I walk with a friend along the left edge of America. We’re wandering a wedge of sand bordered to the west by the Pacific Ocean, and to the north by the town of Yachats, Oregon. We’re separated from the town by a little river that flattens across the beach, and then surrenders to the pull of waves. We talk about the unique habitat created by the confluence of freshwater and saltwater, and the specialized ecosystem thriving there.

He and I are recovering fundamentalists. Our conversation turns to the allure of legalism – the delicious illusion that life’s choices can be neatly parsed into two simple categories: right and wrong. And we wonder together how we might distinguish between legitimate personal convictions on one hand, and brittle dogmatism on the other.

Into the middle of our ruminations bounds a shaggy Shepherd-Lab mix, black with white-tipped ears, feet, and tail. In his teeth he grips the charred nub of someone’s marshmallow stick, plucked from the cold remains of a beach fire. His expectant eyes and wagging tail leave no doubt about his wish. My friend obliges and tosses the spindly fetch-toy. With undiluted delight the dog retrieves the stick and deposits it at my feet. I fling it Frisbee-style, then scrub off the saliva with a handful of sand. This time, instead of bringing it to us, he swerves south toward the wave-muted sound of his name.

In a few minutes he’s back, along with two dachshunds and two humans. The dachshunds appear sophisticated and reserved, and slightly embarrassed by their large companion’s exuberance. The humans look like seasoned veterans of the counterculture, perhaps teachers or writers or potters. They smile toward the mongrel and apologize for his attenuated cognitive faculties. The woman says, “He has a very limited view of the world.” “Yes,” the man adds, “he sees all things in terms of stick-no-stick.”

We laugh with them, and I note the parallel to binary code. My friend says, “Right! It’s all about zeroes and ones…”

We walk silently for a while. I’m not satisfied with our assessment of the dog’s fetching obsession. Could it be that he isn’t really stuck in a recursive loop of dimwittedness? But rather that he’s endlessly compelled to give up the stick in order to feel the joy of having it again? Maybe he’s intuited the balance of possession and generosity, paired together in a spirit of playfulness.

I glance toward my soul. Sadly, it has the look of a haughty dachshund. Embarrassed by possession, afraid of generosity, distracted from the play at hand… I lift my eyes to the beauty of the beachscape and pray for the wisdom of stick-no-stick.



The Esopus Creek runs through three hundred years of my family’s stories. It’s easy to imagine my Dutch and Palatine forbears tapping into its store of fish in order to fend off hunger. I used to fish it too on occasion, but happily, my survival never depended on the catch!

The Esopus nearly took my father’s life one afternoon when he was small. He went under, but my grandfather was watching, and pulled him back up into the air.

I was baptized in those same waters, along with my Dad and the rest of my immediate family. It was a chilly sacrament since Indian summer didn’t show up that September.

After a brief testimony, I held my nose and arched backward until fully immersed. Pastor Miller steadied me, but I still felt disoriented and vulnerable in the cold Esopus.

Baptism is a tactile poem about resurrection, which is the spiritual principle of life-from-death, and the current that carries hope forward. Faith isn’t just a wish. It’s more like counting on an unfolding of good things I can’t create for myself – an unfolding that unfolds forever.

All goose bumps and grins, and in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, we were pulled out of the water into the air. Life from death: ritually enacted and viscerally understood.


My Fishing Pole

Flame orange life vest buckled snugly around my chest, I sat in a rented rowboat with my uncle and my father. My new Zebco rod was perfectly sized for me, and its pushbutton spin reel made casting easy. I reeled in the lure with gentle jerks of my wrist meant to make it appear lifelike, then cast it out again.

I wondered how deep the water was where we were. Neither of the grownups could say for sure. I leaned over a little and peered downward. A couple of feet below the surface the water was a cloudy olive drab, and after that it went opaque with shadows.

Snags were an inevitable part of fishing an Adirondack lake. Normally, persistence paid off, but when it didn’t, the line had to be snapped or cut. This time it was really caught, and I couldn’t work it loose. It was a favorite lure, though, and I wasn’t willing to give it up without a fight.

My uncle rowed toward the snag. I kept the line taut so it wouldn’t get tangled in the oars. He circled slowly, thinking we might be able to free the hook from a different angle. It wouldn’t let go.

I miscalculated the effect of the waves on the boat’s motion, and felt a sudden tug. My heart snagged in my throat as I fumbled with the reel to let out more slack. But I was too slow and my prized Zebco was yanked clean out of my hands. It drifted down into the shadows and disappeared.

My Dad was born at home because the hospital was a luxury his parents couldn’t afford. He learned to love the outdoors at an early age, and in due course became a Boy Scout. After high school he joined the Army, where he learned to peel potatoes and fire a bazooka. When he got home he married my mother and went to work bagging groceries. Around the time I was born, he got hired by IBM, and spent the next thirty-some years punching the clock for Big Blue. He was a pipe smoker, a wood carver, and the scoutmaster of my Cub Scout troop. He was and is a Yankee fan, a Ford driver, and a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. At six-foot-two plus, and well over two hundred pounds, he’s rarely been described as graceful. And yet, it was grace I saw in the powerful, implausible quickness with which he shed his clothes and entered the dark water.

Patiently, methodically, again and again, he dove down in search of my lost fishing pole. In between, he’d surface and tread water while he caught his breath. His reddish-blond crew cut and broad, freckled shoulders were almost incandescent, bobbing in the slate-green lake. He kept at it, curling downward and vanishing with nary a splash, like a pale sea lion in Sears skivvies. My eyes must have been saucers. My thoughts were a swirl of despair, wonder, and admiration. My uncle grinned at his big brother, and egged him on.

Long after a less stubborn (and frugal) man would have given up, unbelievably, my Dad found my fishing pole. Up through the airless shadows he surfaced, prize in hand. He swam to the boat, and returned my Zebco to me. As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been Excalibur. He told my uncle and me he’d meet us at the campsite because he wanted to swim in.

We tied the rowboat to a tree trunk, and watched my Dad breaststroke toward us through the waves. Once he reached shallow water, he went flat against the rocky bottom, and pulled himself along like a crocodile up to the edge of our campsite. Thankfully, since his white underpants were obviously not a bathing suit, and since some neighboring campers had become interested, he stayed beneath the cover of the waterline until the last minute. My mother waded out with a beach towel, and wrapped it around him as he stood up.



The mound of clay is cool and moist in my hands. It feels primal and grounding. It feels like promise.

I roll it and flatten it repeatedly, removing bits of grit and closing air pockets. The clay responds to the warmth of my hands and becomes gradually softer. When its texture is pliable, strong and consistent, I ball it up and take it to the wheel.

I throw the heavy lump down onto the spinning platter, and firmly cup my hands around it. I guide it into the hub of the wheel’s energy. I touch the clay with water, and begin coaxing the dome into a cylinder. Pulling it up, and pushing it back down until it seems ready for an opening.

What will this pot hold someday? Carnations, coins, cream, coffee… I push my thumbs gently into its center and begin shaping its emptiness. I expand the void slowly, allowing the clay time to adjust.

