greatest semester of instruction in the least.

The good news is that the action at Point Pleasant is about to heat up because my 2nd Annual Father's Day Road Trip is upon us. This time we will follow the Santa Fe Trail from St. Louis through Kansas City and Dodge City into Colorado and into New Mexico. It gained its reputation in the middle 1800s, when the vast American prairie was a 900-mile frontier between the United States and the newly minted nation of Mexico. There are about 29.5 million fewer bison roaming the plains than there were then...bummer. But the trip should be fun nonetheless.

Some of you may remember the trip I took last summer to Arizona. This one should be better in a number of ways:
1. We actually have a theme. I've been reading up on the Santa Fe Trail for six months now, and I'm really ready to be a wagonmaster.
2. My sister, Julie, and her awesome sons will join us. Instead of being one dad for three kids, the ratio of adults to kids will be 2:5. You have to like those odds! Jenny and my brother-in-law, Don, will join us in Taos, New Mexico, where we will spend a weekend in the most beautiful corner of the Rocky Mountains.
3. I'll have video. I'm hoping to do a lot of editing and uploading on the trip so everyone can see video on my blog. I'll have at least two videos on YouTube, I promise.

It's getting late. I'll provide more information on the itinerary later this week. We leave on the 8th for Santa Fe!

27 May 2007

Blast from the Past: the Ultimate Levi's 501 Jeans Trailer

For all you former Newboldians, this commercial deserves another look. It came out in theaters during my year there, 1990-91, and it was soooo cool.

Later, during the Newbold Talent Show, Gunther and I spoofed this commercial. Gunther came riding into Assembly Hall riding a moped we had borrowed. Andrew Cox was at the front of the hall, wearing a Newbold Business Club sweatshirt and trying to pick up Suzanne Jean-Baptiste.

Gunther rides up, wearing his sunglasses and looking cool, pulls a Newbold Student Association sweatshirt out of his leather jacket, and gives it to Suzanne. She casts a scornfull look back at Andrew and got on the back of Gunther's moped.

Classic!

Good times, folks. Now those were good times, weren't they?

17 May 2007

Blog Recommendation

I usually only link to friends' blogs, but there's one I'd encourage you to check out. Amar C. Bakshi has a new blog with the Washington Post called "How The World Sees America."

Having lived overseas for an extended period--and therefore caring very much that my country is a positive influence in the world (unlike the current administration), I find Bakshi's comments fascinating. Currently he's in Britain on the first leg of a trip that will take him back to his ancestral home of India (via Pakistan, no less).

So far, he has found a Manchesterian who admits he used to pretend to be an American sailor just to pick up girls in his home town (wouldn't work now, he admits). Bakshi also finds a group of drama students practicing their American accents (with mixed results).

In an interview with Prospect Magazine founder David Goodhart, Bakshi learns that the current anti-Americanism is temporary:
“This sentiment will disappear in five seconds,” [Goodhart] says, "when American leadership changes hands. "Come Obama, everything changes."
One can only hope! Even so, Obama, quickly come!

News Update

It's graduation season, so I don't have a lot of time to write.

I wanted to let you know that Jenny's brother, Johnathan, is now recuperating at home in Clinton, Tennessee. By all accounts, he has healed well, and he continues with his medication to allow his body to accept the new liver.

He stayed at our house the weekend before he went home. He has a huge scar across the top of his tummy--about 25 inches long. It's almost as wide as the grin on his face, I like to say. I'll include a picture of the George siblings to let you see the happy family for yourself.

12 May 2007

U2 and Green Day for Comparison

This is the video of the original song--Jonah's version is below.

I just love this video. The song is great, and it tweaks the United States for its misguided priorities. What if National Guard and defense units had been on hand to bring relief to New Orleans in 2005? We'll never know.

As the closing scene states, "Not as seen on TV."

The Saints are Coming Jonah Style

We have this song on my "U218" CD, and Jonah just started singing it one night in the bathtub. I'll let you enjoy his version for yourself.

30 April 2007

Accounting for Two Weeks

It's been far too long since my last post--a sign, perhaps that I've been far too busy.

I don't want to load you down with all the school projects that I've completed (school ends in just 3 1/2 weeks). As important as it seemed, it paled with the momentous events in Jenny's family. The good news is that Jenny's brother Johnathan has received a long-needed liver transplant at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville!

Jenny's family has known since 1992 (the year she spent as a volunteer in Cameroon, West Africa) that Johnathan had an auto-immune disease called Primary Sclerosing Colangitis. It was a death sentence in many ways--one that could only be overcome through a liver transplant. Megan and Robyn will remember what a difficult time this was for Jenny--what a trial of faith it felt like at the time.

Johnathan went on the transplant list soon after, but he was a low priority on the list. He married in 1993 and had two kids, Ava and Nathan, who are now 8 and 4. He steadily weakened. He left work and went on disability about six years ago. In recent months he had taken a real serious turn. Spots had shown up on his liver. The concern was that they might be cancerous, which would disqualify him from transplant and serve as a death sentence at age 37. His skin became ever more jaundiced. (I snapped the picture at right with my cell phone last Sunday when we saw him in the hospital awaiting the transplant. The contrast of the yellow skin on his arm with the white sheets is not an anomaly--he was that yellow!.

Last week, his poor health raised him to the top of Vanderbilt's transplant list. It was life on a razor's edge for the family: he was sick enough to get the transplant he needed, but if he waited too long, he would be disqualified. He received the transplant late last Sunday night. His family--was either at his side or resting here at our house.

It has been an eventful week with mostly good news and some scares. Johnathan's body did show signs of rejecting the transplant a couple of times, but this was managed with medicine by the experienced medical staff there. We expect him to move out of the hospital any day now into a campus apartment, from which he can meet with his transplant doctors daily until he is completely stable with his new live.

Keep Johnathan in your prayers. It is nothing short of miraculous what has happened so far, but his continued health and his full recovery are in the able hands of Gods grace and faithfulness.

13 April 2007

A Mysterious Note

After my last class had ended Thursday, I found a note on my podium. It read:

Mr. Dittes your zipper is undone.

They weren't writing a lie. Unfortunately, by the time I corrected the matter, there were no students left to teach.

To be honest, I don't know when the note was put there. I had been teaching all day--and I hadn't been to the bathroom, so it could have been at any time!

Praise God for humble moments!

05 April 2007

Another Day, Another Beach

On Wednesday we went to Tybee Island Beach, one much closer to Savannah (and much more crowded with beer-swilling college students who, like me, were enjoying Spring Break).

First, a cool beach shot. I had promised an Ellie/bikini picture in today's post. I remember posing like this with Ellie's mama when I was about 40 pounds lighter, alas.

Jonah and I did some wave riding. He got on my back, I did push-ups on the sand, and we bobbed up and down. Jo-Jo even learned to do it with no hands!

Julie had bought the kids little motorcycles. Jonah and Joshie took turns running them through the sand, flying over jumps, and splashing them in the water. This picture is the last time we saw the bike Joshie was using. It ended up buried somewhere on the beach, and we couldn't find it when we left.The day ended where all days at the beach end: in the bathtub. Julie has a super-sized bathtub with jets and everything. The boys had fun playing with animals and goofing around. Owen and Jacob refused to get out for more than 40 minutes!