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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mission Earth: More Legendary Awfulness

Mission Earth: Volume One: The Invaders Plan

I’m not sure why I put myself through it, this self torturing, literary masochism. Last year it was the four books of the Twilight series, and now I have finished reading The Invaders Plan, the first of L. Ron Hubbard’s 10 volume Mission Earth series. It’s a book that the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction described as "One of the great embarrassments of modern science fiction…" I’ve seen them in nearly every library I’ve ever visited. Now I have finally challenged myself to read them. I’m not sure I can do it.

It wasn’t long ago that I read Hubbard’s more popular, but equally awful Battlefield Earth. I knew what to expect: flat characters, goofy dialogue, and plot holes large enough to drive a truck through… But I also read his book, Fear, which – surprise surprise – wasn’t too terrible. Seriously. It was an enjoyable book. Hubbard was a writer of pulp fiction in multiple genres through the 30’s and 40’s, and was in constant demand. He is credited as being one of the greats from that period. But his later works, like Battlefield Earth and The Invaders Plan, certainly don’t show it.

To begin, The Invaders Plan opens with a ham fisted preface that explains in painfully dull detail the history of satire. Hubbard wants his readers to understand that this book – that this whole series is social commentary. But a joke isn’t funny if you have to explain it and satire isn’t funny or cutting or striking if you have to explain it that it’s satire.

Having finished Hubbard’s preface we enter the story proper – which begins with a preface from Lord Invay, the Royal Historian, and Chairman of the Board of Censors on the planet Voltar. So we, the readers of The Invaders Plan have to imagine a Voltarian reader for this story – a fiction within a fiction. Invay emphatically tells us (or, rather, tells his Voltarian reader) that the planet Earth is sensationalist fiction of the lowest kind.

On the authority of every highly placed official in the land I can assure you utterly and finally, THERE IS NO PLANET EARTH! And that is final!
Then there is a third preface by the (fictional) robot translator who explains that the Voltarian narrative has been translated into “Earth Language” (which is used to justify the abundance of earth clichés …) So we are now asked to imagine a Volatarian reader who is imagining an Earthling reader…

This could be an interesting concept but it isn’t handled well. It only confuses the story and serves to weaken the impact of the whole point – the point that has been hammered away in three prefaces – that this is satire.

And the poor writing doesn’t help either. I mentioned in my comments on Battlefield Earth that Hubbard needed to strike the word “had” from his vocabulary. The same holds true for The Invaders Plan. I don’t think that Hubbard ever met a passive verb that he didn’t love.

Outside, in the dimness of the hanger, I tried to move my arm. It was totally unresponsive. It would swing and dangle but the elbow and wrist would not bend at my command. The fingers would not flex. I felt I was done for!

Considerations that the mission was again stalled, that I was under threat of death from Lombar, that I could lose my paychecks and be cashiered and wind up as a gutter bum in Slum City were all acute enough. But they momentarily took second place to this arm.
The story is told as first person narrative and is an account of the life and crimes of Solatan Gris. Gris tells his story from a cell in hopes of earning clemency for his crimes. Gris is an operative for the Coordinated Information Apparatus (CIA – get it?) charged with a mission on the planet Earth.

The Voltarian leaders plan to use earth as a supply base in their conquest of the universe. It has come to their attention, however, that the inhabitants of the planet Earth are too ignorant to take care of the place and are in the process of destroying the planet. Gris is charged to go to the planet Earth and to halt this self destruction so that the Volatarian fleet can, in the near future, occupy it.

But Gris is also charged by the Apparatus chief, Lombar Hiss with another secret mission. Lombar has been using his contacts on Earth to supply him with drugs and psychiatrists so that he can launch his own coup d’état and take control of the Voltarin confederation. (If there were two things Hubbard hated they were drugs and psychologists) Lombar wants Gris to protect his drug supply.

But Gris is a complete failure. He is bumbling at every turn, incompetent, cowardly, arrogant, rude, and lazy. How he could plausibly be given responsibility in any organization strains my ability to suspend disbelief. There is no invasion in The Invaders Plan. There is no plan in The Invaders Plan! Gris spends 556 pages trying to manipulate the members of his team into leaving the planet Voltar. There is very little movement in the plot but lots of meandering through irrelevant and pointless action.

I’m going to try to get through the other volumes of Mission Earth. This is my literary flagellation. This is my mortification. I will read bad books; I will wear them as a hair shirt. I will become a better writer.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

No Answer but Silence

“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” Job was a good man, a righteous man who, because of cosmic wager between God and the Satan, lost his wealth, his family and even his health. And yet through it all he insisted that God was good.

The story of Job is a Theodicy. It is an attempt to explain the problem of evil and suffering. How do we reconcile the presence of evil and pain and suffering in the world with our belief in good and loving God? If God is good why does he allow people to hurt and to grieve and to suffer? If God is powerful why does he not stop natural disasters?

