Science vs. Religion

For much of today’s world, science and religion are seen as opposing forces, mutually exclusive and entirely incompatible.  Some of today’s scientists identify themselves as atheists or agnostics and appear to think that a belief in God signifies ignorance in a person.   Likewise, some religious groups decry science as the unholy work of the devil and view scientists as agents of Satan.  I propose that both of these views are equally incorrect.

How has such a strange and destructive opinion become so widely accepted?  It would seem that saying these two concepts were incompatible would be like saying that 19 and purple are incompatible.  They are very different concepts and either can exist with or without the other.  They are neither compatible nor incompatible.    

However, they coexist and they do intersect just as purple and 19 do.  It is quite reasonable for a person to look at a basket of eggplants and say, “Look, there are 19 purple eggplants in the basket.”   This statement does not affect the concepts of 19 or purple in any way, yet they can work together to better define another concept, that lovely basket of eggplants.  Purple and 19 can be used to define a basket of eggplants Just as religion and science can define our life and universe.  A Catholic priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaître proposed the Big Bang theory and described it as “the Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation”. 

The vast number of new ideas that were discovered in the last century and the different types of discoveries has made it virtually impossible for the everyday person to understand them or even to be aware of them.  In the 17th century Robert Hooke discovered the cellular structure in living things.  An average person with a little education could understand a discovery like this.  In the 18th century Benjamin Franklin discovered that lightning is electrical and Edward Jenner developed the small pox vaccine, again, discoveries that most people could grasp.   These were visible things that could be seen and applied to life.

By the 19th century the discoveries were beginning to become more technical and difficult for the average person.  Alessandro Volta discovered electrochemical series and invented the battery at a time when very few people had any idea that electricity was anything but a lightning bolt.   Marie Curie discovered polonium and radium, and coined the term “radioactivity” which was also a completely foreign concept to the average person of her day.

In the 20th century new ideas and concepts were becoming so esoteric that very few people understood even the words used to describe them much less the concept.  Albert Einstein published his theory of special relativity,   Heike Kamerlingh Onnes described superconductivity,   Niels Bohr came up with the model of the atom and Erwin Schrödinger devised the Schrödinger equation, the start of Quantum mechanics.   And these are just a few of the thousands of discoveries that we saw in these one hundred years.    Now, in the 21st century we hear things like the Higgs boson is finally found at CERN (confirmed to 99.999% certainty).  Who is this “Higgs” and how did he lose his boson?  A substantial number of people would think that was a serious question.

The discoveries made by theoreticians and researchers now are completely meaningless to the average person until engineers turn the new idea into a physical product that can be purchased and used and many of them never will be seen even if they are in everyday consumer products.  It would be very interesting to see how the marketers could spin the Higgs boson to pitch it as the key to a new or better product.  Buy our new product with ten percent more bosons!

At the same time that the discoveries were becoming too complex for most people to understand, the media was becoming more interested in reporting about them.  Unfortunately, the media had no more understanding of the new concepts than the average person and they took no time to try to learn about them.  They typically take excerpts from a technical paper published for other scientists and spin their own story in a manner to attract more readers.  This has resulted in some very strange public impressions of scientific discoveries ranging from the widespread news stories a hundred years ago that our ancestors were apes to the recent news stories about the discovery of a “god” particle.

Science focuses on what things are made of and how they work and religion is focused on why people and things exist and why they have meaning.  The media people mixed those two separate purposes into a confusing mixture that angers both groups, religious and scientific.

Darwin – “Generally the term (species) includes the unknown element of a distinct act of creation”

More visiting socialism

This is the third installment of this story. The first installments are below.

“Boris!” followed by a string of Russian words woke me up.  Andre was here and it was time for dinner.  Tonight we would eat in the hotel restaurant rather than at anyone’s house.  We walked across the immense lobby to the entrance of the restaurant.

Once more, I stopped in astonishment.  The restaurant was immense and it was empty, no customers, no waiters, not even a bus boy.  There were at least fifty tables and each would easily seat six people.

After a short wait a man came out to greet us and I nearly started laughing.  He was the perfect Hollywood stereotype of a waiter in a fancy restaurant even down to the little towel over his arm.  The entire room was empty but he led us to the furthest table in the room.  During the long walk, I noticed that all the tables had white tablecloths but there were no glasses, utensils or napkins anywhere to be seen

Once he seated us, he left without asking about drinks or offering a menu or even a word of welcome.  A few moments later the same guy returned with the same little towel on his arm and spoke to us in Russian.  Andre discussed something with him and then he left again and still we had no drinks or menu or silverware or napkins.  Shortly after that a different man came carrying a large tray.  He set the table with all of the usual equipment and left.  Still no menu or drinks.

I think Andre noticed my puzzled look and explained to me. “Sorry, I forgot to explain things to you.  We will have lamb tonight; I hope you like lamb.”

“Well, I do like lamb but I was surprised that there were no menus and we still have no drinks.  And I am surprised that the restaurant is so empty.”

“I guess that would all be strange to you.  We have no menus because they only have lamb tonight; they don’t need menus.  We will have a bottle of vodka in a moment for our drinks.  You may prefer wine but the wine here is not what you think.  No, I am certain you do not want the wine. And the restaurant is empty because the hotel is nearly empty.  Since the USSR stopped running everything, the party members can’t come here and spend money.  Tourism was never important here and now it has ended completely.  So now the hotel just has a few businessmen like you and some lower level government people.”

