Story Telling – Electronics and the Snake in the Can

One of my kids’ favorite activities when we have new visitors over for dinner is to try and get me telling stories.  I’ve told many of these stories so many times that the kids like to start to tell them on their own if I don’t comply with their requests.  I imagine some of these stories are among the things they will take with them long after I am gone, but to ensure that they are correct (according to my flawed memory), I’ve decided to write several of the more popular ones down.   These stories are true to the best of my ability to remember them.  It’s possible that some of the memories have been contaminated or that my role in them has been exaggerated, but any of these types of artifacts are purely unintentional.   Unfortunately, some of the names are gone from me forever, so if I leave one out, it’s either out of respect or simply because I can’t remember anymore.

The Snake in the Can

You might say I had a non-traditional upbringing in many senses.  My parents seemed to believe that kids should explore their environment and follow their curiosity without substantial interference beyond subtle suggestions and gentle manipulation.  While other kids were playing little league soccer and baseball, I was wandering the streets collecting junk to see if I could fix it.  When normal kids were watching sports on the TV, I was taking broken TVs apart to see if I could figure out how how they worked.  From lawnmowers and motorcycles to trucks, TVs, and stereos, I was constantly taking apart, figuring out, and reassembling anything I could get my hands on.

One outcome of that kind of freedom was a love for electronics.  My next door neighbor Mikey, my brother Tolon, and I all had a great deal of fun dismantling junk garage door openers, computers, and any other electronics we could find for free on the curb or for a few dollars at the local thrift store.  As time wore on and we became more adept at dismantling stuff, we started to experiment with some of the components we found inside.  One incident in particular stands out as a prominent story…  Mikey’s dad installed garage door openers for a living and would generally bring the old ones he took out home to scrap for copper and steel.  One afternoon, we were doing our best to pull parts out of one of these openers and had succeeded in pulling several capacitors and a transformer off of a circuit board, stringing them together to form a “circuit.”  Not knowing what they were, how they worked, or much more than the concept that if you made a “circuit” and plugged it in the circuit was supposed to do something, we decided to try the experiment.  Tolon and Mikey took the pile of wires and other things and plugged it into a switched outlet while Tolon went inside to turn on the switch.

We wanted to see the “circuit” do something, and weren’t disappointed.  As I would later find out, we had connected a small electrolytic capacitor directly to 120V AC.  These particular devices don’t react well to either AC or high voltages, and we exposed this one to both with the end result being a loud bang and a cloud of smoke.  Tolon, who had been inside to flip the switch, ran out believing he had killed Mikey only to find a large scorch mark on the driveway that remained visible until after I had grown and moved away.  Mikey, for his part, was stunned.  Mikey’s dad was probably curious why the breaker tripped and how the mark had come to be on the driveway, but never made a big deal about it to my knowledge.

We were continuously doing something with junk, but managed to progress from dismantling with a hammer and rocks to carefully pulling components, building custom circuit boards, and designing/building light sequencers, sirens, and anything else for which we could find schematics.  Why and how my mother and Mikey’s mother could stand to put up with all that junk and constant fire hazard is a mystery to me, but I’m grateful for it.  These early experiences started an interest that ultimately set the course of my professional life.  One of the earliest impacts of this “freestyle education” was that I opted to follow these interests in High School and delved into science and technology with particular focus on electronics.

My electronics classes, and more specifically the patient, kind, and supportive teacher — Ralph Dammann — gave me the latitude and focus to delve into the topic where I found applications for math and physics and an outlet for my creative energy.  With that focus, combined with the fact I had begun working part-time after work and didn’t have time to screw around any more, I managed pulled my grades up from mediocre to stellar almost overnight.   In addition to the academic benefits, I had great fun with the projects Mr Dammann had for us to build.

Among the many things that beeped, squeaked, or did something funny was my personal favorite and the one that resulted in the most entertainment — the snake can.  This particular project was quite simple, consisting of a step-down transformer, a mercury tilt switch, a 9V battery, some electrical tape, and a small metal film canister.  The primary leads of the transformer were connected to the lid and base of the film canister, and a line of electrical tape was put around the rim to insulate between the two.  The 9V battery was connected through the tilt switch to the secondary windings on the transformer.  When the can was sitting level, the tilt switch was open and no current was flowing – nothing happened.  Pick it up, however, and the tilt switch would momentarily close, sending a pulse of electricity to the can which the transformer stepped up to about 240V.  Courtesy of the way the thing was built, there was no risk of real harm because the current was basically limited to below harmful levels.

This was our snake can.  Just like the cans in cartoons, ours had a fake snake inside waiting to surprise you.  Unlike the cartoons, though, our snake didn’t run on springs, was invisible, and bit… hard!  Outwardly, the can was completely innocuous.  Inwardly, it was diabolical.  It wasn’t long before the can had several dents and dings in it where an otherwise manly, strong, and unsuspecting victim had dropped it suddenly with a womanly scream or screech.