When it’s right, I stop the spinning and pull a cutting wire through the base of the pot to release it from the wheel. Its shape is perfect, but its structure is tender. It still needs to experience fire.


The Eighth Man

In the mid-1960s our Zenith was tuned to WPIX-TV at 4:00PM. “Tobor the 8th Man” aired at that time. It was an Anime series about a superhero android with the brain of a slain police detective.

It was low budget, so the producers reused sequences of frames wherever possible. When Tobor ran – which was frequently, as I recall – they used a side profile of the hero, leaning into the draft of his own blinding speed. His entire body stayed stock still except for his piston legs, which pounded up and down like diesel cylinders.

One day during gym class in 1st grade we had to race around the perimeter of the gymnasium. All of the first-graders were there, boys and girls, and everybody was fired up for the contest.

The image of Tobor was vivid in my mind. I believed his running technique would give me the edge I needed over my classmates, so I leaned forward and did my best to emulate the quick, hammering motion of his legs.

The athletic kids pulled away in front of me. I was used to that. Then the average kids started pulling away too. This caused me some concern because it was among them that I normally jostled for position.

Soon, I was looking at the backs of the kids who had difficulty remembering how to put their sneakers on. I didn’t like the way things were going, but I persevered. I had faith that Tobor’s technique would prevail in the end if I stuck with it.

When the frontrunners came up from behind and lapped me for the first time, the chuckling began. By the time the rest of the pack had lapped me, the winners had finished the race. They stood along the wall, pointing at me in amazement, and roaring with laughter.

I felt humiliated, of course, but even worse, I felt betrayed by my hero. Why hadn’t Tobor’s technique worked for me?

I should’ve noted the possible complications relative to my not being a cartoon robot. But even allowing for that slight miscalculation, it’s fair to say that I should’ve considered abandoning my failed strategy before the race ended.

I wonder what I’m doing right now that amounts to the same thing as running like Tobor. What are the illusions I insistently persist in pursuing? What glaring evidences of futility am I ignoring?

Perseverance is not inherently virtuous. Perseverance has to be animated by wisdom; otherwise it’s a robot with no brain.



Two lava lamps rehearse their unhurried ballet on either end of the big console’s monitor shelf. Studio A is dark beyond the heavy, slanted glass wall that separates it from the control room. I can just make out the shadowed contours of the grand piano. Chrome hardware and brass cymbals glint faintly from the drum booth at the far end of the room.

It’s noiseless out there tonight because this is a mixing session. Basic tracks were recorded a month ago, and overdubbing finished up last week. Now the separate pieces – drums, vocals, guitars, more guitars, piano, strings, finger snaps – wait on parallel strips of two-inch 24-track tape for the engineer and I to shape them into four minutes of integrated beauty.

Each track will want some degree of doctoring, ranging from merely adjusting its relative level, to patching it through a pitch-fixing box. One track might trigger a digital sample of a different sound altogether. Mixing is an intuitive interplay of science and art.

Just as we’re about to get going, the engineer pushes his chair back from the mixing board and shakes his head. He mutters something about interns. The patch bay hasn’t been cleared, and the knobs and faders haven’t been returned to unity. This was the intern’s job following the previous session.

“Zeroing the board” is standard protocol in good recording studios. It’s achingly tedious to undo someone else’s settings, and it’s a momentum killer. An engineer assumes each session will begin with a clean slate.

This offers an analogy pertinent to spiritual health. It’s possible for the fragmented bits of a soul to be shaped into a life of integrated beauty. Periodically zeroing one’s interior is what’s called for. That’s when the Engineer loves to get to work.


The Virtue Of Cigarettes

My grandmother sat on a large rock, smoking a cigarette and sipping a can of beer while she watched us play in the lake. She was concerned that we keep an eye out for fishing lures and broken glass. Treading on either one could swiftly ruin an entire vacation.

Although the campground boasted one of the finest white sand beaches in the Adirondacks, we opted for the boat-launch that day. It was nearer to our campsite. Rangers kept it clear enough to get a boat in and out of the water, but it wasn’t really meant for swimmers. Aside from the paved launch strip, the bottom was complicated with slippery rocks and fallen branches. Its small beach was pebbly and rough.

My dad was in the lake with my brother and sister and me. My sister stayed close to him for the most part. My brother, on the other hand, swam like an otter, alternately disappearing underwater and popping up where he wasn’t expected.

As a rule, I preferred exploring to swimming. A rotten log bobbing among the lily pads caught my attention. It was heavy, but still had some float left in it. It made a decent submarine when I pushed it lengthwise below the surface.

It was rare for my grandmother to be in the mountains with us, since she was fond of modern conveniences. Not that she was fussy; in fact, she was very comfortable with all sorts of outdoor activities. She was the one who’d taught me how to put a nightcrawler on a fishhook. But I got the impression that she’d “roughed it” enough in her life and wasn’t looking for her leisure time to be rustic.

When we got out of the water I noticed six or seven small reddish-brown bumps on my feet and ankles. I didn’t know what they were, but they made me feel uneasy. My Grandmother took a closer look, and said, “Oh Scotty, you got bloodsuckers on you!”

My instinct was to scratch them off with my fingernails, but she stopped me. In a deliberately calm voice she explained that they had to be removed very carefully; otherwise, their mouthparts might stick in my skin and cause a bad infection. I tried with all my might to cling to my composure.

My dad hustled back to our campsite for the first-aid kit and a saltshaker. My grandmother said she knew what to do. I trusted her, but couldn’t watch. The familiar smell of her smoke comforted me a little.

I remember the heat of her cigarette near my skin as she methodically backed the leeches out of me. Even if I got burned, I thought, it would be better than having those blobby little monsters fastened to my body.

One by one they let go, and were deftly flicked into her beer can for safekeeping. I held still and waited out the eternal seconds. She periodically took a drag to stoke the cigarette. It probably helped steady her hand too. She finished the procedure without once touching the tobacco embers to my skin.

My dad had returned in time to see the last fiend vanquished. He dabbed Mercurochrome on the tiny odd-shaped wounds. Then I could exhale again.



Richie saw me as a catcher. His imagination must’ve been keener than his eye for talent. Squatting behind home plate was the last place on the diamond I wanted to be. I wasn’t built like a backstop, and I didn’t have a rifle of a throwing arm. The equipment seemed bulky and stifling. And playing catcher appeared to be an ideal way to get hurt, which I tried to make a point of avoiding.

This was my third and last year of Little League. I’d spent the first on a Minor League team where we had only hats and t-shirts, not real uniforms. Batters often got four or five strikes instead of three, and any ball hit in fair territory had a solid chance of becoming a homerun.

The following year I tried out again and was chosen by a bona fide Little League team. I would wear the maroon pinstripes of the Giants. They were a perennially competitive team, with a manager and bench coach who were bent on winning. They were tough, focused, and frequently mean. They were impatient with skill deficiencies, but uninterested in developing raw talent. They didn’t like weakness.

Because of my asthma I carried an inhaler with me in case I started wheezing. It didn’t occur to me until too late that I might as well have written “BENCH ME” across my forehead in red magic marker. The only action I saw that year was in the last inning or two of a game. When I did get to play, it was in right field: Little League’s dreaded badlands of boredom.