I had no idea how to respond to that but another waiter arrived just then with a bottle of vodka which he set on the table and walked away.  Andre opened the bottle and poured a generous amount into each of our glasses.  He offered a toast to our success in business and drained his glass while I sipped a bit from mine.

The food arrived before any more toasts could be offered.  The waiter set a plate in front of me that had a small piece of meat, something that looked like sauerkraut and something that looked like shredded beets.  A bowl of bread was also placed on the table for us to share.

I had little appetite after all of the travel and the lack of sleep so the meal was plenty for me.  As we ate, Andre offered more toasts and downed his glass of vodka.  Boris and I took a sip with each toast.  By the end of the meal the bottle was empty.  Boris and I had each finished one glass.

Now I had to try to sleep in a toy bed. After all of the travel and a meal and a glass of vodka, I was able to sleep in spite of the discomfort.

After a good night’s sleep in spite of the toy bed, I was ready for the first day of business in Byelorussia.   We had breakfast in the hotel where they served a typical European breakfast buffet except there was much less choice than I had seen in European hotels.  They had some cheese and bread, a few pastries, no fruit or meat, plenty of tea and some very bad coffee.
We quickly downed enough nourishment to keep us going until lunch and then waited in the lobby for Andre.  The two women mopping the immense floor were back again, probably with the same bucket of water.  Apparently, mopping the lobby was a permanent, full time job for two people.
After a few minute’s wait, Andre pulled up in front of the hotel and we walked out to meet him.  This time he had his personal car rather than the official car he used to get us from the airport.  Andre was a high level government official, reporting directly to the president of Byelorussia but his car was a surprise.  The old buggy looked like something from the fifties.  It was a very faded green color but it was so dull it could have been a green primer with the paint completely worn off.  Inside, the front and rear seats were covered with well worn blankets.  I opened the back door to get in and saw a hole through the floor giving me a good view of the pavement and gritty snow beneath the car.
“Sit up here Mr. Foley.” he told me.  “Boris, you can sit in the back.”
“Sure,” Boris said with a laugh.  “I’ve been in the soviet cars many times.”
They both laughed at that comment while I wondered what was humorous.  Then Boris explained.
“This is one of the nicer cars here but cars are always in deficit.  Everything is in deficit here.  Because of his position, Andre got this one rather than one of the ridiculous Trabants from East Germany.  But he can’t get another one until his name comes up again on the list to get one.  So this one is old and worn but it is still better than most.  We always laughed at how every year Moscow told us how good we would have it next year.”
We had a short ride through Minsk and arrived at Andre’s office.  The building was different from all of the standard soviet designed buildings that filled the city.  It stood in the middle of an area that looked like it was supposed to be landscaped and was surrounded by a high fence.  One of the gates hung askew from a single hinge, obviously no longer operational.  The other gate was embedded in the snow and looked like it had not been moved in months.  We pulled up to a parking spot that had a sign in front that probably reserved it for Andre.
As we walked into the building I noticed an unpleasant, musty smell.  The hall was not lit except from the unwashed windows and it was almost as cold as the outside air.  Strangely, the building seemed to be empty. There was no receptionist and we encountered no one walking in the halls. Andre led us through the hall, upstairs and into his office.
His office was huge. It was no less than thirty feet wide and fifty feet long.  A large desk sat at the far end in front of the only windows.  Between the windows, directly behind the desk was a large portrait of Lenin.  Some display cases with papers, trophies and souvenirs lined the walls and a table with six chairs stood near the door where we had entered.  The center of the room was empty and could have served as a ballroom for a substantial party.
Andre invited us to sit at the table and have a cup of tea from the large samovar that filled a small table next to the meeting table.
Boris explained, “The small pot there is tea that was brewed very strong.  You take a cup and put some in then fill it with hot water from the samovar.  Put in a little water if you like strong tea or a lot if you like it weaker.”
After looking through a few papers on his desk, Andre joined us at the meeting table and we got down to business.

After a few hours of going over how the business would be structured, Boris said, “Let’s go do some Russian shopping.”
Boris had worked enough for today and he really wanted to show me around his Minsk.
Even though it was a sad example of how badly the Soviet system worked, it was his home and he was proud of it.  Andre was able take the rest of the day off so we decided to continue tomorrow.
But, before leaving the building I wanted to use the bathroom and Andre told me where it was located.   I walked down the hall and, as I approached the door, I realized I didn’t need directions; I could have found it by following the smell.  Inside there were two urinals
on the left and a sink on the right.  Straight ahead was another door.  There was nothing here to create the foul odor that wafted through the halls. There wasn’t even a wastebasket that might have held someone’s lunch from a week ago.
I took care of my needs but then curiosity got the best of me and I opened the door at the end of the room and looked inside.  Instantly my eyes burned and a gasp brought a
small amount of the incredibly noxious air into my lungs.
That was nearly fatal.  Nothing on earth could smell so bad, not rotting flesh, not sewage tanks, nothing.  It smelled so bad, I WANTED to die.  I slammed the door shut and ran for the hallway, unable to breathe.   When I was twenty feet down the hall I was able to start breathing again.  It took nearly an hour before my eyes stopped watering.
The little room at the end held just a single toilet, but it was a very unusual toilet.  There was no tank on the back and there was no seat, just the porcelain commode attached to the floor.   A standard concrete building block was positioned on the floor on each side, providing the user of this diabolical odiferous monster a place to position his feet.  Then, I assume they would squat down a bit and do their business.
However, it was apparent that they didn’t squat very much and the room had not been cleaned since the building was built.  A uniform brown material covered the floor and up the walls around the stool to a height of at least two feet.  I’m sure it was my imagination but I remember a hazy film hanging in the air that shot toward the opened door and completely enveloped my head.
For the rest of my stay in Minsk, I made it a point to take care of things before I left the hotel and just hold on all day until I got back to the hotel.

