The Fire

November 15, 2017

On the night that fire ravaged Santa Rosa, Popie and I were staying at an airport hotel, preparing to leave for Italy the next day. Sleepless, Popie looked at her phone at about 3:00 a.m. Our neighbors were trying to reach us. They had banged on our door and got no response. They wanted us to know that Santa Rosa was burning and they were preparing to evacuate our neighborhood.

We didn’t sleep after that.

We were torn: we hated to cancel our long-planned trip, but at the same time all our thoughts were on home. It was difficult to get a clear picture of the risks, though our neighbors were great about giving updates. Most of them evacuated but a few stayed on. We decided that if our house was still standing when our flight boarded, we would get on it. If our house burned, we would cancel.

We boarded. Our house didn’t burn. We had an extraordinary two weeks in Tuscany, enjoying food, wine, art and history, but always with a corner of our minds on the events in Santa Rosa. Our house survived, but it was a near thing. If the winds had not suddenly died at about 4:00 in the morning the whole town would have gone up in flames, it seems clear now. Our house, less than a mile from the front and a short block from oak grasslands, was certainly highly vulnerable. With uncontrolled fires still burning all over the county, and predictions of more wind, we felt uncertainty all that week, and so did our friends and neighbors.

We were spared, but many of our friends were not. Fifty-one families from our church lost their homes.

We came home to join that. Some impressions:

–Everybody has a story to tell and they want to tell it. Going to church or walking the neighborhood is an invitation to long conversations about people’s experience of that night, about those of family or friends or neighbors, or even about experiences we read in the newspaper. Suddenly we have discovered our kinship with each other. We share a community.

— The scope of the destruction is stunning, especially Coffey Park, which is a suburban tract across a six-lane freeway from the brunt of the fire, and miles from any woodlands. Something like a thousand homes burned in that one dense neighborhood.

–More stunning is how absolute the loss is. When homes are destroyed by fire, flood, tornado or earthquake, there’s usually something left. But these homes are simply gone. Their burned-out cars and washer-dryers are the most prominent structures. Whole neighborhoods look like Hiroshima.

In the past week, the weather has turned, and rain has soaked us. There will be no more fires this season. Though people are still very much in shock, our attention has turned to the long road ahead. How do you rebuild? We had a terrible housing shortage before the fires. Where do all these people live? If they can’t find a place to live, they will surely leave. How would we live without the hundreds of doctors who lost homes? Without the teachers, fire fighters, county staff? Nobody has answers. Rebuilding those homes will take years. It’s unclear how we cope in the meantime.


Simran Found

September 28, 2017

I just learned that Simranjeet was found by family members. Apparently she is okay. I don’t know anything else.

Missing Person

September 27, 2017

A friend in Fresno asked me to post this notice about a friend of hers who has gone missing and was last seen in the Bay Area.

Simranjeet Grover


Student at Fresno Pacific University 2016-2017

Taught Biology at Roosevelt High 2016-2017

Last seen in the Bay area by relatives on August 19, 2017

1997 Mercury Marquis, Lic.3XUJ313, color: light grey

If you have any information, please call Marvin or Mary Friesen 559-860-9229 or Fresno PD detective Leo Arsitio 559-621-2111 (case#17-57765)

Abbie Hoffman and Donald Trump

September 27, 2017

In yesterday’s New York Times David Brooks names our president as the Abbie Hoffman of the right. It’s an interesting comparison. I remember going to hear Hoffman when I was a college student. I recall that the climax of his appearance (with Jerry Rubin?) was jumping on Rubin’s backside and riding him around the stage. I think it was supposed to be Henry Kissinger riding Richard Nixon, or something like that. I didn’t care for the performance–Hoffman offered more insults than ideas–and clearly Hoffman was acting like a clown. But the audience seemed to think it was pretty funny.

