February 9, 2017

In September of this year, it will mark 30 years since Mountain Park has closed.  Usually, memories fade over time.  But all these decades later, the park is still as vivid to me as when I was there.  I'm still assaulted by the sensory overload I experienced daily: the hissing blast of the Satellite jets, the sharp smell of the graphite and arcing electricity in the Dodgems, the music from the merry-go-round -- especially the music.  Hearing any of the familiar tunes that used to play repeatedly on the band organ instantly transports me back into the old pavilion.  I can still hear the voices of Roger Fortin, Jay Collins, Lucky, my father.  I can hear the creaking of the metal as I would bring the Ferris wheel to a stop.  I can hear the joyful screams of the children as I drove the train through the tunnel behind the mini-golf course, and the clacking of the ratchets on the lift as the Mountain Flyer train ascended its first hill.  I can feel the dampness of the Towers when I would walk through them as a watchman in the deep darkness of a winter's night with nothing but a small flashlight to guide me.  I can smell the old wood inside the Dinosaur Den.  These sensations are so palpable, it's as if I still work there and am just on a brief vacation.

I repeatedly have lucid dreams of the park in operation.  Sometimes I'm walking along the midway, heading over to the next ride on my breakman's schedule.  Sometimes there are new rides; sometimes the midway is slightly re-arranged.  In one particularly realistic dream, Jay had re-opened the park and Roger was preparing the rides for their first day of operation in decades.  I was wandering through Kiddieland and the joy I felt brought tears to my eyes.  When I awoke, I was still convinced the park was reopening.  It took a few minutes for the euphoria to wear off.

These strange dreams go beyond nostalgia.  I can be nostalgic for my childhood, a mythical simpler time when my responsibilities were few and my duties involved little more than playing outside.  But this is more of a desperate desire for something dear that's been lost.  I can't say that my life was any simpler when I worked at the park.  I was in my 20s and struggling to make ends meet.  My primary means of transportation was my bicycle, in any weather.  I didn't associate with many of the other workers.  They would throw parties every week on the reservoir road abutting the park, but I avoided them.  I had a few friends, but I mostly kept to myself.  So I don't particularly miss the camaraderie.  I've wondered what it was about Mountain Park's passing that makes it such a loss.

Maybe it's that I missed my calling.  For all of the aggravations while working there (the often difficult guests, the brutally long hours, the low pay), it was the only place where I felt truly satisfied.  It's not that I was always happy; that's a different and more temporary emotion.  But while I was there, I deeply felt that there was no other place I would rather have been.  I put up with the occasional irritations because Mountain Park felt like my park.  While I ran the merry-go-round, I made sure that the floors were swept and that all the lights were working.  When I ran the Satellite, I took pride in how I ran it, trying to simulate an actual takeoff and landing with the limited ride controls I was given.

What I loved was seeing delight in the faces of the guests, whether children or adults.  It gave me great satisfaction to think that I was able to make someone's day a little bit better at my park.  I've never had another job that's given me that same kind of satisfaction.

When I worked at Riverside Park for a year, I was hoping to recreate that feeling.  But that didn't happen.  For one thing, I felt no ownership of Riverside; it was much larger and more impersonal than Mountain Park.  And it also had a different clientele. Mountain Park was a true family park, with guests of all ages; Riverside was a teen thrill park.  Those guests didn't seem to care if a ride was swept, nor whether I worked hard to provide a great experience.  It seemed like they were there to kill their boredom.  But at Mountain Park, the guests seemed to be there to get away from their usually hectic lives.  They weren't there to speed up; they came to slow down.  And they came together as families.  I often felt that Riverside was little more than a teenage day care center.

I often think about starting my own Mountain Park when I retire, knowing full well that's completely unrealistic.  It's not that the park wouldn't succeed; I think it would do quite well.  It's just that I don't have millions of dollars at my disposal to launch such a venture.  So instead I guess that desire manifests in dreams and vivid memories.  Even though I can no longer physically walk through Mountain Park's midway, I'm glad I still can feel how much it changed my life.

July 16, 2017

Written centuries apart, the two readings we’ve just heard (Psalm 119 and Matthew’s Parable of the Sower) approach the same topic from different directions.  The psalmist sings of the desire to adhere to God’s laws.  He repeats, “Teach me your statutes.”  Psalm 119 is the longest song by far — 176 verses.  It’s also the longest chapter in the entire Bible.  One verse is a variation of another.  The psalmist never tells us what exactly those laws and ordinances are, only that they’re good and just and longed for.  “Truly, I love your commandments,” the psalmist writes.