Perhaps the most entertaining interaction with the can came in Seminary.  Our teacher, Brother Dunford, was a biology student at the local university and was running late one day.  I had brought the snake to class and had surprised a few people in the room with it while we were waiting for the teacher to come in.  Since there weren’t any unsuspecting victims left, I decided to leave the can on the podium for the teacher to find.  However, that plan was modified some when the teacher next-door came in to check on us.

Brother Sanders, the teacher next door,  had been told we were unsupervised and had come over to see what kind of trouble we were causing.  In spite of the fact that he taught religion for a living, he was probably one of the most funny, animated and dramatic people I’d ever known.  “Brother Sanders,” I said, “Brother Dunford left that can on the podium.  We think it’s some kind of gross biology object lesson.  Will you go see what it is?”

Brother Sanders knew we were full of crap since he’d come over to check on us knowing Brother Dunford hadn’t been there yet.  He knew something was up, but was glad to oblige us with some of his antics.  He crept slowly to the podium…  circled it slowly, closely inspecting the foreign object… he pulled out his keys and tapped it before jumping backwards… etc…  The entire room, knowing how this was going to end, was roaring with laughter.  The laughter reinforced the dramatic showing, the two feeding on each other for a few minutes before Brother Sanders finally decided enough was enough and picked up the can.

Immediately, he shrieked like a little girl who had been stung by a wasp, jumped about three feet in the air, and threw the can about half-way across the room.  The effect on the crowd was as expected.  We were rolling on the floor, and nearly everyone was tearing up with laughter.  In fact, I was beginning to wonder how much trouble I was going to be in since everyone in the building was sure to hear the ruckus in our room.  I decided it was time to calm things down and fess up.  When Bro. Sanders had finally collected himself and the roar died down enough for him to speak, he asked who’s the thing was.  I answered that it was mine — ready to accept my fate.  I explained how to hold it without getting shocked, and he ran out of the room with it, headed for the principal’s office.

Rather than the stern voice I expected to come at me from that direction, I heard another scream, then two people gigging as they headed for another classroom.  Then another shriek followed by three giggles crossing to another room and another shriek.  The snake was getting lots of exercise.  For several days I wondered if I would ever get my little can of goodness back.  After almost a week it was brought back to me looking rather battered and bent, and handed off with the explanation that it didn’t work anymore and that I shouldn’t bring things like that to school.   It turns out that even after the beating it took, the only necessary repair was a new battery which had been exhausted by the “responsible adults” in my school who passed it from one to another until it quit working.

I’ve long since forgotten what happened to that little treasure of an electronics project —  I assume it finally broke in such a way that it wasn’t worth repairing and I threw it away — but I will never forget the reactions that it garnered.  While I didn’t necessarily fully understand how it worked, the very visual and visceral reaction it created in people who were unfortunate enough to encounter it did prod me to wonder about the fundamentals that made it work.  That wonder, followed up by study and experimentation, led from one thing to another to make me who I am.  It’s funny how small things add up to be monumental in the grand scheme of things.

Story Telling – Alaskan Rescue

One of my kids’ favorite activities when we have new visitors over for dinner is to try and get me telling stories.  I’ve told many of these stories so many times that the kids like to start to tell them on their own if I don’t comply with their requests.  I imagine some of these stories are among the things they will take with them long after I am gone, but to ensure that they are correct (according to my flawed memory), I’ve decided to write several of the more popular ones down.   These stories are true to the best of my ability to remember them.  It’s possible that some of the memories have been contaminated or that my role in them has been exaggerated, but any of these types of artifacts are purely unintentional.   Unfortunately, some of the names are gone from me forever, so if I leave one out, it’s either out of respect or simply because I can’t remember anymore.

Alaskan Rescue

While we were in Alaska, I was called to work with the young men in my church as a counselor in the presidency that presided over them.  When I was called to serve in this capacity, the scout master and young men had already planned their high adventure for the summer and were in the final stages of preparations.  They had made arrangements to rent one-man “pack rafts” to float twenty miles down Beaver Creek north of Fairbanks, then roll up the rafts, strap them to their packs, and hike another forty miles along a trail through a protected state natural area.

To save money, the group had solicited donations of old dehydrated “food storage” items that they put together to make their own meals rather than spend the money required to purchase commercially prepared foods.  Additionally, because of the weight of the raft-laden packs, they relied on availability of water along the trail and a single 20 oz filtering water bottle each for hydration.  All of these arrangements had been made before I became involved in any form or fashion.  By the time I showed up to the first meeting, they were testing their rafts and doing final bag-checks with the scoutmaster.  I immediately began to have serious concerns.

I have experienced both that region of the Alaskan bush and the rigors of 50+ mile backpacking trips.  One of the remote instrumentation locations we maintained for my work happened to be only a few miles off of the trail these young men would have to hike on their last two days.  The trail crossed territory that can be extraordinarily challenging for grown and experienced men on high-end all-terrain vehicles equipped specifically for working in that environment.   On one of many trips I made through that region, our maintenance team took almost seven hours to get four ATVs through a two-mile swamp.  Other trips went somewhat faster, but all were very challenging due to a combination of crotch-deep muskeg (rotting peat-moss, water, and mud that has the consistency of warm Jello), narrow trails, fallen trees, and black swarms of mosquitoes nearly capable of picking you up and carrying you away.

