Of Beaches and Bloated Things (or, Gringos on Parade)

Costa Rica, 1987-88. Not my finest hour. In all honesty, I spent a good deal of my teenage years trying to forget we’d ever been there. Still, it had its moments, and the further removed that year becomes, the more I’m beginning to see adventure in what at the time seemed to be only disaster.

Take, for example, a little trip the Woodses and the Hoods took together to a place called Puntarenas, a beach system on the Pacific coast of the country. Its nickname, among others, is La Perla del Pacifico (the pearl of the Pacific)–God knows why. Apparently, it was discovered by none other than Sr. Ponce de Leon in 1519. After several days there, I kind of wish he’d left well enough alone…

This was my first experience with long-distance commercial bus travel. It’s actually only a two-hour ride from San Jose (the capital city) to the coast, but it felt more like several days. It was also my first experience (although, as with bus travel, far from my last) of sitting on a suitcase on the side of the highway, watching the bus’s tail-lights dwindling into the distance, wondering what my parents had gotten me into this time. Was it not bad enough that they made me leave friends and family behind and fly off to a place where we had no television, no family car, and no language skills at all (witness the ten-year-old me fleeing down a Central American sidewalk, chased by a mean-spirited dog, screaming “Help!!” over and over again to a street full of Spanish-speakers, who in all likelihood were more attuned to the entertainment value of the scene than to any danger I might have been in)? Now, here the children sat, Aaron and Dawn Hood, my sister Sara, and myself, thinking evil thoughts of present adult company. And then, it started to rain.

Anyone familiar with “rainy season” in Central America knows this name is an absolute joke. It should be called “Noah season.” It did not just rain–it poured. It was one of those storms that make you feel like there are fish out there drier than you. Through the clothes, through the skin, right down to the bone soaked. We couldn’t see anything, and I was beginning to wonder whether anyone actually knew where we were, or how to get where we were going.

To this day, I cannot really recall how it happened, but suddenly we were in the bed of a pick-up, barreling into the storm. We thumbed a ride. From a complete stranger. I still can’t quite believe it, and I was there. Dad, Uncle Charlie, Aaron and me, clinging for dear life to the back of the truck’s cab, staring into gale-force winds and a barrage of liquid birdshot. BirdSHOT, I said. Mom, Sara, Dawn, and Aunt Becky inside the vehicle, sitting with Ted Bundy for all we knew. Voices of teachers, policemen, and Officer McGruff echoed in my head: Never get into a car with strangers. Caveat: Unless you happen to be standing in the dark on the side of a Costa Rican highway in a hurricane…

Somehow, we arrived at our destination: the Chalet Bautista. Don’t get too excited. This place was a chalet like McDonalds is a gourmet patisserie. Perhaps, you say, it was the inclement weather or the darkness of night, or exhaustion from such an eventful trip that caused the C.B. to seem so bedraggled and uninviting. I think all of us would assure you, it was not. The place was just as bedraggled and uninviting by day as it was by night. I would include a picture of the place, but I couldn’t find one. It probably collapsed the day after we left.

Picture with me the following: very sparse bedroom furnishings; two stacks of bunks, one on each side; thin mattresses, no bedding; bare cinderblock walls. I took a top bunk, and the ceiling was about two inches from the tip of my nose. (I’d describe the bathroom facilities, but my brain seems to have blocked them out.) Now, in the years since then, I have left the spoiled little Yank behind. I’ve stayed in some extremely shady places, used more electric “widow-maker” showerheads than I can count (you don’t know fear–not to mention irony–until one of those explodes on you while you’re bathing), and trained roaches to guard against bedbugs. But the ten-year-old boy at Puntarenas had been out of the U.S. for four whole months (and was used to a mother who ironed couch cushions). To him, this was the back end of hell.

To illustrate, allow me to describe my experience upon waking the first morning. As you may recall, the ceiling was not far from my face. Imagine my surprise (and the infringement of my personal bubble) when I opened my eyes and looked into those of a very large, very neighborly iguana, hanging just above my head. It was close enough it could have offered me mouth to mouth following the consequent heart attack. Keep in mind that to this point the only animals I’d encountered upon waking had been stuffed and had names like Balloon and Patches. This beast responded to neither, and I’m pretty sure he wanted to stuff me.

