Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Christmas Shopping Trek

Ten days since I posted. That's a long time. During the last 24 hours lots of ideas passed through my head of what to write about. I could write about the good family Thanksgiving just finished (except for the leftovers still to be consumed). I could write about the good Life Group lesson series we are now in, based on the book The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson.

Health, wealth, writing, leisure are all candidates. However, based on a post in our high school class Facebook page, I've decided on this Christmas memory: shopping in downtown Providence. We did that several times a year, always once during the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Almost certainly it was a Saturday, and probably an afternoon affair. Dad would have worked Friday night and so would have slept Saturday morning. So right after lunch we'd pack the car and drive downtown.

At this time, say in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Providence had passed its peak and was a city in decline. The population peaked around 400,000 in the 1950 census, and dropped sharply in the next 20 to 30 years, till by 1980 it was perhaps under 200,000. The migration to the suburbs was on, and Providence seems to have been hit harder than other cities. However, the decline was not evident at first. For a while those who had moved out still came to downtown Providence for major shopping. In, say, 1958, when I would turn seven shortly after Christmas, until 1963, after which Mom would have been too sick to do a major downtown walking tour, downtown Providence still thrived, and we went there for a major shopping trip each Christmas.

I don't remember whether RI route 10 was built or not. If so we would take that and get off at West Exchange Street. We might park on the street and feed the meter, or we more likely park in Municipal Parking Lot, right below the state capitol. Before Route 10 was built we would have driven north on Reservoir till it joined with Elmwood, and continued on that till it joined with Broad. That would take us right through downtown until we arrived at the municipal lot. A landmark was the Round-topped Church. We knew when we saw that we had arrived at downtown.

Turning from the capitol, downtown stood before us. Store after store in multistory buildings with common wall construction. It seems we had to walk about a block to get to the first store we went in, Cherry & Webb. The layout of Providence streets is a fading memory. I remember Westminster and Weybosset in addition to West Exchange. Beyond that I don't remember all that much.

Now, don't ask me how I remember all this. It was a long time ago, most likely last done as a complete family in 1963, maybe even 1962. I remember one or two trips to downtown Providence after Mom died in 1965, but for specific items in specific stores. My memory was that the first store we stopped in began with a "C". Beyond that I had no specific memory other than that we always seemed to go in City Hall Hardware. Not remembering exactly where each store was, and what was closest to the Municipal Parking Lot, I figured that must have been it. Then, about a year ago at one of the Cranston memory pages I'm a member of, someone mentioned Cherry & Webb as a downtown Providence story, and I immediately knew that was the one.

From Cherry & Webb it was on to other stores: the aforementioned City Hall Hardware, Shepherds, and, if strength and time allowed, the more distance Outlet Department Store. I'm sure that in between these were other stores, specialty shops that demanded we go in. Each store had display windows, all dressed up for Christmas. Inside the stores were garland-decked counters, aisles stuffed with shoppers, Christmas trees in various places. The air outside was always crisp and invigorating. Inside would be hot, and we buttoned and unbuttoned our coats many times. Each department store would have its Santa Claus with a long line of kids waiting to see him.

My favorite store was Shepherds. Someone says it as on Westminster Street, and I suppose that's right. There was the Shepherd's clock mounted on a post on the sidewalk in front of the store on Westminster. Inside was everything I described before. I remember the dark wood everywhere, and how rich this made me feel. Aisle after aisle, rack after rack of clothing, shelf after shelf of housewares. Riding the escalators. Leaving with more things to carry.

I know a couple of times we went to The Arcade. This was a prototype of the indoor shopping mall, built perhaps 80 years earlier than the larger suburban ones. This was a quaint little building, having much less bustle than the department stores. I don't know why we went in there, or what we bought, but it is a memory I have. Years later, when I was in college (or perhaps late high school), I remember going downtown and to the Arcade and buying a book there as a present for my grandparents: a book on New England birds.