To add to my concern over what I felt was an aggressive schedule in an unforgiving environment, I doubted how well prepared these young men were.  We were a fairly small congregation, so to ensure they had enough people for the trip they had extended it to a younger crowd than normal.  Three of the boys were just barely eligible and weren’t particularly physically strong.  I worried that they would have difficulty carrying the load for the duration of this long trek.   The scoutmaster (Mike Galloway) was near sixty, and appeared to be trying to compensate for the boys abilities by carrying extra stuff himself.

Mike was an experienced outdoorsman from the lower-48, but he was new to Alaska and hadn’t yet learned how actively Alaska tries to kill you.  He knew a lot, but still had something to learn about just how intense it can get when things go sideways out in the bush.  After some previously serious learning experiences myself, I was worried about him running into a similar situation with a bunch of boys in tow and not having the right kind of kit and training to get out of it.

I also had concerns about what it was they were taking.  I doubted the wisdom in their creating their own meals from old food-storage, and pulled several of them aside to talk to them about what was in their packs when I showed up for the final bag-check.  Some had pounds of extra crap…  heavy tarps where lightweight plastic sheeting would suffice, redundant tools (hatchets, saws, tarps, etc…), heavy ponchos instead of a stash of general-purpose large garbage bags, etc…  They were not particularly space/weight conscious.  I made recommendations for how to reduce weight and better prepare for the bugs, mud, and terrain they were going to encounter, but they were cock-sure they were strong-enough and their packs were light enough that it wouldn’t be a problem.  My final admonition was to assure them their toothbrush would feel heavy after a week and fifty miles, at which point I left them to the leaders who had prepared them.

The new young-men’s president (Josh Starr) and I did manage one concession though.  He had purchased a SPOT beacon and subscription, and we were able to mandate they take it with them and use it to check in at the beginning and end of each day on the trail.   This particular beacon was equipped with three buttons:  one to send a preprogrammed message (“We’re doing fine” in this case), one to let us know they really needed help but weren’t at imminent risk to life or limb, and one to tell us to call the rescue helicopter because someone was going to bleed out soon.  Button one was to be used several times daily as long as things were okay.  Button two, they were told, would result in us launching a ground-based rescue party and they could expect us to show up within 8-24 hours depending on where they were.  Button three, reserved for dire emergencies, would result in us calling in either the State Trooper’s helicopter or the Air National Guard PAVE HAWK that stood alert down the runway from my office.

The next Monday, we dropped them off at the put-in point on the river, not expecting to see them again until Saturday morning at the trail-head fifty miles away.   The next few days were miserably cold and rainy, and aside from finding out that one of the boys had left his hiking boots at home and was on the trial with nothing more than a pair of sandals, we had little to worry about.   Every day the SPOT beacon checked in, and we were even able to log into the SPOT website to track their progress.   They were moving somewhat slowly, but making progress up until Thursday night.

DSC01892This poor young man forgot his boots and some of his warm clothes.

By Thursday mid-day, they had fallen roughly ten miles behind schedule, and by the end of the day had  made almost no progress compared to where they were at lunch.  Then, Friday morning, I got a call from Josh.  He had received an e-mail from the beacon indicating that someone had pressed “button #2” twenty five miles or so from the trail-head.  He wasn’t sure what to do, and was asking for my advice.  Because I had a crew of people who were familiar with that area, had access to a wide range of high-end equipment, had survival training, high-level first aid kits and training, and were generally well suited to the task, I offered to take this one on and head up a rescue party.

While my guys started loading the trucks and trailers to head for the trail-head and were coordinating with the BLM representatives to get permission to use ATVs on the foot trails, I called my friend Matt “Harp” Harper at the rescue detachment down the runway.  We often used them to get equipment and people to some of our more inaccessible locations when they weren’t otherwise busy, and we had a good working relationship with the commander and aircrew.  I explained what had happened, the limited information we had, and asked him what he thought.  A few minutes later, I was on the phone with the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) in anchorage who informed me we’d probably have to go in on the ground, but told me they would call if something changed.

Right as we were pulling out of the parking lot to start the trek, I got a call from the pilot informing me they were turning rotors in five minutes, would be on-site in thirty, and back home within an hour.  Apparently the crew was bored and wanted something to do before they had to get the aircraft ready to fly it back to Anchorage that afternoon.  They argued that if we got there on foot and found out it was bad enough we wouldn’t be able to get them out that way, they would have already left and another crew would have to fly a helicopter all the way up from Anchorage.   Rescuing an injured hiker, they argued, was better training for their primary job (aircrew recovery) than hauling cargo around the training ranges.  Their argument, combined with some confusion at the RCC about who it was that was injured (I said “scouts,” and they assumed I had a military team out in the bush instead of a bunch of kids ).  By the time we cleared up the misunderstanding, the helicopter was airborne, so they whitewashed it as a training sortie.  I checked my watch to know when I needed to head to the hangar, we turned around, and began to unload all the gear.

