Sunday, November 30, 2008

Baltic Thanksgiving . . .

Thanksgiving is a traditional holiday. When I think of Thanksgiving I think of getting together with family and friends around noon, in recent years at Terri and Tommy's house (sister and brother in law). Everybody brings food to add to what is already there, and we eat and visit all afternoon and into the evening. Then I would visit in the evening with other friends close by. It is a great tradition.

But this year the tradition was broken for me. So, after eating a Thanksgiving brunch with my sons, Benjamin and Vann, at the Original Pancake House at Five Points on Wednesday morning, I boarded a plane with Deb and Lyn, two friends of mine, headed for Riga, Latvia. We did not go to the Baltics to celebrate Thanksgiving.

But we did. We were blessed to be the guests of Dan and Courtney Randall, two United Methodist preachers in Riga, Latvia, in their flat in downtown Riga, right on Iela Gertrudis. Dan and Courtney opened their home to us as if we been long-time friends. They struck that wonderful balance of treating us as special guests and yet as you would treat a member of the family ("if you need anything, you know where it is"). And we were allowed to share in some precious moments, which would be better told by Courtney.

We sat around the table with Dan and Courtney and four more friends they had invited for Thanksgiving dinner. The table was full of food, but that was not all. It was full of laughter, of friendship, and of thanksgiving.

There were many other memorable things on this trip, which I may blog about later. But right now I am remembering and giving thanks that there are folks like Courtney and Dan out there, being Christ in Latvia, and wherever they go.

Dan's blog is He posted a picture of the Thanksgiving table. Give him a comment and tell him to keep blogging so we can all know what's going on in Latvia, and with the Randalls.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Santa, Thanksgiving, football and Lithuania . . .

I went to the local CVS to get a couple of passport photos made today. Not for passports but for an international driver's license. As it so happened, Santa Claus was visiting the drug store today and having his photo made with the young folk. The clerk in the photo department offered to allow me to sit in Santa's lap for my photo, which I thought would actually be quite funny, although it would just be more fodder for gossip in a small town, another good reason to do it. Then I thought of the last time I drove across the border from Latvia into Lithuania late at night. I am sure those border agents were nice people at home, but, they really didn't have much of a sense of humor standing out in the cold in the middle of the night. I felt like Humphrey Bogart trying to get across the border in a black and white movie, with Lauren Bacall tucked away under my trench coat in the back seat. Okay, that's a different fantasy. But I don't think the border guys would think it was so funny. Especially if there was no Lauren Bacall. Lyn and Deb will be along, but I don't think they will hide under a trenchcoat.

Anyway, I have scored a trip to that hottest of Thanksgiving destinations, Riga, Latvia, and then Birzai, Lithuania. Actually it won't be hot at all. It is snowing today. And it looks like it will remain rather chilly throughout the week.

I'm hoping to find a sports bar to watch the big Alabama Auburn clash. They are eight hours ahead of Tuscaloosa time, so kickoff will be around 10:30 p.m. I bet there are some crazy Baltic parties planned for this one. But, I may be too tired to party, so perhaps I will just try to find it onlline, if I can find a line.

So Roll Tide in advance, just in case I can't blog the trip. And Happy Thanksgiving. For all you friends and family I have shared this Thanksgiving and football holiday with in past years, I will miss you all. But check the blog, and send me an email or a blog comment to let me know how things are going.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Now for a Christmas music moment . . .

One of my favorite Christmas songs is a haunting melody with words that are difficult to sing properly so that the audience understands. "I wonder as I wander out under the sky . . ." It is tough as a vocalist to distinguish between "wonder" and "wander" without getting your lips all contorted. At least that's been my experience.

I've liked the song for years. Unfortunately one of the main reasons I liked the song is based on a misunderstanding of the lyrics (other than that wonder/wander problem.) I always heard the lyric to continue "how Jesus my Savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I . . ."

I like the idea of Jesus dying for ornery people. I have been kind of ornery lately. Don't like it much, but I just can't seem to shake it. So you might want to avoid me for a couple of months. It has been a great comfort that Jesus tolerates my orneriness. He hasn't avoided me, bless His heart.

As it turns out "ornery" is written in the lyrics as "or'nry". That's supposed to be an Appalachian dialect spelling of "ordinary". Actually that's pretty good too. Not as good as ornery, but also comforting to an ordinary, ornery guy.

