By the time I get to Phoenix

by the Night Writer

So, last July I started the planning for my company’s semi-annual conference for our key clients. We were in the middle of the heat of summer, and our minds were full of sun and sand as we selected a resort in the desert near Scottsdale, AZ for our February conference. I didn’t imagine that I’d have to escape a blizzard in order to get there, though.

Right from the beginning there’s a lot that goes into preparing for an event of this magnitude (our guests represent about a third of our total annualized premium) and the pace gets even faster as you get near the actual date. The last couple of weeks I’ve had several late nights at work as we counted down to yesterday’s departure. I was so wrapped up in it all that I scarcely noticed the Minneapolis weather forecast until Friday. Here we had several days in a row of temps in the 40s and NOW they want to tell me that 18 inches of snow are heading our way, with the thick of it hitting at almost the same time as my departure flight Sunday afternoon.

Sunday morning dawned gray and cold, but dry. By the time we went to church, though, the snow was coming down in those tiny little flakes that typically presage a major dumping. After church I checked on my flight status; it had been moved back from 4:15 to 4:45 but was still expected to take off. The airline in question, Sun Country, doesn’t cancel fllights unless the airport itself closes, unlike the other “hometown” airline. They merely keep pushing them back until they can take off.

It looked like whiteout conditions outside the big windows in the Humphrey terminal but our white jet eventually nosed up to the jetway like a glacier sneaking up on Minnesota, but it wasn’t ready to board until 5:20. Nevertheless, we were soon in motion shortly thereafter and I began to think we were actually going to get-away. We taxied for awhile as the engines wound up, and then were stopped because the runway needed to be plowed. After the runway was plowed, we needed another de-icing. Then we taxied some more and stopped while the runway was plowed again. Then we were told that we were finally all set to go — except that one of the airport’s ground vehicles had gotten itself stuck on the side of the runway and needed to be towed. Finally, about 7:30, we were at last airborne.

The delays were bad enough, but inside the jet it was also getting warm and muggy. Yeah, it’s a nice contrast to what’s going on outside, but not what you want as visions of jets being stranded on the tarmac for 14 hours dance through your head. Additionally, even though I had paid for the full use of my aisle seat, I was only getting about 80% of it because the large guy in the center seat next to me was spilling into my space. Now, being a kind of beefy guy myself, I tried to stay mellow about it, but being a beefy guy I really need 100% of my space and wouldn’t dream of taking 120%.

The arrangement was causing me to hangd out a bit into the aisle, which was also a problem because it was only about 18″ wide itself. Once we finally got into the air after the long delay and the seatbelt sign was turned off, half the passengers got up to get in line for the bathroom, and about half of them bumped into me on their way. Later, when I tightroped down the aisle myself to the bathroom I had to do a series of reverse-lambada moves with people heading the other direction because the aisle wasn’t big enough for two people to pass without getting more intimate than you’d typically care to do (perhaps this is where the TSA got the idea).

Earlier in the day we had prayed earnestly for favor in getting out of Minneapolis and to this conference; since I’m running it, it would be bad to miss it. The picture in my mind was the weather holding off, or opening up, so that we could get away cleanly. That wasn’t looking like the case, but I had put myself into a more laid-back frame of mind and decided not to let the situation ruin my day, and place my confidence in God that things would work out. I stayed mellow throughout, even as I literally made allowances for my seat-mate who certainly wasn’t deliberately trying to be huge. Once we got airborn we suddenly picked up a huge tailwind that knocked our flying time down to 2:23 instead of the usual 3 hours and 15 minutes. As I waited at the baggage carousel with a woman from our flight she told me that she’d just received a text from her friend saying that our flight was the last one to get out before they closed the runways last night.

God is good!