DSC01889George Patterson being hoisted into the AKANG PAVE HAWK

Apparently, their estimation of how long it would take was off by about twenty minutes.  As I pulled into the hangar parking lot, a truck passed by me on the way out.  I didn’t pay much attention to it and walked into the hanger to find the helicopter had already landed and everyone but the pararescue jumper was gone.  In our brief interview, he told me one of the kids (George) had busted his knee up and couldn’t walk but was otherwise okay, that they had texted his father (the leader of our congregation and head doc at the clinic on base) that George was on the helicopter headed to the hospital and to meet him there, realized his father was in Anchorage for a meeting, and texted his mother to meet him instead.  Apparently it didn’t dawn on them how frightening it would be for a parent to get a text telling them their oldest son was on a rescue helicopter headed for the hospital when he was supposed to be in the wilderness camping.  The truck I had passed in the parking lot was the aircrew taking George over to the clinic.

Thankfully, George lived about twenty minutes from the base, so I was able to go over to the clinic and intercept Sonya (his mom) when she stormed through the door in a panic, reassure her George was okay, and make sure everything was taken care of.   I didn’t get a chance to talk to George, but I was told he had a smile on his face for a solid week after the helicopter ride.  After a few weeks in a brace, he was by all appearances back to normal.

The next morning, we were supposed to meet the boys at the trail-head around ten o’clock.  Because they were twenty five miles in when the helicopter rescue took place, I was pretty sure they weren’t going to be able to cover that distance to make the scheduled pickup time.  Rather than get to the trail-head and wait for several hours, I decided to look up the trusty SPOT locater and estimate how long it would take them given their renewed pace now that they were free of the cripple.  The results were frightening.

Since the rescue, the group had only managed six or seven miles.  They still had eighteen to go by the time I checked the SPOT.  Not only that, but their progress so far that day had been under one mile per hour.  Something was wrong.  Concerned, I called several able-bodied men nearby, we loaded up day-packs with first-aid equipment, Gatorade, and any high-carb foods we happened to have available (I had a package of marshmallows among other things), and took off at a near trot to find the boys.

Ten miles in, we found an advance party.  The crew had realized they were in real trouble and had sent the two strongest boys and the younger of the two leaders ahead to go get help.  We left one of the rescue party (who was least physically prepared to continue further) with a bag of Gatorade and food, then told them to head towards the trucks.  Fifteen or eighteen miles in, we found the remainder.  The boys were exhausted, dehydrated, and famished.  The leader, Mike, was incoherent.  He argued with me over eating and drinking anything, and didn’t want us to take his pack.  He couldn’t focus, his speech was slurred, and he was obviously not in any condition to lug his pack to the end of the trail or make decisions of any sort.

As it turned out, the food they had prepared was completely inedible.  They hadn’t been able to catch fish either.  For the last week, all any of them had eaten was the oatmeal they packed for breakfast.  To make matters worse, they had been mostly unsuccessful at finding water along the trail that was clear enough to filter.  All of them were in bad shape.  After getting a liter or two of Gatorade and some food in each of them, we handed them our now nearly empty day-packs, picked up theirs, and started for home.  With food, fluids, and electrolytes in their systems and much lighter loads to carry, they perked up and we made decent time.

DSC01875Mike Galloway sometime after leaving the river for the trail.

The scoutmaster, apparently aware that the boys probably weren’t really prepared, had packed a LOT of stuff.   This small man (I believe under 150 lbs at the time) was carrying an almost 100lb pack.  In fact, it was so heavy I had to trade off with one other rescuer about every two or three miles.  He would have never made it out with that pack on his back and without food.

In the end, we made it over thirty miles in under eight hours, half of that distance with heavy packs and tired companions.  I’m not sure I’ve ever hiked that far, that fast, in my life.  In the end, we all hit the trail-head tired.  As we drove towards town, all the boys could think about was eating something — a topic that had apparently occupied most of their waking moments on the trail since their food had been so inedible.   They had determined as a group that if they ever got out of there, they would all go to Taco Bell and eat until they were sick.

As a reward for surviving the forced march out of the bush, Josh and I pooled our resources and bought everyone there as many tacos, burritos, and chalupas as they could eat.  I think my share was almost $90.00, the equivalent of about fifteen or twenty meals which were subsequently eaten by about six people.   The store manager had to do a double-take when we took that huge pile of food as a dine-in order with only the people we had.

The next morning at church, we gathered the boys to talk about the experience and what they had learned.  The ordeal, it seemed, had taught them several things.  One: they learned that waiting until you have been dropped off in the middle of nowhere to experiment and test your gear or food is a bad plan.  Two: they learned that you can’t pump water out of muskeg and mud, and that they needed to plan better for water once they left the river.  Three: every one of them raised their hand and hung their head when I asked them if they knew what I meant when I told them their toothbrush would feel heavy.  Experience can be a harsh teacher sometimes.

The icing on the cake, though, was a front-page, above-the-fold, full-size picture of George being hoisted up into the helicopter with a story about the rescue in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner.  He quite enjoyed his celebrity.  I guess Mike had been taking pictures, and thought the aircrew deserved some recognition.  I used to have a copy of that paper, but it doesn’t seem to have survived the move back to the lower-48.

