Monday, July 28, 2008

Memphis II

A trip to Memphis wouldn't be complete without a ride on a riverboat down the Mighty Mississip'. Truth be told, we plan to come back to Memphis not only to see the ever-hospitable Och and his family again, but also because we in no way exhausted our itinerary, even with said boat ride. The rides were narrated by a charming, middle-aged black man whose southern drawl very much flavored all the points he mentioned during our hour-and-a-half tour. John Fogerty was right: "...I never saw the good side of the city / Till I hitched a ride on a Riverboat Queen." While Memphis had several colorful aspects to it, I'm a sucker for anything out on the water, so I have to say that this trumped even the Gibson factory...

The wheels on the boats are powered by anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 horsepower, so we moved at a pretty steady clip. We learned about the Sultana while on this particular trip. Our guide asked us who knew about the Titanic. When we all raised our hands, he asked us who had heard of the Sultana, the ship whose demise was the gravest maritime disaster in U. S. history. Of course, none of us had heard of this tragedy, this due in large part to the fact that, on April 27, 1865, the country was still recovering from the end of the War Between the States as well as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Consequently, a war-weary populace had by and large stopped reading newspapers that promised little more than continual body counts, so this major disaster went largely unnoticed, save in Memphis, since the Sultana's boiler exploded just off her coast. The details of the incident shed an even sadder light on the whole ordeal, as the 376-passenger boat was carrying almost 2,500 passengers at the time! The overload was due to the fact that, in those days following the War, boats were paid by the passenger, in large part because they were bringing back Union P.O.W.s from Confederate prison camps. The captain noticed that one boiler was damaged, but rather than replace the boiler (a three-day job), he opted for a patch-up job on the existing boiler, hence the resulting explosion. Most of the passengers (about 1,800) perished either from burns from the explosion, exposure or hypothermia in the water, or from drowning. Quite sad that such a tragedy went and still goes largely unnoticed.

The steamboats were docked by cobblestone "walkways" -- put in quotes because, due to the steep incline, one was hard-pressed to walk down with any degree of ease. They had to be driven across carefully, as well, as they would wreak havoc on tires if driven across too quickly. The cobblestones used to serve as weight in boats that would cross the Atlantic before picking up any cargo; once the ship came in, the cobblestones were dropped off and cotton was loaded up. The cobblestones were then reused to make said walkway.

And now, for the "postcard" shot. Of course, being the flag buff and states aficionado that I am, I tried to get the best shot of the Memphis skyline alongside the Tennessee state flag which flew from the mast of the boat. Y'all can use it if you like. Our guide also pointed out the flags above the Mud Island attraction that heralded all of the countries that had ever laid claim to Memphis; as this was a three-deck boat, our guide was on the second deck, and I was entertaining our daughters down on the first, I could only listen as the guide kept waiting...and waiting...for folks to identify the flags. "Yes, that's Tennessee...United States, yes...No, that's not Australia, that's England..." (Great Britain, actually. Sheesh.) I yelled helplessly at the ceiling: "France! Spain! Confederate!" I must confess to being stumped by the flag to the far right; if y'all can take a look HERE and tell me what flag that is, I'd be much obliged. Our guide probably named it, but as I was busy running after toddlers, I must have missed it.

This post and lintel is a monument of when the city of Memphis actually lost its charter as a city due to severe population decline from Yellow Fever. Not sure why this was chosen for that; perhaps a reference to the plagues of Egypt and the passing over of doors? Our guide did not say. The outbreak of 1878 led to the bankruptcy of the city of Memphis, as 5,000 of its citizens were claimed by the fever which was spread by the then-unknown means of mosquitos. The U.S. Census Bureau reported a total population drop from 40,226 people in 1870 to just 33,592 in 1880. The city didn't regain its charter until 1893.