Custer’s Last Stand and the Twilight of the Sioux

The Battle of the Little Big Horn (or Custer’s Last Stand) took place on June 25th and 26th of 1876, 132 years ago this week. When I was a boy one of my cousins had a huge painting on the wall of his bedroom depicting some artist’s rendition of Custer’s Last Stand. I didn’t visit there too often, but I was always fascinated by the picture, and would spend a long time studying it each time, moving out from the main action — Custer standing tall in his buckskins and with saber raised in one hand while the other held his pistol reversed like a club — to the other desperate confrontations that spread edge to edge across the canvas; Indians swarming and shooting, soldiers falling, some already stripped or being scalped. It was a rendering from the artist’s imagination, of course, but it obviously fired an interest in me for the history of the battle. Something about the desperateness and the inevitable defeat also had an impact on a young mind that until that time had seen only glorious images of warfare.

Later when I was in college I took a series of elective courses “taught” by author, poet and historian John G. Niehardt. Niehardt had been dead for a few years by the time I took the classes, but the University of Missouri had filmed his lectures and used these and his books as the source material. We read his classics, Black Elk Speaks and When the Tree Flowered, and his epic poem, Twilight of the Sioux (nearly 300 pages!) which included Indian accounts of the battle of the “Greasy Grass” and later the messianic millenarianism of the Ghost Dance movement. It was a fascinating diversion from my other studies and while I didn’t (and don’t) embrace the attractive mythology of the “Noble Savage” as some might have, it did help me picture the humanity of the Sioux and other Plains Indians, with all the good and bad that comes with that.

A few years ago my family took a two-week, multi-state driving vacation across the West and I at last had the opportunity to visit the famous battleground in Montana. After having heard and read (and seen so many bad movies) of the battle I was expecting to be a little underwhelmed by the reality. Instead I was mesmerized by how well the area had been preserved and made into a national park. You can follow a road from place to place throughout the battlefield, easily following the course of the battle across the bluffs and ravines of the valley of the Big Horn. The 7th Cavalry soldiers were buried where they fell when the other troops arrived two days after the battle. When the bodies were recovered a few years later for re-burial, individual markers were placed for each, in some cases even providing the name and rank of the man who fell there.

Because the battleground is so preserved you can understand how manageable the size of the Indian camp (obscured by a stand of trees) may have appeared to Custer from his initial vantage point, and experience for yourself (almost) the shock Reno had to of felt when he led his force along the river and around those trees only to suddenly see thousands of teepees. Besides the soldiers’ markers, historians have also been able to survey the battleground in detail after a massive grass fire cleared the area down to the ground in the 1980s, revealing artifacts and human remains and even making it possible to track individual weapons (identified by their spent cartridge casings) as they moved around the field. You can follow the main body of Custer’s troops after the initial attack as they fought their way westward along a ridge (individual markers along the way) to “Custer Hill”, the site of the the famous “last stand” where they fell to the last man.

The last stand on Custer Hill. Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s marker is the one with the black background.

The day we were there it was incredibly hot; the car thermometer registered an outside temperature of 105 degrees. My wife and daughters were more interested in staying in the car than in understanding the place. Frankly, I could feel the sweat rolling down my face and between my should-blades as I stood at various locations, but I couldn’t help but feel the weight of the history as well as I slowly turned my head to scan each panorama, picturing myself in the midst of the markers, seeing nothing but roiling clouds of dust and Sioux surrounding me. It’s mind-bending (or it could have been incipient heat stroke). I highly recommend making the stop if you’re ever in the vicinity.

I’ll also recommend the video below. The song is “The Song of Crazy Horse” and is from an album that I had in college. The ballad itself took up the whole first side of the album, and is only excerpted in this video, though it was obviously created with some love by the YouTube submitter. The song has always stirred me, even though some of the lyrics aren’t up to the caliber of the story. The imagery, however, and certain musical passages have long been grooved in my memory. It’s certainly not one of the better chapters of our history (and I don’t mean the battle itself) but it’s certainly worth remembering, even 132 years later.

Trip update: just deserts

No, I don’t mean “just desserts”; I mean we drove from Scottsdale to Las Cruces, New Mexico on Thursday, and it was mostly just deserts, with a lot of rocks.