Book Burning

For most of the world, there is little thought that goes into disposing of something.  You simply put it in the trash bin, set that bin on the curb roughly once a week, and it magically disappears.  When you live where we do, though, there is more to it than that.  For those in our “neighborhood” who elect to pay for regular trash service, they pay roughly ten times what it costs in the city for the privilege.  As an alternative, we have the option of bagging our trash and hauling it off to the local dumpster once a week for a set price per bag.  Many of us, on the other hand, find alternative ways to deal with unwanted stuff.

There is a well-defined and graduated scale of sophistication in back-woods trash disposal.  Lowest on the totem-pole are the jerks who look for some unattended place to simply dump their crap and make it someone else’s problem.  These are scumbags who don’t think twice about throwing a half-empty 20oz beer can out of the truck window and into your yard.  May they get warts and boils on their intimate parts.

Next up the ladder of sophistication are the old-school farmers who never get rid of anything, opting instead to throw it on the pile that’s been building in the back lot since grandpa discarded an old plow or other piece of worn-out farm equipment, saving it “just in case.”  This crowd doesn’t really care much about what others think, but scoff at making their junk someone else’s problem.  They respect others property rights, and expect you to respect theirs by not complaining when their front yard looks like a scrap-heap.  The only time this group becomes a problem is when they die or move, necessitating a major cleanup effort.  They do have a bad habit of dumping fairly toxic stuff rather than incinerating or otherwise dealing with it.

Next there are those who believe in having their own personal landfill and dig a big hole somewhere on their property to push everything into, thereby dealing with the cosmetic issues the first kind of “freestyle landscaping” causes by burying it.  Unfortunately, this group isn’t very particular about what goes into the holes, tossing used motor oil, unused agricultural chemicals, furniture, plastics, and anything else they happen to accumulate into the pit to contaminate the groundwater.  Recognizing the limit on space, they often have a habit of separating at least the large items with metal in them for eventual recycling (usually when they move or die).

Next in sophistication are those who get tired of digging new holes, so they burn the pile in the hole on a regular basis and only cap it off when the ash builds up.  This tends to minimize the space used and consume many of the more nasty chemicals and plastics that would otherwise pollute or clog landfills.   The ash it produces, however, is toxic in itself.

Finally, there are guys like me.  In our house, we separate our waste into a few simple categories.  First, there is food waste.  There is no point in wasting what would otherwise be effective fertilizer, so 100% of it is either fed to the chickens or composted.  Second, there is the organic matter that isn’t easily composted or edible like paper, cardboard and wood.  This we burn in our fire-pit, collecting the ashes and scattering them in the field to return the minerals that remain to the soil.  Third is anyting metal.  Metal doesn’t burn, and I don’t like the idea of burying a bunch of it on my property, even if it isn’t likely to be toxic, so it gets collected until there is a sufficient pile of it and I turn it in for scrap.  Finally there are glass, plastic, and contaminated paper products.  Glass and plastic aren’t worth recycling here, so it isn’t separated from the other things I can’t recycle.  All of this is burned in a ventilated burn-barrel.  When the barrel fills with ashes broken glass, and anything else that didn’t burn up, the ashes are triple-bagged and hauled off to the dump-station where they are taken to a lined landfill.

Between being conscientious about the kinds of stuff we buy and making the most of the system I described above, we’ve reduced our contributions to the landfill to about two to three moderately large trash bags every six months while only spending about $20 in that same time-frame.  I don’t want to hear any griping about air pollution or carbon dioxide emissions.  I’ve considered the alternatives, and this has the least overall impact on the environment without going to uneconomical extremes.  The only real down-side is the work that goes into burning.

So, what is the point of this long dissertation on how country rednecks get rid of trash?  Recently, Liz and I went through our extensive collection of books and down-sized the library.  One consequence of this was a decision to rely on electronic means for many materials that are readily available for free via the Internet, and the library for books that aren’t likely to be referenced frequently.  Many of the books we identified as excess are worth selling, others were worth donating to the local second-hand stores.  However, we had a large number (mostly religious and available for free on-line) that were not likely to be marketable even at a thrift store.

Given that we have to pay for every bag of trash we throw away, and that you can only reasonably put so many books into one bag without it tearing through, I didn’t want to just throw them out.  Not only that, but the ash content of the paper is rich in trace minerals that can fortify soil, and most of the inks used in modern printing are vegetable based so I wasn’t worried about any concentration of toxic crap in the ash.  The books simply had to be burned.

Burning books is not something that feels intellectually good.  Generally speaking, book burning brings up imagery like the Nazis prior to WWII or the firemen from Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451.  I treasure books, information, and the free-exchange of ideas (even when I disagree with them).  The idea of doing something supported by fascists to stamp out or bury information causes cognitive dissonance.   However, I’ve a long track record of overcoming hesitation when something needs to be done.