Memphis I

The family and I were away in Memphis for the weekend; the following are some pictures of the Gibson guitar factory here. It's the "baby" of the three that are here in the US. The tour guide -- a large man with a lisp, a pony tail of frizzy hair, a scruffy beard, and Jerry Garcia glasses (pictured here to the right) had a dry wit that you'd have to strain to catch normally, never mind all the sawing and machine noises going on all around us. The wood for the guitars is brought in from all over the world and is kept in this humidified warehouse setting.

Hundreds of gallons of water have to be used up daily to keep the wood from drying out. The table here to your left is where many of the telltale curved fronts and backs of Gibson guitars (think B. B. King's "Lucille" for this town's signature example of such) are clamped down for shaping.

It was good to see that the vast majority of the entire process of crafting Gibson guitars was still just that: a handcraft, and obviously so. The factory employs around fifty craftsmen who cut, shape, sand, fit, and finish the wood themselves; the machine to your right was one of the few (perhaps even the only) automated steps in the process of making the guitars. This machine is what carves the mirror-image "F" shapes (think the Stradivarius violin, after which the Gibson was originally patterned) and other holes into the bodies of the guitars.

Sadly, this has led to the mass production of items bearing names of unrepeatable local legends. This holds true as well, I hate to say, for the local restaurant on Beale Street which bears the name of the man in question and which, in my opinion, is something of a "Disneyland of the Blues," to make use of a phrase of Memphis' own Ochlophobist (whom I had the pleasure of meeting and with whom we worshipped just yesterday at his parish church).

Once the wood has been curved and carved, it is glued together and bound with canvas rope, after which it is hung to dry for about two days (seen here to your right). One of the things I didn't know was that the large, wooden block that goes through the middle of electric guitars is what leads to long, middle or short sustain, depending on the density of the wood; King's Lucille is something like maple, if I remember our Garcia Guide correctly, so her medium sustain is the resulting tone.

The next part was, I believe, the part that most impressed me. While most of the craftsmanship was being done all around us, the men were very much at a distance (understandable, as we wouldn't want to disturb them). These two pictures, however, were taken of men who were behind glass in an enclosed area, hand painting guitar after guitar with airbrushes (the ever-popular "sunburst" design -- yellow with dark border color -- is what you see to your left), followed by lacquer finishes.

The guitars were hanging up just between us and the men, who worked mere feet from where we were. That they were able to maintain concentration while all of us gawked and took pictures like the no-doubt annoying tourists we were is admirable.

These buffers administer coats of wax and other sealants onto the guitars; the wax/sealants are actually absorbed into the buffers and so the spinning wheel is itself the means of final polishing.

At the end of the tour, we were led to several tables of men who were stringing and tuning the guitars -- oh, and did I mention shredding? Yes, this was, no doubt, the best part of the tour, musically speaking. A guitarist, once finished with stringing and tuning a finished guitar, puts it through a "rigorous testing" (translation: he wails on it for about ten minutes. I tell ya', it's a tough job, but...). Once he's satisfied that the guitar lives up to the Gibson name, he signs off on it and the guitar is set to ship out.

There are, of course, guitars that fail to make the grade; these guitars are put into boxes, stacked one on top of another in a dumpster and incinerated. Amazingly, only about five percent of all guitars that go through this process wind up being incinerated; quite a testimony to the accuracy of their craftsmanship.

And here, of course, is the guitar shop outside the factory where my brother-in-law and I sat and played some of these incredible guitars. Time well spent, to be sure.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Psalms of David - Psalm 35

"The transgressor, that he may sin, saith to himself, that there is no fear of God before his eyes. For he hath wrought craftiness before Him, lest he should find his iniquity and hate it. The words of his mouth are iniquity and deceit, he hath not willed to understand how to do good. Iniquity hath he devised upon his bed, he hath set himself in every way that is not good, and evil hath he not abhorred."
and then...

"O Lord, Thy mercy is in heaven, and Thy truth reacheth unto the clouds. Thy righteousness is as the mountains of God, Thy judgements are a great abyss."