The condition of the lodgings was so inescapably sad that I don’t really even remember that much about the beach, which was supposedly the whole reason for our trip. There is one thing, though, that we all remember. An image that is seared into my brain for all of time. I can close my eyes and see it now. An image that put, so to speak, the icing on a very unappealing cake.

I had never been to the beach before, at least not since I could remember. I was terribly excited. And I really wanted to know what that thing was, out there bobbing in the surf. A water bird, perhaps? A happy little fish leaping from the water to greet us? Or maybe, a dead, bloated dog, washed ashore just in time to scar four small children for life. Its name may not have been Balloon, but it sure looked like one. And smelled like one, too–that is, if you happened to stumble across one in a nice, ripe landfill. That one image is really the only thing that stands out clearly in my mind when I think of that trip, and it captures well the impression of it I have carried with me through the years: That dog don’t hunt.

Later on, there was an impromptu Sunday service (we were a couple of missionary families, after all) at a stone picnic table outside the Chalet. But it was for naught, at least as far as I was concerned. I only had eyes for the dog–and the large iguana now perched on the wall next to the table. Jesus loves me, this I know. Please convince my folks to go. Little ones to him belong. What’s the next thing to go wrong?

The crazy thing about this trip, though, is that after all these years it is to me a symbol of friendship. You come out of experiences like that either hating your comrades, or loving them, and with us it was the latter. The four of us kids are still friends today, almost thirty years later, and I honestly believe that this was where it all began. This adventure created a bond that cannot be broken, that still calls forth a shared sigh of disbelief when it comes into the conversation. And I wouldn’t change that for the world. So, don’t rush to judgment the next time your best laid plans gang agley. In twenty years, you may discover it was one of the best things that ever happened to you…

I Cry for You…

How do we explain a split existence? How do we make those closest to us understand that a part of us will always be out of reach, living in a past we can’t ever leave behind, in a place we can’t get back to but can’t ever really escape? My name is Vance; my name is Eduardo. I am American; I am Argentine. I am everything and I am no one. I sing a song of myselves.

It’s an odd feeling, knowing that, in eighteen years of life, I experienced more than many people do in eighty. This is not a boast; it is simply a fact. I have arrived at the midpoint of my life with so much baggage that my overhead compartment is about to burst, and the question constantly on my mind is: How do I follow that act? How do I make the latter half of my life live up to the expectations created by what went before? Did I really peak in high school? I am globetrotter; I am multicultural; I am (somewhat still) bilingual. I am a bit schizophrenic. And I am surrounded by walls, ironically erected by the freedom of years gone by.

Melodramatic? Yes. Also sadly true. Everything I have seen thus far in my life pushes me always to see more, to take in a wider view, while at the same time whispering in my ear that it’s never enough, that I’m wasting precious time. No matter how much I accomplish, I’m driven to achieve more, to justify the content of my heart and soul by adding more and more pages, chapters, books to the story of who I am. I wonder if it really meant anything. Was I put where I was for a reason, or did I just happen to wind up there? Was it meant to define my future, or simply to qualify my past? Whatever happened to the “wide-eyed wanderer” I used to see when I looked in the mirror, and how do I get away from the jaded visage that stares back at me now?

Never fear! I am still in the game, whether or not I completely understand the rules. For those of you who know what I mean, life is like a game of Mau. There are no rules, and the rules are always changing. We make them up as we go. Life is too short to let others do it for us. So we struggle, together but alone, to understand our reason for being, and to figure out how to hold on to the bits and pieces of our lives and assemble them into a coherent whole (or even an incoherent one–sometimes that is the best we can do).