Another interesting thing about Psalm 119 is that each of the twenty-two stanzas begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It’s speculated that King David used this psalm to teach the alphabet to his son, Solomon.  We usually don’t think of the Psalms as a way for children to learn their A-B-Cs, but there were several Psalms written in that manner.

Repeatedly, the psalmist alternates between asking for God’s help in following the laws and then pleading with God for mercy by claiming all the laws have been followed.  Contrast, “I cry to you; save me, that I may observe your decrees,” with “I have done what is just and right; do not leave me to my oppressors.”  One moment the psalmist is pleading for forgiveness, but the next moment seems to claim righteousness.  How can he have it both ways, claiming to need help learning the laws and yet also claiming to have been following the laws?   The entire Psalm is filled with a kind of desperation, a fear that God the shepherd might not be watching over the flock on earth and needs to be reminded that wolves are at the door.

Now listen to how Matthew describes Jesus’ explanation of the parable:  “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields."  Isn’t that exactly what the psalmist is pleading for, an understanding of God’s word that will bear fruit?

My parents raised me a strict Roman Catholic.  I went to Notre Dame school where the teachers taught in French.  The first memories I have of attending the church which sat next to the school are the drawn-out masses in Latin.  The sermons were in French.   I understood almost nothing of what was being said — but I wanted to.  I was so hoping that something the priests were saying would help answer the many questions I had in my life.  When Rome’s Ecumenical Council switched the mass over to English, I was then hearing words I could understand but I still couldn’t put together the ideas behind them.

So I became an altar boy.  I thought that by going backstage, as it were, I would be privy to the great mysteries of the mass and would finally understand what was going on.  I was trained by another altar boy who had been doing the job for a few years.  I was really nervous.  There seemed to be so many details to remember: when to kneel, when to sit, when to approach the altar, when to get the water and wine, when to bow…  I couldn’t imagine how any of the altar boys could have known what to do when the mass was in Latin.  It was hard enough in English.  And I didn’t want to make any mistakes.

As time went on, something happened that I didn’t expect: gradually, my sense of mystery and fear disappeared.  Behind that huge ornate altar was … a rather dingy hallway.  The sound of the chimes when the priest raised the eucharist was not an angel’s chorus from the heavens, but an old set of brass bells I had to shake on cue, hidden from view below the altar.  Incense wasn’t some sort of magical smoke; it was smelly powder on a piece of hot coal.  Holy water dispensers were filled from the tap.  All of these realities began demystifying the mass for me.  I had begun to see the church not as a holy place where God was present, but as a theater where props enhanced a script to fool people into believing that God was there.

There were two main turning points in my perceptions.  One was when the priest told me to refill his chalice with eucharists.  There were strict rules I was taught about the eucharist.  It was the body and blood of Christ.  It was not to touch your teeth.  You were not to handle it in any way.  The priest would place it on your tongue and you had to immediately swallow it whole.  The eucharist was the holiest part of the mass, the most sacrosanct and the most mysterious.

I opened a cabinet in a room off of that dingy hallway and there in front of me were stacks of clear plastic bags packed with eucharists.  My job was to open a bag and pour the contents into the chalice, like filling a cereal bowl in the morning.  There was no body and blood.  The stark reality hit me: they were mass-produced wafers, like bland Nabisco crackers.  There was nothing inherently holy about them.  It was another prop designed to fool the people who didn’t know any better.  And I was one of the fools.

That point was made a bit clearer a few months later during the pouring of the water and the wine.  Priests had a subtle code that the audience members couldn’t see.  As an altar boy, I was responsible for filling the cruets — one with tap water and one with wine from a plastic jug in one of the cabinets.  It looked like generic syrup you would buy at a discount store, except it really was wine, sickeningly sweet wine.  I know; I tasted it.

During the communion ritual, the priest was to take his chalice and hold it out to the altar boys, one of whom would pour the wine and then the other would pour the water, usually in equal amounts.  But the process was controlled by the priest, who would hold his thumbs at the edge of the chalice and flick them upward when he wanted you to stop pouring.  There were three priests in our church who handled different services.  I was often on duty for the senior priest, who was in his 80s.  Every time we would go to fill his chalice, the person with the wine would pour … and pour … and pour until the cruet was drained.  When the altar boy with the water would try to pour, the priest’s thumbs would immediately begin violently flicking before even a drop could escape.  I didn’t think that was right.  That wasn’t how the sacrament was supposed to be performed.  But I couldn’t very well tell the priest he was doing his job wrong.  So I kept silent.  But that stayed with me, and shortly after that I resigned as an altar boy and eventually stopped going to church.