After exiting the building, I was able to breathe a bit and recover from the bathroom experience. Now we could go shopping.

More of my visit to socialism

After flying for a day and then a drive through Minsk, I was finally reaching my hotel where I could rest a little before dinner…

Finally my host proudly announced “There is your hotel.”

There on the top of a small hill was a tall building, at least twenty floors.  The exterior looked like stainless steel and glass, much like modern buildings in the US. A road wound up the hill from the street we were on and stopped under a large decorative overhang protecting the entry.  This looked like it would be very nice; I was happy.

I walked into the beautiful hotel building and stopped in my tracks.  The lobby was immense, three stories high and covering the entire front of the large building.  The floor was black and white granite and huge granite pillars rose on regular intervals to the ceiling.  There were large windows covering the entire front wall, yet the room seemed dark and depressing.  Long curtains hung on the sides of the windows, some of them partially covering the windows.  They looked like they had once been white but now they were a dull grey.

There were no guests sitting on the many sofas placed around the lobby, there was no one in the gift shop, there was no one running to pick up my bags and there was no one at the reception desk.  Far down at the distant, dimly lit end of the cavernous room two women appeared to be mopping the floor with hand mops and buckets of water.

Our Russian host walked up to the reception desk and thumped his ham sized fist on the counter several times.  A woman slowly walked out from a doorway behind the desk and spoke to him in Russian.  After a brief conversation with her he asked me for my passport.  Prepared for a typical check in, I handed him the passport and my credit card.

He handed the credit card back to me saying, “They don’t like to take these.  I will prepay
the bill and you can repay me later.”

I looked at Boris and he reassured me that everything is fine, this is normal.

Our host completed our check in and we walked over to one of the sofa and chair seating groups to wait for him.  The sitting areas looked rather elegant from a distance but when we got there we could see tears in the leather upholstery and the cushions were lumpy and badly worn.

When we sat down, Boris told me, “I told you to bring US currency and this is why.  My
friend Andre has millions of rubles but they are losing value so fast that he will soon be poor if he can’t exchange them.  I told him we would bring US currency to repay him when he paid in rubles.”

“But you didn’t tell me about this.   I only brought a few thousand dollars.” I answered.  “Ten days in this hotel will probably eat that up.”

“No,” he reassured me again.  “The room rates here are based on the old value of the ruble.  At today’s exchange rate the rooms will cost us only about fifty dollars a day.  And by the time we leave it may be only twenty-five per day.”

“Fifty dollars a day?” I said incredulously “A hotel like this is only fifty dollars a day?”

“They charge about five hundred rubles a day and before the collapse that was officially five hundred dollars.  Now it’s only fifty and the value is falling so fast it may be half that before we leave.  And Andre will not cheat us.  I grew up with him and I know he’s honest.
He hopes to make lots of money working with us but he won’t cheat us.”

Finally Andre walked over to join us, “Your rooms will be ready in a moment, someone will come and get us.  Boris told you about the payment arrangement I set up with him didn’t he?”

“Yes.” I answered. “But I didn’t work through the details.  I expected to use a credit
card for the larger payments and cash for lunches and taxis and things like that.”

“There will be no taxis and almost no meals.  You are not in the US now.  I will have someone drive you and we will eat with my family and have some meals in the homes of my colleagues.  The hotel will be the main expense for the trip unless you get crazy with drinking or souvenir shopping.

“They have you in rooms across from each other on the embassy floor.  You should be
comfortable there.”

“What is the embassy floor?” I asked.

“Oh, when any embassy here needs a room for a visiting guest, they always put them on that floor.  It has a bar that is only open to the guests on that floor and the rooms are nicer.”

The sullen desk clerk walked over and spoke to Andre in Russian.

“Your rooms are ready.” He told us. “I’ll go up with you to make sure everything is ok.”

We all walked to the elevators and rode up to the embassy floor, fifteen floors up.
The doors opened and we stepped out into what appeared to be another reception area except there were people here.  There was a large desk with racks of keys and pigeon holes for mail behind it.  A bar off to one side was open and serving clients.  And our bags were there waiting for us.

Andre stepped up to the desk and spoke to the clerk in Russian.  He took two keys from
the wall behind him and handed them to Andre.  Another person came out from a door behind the desk and the two men picked up our bags and walked us to our rooms.  They opened the doors and set our bags inside.  Andre passed each of them some rubles and they walked away smiling.  At last we could take a shower and get a little rest.

I stepped into the room and, once again, I stopped short in amazement.  I was on the
embassy floor of a hotel that charged the equivalent of five hundred dollars per day just a few months ago; I expected a large plush room.

The entry to the room was a short hallway with a door on the left going into the bathroom and the main room straight ahead.  The entire room, including the bathroom, looked like it was about ten feet by twelve feet with a single small window on the far wall.  A very small
television (maybe a ten inch screen) sat on a rickety looking table in the corner and a small writing desk with a spindly chair took up the remainder of the wall on my right.  On the left, beyond the door to the bathroom there was a largish low edged box with sides a
few inches high and an open top attached to the wall at about the level of a chair seat.