For the history of that song check the Wickepedia entry

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I just finished up cleaning out my refrigerator. I remember cooking half of that asparagus awhile back, and I really meant to finish that piece of watermelon several weeks ago. I have a new appreciation for left over pizza, because when it gets old, it just gets dry and hard and rattles in the box. Those other things tend to ooze all over everything, dripping from shelf to shelf to crisper and then to the bottom of the box. But it is done. And I have already repeated the pledge that I made to myself the last time I cleaned out the refrigerator. I won't let that happen again.

But I will. Because that is just life. In my world there are a million things that demand my attention other than keeping a clean refrigerator, or a clean house for that matter. But there comes a time for scheduled maintenance, a time set aside to clean up those messes that accumulate while life is being lived, and that eventually, insidiously, make life less fun than it should be. Other than drinking coffee and doing nothing, that is what Saturdays are for. Raking leaves, changing oil, cleaning the refrigerator, doing laundry, changing filters for the heat pump. You know the list.

Something else happens during the Saturday scheduled maintenance. It is therapeutic. There are so many big messes that come my way in life that I am helpless to clean up, at least on a Saturday morning, as much as I may want to. But, if I can get this house in order, or at least the kitchen, or at least the refrigerator, then maybe there is hope for everything else.

I'm feeling inspired. On to the den. Tomorrow the world.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Un pour tous, tous pour un . . . the second thread, c'est dommage

Tbe second thread. It has to to with Jesus and the Three Musketeers. Not that they ever met in person as far as I know. (That would be way better than the daVinci Code)

I don't know if the Three Musketeers existed in any real form. But in the Classic Comics or the Disney movie or in Dumas' original "Les Trois Mousquetaires" young D'Artagnan learned and lived the motto, "All for one and one for all." Space prevents exploration of the nuance of that famous phrase, but I always thought it meant that if one musketeer was in trouble, the others would come to the rescue. And each musketeer swore his allegiance to the group. There was no room for cowboys. That was a different story altogether.

Jesus taught a similar lesson. He constantly presented the motto to his disciples, serve each other. Greater love has no person that he lay it down for friends. Who is your neighbor?

The thread is, are we in this thing, life, just for ourselves?

We all know the Sunday School answer. And the Three Musketeers motto.

But do we believe it? Millions of people cannot afford health care. See Benjamin Bentley's brilliant editorial at

You might want to look at some of the comments to that editorial as well. The contrast demonstrates the point of this thread.

I have heard again this week that we are a Christian nation. At least a moral nation. If we are, then why do we have people who cannot get health care, and some who can have whatever they want? Why do we have some folks who can send their children to the best schools in the safest neighborhoods, while some live in fear that their children will not make it safely through the school day or the walk home? Why do some elderly citizens have to make the choice between food and prescription medicine? Why do some young mothers have to decide between child care and a job?

Self made man. Bootstraps. Nobody helped me. All for me and to hell with you.

The second thread. Are we in this just for ourselves? Are we cowboys or Les Mousquetaires?

Are we Christian?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Turn the handle, pop the top, gotta jump out, of your world-in-a-box . . .

Lately I have been thinking of common threads that run through the problems that we face in our world.

The first thread that I have pulled is "we all need to get out a little more."

I think of myself as open minded. Most of us do. But generally speaking my world is small. I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, devote, go for a jog, and get dressed. All that is done within a 1500 sq. ft. space (except for the jog. I'm up to a slightly greater distance than that). I am the only one around. I either go to the office or to court, where I spend my day dealing with the same kind of issues I dealt with yesterday and the day before and the year before. After work I go home, eat dinner, and do the tasks required of living in society: laundry, housecleaning (no snickering from you folk who have been to my house), bill paying (no snickering from my creditors), and maybe writing a bit.
Sure, I travel to exotic locations like Birmingham, Gadsden, Cullman, Ashville, Double Springs, Tuscaloosa and many other diverse places. But even in those travels I am contained in my own world, my own car, my own work, only at the places that I must go. After doing this for over half my life, I find myself boxed in. I adopt the assumption that the whole world is like my world. The rules are the same. The concerns are the same. The joys and sorrows are the same. All life is the same as mine. But through some kind of grace occasionally I am forced into some situation that takes me out of my world and into another. What begins as uncomfortable ususally turns out to be exhilerating. I wonder why I don't choose to leave my world-in-a-box more often.

If you are thinking, "what are you talking about Bob?" then you are probably well situated in your own world-in-a-box. For instance, when was the last time you:

Spent time in a neighborhood that is completely different than yours. Not just driving through, but stopping at a gas station or a cafe or a yard and just talking to someone.

Ate a meal with someone of a different ethnicity

Spent significant time with a person with a disability, be it physical or mental.

Visited someone in jail or prison. Or the family of someone in jail or prison.