The landscape is very different here. It reminds me of how weird it all seemed when I moved from Phoenix to Minneapolis nearly 28 years ago. After living in Arizona for a year it was almost overwhelming to see so much green everywhere and all at once. It was probably a good thing that I arrived in Minnesota in June, however; if my first impression was 12 degrees with an icy wind I might have turned down the Minny job and stayed in Phoenix, and who knows what effect that would have had on my life (not to mention the lives of my wife and daughters)?

We drove the scenic route from Scottsdale, which took us through the dramatic, rocky passes around Superior and Globe. The rugged slopes converge at different angles around the highway, almost tilting your perspective and perception, especially when the horizon is blocked and the road is twisting. The Reverend Mother rode through here on Wednesday with the motorcycle gang she joined (I’ll leave it to her to post that story) and said the effect was even greater on a bike than in the car. I wouldn’t say it was beautiful, exactly, but it was very distinctive, unusual and fun.

The purpose of the trip was to visit the Reverend Mom’s cousin and her family, but we were also looking forward to seeing New Mexico, which we’ve heard is beautiful. Actually, I know it’s beautiful, because I’ve driven through the state before. Apparently the stretch we drove through today, however, is not going to make it into the brochures. Right at the state line the pavement changed to a darker, more rumbly surface and the scenery began to take on certain moonscape qualities as we drove along state highway 70 toward Demry.

It looked as if a nuclear bomb had gone off — nothing grew that was more than 3-feet tall and there were no buildings or structures for miles. In fact, if we came across a structure it was most likely dilapidated – windows missing, roof fallen in, or possibly an abandoned, sand-pitted mobile home. All it would take to complete a classic “desolate West” scene would be a bleached long-horn skull or two. Instead we saw the modern equivalent: rusted out frames of an occasional vehicle, including an old 1930s or 40s-era pickup that had been left where it died on the ranch, stripped of tires and interior and left to rust and blow away bit by bit. Given the age of the vehicle, I wondered how long it had been sitting there within sight of the highway.

Amazingly we even saw occasional small herds of cattle, including the dreaded black ninja cows conducting desert manuevers. Most were eating the desert scrub grass and foliage. Somehow, I don’t think these cattle will make it to Kobe-beef status on the Bourbon Steak menu.

Even the first town we came across, Lordsburg, looked dessicated. Good Lord, Lordsburg. Literally half the businesses and buildings along the main drag were boarded up, and the windows to the lobby of the Luxury Hotel revealed metal folding chairs for furniture. One dedicated car-dealer featured about a dozen new cars and trucks aimed at the road, prices marked on the windshields in optimistic neon colors. I think the marketing theme for the dealer should be, “Leaving town? Why not do it in a BRAND NEW CAR!”

Other than that about the only maintained structures we saw until we got to Demry was a series of about two dozen billboards placed close together Burma-Shave style promoting the Continental Divide Trading Post. Each billboard promoted another rare, not-to-be-missed product; everything from snake eggs (not sure if these were pickled or not) to saddles, whips and, probably, mounted jack-a-lopes. They probably had beef jerky, too, and out here I bet it comes directly off the slaughtered local cattle without need for drying or processing.

I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight?

Our travels today took us from Red Wing, Minnesota to Scottsdale, Arizona and a very nice room at the St. James Hotel to a palatial villa at the Fairmont Princess. In between I was a somewhat uncomfortable guest of Northwest Airlines, sandwiched into a middle seat (though my original seat reservation was for an aisle) while the guy in front of me reclined into my lap so far that he blocked the light from the reading lamp so that I had to hold my book up over his head in order to read. Which I was happy to do, while also summoning up the juiciest coughs I’ve had in days. He was unmoved.

Meanwhile a mother seated behind me read an endless series of Curious George books to her toddler daughter who showed her delight by happily kicking the back of my seat. I was also four rows from the back of the oversold flight, which meant a long wait to “de-plane”. Once out into the concourse I had to take several deep breaths to re-inflate to my normal body size. Things definitely started to turn for the better when my wife and I got to the rental car counter and found that the full-sized car she reserved had been replaced with a brand new Suzuki SUV (so new it still had a paper license plate in the window). Not only that, it was in my wife’s favorite electric blue color!