We lost the championship that year to the other winning-is-everything team, the Tigers. Our catcher, who was the bench coach’s son, threw a tantrum in the dugout. I remember being intrigued and confused by the severity of his reaction. It mirrored his father’s, except that the dad managed to contain his tears.

One of the best pieces of news I ever received was finding out that the manager and coach were quitting after that season. Many of our starters had to move on too because they were heading into junior high. Our star catcher was one of them, and nobody had been trained to take his place. We were left with a significant hole in our lineup.

During the off-season, Richie signed on to take over managing the team. He couldn’t have had a more fundamentally different approach to the game. His primary goal was for everyone on the team to make a contribution. He taught us the game, helped us develop our skills, and shaped us into ballplayers. Underscoring everything was the high value he placed on good sportsmanship.

It turned out that Richie was right about me; I was a catcher. I developed a real affection for the position. It didn’t take long for me to see that the catcher got to be involved in every single play on the field. The perspective from behind the plate was unequaled. I loved discovering the idiosyncrasies of different batters, and moving the target to where I thought they were least likely to connect with the ball.

I especially enjoyed the time-honored baseball tradition of chatter. My variation on the theme was to speak softly to the batter, just loud enough for him to hear. I’d narrate the moment, describing his nervousness and his uncertainty of whether or not a strike was on its way. Would he be able to hit it? Probably not. Maybe the pitch would hit him… When he seemed out of sync and edgy I’d shout, “Swing!” and he’d lunge for one in the dirt. What could be more fun than that!

Like most boys, I wanted to hit homeruns. I wanted to swing for the fences from way down on the knob of a big log of a bat. But Richie envisioned me hitting for average. He helped me modify my stance and my grip on the bat. It turned out that he was right about that too. I hit zero homeruns that year, but I hit safely 29 times in 61 at-bats.

The fact that I remember those numbers so clearly might be symptomatic of glory-days-syndrome, but it’s mostly a testament to the impact of being seen in a hopeful light. Richie imagined my potential and coached me toward it.

He did the same for the rest of my teammates, and we deepened our love for the game together. We lost the championship to the Tigers again, but it didn’t ruin our lives. It was a great year to wear maroon pinstripes.



I’d been thinking about making a pilgrimage to my hometown. I hadn’t been back there for eleven years, and that had only been a brief visit. So, it had been a long time since I’d really spent any time there.

Conventional wisdom says you can never go home. I’d been warned that the area had changed considerably, and not for the better. But that didn’t really touch my reasons for wanting to go.

My memories of Ulster County had begun to fade. Their substance was wearing thin. It was more like remembering a book I’d read than a place I’d lived. I felt impelled to go back and hold a handful of dirt. As odd as it sounds, I needed to verify for myself that it was still real.

This growing eagerness to return home became more urgent when my Grandmother’s health took a bad turn. It was beginning to seem like she might be within view of the end of her journey.

She’d smoked for most of her life, and her struggles with emphysema during recent years hadn’t sufficiently motivated her to quit. Now she’d finally been forced to exchange her cigarettes for a portable oxygen tank.

Because she adamantly refused to fly, and because I couldn’t afford to, it’d been far too long since we’d visited face to face. It seemed imperative that I get there, but I couldn’t figure out how to pull it off.

The answer came in the form of an exceptional birthday gift. My wife spread the word that she would set out a “tip jar” at my party for contributions toward my airfare and hotel. Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, the trip became possible.

After settling into my hotel room, I drove to my Grandmother’s home on Old Sawkill Road. She met me in the doorway with her calm, wide smile. It was a good reunion.

We talked for a while, and then she asked me if I’d mind doing a few chores. She could still brew a fine pot of coffee, but there were other things she could no longer do. A neighbor helped her out from time to time, but as she put it, “He ain’t so young no more either.”

One of the chores was refilling her birdfeeder with seed. She stood beside the ladder, under the butternut tree and coached me through the task. The feeder was an antique, clear plastic contraption. A little door had to be worked open in order for a portion of birdseed to spill out onto the tray.

Grammy Burnett had a soft spot for birds. More than once she’d rescued a fallen robin or sparrow, and successfully nursed it back to health. I’ve heard stories about a blackbird she saved that became something like a pet. It staid nearby for a long time, and would even perch on her shoulder like a parrot.

She was still looking at the birdfeeder as I eased my way down the ladder. She said, “The dove will come around. She’s smart, she’ll open the latch. Then the other little birds will get some seeds too.”

She hadn’t intended to make a profound statement. She didn’t care much for fancy talk. But there it was, a perfect poetic image of kindness.

When I got back to my hotel room, I wrote her words in my journal so I wouldn’t forget them. They stirred up a holy gratefulness in my spirit for the doves in my life.

The Great Dove opens the latch, and courage, humility, integrity, balance, meaning, generosity, salvation… spill out into life. Then we learn to open latches for one another. We learn about kindness and grace.

That was, in fact, the way I’d gotten to be there that spring. Kind people created the means for me to spend a few days with the woman who had taught me how to handle a fishing pole. She died in December of that same year. She was one of the smartest doves I ever knew.

"I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.' I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God."

John the Baptist, describing Jesus.


Follow Your Dog

Boomer and I stride uphill, toward the farthest cul de sac. We’ll shoot through the footpath to the trail and head west. There’s another big hill that way we can tackle before pushing home. I’m in a crunch for time today, so there’s no dawdling.

As we reach the cul de sac, Boomer’s gaze is fixed on the footpath. He has the aspect of a Pointer. It seems as though he’s counting on his forward focus to overrule any inclination I might have to turn around at this point.

Behind us, a curled maple leaf jumps along the street, animated by the breeze. It makes a hollow, scraping sound. My first startled thought is that it’s an animal skittering toward us.

We stride from the blacktop to the hard packed dirt of the path. Now that we’re off the street I unclip Boomer from his leash. He gallops into his routine of leaving and retrieving scent messages. He might as well be dancing a jig. This is pure, unapologetic pleasure for my dog.

The trail’s attractions call him in a dozen different directions. He plunges into a spray of tall grass, then darts ahead to another, skids into a u-turn and races back to the first as though he’s forgotten something. More snuffling and snorting. He bounds through a pride of dandelions, investigates a mossy branch brought down by a recent windstorm, and sniffs a pudgy lab that’s waddled over to say hi.

I notice an old man in the distance, standing on the trail. It’s hard to tell which direction he’s heading. He stops frequently, and looks this way and that. I guess he’s either disoriented, or just noncommittal about continuing today’s exercise.

He’s dressed for a colder afternoon than this one. He seems breakable and weightless, like the maple leaf. His head is forward and his hamstrings are taut. Age has curled him into a crescent shape.

“Hey Boomer! Heel!” It’s my practice to bring Boomer to my side when we near someone else on the trail. He has pretty fair manners for a dog, but there’s no sense taking chances. It seems best to curtail his frolicking until we’re clear of the elderly hiker.

As the distance shrinks between us I see that he’s smiling at me. I get the feeling he’s anxious to tell me something. He’s waiting for me to come within speaking range. I smile back.