Talked at length with someone with a drug or alcohol addiction.

If you are a church goer, skipped Sunday services and went out into your community to see what non church goers were doing on Sunday morning.

If you are not a church goer, went to church on Sunday morning.

Visited and worshipped at a church significantly different in some way than the one you usually attend.

Had a discussion with a person of a different religion.

Had a discussion with an aetheist.

Had a discussion with a person of a different sexual orientation.

Sat down with someone of a different political persuasion and listened to his or her point of view without interrupting.

Spent time with a person of a distinctly different generation and had a long conversation.

Visited a Waffle House or Krystal after midnight.

Ate at Hardees before 7:00 a.m.

Talked with a farmer about farming.

Talked with a police officer about his or her job. (Doesn't count if you're just friendly during a traffic stop)

Talked to a soldier about his or her experiences.

Went to a museum, a ballet, a symphony concert.

Visited a national park

Went to a city council, county commission or school board meeting.

Visited another state, or country.

Did some kind of charitable work in your community? Beyond your community?

Obviously not an exhaustive list, although it was getting a bit exhausting. Sorry about that. But the point is, how often do you do any of these things? How many have you done? If you have not spent time with people of other races and ethnicities, how can you hope to understand their problems? If you have never heard and seen the challenges of persons of disability and the look of triumph or defeat on their faces, how can you understand how to help? I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. Have you fallen into your world-in-a-box and got stuck?

And you and I are not the only ones with this problem. Why do the actions of our government leaders seem so ridiculous sometimes? The CEO's of mega corporations seem so out of touch? Their boxes may be a bit fancier, have a few more amenities, but they are still boxes. And when you live in a plush world-in-a-box with all the luxuries, you don't have much incentive to ever leave.

But we must leave if we are to improve, to learn, to understand. First thread. We gotta get out a little bit.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

I see a bad mood arising . . .

Saturday morning again. For some reason I woke up early and couldn't go back to sleep. The weather turned wintry since last night. According to the weather folk it won't get warmer today than it is right now. So I think maybe that is why I awoke early. Or maybe it was that little bird that has been tapping, gently rapping on my chamber window the last two mornings at dawn. I love all Saturday mornings, but especially the cold ones in autumn, when the hardiest leaves still hold on, waiting for us to rake our yards, and then let go. The kind of morning that moves slowly as you finally get out of bed and walk through the cool house to the coffee pot and get it started and then get back in bed. The kind of morning that cries out for eggs, sausage and toast and more coffee.

I had oatmeal instead. That's much more practical. So I better put on my practical clothes and get to work on my to do list. It' silly to waste a good Saturday morning just sitting around, drinking coffee and dreaming.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

E lectionary . ..and divine comedy

I alerted several of my preacher friends today of the Old Testament lectionary reading for this week. (Although I am quite sure all of them have finished preparing their sermons for Sunday) The reading is Judges 4. The lectionary is a schedule of scripture, most commonly planned out three years at a time, which churches may use for devotion and worship. Each week there is an old testament reading, a psalm, an epistle, and a gospel reading.

So this week's lectionary old testament reading, put on the calendar several years ago, is Judges 4. The story in this week's reading tells a story of a military leader named Barak who is sent into battle by God, through the judge of Israel at the time, Deborah, and is wildly victorious.

I have been in serious conversations with God a great deal lately. Perhaps a bit more intense than a conversation. I am thankful, and hopeful, that God is in fact slow to anger, although these Old Testament stories are a bit scary. I have demanded answers, begged for instruction, and even placed blame. . . with Him.

So, I'm doing my devotion earlier this week, which is based on the lectionary, and come across this Old Testament story about a guy named Barak. You know, if you have been paying attention, that I have been a bit pre-occupied with politics for awhile. So, when I read the obscure lectionary for this week after the election of our modern day Barack, I just had to laugh. And, while most people cannot find the humor in an old testament story of mass killing, I did, at least in the context of this moment.

Perhaps it is just coincidence that Barak was in this week's lectionary. After all, Barak is a common name in the Bible. No, not really.

God has a really dry sense of humor. Sometimes so subtle we don't notice. A few of my preacher friends responded with humor . . . and a rather unanimous decision not to use the passage as a basis for their sermons this Sunday. Bunch of chickens.

Anyway, I think God jokes around with us sometimes. Usually nothing big. I don't know, maybe I am just hoping He does.

But take for instance this past Sunday, I'm driving to Birmingham to church. I turned the radio off and was riding down Highway 75 on a perfect autumn morning. And I am mad at God. I have made repeated requests for a clear answer. Not asking God to make any changes in anything, I just wanted to know what He thought. I often do this out loud, especially if I am in my car. And I was getting louder and louder. "All I want is an answer . . . is that asking too much?"