In the back of my mind, an Argentine memory: pitch darkness, a long, steep hillside, a trail made for stumbling, and a curfew chasing me home. At the bottom of the hill, a creek forded by two ramshackle bridges barely worthy of the name, logs placed parallel with slats arranged crosswise at uncertain intervals. More than enough to offer the incautious a short fall and an unwanted bath. The first time I tried this little path I was absolutely terrified. I knew I was on a clock (in the Woods home, a curfew was a curfew, little as I might like it) and I could not see a bleeding thing (never mind the possibility that I might soon be a bleeding thing). I staggered downwards like a blind man, hands outstretched, prepared to feel my way with my face at the first wrong step. Somehow I made it all the way down, after several close calls and near falls. That was the first time. The longer I walked this way, the faster and more surefooted I became, and two years later I was taking it at a gallop.

Such is life. Limited visibility, treacherous inclines, and a short time to get from A to B. The difference between “straight” and “strait.” But it’s all about the practice. Somewhere along this path, the boy became (proyecto de) a man. The man moves faster and with greater confidence, maybe, but strangely from time to time he misses the mystery and wonder of the stumbling child. Uncertainty and immobility are not the same thing. Then there was but one path to take and a willingness to take it, no matter the consequences. Now, there are too many paths to take and a fear of choosing the wrong one, because of the consequences.

How to remove the straitjacket that comes with adulthood and disillusionment? How to rid myself of the imperfection reached with practice and find my way back to the kid who hated practice and still believed perfection was possible? How to divest myself of the fool’s wisdom that comes with experience, and focus again on the experience itself? I strive to recover the belief that everything is an experience, and remember that experience isn’t everything…

Defining Sustainability

Little known fact: Back when Baylor’s sustainability efforts were just getting started, I was the one doing the leg work. All of it. I had dirty nacho containers tossed at me at Floyd Casey, I spent every home basketball game of the ’08-’09 season poking my head into trash cans at the Ferrell Center, and if there was a recycling container placed in a building around campus, I assembled it–by hand–or at the very least supervised the person who did. So, when I say that the university’s sustainability program carries huge significance for me, I mean it very much.

The idea of a program like this is of course a good one, especially given the state of our environment and the way we would like to deliver our world to our kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, etc., etc. (preferably with breathable air and a few remaining species of wildlife for them to enjoy). However, there is more to the idea of sustainability than perhaps we realize. It is an effort that must involve all of us. I say this, of course, as one who still struggles with the innate selfishness that tempts me to cut corners by throwing plastics into my trash can instead of taking the time to clean them out and prep them for recycling. Sometimes the devil on the left wins out over the angel on the right. But it is a struggle worth engaging, if we really want to keep this earth of ours a decent place to live. And unless we all work together, unless we think of others before ourselves, unless (as a wise environmental scientist I know has said) we consider the next generation and the problems they will face if we don’t act now, it is a fight we’re doomed to lose.

I also (for those who don’t know) spent eight years working in “professional” church ministry. At the time I was working with sustainability at Baylor, I was pastoring a small church outside of Waco. (Baylor, by the way–also a “Christian” institution.) My greatest dismay during the year I spent on all this stemmed from the way in which my fellow Christians responded (or failed to respond) to what the school was trying to do. I don’t know if it’s an end times thing, or an overly focused evangelistic streak, or what, but the idea of conservation, of saving the planet, looking out for Creation, being good stewards–whatever–seemed so foreign to many of those I spoke with on the subject as to have been presented in Swahili. My point being: We tend, as Christians and as people in general, not to think in broad enough strokes, not to recognize the wider implications of the ideologies we embrace. We can see what’s in front of us–especially when it takes the form of a flying hot dog wrapper or a large, angry man who can’t understand why some of the trash cans are green and others aren’t, and why they’re not all fair game–but the concomitants tend to escape our view.