He lifts himself slightly on the balls of his feet as he begins to speak. His voice is small, without resonance. There’s something musical about it, though.

“If you’d follow your dog, ‘stead of the other way around” he offers with a chuckle, “it’d be more interesting for both of you.”

I’d expected a comment about the weather, or perhaps an inquiry about what breed Boomer might be. I laugh with him and say something like, “Yeah, I guess you’re right!” But inside it feels like he’s just nudged me off the rails of my purpose-driven recreation.

I pick up the pace, and make for the killer hill. It’s on my agenda to break a respectable sweat. Boomer dives into a posy of wildflowers, and the old man’s message echoes in my thoughts. I suppose it’s possible for angels to have poor circulation and bad posture.



Meatball lived in a ranch-style house two doors down from ours on Codwise Street. He was the Superintendent of Highways for the Town of Ulster, and his real name was Ed. I don’t know why he invited us neighborhood kids to call him Meatball; it might have been to ease the intimidation of his presence. His size and saunter, and the bigness of his voice always made me think of John Wayne. In my memory, the two men are one person.

Since Meatball was the Superintendent of Highways, Codwise Street was always kept in good repair. Potholes never got a chance to get too big. We didn’t have to wait long for the snowplows to come through in wintertime.

He also owned and operated the local garbage collection business. He housed his trucks in a huge garage he’d put up on the lot beyond his house. The return of his roaring white fleet in the afternoon was one of the ways we told time.

Donny Van Etten lived next door, between Meatball and me. He was my best friend until Kindergarten broadened our horizons. We spent our summers mostly doing things that made us very sweaty. That wasn’t difficult in the beastly swelter of Ulster County.

When we’d played ourselves into a sufficiently wilted state, we’d stare longingly through the fence at Meatball’s pool. If he wasn’t outside, it could take a while. Once he spotted us he’d holler, “Well, what’re ya waitin’ for? Go get yer swimsuits on!”

We’d take off like bottle rockets, and be back in no time, all suited up. It amazed us every time that he somehow knew how badly we needed a swim. It was like he could read our minds or something.

Our parents must’ve been embarrassed by our shameless angling, but Meatball genuinely liked us. We could tell. In point of fact, shameless is the perfect word to describe the way we waited for his invitation. We weren’t ashamed to be openly desperate.

It’s a hard thing to pull off without the grace of ignorance, though. As the years have accumulated, I’ve learned not to be bare. Part of becoming a grownup has meant attenuating my expectations and concealing my neediness.

But like the rest of humankind, I was made to expect good things. When I pray, I try to remember that it’s not unlike staring longingly through Meatball’s fence. I try to forget to be ashamed of my wilted, sweaty soul. It still amazes me that he knows how badly I need to be in the pool.



I pull on my boots and stride purposefully to the backyard. Taking the shovel from its resting place, I grip it firmly. It is my minesweeper, and I am the Turdhunter – a bona fide suburban superhero. It is my mission to keep the premises safe for traversal, even in the dark.

I scan the grounds for stealthy brownish or blackish piles. The exact hue depends upon what sort of treats Boomer has been eating lately; charcoal treats are responsible for the blackish heaps, which are the easiest ones to locate.

The most difficult season for turd hunting is late autumn, when the yard is liberally strewn with Big Leaf Maple leaves. Confession: I would rather mow leaves than rake them, so our backyard usually remains covered until springtime when the awakened grass forces me to fire up the Toro. Until then, leaves camouflage Boomer’s creations, thereby escalating the danger factor during cleanup.

I step carefully and methodically, eyes peeled. In order to maintain a proper frame of mind, I must remember that pooping does not involve a moral dimension for Boomer. He seems to consider it a valid form of self-expression. And since I would rather clean it up outside than inside I verbally encourage him in his artistic endeavors.

Still, it is difficult not to resent a chore like this one. Tedious, hazardous, foul smelling… Of course, honesty compels me to admit that I too express myself offensively from time to time. This unsettling notion gives me pause as I slide the shovel beneath a semi-petrified, mold-bearded mound. Unbidden, an irreverent paraphrase leaps to mind: Forgive us our poops as we forgive those who poop against us.

Dog ownership entails poop management – it comes with the territory, so to speak. Relationships with humans are much the same (metaphorically speaking, for the most part – thankfully!). As I dispose of this expedition’s last shovelful I find myself faced with a messy question: Am I willing to extend the same sort of grace to the people in my life that I offer my dog?


Monster Models

The fluorescent lamp poured its wan flicker over the workbench. The window looked out to our backyard at ground level. Its pane faded to black as we worked. Silhouettes of treetops and the slow blink of an occasional Cessna were all I could see from the angle of my four-foot vantage point.

A few incandescent bulbs lit the cavernous, L-shaped basement. The cedar closet and concrete floor, along with dope paint and airplane glue blended their fragrances into a sort of manly potpourri. This was my Dad’s space, and I was here by invitation.

His workbench was a converted ice-cream counter. Its wells were no longer filled with pistachio and chocolate swirl, but rather nuts and bolts, and salvaged bits of stuff that might prove useful someday. To the left was his gray-green toolbox, heavy with neatly ordered tools. The evening’s project was to assemble a monster model.

From time to time, my Grandmother would treat me to lunch at a place called The Bowery Dugout. Their shrimp cocktail was outstanding. The Dugout happened to be near Woolworth’s, where our lunch dates often culminated with the purchase of a new monster model to add to my collection.

My Dad showed me how to trim, glue and paint the molded plastic sections. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, Godzilla, King Kong, and the Mummy came to life in the basement. Once finished, each assumed a place of honor in my bedroom on shelves my Dad built. They were scary, but not too scary for sleeping.

Eventually, the monsters weren’t very scary at all. And as their terror faded, so did their appeal. They actually seemed to shrink. I was only partly aware that it was me that was changing, not them.

Other things were different too. I outgrew my Nehru jacket and tie-died bellbottoms and started wearing frayed jeans and gauze shirts instead. I listened less to my old Monkees records and more to The Association and Jesus Christ Superstar.

The monster models were artifacts of the little kid I didn’t want to be anymore. I wanted clear separation. So I sacrificed them at the altar of the teenager I hoped was inside me. It was time for differentiation, and I went at it with panache.

I drilled a hole in King Kong’s chest with a jackknife, inserted a Black Cat firecracker, and blew him to bits. Godzilla fell to my BB gun, and Dracula to a dowsing of lighter fluid and a match. One by one, the rest of the monster cadre met similar fates.

It was only recently that I stopped to consider the investment my Dad made into those projects. The monster collection was material evidence of his presence in my childhood. They were emblems of his genuine desire to spend time with me, teaching me things and having fun on my level.

Today there’s nothing left to touch – nothing wrapped in old newspaper, waiting to be lifted gingerly from a dusty cardboard box. I regret that. Thankfully, my memories didn’t perish in the plastic shrapnel; they remain vivid, painted in dope.



The brass-colored sun looks like the bell of an immense trumpet, blaring a single sustained note. Shadows stretch to absurd lengths and taper at the end like Dr. Seuss figures.

