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Archive for August, 2009

Monday, August 31, 2009

Greg did well enough in school.  But when he was a college student, a nursing major, he did not have much focus beyond that.  He had no apparent sense of purpose, other than an impossible plan to climb a towering mountain.

The son of Lutheran missionaries in Africa, he did not have much time for capitalist ambitions.  He was nearly always broke.  Something of a loner, he had little time for campus connection, considering the sports and glamour and popularity culture frivolous.  Mountain climbing.  The out of doors.  These were his obsessions.  He did not speak a great deal about his family.  His father succumbed to cancer too soon.  And his sister, disabled with learning challenges and the onset of menacing, unscheduled seizures, well, she also died too soon.  If you knew Greg, you might come to the conclusion that his interest in medicine came from his affection for a sister who suffered much.

There was a sweetness in the unselfish, low key Mortenson family that you might miss, unless you sat Greg down and grilled him with perceptive questions.  You would have learned about his father’s unheralded accomplishment in Tanzania.  People there in Africa will never forget.  But the folks back in Minnesota who sent him to the field and then lost track of him when he came home with a needy daughter never understood how he managed to start the first medical school in that developing nation.  The school his father built is today the largest and finest healthcare training center in the whole region.  It is the primary provider of physicians and surgeons and med techs and nurses for Tanzania and beyond.  But Greg knew.  He was proud of his father’s achievement.  As a student, he lived for long periods out of the back of his car.

Now, twenty-five years after college graduation, Greg Mortenson has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.  The accolades he has received, from honorary doctorates to awards from colleges and relief agencies and educators from all over the world, is a stunning collection, indeed.  He is an unlikely hero.

How he got from a starving, obscure student to a highly recognized advocate for education in neglected parts of the world is the essence of his book, Three Cups of Tea, a hands down favorite on the New York Times bestseller list.  When Greg attempted to climb the second highest peak in the world next to Mount Everest, K2, stretching between Pakistan and China, he failed.  The climb nearly killed him.  In a small high altitude village at the foot of the massive granite mountain, kindly, patient villagers nursed him to health.  As he gained strength, he noticed that the children studied their lessons in an open field, in the wind and direct, searing sunlight.  Weather dictated the assembling of these students and their teachers; often foreboding clouds signaled no class on any given day.  Mortenson made a promise to his benefactors.  He would to do what he could to build a school building in their town.  No one took him seriously, even though they bowed gratefully at the sentiment.

To everyone’s surprise, he kept that promise.  How a visionary young nursing student went on to build hundreds of schools all over Central Asia in impossible circumstances is a compelling story.  It is a living, breathing example of how vision mobilizes and transforms.  The book will challenge many assumptions.  At the outset, Mortenson had no idea that his schools would be built in the same neighborhood as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

Mortenson’s tenacity is inspiring, and reminiscent of the players I’ve come to know in our Global Freedom movement.  The plight of children in the war zones of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where opium war lords rule with loaded guns and iron rods is eerily similar to the plight of Dalit children in India.  Untouchables in India.  Unreachables in Pakistan.  Without education, things remain the same – unless someone reaches out and overcomes the odds.

Mortenson’s story reminded me of the heroes I am getting to know who sacrifice to build those schools in India that defy more than three thousand years of intentional banishment.  The results are equally dramatic.  Mortenson’s schools have changed the course of history in a region that would otherwise know only wars and thuggery, exploitation and oppression.

But now, there is hope.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Ready Access to Heaven

Monday, August 24, 2009

Some family stories become folklore.  Legend.  This will be one of them.  Truth can be stranger than fiction.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Ordinary days become locked in time.  Coincidences become appointments.  Grandma Elaine tells the story.  But apart from a last minute child-care assignment, a prayer meeting called by minors, a cell phone, an alert neighbor, and a wonder drug, the eighty two year old woman would have had her last conversation on July 17 of this year.

The two moms, also sisters, often collaborate.  The cousins spend a lot of time together, and it is convenient that Stephanie Mechem and Pam Ellis’s mother lives the next town over.  They call on her often to watch the children on any given day.  But this day would be anything but ordinary.