Fr. Patrick points out that St. Paul, when he quotes this psalm in Romans 3:18, states "that human sinfulness is more profoundly rooted in the substance of our moral composition" than we are comfortable with admitting. Indeed, Fr. Patrick continues, "we are all rebels against God. The contrast in Romans 3 is not between human evil and human goodness, but between human evil and divine mercy."

It's been said in quite a few Orthodox pamphlets, books, and websites (and is becoming something of a "pop Orthodoxy" cliche) that (to paraphrase), "Our God is not an angry, vengeful God who takes out his bloodthirst on His Son and, thus satiated, can tolerate us just enough to let us into heaven. Rather, ours is a God who is always love, and our experience of eternity is contingent upon our experience of that love, which comes from His presence." This is true, though this is not strictly (or, in many cases, at all) an accurate depiction when dealing with all the different western Christian confessions to which we Orthodox seem obsessed with comparing ourselves (instead of, say, simply declaring what we are and what we ourselves believe, regardless of other confessions' stances...but I digress). More importantly, said charicature is in danger of streamlining and watering down our own view of God.

In the psalm we find that man's depravity is laid out starkly and as inexcusably guilty of rebellion against God due to our own race's being bound up in mortality and the frantic, futile struggle to stave off the same. Thus, it is the gospel that must and does intervene, for we see that He comes from heaven, the clouds, the mountain, to speak and to lift. Our God is one who comes to seek and save the lost...yet he will also come to seek and destroy the wicked.
One aspect of our Orthodox soteriology that is often downplayed or (even more often) left out completely is that the divine parousia of our Lord will be the moment where His divine presence will separate the wheat from the tares in a sort of, "Ready-or-not-here-I-come" moment which will (God knows) be torment for many in this world. The iniquity, deceit, evil, and craftiness of all will be laid bare without warning, and God will reveal Himself to us, knowing full well that said unveiling will be unbearable to most.

It is for this reason that we have the four gospels. We have the lives of transfigured saints. The Christian life is one which holds out in one hand the reality of God's soon-impending judgement, His presence which will bring either everlasting destruction or times of refreshing in a sort of Narnian relativism that separates all of mankind. Yet in the other hand we see that this God who is not safe is yet most definitely good and loves mankind; we thus have this life to repent, to read the gospel, to embody His commandments and incarnate them, that we can, at the end, meet the Ruler of All not only as terrifying, unyielding, holy righteousness, but also as serene, steadfast, holy goodness. His hand is raised in blessing towards us, yet His gospel call is never separate from Him.

He will bring us to the Father. We have this life to determine whether we will sing like stones would because of this, or beg that the same fall on us.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Checkin' In With Family, Trinity, and Japanese Guys Who Rock My Socks off in Australia that order.

Things have been quite busy around here as of late; a trip to the Woodlands to visit Fr. Basil and Matushka Dea for the Fourth, planning and celebrating the girls' first and third birthday (a mutual party, if you please -- one's enough when they're a week and a half apart!) and general summer school mahem have made for precious little time to blog. The girls are growing like weeds, with the scene to the right, thanks be to God, still being the order of the day.

I've mentioned several times in the past the way in which the Church defines the Trinity as "Father, from Whom the Son is eternally begotten and the Spirit eternally proceeds." While this is very precise and Orthodox, it oftentimes fails to speak to folks -- eastern and western alike -- due to its use of "three Persons / one God" and the ever-present question (from inquirers) of whether we serve one God or three.

Three podcasts as of late have done a very good job of dealing with how the view of the Trinity can be reconciled quite easily with semetic views of God (the Father), the Word which God always has with Him, yet which is not the same as the Father (the Son), and the Spirit, or living Breath of God, by Whom God's Word is spoken (the Holy Spirit).

The Orthodox Christian Network released this podcast by Fr. John Behr, dean of St. Vladimir's.

Ancient Faith Radio released this podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko, dean emeritus of St. Vladimir's, and this pocast wherein Kevin Allen interviews Fr. Ted Pulcini.

And, finally...

...this guy ROCKS.