The heat of the day lingers into evening. Not long ago we had a hundred consecutive rainy days, but this summer has given us a record streak of days over seventy degrees. Now that it’s September I feel a little disoriented by the nice weather.

My dog, Boomer, and I are walking westward on our favorite trail. The mountains are smudged with a million shades of purple, peach and gold. Two chestnut-colored Vizsla Hounds glide up the hill ahead of us. They move as if they’re weightless – as if they might take flight at any moment.

I’m fascinated by the contrast they provide to Boomer’s heavy, “ground-hugging” gait. His Bulldog and Terrier genes anchor him to the earth.

The Vizslas and their chaperone disappear over a rise. Boomer plows through the taller, greener grass along the side of the trail. With the cooling of dusk a lavish banquet of scents comes loose from each tuft. He wheels around and crashes again through an especially fragrant spray of straw.

Boomer seems happy with his dense musculature and earthbound stride. He wastes no time wishing he were a Vizsla. He grins at me as if to say, “Isn’t this great!” Then, with tags and collar jingling merrily, tears off in search of another bit of territory that needs marking.

We’d normally turn around and head home at this point. I don’t want to go back yet. The cadence of my footsteps reminds me of something important, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

A smoky-gray cat crouches low and glares at us from the other side of a wire fence. Noticing she’s been noticed, she fades into the shadows under a flatbed trailer.

One day two years ago I walked this trail, sorting through my mostly localized joys and sorrows. The next morning, while packing school lunches, I listened to radio reports of airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers. Then I watched on television as the buildings crumbled. My miniscule joys and sorrows, along with my illusions of American life, were swallowed into those horrible craters.

We descend the long, steep hill to the highway, and wait for a break in traffic. Once on the other side, we set out across the valley. I stop midway to admire a very old weeping willow. Boomer is less interested, but waits dutifully at my side. The tree’s green and gold waterfall hisses in the breeze. It forms a circular veil, concealing a grassless grotto around the massive trunk. I part the branches, enjoying the brush of almond-shaped leaves against the back of my hand.

Within the willow’s sanctuary time loosens its grip. This could be 1967, and I could be playing in my grandmother’s yard in New York. A cascade of memories pours over my soul. I resist the temptation to clutch at them, and surrender instead to their brief, bittersweet comfort.

Crying… That’s what this evening’s walk has been like: Crying… My feet have been hitting the ground like tears that won’t stop. Miles and miles of size twelve tears…

Once discovered, the feeling dissipates. I grope after it, but it’s gone like a rhyme I didn’t jot down at three in the morning.

“C’mon, Boo’ – this way…”

The trail continues up the opposite bank of the river, and snakes into the trees. I very much want to see if it leads to Lake Washington, but the river blocks our way. We turn north instead.

I feel like weeping, but my eyes remain dry. There are too few tears for the task. The sadness of what was lost on September Eleventh is still impossible for me to process. And its long shadow darkens my insides.

The Sammamish is a river in name only; it’s really a slow-moving, algae-laden slough, and after our dry summer its stench is remarkable. A slough must be a river that forgot where it was going.

I feel an urgency to remember where my heart was going before it went into shock two years ago. The slough’s putrid reek makes it hard to breathe. God, don’t let my heart go stagnant! Somehow I have to figure out how to grieve – how to recover the flow of my own sorrow and joy.

Boomer is panting with thirst, but there is no fresh water until we reach the park in downtown Woodinville. I cup my hand to the fountain and deliver tiny drinks to him until he’s satisfied.

The sun has faded completely. It’s dark. My better judgment knows the road is too busy and its shoulder too narrow to walk without a flashlight. So, when my cell phone rings I accept my daughter’s offer to drive out and pick us up.



I’m wearing two pairs of socks and huge hiking boots. Granted, huge hiking boots are the only sort that fit me. I am doing something that is a little too fast to be called trudging, and considerably too slow to be called running. It’s something in between, and it’s the best I can muster.

The Pacific Northwest doesn’t get much snow – at least, not by the standards of someone who grew up in New York State. On the rare winter days when it snows here, it doesn’t usually stick around for long. Today is different – today we have real snow.

Boomer hails from Wenatchee and shares my appreciation for the genuine article. He turned twelve years old last autumn, but that doesn’t stop him from probing the cold powder like a pup. I can’t ignore the fact that he’s aging, though. For one thing, his hearing has begun to deteriorate. Sometimes he doesn’t hear me when I call him. In fact, that’s why I’m on his trail right now. We need to turn around and head home, but he’s oblivious to my shouts. He cruises unswervingly onward into the west.

As much as I don’t really want to be chugging up this snowy hill, I’m conscious of at least two good things about it. The first is that I am, amazingly enough, gaining on my little canine friend. The second is that my wife has joined us on this walk, and she’s watching me. It occurs to me mid-huff, that (puff…) I’m showing off for her. I’m proving that the old buck can still hoof it on the high places. We’re able to share this unspoken fiction because, to her great credit, my wife chooses to see me through the charitable lens of her imagination.

I’ve closed to within five or six feet of Boomer and he still hasn’t heard me coming up behind him. An old memory flickers into focus. I see myself as a young Scout, furtively following my Dad through the woods. He was helping me earn a merit badge that had something to do with tracking. My challenge was to follow him for a specified period of time without being seen or heard.

It was autumn, so the ground was covered with dead leaves and brittle twigs. That didn’t matter. I moved with the quick, decisive stealth of a Mohawk brave. I remember scampering from tree to tree, crouching behind mossy stumps, and going flat in the undergrowth whenever my Dad looked around. It was so exciting to discover this hidden talent of mine!

At the end of the prescribed span of minutes my Dad stopped walking and called off the hunt. As he checked the box next to the tracking requirement in my Scout book, I asked him how I’d done. With the vaguest trace of a smirk he told me that I’d sounded something like a young buffalo. I was pretty sure “Young Buffalo” wasn’t the name of a famous Mohawk brave from days gone by.

But today I’m panting up a snowy hill after a hard-of-hearing dog. Even with my limited aptitude for stealth, Boomer hasn’t yet perked to my crashing footfalls. From pointblank range I shout his name, and he swivels around in shock. His ears go back, and he curls into a submissive pose. This is unprecedented in his experience with me so he isn’t sure what’s going to happen next. He fears it might involve punishment. It doesn’t. I’ve learned lately that his problem isn’t rebellion (well, at least not in this case); his problem is entropy.

I say, “C’mon, let’s go home.” Relieved and chipper he makes for the foot trail that leads toward home. He’s a puppy again for a few more minutes. I let him run a little ways farther before putting his leash back on him.


Crossing the Esopus

Off the beaten paths of my stomping grounds it wasn’t unusual to see the occasional homemade dump. An interesting characteristic of these unsanctioned piles was their power to solicit anonymous contributions.

I once saw a wooden boat hull protruding from a heap of bent aluminum lawn chairs, bald tires, and rusted appliances. Possibly a modest yacht in its prime, now its husk was all that was left.

At the time, I was working for the Town of Ulster Highway Department. Every summer the town hired as many local teenage boys as its budget would allow, and busied their idle hands with two weeks of menial labor. We dubbed ourselves townies.