These are not just esoteric philosophical, theological, questions for scholars and academics. Everyone everywhere has asked this most difficult of questions: Why? It’s part of who we are as human beings. We hurt and we want to know why. We weep and we want to know that God cares. Cultures around the world and all through history have asked these questions. And after thousands of years of asking the question and debating the issue, what answer to I have? What wisdom, what insight do I have into the problem of pain?

I don’t know.

Now, to be sure, the flooding here along the Red River and further west in Jamestown haven’t been as catastrophic as in past years. There hasn’t been the destruction and devastation that we’ve seen in other natural disasters or in human caused destruction. But being here these days causes me to probe these theodicean questions. Why?

The Salvation Army responds to floods and hurricanes and earthquakes, and burning buildings. Our Emergency Disaster Service (EDS) teams offer cold water and hot coffee and the comfort of food to those in crisis situations. But even more than that, we offer the comforting presence of one who cares. Spiritual and emotional care is just as important as that cup of coffee.

And it has always bothered me that I can’t answer these questions. I do not know why God allows floods or hurricanes or earthquakes. I do not know why.

Sometimes I feel like I don't know
Sometimes I feel like checking out.
I wanna’ get it wrong
Can't always be strong
And love, it won't be long.
       Ultraviolet (Light My Way) – U2

As a cadet on my summer assignment I was called to respond to a drowning. A group of teenage boys had been swimming in the river. One of them was pulled under by the current and swept away. The rescue workers and dive teams went to work, and the Salvation Army EDS team was there to offer sandwiches and beverages to them. After making sure that the food and drinks were laid out and that the EDS team was set up to do what they needed to do, I sat down in a chair next to the family of the missing boy. I sat there with them for three days until their son was found. And I said nothing.

What could I have said to them? I was 21. I had no answers. And now more than a decade later, I still have no answer to that kind of question, no satisfying answer anyway.

I could give those stupid and clichéd answers: “well, God must have wanted him in heaven…” or “It was just his time.” But I don’t believe those answers. And I know that when I suffered a loss in my own life that kind of answer only made me angry.

I have no answer but silence.

A friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief or bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing … not healing … not curing …that is a friend who cares.  -Henri Nouwen

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When You Go Through the Deep Waters

When you go through the deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty you will not drown. Isaiah 43: 2 (New Living Translation)

It’s nearly over. The Red River has crested and the waters are slowly receding. Fargo and Moorhead and the other communities along its banks can breathe a sigh of relief. In Jamestown, North Dakota the US Army Corps of Engineers has suspended building of the levee system, noting lower than predicted run off. If the dikes and sandbags hold and barring a major snow or rainstorm in the area, the water levels should continue to go down.

With a grin Steve Carbno, The Salvation Army’s Deputy Incident Commander, said that he feels a little cheated. “We planned to a level that we never got to.” But that’s a good thing. “We learned a lot of lessons in last years flooding that we were able to put into practice this year. Our response to this year’s flooding was very efficient.”

It was a great effort from all of our volunteers, employees and the Salvation Army officers who came into the area from across the Northern Division. Captain Bill Mealy, Corps Officer of the Salvation Army in Fargo credited them for their hard work. “I’m not sure how I would have made it through this without each of you.”

In addition to the flood Captain Mealy and his wife, Captain Ann Mealy have been dealing with some personal difficulties. Captain Bill is recovering from a surgical procedure on his leg and in the midst of the flood efforts their daughter was taken to the hospital for an emergency operation. “This would have been too much for me, alone,” said Captain Mealy.

As the waters continue to dissipate and things begin returning to normal The Salvation Army will continue to serve the physical and spiritual needs of the people of these areas, ministering to them and serving them in the name of God.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Somewhere, God is Laughing

Sometimes we only get things done by the grace and good humor of God. I know that God must be laughing at us this morning; I can almost hear the cosmic belly rolls of divine guffaws reverberating in the air. It’s definitely a Monday.

The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Service (EDS) response is well organized and able to respond quickly and efficiently to disasters and emergencies of all kinds. We can get volunteers and vital supplies to afflicted areas with a moments notice, but sometimes we demonstrate our human fallibility.

This morning was one of those times.

It began as the canteen crews were loading their supplies – the sandwiches, snacks, and beverages that are served to the flood response teams around the city. One of the canteens was locked and the key hadn’t been put in its proper place. A radio call to the previous evening’s driver went unanswered. A phone call to his cell phone was similarly unanswered. A runner was dispatched to his hotel room to find him and to find the missing canteen key.

Meanwhile a truck with a load of bottled water was on its way to the command center and the canteen was still parked and locked in front of the loading area, blocking the door through which 14 pallets of water would need to be moved.