The box was the bed.  It was at most six feet long and little more than two feet wide.  I am six feet four inches tall.

The bathroom was so small there was barely room to change your mind.  There was a short tub on the left wall with a shower curtain that pulled across it.  The narrow walkway along the tub ended at the toilet but I had to dodge around the tiny sink on the right hand wall to reach it.

It was certainly Spartan but I could live with it for ten days.  I opened my suitcase on
the tiny bed and looked around for a place to put my clothes.  There was a narrow door, about a foot and a half wide, on the same wall as the bed that looked like it could be a closet.  Opening the door, a saw a pole across the top that had room for a few hangers and three shelves below it for anything else I wanted to put away.

I put things away as well as I could and went into the bathroom to take a shower.  I
had brought a towel from home on Boris’s advice and I now saw why.  There were three towels on the single eighteen inch towel bar in the bathroom.  They looked like they had been terrycloth at some more luxurious time in the past but now they were basically three rags you might use to wash your car.

I took a shower and thankfully, the water was hot.  Feeling refreshed, I stepped out of
the shower and used my huge decadent American towel to dry off.  Then I attempted to shave.  The walkway between the tub and the wall was only slightly wider than the toilet, maybe two feet maximum.  The sink, where I was going to shave was mounted on the wall across from the tub in this walkway.  The sink was about two feet along the wall and extended only about ten inches out.  The basin was about eighteen inches by six inches.  A tiny mirror on the wall was about chest high for me.

So, standing with my heels against the tub and squatting down over it with my calves braced against the side of the tub I could look into the mirror and try to shave.  I managed to complete the shaving ordeal without cutting my throat but my legs burned from the effort.   Shaving had never worn me out before.

I decided I would try to take a quick nap before we all went to eat so I tried to lie down in the bed.  This diabolical bed was several inches shorter than me and the little edges that went around it ensured that I couldn’t hang over the side in any direction.  I had to coil up in a near fetal position and lie on my back; it was the only way I could fit on the bed.

After just a few minutes of futile effort, I gave up on the nap.  I dressed and went
out to the ‘exclusive’ bar on the embassy floor.  There I found Boris waiting for me.

“I was wondering how long you would last.” he said with a laugh.

It was only midafternoon but the bar was full of drinkers, some of them already intoxicated.  I sat down at the table with Boris and asked for one of whatever he was drinking.

Boris laughed and said, “I’m drinking water.”

“That’s fine, my body is telling me it’s early morning anyway.  I would really like a coffee though.”

Just then one of the other patrons of the bar got a little too enthusiastic and sloshed a beer across his table, himself and the men sitting with him.  Boris suggested that we go downstairs to wait for Andre and I quickly agreed.

The main entry area was still as empty as it was when we arrived.  The floor moppers had almost reached the other end of the hall, leaving a uniformly smudged and gritty film over the entire floor.  I think they must have used the same bucket of water for a week.

We walked into the gift shop and looked at the typical souvenir junk sold everywhere, shirts with images of Vodka labels on them and shot glasses with Minsk written on them and on and on.  They also had some marushka dolls (the dolls that are nested one into another) that I told Boris I might want to buy.

“Oh no,” he warned me. “You never buy anything here.  The prices are set to take as much money as possible from rich tourists and party members.  We can get better ones for much less money.”

I looked at the price and did a quick mental conversion to dollars. “Wow, this works out to something like $300 even at the ridiculous conversion rate we have now.”

We wandered back out and found a sofa that was in better condition than most and sat there to wait for Andre.  Both of us had just completed about twenty hours of travel and had no sleep so conversation was limited.  I think we both quickly dozed off.

A visit to socialism

I was sorting through some of my old documents when I ran across my journal from my business trip to Minsk in 1991. This was shortly after the iron curtain was dropped, the Soviet Union was dissolved and Minsk was now the capital city of the independent nation of Byelorussia. I found the notes fascinating and thought perhaps other people might want to see some of the wonders of socialism.

The journey begins

Here was an unlimited business opportunity – hundreds of millions of people who previously had no access to western markets and I was able to meet with a senior government representative to be one of the first to start a business there.  It would be easy; just fly over to Minsk, get the proper documents in place and fly home with a new business underway.

A meeting in Cleveland is so easy; hop a plane, rent a car and you’re there.  Then come home as soon as you’re done.  Now a meeting in Minsk is not so easy.  A friend and business associate of mine was originally from Minsk and he proposed the idea that we could contract programming work in Byelorussia through his friend of his who still lived there.

After a number of conversations we decided that it was worth a try to see if we could actually get a business started.  Now that the easy part was completed, we started on the harder challenges.

Flying to Minsk was not a simple task of buying the right ticket and getting on the plane.  All US citizens who wanted to enter the country had to get a visa from Byelorussia first.  That seemed easy enough to someone whose foreign travel had been limited to a few business trips to London and Paris, but, where does a person get a visa from Byelorussia? This was 1991 and the internet was a techie toy that had no world wide web, no Google, no Yahoo Travel, nothing there to help me.  We had to organize the trip through a travel agency and it still took nearly six months from the time we started the process until I could get on a plane.

