Wednesday, March 22, 2006


For some reason the trip started out seeming curiously unreal, as though nothing was out of the ordinary and I wouldn't be thousands of miles from home by the end of the day. Do this, go there, nothing strange.

I flew American Airlines this time, and they were able to check my bag all the way to Geneva. That helps a lot. And American boards passengers in groups, which is a huge improvement over the Air France free-for-all scrimmage. Though it would make a lot better sense to board special passengers first, and then board in groups from the back of the airplane. I sat by a Tennessee lady returning home from a "Pampered Chef" sales getogether. She said the mechanics were required to fly on the plane they just fixed.

O'Hare was nice and dull. Duty free shops don't hold a lot of attraction for me. I kept reading Dogs of God (of which more anon) until boarding call. A seat was broken, so one woman had to take a special seat. Which was odd, since the one next to me was empty. Unfortunately, having the empty seat didn't help with stretching out. The armrests are too low, and having my arms hang interferes with sleep. As does the roar. The tune stuck in my head didn't help: of all the chilling songs to go through a parent's head If He Walked into My Life from Auntie Mame must rank as one of the worst.

American lost no opportunity to make sales for extras: duty-free 'goods' in their catalog or booze at $5 per bottle. The middle of each block of three seats had a phone you could call from at any time: just swipe your credit card.

Movies on the big screen--no choices. The CBS evening lineup takes a lot less time without commercials, and would probably have been equally good with the sound on. Something called Taxi involved the most amazing mumming and writhing on the part of what must have been the dispatch man. Chaplin he isn't: without the sound you can't tell anything. Then Pride and Prejudice, which I'd recently seen (good movie, but I was still trying to see if sleep was possible), and something called Best of Show about dog shows. Odd. Maybe if I kept my eyes open more often I'd have figured out what was going on.

Then of course the sun came up like thunder, reflected off the clouds. I'm not sure why the airlines consider yogurt to be a food, much less a breakfast food. I tried it, but found no reason to discard my old notions.

I can't say much about the Brussels airport, except that you have to walk for quite a while down some very dull corridors. Geneva was foggy, so the incoming plane was late and I got to watch a four-year-old making like an airplane and a bunch of grumpy business-types complaining loud and long on cell phones. The flight was only 2/3 full; every other seat was empty. My row-mate was a woman with an attractive face but oddly long and bloodless fingers--who read short sections of English and Flemish newspapers. She never seemed to finish anything, from the newspapers to the "meal."

I was in the last row, and my bag was about the last item left on the carousel. Out through the "nothing to declare" gate, and now to find the bus stop. Back and forth among the taxis; a sign here and a sign there but nothing I remember at all. Light dawns: this is the lower level.

With my bags I took up an unconscionable amount of room, which I was truly sorry for as the hinged bus fills up and a lad with a cast needs to find a seat. Bouchet is my stop, where it turns out the stop lights are out and work crews escort people across the street. I picked the wrong intersection, and missed my bus. No matter, another would be along in 12 minutes. And so it was. The whole area was loaded with children--I guess school lets out at 14:00 hereabouts. Some high-school-ages boys tried to see if a roll of plastic will trail behind the bus as it unrolls (it doesn't; it pulls free and falls behind) and left us with a string of firecrackers in one of the metal trash bins when they exit.

The buses are hinged in the middle. They stop at every stop (the motor turns off!), and if you want out from your section you push the button on the stantion. If you want in, you push the button by the door (there are 2 double-wide doors per bus section). Actually there are two buttons: one is marked with a stroller, and I suppose holds the door longer. You buy a ticket at the ticket machine, and nobody normally checks whether you have one or not--but sometimes an inspector is on the bus, and I understand the fine is substantial if you are riding without one.

My CERN badge didn't fit in my pocket, so I wore it all the way from Madison. The guard at the gate looked at it as I went by 10 feet away, and I was in--now to find the hostel and room and park my bags.

Of course there was a message stapled to my paperwork--a nice way to get in touch with people when you don't know their arrival. I dumped my bags in my room (5'th floor corner--it got pretty cold that night), and went off to change some money and get the laptop working in DHCP mode again. And then the day's work started.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Thud by Terry Pratchett

This is another of Pratchett's Diskworld series, about Vimes and justice again. Those who know what I'm talking about will understand; and those who don't should start with a different book in the series.

