as the elements rearrange themselves…

18 Asma’ 168 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  The Church, “A Different Man”

There is always a stretch of a few days sometime in September when the wind more than just blows and where the clouds do more than just pass over.  It’s a time when a mixture of gray and white clouds seem to sweep the sky, leaving in its wake a blue sky with a deeper blue hue.  The wind tends to blow a bit colder, making the air cooler, crisper, and cleaner. 

from Dreamstime free downloadsIt feels like the air is more than just cooling–it is churning, rearranging the elements and preparing the way for autumn.  It is a bit unusual for this to happen on Labor Day weekend–often it’s a week or two later.  Nevertheless, it’s mesmerizing, calming and peaceful, and the three days off work have allowed me to feel present enough to thoroughly enjoy it. 

It seems to be timing itself with a number of other changes going on in my life at the same time.  I had orientation and my first class in graduate school within the last week.  We have new people living in the house and it seems cleaner in general than it has in a long time.  The attic room we’d been working on for the better part of two years is now usable, and serving as a wonderful little retreat space. 

Lots of other little things are conspiring and arranging themselves in a way as if to say “Wake up, wake up! Do you know what it means to be alive right now?”

my head rises, temporarily, from the books within which it has been buried (time to be hazy, time to be lazy, sort of)

7 Kamal 168 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  Adult Net, “August”

I’ve just finished my ten-week statistics course.  Well, sort of–I still have one last paper due next week.  I took my final exam last Thursday night, and now I’m giving myself permission to slow down and relax.

Many people complain bitterly about the statistics class they are required to take, and I’m not going to say I disagree.   The father of a housemate of mine has a degree in math,  and he once told me that to truly understand statistics, one has to have a solid understanding of both trigonometry and calculus.  The latter I have never taken, and the former I remember very little of.  I know that the “sin,” “cos,” and “tan” buttons on a scientific calculator stand for sine, cosine and tangent, that all have something to do with triangles, and that the calcualtor creates funny numbers when I push those buttons, but other than that, I don’t remember anything about trig.  I need to be able to understand why something works the way it does, almost in a visual way, and that just wasn’t possible in an introductory statistics class for social workers.  My vision got blurry when I saw formulas like M-Za/2 *o/sqrt n <= u <= M + Za/2*o/sqrt n, and I’d think to myself, “yeah, I’m really learning this stuff, aren’t I?” 

I have the month off as far as class is concerned, and then, come September, I will start my graduate program.  In some ways, this statistics class was a nice introduction back to the academic world. It was difficult to go straight from work to class every Tuesday night, and it was a challenge at times to make time for the readings,  homework and studying that was necessary.  I also wrote about how challenging it was to navigate my way through the labyrynthine university system.

It was nice to wake up this morning and watch the rain fall as I looked out the window.   I wrote in my personal journal and am now writing this blog post.  There is still a lot I need to do personally this month, but I’m also giving myself permission to be lazy and hazy…

the smell of wood smoke on the clothes is back

14 Baha 168 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  Nick Drake, “One Of These Things First”

Tonight I looked outside my bedroom window and saw a familiar orange glow in our backyard that I hadn’t seen in several months.  Yes, it was true–two housemates had brought out the fire pit and had started our first backyard fire of the year. 

When I first moved to Madison, I was surprised by the fact that it is legal to build fires on one’s own property.  Wood fires were an indulgence that was prohibited due to pollution concerns when I lived in Chicago.  Yet, shortly after I moved into this neighborhood, I remember seeing a huge bonfire on the front lawn of a neighbor two blocks down and thinking to myself, “That can’t be legal.”  But while Madison has air quality concerns of its own, they pale in comparison to the Chicago area.

When we re-started this co-op house a couple of years ago, one of the first purchases we made was a backyard fire pit.  Our house didn’t have very much in savings at the time, but when one of our housemates saw a fire pit on sale for about $100, we knew we couldn’t turn it down.  It’s an odd looking thing–it looks like a cross between a Weber grill and a witches’ kettle, except elevated maybe about three or four inches above the ground. 