The trip would be long and arduous with transfers in airports I had never seen and where signs might not be in English.  The first leg was an easy flight from Minneapolis to New York.   I arrived at the airport early in the morning expecting an international flight to the old Soviet Union to be as complicated as the visa process had been.  In ten minutes I was at the gate and had more than two hours to kill.  Travel was easier then, no TSA agents to ensure a slow and difficult trip through the airport.  The next seven hours were the typical tedious air travel experience, waiting in airports and occasionally sitting on a plane.   There weren’t even cell phones then to tweet my boredom to the world.  If it wasn’t for the excitement and anticipation of this trip I would have been bored to death.

Finally I was on the plane to Frankfurt; the real trip was beginning.  We flew through the night and arrived early on Monday morning.  The Frankfurt airport was a madhouse.  It seemed that every person in Germany was flying on that morning.  Eventually I found the gate for the next leg of the trip,  LOT airlines ( the Polish airline) flight to Warsaw. At that time there were no direct flights from any western European city to Minsk.

Frankfurt was still familiar and comfortable to a rookie American traveler; Warsaw sounded intimidating and flying on an airplane where the flight attendants spoke Polish was a little worrisome as well.  The fears were all unfounded, the flight was easy, the flight attendants spoke English and the flight was smooth and easy.

Now we would move into the real unknown territory.  Next stop is Minsk, Byelorussia.

Flying into Minsk from Warsaw the first unusual thing I noticed is that Minsk is completely surrounded by forest.  There are no broad suburban developments, no visible farm land not even many roads leading in or out of the city.  This is a city of more than 1.5 million people and it seems as isolated as a Siberian salt mine.

The plane landed and began to taxi to the terminal when I noticed the next strange thing.  There were no other planes taxiing around, taking off or landing.  There was only one plane at one of the jetways.  Then we taxied past an area that looked like an airplane scrap yard.  Aeroflot (The Russian airline) planes were packed into an area away from the terminal.  They were jammed in wing to fuselage in a way that could not be used by passengers.  Some of the jet engines had covers on them but most stood there open to the weather.  None of them looked ready to fly.

Our plane pulled up to one of the jetways, the door opened and we walked into the terminal.  Here was another very strange thing. In this large terminal with dozens of gates and capacity for thousands of passengers there were almost no people, no passengers, no workers and almost no guards.  It looked like the Duluth airport at 2 AM except much bigger.

Our little group from the plane went to passport control and waited while the guards thoroughly examined all documents and questioned each of the passengers.  When I reached the guard I handed him my passport with the visa inside, my letter of invitiation from the person I was meeting and my declaration of goods I was bringing in with me.

With a thick Russian accent he asked me “You have nothing you bring in?”

“No sir. Just some small gifts for the people I am meeting.”

“What gifts?  You said you bring nothing!”

“Just small souvenirs, some candy, a shirt that says Minnesota on it, some wild rice.  Less than one hundred dollars total.”

“That is not nothing.” He said gruffly as he carefully wrote the things I mentioned on the form.

“I’m sorry I didn’t realize that it was important.”

His only response was a scowl as he looked again at all of the papers.

“Ok, you go.” He finally said to me.

My travelling companion, Boris, was already through and was standing with a stereotypical Russian man waiting for me.  He was a thick, burly man in a heavy overcoat and a Ushanka (the big Russian fur hats) on his head.  His red nose made me think of Rudolph; I think he could have lit the way through a fog.

Boris introduced us and he greeted me with pretty good English.  “I’m pleased to meet you Mr. Foley.  You must be tired after that long trip.  I will take you to your hotel.  We can have dinner after you have rested.”

This was a welcome relief after the long travel and the less than hospitable greeting at passport control. As we drove through the city to the hotel I saw many things that seemed very strange.  First I noticed that the buildings all looked the same.  Nearly every building looked like it had been stamped out by some gigantic machine.  They were 5 or 6 floor rectangular buildings with rows of windows on each floor that made them look just like an apartment buildings.  The only difference was that there would be a few blocks of yellow stone buildings then blocks of grey concrete buildings, then blocks of brownish stucco buildings.

“Are all of these buildings part of a large development?” I asked.

Both Boris and my host laughed.

“Yes” my host said. “the entire city is a development.  In the great patriotic war Minsk was almost completely destroyed.  There were only three major buildings left standing.  After the war somebody from Moscow sent this building plan here and this is what we built.  Some of these buildings are manufacturing plants, some are apartments; they are all the same on the outside.

There was no decoration or landscaping anywhere.  It was January and the side streets had dirty brown rutted snow covering them.  The main streets had the same dingy snow but it was pushed to the sides.  Traffic was very light for such a large city.  There were almost no trucks and relatively few cars.  The few trucks that were there were primarily from Germany.  There also were farm tractors pulling wagons on the city streets.  I made some comment about the tractors and my host provided the explanation.

“USSR had no trucks like the US.  The big German trucks hauled goods back and forth from Europe but all local hauling depended on the tractors that were sent for the farms.”

“But” I noted “I couldn’t see any farms from the airplane.  Where are they?”

“There are few farms here and they are not suitable for these big tractors but Moscow sent them so we use them.”

Finally my host proudly announced “There is your hotel.”

More to come – the wonders of the finest hotel in Minsk. The office of a senior government official and other wonders of the old USSR.

2500 Year Old Critique

More than 2500 years ago there was a prophet in Israel, Jeremiah, who was chastising the Israelite’s despicable behavior. Today, I read what he was saying and it struck me that his statement “This is the nation that does not listen to the voice of the Lord, its God, or take correction. Faithfulness has disappeared; the word itself is banished from their speech.” was amazingly fitting for our nation today. In two and a half millennia, We still have not learned to live in a manner that is even marginally civil and polite and the words that represent moral behavior are being banished from our language.