Giving up, and with the emotion that one hangs up a phone, back when we all had phones you could slam down when you hung up, I quickly turned the radio back on.

Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion was singing an old Beatles' song . . ."there will be an answer, let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, there will be an answer, let it be . . ." Space and propriety prevent me from telling you how profound and how outrageously funny the moment was. But take it from me, it was. I laughed till I cried.

Sometimes I get too serious. If God takes time to lighten up, maybe I should join in.

Horse walks into a bar, bartender says, "Why the long face . . ."

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Now for something completely different . . .

I love autumn. I love the cool crisp air like we are having this week-end. I love the golden light of the afternoon as the rays of the sun come subtly from the horizon rather than directly overhead. I love the feeling of melancholy that it provokes in me. I love going for walks and being amazed at the colors of the leaves against the jet blue sky. I love the crunch of the leaves and the spice like aroma of the forest.

When I was in elementary school my Methodist friends and I would walk from Oneonta Elementary School to Lester Memorial UMC on Monday afternoons for choir practice. The sidewalks along the four blocks that we passed were buckled upward by the huge roots of ancient oak trees (made great ramps for biking, but that's a different story). These were water oaks, and the acorns that fell by the thousands were those small round ones that easily burst open when you stomped on them, exposing a pumpkin like orange insides. Like all of autumn, it was a sensory experience, the sounds, the sights, the smells, the feeling of the cold air on the face. The tastes only came in if we stopped at my grandmother's house on the way (right by the first Baptist Church) to see what she had cooking.

So I continue to love autumn. But there is that melancholy feeling. This year I entered the season feeling worse than melancholy, so I wasn't sure that I could take autumn this year. Melancholy on top of melancholy might be more than I can handle. I have always seen autumn as an ending, a time when old things die.

But I've been wrong. Things don't die in autumn. The leaves die and eventually return to the soil (especially in my yard, I'm a strong believer in natural mulch). But the leaves are not much more than skin. The acorns that fall and avoid the stomping of young boys contain life. The trees that produce them are not dead, just getting ready to grow another year. Enough growth to crack and buckle concrete. There is no more new life created, it just continues.

The important things, the lasting things, do not die, they just prepare for new growth.

Therein lies my hope. The tree can no more decide to die than we can decide to kill life and love around us. It is just a season. The spring is not really a new beginning, it is an awakening.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election wrap up . .

When we last we talked I was about to go in search of doughnuts.

About the time I shut down the computer yesterday morning and launched my quest for doughnuts, my phone rang. It was 5:00 a.m. I wasn't too surprised. This Ohio for Obama bunch knows how to use their electronic communication devices.
"Good morning, time to wake up," a familiar voice said. I said "Good morning" right back before I realized it was a really well done robo call. The voice was funny and excited, and then he said "this is John Kerry. I want to say thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to be a legal observer for the polls . . . now get up, rise and shine, it's time to go win Ohio for Obama."
If John had sounded like that four years ago, he would be running for re-election. Seriously, I have never seen anything like this Obama organization. If he can run the country like he ran his campaign, great things will be done. And maybe we will all get wake up calls from famous people.
God was riding with me on the doughnut hunt, and if God is able to be scared, He probably was. Probably explains why I drove directly to the Dunkin' doughnuts on MLK drive without completely missing any turns. Early morning traffic in a strange city, lots of turns and twists, and searching for street signs through bleary morning gunk filled eyes made for an interesting ride. But the mission was accomplished, two dozen doughnuts. (Variety, for those who care) And the lady in the window called me "Hon".
The trip to the doughnut shop took me away from the route that I had taken to the polling place on Monday. But, as previously noted in this blog, I have been called the human GPS, at least by me. So confidently I made a quick calculation and trusted my instincts. Again, God must have been with me, because I pulled up to the polling place five minutes early, 5:40 a.m., much like Chevy Chase arriving at the motel in Vacation. "I'm here."

I was the first one to arrive at Calvary UMC. It was still dark and in the low forties. Tucking the two dozen doughnuts and my notebook and clipboard (yes, I had a clipboard) under my arm, I headed toward the front of the church to wait. One of the pollworkers, a man about my age, arrived at the same time I did. It was his first time to work at the polls. All the doors to the church were still locked. A couple of other poll workers arrived. Adam, my compadre legal observer walked up with his notebook and clipboard. (I see by your outfit that you're an observer . . .) A few voters had already arrived. Fortunately, this appeared to be one of those neighborhoods where everybody knew everybody. So, a trustee of the church was passing by and noticed everyone waiting. He stopped and unlocked the doors.
By that time all the poll workers were there. Since I am not a resident of Ohio, I was prohibited from being in the polling place during the election. So I went in before the polls were set up and introduced myself to the "presiding judge", which is the official name for the head poll person. I showed my doughnuts. They were right. Doughnuts are a key. A life lesson learned.