It was probably dark, or nearly so, by the time we headed back to the car. I imagine we three kids were complaining about having to carry so much. Then it was home, most likely along the city streets rather than the highway, so that we could look at the lights along the way. Home for our Saturday traditional meal of hot dogs & beans & potato chips, eaten in front of the television. Then Edward and I went downstairs with Dad to shine our shoes for the morrow, then our weekly baths and bed. If we were lucky the evening was capped off by Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

Yup, good memories of Christmas past. Distant, yet good. Something my wife never experienced growing up in a town of 1,800 people. Something my kids never experienced in their formative years. But I had it, from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. And I'll keep that memory, pull it out once in a while, dust it off, maybe bring something to mind I hadn't thought of for times measured in decades or half-centuries.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thinking About Song Lyrics

We go to sleep at night with something on for noise. This might be an audio book (Lynda's preference when she's reading one) or the variety music station on the radio (my choice all the time). Right now, since Lynda's between audio books, we have the radio on. We keep it low. When the furnace comes on (or the AC in warm weather) you can barely hear it. When the HVAC unit is off, it's still pretty low, but if you happen to be awake, you'll hear what's playing or being said.

This station we have on is a mixture of oldies and newer songs, trending toward slow songs and what could be called easy listening. Absent are the hard rock, acid rock, rap, and most of the "peppy" songs. Not that they are all ballads, but they definitely tend to the quieter, slower songs.

I recognize and know well most of the oldies they play; and I'm learning a number of newer songs, including some newer artists. If I had to guess I'd say the Carpenters are played more than any other artist. Next is Willie Nelson. I don't see a third favorite after that, unless it's either Michael Buble or Colbie Callat. Both of them are okay, though Colbie can be tiring at times. The Carpenters are always good. The less said about Willie Nelson the better. As often as not, when one of his starts when I'm in the car, I turn to another station.

One favorite artist I learned of from this station is Katie Melua. Maybe four years ago I heard her song "Nine Million Bicycles", and liked it. Slowly over time I heard other of her songs on this station, and came to like them all. I looked her up, learned about her circumstances and career, and liked her even more.

Another song that I heard first on this station is "Perhaps Love", a song written by John Denver and recorded by him with Placido Domingo. I find it quite enjoyable, and consider it a plus whenever I happen to hear it. Well, Tuesday night I did. I woke up in the middle of the might, maybe around 4:00 a.m. The furnace wasn't running, and I heard that song start on the radio and stayed awake through the end. So that was an excellent time to wake up. Then, this morning on the way to work, a song started for which I couldn't place the song. It was "Nine Million Bicycles", but it had been so long since I've heard it I had forgotten the musical intro. So I heard both of these songs a day apart, and that helped the days to be good days.

This got me to thinking about song lyrics. What makes these songs "tick" for me? Is it the lyrics? The tunes? The combo of the two? And that led me to think of this blog and what to write about and, well, since I've dabbled in song lyrics a little over of the course of my poetic endeavors, I thought perhaps discussing the lyrics of those songs would be a good thing.

So, that's what I'm going to do, probably in the next two posts, but for sure over the next two weeks. I'm at work as I write this and it's time to be heading home. This evening, time allowing, I'll edit in links to where the lyrics can be seen and to where the songs can be heard. That will give anyone interested a chance to read and hear the songs before my next couple of posts come.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Threshing Wheat in a Winepress

What a great Sunday it was among God's people! Cold temperatures outside, warm hearts inside. As always we went to first service, starting at 9:30 a.m. Last week the sanctuary was cold, due to a furnace going out. Today it was comfortable.

For worship choruses we sang songs that I knew. The worship leader didn't introduce a new song to us this week. So that was good. Pastor Mark then continued his sermon series, Imperfectly Perfect. This has focused on a number of people from the Old Testament, people who were imperfect in their character and circumstances, yet who God used in mighty ways. This week it was Gideon, one of the judges if Israel.

His story is told in Judges 6-8. His story is well known, yet I find it difficult to call to mind many of the details. He is best known for "putting out a fleece," asking God to reveal his will by the condition of the fleece as opposed to the ground it sat on all night. Some people feel that Gideon did wrong by doing this, since God had already revealed His will to Gideon. Regardless, many Christians "put out fleeces" to hope to better understand God's will.