In my view there was a disconnect.  The message of the mass no longer meant anything to me.  It seemed like the whole thing was just for show.  The sense of mystery wasn’t the only thing that had left me; so had my spirituality.  And I didn’t know how to get it back.  I was in the position of the psalmist:  “I am your servant; give me understanding … With open mouth I pant, because I long for your commandments.”

I began my spiritual journey on a path, as an observer in church.  That’s where my seeds were first sown.  I didn’t understand the word and had no grounding.  Then I became an altar boy and sowed my seeds on rocky ground; I was thrilled to finally learn the mysteries of God, but I soon fell away.  So the question was: where could I find that good soil I needed to properly bear fruit?

Perhaps my spiritual journey is a reflection of my love of hiking.  For some reason, I’ve never been fond of walking on soft ground, preferring rocky outcroppings along cliff sides.  Occasionally there are small flowers struggling to survive there, pushing themselves up through cracks in the stone.  But generally those types of paths are barren of life while providing unparalleled vistas of the surrounding countryside.  It’s ironic that standing on seemingly lifeless ground provided the best view of the verdant life surrounding me.

God didn’t force me to take that path; I chose it freely and viewed the beauty of the earth from a distance.  I could have dwelt on the joy that was with me, the small signs of life pushing up from the harsh stone.  But instead I longed for the distant scenes from which I had retreated.  How similar is that to my time as an altar boy wanting to know the mysteries but upon discovering them, discounting them and distancing myself from them?

Perhaps God doesn’t simply hand you those mysteries, like a magician taking you backstage.  I was expecting a Cecil B. DeMille production, like when Moses was hopping back and forth across a dark chasm while flames wildly circled about and struck flaming commandments into stone accompanied by a sonorous and stirring symphonic soundtrack.  That’s generally not God’s M.O.  The special effects are usually a bit more subtle.

As with many aspects of life, learning happens only when you truly long for it to happen.  You need a desire to know, not just a casual interest.  You have to be willing to hunt for knowledge.  That was something I didn’t realize as an altar boy.  I expected the knowledge to be handed to me, neatly packaged and organized.  I was taught the what and the how, but I wasn’t taught the why — because no one could teach me that except me.  And that was the most important part.  I had to decide for myself what God meant in my life, and once I decided that everything else would naturally fall into place.

That didn’t happen for decades.  It was at this very church that the spark was reignited.  And I hadn’t planned for that to happen.  I had joined the choir at Karen’s request and by default was in church every Sunday.  I began to hear the words again, words that were at once familiar and foreign, words that finally had begun to have meaning.  But what had a greater impact on me was how the church was implementing those words.  The service for me was no longer a disconnected repetition of centuries-old text; the meaning came because the church was acting upon those words, acting upon a call to serve one another, acting upon a call not to just praise God or listen to words, but to actually be Christ, to engage with the world as if each one of us held God that closely within our hearts, to carry on the mission begun millennia ago. 

I finally began to understand what it meant to be a Christian.  It wasn’t about the theatrics nor any of the surface manifestations.  It was a different direction on my hike through life, a trail blazed through the middle of the forest instead of circling the perimeter or following well-established paths.  And again, this was a journey and a direction I had to choose to take.  Without being on good soil, there was little chance anything would grow.  The only way forward was to place myself where that could happen.

Sometimes there’s too much rain and I feel as if life will drown me.  Sometimes the sun feels like it will scorch me out of existence.  Sometimes I feel, as the psalmist expressed, that I’m an alien in this land.  But being planted in good soil gives me a better chance of surviving those harsh conditions.  The word of God then becomes a nutrient, feeding growth and strength.

Then there are no unknowable mysteries.  There are no hidden tricks needed to fool people into thinking they’re in God’s presence.  When you’re planted in good soil, both sunshine and rain are signs of God’s presence and love.  And no matter how far or how arduous, on every journey you make God will be your companion. 

Then you will know in your heart the words of the psalmist:  “Great peace have those who love God’s law; nothing can make them stumble.”

