Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Man in a Bottle

I was taught in science class (a few years ago) that "nature hates a vacuum". I believe this is the driving force behind the changing weather; high and low pressures attempting to equalize. I'm not a meteorologist and don't profess to be one, but I know this principle is seen in every aspect of science and nature, and a lot of other stuff too.

A car engine draws in fuel and expels exhaust, a household vacuum cleans a carpet, a boat stays afloat, and a plane flies, all based upon pressure and vacuum ("negative pressure").

Human lives are similarly impacted. Excessive pressures must find release; vacuums must be filled. People run, workout and engage in other activities to relieve stress, "let off steam" and release pressure. Vacuums are filled when relationships end or previous habits change. Something must fill the void created when the sweetheart walked out; new activities take the place of old ones.

Alcohol abuse illustrates this principle quite well, I think. Where I live, most drinking is what I consider to be "hard-core". Our community is small and isolated. There are no bars or restaurants. There literally is no drinking establishment where alcohol is served. Locals just get a bottle and drink, right from the bottle. In fact, around here the word "bottle" means alcohol. A "bottle" contains whiskey (or vodka, rum, etc.), not ketchup. If someone says "I gave him a bottle", they're not referring to feeding an infant; they're talking about an adult (although I must admit it seems pretty infantile to me).

This bottle-booze association is elemental. When someone is "drinking" they will have a bottle; in their pocket, in the sleeve of their jacket, on the table if they are indoors. Where ever "drinking" is, the bottle is there too. You don't drink without a bottle. "Drinking" and "bottle" are inseparable.

And this is where the principle "nature hates a vacuum" comes into play. A bottle, when purchased, is full. It is soon opened and a "shot" is taken. The "shot" is a mouthful of whiskey. Soon another shot, then another. With each shot the amount of whiskey remaining in the bottle is reduced. Since we know the whiskey must be replaced with something, many people assume it is air which fills the void. But they are wrong!

Air is not part of the equation at all. I suppose it would be if the whiskey was poured out into the air, but its not. The whiskey is poured into the man (we'll assume its a man who's doing the drinking) so the man must fill the vacuum created in the bottle. As a portion from the bottle enters the man, so a portion from the man must enter the bottle, maintaining equilibrium. Another shot, another exchange. This process continues until the bottle is empty. The man, being much larger and infinitely more complex, does not appear to be empty like the bottle. Ironically, we often say "He's pretty full", but the effects of the exchange are obvious (it's obvious to me atleast, I see these exchanges happening everyday).

A man has the ability to hold the contents of one entire bottle and much more; he has that capacity. Yet one bottle can not contain an entire man. It will take many bottles. One is simply the beginning; as one brick is to a wall or one link in a chain. A man who drinks one bottle per year may show no obvious effects. A man who drinks one per week will show more. A man drinking one per day will be unmistakeable.

Each time a bottle is poured into a man, a part of the man is poured back into the bottle. As the bottle contained whiskey before the exchange, now it contains the man. Sure, you won't see fingers or toes, teeth or blood in the bottle; it will appear empty (though you frequently see teeth, blood and other human components in the area where the drinking has been taking place), but be assurred, the bottle is not empty. Equilibrium must be maintained.

A bottle is also a very efficient container. It seldom leaks, is resistant to impacts (especially plastic bottles like we have here) and can be kept tightly sealed. I've never seen whiskey that could open the bottle and remove itself; it takes a force from outside to open it. Like I said, a bottle is a very efficient container; it's made to hold the contents and it usually holds it well.

Now I realize many people may think I'm getting a bit carried away here...a man strangely being transported bit by bit into a bottle. "What is this, a story about genies or some fairy tale?" No, it's not. Am I merely speaking metaphorically? Not really!

Everyday I see people, in varying degrees, imprisoned in the bottle. I see young people making the exchanges as quickly as possible, apparently eager to follow their parents example. I see the girl a day after she had part of her life sucked into the bottle; a part she can never have back. I see the man who has spent his entire life pouring the bottle into his mouth, and himself back in; a tragic shell of a man, empty and pitiful. I see wrecked vehicles; the smashed snow machine, the flipped truck, the ruined 4-wheeler; evidence of critical human abilities contained in the bottle when they were needed to operate the vehicle. I see people trade the confinement of the bottle for that of a jail cell, then, months or years later, come back and pick up where they left off...back in the bottle. And I see the graves of those who won't be back.

The Proverb "Wine is a mocker and beer is a brawler" is both true and interesting. It's true because...well, it just true. To me it's interesting because of the interpretation. Many students of the Bible seem to think it means if you drink (intoxication) you will become a "mocker" and a "brawler"; that your behavior will be insulting and rowdy. That may be the correct interpretation (I'm not a scholar, as I've pointed out before), but I like to think of it another way. Wine IS a mocker and it will make a fool of you. Beer IS a brawler and it will beat you up!