I guess it’s a rite of spring like baseball, but a bit more cozy. It was nice to step outside and watch my friends’ faces flicker in the firelight as we talked.  They grilled some brats and wieners. which always taste better grilled.  While it’s not easy to see many stars in this part of Madison, I can make out some of them like the Big and Little Dippers, and it’s more than I what I could usually see in Chicago.  At one point I actually saw a huge shooting star light up the sky. 

I had already partially changed into my pajamas and was wearing my pajama bottoms when I went outside.  They now smell of smoke, as does my jacket, so my sheets will be smelling smoky tonight.  Not a bad way to fall asleep…

good reasons to root for the packers in the super bowl, eh?

18 Sultan 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: Horace Andy, “Zion Dub”

You know you live in the most lefty-radical part of Madison when you get a Super Bowl invitation that says “Come commiserate over the fallacy of community that is NFL Sports.”  It’s worth a chuckle but I’m hardly miserable.  I’m a Packer fan and I plan on cheering them on in tomorrow’s Super Bowl XLV.

I grew up a Chicago Bears fan, but always liked the Packers, too.  I was excited when the Bears dominated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX and was also excited when the Packers dominated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. (I guess I’m not a Patriots fan.) 

(Note to Super Bowl marketers–you really should have ditched Roman numerals for the standard Arabic ones somewhere around Super Bowl 30.  I can read Roman numerals of course, but for any Roman numeral above 30 I have to stare at it for awhile before I’m able to figure out which Super Bowl you’re talking about).

When I moved to Wisconsin I was initially on the fence about whether to switch my allegiance from the Bears to the Packers, but decided to do so after watching a Monday night football game between the two teams at the newly renovated Soldier Field in Chicago (the once-beautiful stadium that now looks as if an alien ship has landed on the Acropolis).  It’s funny, because soon after I moved to Madison at the end of 2002, I began to hear rumors of Brett Favre’s possible retirement and I worried about the possibility of not being able to see him play.  Eight years later, he seems to finally be retiring for good, and Packer fans have all but forgotten him due to the success of new quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

But given that Green Bay is 122 miles away from Madison and that the Green Bay Packers seem to be the official state religion of Wisconsin, it seems like I would have good reason to want to avoid the hype. But the more I know about them, the more I like them.

The first thing I noticed about Packer fans was in the way that they took the “cheesehead” moniker–originally a pejorative label given to them by people in neighboring states–and took ownership of it in a humorous way.  The foam “cheese wedges” that Packer fans put on top of their head may now be an old joke, but it was and is quite funny.  To me it is a classic example of the Wisconsinite sense of humor, which I’ve always admired.

Just as the New York Yankees have a deeply ingrained history of winning championships, so do the Packers. While they’ve only won three Super Bowls (their opponent tomorrow, the Pittsburgh Steelers, have won six), the Pack have won more NFL championships (including pre-Super Bowl championships) than any team, with twelve under their belt.

I also found it interesting that the Packers have remained in Green Bay despite the fact that it is a tiny city half the size of Madison.  They hearken back to the time when the Chicago Bears were known the Decatur Staleys, when small-town football clubs like these were common.  There are several reasons the Packers have been able to stay in Green Bay.  One is the depth of loyalty Wisconsinites have to the team–deep enough that people are willing to road trip from all over the state to attend a game.  The Packers have one of the longest waiting lists for season tickets in professional sports–the number of people on the list exceeds the number of seats in Lambeau Field.  The fact the the NFL shares TV revenue between franchises also helps–this way the big market teams (like the New York Yankees) aren’t more likely to dominate. 

But another big reason is that the Packers are the only non-profit community-owned major league sports franchise in the country.  The amount of stock in the team that someone can own is limited, and if the team were sold, all of the proceeds after expenses would have to go to a specific charity, so any financial incentive for stockholders to sell the team is erased.  Stock sales funded the building and later rehab of the Packers’ home stadium of Lambeau Field, and there are currently over 100,000 shareholders owning between 4 and 5 million shares of stock in the team. 

