Archive for April, 2012

It’s good to be redundant

Last week, I wrote about my guys’ weekend in Big Bend. At the time, I thought we were roughing it. Three days in the mountains. Three nights in tents. No showers or home-cooked meals. Only freeze dried food and compostable toilets. Oh, and wild bears within fifty feet of camp.

Only later did this occur to me: The four of us had left four wives to care for a combined fourteen kids for four straight days. Some kids are still in diapers. All are under eleven. Now, who was “roughing” it?

The term “redundancy” has seen a resurgence in recent years. In general, it means backup. If one Internet line goes down or gets busy, another is available to carry data. If one hard drive goes bad, another has the files backed up. Service without interruption.

But redundancy wasn’t man’s idea. In the natural world, we see many examples. We have not one eye, but two. Not one arm, but two. Not one lung, but two. If one part goes down, we often can still function.

Plants get their nutrients from the sun and the soil. Like the omnivorous bears we saw in Big Bend, most of us get our nutrients from both plants and meat.

We see the concept of redundancy in government. If you live in the city and the police won’t respond to your concern, you can call the sheriff. If you live in the county and the sheriff refuses to heed to your need, you can call the constable.

On a national level, if Congress makes a law that infringes on our rights, the Supreme Court can throw it out. If the President thinks a law is a bad idea, he sends it back to Congress for reworking.

The framers wanted checks and balances. They required redundancy.

Transatlantic telegraphs didn’t become useful when the first line was laid in 1858. They only became viable when multiple cables were submerged in the 1860s. With redundancy came efficacy.

Without redundancy, life goes haywire. Information stops. Bodies become disabled. Dictators take over. Needs go unmet.

Which brings me to my realization about who really roughed it last weekend. Clearly, our wives did. I can think of no more challenging task than single-parenting. My heart goes out to single mothers and fathers. They need our encouragement. I wish their situations weren’t so common.

Some people single-parent by choice, others do it through no fault of their own. Some do it well. None would say it’s easy.

Remarkably, our culture still largely views single-parenting as an equal means to raise children.

I tend to think that many ails of our time harken back to this issue. Some will call my views old-fashioned or based on “family values”. That’s fine.

But my views are also based on the understanding that two parents create redundancy. Parental redundancy keeps balls from being dropped, kids from being neglected, teachable moments from being missed.

Of the four guys who went camping last weekend, two had come from divorced homes and two had come from intact marriages. The national divorce rate played out in our midst.

But, to a man, we are trying to create homes built on vibrant marriages, homes that offer our kids two sources of love and backup sources of care. In other words, we’re trying to be redundant.

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Big Bent on Adventure

Backpacking is full of uncertainty and estimating. I don’t deal well with the former. I don’t do well at the latter.

Pack too much and you won’t make it up the mountain. Pack too little and you could get hungry, thirsty, cold, dirty, bitten or burned.

Bad information can lead to poor estimating. The Weather Channel said lows in the 60s. That was in the basin. In the mountains, lows hit the 40s.

One hiker was told not to bring a change of clothes to minimize weight. His clothes stood on their own by the end of the trip.

Such is the risk of the unknown. Yet, there’s something energizing about carrying everything you need in a pack on your back. It makes you light and free and happy in the way a Haitian orphan is light and free and happy. You realize how overrated stuff is.

So four friends with four packs headed west last weekend. After a hearty chicken fried steak in Fort Stockton, we entered Big Bend National Park for three nights in the woods.

Big Bend is a magical, if arid, place. The hardest part of an extended trip into the Chisos Mountains is packing in your own water.

The substance that sustains you also weighs you down. One must find an equilibrium between water and weight. Rangers recommend a gallon per day.

With that kind of weight, one set of clothes starts to make some sense. That’s all bears have, after all.

We had high hopes for wildlife sightings. But by the end of day one, only ants, a lizard, some birds and a deer had crossed our path, which included a summit of 7,825-foot Emory Peak and a 360-degree view of southwest Texas and northern Mexico.

Day two began with a view, too: the south rim overlooking the desert floor and the Rio Grande 2,000 feet below. A majestic collision of two nations. Grand mountains and deserts lining both sides of a still grand river.

We hiked past a half dozen equally impressive overlooks. By mid-afternoon, we arrived at the same campsite where I had heard a mountain lion roar four years ago.

With tempered expectations, we set up camp, soaked in the shade and looked around for signs of life.

The sun eventually descended, along with our hopes of seeing a great king of the forest. But then, as we chatted around an imaginary campfire, I spotted movement out of the corner of my eye: two, 300-pound Mexican black bears running up the highland meadow.

It was nature mimicking art.

I jumped up, half in self defense mode, half in sightseer mode, not knowing whether to grab a stick or a camera. Our motion startled one bear thirty feet into a tree. The other hunkered down in the tall grass before making her way slowly up the opposite hillside.

After a few minutes, the bear in the tree climbed cautiously down and began sniffing for berries. From a distance of less than fifty feet, he grazed and watched us while we, amazed, watched him.

When I got home, I showed a video of the bear to my family. “That’s amazing!” said my three-year-old before turning to his mom to ask, “Can we say ‘amazing’?”

