the miracle of flight: tiny bottles and brief intimacies

The guy sitting next to me on the flight to Des Moines was youngish, mplane in skyid-20s probably. I couldn’t tell if he was friendly or not. I wasn’t feeling especially so. I decided to read for the two hours it would take us to get there.
But there is something about sitting cheek by jowl next to a person on an airplane. You are in a fairly unnatural situation, thrust together in this gigantic hunk of flying metal 30,000 feet in the air. Surely there is an underlying sense of shared peril, no matter that statistics say you are safer than driving on I-96. As Louis C.K. says of griping airline passengers, “Did you soar through the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake of the miracle of human flight? You’re sitting in a chair in the sky!”
So back to the guy next to me going to Des Moines. There is a natural tendency to introduce yourself to a fellow passenger whose elbow is touching yours after you’ve both figured out which seat belt belongs to you. And truth be told I didn’t have much to read anyway. I asked him where he was going.
It was a convention of Wells Fargo interns. He was a business major working at Wells Fargo’s Philadelphia office, learning to do what they do there. Resisting the urge to ask if he got to ride the stagecoach, I plumbed more details about his life. Turns out he was a very friendly guy and told me about growing up in a town north of New York City, and how much he loved the life of the Big Apple.
Me being me, it didn’t take long to ask if he was a Mets fan or a Yankees fan. Yankees all the way. I gritted my teeth and told him I was a Tigers guy, and we smiled at our shared awareness of that ancient rivalry. We spoke of the great Jeter and Cabrera and the Yankees’ injury problems and their phenomenal new pitcher Masahrio Tanaka (who has since gotten injured himself). The young man’s baseball knowledge was comprehensive and historical, creating an instant bond between us I never would have guessed by looking at him.
Had we been traveling farther I would have dug deeper, asking about what his parents did for a living, if he had any siblings and what movies he’d seen lately. As it was we parted pleasantly as the plane landed in Des Moines, not having gotten each other’s names but gotten something deeper about our shared love of baseball.
This kind of intimacy on short notice is one of the little blessings of air travel. As Jerry Seinfeld notes, everything on airplanes is little: the tiny liquor bottles, the wee bathroom, the slight delays. The little acquaintances we make are nice reminders that, when forced into close quarters, our first instinct is to get to know one another.
This means we start out looking for what we have in common. “Philadelphia, huh? I have a cousin who’s from there! It’s a pretty nice city isn’t it?” We are predisposed to find things we like in common and about each other. And we take more interest than normal in who this complete stranger is and what he or she does in life.
I once had a pretty long plane conversation with a guy who worked for a food company in Hudsonville, not far from my home in Grand Rapids. We talked at length about the food industry, the pros and cons of organics and the increasing attractions of downtown GR. By the time we landed I felt I knew this young man fairly well, at least enough to write a brief Wikipedia entry about him.
My most memorable airplane acquaintance was a lovely woman named Doris Dudley. She sat next to me on my first flight to England back in 1976. It was an overnight and my first international flight, so I allowed myself a few tiny bottles of vodka with orange juice. I warmed happily to Doris Dudley’s tales of growing up in London and sleeping in the subway during Hitler’s bombing blitz. She had a merry voice, or at least it sure sounded merry to me as the little bottles emptied. By the time we landed at Gatwick I would have taken her as my grandmother.
It’s really too bad we don’t extend this sort of curiosity and generosity to people normally. More often than not we tend to notice how strangers seem different from us and judge them accordingly. And if we get into an online argument with them, you can just forget about any kind of bonding. It’s more like target practice.
Would that our daily interactions were more like airplane conversations, cheerfully getting to know each other in our chairs in the sky.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Faith On First reviewed in land of the Twins

Front coverLifelong Tigers fan though I am, I was pleased to see a review of “Faith On First: Thoughts on God, Nature and Sacrifice Bunts” in The Visitor, a publication of the Catholic Diocese of St. Cloud. It is written by John Rosengren, award-winning author of eight books including “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes” and the recently released “The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption.”
Writes Rosengren, “Honey is able to find the spiritual dimension of seemingly ordinary events and normal people in daily life through a variety of lenses. … Rather than gushing with sentimentality or proselytizing with righteous fervor, Honey gently probes these people and situations to uncover their goodness. The result is easy reading, one column giving way to another, with a gradual reassurance that the Spirit moves freely through it all.”
The full review can be read here.
I’m grateful to Rosengren for his generous review, and to all of you who may have read the book. If not, it may be purchased here from Schuler Books & Music. If you’re looking for some beach reading or pregame inspiration for the All-Star Game, it may be just the thing!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