Still it was 9 p.m. ‘zona time by the time we got to the hotel, where we found that I had been upgraded to a villa suite by the resort. Apparently my name on the contract for the conference my company is hosting made them feel especially warm and friendly. The accomodations are very nice; the bathroom “suite” alone is nearly the size of the very nice room we had had over the weekend at the St. James. In addition we have a sitting area, two large plasma-screen TVs, a private patio and a king-sized bed ideal for playing Marco Polo with the Reverend Mother.

We had to hustle, though, to get something to eat before the restaurants at the resort closed, and around 9:30 we made it to Bourbon Steak, a very, very nice place where the staff was very, very pleased to see me after tapping my villa number into the computer a the hostess stand. We were seated (in a small booth with real fur pillows!) and then our waitress approached and addressed me by name (“Mr. Night Writer”). It was late and we wanted to eat lightly, but the menu was awesome, though some of the entrees were well north of $45. I finally settled on a Kobe-beef hamburger (only $22) topped with fennel slaw and water cress while the Reverend Mother ordered a salad and crab cakes (you don’t want to know how much, though Accounting might ultimately take an interest). After we ordered our waitress brought us a selection of duck-fat fried french fries (some coated in smoked paprika, another variety in a truffle seasoning, and a third, savory option that I can’t remember), all with different dipping sauces, plus some fresh from the oven buttermilk foccacia bread, all compliments of the chef.

A short time later they brought our food, and it was almost too beautiful to eat. Almost, but we were really hungry (and it was all delicious). We did pause long enough, however, for the Reverend Mother to take pictures of our food and the fur pillows. I told her I thought I could get used to living like this, and she said that no, I’d probably die from a heart attack if we ate like this all the time. I reminded her, though, that if I had a heart attack while on company business my life insurance pays off triple — which would mean that she could then live like this for some time.

“Would you like some crab cake?” she asked.

What I did on my “summer” vacation

I awoke easily last Sunday morning to the tramping sound of Lake Superior shoving repeatedly against the shore just 80 feet from the screened door of the cottage. It had been the same sound I had fallen asleep to the night before, and I looked at the clock and was half-stunned to realize that for the first time in months I had just spent eight glorious, uninterrupted hours dead to the world.

I also noted with some relief that the mental checklist of the day’s chores, challenges and deadlines was not, for the first time in months, floating just behind my eyes, trying to push them open. Instead the invisible slate was hanging back, humble and nearly bare like the marquis of a Dairy Queen closed for the season, the only lettering in my head a casual scrawl: Grand Marais, On Vacation.

Without much urgency I chalked the most pressing agenda item for the day: Breakfast.

On Saturday my family and I had driven up to the North Shore from the Cities. I hadn’t been able to get away much this past summer and had had to miss some of the picnics and canoe trips my wife and daughters had already taken, so I was really ready for this trip. By coming this late in the season, and before the fall leaves were at their peak, we had enjoyed a less crowded road, though the cars were still packed as thick as flies around a sweet roll at Tobies in Hinckley. Instead we had a picnic lunch outside the Hinckley Fire Museum and then kept bearing north to Duluth and the southwestern tip of the great lake, whereupon we hugged its sprawling shore as we passed the familiar totems of our trip: Two Harbors, Castle Danger, Gooseberry Falls, the Split Rock Lighthouse. We turned off at Palisade Head in order to walk along the the towering cliffs that for so long have told the mighty lake, “This far and no further” (a testament that even a natural balance isn’t necessarily an easy one). Driving up the steep, narrow road up to the parking lot at the rocky edge of Palisade, the “I ride ATVs and I Vote” bumper sticker on our borrowed mini-van contrasted nicely with the many “Wellstone!” stickers already there. After some clambering around and the usual jelly-kneed sensations we were back on Hwy. 61, with the hills, woods and great root beer rivers of the Superior National Forest on our left, the lake always on our right, past the Tettegouche State Park, and the Temperance and Cascade Rivers, crashing down the gorges and over the rocks in a great foamy rush to keep their standing appointments with Gitchee-Gumee. Then we were at last into Grand Marais, and still a bit further, past 5-Mile Rock and to the Croftville Road Cottages.