These concomitants take any number of shapes, from my own struggles over honoring my neighborhood’s recycling plan to taking care not to disrupt local economic ecosystems (e.g., how do we handle the fact that some in the neighborhood of our football stadium used to collect recyclables after games to supplement their own income?). Are we actually helping the situation by instituting our programs, or are we hurting it? Does our good intention cause harm to others, in whatever form, however innocuous or unintended? These are questions anyone who sets out to “save the planet” must consider, so that his or her efforts amount to more than simply an exercise in personal exculpation. Also, we must provide education that matches the structural change: as we discovered quickly here on campus, all the recycling containers in the world amount to a hill of useless beans if people don’t know how to make appropriate use of them (and that is far more complicated than you might think). Then there is the question of tangents. If I put all my recycling in the nearest container, but do not bother to turn off my light when I leave the room, am I more than a clanging “green” cymbal? Does it really matter how many environmentally-friendly food containers we pass out at the dining halls if we’re simultaneously running our air conditioning system into the ground or turning our lawns into swamps with over-watering? Does it make sense to demand conservation at the cafeteria while catering our events with non-recyclables?

Moreover, we must be sure that what we are doing is truly inspired, and not just an attempt to score points with donors or potential students, or to enhance our school’s reputation. I have seen recently attempts to engage in organic farming, a highly specialized and pricey endeavor, both by people who really believed in what they were doing and by some who thought it might simply be a good source of income. You can guess which suceed and which fail. Sustainability has to be more than just an idea, it has to be a lifestyle, a commitment to something greater than ourselves or our pocketbooks. We have to be dedicated enough to dodge soda bottles at a football game, over and over again. We have to embrace the definition of insanity (doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting a different result) until we actually get that different result.

Ultimately, sustainability doesn’t just demand a change in the way we act; it demands a change in the way we think. The true “sustainer” cannot live in the moment. He or she must inhabit two possible futures: one that could be, and one that will be unless we do our part today. We must be earth-centered rather than self-centered. If you want to insist on religious rhetoric (although I find it unnecessary to the defense of sustainable action), then “creation-centered” will do. Any way you look at it, “peace in our time” is not enough. We can’t just shove today onto the future’s shoulders; we have to take the future and shoulder it ourselves.

Little Follow-Up

As a side note to my halal post yesterday, I’m posting a comment I received from my brother-in-law on the subject. In the interests of furthering the education of those who don’t know (including myself), I yield to those who know more about Islam than I do:

Just read your blog post, and yes, the double standard of many in America on the issue of religious freedom is troubling. I’ve never been quite sure why it’s so offensive for stores to sell items if there’s a market for them. It ties in to capitalism as well as religious freedom….

Also, I know it comes as a shock but the chain e-mail you received might contain an inaccuracy or two (yes, I know, it’s hard to believe that of a chain e-mail :-). I could be wrong, but I believe meat can be considered halal if slaughtered by people of the book, e.g. Christians or Jews. So some Muslims will eat kosher meat since the physical process (for example, care taken in blood draining) is similar. Anyway, I think this is true of at least some Muslims–there are different schools of thought on lots of things in Islam, of course, so I’m sure some insist on the butcher being a Muslim. Not sure which standard Costco is using.

Finally, I find the letter’s idol comment to be ridiculous. I staunchly disagree with Islam as you know, but Muslims aren’t idol worshipers. In fact, idols are exactly what their prophet eradicated from the Kabah where the black stone is located. Sadly, Muslims have a wrong understanding of the Person and saving role of Jesus Christ and are trusting in their works to save them instead of repenting and trusting in Christ. But they do sincerely profess to worship one God.

I have to add that any comment on the person and role of Jesus Christ doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of the blogger, but I think this underlines the point I was trying to make yester-eve. I can exchange commentary with (nay, even learn from) people who disagree with me on points of religious import. I can also respect opposing viewpoints without compromising my own integrity. Indeed, to demand respect from others while failing to return the favor is a good way TO compromise my integrity as a person who claims to honor human rights and reason above all else.