thank you, Jimmy Fallon, for all this and more

jimmy fallonOne of the little joys Andrea and I have been sharing lately is Jimmy Fallon’s weekly thank-you notes. They are such harmless sources of momentary diversion. His “slow-walking family walking in front of me on the sidewalk” is one my favorite bits of my favorite waste of time. With his ridiculously goofy observations and musical mimicry Mr. Fallon has reminded us it is possible to be funny without being mean, tasteless and vulgar.
So on this beautiful and totally tasteful Memorial Day, I’d like to send out my own thank-you notes just because it’s probably the only day I will have time to do so for the next six weeks.
* Thank you, John Sinkevics, for playing with me in the Honeytones all these years and also having a May birthday. Do you think Arcade Fire would sing “Month of May” just for us?
• Thank you, West Michigan, for providing us the most gorgeous Memorial Day weekend in memory. I spent every waking minute outdoors, and some of the sleeping minutes as well.
• Thank you, Jimmy Fallon, for making it impossible to say “thank you” without thinking of you. I even say it like you now, although without the melancholy piano backing.
• Thank you, The Both, for reviving my faith in power pop. If Aimee Mann’s voice plus Ted Leo’s guitar doesn’t make you believe, you might as well hold onto those Todd Rundgren CDs until the day you die.
• Thank you, driver approaching my side street at 30 mph, for not using your turn signal so I had to wait 10 minutes before pulling out.
• Thank you, maple trees, for covering my lawn with your tiny offspring. I wish I could let every one of them grow up straight and tall, but alas, I must mow.
• Thank you, girl in Pet Smart, for saying “Even those people who love winter are over it.” It’s true, I am.
• Thank you, Cheerios, for never changing. I love you just the way you are.
• Thank you, earth, for shooting up all these flowers, plants and weeds and leaving me to figure out the difference. Why didn’t you make poison ivy with warning labels on it?
• Thank you, Pope Francis, for making all us non-Catholics feel good about the Catholic Church again. Now can you do the same for the Protestant church?
• Thank you, Monica Lewinsky, for reminding us you exist. We hope someone hires you.
• Thank you, Marshall Crenshaw, for recording “Fantastic Planet of Love,” so I could drive around listening to it this morning and feel cool.
• Thank you, men and women who died in battle, so that we could enjoy a beautiful Memorial Day and I could write silly blogs like this. And thank you, friends, for reading them!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

and now, back to those golden oldies … from the ’90s

Garbage  Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

In a class I was teaching at Grand Valley State University a couple of years ago, I presented a segment on rock stars who had died at age 27. I focused on Kurt Cobain, figuring my room full of 18- to 21-year-olds would relate better to the Nirvana front man than to Jim Morrison.
How wrong I was. Most of them looked at me with blank stares when I cued up “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Maybe some of them had heard the Weird Al Yankovic version but they sure didn’t know anything about Kurt Cobain. Of course not, you dope, I said to myself – these kids weren’t even born in 1991 when “Nevermind” came out. Kurt Cobain meant about as much to them as Tony Bennett.
With Nirvana’s recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, signifying 25 years since the release of their first recording, the point was brought home to boomers like me: The ‘90s are no longer a modern decade. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is now an oldie.
Think about it. If you were 15 in 1967, digging Sgt. Pepper, the Stones and the Doors, an oldie was a record by Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly from the 1950s. A song 25 years old would have been recorded in 1942. We’re talking Glenn Miller and Dinah Shore.
This does not compute. I just can’t think of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as in the same category as “In the Mood.” But generationally speaking, there we are.
The ’90s, despite giving us the first Iraq War and the rise of Newt Gingrich, also revived rock. The Seattle grunge scene brought back the electric guitar from those cheesy ’80s synths and drum machines. So in an attempt to put the ‘90s in their proper perspective and my mind in a sunny mood, I hereby offer a few of my golden oldies from the decade of we-didn’t-know-how-good-we-had-it:

“One of Us” by Joan Osborne: I swoon over the grinding guitars and Joan’s soulful voice contemplating God as a slob on the bus. Even if she no longer sings it, my band the Honeytones does, so there!
“1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins: A groove that hooks me like a pike in Lake Superior and pulls me along for a 4-minute thrill ride. Billy Corgan’s rat-in-a-cage snarl is under control in the service of a gloriously transcendent chorus.
“Stupid Girl” by Garbage: An early bit of sweet nastiness from the decade’s best band. They’ve never been huge, but fans of the mesmerizing Shirley Manson and co. will never understand why.
“Basket Case” by Green Day: The definition of irresistible. Punk purists sneer that Billie Joe and the boys sold out with this full-throttle joy ride of adolescent angst. Poppycock. It was just so damn good that lots of people liked it. Horrors!
“Follow You Down” by the Gin Blossoms: A three-minute trip to jangle heaven. If you don’t smile at this song you need regression therapy, back to the days when all you needed was a sweet tune on the radio to make you feel on top of the world.
“Breakout” by the Foo Fighters: Not one of their better-known songs but certainly one of the best with which to bang the head. They come no cooler than Dave Grohl, who can scream with the best of them while gamely playing the dork on video.
“She’s So High” by Tal Bachman: He seemed to have learned some nice licks from his father, Randy, but it’s Tal’s gorgeous falsetto that lets him get away with hitting notes as high as the ledge from which the winged damsel leaps. Whatever happened to this guy anyway?
And now for two entries from our guest star John Sinkevics, my bandmate and maestro of the music blog
“Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.: Perhaps the perfect R.E.M. single, a brilliantly compelling nugget that not only represented the heart, soul and sound of one of the era’s most important rock bands, but also struck a chord with mainstream audiences, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard 100 — their highest charting U.S. hit. And to think it featured a mandolin …
“Smooth” by Santana with Rob Thomas: For a few years, it seems, this song was omnipresent — on radio, TV, you name it. And it deserved that sort of treatment: It’s a unique and catchy pop tune starring an iconic guitarist and a captivating rock voice.

Hey, you know what? That was a pretty darn good decade of music. I’d love to hear what you thought of it, and what you listened to.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

sweet photos and fragrant flowers: a Mother’s Day eulogy

My magnolia was in full glory on Mother’s Day. The cold spring had kept her flowers only half-open for a week, but Sunday’s onset of summer warmth let her burst forth fMagnoliaully. Glory hallelujah.
I camped under her canopy and drank in the intoxicating fragrance. Then I thought of a day several years ago when I was up in the magnolia doing a spring pruning. I wasn’t sure which branches to lop and which to save. I called Dad from right there in the tree but got Mom instead. Not surprisingly, she proceeded to tell me exactly how to do it, at length.
“Your dad is too soft,” she said, in a familiar vein. “You need to cut off any branch that’s touching another branch. That’s how you help it grow.”
This was typically tough talk from Mom, who came from the Miner clan on Detroit’s northwest side. The Miners were not pansies. Mom loved flowers but she was not going to be soft on the magnolia.
I was happy to have these thoughts of Mom on Mother’s Day, as I no longer had Mom herself. Since her passing in 2011 life has been a little shallower. It never again will include me walking into the living room of the homestead in Williamston, and Mom greeting me from her corner chair with a beaming smile and soft kiss, her hands gently framing my face.
I will never see another smile quite that joyful. Mom always called us kids “the jewels in our crown.” She did have a way of making us feel like royalty.
Sunday was a festive day on Facebook as friends shared photos and memories of their mothers. It was heart-warming to see all these lovely women, often with their children but sometimes solo photos of themselves as ravishing young adults. It was easy to see why their children shared the pictures so glowing with love and beauty.
For some though the beauty was tinged with sadness, a celebration of a life that was but is no longer except in spirit. For one dear friend in particular, there was as much sorrow as sweetness in sharing photos of her mother who had died just a week before. For those of us in the orphanage, seeing families gather for lunch on the patio in their Sunday best is wistful at best.
The traditional tune “Motherless Children” states it a little too baldly: “Motherless children have a hard time when mother is dead, Lord. /Nobody treats you like a mother will …” It’s been recorded by many from the Rev. Gary Davis and Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton and Lucinda Williams. The version I know is by Steve Miller, who softens the lyric to “when their mother is gone.” His dirge-like guitars and soulful vocal plaintively express the loss: “all that weeping, all that crying.”
My Andrea will cry at unexpected times about her mother, who died 11 years ago. A friend told me the other day that she had broken into tears that morning for her mother, who has been gone for 30.
The photo I posted of Mom on Facebook was from Rice’s Resort, a little patch of Eden on Lake Skegemog (then called Round Lake) where we spent many summers in the 1950s. Mom is sitting on a stump, chin perched on hand, smiling softly. She could be looking at us kids playing or just thinking about how happy she feels to be there. Her face says all is well with the world.Mom at Rice's
That is the Mom I think about on Mother’s Day, brimming with life, pregnant with joy. She still talks to me up in the magnolia, and her fresh beauty blooms in the sun.





Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

first the book, then the signing

At Schuler’s on 28th … author promises remarks will be mercifully brief





Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

as I walked out on Easter morning

daffodilsAs I walked out on Easter morning
Daffodils cheered the sunrise
Standing strong and straight and green
Reaching for the good new day.
Canada geese welcomed me
With their sharp exuberant honks
Flying from the river by the park
Over the still sleeping town.
Birds sang life’s most hopeful song
The one that celebrates light
Returning from the darkness
Chickadees and mourning doves
Raising a cantata of joy.
Like a young boy jumping out of bed
His feet hitting the cold floor
His legs carrying him to the ball field
Or to his banged-up bicycle
To toss the morning paper
On a hundred waiting porches:
That was what this day was like
To me, the once-young boy
Standing on my parents’ porch
Clutching a cup of coffee
Hot and strong and sweet
Like grandma always made it
Listening to the song
Looking at the flowers
Smelling the sweet soft air
Watching for the light
Just then breaking to life
Beyond the corn fields.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

how 20 years of life became a book

Front coverThe wonderful Russ Burpee, who used to greet worshippers in our church foyer with a warm hand and beaming smile, told me more than once: “You ought to collect your columns into a book, Charley. People would read it.”
I took his advice seriously, admiring Russ as I did. But I didn’t act on it. After all, my columns appeared every week in The Grand Rapids Press Religion section. Why would people want to read the same columns again just because they were bound together, and pay money for them to boot?
But as the years went by, the idea seemed to gain merit. The longer you stick with something it seems to acquire more value. Being a plumber for 20 years deserves a certain recognition. As I closed in on two score years of religion writing, a greatest-hits package beckoned.
Thus “Faith on First: Thoughts on God, Nature and Sacrifice Bunts,” which collects four score of the more than 900 columns I’ve written since 1994. That was when The Press’ previous religion editor, Ed Golder, asked me if I would like to inherit his job. Incredibly, I said yes, and even more incredibly, I loved it.
I hope that love is evident in the columns I’ve assembled. Truly, in my 35 years as a reporter and editor, no news beat has brought me as much reward as religion. In covering the meaning of life from week to week, I’ve met so many wonderful, interesting and inspiring people, some internationally famous, some who live down the block. It’s been a privilege to write about them, whether it’s the giggling wisdom of the Dalai Lama, the fortitude of Ed Dobson, the pot-stirrings of Rob Bell or the genius of Anthony Torrone and his amazing Lego creations.
It’s been a pleasure as well as to offer my thoughts on issues of the day and questions of the age. Such as: How did the universe begin? Where does the time go when it goes? Why doesn’t God answer when I ask him simple questions? And why do I keep losing my glasses?
The book also includes two of the blogs I’ve written here, a foreword by my friend and fellow journalist Pat Shellenbarger and an entirely made-up commentary by my favorite Detroit Tigers broadcasters.
Indeed, baseball is the colorful thread that ties these essays together, much like the Dude’s rug in “The Big Lebowski.” Baseball’s slow, ritual rhythms comfort my perpetually worried soul like a Gregorian chant. Why “Faith On First”? Because being on first base means you’ve gotten there through good effort. It feels good to be there, with the hope of rounding more bases and possibly coming home – much like the reassurance of faith.
If this sort of thing interests you, my book is available at Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, where I will have a book-signing at 7 p.m. on May 8. If you don’t live in West Michigan, you can order it at, go to “Browse Our Shelves” and click on “Local Authors.”  Or just send me an email at
Self-promotion goes against the grain of any self-respecting reporter. But if Russ Burpee felt I should publish a book, that’s good enough for me. I hope you agree.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second

That’s how long it took for the universe to get started, or even less. So say really smart astrophysicists after having detected “gravitational waves” left over from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. Some say it might be one of the biggest scientific discoveries of all time.

To which I say, wow, hallelujah,Image and what was that again?

First of all, if no band has yet taken the name of “Gravitational Waves,” I hereby claim it should the Honeytones ever disband. (That will never happen, but I’ve still got dibs.)

Second of all, this is mind-blowing news of the first order, and of much higher quality than most of what passes for such. For this news points to how we actually got here, or, as one helpful video with a lovely British accent puts it, the beginning of everything.

But is it really the beginning of everything? Or if it is, what was there before the beginning? And who began it?

That is, what or who could take a “submicroscopic speck of primordial energy,” as The New York Times put it, and blow it up in the space of a trillionth of a trillionth etc., thereby starting a universe that now measures 14 billion light years across? And that’s just what we can see.