When you want to blow up something, you can use insults and clowns. Brooks says that the New Left of the sixties wanted to blow up the WASP establishment, and did. Now, he suggests, the New Right (alt-right?) wants to blow up the meritocratic Ivy League establishment, and has. Brooks suggests we will be searching for a new establishment that all sides can respect.

He’s on to something, I think, and it’s mainly this: Donald Trump isn’t our core problem, any more than Abbie Hoffman was. The problem is that a lot of people think Trump is pretty funny, and are happy to see him blowing up things that others respect.

The comparison between Hoffman and Trump suggests how far down we’ve gone. The New Left may have laughed at Hoffman, but they ran George McGovern for president. (And lost.) McGovern was a sober senator. The New Right ran–and elected!– a president who has the sobriety of a drunk at a New Years party. Imagine Abbie Hoffman elected president, and you have it.

I’m still grappling to understand how anybody could vote for Trump, and what exactly his supporters are protesting. But I need to remember that my parents’ generation felt the same way about us long-haired radicals in the sixties.

We’re a badly divided nation, where neither side appreciates the others’ good points, and neither side thinks the other side’s jokes are funny. Both sides want the other side to just shut up and go away.

Neither side is going anywhere, however; we are stuck with each other.

The Worth of a Man

September 1, 2017

I met Michael Navin when I was assigned as his “coach” at the Redwood Gospel Mission in Santa Rosa, California. That meant meeting with him weekly to talk about his progress in the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program called New Life. Michael was older than most, already in his sixties. He was short, slight and graying, and extremely quiet. Most of the time we met in the copy room, squeezed in next to boxes and office machines.

It was hard to get much information from Michael. He was depressed, and he had reasons to be. He had already been in New Life for over a year, in what is meant to be a 10-month program. To graduate, you have to jump through some hoops, including reciting several memorized passages from the Bible. Every time I raised the question of graduation, Michael said, without elaboration, that he wasn’t ready. That seemed to mean that he couldn’t memorize anything. His brain was fuzzy, and nothing would stick.

Occasionally somebody on staff would ask me about Michael. There was a sense that he was taking up space that somebody else could use to gain sobriety. Nobody pushed Michael, however, and he wasn’t easy to push. He had that gift of silent stubbornness you may remember from Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” He didn’t explain or elaborate. He just said, repeatedly, that he wasn’t ready.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that he was terrified. And why not? What can a man do in his sixties, who has no obvious skills, who is extremely reticent, who has no money, and whose resume for the past year shows that he has been in an alcohol and drug rehab run by a gospel mission? So long as he could stay at the mission, he was safe. If he graduated, his prospects were dire. Michael saw no chance of employment. He did not want to sleep on the sidewalk.

As I got to know him better, I learned that Michael had gone to UCLA on a golf scholarship and played for several years on the PGA tour. Later he worked as a manager overseeing several liquor stores. He had previously been through a long residential program with the Salvation Army, and afterwards had been sober for years. He came from a very strong Christian family, and he was very loyal to and appreciative of his church. Not only did he attend every Sunday, he went to a men’s Bible study. People there knew him well.

Michael had a lot going for him: family, church, education. He was a steady worker. He just couldn’t stay sober.

Then a close friend of mine, Jim Bankson, offered Michael work scanning documents. It paid minimum wage, and most of the men at the mission wouldn’t have lasted a day at it. The tedium would kill them. But I had watched Michael doing the laundry every day. Sheets and towels for thirty guests, plus the regular laundry of the men in New Life–that meant a lot of tedium, but Michael didn’t seem to mind. He kept at it, day after day, and I knew if he could do that, he could feed documents into a scanner.

That job changed Michael’s life. He managed to graduate and after an initial period of adjustment settled down into eight hours a day of scanning. He could listen to his beloved San Francisco Giants on the radio while he worked. He walked a mile to work from the halfway house he moved into. The exercise did him good. His paycheck wasn’t much, but he didn’t have many expenses, either. He was visibly more confident, more communicative and more hopeful.

That went on for a couple of years. After Michael’s mother died in Florida he got a small inheritance that enabled him to buy a used car. We had lunch every week or two, and he wanted to treat me. He became a volunteer driver for a gospel mission program that took homeless people to eat and sleep in local churches. It meant being on the road before 6:00 every morning, but Michael was happy doing it. He was very appreciative of what people had done for him, and he wanted to return the favor.

Then, without warning, he stopped returning my calls. He canceled our lunch plans several times. The halfway house he’d been living in was closing, and Michael wasn’t sure where he could live. He was out of sorts. Jim called me; he was worried.

Michael called me from the hospital. He’d taken a fall and broken his hip. In the fall his phone was damaged; for some reason, my phone number was the only one that survived in the phone’s memory. He sounded quite disoriented. I later found out that he’d been living in a cheap motel that rented rooms by the week. He’d been going to bars because he was lonely and he wanted to meet women. Eventually he fell down drunk outside his motel room, crawled inside, and lay on the floor for three days before he was discovered and taken by ambulance to the hospital. He’d been drinking the whole time, on the floor, to numb the pain.

Fortunately, because of his job, he had health insurance. The doctors operated and he was transferred to a rehab facility. I visited him several times and we talked about what had gone wrong. He regained his cheerfulness and seemed hopeful that he could recover, though he was worried about where he would live. A cousin was working on finding a place. Jim let Michael know that he could come back to work whenever he was physically able. Michael was working at getting out of his wheelchair and learning to navigate life with a walker. His situation seemed hopeful.

Next thing I knew he was dead. His body was discovered in another motel, where he’d evidently drunk himself to death. He’s moved in after leaving another halfway house. He wasn’t in the motel too many days before a clerk tried to rouse him and then called 911.

Michael’s death shook me. It seemed like a terrible waste and a complete failure, and from a certain perspective it was. It didn’t have to end that way. He was given a good chance. People were cheering for him. But somehow he couldn’t manage it. Alcohol and loneliness apparently had too tight a grip on his soul.

As time has passed–six months now–I’ve found my view changing. People have highs and lows, victories and defeats. Michael ended on a very low note, but maybe that’s just an accident of when the music stopped. His death certainly shadows the rest of his life, but it isn’t the final summation.

When I think of him, I remember his little wistful smile, as though he knew a secret joke. I remember his unassuming manner, how humbly he let people into his life. There was good reason why people liked Michael, and why such a surprising number appeared at his memorial service. In all his struggles, he wanted to do right, and your heart went out to him.

Michael’s faith was genuine, if faltering, and I have no doubt that I will see him in the renewal. He was my friend; and so he will be.


A Thorn in the Heart

August 29, 2017

My first novel, published in 1992, has been out of print for ages. (Thanks to Amazon, you can buy a used copy for a penny, plus postage.) Now I’ve published it as a Kindle book, both paperback and ebook, so it will be preserved for the ages. That’s assuming that Amazon is for the ages, which at the moment seems as good a bet as any.

A Thorn in the Heart never got much of a chance in the marketplace. I used the word “penis” and that was too raw for some of the more refined gatekeepers in the Christian book industry. Zondervan, the publisher, was soon eager for the book to be forgotten. They got their wish.

It’s a mystery thriller set in a Sierra mountain town, and if I do say so myself has some terrific descriptions of backpacking. There’s also a lot of family drama, based on the disappearance of four developmentally delayed boys in a snowstorm. I don’t think anybody today will find it terribly titillating. I believe I’ve become a much better novelist since I wrote it, but I retain a fond spot in my heart for A Thorn in the Heart and hope others will enjoy it.

When I graduated from college, all I really hoped to do was to write fiction. Journalism came in the way, and I’ve always been grateful. Working for magazines I paid the bills, learned my craft, and had unimaginable fun. But I’ve never completely given up on fiction, and slowly but surely I’ve been able to build a decent list. (See my Fiction page for the details.) I’m currently hard at work on my sixth and seventh novels. I’m very grateful to have the chance to keep at it! And I still hope that one day I’ll write something that will stun everybody because it’s so good.

Memories of Max Dunn           

August 23, 2017

My friend and role model Max Dunn died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. I had seen him a short time before, when he was in excruciating pain. He needed a hip replacement, but his doctors were unenthusiastic about operating on a man of his age. Max, characteristically, had no doubt. He had things to do and he needed a good hip to do them. He talked the doctors into doing the surgery, which went extremely well. He was jubilant, his family says, and two days later was ready to go home when he suddenly stopped breathing.

A very capable man, Max had worked as an executive for a big department store chain. He also served on the organizing committee for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. After his retirement he did a master’s degree in world mission at Fuller Seminary, then traveled all over the world in a wide variety of missions. (He worked with a good friend of mine in Kenya.)

In the small town of Healdsburg Max joined the board of a struggling medical clinic serving farm workers. Pretty soon Max was the CEO. He built that clinic into one of the largest medical providers in our area.

Max was good-looking, athletic, and friendly. He loved tennis, bridge, and ringing the Salvation Army bell (and getting others from his Rotary Club to do it). But when I met him, what Max most loved to do—passionately—was to visit men at the local Salvation Army drug and alcohol rehab program. He went nearly every day, meeting individually with men and teaching an anger management class. It was Max’s enthusiasm that moved me to begin volunteering at Santa Rosa’s Redwood Gospel Mission, in a program similar to the Salvation Army’s.

As much as I admired Max’s capability, I admired his friendliness more. He really loved those men, which is saying something. By the time somebody gets to a free, residential, long-term rehab program, they have usually burned every last bridge to family and friends. Many if not most have been in and out of jail and prison. They have little education and many tattoos.

In short, they tend to be quite different from the people Max met at Rotary. I don’t know whether Max really noticed. Even when he was in terrible pain, he wanted to be at the Salvation Army more than anywhere.

I did wonder how Max became so indiscriminate in his friendliness. It really was unusual. His peers in business, the men he met at Rotary, were willing to help out in good causes, but they didn’t choose to hang out with addicts. Max did. I’m sure that some of that generosity came through his family upbringing, and some came through the genes that he inherited. The primary influence, I’m thinking, came in his middle years when he and his wife Carolyn were drawn into the Episcopal charismatic renewal.

It was hard to get Max to tell stories about the past, because he was far more interested in the present. But when I got him to talk about those years when he was introduced to the renewal, he glowed. Thirty or forty years later, it still excited him. He said it was when his life changed. He would have liked to live in that excitement forever.

That renewal emphasized, more than anything, that Jesus is alive and active through the Holy Spirit. For people like Max, that turned faith from a list of beliefs to an experience—an experience of Jesus.

That explains, I think, why Max liked everybody. If you want to see somebody who talked to everybody, helped everybody, believed in everybody, but especially the poor and the desperate, that would be Jesus. I think Max learned it from him.





The Smartphone Generation

August 11, 2017

If you have anything to do with people teen-aged or younger, you should read Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generationby Jean M. Twenge.

When I told my son Chase about it (he has two little boys), he asked whether it was another of those old-fogey articles about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

“Kinda,” I said. The thing is, it seems genuinely scholarly, full of cautionary statistics and studies. (I’d love to read a critique from other social scientists. Knowing The Atlantic, where it was published, I’m sure we’ll get one.)

Twenge says that she has studied generational change for decades, and usually the changes are subtle and gradual. In this case, she says the changes are mountainous and dramatic. She makes the point that the post-millennials are the first generation native to smartphones. They have never known anything else. Smartphones are not an addition to their reality, they are part of reality.