The moral of the story is this: don’t just pass random information along to the gullible and less-informed. If you do, you become one of them. Instead, if the matter is really of such terrible importance to you, make sure you understand it yourself before hitting the forward button. Otherwise, you perpetuate ignorance over knowledge, and this helps no one and harms us all. The shame is, I know personally and well some of the people who participate in this mindless exercise, and I know better than to think they act out of malice, or would act this way if they truly understood what they were doing. So think before you send, people. Because, to rip off one of my favorite 80s cartoons, knowing is half the battle…

Halal Is Not Contagious…

I just received the following e-mail on the subject of the availability of halal foods in American groceries:

I did some shopping at Costco on Saturday. Nothing too special, just
looking to pick up some meat to BBQ. My eldest son was down with his
fiancée from Iowa, so we wanted to have some family time. My wife and I
worked our way past the various displays and only picked up an ice chest
to keep the meat from spoiling on the return trip to Magdalena, (we were
strong willed for a change). We arrived at the refrigerated section and
began the difficult task of choosing our cuts of meat for the family get
together. Right away, I spotted the chicken breasts, they were already
boneless and vacuum sealed. The price was good as it was organic chicken
from Oregon, but then I saw on the sign a note that stopped me cold.

The whole chickens that looked wonderful for the family bar-b-que, just
a moment before, were now an offense to me. Right on the sign were the
words “Certified Halal”.

Halal is the Islamic term that basically means the meat is lawful to eat
for a devout Muslim. What makes it lawful or acceptable is that the meat
has been processed in a very specific way. Now, you may think that this
is no different than meat that is acceptable to the Jewish people or
kosher. Unlike kosher food, where the physical processing of the meat is
the focus, for Islam it is the spiritual component that makes the meat
lawful.

For lawful (halal) meat in Islam, the animal must be killed while the
butcher faces Mecca, and either the butcher cries “Allah Akbar” or a
tape plays the words over a loud speaker. Understand, that when they
face Mecca, they face the black stone, the very definition of idol
worship.

I am glad that Costco is finally telling us plainly that the meat is
halal or sacrificed to an idol, but I have a feeling that this not to
benefit the Christian, but rather the muslim. I will state again that I
have not fear of a lifeless false god, but the book of Acts plainly
tells us that we are not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. The false
religion of Islam continues to make inroads into America as they attempt
to force some of our communities to submit to Sharia law and demand that
halal food be sold in mainstream stores.

I would point out that normally this type of food has been called “
ethnic” food or given a special section like the Chinese food or
whatever. That is not what we see here. This food is being sold with the
standard fair, and one must read the small labels on the back of the
food to find out if it is halal or not.

I believe in freedom of religion. What I am starting to observe,
however, is that one religion (currently the minority) is being given a
wide berth and allowed special status. Those that know their Bible are
not surprised by this.
But it still amazes me that it can (as the Bible
predicted) happen so suddenly and without anyone really taking notice.

Are you scared yet? I am. But not of Muslims. I’m scared of people who perpetuate this sort of message.

Three things. First, halal is no more contagious than kosher is. You will not become an accidental Muslim by not paying enough attention to produce labels at the grocery store. And OF COURSE these labels are for the benefit of Muslims, not Christians. They’re not warning labels, for cryin’ out loud! They’re meant to provide people of the Islamic faith with a way to eat AND devoutly observe their religious beliefs. God forbid! Or should I say Allah? And as for eating meat “sacrificed to idols,” remember when Paul said a Christian could do this in good conscience, as one free from such earthly considerations? Good times…

Second: Note the disclaimer at the beginning of the final paragraph. “I believe in freedom of religion.” No, you don’t–at least, not for anyone but yourself and others like you. Granted, the United States was founded on (nominal) Christian principles, but it was also founded on a belief that all people should be free to worship in whatever way they see fit. If you would like to see this put on paper by the Holy Founders themselves, check out James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance,” or Thomas Jefferson’s famous assertion that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” (Notes on the State of Virginia).

Third: A little self-awareness, please! If you have EVER bemoaned the fact that officially Muslim nations oppress their Christian citizens, how can you begrudge our nation showing any kind of consideration to our Muslim ones? It is contingent upon a country based upon rhetoric like that we use every day (life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, etc., etc., ad nauseam) to extend those articles of civil faith to everyone who calls the United States home. So get over yourselves, buy your meat (go to a different store if you must), and start honoring the Constitution you claim to uphold. Stop running after people driving around in the Declaration of Independence, and try reading it for yourself. And while you’re at it, toss in the Gettysburg Address. This is a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and not all the people will necessarily look just like you. Thank God. And Allah.