The presiding judge was a lean small woman who knew what she was doing. She knew the rules, the law, and the practical side of running a poll. If every poll was run by someone like her, there would be far fewer problems on election day. She knew everyone and their family. She, unlike many precinct chairmen, would take time to find the correct precinct for a voter to go to if they didn't know. She truly wanted everyone to get to vote, and do it legally.

So, primarily because of the competence of the poll workers, things at Calvary UMC went smoothly. No long lines, just a steady stream of voters. The poll workers said that twice as many people voted there as had voted in any previous election.
At Calvary UMC, at least forty percent of the voters were under the age of 25. Many were young men that some of us would be wary of if we met them on the sidewalk at night. Hooded sweatshirts covering half their faces, baggy designer jeans belted slightly above the knee. Cryptic tatoos. One of my jobs was to remind people of rules before they went in to the polls, and afterwards to ask them if there were any problems in the polls. "Thank you sir". "No sir, it was all good." Time after time courteous, sometimes excited responses came from these young faces. Some that stayed around for a while started calling me Bill Clinton. I told them that was a compliment as far as I was concerned.
I doubt that I have ever been so blessed. As I talked with voters leaving the poll I would say something like, "thank you for voting and have a good rest of the day." The response was usually, "Thank you. You have a blessed day now." By the time the day was over, I had indeed had a blessed day.
There was another polling place right across the street. One of the workers from there told me that an elderly lady who was too sick to get out of her car was coming to our polling place, where she was supposed to vote. She would need a "curbside ballot". One Democrat and one Republican would have to bring her ballot out to her at the car and let her vote. I looked up the street. There was an older model beat up maroon car weaving down the road at about 15 mph. Traffic was stacking up behind the car. The car slowly veered toward the curb right in front of the church. It continued to veer until the right side tires were both up on the curb. I had assumed that a woman so sick would have been brought by someone else. But apparently not. As I looked in the window, she was slumped forward, her head resting in the middle of the steering wheel. I thought she had passed out. Hurrying to the driver's side window, I asked if she was all right. She struggled to look up at me, tears in her eyes, and said "yes". She was fumbling with the door handle. I stopped her and told her we were bringing a ballot to her. She again slumped forward. I said "are you all right, is there anything I can do?" She said "no, I just got to keep my oxygen bottle in the right place. I'll be all right." When the two poll workers got in the car with her, they had to go over the polling list. They sat with her, looking at her drivers license, and went over and over the list. The pollworkers could not find her name. The lady lifted her head from the steering wheel, raised a bony finger and placed it on the list and said in a weak but firm voice, "is that not me?" The pollworkers may have been slightly embarassed that they couldn't finder her name, but their relief was obviously greater. It was her and she slowly voted. I was really worried about her driving and asked if I could drive her home. She assured me she lived right around the corner and told me how she was going to get there by making only right turns by going one block farther down. There was no arguing with this woman, who still had tears in her eyes. "No way I wasn't gonna vote on this one." She rolled up the window and left, her car creeping down the street.
A "get out the vote" van pulled up. The side doors opened and I saw a man with a walker. He was stooped over and could barely move his legs. I suggested a curb ballot. He looked up at me and said, "No, I want to go inside and vote on this one. I can get there." And he did. He struggled up the steps in the front of the church and slowly went inside. When he came out he smiled up at me and said, "have a blessed day." There were tears in his eyes as well.
Children. There were lots of children around all day. And I have no doubt that these children will always remember going to the polls with their mother or father or granny or auntie on the day that Obama was elected. There was a daycare across the street. The teachers led the kids on a parade during the middle of the day, shouting "OBAMA, OBAMA."

There were spontaneous shouts and cheers of OBAMA all day long from cars passing by, or folks down the street. I am glad I got to see and hear it all. I was blessed to get to work with great people. Adam did a great job inside. He is a young attorney who will soon be moving back to Memphis. The poll workers were great. And the people that were outside politicking, or providing voter protection information, were wonderful to spend the day with.

It took forever for the day to end. Exhaustion was setting in. Then suddenly it was 7:30 and the poll closed. Our precinct went about 95% for Obama. I said my goodbyes and left.