But Gideon's story starts before that. In Judges chapter 6 the Midianites had control over Israel. They were warriors, and pretty much rampaged through Israel. The Jews were fairly scattered, with towns and farms in the hills, and some in the plains, all with no central government or organization. Midianites would raid anywhere in Israel and pretty much take whatever they want. The Israelites "prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves, and strongholds." Pastor Mark pointed out the significance of of the following statement from Judges 6:11
...Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites."
I had never thought of this before. You don't thresh wheat in a winepress; you thresh wheat on a threshing floor. I've seen one of those, in Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, where an 1837 New England community was recreated. The barn is built with doors on each end. When the wheat is brought in someone stands in the passageway in the barn, and tosses the wheat up, letting it hit the floor as it comes down. Then he picks it up with the pitchfork and does it again. As he picks it up and releases it, any breeze blowing through the two doors will cause the chaff to blow away and the wheat to fall back to the floor. To make this work, you need a floor in a place where wind is available.

In contrast, a winepress was low to the ground probably in a pit of some sort. Wind wasn't a factor in how grapes were turned to wine after harvest. So the Jews might hew one out of rock, down in a pit. This was a safe place for Gideon to thresh his wheat. If it wasn't the season for grapes, the Midianites wouldn't be looking there when they made their raids. While it would be a lot of work, threshing wheat without the wind to blow away the chaff. It could be done, it would be safe, and Gideon could remain hidden.

Mark said this had theological significance. Gideon was showing himself to be scared of the Midianites. He was also showing himself to have a small God. Rather than thresh out in the open, and trust God to keep him safe, he hid down in the winepress. Yet, this was the man that God called to be a judge of Israel and to lead them in battle against the enemy.

I have to confess at never having noticed this significance before. The idea that a winepress was down in a hollow while a threshing floor was up in the open went right over my head all the previous times I read this. It has me thinking, whether I have been guilty of threshing wheat in a winepress. I'm going to look through my current endeavors in life and evaluate all of them relative to this concept. Why hide your work in a winepress when God is able to help you be safe on the threshing floor, out in the open? Yes, I'll be going through my life and see what I should change.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Training Exercise

Yesterday was my normal day to post, but I was extremely busy, both at work and at home after work, and, well, I didn't get it done. So sue me.

What was tying me up, you ask? At work I have been intensely conducting a training operation this week, one that involved me almost full time. It's the third (and maybe last) in a series of picking apart projects that went bad in some way. The examples came from my days as contracts city engineer for the City of Centerton, Arkansas. I pull out the aspect of the project that was bad, give it to those in the company who have registered as wanting to participate, and work with them over the week to solve the problem.

Last Friday I sent out the e-mail to the company, saying that this week we would hold that exercise to begin on Monday, and anyone who wanted to participate would have to register with me. Slowly people started to. By Monday noon, the time I picked to start it, I had 12 participants. This grew to 18 by the next day, then shrank back to 15 as workload got the best of three. And actually, two others didn't have a lot of participation.

At noon Monday everyone received an e-mail from me with a packet of information. Construction of the project was complete and it was about to go to the City Council for final plat approval. But it had been passed along by the Planning Commission two weeks before with contingencies, and one of those contingencies still hadn't been met. The City hadn't received copies of the tests of the newly constructed asphalt pavement. No tests in hand, and no statement from the "project manager" that the pavement met minimum standards, no approval by the City Council.

The next e-mail they received was from the construction contractor, passing along the asphalt tests, with no explanation or apology for their lateness. The participants had to take those asphalt tests and figure out if the asphalt was good or bad. Included in their original materials was a copy of the asphalt paving specification, which included the minimum standards for construction. The tests showed that it didn't meet the minimum standards. Nine out of nine tests failed; three of those were close to the standard, while six were way below standard.

At this point the participants have to pass these along to the "city engineer." But before they could, they received an e-mail from their client, the "developer," who is unhappy about the late tests and tells the participant that the project better pass at the City Council meeting on Friday or he'd hold them responsible for any losses he incurred. So with failing asphalt pavement on one side, and an angry and impatient client on the other, the participant has to decide what to do.