A dump truck shuttled us to various remote locations where we’d usually be turned loose on a mess of weeds that needed clearing. Our foreman, Bill, was a white-haired Highway Department retiree. His task was to teach us a thing or two about government work.

When we arrived at a worksite, Bill’s instructions were always the same. “Okay now boys, do a little somethin’.” We’d make a good show of it in the cool of the morning, then stop for a break at 10:30. A less enthusiastic effort generally led up to lunch, over which we’d linger for as long as possible. After lunch we’d mostly lean on our shovels and scythes until the truck returned for us around mid-afternoon. Before leaving, Bill would survey the area and say, “Well, it looks a hell of a lot better than it did when we got here.”

The discarded hull appeared on a day when we’d been dropped off near the Esopus Creek. The Esopus begins as a little trout stream, but ends up being sixty-five miles long and averaging forty feet across. It has many personalities. This particular stretch was muddy with frothy suds bobbing here and there. Nonetheless, its shady shore was the perfect place to take our sack lunches. Bill tacitly approved of the idea since we weren’t likely to be seen by passing taxpayers. On our way down the dirt road to the creek we spied the derelict vessel.

With more sweat than we’d shed on the town’s behalf that morning, we managed to haul her down to the water’s edge. I hollered that we should shove off and jump aboard. Everyone yelled, “Aye-aye!” and shoved hard, but only two of us jumped. The others had better sense than to board a boat that had been dragged from a trash heap.

The craft unexpectedly stayed afloat. The Yoo-hoo colored current turned out to be much stronger than it looked. We were quickly in the middle of the creek, drifting downstream. Clearly, the situation called for decisive action.

My accidental co-adventurer was barely an acquaintance. I don’t think I even knew his name, but we skipped the introductions. He had the bow, I had the stern. The back of his head is really all I remember about him.

I ripped a piece of wood from the hull and started paddling. My shipmate chipped in and paddled with his hands. We weren’t about to swallow our pride and turn back. Our cronies – who were now bent over with laughter – had to be shown how much fun they were missing. We aimed for the opposite shore.

Getting across wasn’t easy. The hull filled with water, and was mostly submerged by the time we finally struck land. We sloshed ashore to take stock of the situation.

The beach was a thin strip of sandy clay, walled by a steep, overgrown bank. I decided to climb up and just start walking once I got my bearings. As far as I was concerned, we’d reached the every-man-for-himself stage of our journey.

I scrambled up, hand and foot. It was a slippery, itchy business. I parted the last tangle of bushes and was surprised by the bared teeth of a snarling dog. He changed my mind about hopping the wire fence that separated us.

I slid back down the bank and saw something happening on the other shore. My buddies were putting the finishing touches on a makeshift raft. It involved two droopy inner tubes and a wooden pallet. Since it would hold only two, my fellow castaway and I would have to be rescued one at a time.

I was odd man out for the first return voyage, so I stood at the water’s edge and watched them arm-paddle the fifty-plus feet back to the other side. Not surprisingly, the raft came apart as they reached the shallows.

My friends tried to repair it, but it looked like I’d have to return the same way I’d come. I got busy emptying the sunken hull of as much creekwater as I could, and pushed off. Halfway across, she went down for good and I had to swim for it.

Swimming was never a strong suit of mine, but I knew enough to find a focal point on the shore and flail toward it with all my might. Panic escorted me until I got to where my feet could touch bottom. I splashed and spluttered out of the drink, and fell forward onto dry land. I lay there for a while, flat and thankful.

The rest of the day was ordinary, if a tad soggy. We finished our lunches and went back to hacking weeds. The dump truck rumbled up for us, and Bill pronounced his blessing on our labors.

“Well boys, it looks a hell of a lot better than it did when we got here.”


Shivering Lessons

I was skinny and not very buoyant. Swimming didn’t come naturally to me. I tended to sink, legs first. But breathing was the hardest part, since I battled hay fever and asthma. I had trouble mastering the rotating rhythm of aquatic respiration.

Head swiveled right, inhale through mouth… Face in water, exhale through nose… Head swiveled left, inhale through mouth… Face in water, exhale through nose… Or was it the other way around…

With a perpetually stuffy nose and wheezy lungs, I always ended up out of sync. I was afraid to exhale through my nose because of what might come out along with the air.

My first stint with swimming lessons took place during that summer’s chilliest week. It was dismal, drizzly and breezy. I have more memories of shivering than swimming. Everyday my mother pitied my blue lips and chattering teeth.

My parents enrolled me in swimming lessons to increase my chances of surviving childhood. I had a simpler motive for enduring the embarrassment and hypothermia. I was after the “I-Can-Swim” badge, which was the rec center’s official pass to the deep end of the pool. Frankly, swimming in the deep end didn’t matter as much to me as the status of access.

So I stood like a stick figure on the poolside concrete, shoulders huddled up under my ears, and shivered while I waited my turn to jump in. Once in the pool, the first challenge was to tread water. For me, this meant frantically flinging my limbs every which way while craning my neck to keep my face in the air. Next, I’d try to swim in a straight line from one side to the other without lapsing into the dogpaddle or sinking or getting snot on my cheek. Afterward I’d shiver beside the picnic table, not needing to chew my sandwich because the chattering of my teeth did the job automatically. And so it went, one day after another, all week long.

Naturally, a series of tests loomed at the end of the week. In addition to displaying our command of the various strokes we’d learned, we had to demonstrate our ability to save ourselves in an emergency situation. Wearing clothes over our bathing suits, we were to jump in, sink to the bottom, push off and shoot back up to the surface. Somewhere in the process we were supposed to shed the dead weight of our clothes. Then we’d tread water until the instructor told us to swim to the ladder and climb out.

We were advised to wear “play clothes” because the chlorine in the pool water might fade the colors. My Mom outfitted me in an old terrycloth shirt that I’d all but outgrown. It was literally made from towel fabric. I can only guess that she thought it would go well with the water theme.

The virtue of towels, of course, is that they absorb water. I jumped in the deep end and my shirt was instantly waterlogged. It might as well have been one of those lead vests you wear at the dentist’s office while they’re taking x-rays. It was so heavy that I couldn’t even peel it off as it lugged me to the bottom. Staring up through ten feet of water at the gray sky, the surface seemed impossibly far away.

The instructor pierced the poolwater like a dolphin and pulled me up. I clambered out onto the concrete and showed off my shivering skills, which were unmatched. I was confident that my Mom would consider my effort worth an order of fries from the snack bar.

Needless to say, there was no I-Can-Swim badge for me that year. I felt I could’ve saved myself (eventually…), but the pool staff was trained not to take any chances. I got over it; there was more to life than the deep end.

Swimming lessons fell during a sunnier week the following year. Somehow I met the requirements and got my badge. I went on to survive childhood. I confess, though, that I haven’t completely shaken my fear of getting snot on my cheek.



Red didn’t belong there in the coarse, sticky green. It caught my eye like a gem, nestled down in the grass under the clothesline. It was a little stub of crayon that had most likely fallen from the pocket of a piece of clothing hanging there.

Ironically, large size crayons were made for small size hands. But I never liked these chubby implements very much because it was impossible to render any real detail with them. I preferred the smaller sort; felt-tip markers were even better.