After that my wife prepared some lamb stew in our kitchen for dinner. Then, in the gathering twilight, a campfire and toasted marshmallows as we watched the bats chase down the remaining insects of the season and finally into bed, the tramping sound in my ears of Superior shoving against the shore, just 80 feet from the screened door of my cottage.

Our cottage. It was beautifully remodeled and very comfortable with two gas fireplaces, and at a great price.

Sunday, when breakfast had been duly scratched off of the to-do list, we went back into Grand Marais, parking in a lot beside the harbor where I could see a yellow sailboat moored 50 yards from shore, crisp in the morning sun and nodding to us on the gentle waves. We walked through the small town, browsing at the many gift shops and quaint attractions. I’m sure that the Indians, and later the first explorers, trappers and lumbermen through this area, would be stupefied at the many opportunities available today to partake of the comforts of pie and caffeine.

While the girls admired jewelry and scarves, beneath rustically-lettered signs informing them that they were under video surveillance, I scouted around and discovered the apparently sole location where that afternoon’s Vikings-Lions football game could be seen. That was still several hours away, however, so we got back in the van and headed north to the Devil’s Kettle Falls and State Park. We “tail-gated” with chicken- and egg-salad sandwiches from our cooler before setting off on the somewhat stiff 1.4 mile hike to the falls. The path is relatively wide and well-maintained, but persistently uphill and even in the mild temperatures we got pretty warm. There are some very nice look-outs along the way, however, and we admired the cascading river and the vistas of trees still mostly green but already seasoned with explosive swathes of red and orange.

After steady climbing we were then at a series of wooden steps and railings leading us down to the titular “Devil’s Kettle.” The relief in the descent was greatly mitigated by the knowledge that every one of the 179 steps would have to be negotiated in reverse order and direction on our way back. On the way back up, however, we did get to see an eagle circling directly above us (though at first I thought it might be a buzzard). The girls dropped me back at the bar in time for the game and then they headed for the bay with their sketch books.

I thought the bar would have more than a few tourists inside to catch the game, but it was all locals who knew each other and didn’t seem to mind my presence. It was a congenial, cozy group. One of the patrons sitting at the bar, who was wearing open-toed flip-flop sandals, apparently felt so at home that he started picking at his toenails, dropping his scrapings on the carpet. Well, I wasn’t planning on eating anyway, as I only wanted to watch the game, but I ordered a draft Bock for medicinal purposes. The pedicurist and one of the female customers were soon intent on a discussion about why the TV kept showing a “DET 6, MIN 3” score from time to time in the upper corner of the screen, especially when the current score was Lions 7, Vikings 0. I cautiously submitted for their consideration that the strange score might, in fact, be the score of the Tigers-Twins game that was also going on that afternoon. Their reaction gave credence to the adage that the definition of “expert” means someone who lives more than 50 miles away. A little later I felt comfortable enough to take sides between two groups disputing the interpretation of a certain play. One of the members of the “other” group, an older gentleman, loudly insisted his version was correct because he “used to play this game.” To which I replied, “And did they wear helmets back then?” Fortunately, this was well received by the group as a whole and the gentleman in particular, and while I was on a “one-beer-per-half” pace, a third Bock appeared in front of me in the fourth quarter.