I had a little fun with this, as you can tell by the names I chose for the parts I played.
  • Riley Straight, City Engineer, All American City
  • Klaus E. "Bubba" Nuff, owner of Klaus E. Nuff Construction, NLC
  • Will E. Nilley, an engineering troubleshooter hired by Nuff to "help" in the situation
  • Jack Slacker, owner of Slacker Development, the developer
And then the e-mails started flying. Nilley was brought in on the project, and fired off letters and e-mails to convince the participants that the pavement was actually good, we just have to do some more tests and throw out the originals, and let's use this non-destructive testing method. Sure, it's not normally used for acceptance but it will work good in this situation. Nilley buries bad news in his letters and e-mails, and the participants had to read very closely to realize it.

I copied the manager of our design center with the e-mails, at his request, and he said he had over 140 e-mails about this. I didn't copy him on the first 20 or so, and I'm sure I missed a few along the way. I haven't counted mine yet, but I'd say it must have been close to 200 e-mails, taking up four identities and corresponding with 15 participants. Thursday morning I put together a PowerPoint presentation, highlighting some of the best and worst e-mails from participants, aggregating five batches of pavement tests into a series of growing spreadsheets, and coming up with solutions. By the time we got to the noon hour class on Thursday I was exhausted.

The class went well. Two participants had their department schedule a conflict and weren't there. But others came who weren't participants to hear the discussion. As the class went on I was rockin' and rollin', as the saying goes. I explained exactly what went wrong with the pavement (they had all figured out the manner in which it had failed), and showed how the only solution was to tear it out and do it over. I helped them to see how they could best serve their client and the citizens of All American City by directing Nuff Construction to tear out the pavement. And I showed them (I hope they got it) how they could make themselves a hero to their client in doing so. At the end of the hour class, I invited the V.P. who attended to say a few things, and he did, echoing our mantra of client service, and how what I was telling them was correct. At least, I think that's what he said. I'm not sure I followed all that closely, as tired as I was.

Then, at home, there was supper to eat and daughters and grandchildren to have a rambling phone call with an stock market business to conduct. Suddenly it was 11:00 p.m., and, well, I didn't get this written and posted. But here it is now. That was my day and week.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

An Interesting Scene in Exodus

What a great day at church today, worshiping and studying with God's people. It was my regular week to teach Life Group, and I did a lesson on prayer, one that I developed myself. I had planned to write this blog about that lesson. However, our pastor's sermon today was quite good, and I think I'll write about it instead.

His text was Exodus 33:1-11. This is a passage I've read before—many times, in fact. It's a passage that follows one of my favorites in scripture, the ending of Chapter 32, where Moses intercedes with God on behalf of the Israelites. It's an incredible story on prayer. But possibly I've skimmed over the beginning of Chapter 33 before, because as I listened to it being read today, it seemed fresh, new. God tells Moses to leave that place and go to the land God promised to the patriarchs. But, God says He won't go with them, because of how the Israelites are: stiff-necked and prone to disobedience.

Moses goes outside the camp to the Tent of Meeting, a tent he had set up where anyone could go and meet with God. Joshua, Moses' young assistant, was constantly at this tent. Moses goes there to plead with God to go with them, to not send them on without his presence.

Pastor Mark Snodgrass did a great job breaking down this scripture and using it to present some action items for us. He focused on the ornaments the people wore, ornaments that resembled those the Egyptians wore in idol worship. In verse 5 God tells them to take off their ornaments—the appearance of idol worship—and He would decide what to do with the people. The Israelites complied, Moses pleaded, and the God's presence would go with the Israelites.

I simple passage, but foundational for all that goes next. I don't know that I have any deep thoughts about it. I will be reading and meditating on it for the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How My Predictions Worked Out

My last post was my election predictions. With this post, I examine how I did. In a word: I was correct in my direction, but not in the magnitude of the move.

I first said:
The Republican party already controls the House of Representatives, 233 to 199, with three vacancies. I predict the Republicans will maintain control and will extend their majority to around 246 to 185.

This they did. The current count at Real Clear Politics is 243 Republicans, 179 Democrats, with 13 seats not yet decided. Of the ones I could find data for, the Republican candidate was in the lead in five. That would bring the total to 248 for them. If so, I was very, very close with this.

Next I said:
When the election is over the Republicans will have won 52 [Senate] seats...the Republican caucus will be 55 members....