It was obvious that someone had liked this red log though, since both ends were rounded from use. And both edges of the stiff paper wrapper had been peeled back to expose more color.

I reached down to pick it up. My thumb and index finger closed upon it with an accuracy of pressure perfected by at least seven years of experience with the hardness of crayons. But my squeeze met nearly no resistance at all. The crayon yielded in an entirely unexpected way.

It had melted in the summer sun. Until I squeezed it, the stubby cylinder had retained its form. It was a bewildering, delightful and inexplicably gratifying sensation. In that moment I discovered the potential softness of crayons. And I learned that the faraway sun is near enough to change stuff here on earth.

Not many summers later I was with my gang of friends in one of our favorite unsupervised spots. It was nothing more than a few undeveloped acres of hillocks, bracken and small trees set between two neighborhoods and an apartment complex. Its virtue was that grownups had no reason to go there. We, on the other hand, had an excellent reason for being there: Billy Sass had firecrackers and matches. I think he’d gotten them from a cousin who’d been to South Carolina on vacation.

Firecrackers were a rarity in New York since they had to be purchased out of state. Their detonation was an event to be savored. Earlier that day we’d melted a red candle and molded its wax around the firecrackers. The idea was to make the explosion more dramatic. Blowing stuff up was without question the coolest thing that could be done with a firecracker.

Being boys, we all had to get our hands in on the action of arranging the ordnance and supervising the twisting together of fuses. We watched the red match-head scrape along the matchbook’s rough strip, and heard the successful burst of fire. A pungent whiff of sulfur wafted into the air. We watched the fragile cardboard stick move toward the fuse and hoped no breeze would blow it out. We waited for a spray of sparks from the tips of the fuses to signal us to scamper backward from our tight circle.

This particular braid of fuses burned faster than expected. My hand was the last one to pull back from the blast zone. There was a flash, a bang, a sharp sting, and the alarming sight of red. For a gasp’s length I thought the skin had been blown off of my left hand. Fortunately, it was only covered with wax shrapnel.

Red gets my attention. It usually means something important is happening. After a knock on the head I instinctively touch the injured site and check for blood on my fingers. At times I’ve felt the sweet relief of seeing none there. Other times, when my fingers have returned from the site wet and smudged with red, I’ve felt my anxiety level rising sharply. In both instances the pain might be identical, but my degree of concern differs according to the color I see.

At this time of year, along with most Christians, I look toward Golgotha – “the place of the skull” – and force myself to again behold the horror of my Savior stained red. The written accounts of his anguish create vivid, troubling images in my mind. My faith compels me to believe that Jesus had to suffer as he did, but I remain unable to understand why. I wish from my core that it could have been otherwise.

This year I have the opportunity to view a filmmaker’s depiction of the most disturbing, most humbling, and in a sense the most private scene of my faith. By all accounts, his use of red in the film is copious. If I choose to see it, I expect that it will grab my insides and not let go. It will probably never let go. That’s the cinematographer’s intent.

But with or without the movie’s help, I will think about Jesus over these next few weeks, worn and bloody – exposed and vulnerable, his divine covering peeled back. I’ll remember his softness to my distress and anxiety, and I’ll be reminded that God is near enough to change stuff here on earth.


Off Leash

The drizzle has returned. Autumn arrived today without waiting for a proper introduction. This rain is the sort that patiently saturates everything it touches… its misty drops easily penetrating jackets, hats, and hair.

Boomer doesn’t like rain. He’d be back inside on his pillow by now if he weren’t sure we were heading for the Pipeline trail. But getting soaked to the skin is a price he willingly pays for a decent walk.

Once off the street and through the gate to the trail, I remove his leash and let him run. He’s particularly spry today, and launches himself into the scraggly trailside grass. His muscular, ground-hugging gait is comically beautiful. He is propelled by the notion that he can outrun the rain. I call him and he wheels around, coming just close enough to reassure me that he’s not planning to make a break for it. I say, “OK, go ahead” and he takes off again.

My willingness to trust Boomer off leash is a recent development. Since he came to us by way of the Humane Society, I didn’t know what to expect. Frankly, I had serious doubts that he would even stay in our own yard voluntarily! The thought of a dog that would not bolt at the first opportunity was pure fiction to me. I’d never owned a dog trained in the lovely art of obedience.

The first dog I ever met was a hound named Freckles. My parents had adopted her before I was born. She’d been found on the fringe of my grandparents’ farm – a newborn puppy, abandoned and starving. My folks nursed her back to health and she never went hungry again, not even for a few minutes… She was portly from that time on. Her homebody nature most likely had less to do with obedience than appetite, though. She had a strong inner tether to her food bowl.

Next came Buffy, whom we adopted after Freckles had gone to the happy snacking grounds in the sky. She was some sort of Spaniel and Golden Retriever mix – an irresistible little puffball that grew up svelte, pretty, and energetic. Hyper is probably a better word. Her outdoor life was lived at the end of a rope that was attached to a clothesline-style run. If she got loose she got lost. Outta there… See ya… Arrivederci, baby… And then the chase was on, which appeared to please her as much as the escape itself. But at least Buffy had a modicum of respect for automotive technology, which is far more than can be said for Tuck.

When my wife and I were newly married, before our first child was born, I decided we should take a page from my parents’ book and get a dog. Enter “Nantucket of the North”, a purebred “red and white” Siberian Husky. (I should’ve held out for a starving hound dog.)

One of the many important lessons I learned from Tuck was that it is unwise (read: stupid) to own a Husky that hasn’t had obedience training before reaching six months of age unless you also own a yard that resembles the Iditarod dog-sledding course.

Tuck possessed an uncanny knack for breaking or slipping whatever rope, chain, or collar I put on him. He viewed all of creation as his turf, including the paved parts. So, once free, he was prone to carouse the streets, more or less oblivious to the large steel animals speeding back and forth. When a car approached, his thought seemed to be “I’m not sure what that thing is but I know I could kick its butt.” Unfortunately, he was wrong about that.

Needless to say, when we reopened the topic of dog ownership it was with fear and trembling, shamelessly begging for God’s mercy. He heard those prayers and led us to a dog that not only understands English, but also does what he’s told! (Well, most of the time…)

Linguistically gifted as he is, however, I doubt Boomer’s ability to comprehend the fact that outrunning raindrops is usually a fruitless endeavor. So I let him keep trying, full throttle and smiling from one pinned-back ear to the other.

As I watch him dart from grass clump to ditch to fallen branch, I realize a brotherly connection to him. I know what it’s like to be trusted “off leash”. And I suspect that God’s delight in my freedom includes a touch of amusement too. After all, my quirks and antics must make just as hilarious a picture as Boomer trying to outrun the rain.

As a matter of fact, I see myself in the other dogs too. Freckles maintained a tight orbit around her center of security, the kitchen. If I’m honest about it, there have been times when I’ve stuck close to regulated religion for a similar reason: it met my needs. I found food there, and I grew fat there. But there is a difference between obedience and spiritual self-indulgence.