So what is the answer? Well obviously, it's better not to start down a path that can lead to trouble. I know everyone who drinks doesn't have a "drinking problem", but how can we tell in advance who will and who won't? Are you able to determine by looking at some one if they will become the fool? If they will get beaten up? If they will be sucked into the bottle? Not likely.

Some like to say of others, "They just can't handle their liquor", but who can, really? It is destructive to developing human life, and it doesn't do existing human life much good either. It's addicting and in high enough doses it's just plain poison. So who is truly able to "handle it?" Who can safely walk that path which leads so close to destruction? Alcohol is a road many travel, pretending to enjoy the ride while ignoring the millions of casualties littering the landscape. Better to avoid that road entirely.

For those already going down the road into the bottle, there's really only one hope. The Lord Jesus has the power to break the bottle and set us free! That's His specialty. He loves to free the captive, comfort the hurting and give hope to the hopeless. When He breaks the bottles in our lives, the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk, the weak are strong and the dead receive new life. This is what He does, and He will do it for all who ask.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tools of the Trade; "The Honey-bucket"

Yeah, sure. A misnomer if there ever was one. I'll agree with the "bucket" part, but forget the "honey". This is honey you'll never spread on your toast or drizzle in your tea. Ol' Pooh Bear will keep his distance from this stuff 'cause it has no place in the "Hundred Acre Wood". Bees aren't interested, but their cousins are. They're sure to swarm a bucket of this northern delicacy.

The honey bucket is indoor plumbing for those who lack indoor plumbing. It's a convenience that's very inconvenient; an uncomfortable comfort. Okay, I'll explain.

Many people already know the naked truth about the honey bucket, but if you don't, here it comes. Brace yourself! If you're about to eat dinner you may want to postpone reading this until later. In fact, if you just ate, you might want to skip it altogether.

Few things are as characteristic of remote northern living as the honey bucket. In a land where roads are few, indoor plumbing can also be lacking. Rural locations, arctic conditions and limited financial resources (see preceeding post) make infrastructure development an ongoing challenge for many communities. Add to that the common northern archetypes ("Sourdough", "Trapper", "Native", etc.) and you have a good recipe (sorry) for the honey bucket.

We all know about outhouses. The privy was an essential part of life years ago, well, how about generations ago. When greatgrampa had to go, he just ran outside to the one-holer. Standing or sitting, that was the place to do business. Gramps often had the Sears catalog handy; for reading material while waiting on the process and (here I beg your pardon) for clean up after. Basically it was a good system, which is why it's still in use today in many parts of the world.

Gramps had one luxury we don't share up here; a hospitable climate. Imagine the ol' boy going out at 50 below! The seating arrangement in the outdoor facility will be the very same minus 50, and that's gonna hurt when you make contact. It can still be done (I've done it) as long as everything is on schedule, but if gramps is going to need time for things to happen, you're gonna be looking at some frostbite (I didn't mean that in the literal sense).

Here's another consideration. If you've never lived in extreme cold you probably don't know how much work it is to get adequately dressed to go outdoors, especially when you just want to go to the "bathroom". I have a picture of my oldest daughter doing just that, which I'm very tempted to post here. The rest of my family (and you too) would find it quite humorous, but alas, she would most certainly kill me. So you must use your imagination.

Starting at the bottom, you see heavy, black rubber boots, bulbous and reminiscent of mickey mouse. Then a long red terrycloth bathrobe, what lies under it we just don't know. The face of a young teen girl, eager with the excitement of braving the cold, dark Alaskan night. On her head a dark winter hat, topped off with a headlamp. All this just to make a trip to the potty.

Now you begin to understand why the bucket was invented. Without the bucket there could be no "honey bucket". Before you scoff at this suggestion, try to picture the alternatives: the "honey bag" or the "honey basket" just wouldn't cut it. Even the "honey box" would pose problems, especially for large families. So there it is my friend, I give you...the honey bucket (and please take it with you).

I imagine some will find the idea of "going to the bathroom" in a bucket disgusting. I'm reminded of a story I heard once about a similar collision of paradigms. An American went to Papua New Guinea and traveled to a remote, primitive tribal village (not uncommon in PNG). As he met some locals he started up a conversation. They talked about various things (the primitive huts in the village, what they eat, etc.) When the American felt the need to answer nature's call, he asked the locals where he should go to the bathroom. "We just go anywhere" he was told (In case you're wondering how they communicate, I don't know. Don't interrupt the story!) "You mean all of you just go anywhere outside?" he asked, shocked that there was no privy. By now the locals sense something amiss. "Where you live, where do you go?" one of them asked. "Well, I go inside my house" the American proudly declared. "YOU GO IN YOUR OWN HOUSE???" the locals responded, appalled that he would actually urinate and defecate in his own home. (I suppose the honey bucket can be viewed as a good compromise between the two technologies.)