Our language is changing at an amazing rate. What was called an evil and criminal act a short time ago is now called “women’s health care”. What was always called murder is now called “compassionate end of life care”. Our constitutional right of freedom of religion has changed to freedom from religion. What used to called a differing opinion is now called hating. Some of the most rigid, tyrannical views are now called liberal and progressive.

Jeremiah was warning the Israelite people that they were going to suffer greatly because of their behavior. I don’t think one has to be a prophet to see that our society is racing toward a very painful correction.

An encounter with God

As I pulled hard on the buckthorn tree that was hung up in the branches of another tree, a pain suddenly went through my jaw as if it were being squeezed in a vice.  Surprised by the intense pain, I released the tree and started walking toward the house when lightheadedness started coming over me.  I made it into the house and flopped into my chair while calling to my wife Judy, “Something is wrong!  I’m dizzy and my arms are tingling.”

Then the pain came. 

The most intense pain I had ever experienced spread from my chest through my whole body, a searing, tearing pain that felt like my body was being torn apart.

I didn’t know if Judy heard me or saw me or responded, but I couldn’t call again.  The pain was so intense that nothing else in my body would work.  I curled up in pain and prayed aloud, “Jesus help me!” over and over.  I didn’t care what the help would be; I just knew that I needed help.  If this was my time to go to the Father, I needed Jesus with me to help and support me.  If I was to stay here on earth, I needed help to bear the pain and to work through whatever was going to be needed for recovering.  Whatever happened, I needed help and I was pleading for it.

Meanwhile, Judy had heard me and was responding with speed and clarity.  My pleas to Jesus for help were coming through to her loud and clear.  She called 911 and had an ambulance on the way as quickly as possible.  Next, she called our children who all live nearby and let them know what happened.  While she was still on the phone, the ambulance and one of our sons arrived at the house at almost the same time.

During this frantic time, Jesus helped me by letting me fade out of consciousness.  The first thing I was aware of after pleading for help was the face of a stranger looking at me and apparently talking to me.  Then I realized that Judy, my son and his wife were there and a police officer as well.  The pain was gone and I was confused but I knew something bad had happened and the concern in the faces of everyone around me reinforced that idea.

The stranger was one of the EMT’s who had come to bring me to the hospital.  On seeing that I was awake, he asked me if I could get up and step over to the gurney that they would use to transport me.  With one of them holding each of my arms, I tried to stand up but my legs immediately buckled.   So they moved the furniture around, got the gurney next to me and hoisted my limp body onto it.  

Apparently I was drifting in and out of consciousness.  I remember the EMT asking which hospital I wanted and suggesting that Fairview Southdale would be a good choice if I was having a heart attack.  I assume I agreed since the next thing I remember is being taken from the ambulance to the emergency room at Southdale and seeing several of my family members already there. 

I have no recollection of the emergency room or any of the activities there.  The next thing I remember is lying in a bed in a regular hospital room with several of my family around the bed.  Everyone was assuming that I had a heart attack and they were waiting for the results of the blood test for confirmation.  Then a doctor came in and said the tests were negative.  My symptoms all said heart attack but the blood tests showed there was no heart attack. 

The doctor said they would keep me overnight for observation and that I would probably be going home in the morning.   Father Wilson had come and given me the sacrament of the sick.  It seemed that everything had settled down and the entire incident would soon be in the past.   I ordered food for my dinner and the family decided to go out for something to eat and then return before going home for the night.

When Judy had called All Saints church to get one of the priests for me, that call alerted all of the prayer warriors to my situation.  Just moments after her call I had dozens of people praying for me and the army grew as the news spread.  All of the daily mass people, the Emmaus men, several  mens and womens groups and all of my friends at All Saints as well as the Emmaus men from St John Neumann were praying for me.  In just a day I had hundreds of people asking God to watch over me and care for me.

Now those prayers were being answered.  My room was dark, too dark for the time of day, and there seemed to be a number of people there but I couldn’t identify anyone.  There was a tray of hospital food on the stand next to my bed, untouched.  As I lay there wondering where I was and what was happening a man clad in bright yellow, almost glowing, walked through all of the dark forms and came to the bedside.

“Hello, I am Adam.” He said to me as his only introduction.  “I would like to listen to your heart if that’s all right.”

I don’t remember responding but I must have given him the ok.  He was moving his stethoscope around on my chest, stopping several times to listen intently.  

After a moment or two, he stopped, “I think you will be fine but I would like to get a CAT scan, just in case.”

I said that would be fine and a moment later there was a gurney next to my bed and a couple of people lifting me on to it.  They wheeled me to the room where the scans are done and transferred me to the platform of the scanning machine.   The platform moved into the tube and the machine began humming and clunking.  I was slowly moved in and out of the tube twice.

When I came out the second time the room was filled with people.  I was immediately moved onto a gurney and, almost running, they took me to an operating room.  The room was already buzzing with activity as they prepared for an emergency surgery.

A face appeared next to me, completely surrounded with operating room protective covering.  I could only see a small circle of a face with the eyes, nose and mouth visible.  “I am Doctor Kelly.  You need an operation that has high risk but must be done immediately.  We have a highly skilled team here and I think it will go well for you but I must not minimize the risk.  It is a serious and high risk procedure.”

I think she said more but I don’t remember what it was.  I drifted off into unconsciousness as the anesthetic took effect.  This was about six PM on a Saturday afternoon.