I was alone. Not wanting to be alone I headed downtown. A huge crowd of Obama folks had gathered at the Cadillac Ranch, a big bar and cafe with lots of televisions. We watched together and cheered as each state was called for Obama. Pennsylvania was big. But, when Ohio was called for Obama, a joyous, powerful roar erupted. Exhausted faces were filled with tears and smiles. It was a beautiful sight.

Suddenly I realized how tired I was. I left the Cadillac Ranch and began the walk back to my car. The polls had been closed for a couple of hours. My phone vibrated. A text message from headquarters advising me about voter identification. These guys were commited. I laughed out loud as I walked down the streets of Cincinnati. I had thought about heading south for a few hours, but wiser counsel convinced me otherwise. I called Vann and Benjamin and texted some others. I got a room at the Radisson and turned on the television and flopped onto the bed, which is where I was when the race was called. I desparately tried to stay awake for Obama's speech. A friend by text suggested a catnap. I woke up from my catnap at about 7:30 a.m.. I did hear part of the speech, but it's a little foggy.
So that's it. Not really all of it, but this blog has gone on too long. I am thankful for this adventure. I am thankful for the hope that our country has latched onto. I am thankful for all the beautiful people who I had the chance to hang out with the last few days. I didn't see Bailey Quarters, Venus Flytrap, or Johnny Fever. But as much as like them, they are not real. I met some real people in Cincinnati this weekend. I think it was meant to be.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Too early for words . . .

No more blogging for awhile, maybe tonight. I'm off to throw my stuff in the car and search for doughnuts and head to the polls, or poll as it were.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Office supplies, doughnuts, and pizza . . .foundations of democracy

I got up moving slowly this morning. There were things that had to be done today. All kinds of forms to get copied, holes to be punched, and a raft of rules to go over closely. And I had to go find the polling place to which I have been assigned.

Amazingly, the business centers for motels do not generally provide hole punching. Very disappointing. Do they expect business people to run around willy nilly with loose papers falling out of notebooks?

As it turns out, Cincinnati is not structured like Birmingham. It is fairly easy to navigate, but it remains an old school industrial style city. There is not a mall every mile or so. And there is not an Office Depot, Office Max or Kinkos in every neighborhood. I thought maybe I just couldn't find the malls, but the clerk at the motel desk confirmed my observation, and directed me to the downtown Kinkos, which I finally drove to around 5:00 p.m., just in time to enjoy the full drive time traffic in Cincinnati. Actually I enjoyed it. I like cities. I like the hustle and bustle, and people coming out of work, and the shops and restaurants. Cincinnati is old school, and its downtown is still vibrant. The best restaurants are there. Saks 5th Ave and Macy's are there. And fortunaely, so is Kinkos and its automatic hole puncher. There was something about the mixture of diesel fumes and the aroma of the diverse foods from the restaurants that reminded me of childhood trips to Birmingham.

This morning I found my polling place. It is the Calvary UMC on Woodburn Avenue. It is in a rather run down, lower income part of Cincinatti, way across town from my home away from home here at the Hampton. As it turns out, I will be the only outside observer at this polling place. That means I will be working hard all day. My last email from headquarters (they send them out quite often) kept using the phrase "in the event there is no inside poll worker you will have to do as many of their duties as you can legally do" or something like that. I really hope I am not the only one there. The precincts that vote there generally are heavily democratic. In Cincinnati, a Republican stronghold, that makes it a prime place for problems. Repubs would like for there to be problems, Dems would like for there not to be. I don't get anxious about many things, but to be honest, I am a tad anxious.

Doughnuts. Our leaders say we should take doughnuts to the poll workers. Apparently a good Krispy Kreme will unlock doors previously tightly shut. I don't know where I'm going to get dougnuts at 5:30 a.m. in Cincinnati. If they are as difficult to find as a hole puncher, I may not have the proper keys when I arrive. We are supposed to be at the polls by 5:45 a.m. and stay until after the poll is closed and the votes are secure. This could take a while. I hope the whole thing is called after Indiana and Kentucky, but probably not.

I didn't go to a fancy place to eat tonight. I needed to go to a place where I could spread my manuals out and read while I ate. Across the street and down three blocks is a local pizza place, Riverboat Pizza. They made the whole thing, crust and all, right there on the spot. It was full of locals, always a good sign. And the locals were right. Twelve inch pizza, almost gone. Couple of pieces left for bedtime. I'll be going to bed now. As soon as I get my stuff packed and ready to leave in the bowels of the morning. How can one man scatter so much stuff in two days? Rhetorical, no comment necessary.

more tomorrow.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The future of the free world? I just wanted to get away a couple of days . . .