Last night, Isaac, Michael, and I spent the evening burning the pile of junk books.  Something I’ve learned over the couple of years we’ve lived here is that you can’t just throw a book in the fire and expect it to reduce to a small heap of ashes.  In fact, there are few things that are ultimately flammable which are harder to burn.  If you want a book to burn, you have to separate the leaves of paper to allow the air to circulate, otherwise the ash from the outside pages smothers the pages within and results in a book with scorched edges that is generally intact.   The three of us spent most of the night tearing out pages, crumpling them, and adding them to the fire slowly enough to prevent suffocating it.

Burning books is a slow, hot, smelly, smoky, painful, tiring process.  While I was stirring the pile of burning paper with a shovel last night to make sure everything burned down completely, I reflected on how much malice there must have been in the hearts of people who participated in burning “unwanted” documents in Nazi Germany.  While I don’t understand how you could get to a point where it would be appropriate to eradicate and criminalize dissenting opinions, I now have some minor insight into how committed those who got to that point were.  They must have really been committed to spend that kind of energy.  As for me, I’ll be happy if I never have to burn another book again.

Step One

It seems there is someone willing to create an enumerated list or process for tackling any problem we face in life.  One such process, applied to addiction and frequently touted, contains twelve steps.  What the full list of those twelve directives are, I don’t know and am content to never find out.  However, I am sure of the first step:  admit you have a problem.   I believe our household completed that step today.

For years, Liz has struggled with something short of an addiction.  I’ve known about it for a long time, but let it be.  On the other hand, though, I don’t think Liz really understood until just recently.  It’s something of an unusual “almost-addiction,” in that it hasn’t gotten in the way of daily life and that it isn’t shared with many people.  You see, Liz has been something of an over-exuberant  book buyer.  To complicate admitting the truth, we both love books.  Books represent knowledge and learning.  They are tangible evidence of information and expansive education.  Society doesn’t necessarily look down on you if you happen to be caught with a book in your hand, and there aren’t obvious health or mental wellness complications that arise from having an extensive library.  In fact, were we free from the prospect of another move and exceeding our weight allowance, I’d be content to let the entire collection occupy space on our shelves until such time as the contents of those shelves had all been digested.

Courtesy of our slow progression to larger and larger residences as we’ve moved every few years, we’ve never really had to face the facts and admit that our library was excessively large.   However, there have been instances that should have served as a warning.  When we left Alaska, the packers (stunned by what they saw in our closet of books) loaded almost our entire collection into a single shipping crate.  When they went to unload that crate at our new home in Texas, the fork-lift (the kind that attaches to the end of a flat-bed truck) almost couldn’t lift it up off the truck.  We should have realized then that we had a problem.

As a matter of record, though, we did go through and thin down the collection of home-school curricula Liz had bought and subsequently decided we weren’t going to use.  However, it didn’t take long to restock those sections of empty shelving with new and improved books on every topic conceivable.  As we now face the prospect of another move into what is likely to be a much smaller house, Liz has started to feel cramped and begun to reconsider her book-buying and keeping habits.  The book collection, she decided, needed to be extensively pruned.

Tonight, she cornered me and told me we were going to go through all the books on the shelves and sort out the ones we could get rid of.  Then, once that task was completed, we had to sort through them to decide which we would try to sell, which we would donate, and which would end up in the burn barrel.  That was several hours ago, and we have successfully identified almost half of the bound stacks of printed-on paper in our home as excess and flagged them for removal.  The trick now is to ensure that those worthy of re-sale actually get listed and sold.  We often have the best of intentions, but follow-through on things like listing things on ebay hasn’t been historically good.   Looking at the stack, there is several hundred dollars on the line, even if we only sell them for a dollar or two each, which may motivate a more diligent effort.

Liz’s intent is to shift to more e-books and otherwise relying on the local library.  If we can make that work, it’ll save both the weight allowance for the next move and a substantial portion of our budget.  Unfortunately, I still like books, and I doubt Liz has truly given up on them either.  I guess we’ll see how long this sticks.  Maybe a Kindle or two piled high with classics will scratch the itch.

What Do We Hunger For?

Today I was listening to a talk (or sermon depending on your faith tradition) and was granted a new insight into a scripture story I’ve read and contemplated many times before.  The speaker brought up the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus miraculously fed the multitudes.  Often this miracle is the focal point of the message.  As the speaker continued with the story, I was struck by what followed.

In John chapter 6, we read about Christ feeding the masses with five loaves and two fishes.  In addition to the marvelous teachings they heard, all who were there witnessed a miracle that resulted in tangible results: they had full bellies when they otherwise would have gone hungry.  Many who were there followed Christ, and I’d like to think that I would have been among them had I been there.

Unfortunately, many were only converted to the physical rewards of discipleship.  They had hungered and were fed.  This miracle was what they sought.  Christ knew this and decided to use it as a teaching moment to help the crowds understand a much deeper lesson about the atonement and His mission.  When the food from the previous miracle wore off, the crowds were again hungry.  Christ could have easily broken bread again sufficient to feed the crowd, but he opted not to in order to do something much more important.  He knew that no amount of miracle bread and meat would convert the hard-hearted, so he used it as an opportunity to test the righteous and teach them about eternal life.