Yes, son, you can say amazing.

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at www.kwt.info.

Is ours a criminal injustice system?

Bryan Stevenson, head of the Birmingham-based Equal Justice Initiative, recently brought a heartfelt message on race, poverty and criminal justice to a conference in California. Here are some uncited facts he shared:

– One in three American black males between the ages of 18 and 30 is in jail.

– Fifty to sixty per cent of young black men in America’s urban areas are in jail or prison or on probation or parole.

– Thirty-four per cent of all black men in Alabama have permanently lost the right to vote because of their criminal backgrounds.

Mr. Stevenson’s remarks left me thinking U.S. law enforcement unfairly scapegoats people of color; that the criminal justice system is, in fact, an instrument of injustice.

The counterpoint, of course, is that the system is fundamentally fair; that, anomalies aside, a vast majority of cases don’t involve racist accusers, judges or jurors; that the laws of our land are generally being applied appropriately as written.

In fact, one could argue that the facts Mr. Stevenson presented represent not a criminal justice problem but a character formation problem.

Given the attitudes of people I come in contact with and the mores I see promulgated in mass media, racism appears to be on widespread decline. The rise of non-white artists, athletes and political figures helps make the point.

Most institutions and individuals go overboard to embrace the place that descendants of the discriminated deserve. As well they should. It should be crystal clear that humans of all shades are images of the divine, full of God-given giftedness and potential.

Despite our advances, though, there seems to exist what Stanford University’s Shelby Steele calls “a stubborn nostalgia for America’s racist past.”

He elaborates, “The civil rights community and the liberal media live by the poetic truth that America is still a reflexively racist society, and that this remains the great barrier to black equality. But this ‘truth’ has a lot of lie in it.”

This nostalgia causes some people to subtly blame misbehavior and associated accusation on racist motives; it prompts others to loudly label any bi-racial incident involving a black as race-driven (e.g., Trayvon Martin vs. George Zimmerman; Cambridge policeman vs. Harvard professor).

I can’t disagree that there is a disproportionate number of blacks in our nation’s jails. I just don’t think racist or even socioeconomic discriminators put them there.

We should focus on the factors that did put them there: unstable family units, toxic stereotypes (e.g., being smart and working hard is “acting white”), low educational expectations, minimal economic opportunities, public assistance dependence, weak spiritual leadership, etc.

I concede that our criminal justice system needs some overhauling, especially if the rumors of sexual and physical abuse are remotely accurate.

But I don’t think we should take laws off the books to reduce prison and probation populations. I don’t think we should commute sentences based on race.

And neither do I think we should turn a blind eye to evil in certain parts of town just because we don’t need any more of a demographic behind our bars. That simply wouldn’t do justice to the victims there.

Kevin Thompson is a weekly columnist for The Boerne Star. Follow him at www.kwt.info.

Burdens and blindness

Jesus sauntered into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. One burden-bearer carrying another. The weight of the world, in a matter of days, would rest upon his shoulders.

Once inside the Jerusalem power center, the prophet from Nazareth showed his strength. He drove greedy opportunists from the house of prayer. He healed blind eyes and lame legs. He questioned the religiously established even as they quizzed him on his credentials.

From Palm Sunday to Crucifixion Friday, he amazed his disciples and mesmerized the people. Even the people’s religious leaders were impressed. They were also threatened. By his power, by his magnetism, by his upside-down philosophy of religion.

For example, the religious establishment said those who KNOW what’s right hold the keys to the kingdom. Jesus said those who DO what’s right are welcomed in. The establishment said those in positions of authority please God. Jesus said those in postures of humility please him.

The establishment didn’t much care for this nonsense. They hadn’t worked for years earning their stripes to have a tradesman from rural Judea steal their thunder. So they looked for a way to catch him in his words without catching the grassroots on fire.

“Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” “Which is the greatest commandment?” But the crafty creator slipped their traps and astonished the crowds with populist paradoxes:

“The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Hard as they tried, the ministerial mainstays couldn’t pin him down. But then a breakthrough. A sellout from the prophet’s own camp! An instant credibility crisis for the rabble rouser.

And it didn’t break the bank. Just a pouch full of silver coins. A small fraction of the weekly collection. Salaries and benefits would not be touched!

But the heart of God would be, and it would break.

The people God chose did not choose him. They stood him up at his own wedding reception. They produced no good fruit in the luscious vineyards he provided. The “blind guides” cleaned the outsides of their cups but left the insides curdling. Alas!

We are not then overly surprised by the evil that unfolded. The spitting, the mocking, the flogging, the spikes, the spear. The unspeakable torture. The criminal’s death.

Jesus healed the blind, but he could not heal Israel’s blind guides. They would not let him.

Which brings us to us.

We are blind. We can either accept a healing touch or become blind guides ourselves.

We are weighed down. By things we’ve done, by things done to us, by things we’ve done in response to things done to us. We can either lay our weight on another’s shoulders or soldier on alone.

He who rode into town on a beast of burden can bear the burden of our beastly acts. He can heal our blind eyes before we become blind guides.

And we can join the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Rev. 7:9-10)

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at www.kwt.info. Reach him at kevin@kwt.info.


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