In an era of big money and huge profits in professional sports, this is deeply refreshing.  Of course, player salaries are no lower than other NFL teams, and tickets and team merchandise are no less exorbitant than elsehwere–as much as I’d like to wear a Packers jersey for tomorrow’s Super Bowl, I’m not willing to pay $70-80 for one.  But the fact that the team is non-profit organization owned by the fans is admirable.

It is also fitting for a Wisconsin team to be organized in this way.  Wisconsin, like Iowa and Minnesota, have very deep-rooted histories of cooperatives, which is why they were ranked third, second, and first respectively out of all U.S. states in total co-op business volume (California is ranked fourth) despite being ranked 18th, 30th, and 21st in total state population. 

So it is with enthusiasm that I will be joining fellow cheeseheads in rooting for a Packer victory. The Capitol Dome in Madison has been lit green and gold.  While some people (like the writers of the invitation I mentioned at the beginning this post) might get sick and tired of all the Packer hype, I’m perfectly fine with living it up.

three years as a baha’i

17 Qudrat 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: Kiltarten Road, “Carol Of The Field Mice”

Three years ago I walked up to the edge of Lake Monona, offered a prayer, meditated a little bit on my spiritual path up to that point, and signed a white card with blue printing declaring myself a Baha’i. 

To be honest, I was actually a bit numb when I signed the card. but looking back, it was a very precious time, a time of anticipation, longing and chain-reaction change.  Some of the best writing I’ve done occurred during that month, and the November air that month often felt charged, as if magic was occurring.

Three years later, I’m at my computer writing with the lights off except for the Christmas lights I have on in my room and the glow of my monitor. I can say that I feel more at home in the Baha’i Faith and more sure about the Faith than I did three years ago. 

The last post I made about the Birth of Baha’u’llah certainly sounds like someone with certitude.  I must confess that sometimes I look at my last post and think, “Am I really that sure about the Baha’i Faith?” 

There has always been a bit of a skeptic within me, and that’s not a bad thing.  I grew up seeing religious conflict within my family when my mom and her sister chose to leave the Catholic Church to the chagrin of their mother.  My mom was always a strong believer in mixing religion with common sense.  She was good about exposing me to religion without indoctrinating me, and I’m grateful for the full freedom my parents gave me to explore and choose my own religious beliefs.  (I also like the fact that Baha’is are obligated to give their children the same level of freedom I had to explore my beliefs.) 

I have certitude about God and the existence of God.  I feel like God has been guiding me through much of my life, and has given me a much more interesting and magical life than I would have dreamed up myself.  Too many wishes fulfilled that were too good to be true, and too many wishes denied that opened up yet other doors.  And far too many coincidences.

But why religion?  Can’t I just have my own experiences and be content with that? 

Of course, many ungodly things have been done in the name of religion, and having contended personally with religious fanatics in my own life, I fully understand why people prefer to say, “To-may-to, to-mah-to, let’s call the whole thing off.”

Nevertheless, I’ve seen too many good things come out of religion.  Religion has challenged me to be the best, most loving and most positive person I can be, and when it hasn’t done that, I’ve left the religion behind and gone elsewhere.

It’s not that religion makes a mess of people, it’s that people make a mess of religion.  Just as we humans made a mess of a whole bunch of things in this life, resulting in starvation, the mass extinction of species, toxins in our air, water, and soil, global warming that threatens to make our planet unlivable, and stockpiles of weapons numerous enough and strong enough to wipe out billions of people.  For a while, I thought that getting involved in politics could make a difference, but I’ve come to believe that this is akin to trying use mud to wash out an ugly stain. Why wouldn’t religion become tainted in such a world?

The path of this Different Drummer has been to look for the alternative to all this.  I’ve wandered off the more traveled path in search of a whisper of gentle voices and hearts beating amid the screaming and the chest-beating. 

The Baha’i Faith seems to fit that bill the best, with its exhortations for humanity to unite and for the religions to agree, for an end to war, racism, prejudice of any kind, and even backbiting, for the equality of men and women, the end to extremes of wealth and poverty, recognition of the unity of science and religion, and for the independent investigation of truth. 

Sure I’ve had my doubts.  Earlier this year, in an effort to be more certain about my beliefs one way or another, I began to really focus on the writings of Baha’u’llah in a way I hadn’t before.  That has made a difference, and I feel stronger about the Baha’i Faith than before. 

So, as I begin my fourth year as a Baha’i, I need to start thinking more about how I can contribute to the Faith and what my appropriate role within it is…

apple pickin’ while the apple pickin’s good

18 Mashiyyat 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  eastmountainsouth, “You Belong”

A couple Saturdays ago, we had an “official” co-op house outing to go apple picking. (You can see that I’m still trying to catch up with my blog entries).  

I guess I had always looked at apple picking as a chore, not a way to spend a pleasant autumn day. But I was intrigued by the idea, so  I decided to join my housemates.  One nice thing about living in Madison is that it’s only a twenty-minute drive before you find yourself in a rural area, so we journeyed a few miles east of town to a local orchard. 

The orchard is located on a hill going into a valley and the view is great.  A guide showed us which rows had which kind of apples, with golden delicious, “jonagolds” (a cross-breed of Jonathan and golden delicious apples), and empire apples among the choices.  We gathered our canvas bags as a group and went into the “upper orchard” which was higher in the valley. 

I know there are very good reasons to garden but I have been very resistant to get my hands in the dirt, and I’ve been more than happy to let my housemates take the lead with our gardens.  But it really was fun to actually pick apples off the tree and eat them.  I’ve understood intellectually that it’s a nice thing to connect with where your food comes from, but to actually feel that connection is a different thing entirely.  It was also nice to go out with my housemates on a beautiful (albeit a bit chilly) autumn day. 

The orchard also had a flock of sheep, who were more than willing to let us hand-feed and pet them. 

Autumn is my favorite time of year, and I now have one more fall ritual to enjoy…

2010 and the decade with no name

1 Sharaf 166 B.E. (Baha’i calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  The Untouchables, “Wild Child”

It’s kind of weird to see another decade coming to an end.

A couple years ago, I saw a sign outside a carpet place that said “No interest until 2010.”  It was the first time I’d seen the year 2010 on a sign and it creeped me out some.  It seemed alien to me, like some scary science fiction movie.  “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

Now that 2010 on the Gregorian calendar is just a 25 hours away, it doesn’t seem so creepy.  But I still am kind of getting used to writing the year beginning with a “2” instead of a one. It seems like a completely different world in some ways.  It makes it hard to believe I was born in 1967.  It’s almost as if that was a completely different calendar and a completely different world.  The passage of time seems a little bit easier to grasp when I realize I was born in 124 B.E. and it’s now 166 B.E.

I remember anticipating the arrival of 1980, 1990, and 2000 with excitement, as if it were part of some big countdown.  (I was too young to remember the transition to 1970).  Now that we’ve passed the 2000 mark, I’m like, “Now what?’  I know a lot of people are holding their breath about 2012, specifically 21 December of that year.  My hunch is that it will not the end of the world, or a day when the whole world suddenly gets some kind of spiritual awakening.  My guess is that if there’s any change, it will be like crossing from Illinois to Wisconsin—the actual border crossing itself is innocuous,  but after a while, we’ll feel like we’re in a different state.

For me, the most significant event of this decade now coming to an end was when I crossed the border from Illinois to Wisconsin and made Madison my home.  As I said in my last blog post, moving to a new city changes everything,  and it was even more pronounced because my lifestyle changed from apartment living to co-op living.  