As of right now, the number are 52 Republicans, 45 Democrats, with three not yet decided. Of those three, two seem to favor the Republicans, which would bring the total to 54-45 (plus one Independent). So, again, I was close, predicting the direction but not the magnitude of the move. It was stronger for the Republicans than I predicted.

Then I said"

...what percentage of Americans will be governed by which will be darn close to a 50-50 split, regardless of the number of states involved...the margins in these elections will generally be closer than in 2010....

Here I was off. With a couple of races still to be decided (in states with small populations), it appears the split will be 60% of the population with Republican governors, 40% with Democratic governors. The two that shifted this were Florida and Illinois (and to some extent Massachusetts), which went Republican when I figured they would stay Democratic. So I was off on this one.

And last I said:

As to state legislatures...the status quo will legislature to change majorities.

Data on these races is probably still coming in, but the Washington Post reports this:

"Before Election Day, the GOP controlled 59 of 98 partisan legislative chambers across the country. On Tuesday, preliminary results showed Republicans had won control of both the Nevada Assembly and Senate, the Colorado Senate and state House chambers in Minnesota, New Mexico, Maine, West Virginia and New Hampshire. That would give the party control of 67 chambers, five more than their previous record in the modern era, set after special elections in 2011 and 2012."
So, once again, I missed this part of the election decision by voters. I didn't see, in polling data or in any type of public outcry, a movement toward the Republican Party at this level. I'm trying to assess for myself what this means going forward. In my book The Candy Store Generation I said I was waiting for The Had Enough Generation to rise up and wrest control from the idiots who lead my generation, the Baby Boomers. I wonder if maybe we are seeing the beginning of that.

Should I hang up my whiteboard, and quit making election predictions? It's fun to do, but a little risky. Not that I really have anything on the line by taking that risk.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Election Predictions

After having had so much success predicting the outcomes of elections, I should retire from the business. I suspect it can only go downhill from here. But perhaps that is a cowardly thing to do.

I didn't follow what was going on all that closely for quite a while, being rather tired of politics and being occupied with a number of other things, but in the last month I have. With political commercials dominating television and radio, it's difficult to just tune it out. So, here goes.

The big enchilada in this election is control of Congress. The Republican party already controls the House of Representatives, 233 to 199, with three vacancies. I predict the Republicans will maintain control and will extend their majority to around 246 to 194.

In the Senate, where currently the Democratic party holds a 53 to 45 majority, with the two independent senators caucusing with the Democrat, it's clear the Republicans are going to make gains. How much? Will they take control? The polls suggest they will. I've been watching the polls for the possibility of overstatement—that is, of sensing movement in one direction and overstating the amount of that movement. I've seen that often in the past. This year, however, I don't see it. The polls have been steadily favoring the Republican senate candidates, without much movement. The exception to that is Iowa, where the latest poll predicts too much movement toward the Republican candidate. I think she's going to win there, but not by the margins the last poll suggest. So I think the polls of the Real Clear Politics website have it about right. When the election is over the Republicans will have won 52 seats. Moreover, by the time all elections and runoffs are settled, I believe the Republican caucus will be 55 members, as one senator will change parties and one or two independents will caucus with the Republicans.

I'm not following the governor races all that closely. The polls suggest the Republicans will control more governorships after the election than before. That may be true, but I generally look at gubernatorial elections from the perspective of what percentage of Americans will be governed by which party. My sense is that, after this election, it will be darn close to a 50-50 split, regardless of the number of states involved. But, I also believe the margins in these elections will generally be closer than in 2010 (the last year that involves these states).

As to state legislatures, I really have no data on which to base a prediction. The absence of news, and of an issue or personality to drive voters in a direction, leaves me to believe the status quo will prevail. In other words, I expect no legislature to change majorities. Those currently governed by Democrats will stay so; same for Republicans. Where there is mixed government, you might see one party win the other house in their state. It will actually be in the state races where any type of groundswell that would suggest something for future elections will take place. If you see movement in either party's total share of all the state legislature positions, this may indicate a sense of the electorate going into 2016 and beyond.

Well, that's my view from fly-over country. Maybe on Thursday I'll post how I did.