All of this should sound familiar to anyone who has studied the New Testament.  Nothing I’ve written so far could be construed as a new insight.  The insight for me comes from elsewhere in the scripture.  After Christ finished teaching the lesson he had for the masses, many who had followed him left.  They had come hoping for a tangible and temporal miracle, and were unwilling or unable to accept the miracle of wisdom that was offered in its place.  Not receiving what they had desired or expected, they fell away.

This interaction reminded me of an experience a friend of mine has had.  He was an active follower of Christ, and appeared to be strong in the faith.  However, some time after we parted ways (he to one state, and me to several others) he began to experience some serious health issues that interfered with several things that were very important to him.  He sought for a temporal blessing, and was hurt when it wasn’t granted.  At least in part due to this experience, he went through what he describes as a “faith transition,” eventually convincing himself that there was no God.  Because he didn’t get the miracle he sought, he, like the people in the scripture story, no longer followed Christ.

What higher blessing could have been available to my friend had he maintained faith and continued on the path of discipleship nobody will ever know but the Lord himself.  However, what is certain is that he gave up a great deal.  Unfortunately, this case study is far from unique.  I’ve known far too many who have grown resentful at God because they were not blessed in the way they desired and expected.  I believe it is likely all of us experience this to some degree or another.  For one, it is a failure to be healed of some physical malady.  For others it is a blessing sought for family or other loved-ones.  There are innumerable ways we can feel like we are being denied a blessing or miracle we righteously seek.  Unfortunately, our perspective is terrible.  Sometimes the worst thing that can happen is for us to be given exactly what we ask for.

The key, I think, is to keep in mind Peter’s response when Christ asked him if he too would go away:

“Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”

Where else could we go that would better prepare ourselves for the trials that surely lie ahead?  Who else could we turn to when the burdens of this life feel overwhelming?  What other source could we turn to in order to find happiness in this life and the next?  The answer to all of these questions is simple.  There is no other way to enjoy the fullness of this life and the potential of the next than through faith in Jesus Christ, and that includes the faith to forgo a blessing we feel we need and trust that the Lord knows what he’s doing.

Bag of Rocks

Many years ago, two intrepid scout masters took the young men from my church youth group on a week-long backpacking trip into an offshoot of the Rocky Mountains.  One of the guys in our group was physically smaller than the rest of us and had a chip on his shoulder to compensate.  As a result, and as matter of record, I didn’t have a lot of love for him.  In fact, he had spent most of the last two years pestering and tormenting me — his apparent goal being to start a fight with me (beat me up) to prove he was big and strong.   Earlier in the summer of this trip he succeeded in pushing me over the line while we were working a fund-raiser.  I finally got fed up with him, pinned him against a concrete-block wall, and proceeded to pummel him with all the malice I could generate.  Had his larger “cool-crowd” friends not intervened I probably would have hospitalized him.

Given this description of my feelings towards the kid, it might be surprising that this trip found me largely pitying him by the fourth day.  On the first day, all of us took off from the trail-head slightly overloaded with food and other necessaries.  Fresh legs and the excitement of what lay ahead of us compensated for the weight, and we reached our first stop tired but in good spirits.  Courtesy of the constant feedback gravity had provided over the course of the day, we all lightened our packs considerably by gorging on at least two days worth of food and praying we would be able to catch enough fish along the way to make up the difference.

As we progressed through the trip our legs got tired but our packs got lighter.  The two seemed to compensate each other since we managed to get to the end of our day without feeling any more or less tired than the day before… all of us except for the twerp.  Every day he seemed to get more and more tired and lag more and more behind the rest of the group.  This puzzled me, but seemed to be a source of endless mirth to his “friends” (incidentally the same ones that egged him on to the fight that they subsequently broke up).   By the morning of the fourth day he was exhausted, so we stopped earlier than planned for a break.  That’s when he discovered the rocks.

His “friends” had been sneaking small rocks into a large but formerly unused pocket in his pack.  They had added one here, one there, sneaking them in any time he wasn’t looking.  The end result was that his pack grew heaver and heavier as time wore on.  By the time he figured out what was going on there were probably 20 lbs of rocks in his bag.  For a 110 lb kid, that’s a substantial portion of the workable load.  Eventually, the extra weight and fatigue of hiking became too much for him to bear and he had to stop.  Luckily for him, he found the problem, corrected it, and managed to do quite well for the rest of the trip in spite of some choice words with his “friends.”

I was significantly larger than this kid, was carrying about the same basic load, and felt pretty tired by this point.  Watching him struggle was uncomfortable, and when it became clear that the difficulty was the result of mean-spirited actions by people he liked and trusted I pitied him.  The load of rocks he had gradually “picked up” along the trail had built up to the point where he couldn’t take the load any more.  Individually, the rocks were small and wouldn’t be considered a burden unless it had been wedged under your foot to irritate at every step.  Each rock that was added made only a small incremental addition to the weight, hiding the total contribution in the larger mass of the pack.