He's done better, and done worse. It hasn't as many of his characteristic offbeat asides, and he could have done without the pole-dancer character: she is only moderately amusing and the scenes don't fit well with the rest of the book. Perhaps he wanted to try to integrate Sally into the force quickly and needed a hen party to do it? The denoument has a couple of major plot-holes (dwarves paralyzed with fear at a berzerker's approach? And how did the ancients know any relics would survive?).

Still, he keeps the story flowing along pretty well, links the pieces of the mystery together nicely, and writes well.

What's So Amazing about Grace? by Phillip Yancey

Go read it.

Yancey's theme is grace. What is unique about Christianity among all religions? Grace. What breaks cycles of violence and bitterness? Grace.

The book is a plea for Christians to remember reaching out with grace and worry less about hedging themselves about with protective rules to keep sinners away. And he brings up example after example of grace in action and what happens when “ungrace” abounds.

He describes his own childhood, growing up racist. We all like to think we're independent, but I sometimes wonder what I would have been like if I'd grown up in an environment like his. And he describes the legalism of his Bible college years (not that the rules were bad but that they were an end in themselves). And he writes of what he sees now. He tells the story of Will Campbell, who became a kind of “missionary to the rednecks” when his friend was murdered by a racist, and of “Big Harold,” a kindly stand-in father when Yancey's own father died—and what became of him as he tried to live out a legalist life.

Grace is not just a response to repentance; it can be a call to repentance. Forgiving the undeserving and unrepentant can be grace. And of course if God can't forgive Stalin, God can't forgive anybody. It doesn't help to think about all the horrors someone has committed. They are not beyond God's grace—if they want it.

Our small group has been studying Romans, so I've been thinking a bit about the law. Paul said, and common sense affirms, that law is prior to grace.

In fact, in the sort of culture I find myself in, the law is good news: the world actually has some meaning and structure to it. Of course the good news is accompanied by the bad news that we've broken the law of God and broken ourselves on that law.

Fortunately it isn't necessary to have received the full clear revelation of the Law of God to experience grace—because as Paul notes, the image of that law, however maimed, is built into us. We already know enough of the law of God to condemn ourselves. And so we can know what grace is when God or man shows it to us.

One minor nitpick: Yancey quotes the results of a study that showed that Christians are just like everybody else in society—maybe even more likely to divorce than average. The book is from 1997, and the study has since been reanalyzed more carefully, adjusting for economic class (divorce rates are higher among the poor and the rich are less likely to be Christian) and using self-reported church attendance rates rather than self-identification as “born-again.” The new analysis reversed the original conclusion: active “Christians” are less likely to get into trouble, divorce, and so on than their peers.

Monday, March 13, 2006


"There was an old lady who swallowed a spider
that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside 'er."

Ok, a stent from the bladder to the kidney doesn't wriggle or jiggle much. But it lets you know its there.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Kidney stones

I've been a bit quiet lately. Well, moaning and groaning some, but quietly. I had a nice long visit to ER, a followup the next day to a Urologist, and then a "procedure" today: laser lithotripsy. I can't complain: compared to the kidney stones the soreness left behind is minor (seems urine is alkaline, and so all too frequently I wind up singing soprano).

The hospital is very careful--lots of low-tech (read "reliable") crosschecks to make sure that the right patient gets all the right steps done and gets operated on on the correct side. I had to give my birthdate a dozen times. A nurse said that yesterday the father of a 4-year-old went ape when the nurses kept asking the same question over and over again. But its such an easy safety check...

The urologist was very good--I'd never had somebody lay out a CAT scan before and explain it.

Sunday Nite

Funny how fame goes. Sunday Nite was a Christian variety show, modeled loosely after Prairie Home Companion, created by Richard K. Allison. It ran for several years out of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and was broadcast nationwide. Their most famous drama team was The Refreshment Committee, who put together some really good sketches. (It since morphed into another name, TCS, and then maybe out of existence completely--hard to say). Google for Sunday Nite. Deja for it. Not much, is there? I guess their teams didn't include computer geeks who'd have documented it for the web, and after Richard died they went their separate ways with no great interest in recording what they used to do. I'll bet there's a lot of material available in St. Paul and at Bethany, but not that the rest of us can get at easily. So by the new standards, the show wasn't famous--or it would have had Google listings.

Friday, March 03, 2006


Youngest son had an orchestra concert Thursday. Sixth grade had two orchestras, and his was up first. They played two rhythmically complex pieces about as well as you’d expect new students to play.

I was disappointed at first. I couldn’t see him on stage at all, and wondered if something had gone wrong. But as they filed offstage I saw him, sandwiched in between far taller students. He was unmistakable as he walked off stage with his clarinet held high like a drum major’s baton.