I’d nursed my way through about a third of it with about a minute and a half to go in the game, when my wife pulled up in the parking lot and sent the kids in to get me. “Paw,” they said, “Ma says it’s time to come home!” Well, actually, they didn’t say anything like that, but they did let me know that they and my supper were waiting for me down the street a little ways at a place called the Crooked Spoon. Therefore, even though the game looked to be heading for overtime, I settled my tab and left after Longwell’s kick clanked off the upright. Besides, with two 16-oz. glasses of beer, plus a little bit more, in me I was starting to feel a little tingly in my extremities. A brisk walk in the cool evening air was the perfect remedy, however, and I arrived at the restaurant hungry and invigorated. The Crooked Spoon had been recommended to us by friends who admired its sophisticated menu. I believe I acquitted myself with grace and aplomb while dining — an opinion that the Mall Diva threatens to dispute in a post of her very own if I’m not careful (or she gets the slightest encouragement from anyone).

Whatever. The food was absolutely delicious, from the melted cheese and spinach appetizer, through the pulled pork with beans and greens soup and the barbequed ribs, and including two delectable pieces of carrot cake — each the size of some of the boulders we’d seen along the shore earlier — that my family fell upon with flashing cutlery like ninjas. We left the restaurant well satisfied with the meal and the day, but even more “dessert” was in store: an enormous crescent moon, looking so perfect that if you saw it in a movie you’d think it was a painted backdrop for sure, had risen over the bay and was reflecting a golden beam across the still waters directly at us, and the beam followed us nearly all the way to the car.

Yep, it had been a great day.

A long, strange trip it’s been

My wife and daughter are safely back home and still decompressing from their 17 day trip to the “distant and mysterious land” (DML). I apologize for appearing coy, but it’s not out of the mistaken impression that this blog is widely read. It is because I know there are software and web tools that collect and report the usage of certain words and phrases, especially when used together (I use these tools myself in my day job to monitor information that may impact my company). Because of people still in the DML, it really doesn’t pay to come to the attention of a particular government. I think alert readers should be able to piece things together themselves, but there’s no point in waving any red flags electronically.

It sounds like a cliche to say it, but the DML is a land of many contrasts. For example, by government it is officially a collectivist state, yet the daily lives of its people openly revolve around buying and selling and collecting wealth. In fact, the “free” healthcare for some 1.3 billion people isn’t very free: we have heard first-hand accounts of seriously ill (but not contagious) children being refused admission to a hospital unless cash is provided upfront. It is a land of modern skyscrapers and streets – that uses these same streets as public urinals. It is a land with an ancient and intricate culture – where the sound of hocking and spitting is constant as you move around (even while on airplanes). It is a land where the women dress exquisitely – while their husbands and brothers accompany them on the streets wearing dirty shorts and tee-shirts, often with the shirts pulled up to cool their bellies in the stifling heat. It is a land where cellphones are everywhere – even among people living in homes and environments that would have been considered squalid 2000 years ago.

Another contrast is in the area of religious faith. Offically the DML worships nothing – and everything. There are countless shrines and temples for an ancient religion – and many who worship their former 20th century leader as a god. Even the Christian faith is “accepted”; that is, as long as it is practiced in the “government church” designated for it. My wife and daughter went to a Sunday service at the government church with the rest of their group. Even though they arrived late, they were ushered into the front rows – the better, it was pointed out, to be seen by the cameras. The cameras were not, however, for the church’s benefit.

The bulk of the effective Christian teaching, evangelizing and discipling inside the DML is done in underground house churches, many of them no doubt similar to the home church my wife and I conduct. The crucial difference is in our version we are open to visitors and welcome new faces. In the DML the prevalence of government spies makes the small groups wary of newcomers; a justifiable precaution because friends of ours there know of midnight raids and home church leaders that have been beaten, deported or “disappeared.” Yet the body of Christ thrives. While there was never going to be a chance for my wife and daughter to be taken into a house church, they met many Christians throughout their travels who were excited in their faith and hungry for news and teaching and they were deeply touched by the strength and hope of these believers.

These are, of course, simple observations. Any stranger visiting a new land is sure to find many things that don’t appear to make sense, whether they are in Chicago or Cairo, or even between Minneapolis and St. Paul. We carry our filters and expectations with us wherever we go, and part of seeing a new place is having these preconceptions shaken up (let’s hope in a positive way). In my wife’s case, for example, she imagined that people living under this form of government would be chafing at their oppression in the same way that people from our culture would under similar circumstances. Instead, most appeared fairly stoic and comfortable (though there is a history of the more discontented being dealt with harshly).