Like Buffy I have felt the pinch of artificial restraint. I’m acquainted with the sense that my life is little more than a length of rope keeping all the good stuff out of reach. Looking back now, I think I better understand the spark in her orange eyes: it meant, “If only I could be out there…”

True, there is a sort of comfort in rules – life’s limits seem predetermined and clear. Legalism promises to alleviate the challenge of learning how to listen, understand, and respond to a living voice. Buffy broke the law of the leash whenever possible. She knew next to nothing about obedience, but she loved being chased, and hearing the sound of voices behind her, calling, “Buffy… Get back here! Hey! Buffy…”

I often wish it were tenable to see life as Tuck did, without borders, boundaries or danger. There is something very appealing about that ideal. But freedom at the expense of truth is not sustainable. More than once I’ve misjudged my own ability to handle the headlights that have come speeding toward me out of the dark.

Boomer traces a wide, leisurely arc back to my side. I didn’t call him this time, but he apparently wants to check in and make sure I’m still paying attention. Somehow he seems to know when I’m daydreaming.

And so I come back to my deep appreciation of this little black-brindled brick of a dog. Like him, I have learned the resonant goodness of hearing and heeding my master’s voice – of understanding his language, and choosing to stay close enough to hear. Like him I occasionally lapse backward into smaller ways of living. But having once experienced what it’s like to run in the divine tension of freedom and obedience nothing else will do.

“’Come and follow me!’ At once they dropped what they were doing and followed him.” Mark’s Gospel Account, 1:17a, 18


The Sacrament of Action

I believe in coffee. I believe that, when made with care, it tastes marvelous. I believe its aroma is cause for joy. I believe it assists me in the often-arduous process of waking up in the morning (and staying that way in the afternoon!). Because I believe in coffee, I engage in numerous mundane tasks in order to make it real in the physical world.

My notion of coffee on a metaphysical level might be powerful enough to create a mental image of its flavor, aroma, and effect – but nothing more. At some point, my coffee beliefs have to press through into the physical world if I want to feel the steam on my face and the bracing hot blackness on my lips. I must take authentic action.

I rinse out the dregs of yesterday’s brew (with warm water in order to simultaneously preheat the pot). I toss the spent filter and grounds, and install a new filter in the drip compartment. I fill the chamber with cold water (because cold water contains more oxygen, which enhances the flavor). I open the cupboard and take out the coffee grinder and beans. I put in the right amount of beans, plug in the grinder, hold down its “roof”, and start grinding. About twenty seconds later I firmly tap the side, and then the bottom of the grinder a few times with the heel of my palm (I have found this to be the best way to get any rogue bits of ground coffee down off of the roof before removing it). I remove the roof of the grinder, pour the fresh grounds into the clean filter, close the compartment, set the pot in its place, and push the “on” button.

I can assure you that none of those actions have any intrinsic meaning for me. It is all about the coffee – it’s all about bringing coffee into my physical reality. At 6:00AM the abstract notion of coffee will not do for my wife and me – we want tangible stuff. So, I happily engage in my bleary-eyed routine because of the hope set before me…

Is there any intrinsic meaning in reading a few chapters of Scripture in the morning? How about telling a friend the story of God's invasion into my life? Contemplative prayer? Perhaps tithing?

Maybe there is. If so, it seems like a rather pallid reality to me. For me, the real meaning of such actions is anchored in the reality of my beliefs. These are the more or less mundane acts (among many others) by which I press what is in my mind, spirit, and heart into what can be known by my hands, ears, mouth, eyes, and nose. That is what I think of as sacramental action.

A sacrament is defined as: “A rite believed to be a means of or visible form of grace…”* Baptism and Communion are “official” Sacraments. Jesus knew how important it is for humans to experience and express metaphysical things physically. He gifted us with bread and wine to taste, and water to feel in order to give his message to our bodies – not just our minds.

The life of faith is all about sacramental action. It is all about seeking ways to press the unseen into the seen. And this almost always calls for discipline, simply because moving from one modality to another is usually difficult. In the life of faith, discipline is not an end in itself; it is the force that propels us from the realm of ideas and insights into the world of action. At least, it is the piece we offer into the process; God is always the underlying and overarching force in any meaningful action.

It is good advice to “Wake up and smell the coffee.” But it’s nothing more than that until somebody actually makes the coffee!

“Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:17 (NIV)

“Faith without action is as dead as a body without a soul.” James 2:26 (Phillips)

* The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


The Best Treadmill I Ever Bought Was A Dog
Scott Burnett

Ten minutes into our walk we are pushing to the top of the second hill. It is less of an effort for my companion than it is for me. He has a lower center of gravity, and four points of contact with the earth. He pulls forward, keeping the leash and the muscles of my left arm taut. He is not trying to yank free; he is simply anxious to get on to wherever we’re going. At least, this is how I choose to see it.

At the gate to the pipeline trail there is a zinc-painted post. Around its base grows an unmowable tuft of scrub grass. For my dog, it is an olfactory NPR – one of his favorite stations along the way for sniffing out the day’s news. He plunges in nose-first, then looks up smiling, ears perked as if he’s heard the familiar chime of a wave file: “You’ve got mail…” Pee-mail, that is. He lifts his leg and replies to all.

I say, “C’mon!” and we’re on our way again. As far as I can tell, Boomer gives no thought to the mechanics of his gait. I, on the other hand, am trying to remember to keep my ankles square with my hips, and to leverage from my thighs in order to save wear and tear on my knees. Boomer darts to the left, making a lateral lunge for another exceedingly interesting mound of grass. I let out some slack from the leash, and continue walking. By now he knows the rhythm of my stride, and how long he has before the tug hits his collar, so he works quickly. Squirt-squirt. He’s just initialed an important document that is completely invisible to me. “Come!” and he’s back at my side, pulling ahead as if to imply that it was I who’d been sidetracked.

The gravel crunches underfoot like granola for breakfast. These walks have been good food for me: body, soul, and mind. Regular exercise does not come easily to me, but Boomer has reintroduced a long missing ingredient into the mix. Play. He makes me want to walk, and he gives me a reason to go even when I don’t feel like it. He is a spring-loaded, stinky-kissing, let’s-go-eyed, black-brindled reason to strap on my sneakers, don my fedora, and dive into the drizzly night. Gorgeous, pastoral summer days are very rare in our neck of the woods, so a commitment to consistent outdoor exercise is bound to be tested often.

But today is one of those rare perfect days that would make the whole world move to Seattle if word were to get out. Behind us are the Cascade Mountains, in front of us the Olympics. The manmade, flat-sided peaks of the cities are also visible, flashing reflected sunshine our direction. Close by, there are amply pastured horses, and beautifully landscaped estates. The dragonflies are back. The sun is hot, the breeze is cool, and the air is full of fragrances. Cut grass, manure, and a hundred varieties of flower converge upon my woefully sub-canine sniffer. I can only imagine the stories Boomer is reading on the wind.

Squirt-squirt. Boomer, to his way of thinking, now owns another strategic clump of grass along the trail. It seems like a good way of thinking to me. In fact, from this vantage point, my soul is inclined to lay claim to two mountain ranges, thousands of verdant acres, a salmon stream, and this well-kept trail running straight through the middle of it all.