The surgery was in progress long into the night ending at about three AM Sunday.  During this time, my family gathered in the hospital meditation room and prayed the chaplet of divine mercy with one of my grandsons leading the prayers.  I later found out that more than ten people were there praying for me that night.

Sometime on Monday (as I was told later) I awoke slightly and briefly.  I vaguely recall seeing Judy and others from my family standing at the end of the bed looking at me.  As I was lying there, I had the most wonderful feeling of peace and joy.  I had a vague memory, almost more of a feeling, of having been in a beautiful, peaceful and joyful place. 

Tuesday I awoke enough to begin responding to the world around me and recovering from the surgery.  I had survived an aortic dissection, something that kills four out of five people who have one before they can reach medical help.  

 I could have easily ignored the initial pain in my jaw since it only lasted a few seconds.  In which case, I probably would not have made it into the house and Judy would have later found me dead in the yard.  As it was, I only made ten or twelve steps into the house before I was completely debilitated by pain. 

And then, Judy could have been away shopping or visiting with someone.   When she returned, she wouldn’t have seen me unless she came into the living room.  If that was some hours later, it would have been too late.

I could have been taken to Fairview Ridges which is the nearest hospital to my house.   They would have had the same result of the blood tests for heart attack and would probably come to the same conclusion – keep me overnight for observation.  But Doctor Adam would not be there to correctly diagnose my problem.   Perhaps they could have had someone on staff who was able to diagnose it but then I would have needed a transfer to Southdale for treatment.  The delay and the additional transporting would probably have been too much for me to survive.

Adam, that is Dr Adam May, should not have been there since he was substituting for another cardiologist.  He was not a member of the hospital staff or the University of Minnesota Physicians group.  He had very recently completed a training seminar on diagnosing aortic dissection.  If he had not been there to correctly diagnose my condition, I would have been found dead in my hospital bed that night.

The surgeon, Dr. Kelly, should not have been there; she is the department head and happened to be on call that weekend.  I should have had a less experienced and skilled surgeon, increasing the risk that I would not have survived the operation.

So, why did I suffer an aortic dissection and with all of the reasons why I should not have survived it, how is it possible that I am still alive? 

God has a purpose for everything and my experience was a part of His plan.  While I certainly don’t know God’s plans, I believe a person can sometimes understand His intent by prayerfully looking back at what has happened and trying to see the results.  Some results may not be seen for a very long time but some become apparent quickly. 

In my case, clearly it was not God’s will that I should die at that time; there is still some reason that He wants me to remain here for a while.  But there was some reason why the event needed to occur at all.

One of the quickly visible results of this incident is that my faith in the effectiveness of prayer was greatly strengthened.   I prayed for help from Jesus but I didn’t try to tell him what I wanted Him to do.  Whatever God wanted is what I wanted but I knew I needed help to do it and I prayed for whatever help was needed.

When I prayed for that help, the pain ended almost immediately and it never came back!  I had no pain as the ambulance bumped and jolted over the roads.  There was no pain when I was moved to the emergency room or with any of the other moves that I had before surgery.

After the surgery, I had no pain.  That was partly due to the amazing medical technology we have today but even the best technology does not completely eliminate pain.  They had oxycodone ready for me but I declined it because I had no pain other than a slight ache in my back.   I took the Tylenol they offered so I would be able to sleep but I declined even that after a couple of days because it was not needed; I simply had no need for pain treatment.  I was not being the “macho man” and toughing it out to show the world I could take it.  Truly I felt no pain even though my body had been shut down and my chest had been split open and the doctor cut away crucially important parts, attached an artificial pipe to my heart and wired my rib cage back together.  I had Jesus to thank for that amazing blessing.

My amazingly fast recovery has also demonstrated the power of prayers.  When the physical therapist came to the house to help me get moving, she saw what I was doing and told me to keep it up.  She wouldn’t be coming back since I was already doing great.  WIthin a month of the surgery I was nearly back to normal.  I have to thank the army of prayer warriors for that blessing.

There is another result that I have not seen yet but I know is coming.  During the time I was disconnected from the world under deep anesthesia, I was with God.  I remember waking with a deep and long lasting feeling of spiritual consolation.  Saint Ignatius described spiritual consolation as “some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord”.  God gives us consolation because He loves us but also to draw us closer to Him and to strengthen us in our faith.

That  wonderful feeling of peace and joy is still with me ten weeks after the surgery.  That consolation had to come from God; peace and joy are usually not the result of medical emergencies and surgery.  When I have received a consolation as strong as this, I can only assume that God has something important for me to do and is preparing me for the task.

I am ready Lord!  Whatever it is that You want me to do, with Your help I will do it.

Is is easy to be a good person?

I just read a news story stating that 60% of the people of the United States (based on a PEW survey) believe that people can be good without religion.  Of course, this survey is done in a time when participation in religion is decreasing.   So, is religion really needed for people to be good?

Well, let’s look at our current social environment.  Religious participation is decreasing and there is a steady increase in the number of people who consider themselves to be atheists.  At the same time, suicides among youth are at the highest levels since records have been kept.  More than half of marriages end in divorce.  Violent crime is increasing.  Drug use is a continuing disaster across our nation.  Sexual offenses are rising in all areas of society.  Movies are a constant stream of violence.  Television has become a mindless stream of inane trivia spiced up with sex and violence.