For a political junkie it has been a perfect day.

I drove across the bridge to the University of Cincinnati College of Law first thing this afternoon to be trained to be a legal observer for polls here in Hamilton County. As it turns out, the whole election turns on what happens in Hamilton County, Ohio.,9171,1855354,00.html They told us that right up front. I began to feel a bit of pressure as the class went on . . . and on . . . and on. We were meeting in one of the large lecture rooms similar to those we have at the Alobama School of Law. So the pressure felt natural. Not good, but natural.

I am proud to be a lawyer. Lawyers do important things, hard things, and not always for the money. The lecture hall was filled to capacity, and those in attendance were clearly serious about their duties. Sometimes that resulted in someone asking those questions that are just asked for the sake of being asked. That sort of reminded me of college too. One of my pet peeves is when people, usually sitting up toward the front, ask questions just to be asking a question. The kind of question that had already been answered or could be learned from reading the information that was emailed out or the website. The meeting was plenty long enough. But in the big scheme of things, it was a small matter. There was a semester's worth of information given out in four hours. The meeting ended with handing out our polling place assignments. I have mine. I will find it tomorrow. It is in an urban area right here in Cincinnati, Hamilton County, key to the future of the whole free world Ohio. Ohio just makes it too hard to vote. Complex ID requirements, precinct identification problems, and too few machines to handle the load will result in long, long lines and the possibility that voters will give up rather than stand in line for hours. Those are the main things I am supposed to deal with. I hope I don't screw anything up.
One of my new friends to my right asked if I were going to the Obama rally. I said yes, despite the fact that I had no idea what she was talking about. I was walking onto the street with two guys from California. They were more clueless than I was. But we found a freshman wandering by. He knew about the rally and when it was supposed to start, but he wasn't sure where the football stadium was. I knew I was not in Alabama anymore. We, the California guys and I, decided it would make more sense to hang around until the rally rather than go back to our motels. We parted company as we parked in different locations and had to put our polling materials in our cars.
I figured it would be my only chance to see Obama in person so I grabbed a quick Pannini and set out to find the football stadium. As I finally found the right entrance to the stadium I almost gave up. The line was long. Real long. I thought about how some of the voters will feel on election day. But I got in line. When you spend four hours or so in line with people you can form some good, however temporary, relationships. As it turns out I was standing in line with three other lawyers and a first year law student. By the time we got into the event we had shared how perilous the practice of law can be to one's health, and it got pretty personal. I was careful to try to encourage the first year law student, bless her heart.

Then along about the third hour we were getting close to the security folks, and one of the other lawyers, his girlfriend and I were chosen to sit in the stands right behind Obama. We were directed to go all the way down to the field and into the bleachers immediately behind the stage. The atmosphere was energizing. It was also great fun. After hearing briefly from Ohio Democratic candidates, Obama made his appearance. His talk was the same closing argument as he has been making for a week or so. But, I am glad I got to see him close up. He is truly something special.

Of course I texted a few people to tell them I was right behind Obama. I'm not sure they understood that I was right behind Obama. But, thanks to Benjamin, I have a little proof. The video of the speech is on youtube at
You will find my head to the left of Obama's right elbow.
Then, amazingly, Obama stepped down off the stage and walked out along the fence at ground level, just a few feet from where I was sitting. I hate that he looked goofy when I snapped the shot, but, none of us can look good all the time. He may be just be an extremely gifted politician, but dang, he seems like a genuinely friendly, nice guy.

More later.

Marvelous Grace . . .

Training for poll observers begins in a little while. I am about to head off to the University of Cincinatti College of Law.
But this morning I woke up early. The extra hour given when we quit saving daylight was burned up for me because of this eastern time zone thing, but still, I woke up with the sun.

The free breakfast here at the Hampton Inn was too easy and paid for, so I opted for that. But then I went exploring. I am staying across the river from Cincinatti in Covington, KY. It is a really cool old town. Kind of like stepping back into a black and white thirties movie.

As I rode down one of the streets I came upon what used to be the First Methodist Church. It is now Grace United Methodist, a campus of Immanuel United Methodist. I wandered in about ten o'clock to see what was happening. The praise band was practicing in the old traditional sanctuary. Apparently some things are universal. The band was confused about how many times they were going to repeat the chorus of Marvelous Light. I sat and watched and listened, feeling very much at home in the comfortable place. A woman was in the back and in the front and all over the place getting ready for the service. As it turns out she is from Glencoe, Alabama, and has one son still in college at Auburn. Small world.