The discovery of little swirls in the universal background of microwave radiation – don’t ask me to explain it – by scientists camped out at the South Pole is breathtaking news. It’s almost like someone took a selfie of Genesis (the book not the band).

Reporters struggle to explain it to us mere laypeople. It’s like the ripples of sand left by the waves. It’s like seeing the same coffee cup cooled at the same rate wherever you look. It’s like a 40-minute jazz odyssey by Spinal Tap (that one is my contribution).

But what does it mean, exactly? Does it mean that the universe, or the un-universe, just sat there cold and dead until one day it decided to snap to life? If so, how long was it cold and dead before it snapped to life? And just how does cold, dead matter “decide” to snap to life?

With apologies to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who explains such things much more elegantly in the reboot of “Cosmos” now showing on Fox, these questions get my brain working overtime. These gravitational waves pull me toward the idea that there must have been a creator who got the waves rolling.

I was roundly slapped for posing that really unradical thought in my recent column on “Cosmos,” by an online commenter who said I might as well say a pink unicorn created all the flatulence on Earth. (Clearly this man has not read the Gnostic Gospel of the Pink Unicorn.) But Tyson himself, an agnostic, admits science doesn’t know the answer to Where It All Came From.

Certainly, a universe created by chance is at least as implausible as a universe created by a creator. The latter makes more sense to me. As the Jewish physicist and author Gerald Schroeder had posited, the universe could have started as an idea – God’s idea.

I don’t know about you, but to me a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth brings to mind a familiar phrase: Let there be light. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

when lonely, I go Facebookin’

shivering boyThis morning I awoke with a general restlessness and insecurity. I was graced with a cup of strong coffee and the warm comfort of a real person, my dear Andrea. How nice to be able to start counting your blessings at 5 a.m.
But beyond that – Andrea must ready herself for work – how to answer this nagging insecurity, which borders uncomfortably on loneliness born of an unsettling dream? Why, all my friends from the ether, of course. Good morning Facebook!
Like Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks finding a bit of solace in the quaint “You’ve got mail!” of opening their AOL accounts – in the romantic comedy of the same name — I find comfort from a short dip in the lap pool of What My Friends are Doing and Thinking. With two keyboard clicks I’ve gone from the isolated pond of my own thoughts to the swimming community of theirs.
In 1966 Robert Parker sang of the joys of dancing in his minor hit “Barefootin.’”So permit me the little joys of Facebookin,’ aimlessly floating down the stream of other people’s lives while I try to get back to my own.
So today I see a touching video of an 11-year-old boy shivering at a bus stop in Oslo, Norway, and all the people who offered him their coats, scarves and gloves. It was a promo film for SOS Children’s Villages International’s campaign to find clothing for children displaced by the Syrian civil war. It was staged with a volunteer boy, yet still a welcome demonstration of human caring – something I personally am always glad to see.
Also: an aerial photo of the Great Lakes frozen over, compliments of my friend Steve from Stratford, Ont.; a funny Far Side cartoon posted by Kenny from Detroit; two cats snuggling into an open suitcase shared by Tracy of Ada; news of a land gift to Meijer Gardens from Jim of Grand Rapids Township; a much-commented-upon think post about Miley Cyrus from Brian of East Lansing; and, God bless him, a clip posted by John Serba of the just-late Harold Ramis and his classic “print is dead” scene from “Ghostbusters.”
As you can see, nothing here will change the course of American foreign policy. But it did change the course of my day just a little, drawing me out of myself which at the moment was not a wonderful place to be.
Facebookin’ can also be an annoying distraction, of course, especially if you’re not the one doing it. You’re trying to have real human interaction with this person but he just keeps scrolling through his phone like a little kid glued to his Gameboy. This kind of Facebookin’ does not enhance community, it nibbles away at it.
Facebook can also be a mindless way to not deal with your own stuff. Rather than pay attention to your discomfort and sit with it, as Pema Chodron would advise, you cover it over with superficial surfing of other people’s stuff.
And, I do worry about Mark Zuckerberg’s potential power over the entire human enterprise when he’s got the buying habits and musical tastes of more than 1 billion users at his fingertips.
Still. Facebook as community when you keenly feel a lack of it can be a balm to the troubled soul. It can even be a place of spiritual sustenance, lifting you from your closed-in mindset to a broader view of what’s happening out there as seen through others’ eyes. It brings you closer to other souls, whether troubled or content.
Well, I will not make definitive proclamations about the social good of Facebook. I will just say that today I was grateful for it. And now I must get back to my own “real life.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment