Thursday, February 22, 2007

Soot on the Porch

A good portion of my childhood was spent in the Plan 12 section of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Aliquippa was the conglomeration of three separate small towns, including a company town built by the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company ("J & L") to support its' massive Aliquippa Works.
Ours was probably the only family in the neighborhood where neither Mom or Dad worked in "The Mill", although most of my older relatives back then had spent close to their entire working lives there, many with over 40 years of service.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my mother's morning ritual, which consisted of getting my brother and I up and dressed, then go downstairs and sweep the soot that had accumulated on the back porch overnight, the byproduct of the Aliquippa Works in full 24-hour production. Even after the efforts at smoke control that helped to transform Pittsburgh in the 50's, there was still soot to sweep off of the porch until about the time my brother and I were in elementary school in the mid to late 60's. The diligence of grass roots environmental groups like the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) helped to assure that toxic emissions from steel and other generating or manufacturing plants that burned fossil fuels were reduced significantly.

Government did an ample job of trying to balance the needs of industry with those concerned with that industry's effects on air quality. They didn't do such a great job with addressing the problem of dumping of steel in US markets by subsidized foreign producers, and that and other factors put the steel industry to rest in most of the Pittsburgh region by the late 70's and early 80's.

The environmental impact of an industry of this size notwithstanding, the impact on the community at large was also profound in many ways. In my personal experience, if the steel industry was the engine that made Aliquippa go, then alcohol was the lubricant for that engine.
The corner bar was (and still is) a staple of many neighborhoods there, if only for fewer generations than in the past.

Now as the energy industries gain quite the foothold in Western Colorado, I'm starting to see some parallels here to the way that Western Pennsylvania was in my youth. There are, of course, some stark differences, but it seems that the same general approach to recruiting and motivating workers, as well as the impacts on environment, commercial and residential development, and community infrastructure and services, follow a definite pattern. There are good and bad aspects to this pattern, depending upon the choices people make in response to the arrival of this industry. The New Yorker had an excellent article in its' February 5 issue (not online as yet) on the impact of the arrival of the energy industry in Sublette County, Wyoming.

When these energy concerns feel it necessary to pay for TV advertising to tell me that "Energy..It's good for Western Colorado", that's the first sign to me that all is not what it should be. I'll probably have more to say about this down the road, but as the growth and traffic begin to take a more significant hold on this area, and the effect on essential services continues to be felt, we as citizens will need to decide how much "good" is enough, and effectively communicate this to elected officials and stewards of public lands at all levels of government. There are some community organizations who are doing a credible job of monitoring this activity already.

We as a community are going to have to take stock of the material benefits of energy development, and along with the changes to our way of life decide how much soot we want on our collective porch.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Annealing and Healing

The last three weeks have been extremely busy and moderately stressful ones for me, both at work and at home. My wife's recent scans did not produce good news, and as a result she has started a third-line regimen of chemotherapy drugs to try to have some success at keeping tumor growth at bay while somehow optimizing her quality of life. It is a difficult perch to try to stay upright upon, and I am somewhat concerned for what the next step will be, when we will need to take it, and how we will navigate it.

She has been in some significant distress over the last couple of weeks. Fortunately this has been abating of late, but the return of the familiar drone of the oxygen concentrator to our house seems to me a harbinger of more troubling times to come. She is also starting to receive home health care services again. I am very grateful for their knowledge, insight, and compassion.

A recent Discovery Channel program that featured the SR-71 Blackbird reminded me of something I read about the now-retired spy plane in Popular Mechanics some years back. The writer who went up for a flight in the Blackbird was cautioned not to touch the cockpit windows, because the outside of the aircraft heated to over 600 degrees Fahrenheit at it's Mach-2 plus cruising speed. This had the associated effect of annealing the aircraft, or strengthening it through heating and gradual cooling.

In my interactions with others at work, church, and elsewhere, I've often been made aware of the challenges that myself and others face, and how we are shaped by them for the long haul.
This concept of an "annealing of the soul" sort of dovetails with the Christian concept of being refined in the fire like silver or other precious metals. The big difference is, how does this affect us as human beings, never mind as one who claims to follow the teachings of Christ?

I interact with people every day who have had tragedy befall them. Many look to people like me as an avenue for assistance. Others, like myself, are struggling with major life changes, and in many cases have become bitter and defensive in response to interactions with others that have left them hurt or disappointed. In some this translates to intolerance, prejudice, and single-mindedness, which in my business can be a recipe for serious problems.

I feel for them. I will pray for them. But I will not join them.
This is where the analogy about annealing seems to fall on its' face. The figurative tempering and strengthening also lends itself to inflexibility.

Dan Cox began a new sermon series at the Vineyard this past weekend, and the first of these messages had a profound impact on me. It was, in a way, a validation of what I have felt for some time. I've explored and read about the concept of servant leadership in conjunction with how I approach my career and daily life at home and at work, but how the more complex message was distilled this past Sunday was something I must commit to.

One of the key points of the message centered on Matthew 20:26:

Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.

Dan expanded upon this with the statement that servants are motivated by serving, not status. He went on to add that our identity does not belong in the organizations of this world, and that we are at the first sons and daughters of the living God.

For me, this is part of the first step toward becoming a more balanced individual. Part of the appeal of the Internet, and blogosphere in particular, is the ubiquitous nature of information, as well as the seeming ability to find someone willing to comment regularly on just about anything.

I began this blog with the intent of using it as an outlet for things that would otherwise fester within me. It's served a good purpose so far, but I'm not about to set myself up for failure by trying to meet the expectations of others when I write it. I don't have lofty aspirations of somehow appearing on CNN as the expert du jour when something happens that I might know a little something about. There's at least one person out there who thought that was the case when they sent me a comment a little while back. I'm trying to make sure everyone knows the difference now.

My big concerns have always been centered around achieving significance and relevance in what I'm interested or involved in, to be in the loop and be seen by others as someone who can be relied upon to know what to do when needed. Over the years, this defined my sense of self-worth, especially at work, when I had a smaller, more manageable child and a healthy wife and partner to share the load at home. I'm committed to doing the best job that I know how to do, in all of my areas of responsibility, but my self-worth is no longer defined by those things.

My identity does not belong in the organizations of this world, but to function within them I must emulate that which I look to for strength, guidance, and healing every day. To that end I will remain diligent and steadfast in those areas with which I have been blessed with expertise and skill. I think that writing is one of those, so I will keep up with this whenever I feel called to do so.

It's taken me parts of three days to write this, which is about the speed that ideas come and can be put down with all of the responsibilities that I have. My posts may be fewer in number over time, but they will always be carefully thought out and deliberated over. It's called an outlet, not a rant.

This is part of my effort to bring healing to myself and whoever may pass by. To do that, I am bound to serve others. I will continue to try to focus on the words of Jesus, as they appear in Luke 22:24-27..

Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.
Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

Best wishes for a good week. Looks like it's starting to thaw out here. Time to get (more) busy..

"Men in action are the poet's proper theme."

- Haniel Long, Pittsburgh Memoranda