We sang several songs. One was Salvation is Here, a song I had begun to learn last month at First Methodist in Birmingham. After suffering through their practice and hearing it in the service, I think I have it now.
The preacher was intense about his message of redemption in Christ. At one point he referenced the song I Can Only Imagine, a praise song from a few years ago, and how it reached him in his thoughts about what his reaction will be when the veil is lifted. His sermon was on The Bridge. The church is located in the shadow of a couple of bridges across the river. He talked about crossing the bridge to Grace. He liked the idea that all of the people of the area would cross the bridges to come to Grace United Methodist, but acknowledged that the real message was much greater than that.

The prayer concerns were long and represented much pain and need for healing. It was All Saints Sunday and we celebrated the Saints who had crossed the Bridge . . . you know, the big Bridge. Lots of tears. Lots of candles. Nothing rushed. Everything personal. I was glad I was there. Grace United Methodist is in ministry to the street folk of Cincinatti and Covington. More than half the congregation were there through that truly open door. We had church. What a joyful thing.
So it is true. We are all part of a really big, beautiful body. And much of it is comfortingly familiar no matter where you are.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

While they were on the road . . .

Early, ok not so early this morning I
set out for Cincinnati. Heading north out of Oneonta the morning sun was bright and the North Alabama world was a beautiful sight. Not a cotton pickin' care in the world . . .

I headed toward Cullman where I planned to meet my
friend Rev. Matteo Smith for a latte. And I had a bagel. As we are prone to do, we talked a little longer than I had scheduled, but that's OK because it is Saturday, and the Saturday rule is that one can do what one wants to on Saturday,as long as no one is hurt.
Matt is the pastor at Baileyton. One of his blogs is noted on my "pick a blogger" list on the right. We discussed many weighty matters, and some with no weight at all. At the right is the look Matt gets as he is inspired for his next sermon while sitting at the coffee shop. Music, politics, religion, love, Alabama football. We covered a lot of turf. He prayed for me in the parking lot, and we said adios.

Once again its northward ho. Except the large latte quickly had its effect on me, and I needed a bathroom. Fortunately my middle sister Deb lives in Hartselle, right off I-65. What luck, they were home. Robert, the second United Methodist minister to offer me hospitality today, Deb, and Rachel, their elder child (pictured on the left) were all decked out in their Auburn shirts and were watching the Auburn-Ole Miss game. We had a good visit; Robert had cooked some deer meat and chicken salad. I had some of both and took a couple of pieces of the meat for the road. Auburn seemed to be coming on strong when I left. I later found out that didn't continue. I know how they are feeling. Good folk, those Sparkmans.

Next stop, Vannderbilt. Nashville is only a couple of hours up the interstate and I thought I would stop in and check out how the younger son is doing. He had been out Halloweening last night. Wore a costume highlighted by a fireman's hat and a sword. The price was right. The concept had something to do with a fire breathing dragon that ultimately had to be dealt with. These Vanderbilt students are rather complex.
Still feeling the fullness and the saltiness of the deer meat, I was in the mood for something sweet, so we headed to Ben and Jerry's, just a couple of blocks from Vann's dorm. The triple caramel chunk was everything I wanted it to be. After a short ride, I took Vann back to the dorm. Vann is a really cool guy. And I am being objective.

Just a few hours to Cincinnati from Nashville. The countryside was beautiful. I was only a couple hours from the end of the trip when the set set over the rolling Kentucky countryside.
So now I'm in Cincinnati. It is a beautiful city at night. The motel clerks asked me where I was from and what brought me to Cincinnati. Stifling the obvious "my gold Sebring" response, I told them I was from Alabama, and I was here to help with the election. They asked who I was for, and I said Obama, and I thought they were going to give me my room free of charge, but they didn't. Still, it was a nice change. Lots of excitement about the election around the motel, gas station and convenience store I have visited so far.

But I was hungry and didn't want to have to get in the car and was looking for the real pulse of Cincinnati, so naturally I headed to the Waffle House down the block. I love Waffle House, especially late at night. The experience is universal. There was the young couple that looked over dressed for the place sitting at a booth talking quietly. There was a guy who looked like he just got off work for the utility company and when he walked in the cooks yellled out his name. There was a liquid on the floor that was unidentifiable.
We talked in the Ongoing Bible Study at Lester Memorial UMC in Oneonta (Wed. 6:00 p.m., all are welcome) about Sabbath. Someone made the observation that perhaps Sabbath was not created for us to do things for God, but for us to allow time and space for God to do things for us.
I need several Sabbaths in a row to get right. But right now I'm thankful for this one.
More tomorrow.

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