December 30, 2017

This has been the most bizarre year I can remember, mainly because of national and world events. I haven't wanted to jump into the arena of pundits expounding upon the end of days. Somehow the world always manages to continue on its petty pace from day to day. But this year did mark a sea change in the percieved balance of power.

In the past, there was a general assumption that national leaders were good stewards of the country. We may have disagreed with their policies or approaches, but the general assumption was that, in the end, they had the interests of the nation at heart. That's no longer true. This past year has torn down the curtain to show the wizards behind it, and they're mostly all apparently humbugs acting purely in their own self-interest. Whatever happens to the country and the people living in it is not their concern. My greatest fears about capitalism have been realized: we're now at the culmination of an every-man-for-himself era, a Darwinian survival-of-the-fit competition where the person(s) with the most money will win.

The U.S. has always had an underlying ethos of enterprising businessmen (and they were usually men, usually white) forging multi-million-dollar companies and becoming phenomenally wealthy. That was the basis for the fabled American Dream. But over the past few decades it seems like the avenue toward that dream has narrowed considerably, and at times it looks like we're heading back to medieval times when the unwashed masses toiled in the fields while the wealthy lorded over them. That's not the way a democracy is supposed to function. But the ideals on which the American democracy was founded seem to be drifting further and further out of reach.

For example, a friend of mine has for years encouraged me to invest in the stock market as a way to secure my future. There's just one problem with that encouragement: it presupposes that I have spare money to invest. I did not, as some politicians have claimed about middle-class Americans, waste my money on movies and booze. I've lived a relatively frugal life. I chose teaching as my profession, admittedly not the most lucrative endeavor but one that I value. But the cost of living has escalated greatly in the last 30 years, so much so that putting anything aside for the future has become difficult (if not impossible) to realize. I did open up some retirement accounts. But the amount I've been able to put into them has been a drop in the proverbial bucket. I can either pay my bills and eat, or I can save more for retirement and either not pay my bills or not eat. Those pretty much have been my options. It's great if a person has tens of thousands of spare dollars to invest in the stock market, provided the right stocks are picked. But I could afford to invest at most a few hundred dollars at a time, and that hasn't produced much.

The way the system currently is set up works really well for people who are already wealthy, but it seems to do little-to-nothing for people who are cash-strapped. This is where a truly democratic government is supposed to come to the rescue, to temper cutthroat capitalist instincts and help level the playfield a bit to give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, that approach now appears to be actively undermined. For one thing, public education systems are being subverted, ensuring that education in its most effective form happens only at more expensive private schools. You can't educate students by simply forcing them to regurgitate answers to tests that the state approves. Real education, like so much of life, is often an unpredictable path that, when successful, leads to places that could never have been foreseen. That experience is impossible to quantify in a test. A good teacher is a guide, helping to steer each student along their most effective path.

All the classes I teach are project-driven. I've found that's the best way to learn. I give my students challenging directed tasks that require a lot of creative problem-solving, and then I turn them loose. I give them just enough set-up to head them off in the right direction. But the rest is up to them. I'm there mainly to help correct their course as they progress, steering them in the direction that I think will produce the best result. The students are completely free to take a different direction, and I don't have a problem with that. The best lesson often comes from failure; if students aren't allowed to fail, they generally don't learn. By that I don't mean purposely failing students out of a course. In my classes, they have several projects and assignments and failing one or two of them doesn't normally spell disaster. They need to feel a sense of risk and yet know that there's a safety net.

I've had students complain about this approach, that I don't give them enough guidance to succeed. But I tell them the story of one of my students who interned with CNN in New York. On his first morning there they handed him a camera and told him to head to such-and-such an address to cover a story. It had to be shot, edited and output by 5:00. He didn't know the city and didn't know the equipment. But he implemented creative problem solving skills and figured it out as he went along. He got the piece done in time, and that set him up for a very successful internship. Nobody at CNN was there to hold his hand or tell him how to do his work. He was expected simply to get the job done, and he figured out how to do it to the best of his ability. And that's what I've expected of my students. In a college environment, they have the safety net of knowing their professional reputation isn't on the line. They have breathing room to make mistakes and learn. All I ask is that they be willing to walk that path and if they make a mistake along the way, fix it.

None of that kind of learning is available to students whose only purpose in school is to take tests. Like all humans, students learn best from experience. When we can provide all students with those opportunities, the country will produce more creative and more productive citizens. And maybe then we'll have a population that can responsibly handle this delicate and unwieldy system called democracy.