I find it funny that no one can really agree or decide what this decade now passing should be called.  We had the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, and now what?  The Oh’s?  The Oh-oh’s?  The Ohties?  The Aughts?  The Aughties?  

Whatever it’s called, we’re starting to hear retrospectives of the last ten years now, though some may argue that the new decade doesn’t really start until 2011.  They’ll talk about 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, the tsunami, Katrina, Obama.  They’ll talk about trends in music, though the most significant trend has more to do with how music is bought rather than any specific genre.

I do see 2010 as a good time for making resolutions.  I’m making some that pertain to community, finances, and spiritual growth.  I figure that with the transition into a new decade, resolutions made at this time seem to me to have greater meaning.  Though they are probably just as easy to break.

In any case, I hope everyone has a most enjoyable New Year.  Tune in to this blog for more posts during Gregorian year 2010.

the eighteen-inch blizzard

18 Qawl 166 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  It’s A Beautiful Day, “Essence of Now”

This time the city had good reason to shut down. 

People had been talking about the coming of this blizzard all week.  Predictions for snow accumulation kept going up–from six inches to ten, to twelve, and even sixteen.  But we’d heard dire weather predictions before that had not come to fruition. 

The snow started really coming down once it got dark yesterday afternoon.  A few of us were working late, putting in overtime, and we were calculating how late we could work and still miss being bogged down by the weather.  I left at 5:45 and got the timing just right.  My bus was only a couple of minutes late.  It was a bit slick, but the accumulation was minimal, and I have to hand it to Metro bus drivers–most I’ve encountered are good at navigating through inclement weather. 

I got home and saw two housemates shoveling, even though barely an inch had fallen.  I knew that a lot more shoveling would need to be done later.  As the evening wore on, we heard about cancellation after cancellation–Madison Public Schools, suburban schools, the University of Wisconsin, and others.

Right before I went to bed, I checked the Madison Metro website to see if the buses would be running.  I’ve heard that it is rare for Madison Public Schools to close, and if they did, Madison Metro likely would, too.  But they said that service was expected to be going on the following morning.  When I turned the lights off to go to bed, I noticed it was unusually bright in my room because of the snow.  Every now and then, I would wake up, look outside, and notice that the snow was piling higher and higher on the railings, and even the phone lines were covered with snow.

I woke up at 5 a.m., and the first thing I did was to check the Madison Metro website to see if the buses were running.  The site hadn’t been updated since the night before.  I listened to the radio and began to check some of the local television station websites to see if there was any news.  The authorities were telling us to stay home if at all possible.  At about 5:40 a.m., about ten minutes before I would have left for work, (I was coming in early for overtime)  the website for Channel 27 said that Madison Metro was delaying the start of service, waiting for clearance from police.  Finally this information appeared on Madison Metro’s website as well. 

So I waited, and checked email and Facebook.  Six o’clock turned into seven,and I realized that I wouldn’t make it into work on time.  So I called work, and let them know that I would be delayed.  Seven turned into eight, and each hour the update was the same–Metro service delayed pending clearance from authorities.  Finally, at about 9:30, the website announced that Metro service was cancelled for the whole day.  I would have a day off work.  I called work again and this time I got my supervisor on the phone.  Three out of fifteen people had come into work that day, and one of them had to leave early.

I looked outside.  The world was transformed by walls of snow that had not been there the day before.  The plows had gone through and cars were buried.  The sidewalks were unusually crowded with people.  Everyone was staying home, and shoveling. 

Today was productive.  I sent out a few emails I needed to send out and I put together some devotions for the Friday night devotions that are in my house.  I relaxed, meditated, and then in the late afternoon, I began cooking the house dinner because it was my turn to do so.  It was nice not to have to hurry up with cooking.

The Metro website now says, “as conditions allow, service will resume on Thursday.”  My guess is that I’ll be back at work tomorrow, further behind than we were before.  But it has been nice to slow down and take a breath in the middle of the week.

the one-inch blizzard

12 Qawl 166 B.E. (Baha’i calendar)
Drumbeat in my head: Badly Drawn Boy, “Epitaph”

It took me one hour and fifteen minutes to take the bus home from work today.  All because of one inch of snow.