This was the first time my wife had been on an overseas mission where she and her group could not go openly about her business. In other trips national governments were at the worst indifferent to their cause and the local governments even embraced and celebrated their activities whether it was for a large open-air crusade, or the quieter and vitally important pastors conferences and training. As I noted the difference between the DML and, say, the Philippines, it made me appreciate what an 800 pound gorilla the government can be in evangelical work…and then I realized that the same is true in America, with all the permits, regulations, licenses and 501(c)(3) hoops that encumber our “freedom” of religion.

And I wondered if someone visiting from another land would look at us and marvel at how stoic and comfortable we appeared to be.

No news from the dark side of the moon

We’re in the countdown of the final days before my wife and youngest daughter return from their mission to a distant and mysterious land. Email communications had been regular since they arrived until this past weekend when they moved to a new place where we thought the connection might not be so readily available. By Tuesday evening they should be back in “range” and I eagerly await word of what has gone on since the last cliff-hanger message.

It’s kind of like the days of the Apollo missions when Houston would lose contact with the spacecraft while it orbited the dark side of the moon, leaving the guys in Mission Control to stand vigil, watching the clock tick down until the ship came back into radio contact.

I calculate 12 hours, 15 minutes from now before I can first expect word.

Of course those crew-cut guys in their white shirts and dark ties in Mission Control were cool, calm veterans, relying on their technology and their elaborate testing, knowing the communications blackout was a natural, expected part of the plan, nothing to worry about and thank god they can smoke on the job and watching the clock gave them something to do to relieve the boredom. Really, what could go wrong?

T-minus 12 hours, 11 minutes.

We are operating under the assumption that emails in and out of the country where they are staying are being monitored, and we know certain words can lead to problems. Therefore, for example, we refer to prayer as “thinking.” This part of their trip was scheduled to include a sight-seeing boat ride that would take them within view of the land of an elevator-shoe-wearing tyrant with bad hair and an even worse temper. My wife said they were planning to think deeply about this man and this country while they were that close.

Six years ago my wife went to the Philippines with a group to help train pastors and leaders of several churches that we are connected with over there. They were also going to conduct a three-night long children’s crusade and my oldest daughter, then 10 or 11, was part of the team. That time I was left behind with our youngest, who was about five. In those days you could go right to the departure gate at the airport to see people off and everyone was holding up well until my wife disappeared down the jetway – where she fortunately couldn’t hear our youngest begin to wail, “I want my mommy! I want my mommy!” This continued without let-up all the way back through the concourse as I carried her in my arms and waited for airport security to tackle me for attempted child abduction.

This time it’s the little one who got to go, and the oldest daughter doesn’t seem to be on the brink of a meltdown. We’ve hung out, sipped lattes, made a quick trip up to Duluth, and had some good talks. She’s also found things to do to keep busy. I’m just not nearly as cuddly as her mom, however, and I know she misses curling up next to her to ask for help in figuring me out – at least that’s what I figure they’re giggling about since they get quiet and just grin at me if I walk into the room.

Just four more days and we’ll all be back together to hear in detail about their adventures, the food, the people, the markets, the dead body that was left all day behind the place where they’ve been working…

T-minus 11 hours, 43 minutes.


Contact! Sounds as if it was a bit of a trip through the dark side, but what’s a mission trip without some good stories about the conditions?

“…so glad to be back in this hotel. It’s a palace compared to what we had to endure in xxx. Moldy ceilings, dried feces on the toilet, a floor that is never vacuumed, overflowing toilets, rock hard beds, not enough light and on and on….”

Hmmm. Sounds like my bachelor days. Mental note: clean bathroom before they get back.

And they’re off…

The day came upon us at last. I took Night Visions and Patience to the airport early this a.m. to begin winging their way toward a distant and mysterious land where they will be ministering to abandoned children. There will be but mere hours left in this month before I see them again.