She offers a lot of detailed info, and I won’t try to summarize it. I will say that there is a very strong correlation between smartphone use and depression. The more kids use smartphones, the more likely they are to be unhappy. Of course, suicide goes with that. The post-millennials are also much more prone to rely on their parents, Twenge says (which may look very positive to those parents), but are slower to grow up and much less independent than previous generations. They have fewer friends, much less social interaction in person, and are often lonely. Rather than going to the mall or the skating rink like previous generations, they stay in their room with their phones.

Most young parents I know are trying to limit screen time for their kids. Alarm bells go off when they see how addictive devices are for kids at a very young age. Even if they’re not exactly sure what the harm is, it’s not hard to guess that this can’t be good. Twenge’s article will fill in the background, and make the matter much more urgent.

Trump’s Support

August 11, 2017

I mostly quit blogging after last year’s election, because I realized that all I was going to do was fulminate. In the nine months since, I’ve tried to listen carefully to Trump supporters, and to read anything I could find explaining their motives. I don’t want to moan, I want to understand.

I haven’t heard anybody claim that our president is a good man. Not even his most ardent defenders say they want their children to grow up like him. They voted for him knowing his character, since he makes no attempt to hide it.

They don’t necessarily approve of his character, but other powerful forces motivate them to support him. I’ve tried to understand what those forces are. I’ve been particularly interested in evangelical Christians, the heart of his support. They have always been very interested in morality—passionately so–but suddenly they don’t care about morality at all. What is driving that?

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Certain issues are very potent for Trump supporters. Most of them are non-economic. They are more emotional and cultural. Among these issues are:

–immigration and the ethnic and religious makeup of America

–gun control

–LGBTQ and their rights


–land regulations

–minorities getting “special treatment”

These are all significant issues. If we were simply discussing policy choices, we could probably find room for discussion and compromise on most of these. But as they have all become highly emotive cultural symbols, they easily become litmus tests. (This is as true on the left as the right, of course.)

Emotions are fueled by a deep distrust and dislike of Democrats. It’s not just the what, it’s the who. Hilary Clinton became the epitome of this mistrust: she was deeply and viscerally disliked. Some of this was no doubt because she had been targeted by relentless Republican propaganda for 30 years. But some of it was because she lacked the charisma to escape the generic dislike of her party. Among a large share of the American public—30%? 40%?—it’s axiomatic. Democrats are faceless, careless, lying politicians. Everything they say should be regarded with deep suspicion. The party is owned by gays, minorities, feminists—that’s all they care about, not you. (Many people have similar feelings about Republicans. For “gays, minorities, feminists,” substitute “rich people.”)

Nostalgia and resentment are fueled by the pace of change. Conservatism has always featured a measure of the old-fogey complaint that the world is going to the dogs. That’s been ramped up by a world in which change has accelerated. Who could believe how quickly gay marriage triumphed, and marijuana was legalized? Churches are shrinking, whites are becoming a minority, America can’t impose its will on the world. Rural whites have become the leading victims (and perpetrators) of drug addiction; who saw this coming? Naturally many people are unsettled by such change. They don’t believe all this change is inevitable progress, and they want somebody to stand up and say so. If that person says it rudely, good. Maybe somebody will listen.

Condescension turns resentment into rage. One friend described the feeling of being lectured about gay rights by people who less than five years ago publicly opposed gay marriage. Ah, the convictions of the newly converted! Look at the list of issues I listed. Can you hear the scornful and lecturing tone often employed by liberals when discussing these? Of course, I’d say an even more hostile tone is employed by the right wing, but that’s not what I’m discussing here. I’m trying to probe why people support Trump. One reason is that they want to give the middle finger to people who condescend to them.

The book Hillbilly Elegy paints a portrait of an ethno-cultural group that is a mainstay of Trump support: an Appalachian Scots-Irish heritage that is closely bound to family and clan, but frequently unable to sustain family values like marriage and sobriety. They are proud people. Their lives may be deeply troubled, but they won’t stand for anything that sounds like criticism. I’d say Trump has been a champion for such people, as for lots of others who can’t stand being told what they can think and what they can say.