The list of these negative changes could go on but people have become accustomed to them and accept them with a shrug and say, “that’s life”.

I would propose that today, the idea of people being good without religion is based on lowering the standard of good.  It seems that the measure of “good” is how much fun I get from something and “bad” is anything that I don’t like.    Suicide is good, it releases people from bad situations – as long as it is not me or anyone I care for.  Divorce is good, why force people to live in an uncomfortable situation – as long is it’s not in my family.   You might even find someone who says murder is good as long as I am the murderer rather than the murdered.

I pray that people can think beyond their own desires long enough to understand the importance of religion in human society.


#notmypresident – really?

It seems people across the country are out in the streets protesting the election results.    It is perfectly reasonable to be unhappy or happy with the results of an election, but to deny the result without any claim of fraud or impropriety in the election is denying the American public their right to vote.

Neither of the major parties were able to get a majority of the votes so it is clear that neither candidate was seen as good by most people.  I think it is fair to say that most voters saw both candidates as very bad choices and voted for one primarily to ensure the other one did not get in.

In any case, the election was held properly and the winner was Trump.  He is now our president elect and protests won’t change that.  I did not vote for him (I did a write in for a new startup party) but I will recognize him as my president and respect the office if not the person.  Had Clinton won, I would have had to do the same.

It’s time to be Americans rather than partisan democrats or republicans or libertarians or whatever other party it may be.

Making Rhubarb wine

My garden produced a bumper crop of rhubarb this year.  After using all we could and giving away as much as we could, there is still a small forest of rhubarb.  Because I hate to waste anything, I searched the internet for ideas and found that rhubarb and elderberries make a good wine.  I have some elderberries left from last fall so I decided to give it a try.  I have equipment for making wine but only in 5 gallon batches.  This will a big trial.

Step 1 – gather the materials

 I went out to the garden to get the 15 pounds of rhubarb I needed.  I picked as much as I could carry, trimmed off the leaves and the bottoms, and brought the stems in.  Just to be sure that I had picked enough, I weighed them – just over 4 pounds.  I was going to need three more piles as big as this one. 

Back to the garden and pick more, much more, rhubarb.  Finally with 15 pounds of trimmed and washed rhubarb, I started cutting it into ¼ inch slices.  Now this pile of rhubarb would be about a tenth of a mile laid end to end.  Clearly, this will be a lot of slicing – approaching 25,000 slices.  About two hours later I put the last bag of slices into the freezer.  I am now ready to start step 2.

More tomorrow –

#Truth in Politics

I’m not sure where I first read this but it seems like it was written for the election  this year.

To me, truth is not some vague, foggy notion. Truth is real. And at the same time, unreal.  Fiction and fact and everything in between, plus some things I can’t remember, all rolled into one big ‘thing’.  This is truth, to me.”

Unfortunately this bit of wisdom applies as much to the voters as the candidates.

Thank God Someone is Honest

The big news story yesterday was Pope Francis and Donald Trump in a “war of words”.

After reading the background to the glaring headlines I must say, “Thank you Pope Frances for being a person to call a spade a spade!”

The headlines blared that Pope Francis said Donald Trump was not a Christian.  However, the exact quote, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian”,  never included his name, only the actions Mr. Trump said he would take if elected.   “Admonish the sinner” is one of the spiritual works of mercy that ALL Christians are called to do.  This is an act of love and mercy, not a condemnation.  Mr. Trump should thank Pope Francis for the loving guidance he offered.

It saddens me deeply that so many Americans see the plans of Donald Trump as being good for America.  Every Christian in this country should let Mr. Trump know that they do not believe he is ready to be the leader of a country.

It’s #Wine!

Finally, after 2 months of fermenting and racking and waiting, I bottled my wine.

In my last post, I described a first racking.  A couple of weeks after that, I racked again and added four ounces of medium roasted American oak cubes.  This then sat for a month undisturbed.  Today was the day to transfer it to bottles.

Now, putting the wine into the bottle is easy enough but corking the bottle is quite a process.  I bought a two handed corker that gave me a lot of leverage to drive the cork into the neck of the bottle, but…

I filled the first bottle, put a cork into the device, set it on top of the bottle and gently pushed down on the handles.  Nothing happened.  It felt like I was pushing against a solid piece of wood.  I pushed harder, a lot harder.  The handles moved ever so slightly but it looked the cork didn’t move.  I set the bottle on the floor, grabbed both handles and put my full 220 pounds on them.  The cork sloooowly slid into the bottle and stopped.

Thinking the cork was all the way in, I lifted the corker up and the bottle came with it.  The cork was about half way into the bottle and half in the corker, locking them together.  I set them back down, grabbed the handles and began bouncing on them.  Each bounce moved the handles a little further, driving the stubborn cork down millimeter by millimeter.

After several bounces the corker clicked and felt loose.  I lifted it up and there in front of me was my first finished bottle of wine.

The process was repeated 21 more times before the remaining wine was almost down to the lees.  With less than a bottle left, I decided to fill a glass and try my new wine.  Everything I read said the brand new wine will not be good yet but I had to try.

The wine looked just a little cloudy but it had come just off the top of the lees so I wasn’t worried about that.  It had a unique aroma, pleasant like a grape wine but not exactly a cabernet or rioja.  So I took a sip expecting it to be sour and bitter.

It was good, dry but not sour, full of fruity goodness and with just a hint of oak.  So I sat down and admired all of those bottles of wine while I sipped my first glass.  I think I will call this project a success.