There is little concern for their physical safety, but they will be operating under conditions that are environmentally and politically…problematic. For those and other reasons I will be general in describing where they’re going and what they’ll be doing (even after they return) because there is much good work that is at risk. It will be a life-changing experience for both of them, and perhaps for many others as well.

It may even be life-changing for me. It will certainly be routine-busting. I’ll get a taste of single-parenthood and my own cooking, and will have occasion, I’m sure, to wonder what happened to the mysterious elves that pick up after me (I hope my wife didn’t take them with her).

It’s not an easy thing to send them off, though it may appear to some as if I do so lightly. We’re a very close family and appreciate what we have…and at times I perhaps guard it too jealously as if I were the only defense, forgetting the limits of my powers. My wife and I, however, consider ourselves stewards of all that we have received from God, including (especially) our children, knowing that while they may be ours, they are indeed meant for others. And so have they been raised.

This trip has been on Patience’s heart for three years since she first heard the first-hand accounts from a friend of ours of this foreign land and of the children being lost. She knew, one day, she would go. When the door opened unexpectedly this year her path was clear, her resolve was strong and her age irrelevant. Her mother, too, felt the undeniable tug. Certainly suffering is everywhere and confronting it doesn’t require a passport and innoculations, but for this particular time and for this particular place, this is where they know they are to be. I had every right and every instinct to go with them, but not the release, so now I am where I need to be.

Let’s see what happens.

Leaving Las Vegas

I’m beginning this post as I sit in the gate area of my departing flight from McCarran International, and taking advantage of the free wi-fi connection (HT Jay Reding). This is an enjoyable feature and gives me time to make a list of the other things I enjoyed in Las Vegas during my brief stay:

1. The Key Lime pie at Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant, which was very tart and creamy and quite unlike the midwestern versions I usually experience where it is considered sufficient to simply add a green tint to the dessert.

2. The dancing fountains show in front of the Bellagio in the evenings.

3. Air-conditioning.

Other than that I suppose you can say that the party animal in me has long since had his hide tanned, mounted and banished to the attic (you’re not bringing that thing into my house), and Vegas is best enjoyed at hyper party speed where things are thrown at you so quickly you don’t have time to look too closely. At a slower, more cynical pace it can still be interesting, however.

Strolling down the strip you can see faux versions of Rome, Venice, Egypt, New York, Paris, tropical islands – and faux grass in front of (I think) the Wynn Las Vegas, which no doubt serves pate de foie gras inside. In addition to the architectural mimicry, there were other superstructures that also appeared to be less than authentic (you go, girl). Every so often I could get a glimpse between buildings of the mountains flanking the city; taken together in frame the juxtaposition of false facade and rocky reality can be startling.

Vegas Blog: I’m Shocked, Shocked to Find Gambling is Going On Here!

Flew into Las Vegas today for business, with jet service provided by Northwest. The first time on a flight where I’ve ever wanted a pillow, and Northwest doesn’t do pillows anymore. I could have used the nap since I was awakened at 4:00 a.m. by the storm sirens. I wasn’t too concerned about that since in our neighborhood the sirens can be set off by geese flatulence, but I knew there was no going back to sleep then and little to be found on the plane. Fair warning, then, that my first day’s impressions of Vegas may be tinged with a bit of the crabbies.

Another member of our group flew in on Southwest Airlines, which ran a lottery for its Vegas-bound customers. Everyone who wanted to threw in a dollar with his or her seat number written on it, and the winning seat won the whole pot. The winner was an 18 year old girl who picked up around $150 and was, reportedly, all “Ohmigaw, Ohmigaw, Ohmifreakinggaw!” If it had been me I’m sure my reaction would have been more along the lines of, “Jolly good! Pip, pip and cheerio, what?”

Did you know, gambling is legal in Nevada? You get off the plane and right there in the concourse is a bank of slot machines. Say, isn’t prostitution legal, too? These must be stationed out by baggage claim.