If my description is accurate, it’s not going to be easy to undo our current polarization. Most people say they want our politicians to work together and compromise to get things done, but these issues and the emotions that accompany them dominate our politics. Based on what I’ve heard, there’s no substance to the argument that Democrats only have to offer some clear economic appeal to regain the allegiance of the middle class/rural white/working man (pick one). Nor do I think that Trump himself is the key issue. Once he goes away or loses sway, these powerful feelings will remain. Trump is a catalyst, but the emotional chemicals that drove the reaction will remain.

That’s what I worry about most: that we get through the next four years but find ourselves unable to escape the dynamics that elected Trump. I think we need—all of us, on all sides—to rediscover how to talk about ourselves as Americans. We need to find a way of thinking and acting that can name our common and distinctive identity. Call it patriotism. Both sides have been complicit in losing sight of this. Republicans have been strong on waving the flag, but often with the aim of casting anyone who doesn’t agree with them as un-American. Democrats have fallen right into this trap. I was struck by the critique of the choice of speakers at the women’s march, right after the election. How many police or military veterans spoke? How many fire chiefs? How many clergy? How many school board presidents? In our local event, the speakers were all liberal politicians and activists fighting for some group. Fine, but did anybody speak for all Americans? Did we sing the national anthem?

What binds us all together?—gays, hillbillies, immigrants, software whizzes, school teachers, farmers, Hollywood producers, disabled veterans, opioid addicts, Christians, Jews, Muslims. Surely if we read the Constitution very carefully we can rediscover some ideas of what a remarkable nation “we the people” hoped to make. We won’t all agree on the issues. Our forefathers didn’t. But at least we would be arguing toward common ground, not toward cutting off “the takers” or “the deplorables,” as though they were a diseased limb.

Refugee Test Case    

March 7, 2017

President Trump’s ban on refugees entering the US promises to be temporary, and I hope that turns out to be the case. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable and pitiable people on earth. Just over a year ago I was in Europe, interviewing scores of them. Their vulnerability will never leave me.

But how to treat them? This is one issue where the Bible is clear–not as to precise policy, perhaps, but certainly as to its general direction.

In ancient Israel, foreigners were a constant presence. This was not an age of walled borders or stamped passports. Foreigners found themselves in Israel because of economic opportunity—there was always international commerce—and as refugees from war and famine. Israel, preoccupied with threats to its survival, and concerned for a distinctive identity as God’s people, had an important choice: how would they treat foreigners? Would they see them as a threat? Or would they welcome them?

The Law makes it very clear:

Lev 19:10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Deut 26:12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

The welfare system included foreigners. Gleaning was not charity. It was legally mandated, embracing almost the entire productive economy. In addition the tithe was a 10% tax over the entire productive economy, directed to help those who could not participate in the economy (Levites) and those who were poor and vulnerable (widows and orphans and foreigners).

Lev 19:34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Foreigners were to be treated the same as citizens, and with love.

Lev 24:22 You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’

Numbers 15:15 The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord.

Laws and rules must not distinguish between citizens and foreigners. Foreigners have the same rights as do citizens.

Deut 10:18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.

It’s well known that God is on the side of the defenseless poor. He is equally on the side of the foreigner, caring for their material needs.

Deut 24:14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.

How do our farms and factories live up to that?

Deut 27:19 “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Why should Israel treat foreigners so benevolently? The answer is consistent: because you were foreigners in Egypt. The treatment of refugees is a test case for empathy. Can you feel for others the way you feel for yourself?

Our treatment of foreigners is also a test case for America. History tells us that America has welcomed millions. It also tells us that episodes of fear and prejudice have caused us to exclude millions. (Most dreadfully, Jewish children were sent back to Nazi Germany just before WWII began.) What kind of people will our generation be? We are being tried.