Now, why would I choose to reflect and write about this experience?  Sometimes I feel like I am hiking with a bag of rocks on my back.  As I trundle down the trail that is my life, I am constantly bumping up against little annoyances, inconveniences, issues, problems, frustrations, or demands on my time and talents – rocks.  At each juncture I am often faced with choosing one of a few possibilities: I can bypass the rock and leave it for someone else to stumble on and deal with,  I can react badly and make the problem someone else’s, or I can take care of the problem and clear the path for the next traveler.  Most of the time, I decide it’s a small thing, bend down, pick up the rock, and throw it in the bag.  The small service I render to those behind me on the trail makes it well worth the almost imperceptible extra weight I now carry.   I don’t grumble or use it as an excuse to further burden someone else.  My strength quickly adapts to the slightly heavier load, and I carry on.

Other times, there is no choice.  The rock simply must be added to my load either by force of others, the nature of the situation, or by my own (sometimes unwilling) conscience.  These are the most difficult rocks because they don’t necessarily bring with them the sense that I am sacrificing for someone else’s good.  They are simply an ugly addition to the weight I already carry.   Additionally, these rocks aren’t constrained to be relatively small.  They can be quite heavy.  However, I recognize that the only way to build strength is to take on progressively heavier loads so the muscles, bones, and connective tissues can react and rebuild stronger.  In this light, the burdens are lightened and I can generally pick them up with magnanimity and press on.

The difficulty comes when the rate at which I add to my load begins to exceed my ability to marshal and develop strength to carry it.  Sometimes the load becomes so heavy that even an additional grain of sand can be a soul-crushing weight.  My default reaction when the load becomes overwhelming is to want to dump it, and were I on a real trail, I’d simply step off of it a few feet and create a neat little pile of my accumulated rocks.  Unfortunately, life’s burdens aren’t so easily discarded.  Each one is tied to someone or something that would suffer if I were to let that rock drop back to the ground.  Many of the heaviest burdens would have eternal consequences should I fail to carry the load they represent.  This situation makes it nearly impossible to lighten the load in any tangible way.   I can complain and leverage my burden to add to someone else’s load, but this gives no real relief and I am left with no viable choice but to continue on; hoping I can find the strength to continue, and praying I won’t be asked to pick up any more rocks.

One of the more irritating aspects of having this load that I can’t drop is the fact that I have a tendency to become resentful and selfish when someone tries to add anything to the pile.  People seem to assume that because you are currently carrying a heavy load that you are strong enough to further add to it.  They want to give you their burdens, not realizing that the only way they can build strength is to continue carrying their own load.  They don’t, or can’t, see that while your strength is great, it is matched to your load and doesn’t leave much of a margin for additions.

Where I generally feel happy in lifting someone else’s load or clearing the path for those behind, a heavy burden poisons the joy that would otherwise have helped steel me for the task.  I no longer want to help.  I want to protect what strength I have left for myself.  I want to pass by the things that could trip up others and make it their problem.  I want to pass off my load to someone else rather than reach out and steady or lift someone else’s. I want things that I know I shouldn’t want.  That knowledge on its own is a burden.

So what do you do when you feel the crushing weight of responsibility sucking the life out of your soul?   Where do you turn when there is no clear path of escape?  How do you get help lifting a load you are unable to share?  How do you help people understand that while each small thing is individually easy to carry, there is a wellspring of others, both seen and unseen, that combine to make the load much worse than would be expected based on external appearances?  How do you carry on when the one Being capable of seeing things in their entirety seems distant and unconcerned?  How do you even admit to feeling that way when you know it isn’t true?

Mortal onlookers are always quick to suggest quick solutions or trivialize the burdens they are able to comprehend and fixate on.  I would they could see and feel from inside, but sharing glimpses through the means available tends to simply give them only a small piece of the puzzle they latch onto and use to try and explain the whole without sorting through the pile and taking time to put all the pieces together.  Even if they had that desire, it would be impossible, since some of the pieces are hidden even to me.

Were I not who I am, I think I might do as the twerp did when his pack became too heavy…  Simply stop in the trail, dump the load, and refuse to go on until I have strength to continue  That won’t work however, since the burden of the failure represented by those dropped rocks would far outweigh the load I now carry.  There is one, and only one, real solution to this dilemma, only one source for relief, and it doesn’t involve removing any of the weight.

We have been promised by the Lord that we will not be burdened with more than we can bear, tested beyond our strength, or asked to do something we cannot do.  These promises should give us hope and comfort, and will… if we allow them to.   The loads we carry are not unnoticed by our Father in Heaven and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Nor are they without purpose.  They are adjusted to our capacity, calibrated to strengthen us, designed to meet the Lord’s purposes, and necessary for our own eternal progression and salvation.   Should the load begin to actually be too heavy, the hand of the Lord will lend us strength until the burden lifts or our strength is sufficient.

While it won’t sell many self-help books, make an interesting movie, or lend itself to a new system for self-actualization, the solution boils down to something pretty basic: We must trust the Lord, simply continue on at the best pace we can manage, and try not to be so grouchy, judgmental, and selfish when someone asks us to help them pick up and carry another rock.