As Blake (8), Sara (8) and Ireland (5) chatted with their grandmother, Elaine laughed and teased like always.  Stephanie and Pam ran their errands.  It was nearly suppertime when Grandma Elaine, seated on the couch, stopped talking.  She sat, semi-conscious, immobile as the three children played.

“Grandma!” called Blake.  No reply.  Eyes open, she stared into nothingness.

“Grandma!” Sara repeated.  Still nothing.  “Wake up!”  No response.

Frightened, the children began to cry.  It was Ireland, the youngest, who said, “We need to pray.”

So the three of them left grandma for a few moments and went into the bedroom where, shaking with fear, through their tears, they held hands and addressed the living God.  They prayed for their grandmother.  They asked God to help them to know what to do.  They hugged on each other.  Cousins with a task ahead.  A role to play.  A mission.

That’s when they moved into action.

“We’ve got to call 9-1-1,” Blake said.

Later, Grandma Elaine said that all the while, she was conscious of the children.  She heard them calling to her.  She tried to reply.  She could not.  She heard them pray.  It was a severe stroke.  It paralyzed her body and her face.  Though the children could not tell, she could see.  She could hear.  As she witnessed their response, helpless, motionless on the couch, she was filled with emotion.  But it had nowhere to go.  The only evidence was a tear falling from her vacant eye.

Young Blake dialed the number.  The attendant responded skillfully.  Later, Sara’s dad, Dave Mechem, would hear the recording of the call at the Fire Station.  “It was incredible,” he said.  Because it was a mobile phone, the emergency officer could not trace it.  Blake and Sara needed to find a way to explain how to find Grandma’s apartment.  Blake ran down the hall with a key to the mailbox, hoping to find a letter with the address.  A neighbor noticed the panic stricken boy, and asked if he could help.  Soon he was on the line, and the medics appeared within minutes.

It is a three-hour window for stroke victims.  The medics had Grandma Elaine in the emergency room well within that time frame, and administered the powerful drug that broke up the clots and restored circulation in her brain, soon enough that within a day or two, after lots more prayer from family and friends who were alerted near and far, she was speaking clearly and laughing with her arms around the children who did the right thing.

It is a sweet picture in my mind, three young children hanging on to each other in Grandma’s bedroom, shaking with fear and little five year old Ireland calling for prayer with their grandmother helpless in the next room listening in.

The reunion caught the attention of the hospital staff, and then the media.  The story has been highlighted in print and on television.

It has been a bright light witness to family and good parenting and ready access to heaven.

The on-duty nurse said it straight.  If grandma had been home alone that day, she would have gone for hours unnoticed.  The tests indicated that the stroke was massive.  It would have either resulted in her death or taken her capacity for speech and mobility away for the rest of her life.

The paper quoted little Ireland.  “We prayed to God.  We prayed to Grandpa, too.  We asked them to make sure that Grandma would be OK.”

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

Interview with the children

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Wild Blackberries

Monday, August 10, 2009

I am married to the kind of woman who finds particular delight in nature; it is berry-picking time and somewhere deep in her sense of seasonal rhythm is this critical moment when fruit ripens on the vine or bush, waiting for someone to notice.  She does.  Every year.

Frankly, this intuitive awareness is not something I share.  I would have a hard time telling you which month it is when strawberries are expected to appear at the roadside stand; without Wikipedia handy I can only shrug.  You would think I would know; our Southern California strawberries are the world’s best.  Every year we buy a bunch.  Apparently, I do not file these sorts of things very well into the database of my own memory.  As many times as I may hear the particulars repeated, I still have trouble calling up due dates and birthdates and birth years.  But Carolyn does, with ease.  Her response time to these questions is nearly instantaneous.  It’s remarkable.  She not only remembers the precise date, but generally she’ll call up some interesting incident associated with it that I’ve long forgotten.

It is one of the many reasons I am lost without her.

When Carolyn suggests we go for a walk, I am not as inclined as she is to embrace the joy that it will bring, even though it always does.  This is another thing she knows by instinct.  But I can be thickheaded on the point.  The thought of leaving some task or whatever sedentary obligation stands in the way – either one becomes a barrier I must overcome (sometimes by her coaxing).

Usually though, she seems fine if I turn down the offer.  I decline.  She prepares to leave without me.  There is no evident sense of loss.  She fixes the iPod buds into her ears.  I am the one who sits there with the sense of loss.  Just in time, I’ll put aside whatever it was I thought was more important, and get myself ready to go.  She seems to know that’s the way it works with me.

I tend to explain all of this as Mars versus Venus.  There are, I’m told, distinct male and female ways of processing information.  But then again, it may simply be the onset of dementia.  Time will tell.

In a remote, open dry lakebed in the next town over, there grows a colossal wild blackberry patch.  We are regulars over there, especially this time of year when blackberries ripen.  Carolyn suggested we all go over there this weekend.  I declined as usual.  As everyone got ready to go without me, I changed my mind.

Our four-year-old grandson and his parents came along, with two-week-old Quinn tucked into a snuggly on her daddy’s chest.  All of us carried a chromed bowl from the kitchen, and we found a spot where black, ripe berries waited and we started to pick.  It wasn’t long before Emerson got caught in the thorns in the thicket and scratched his little ankle.  “Picking berries isn’t easy,” grandma explained.  “These are battle wounds,” I offered, and then I showed him mine.  Blackberry bushes are nasty.  You’ve got to learn to navigate around the prickles, Grandma added.

Emerson seemed to get it.  And not long afterwards, we were all laughing again and the conversation got good.  There was an occasional, “Ouch!”  I don’t know if it was the warm sunshine or the sticky blackberry juice dripping off our fingers or the sweet scent in the air or maybe the dangers of thorns surrounding us on all sides but it all came together, just like Carolyn knew it would.  We stayed and picked for a long time.  Riders on horseback greeted us from above.

“Look at mine, Grandpa!” Emerson said as he held his bowl full of berries up for me to see.  “Wow!” I said, like any Grandpa would.

Soon the metal bowls were filled up and we headed back to the car, and off to the kitchen where Grandma had made a thick, crumb pie shell with butter.  She whipped up a blackberry glaze, washed the new, fresh berries in cold, clear water and put together a pie several inches thick.

Emerson watched every move in amazement.  He seemed to make the connection, between the thorny berry patch and Grandma’s kitchen.  It filled him with the wonder little boys know when discovery breaks through.

If it was up to me, we would have jumped in the car for the asphalt parking lot at the air conditioned Fresh n’ Easy and picked up a couple cartons of blackberries out of the cooler and passed them over the bar code reader at the self-check out and run my debit card through the slot.  Ten minutes flat.  Round trip.  No sweat.  If not Fresh n’ Easy, then over to Marie Callender’s instead for the finished product; in a cardboard box and disposable tin.

But thankfully, it wasn’t up to me.

As we nursed Emerson’s scratch out there on by the shade tree where no one bothers to trim the wild thick bush, and poured some of our cool bottled water over the wound, Grandma said, “The pie tastes better when you pick the berries yourself.”

Through his tears, Emerson nodded, doing his best to agree with his grandmother.

But that night, after dinner, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream on a big old slab of fresh blackberry pie, it turns out that Grandma was right.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

A good friend of mine, a fellow pastor-type and bicycle enthusiast, got me going on the Tour de France this summer.  I’ve been riding my bike for a lot of years, and one would think that I would have the Tour pretty much on my annual radar screen.  It’s taken me this long.  Now, thanks to Versus High Definition, I’m hooked.

They call it the single most grueling sporting event on the Planet.  I think it’s a big deal to ride a “Century” (one hundred miles).  I’ve got one on my calendar for next month.  But think of it: twenty-one individual days of riding, for a cumulative two-thousand two hundred miles through some of the most spectacular, muscle cramping, bone crunching, mind bending, heart breaking country-side on the globe.  In years past, I think I was confused by all the complicated team competition; the yellow jersey, green jersey, even red on white polka-dot jersey.  I knew that Lance Armstrong was a cancer survivor and one of the rare Americans to not only contend, but win a string of victories.  I also knew that there has been considerable discussion about doping in the sport, and that the French were quick to suggest that Armstrong depended on illegal substances, mainly because no one thought it possible to perform anywhere close to that level post-chemo.

Maybe it was the pure exhilaration of the stunning high definition scenes from a helicopter following the winding roads up the French Alps through charming villages and broad green meadows and jagged peaks and patches of snow and imagining, just imagining, a human body prepared for such an extreme challenge.  Maybe it was the streets lined with supporters all cheering the cyclists on up the hill; or the camera angle from the back of a motorcycle riding alongside the high performance bikes.  Maybe it was the head to head competition between two teammates: a Spaniard, young and powerful and brash, against an aging American, old and powerful and formerly brash.  Maybe it was the capacity to record each four-hour stage on a digital video recorder, and then speed through enough of it to get a sense of how this event unfolds.  I was a couple weeks in before I latched on, but that was enough.

The race built to a crescendo when at Stage 20, the riders take on a one hundred fourteen mile ride, the last thirteen miles of which is a steep climb up Mont Ventoux.  The uphill does not end until the finish line.  By this next to the last stage, the Spaniard, Alberto Contador (age twenty-seven) had established his place as the overall leader.  (In a unilateral and controversial move, he broke from the team’s strategy and attacked early to secure an early, insurmountable lead.)  But the question on everyone’s mind was this: could Lance Armstrong, after a three year absence from the race, at the ripe old age of thirty-seven, maintain his position at third place, and get him on the coveted podium in Paris the next day?

Apparently, all of Europe wondered, too.  Seems they all showed up along the course to see.  Those who were not there sat in front of their television sets, along with an unprecedented number of North Americans.  And as the riders hammered up the hill after a punishing first hundred miles, Lance did not disappoint.  Even a concerted, powerful effort by the Schleck brothers from Luxembourg, after a surprisingly strong race, could not edge Armstrong out.  Lance drew on something super-human, and rode the race of the year up the impossible mountain to the finish line at six-thousand two hundred and seventy three feet elevation.  Above the tree line.

Before this year, I was completely unaware that the final stage of the Tour de France is anything but a formal part of the race.  It’s a party.  It’s been the tradition since the first race in 1902.  The one hundred and two mile stage starts at Montereau-Fault-Yonne, ends on the streets of Paris. Along the way, riders chat and laugh, especially Armstrong, and they sip champagne handed to them by admiring onlookers, enjoying the spectacular countryside and on into the City of Light.  The route goes along the River Seine past the great Notre Dame Cathedral and into Paris.  Thousands of spectators welcome the riders, now worn from well over two thousand arduous miles (three thousand four hundred fifty nine kilometers), honed to optimum conditioning.  After three weeks, the riders have zero body fat.  They are now pedaling machines, all systems geared for low-level human powered flight.  Their wind swept helmets and designer wraparound sunglasses in matching colors give them the look of speed.  And now comes the finish.  Ten laps around a closed off Champs-Élysées up toward the Arc de Triomph as the crowd roars its approval.

The last sprint provides the final moment of drama.  Someone will win the coveted Stage 21.  But the real prize is the Yellow Jersey, the overall winner of the Tour de France.  This year, it went to the Spaniard, Alberto Contador; his second win.  Armstrong, who has won more tours than anyone in the hundred-year history of the race – seven – stood beneath Cantador on the podium claiming Third.

I’m learning more about this Texan who is now credited with attracting the massive crowds; Lance Armstrong – the cancer survivor; the man who has mellowed with age, like a fine Bordeaux, I suppose.  I downloaded the audio version of his 2001 book, “It’s Not About the Bike.” His personal life has been tumultuous.  His childhood, full of conflict and disappointment. He is very close to his mother, who raised him with tenacity and courage.  His biological father vanished.  His first stepfather was a church going man who somehow believed he had biblical authority to abuse his family (I hate it when that happens).  Lance is cynical about religion.  He’s had difficulty sticking with some of the amazing women he’s become attached to.

But I did not know how serious that cancer was ten years ago.  It would have killed most people.  Now, he says, he lives for something bigger than himself.  He’s still convinced – it’s not about the bike.  He is a friend of cancer victims.  He encourages them to Live Strong (the name of his foundation).

And next year, a rematch is brewing.  Headlines are already pulsating.  The young Contador versus the Old Man of the Tour.  It is going to be big.

I’ll have my high definition receiver tuned in.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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