Now each household has its own code of honey bucket etiquette, based upon color. Yep, that's exactly what I mean. Our family was the most conservative and yellow was the only one allowed. There were occasional infractions when a second color was introduced (never by me I would like to add), but this was usually caused by the flu. Other excuses, such as "It was too cold out", or "It was late, and dark, and I was scared" were deemed unacceptable and the violator would be the one shall I say it...empty the bucket. I'll let you figure out the possible color combinations, but yellow was our limit.

Procrastination is a bad habit. This can easily be proven with the honey bucket. As I alluded to earlier, honey buckets must be emptied. A half-full bucket is much easier to carry outside than a full one. Attempting to carry a very full bucket will increase your laundry and mopping chores, and will significantly raise your bloodpressure as well. I always prefer the stress-free lifestyle of the half bucket.

Logistically, honey buckets are a nuisance and a health hazard. In rural communities things are often NOT done the way they should be. This translates into buckets being dumped on the ground (surface) as opposed to below ground (in an outhouse). Frequently they are justed dumped at...the dump. I know of one large family that is currently dumping their bucket on the surface behind their house. I know this because the person who happens to live behind their house is not happy about it.

I remember the first winter I spent here, my initial experience with outhouses and honey buckets. Ignorant in the freezing dynamics of human waste products, I had much to learn. I knew nothing about "the pyramid" effect. I didn't know that paper products were not to be included. And I had no way of estimating the vital "available holding capacity vs remaining weeks of winter" ratio. But I learned.

When we ran out of "holding capacity" in our outhouse mid-winter, I was forced to improvise. My plan was simply to dig another hole and move the privy. Imagine the bitter dissappointment when I found the ground to be frozen. Like concrete frozen!!! Bummer! And chopping frozen earth with an axe is, well, its no fun at all. What to do now?

Remembering something I know I saw in a movie somewhere, I used what I like to call "the miner method". Build a fire; let it burn out; when the ashes are cool, shovel them out along with the 4"-6" of thawed ground. Another fire, another few inches. It took days to get below the frost line, but I got it done. I never did hear what my neighbor thought about the whole thing. I often picture that elderly native man looking out his window and wondering what the crazy white man was up to.

So the very next time you feel the need to visit your bathroom, flip the lights on, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy it.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Tools of the Trade (grants)

Life in remote northern communities is...different. Well it's different in a lot of ways, but one aspect is money.

Money is usually hard to come by anywhere, but in this setting it can be really hard to come by. Employment in villages is slim; the majority is seasonal. That means most people don't work all the time. In fact, they are unemployed more than working. Imagine what life in your town would be like if the majority were NOT working most of the time. That's village life. By the way, if you come up here, when you meet a guy, don't ask the standard male introductory question. You know, "So what do you do for a living?". That question doesn't work where unemployment is a big factor, and it really puts the spotlight on what you don't know about life here.

The money crunch applies to local municipal governments too. There is no tax base for most local governments to rely upon for income. That means the governmental entity providing services for local residents is...well... what I'm trying to say in plain english is they may be broke or close to it. Larger communities sometimes enjoy a more promising outlook, but not always. Many city governments (which are the usual source for gasoline, heating oil, electricity, water and sewer, etc.) are facing bankruptcy; some there already.

Here's a homework assignment for you. Transport where you live into a roadless wilderness, reduce it to one gas station teetering on the brink of closing, along with your water, electricity, etc. Try that on for a minute or two and see how it feels. If it's not a comfortable fit, you're not alone.

Into this dismal economic picture shines a glimmer of hope, and hope is spelled "G-R-A-N-T-S" Grants bring in $$$ desperately needed by local city and tribal governments; money to buy new equipment, fix what's broke; basically, to improve local infrastructure. It comes in real handy for addressing social needs too. The money comes from State and Federal governmental agencies, private foundations and anywhere else you can dig it up, which explains the shovel in my hand.

One thing I can do to help improve the depressed economic situation here is to seek and obtain funding. I'm still kind of new to the process, but I'm learning. In fact right now I'm in a hotel room in Fairbanks fresh out of a three day grantwriting workshop. After I return home I'll start working on a "Christmas list" of goodies our community needs. Near the top will be things like a new road grader, a new road to grade, and money to fund youth activities to help prevent drug and alcohol abuse.

The Lord said we don't have because we don't ask. This vital spiritual principle is applicable in many areas of life, so I'll ask and see what happens.