Monday, September 14, 2009

A Bottomless Pit

This past spring, I bought a Lifetime Products' compost tumbler at Costco, thinking to myself, "Cool, this will be a great way to recycle yard waste and improve the garden. Mom would be proud."

While my wife has been a little restrained in her enthusiasm (shall we say?) and my neighbor likes to give me grief about "lowering property values," I've been impressed. It's easy to use, relatively inconspicuous (honestly, does it look that bad?), and here's the kicker: it eats EVERYTHING.

The thing has a "capacity" of 75 gallons, but I feel like I've put 10 times that volume of yard clippings, paper bags, sawdust, watermelon rinds and the like into that little black hole over the past several months, and there's still plenty of room. Pretty odd, really. It's like a reverse magicians hat: insert rabbit, presto! nothing. Open lid, put lots of stuff in, come back later, stuff gone, and what appears to be the same little bit of brown/black dirt keeps tumbling around in the bottom. I kept hoping I'd fill it several times over the course of a season, but no such luck. Not enough stuff around to "complete the batch."

But I guess that's the point of composting. All that junk--which would normally go to the landfill--gets boiled down into some kinda supercharged soil packed with every nutrient imaginable. Not bad, not bad at all, and maybe worth a bit of grief from the Mrs. and the neighbors.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

In An Instant ...

Everything can change in an instant, a point driven home with particular force this past Labor Day weekend when I stopped concentrating on a narrow trail for a split second and rolled my father-in-law’s heaviest and most expensive four-wheeler off the trail and down a hill.

It all happened so fast: the left tire caught a steep embankment, wrenched the steering wheel (and both front tires) into the hillside, and I found myself, in a kind of surreal slow motion, thrown over the handle bars and onto the trail. The four wheeler flipped over on top of me. I felt its weight run down the length of my right leg, and then lift off. Dazed, I rose to a sitting position, only to watch the four-wheeler slowly careen off the trail and begin rolling down the hill, gathering speed as it went. Eventually it came to rest at the bottom of the hill, maybe 100 yards away, and, after a few minutes spent recovering from the shock, I was able to limp down and turn off the engine.

I was lucky. Every year, people are killed, paralyzed, or seriously injured in OHV accidents like that one. By rights, any of those things could’ve happened to me—once the tire caught, the consequences were entirely out of my control—but they didn’t, and I walked away with nothing worse than a scraped and bruised right knee.

Sobering. I still can’t shake that “lack of control” feeling. In that split second, a relatively innocent mistake could’ve ended my life or changed it (and the lives of those near and dear to me) permanently and dramatically.

I feel deeply blessed that it didn’t, and I’m thankful, in an odd sort of way, for such a stark reminder of how fragile life can be and how quickly it can change. And if the experience taught me to be a little more careful, I also hope that it reminds me to savor each moment, each breath, each minute spent with a loved one, a little more deeply, because we can take nothing for granted.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Uncivil Discourse

The recent debates over health care reform have brought out the best and worst in American politics. On the one hand, we have a citizenry engaged like never before, discussing a critical issue in forums ranging from Facebook to the family dinner table. On the other, people on both sides of the debate have resorted to name-calling, personal attacks, over-heated rhetoric, and shouting down opponents and elected officials.

I was particularly disturbed by a recent Facebook post that featured a poster with the face of President Obama painted like the Joker from the Batman movie “The Dark Knight” and the words “Obamacare: the Final Solution,” a ridiculous attempt to draw a line between proposed health care legislation and Hitler’s efforts to exterminate the Jews. President Obama is frequently described as a “socialist” or worse, and a democractic congressman from Texas was greeted at a recent health care forum with pictures of a headstone with his name on it.

But vicious, personal attacks and name calling aren’t confined to the Republican right. Left-leaning voters loved to question the intelligence of President George W. Bush, some labeled him a “fascist,” and others frequently invoked the term “jack-booted thugs” as a criticism—yet another disingenuous attempt to brand a political opponent with a symbol from Nazi Germany.

A pox on both our houses. Uncontrolled anger, overblown rhetoric, attacking people rather than policies—none of this serves our democracy well: at best, it distorts the debate; at worst, it feeds the lunatic fringe: guys like Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, who shed innocent blood without remorse because, well, the “others” are wicked enough to justify any act against them, no matter how cruel or violent.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public life, over three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as “Christians.” If so, how can so many of us forget the single most important lesson of the New Testament: the Golden Rule? (Last time I checked, Jesus made no exception for political debates.)

I was struck by a phrase uttered by Ted Kennedy Jr. in a eulogy he gave at his father’s funeral. He said that his father once told him: “Republicans love America as much as I do.” Can we say the same for our political adversaries? As a Republican (and I am one), can I say with conviction that “Democrats love America as much as I do?” ”

Fortunately, I can. It’s a lesson learned long ago from a deeply conservative friend and mentor, Woody West, a long-time associate editor at Insight Magazine and the Washington Times. When I wrote him a letter to praise one of his columns and condemn those who disagreed, he graciously invited me to lunch, and gently took me to task (to paraphrase): “Never forget that ‘those people’ are people too.”

So, please: let’s stop the name calling, the virulent emails, the Facebook rants filled with hateful or politically charged terms that shed more heat than light. Left, right, and center, we owe it to ourselves and to our country to elevate the dialog and to engage in a more civil discourse. The Framers of the Constitution began their debates with prayer, and we would do well to remember that example. My prayer is that we debate ideas—from health care to abortion to the War in Iraq--openly and honestly, and with a sense of humility, gratitude, and mutual respect. “Gratitude?” you ask? Yes, gratitude. Gratitude for this great Nation, gratitude for the freedom to speak our minds and have our voices heard, and, yes, even gratitude for people who happen to disagree with us.

(Photo by Steve Hopson on Flickr; available at: