Friday, July 15, 2011

Danger Firework Fallout Area

About 4:00 PM on July 4th, David says to me "When are we going downtown to watch fireworks?"

My first response was going to be "Next year" but I could tell he and Jono really wanted to go.  The M and I were reluctant to get out in the heat, the bugs, the crowds, excuses excuses. Isn't there a burn ban in place because of the drought?  Mightn't we catch fire ourselves by merely going outside in this heat?  Can't we just stay home and watch So You Think You Can Dance?

Perhaps a little begrudgingly we packed the folding chairs and cooler into the van and headed to downtown Waco on the Brazos river.  We parked at the Alico building and began walking to the river with our summer outing accouterments strung over our shoulders or pulled behind us on little plastic wheels.  After a few blocks, we stopped and asked a policeman about the fireworks launching site, and shortly after that we spotted an open field.  As we walked across acres of crunchy dead grass, long starved of water, we came to a temporary chain link fence with a sign on it that told us in no uncertain terms that we had found the ultimate firework viewing area!

 [read "Welcome to fireworks viewing heaven"]

[Jono, eager to have the ultimate experience, took his chair right up to the mouth of the dragon.]

[You can see there were "plenty of available seats in the theater".]

After getting our spot staked out, we sat and talked a while and drank Coke Zeros.  I would like to see a Coke One someday, just for the binary humor in it.  All this drinking had its predictable effect and soon the boys and I were headed to the portable toilets over near the bridges that cross the Brazos river. There were lots of people (this is where the crowds were) and lots of food. The Fabulous Thunderbirds were playing on an outdoor stage.

[This is the famous Waco Suspension Bridge, circa 1870, as seen from the less famous Washington Street Bridge, circa 1920.  This is me, spinning in circas.  Or perhaps this is me running off to join the circa.]

[Folks on the bridge, waiting for the fireworks to begin]

The boys and I made it back to our seats and soon the fireworks began. We were not disappointed. They were big as the sky and feel-them-in-your-chest loud. They were so loud it made you laugh a little just from surprise. It was one of the most enjoyable fireworks shows I have ever seen. I kept thanking David for making us get off the couch and come watch it.

[We were about 150 yards from the launching site. You can see one taking off from the ground in this picture.]

[The light in this picture is from the fireworks themselves!]

As I looked over at my family, I could see them appear and disappear in the rockets' red glare.  One time they would appear shrouded in green, the next time red. It was reminiscent of the way a Texas thunder storm can light up the night sky with lightning as bright as the sun, except without the fear of being killed by 100,000 volts.  We all had a really super time and plan to come back to the Firework Fallout Area again next year; we have begun a new family tradition.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Of Ferry Boats and Cosmic Justice

Today is a day of waiting. My team of engineering students arrived in Honduras yesterday, all but one. Because of his military obligations, Billy had to come a day late.  So today, the team is hanging out at the beach-side hotel we know as Jack's Place while I return to Roatan to retrieve Billy.  This means I ride the ferry to Roatan, then a taxi to the airport. After I get Billy, we return by the same route. This means most of my day is spent waiting around.  I'm glad I brought my book.

This morning I had to do something I have not done before. I had to figure out a way to park my car for the day at the ferry.  It took a lot of questions, the answers to which I only understood about 10% of.  A half an hour later I had my parking permit and a little less respect from kind folks with whom I conversed.  When I am out and about without a translator I feel a little vulnerable. But it makes me sympathetic to non-English speakers back in the US.

I mentioned that I brought a book. I'm excited about it. It's called "The Quest for Cosmic Justice" by Thomas Sowell. He is a conservative economist from Stanford (I didn't know anything conservative came out of Stanford). It's a critique of social justice programs that fail to take into account the larger costs of their activity to society as a whole.  Here's a quote:

"Cosmic justice is not about the rules of the game. It's about putting particular segments of society in the position that they would have been in but for some undeserved misfortune. This conception of fairnes requires that third parties must weild the power to control outcomes, overriding rules, standards, or the preferences of other people."

and later he says

"Implicit in much discussion of a need to rectify social inequities is the notion that some segments of society, through no fault of their own, lack things which others receive as windfall gains, through no virture of their own."

I am looking forward to spending some time reading more today.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Father's Day Pupusas

The family wanted to take me out for dinner for Father's Day. They asked me where I wanted to go, and after a minute I remembered the perfect place.  There's a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Rinconcito Salvadoreño (which means Salvadoran Corner) that makes a characteristically Savladoran dish called "pupusas".  I have been in love with pupusas since I first had them in Honduras in 2007. Sometimes I wonder why they haven't caught on at more restaurants in the US. Why aren't there Tex-Mex pupusas? Why aren't there ninety nine cent pupusas on the Taco Bell value menu? But then I remember that their name sounds like poopoo. That's a marketing problem in need of a solution.

The place reminded me of Honduras in so many ways.  I had to break out the camera and snap a few pictures.

[We were the only people there at 5:00 PM so we got the one table in the shade! The mixed chair styles and plates were characteristically Central American. Notice the plastic chairs and Jono's leather office chair!]

[They put the good sign toward the oncoming traffic, but I like this one best.] 

[The menu, as if you would want anything besides pupusas.]

[And this is a pupusa! Wikipedia says that a pupusa is "made of thick, hand-made corn tortilla that is usually filled with a blend of the following: queso (cheese), frijoles (beans), and chicharrón. Pupusas are typically served with curtido (lightly fermented cabbage slaw with red chilies and vinegar) and a watery tomato salsa."]

[This is my half-eaten pupusa, along with a healthy helping of curtido and a watery tomato salsa.  Delicioso!]

[The thermostat in the car said it was 107 that day.]

[The owner, a Salvadoran man, decided to make me a complementary bananas foster for us with Bacardi rum and Sunny D, of course.  It was exciting. There was fire.]

A soccer (fútbol) game blared loudly on the television. It was El Salvador vs. Panama.  In addition to this, there was music playing, also loudly. The whole experience was a ton of fun and reminded me of being in Honduras.  We all had lots of laughs and good food, even if it did sound like poopoo.

The Goat Man of Camp Tahuaya

Last week Jono and I attended four days of Webelos summer camp in Central Texas.  I actually sweated out one of my kidneys. 

[This path was part of the old Chisholm Trail. You could see wagon tracks carved into the limestone.]

His involvement with Cub Scouts has been on and off over the years. A year with this pack, a year off, a year with another pack, a year off.  He's getting the binary number merit badge based solely on his membership history.  Ba dump bump. But for the last year he has been with a good Webelos group and, after this camp, is quite close to getting the highest Cub Scout award possible: The Arrow of Light

There were lots of fun activities and the boys were able to advance by earning lots of pins, the Webelos equivalent to merit badges in Boy Scouts.  Here are some highlights of his fun:

[Canoeing was one of his favorite activities.  One day I took my own canoe out solo and, despite being an Eagle Scout myself, with the Canoeing merit badge no less, I managed to capsize it.  Pride comes before the fall. Fortunately, the digital camera in my pocket was in a zip lock bag.]

[This cave is where the Goat Man of Camp Tahuaya is rumored to live. We didn't actually see him, but we're pretty sure he rummaged through our gear and ate our snack bars. There were cigarette buts and goat hoof tracks in the dirt.]

[He was pretty upset when his first five shots missed the targets all together, but by the end of the week he was nailing the targets and even shot a bull's eye. He asked me why it was called a "bull's eye" anyway. I mumbled something about Greek mythology and the agro-economy of the nineteenth century until the archery instructor told me to be quiet.]

[They got to roast marshmallows on a fire that was so hot he had to crouch down to minimize his exposure. This in spite of the drought-induced burn ban in place. The camp staff said it's OK though, on account of special permission from firemen.]

 [Eating smores]

[Sleeping canoes]

[a cool bridge that clomped loudly when you walked across it]

[shooting BB guns]

[a lifeguard shortage meant Jono didn't get to swim nearly as much as he wanted to]

[Learning how to throw a life saver]

[ahh, the simple joys of playing Uno to the light of a propane lantern - watch out for June bugs]

Jono was quite content to hang out with me most of the time. He didn't know the other boys who attended very well. He didn't share their boy tents, but instead shared mine. We had matching cots and plastic trunks for our gear. As we walked along the paths that separated the camp stations, he would tell me he was glad I was there, or that he loved me. At night we would review the favorite parts of our day and look at the stars while speculating about black holes and galaxies and such. We did almost everything together for four days, and our relationship grew tremendously. It was definitely worth the kidney.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Basketball Goals the Locust Had Eaten

Yesterday my street cred went up with David, and all I had to do was stay up past 3:00 AM and dish out $300 at Academy.  I redeemed a haunting memory from my past; the years that the locust had eaten were restored.  And I got some blog fodder. 

Back in 2005, The M's father bought David a basketball goal.  But eight year old David didn't use it very much, and it was in the way of the lawn mower, and one day I needed to borrow it to build a (you guessed it) wind turbine.  You see, I was working on a project that used a small wind turbine, and I needed a temporary, mobile mounting platform that was fairly tall and the basketball goal was just the ticket.  I removed the backboard and had to cut part of the steel pole to be able to mount the wind turbine, but it worked.  My plan was that after we tested it I could put it back together and weld the steel where it had been cut. I figured David wouldn't mind if his basketball goal was missing for a month or two... or six years.

Writing this now, it really seems absurd.  Abusive almost. What if he tells a therapist about it someday? I'll look like an idiot.

But you know how these things go.  Repairing the goal got put on the back burner, and after a while some pieces got lost, and eventually parts got thrown away.  Still, this wasn't a big deal in my mind, because David didn't really like basketball anyway.  He was all Pokemon and Legos back then.  Every once in a while he would causally mention it to his friends, but in my mind, it was in the past.

David: "Hey dude, want to hang out or something?"
David's Friend: "Yeah, how about we play some basketball?"
David: "Oh sorry, my dad turned my basketball goal into a wind turbine."
David's Friend: "I have no response to that."
[My innovative, if not dangerous, basketball-goal-turned-wind-turbine experiment with Amy and Sarah, 2005. The blades were turning so fast they would easily injure us if we got too close.]

Fast forward to January 2011.  David changes schools to the small charter school Rapoport Academy which, having no football team, heralds its basketball players as the most exalted athletes on campus.  David enrolls for the spring semester, right in the middle of basketball season - and he's 6' 2" in the eighth grade.  He's the tallest kid in the middle school, and taller than most of the adults who work there too. The coach gets all excited and invites him to join the basketball team.

Coach: "Can you play basketball son?"
David: "Well, sorta.  I used to have a basketball goal, but my dad converted it into a..."
Me: "Never mind that!  David will be happy to play on your team!"

During the last six months he has become very interested in basketball, indeed. He played on the school team, and even got invited to play in a summer league for the high school.  He still has a lot to learn, but he is constantly improving.  If only he could practice...  

Oh sure, he can, and does, go down to the elementary school nearby and use their basketball goals.  And sometimes he plays pick up games with characters of questionable reputation down at the YMCA.  But he has been asking for a new basketball goal at the house for months.  

So yesterday, we went to Academy Sports and Outdoors.  I needed some clothes for my upcoming trip to Honduras. Jono needed some water shoes for summer camp.  But the big ticket item was the basketball goal we bought for our teenage Dirk Nowitzki.  After all, I've got to be thinking about college scholarships.  It's an investment, really.

He and I began to assemble it about 10:00 PM in the garage. It was a bit like building a ship in a bottle, and then trying to get it out of the bottle. He and I had a good time putting all the pieces together and I could tell he was excited.  As the construction progressed, so did his enthusiasm.  I loved that we were connecting over this project, so I kept pushing later and later.  Around 2:00 AM we moved the construction into the driveway so we could set up the ladder and make some adjustments.  We rolled it to the curb and set the basket height to 10 feet.  Then we shot baskets by the headlights of the car until after 3:00 AM. He is happy. I am filled up to overflowing with the gratitude of the redeemed.  Two points!
[shooting hoops at 3:00 AM using the car's headlights]

[one of the last touches, putting on the net]

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Consejo de Cabezas Calvas (Counsel of Bald Heads)

For our last night out in Honduras we ate at one of my favorite restaurants, La Ponderosa in La Ceiba. Several friends from the area joined our team to eat lots of grilled beef, chicken, chorizo, plantains, and of course, the best refried beans on the planet.  They mix in little bits of sausage and serve them in a "bean pot" over burning charcoals.  Thinking about it makes me all misty eyed. Be still my angioplasty. 

I found my soul refreshed somehow, being with a couple of gringos my age. Don't get me wrong, I love being with the students, but a conversation with my peers was just what I needed that night. Let me introduce you to a couple of great families.  On your left is Mike Pettengill. He and his wife Erin are missionaries in La Ceiba.  Erin is a nurse, and they do medical care in impoverished neighborhoods, care for street children, and church planting. It's intense.  See Erin's blog.  On your right is Brad Ward.  He and his wife Trish are also missionaries in Honduras, managing a farm that provides income to a rural mercy hospital.  See family webpage.

So you see, I am in the presence of greatness. Erin and Trish are also qualify as "greatness", but they weren't bald so they didn't make the picture.  (Technically, I'm not bald either, but rather an uber-hip head shaver.) Our conversation that night filled me with new confidence and erased any doubt that taking engineering students on short term discipline-specific mission trips is what I need to be doing. 

You see, last summer I read a book that was simultaneously inspirational and challenging to my core.  The authors were somewhat critical of short term missions (STMs) and claimed that when done the wrong way, which is often, STMs can do more harm than good. The book made me think long and hard about how and why I keep doing these trips every year. It made me a better trip taker and trip leader. It made me a better follower of Jesus Christ. But it also worried me a little that this activity I have poured so much physical and emotional energy into might be out of step with what is effective in the long-term and, frankly, what it is that God wants me to be doing. 

I wanted to get these missionaries' opinions about the value of STMs to their long-term work.  I was pleased to find out that both of them had read the book more thoroughly than myself, and thought it was a bit too critical of STMs.  Both of them had well thought out opinions that gave me much counsel, wisdom, and reassurance that STMs, at least the way we are doing them, are effective, wanted, and transformative to both the participants and the nationals served. 

["When Helping Hurts" = the book that both moved me to tears repeatedly, and simultaneously scared the refried beans out of me]

And if our conversation over grilled meat and pots of refried beans wasn't enough to nourish my soul for like, at least a decade, when I returned to the US I received some more encouragement in the form of a comment on this very blog from a former student, Mr. Brian Ballard.

Brian went with me on a trip to Kenya way back in 2006. He is now married, gainfully employed, and expecting his first child at any day. He said "Please know what an impact traveling with you as a student had on my life...even 6 years later. I take pride in knowing that (through you) I've had a peek at what using engineering for the greater good looks like. I'm still trying to figure out how it will look for me long term."

Be still my angioplasty.