I worked an hour late, and when I went outside to wait for the No. 16 bus at 5:45 p.m., traffic on Broadway was backed up in both directions.  Roads were slick and nary a snowplow was in sight. 

I waited ten minutes after the bus was supposed to arrive and then called Madison Metro to see how late the buses were running.  I waited on hold for fifteen minutes, with a message every minute saying “Thank you for calling Madison Metro.  An agent will be with you shortly.”  Then finally, I heard a message saying “The Metro customer service center is now closed.”    They close their customer assistance center at 6 p.m.

A little while later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a No. 11 bus.  By this time, it was 6:20 p.m.  The last No. 11 was supposed to have come through the area more than an hour before.  I boarded the bus, and commented that I didn’t expect the No. 11 to be running this late.  The bus driver said that the roads were bad in many parts of the city.  She described how a four-minute trip down Whitney Way took her 25 minutes, and that the road was so slick that she was driving “mostly sideways.”  I was glad I didn’t have to travel that far.  She drove very carefully and methodically.  The bus dropped me off at Capitol Square and I was able to take a No. 6 home from there. 

My old home of Chicago has a very fast and efficient snow removal system.  I think it dates back to when a mayor lost a re-election bid in 1979 due to issues with snow removal.  It’s rare for incumbent mayors to lose elections in Chicago, so when this mayor did, it apparently put the fear of God in every city, state and municipal official within sixty square miles.  As such, snowplows and salt trucks there start their engines when so much as a snowflake falls.

Not so in Madison.  I used to live on one of the main thoroughfares in Madison, and the street would still be only partially plowed twelve hours after the snowfall stoppped.  As such, even a one-inch snowfall might feel like a blizzard here. 

But few people here complain.  I’ve heard some people say that it is the rugged nature of Wisconsin.  I think I would look quite rugged if my face went through a windshield.  Some say it’s a question of knowing how to drive in this weather.  My question is this–at what speed is it safe to drive on black ice? 

So, I really have no choice but to grin and bear it until March or April.  People ask me how I can stand waiting outside for the bus in the winter.  I reply that I much prefer it to driving on the roads in the winter.  It’s times like these that I’m glad I don’t own a car.

hello, i’m still here (or, the threads that connect us)

17 ‘Ilm 166 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  Tigger Outlaw, “Songs for Aging Children”

The first of November always feels different than the 31st of October.  I walk outside and I feel the difference.  It’s actually warmer than yesterday, but the trees are more bare—a product of the ferocious winds that came through yesterday and the day before. 

I’ve been bad about blogging recently.   For the first two weeks it was due to writer’s block, but in the last week or so we’ve had a problem with our Internet connection at our house.  It was completely down for one week—a lot of it was due to an area-wide outage.  My Internet connection is still spotty—it only works on my laptop every other time and my desktop computer seems to have a problem that i can’t explain.

The outage really got me thinking about how dependent we are on things.  Not just the Internet.  The food we get is dependent on trucks making it to our city—even the CSA was subscribe to is two hours away.  When I lived in Hoffman Estates, IL,  I was fully dependent on my car working well enough to drive the five miles to the commuter rail station.  Our comfort right now in our co-op house is dependent on our basement furnace working. My ability to type this blog entry is dependent not only on the Internet, but on the electricity that feeds the battery of my laptop and lights up the room I’m in. 

I don’t think people realize the extent to which all of these things could potentially be interrupted.  A really bad winter storm could make the roads to our city unnavigable for days. A sudden dip in oil supplies could make food and supply deliveries extremely costly.  There are people who believe that the phenomenon of peak oil might make such things possible.  There have been widespread, extended blackouts in the past.  I don’t mean to be gloom and doom about these things, but it’s worth thinking about…