I wish that I had been ready with my camera to photograph the EDS ingenuity at work, but I missed it. Others among the team here are quite relieved that I wasn’t quick on the draw. They don’t want any evidence of this morning’s misadventure to leak out.

The back end of the obstructing canteen was lifted with a forklift and then rolled – ever so carefully- forward until it was out of the way.

Last night’s driver (who’d been on the late late shift) answered the door with bleary eyes and rumpled hair to hand over the missing key.

And everything is back to, well, whatever passes for normal during these kinds of events. The canteen crews are out delivering food and beverages. The truckload of water was unloaded into the warehouse. And somewhere in the heavens, God is having a great chuckle at our expense.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mooreton, North Dakota - Search and Rescue and Service

The uniformed members of the various response agencies must have nearly outnumbered the population of the little town of Mooreton, North Dakota.  Members of the North Dakota Highway Patrol, County Sherriff, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, Border Patrol, Customs Agents, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Valley Water Rescue Crew, and various Fire Departments from the area all responded to the report of a missing person.

A young woman from this little community where everyone knows everyone and everyone is connected to everyone, went missing last night.  She'd called to her family to say that she would be home in ten minutes, but she never arrived.  Her car was found this afternoon - several miles away, off the road, 10 feet under the cold waters of a flooded field.

An incident command center was set up in the Mooreton community hall (which still smelled faintly of last night's community fish fry...)  The room was filled with the earth toned green, and blue, and brown uniforms of the various agencies.  The colors of the room were brightened by the red and white jackets and vests of The Salvation Army's Emergency Disaster Service (EDS) team.

And in the same way, the somber faces of the uniformed men and women were brightened by the appearance of sandwiches, bottles of water, and urns of hot coffee.  "You just don't know how good it is to see you guys here," said one member of the U.S. Border Patrol who hails from Whitefish, Montana.  "I don't know if anyone else has told you this, but is so good for us to have you here."

Friday, March 19, 2010

Help Us to Help Each Other, Lord

Help us to help each other, Lord,
each other’s cross to bear;
Let each his friendly aid afford,
and feel his brother’s care.

In our country we value a rugged individualism and we emphasize things like independence, self-reliance and personal hard work. But that isn’t always enough. Natural disasters prove bigger than the effort of any single individual.

But in the Fargo / Moorhead area the community understands the importance of a shared and collaborative effort. Volunteers from every section of the community have come together to protect the city from the rising flood waters of the Red River and to serve the needs of the community.

Since March 1st The Salvation Army has recorded over 1,820 hours of service in response to the flood – from its officers, employees, and numerous volunteers. They have served over 12,000 meals, 18,000 beverages and 16, 500 snacks to sandbag crews, city employees, fire-fighters, law-enforcement officers and National Guard crews.

This massive effort of this Army is motivated by a love for God and a love for humanity, serving sandwiches and a cup of cold water or hot coffee in Jesus’ name. “Practical concern for the men and women of Fargo and Moorhead and the surrounding communities is the mission and sacrament of the Salvation Army” said Captain Bill Mealy, the Commanding Officer of the Fargo corps. “Serving others is an expression of our worship of God and our love for our brothers and sisters.”

Help us to build each other up,
our little stock improve;
increase our faith, confirm our hope,
and perfect us in love.
     Charles Wesley (1707 – 1788)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Red River Flooding

Once again I find myself in Fargo North Dakota serving with the Salvation Army's Emergency Disaster Response Team. The Red River has filled up with melting snow and ice and is rising rising rising rising.  The water level in Fargo this morning was at 33.8 feet and is expected to rise another 6 feet before it starts to go down.  Last year the river crested at 40.8 feet.

Between last year and this year the cities in this area made extensive renovations and changes in their flood preparedness plans - more dikes, higher walls, contacts and contracts in place before the floods, etc... 

So while there is some anxiety about the rising waters, there isn't quite the FEAR that there was last year - and so far - there hasn't been a flooding of the inhabited areas.

In Fargo, over 1 Million sandbags have been prepared and 740,000 placed along the river banks - with the remaining bags kept in heated storage areas in case they are needed.  The heated storage is important since the bags become ineffectual when they freeze.  And though the river is diked and sandbagged, there are the cold and freezing temperatures at night. This, along with unpredictable weather (could there be more snow or rain?) could leave the cities vulnerable to flooding.

Further north in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Salvation Army volunteers are assisting the community of Oslo - a small town that is turned into an island protected by sandbags when the river floods.  Sandbag crews are building up the walls that will protect that little community.

Westward is the city of Jamestown, North Dakota.  I was there last year as well.  There the Pipestem and the James rivers converge and a lot of water is forced to flow through a very small area.  Last year it flooded the city.  So far, the city is dry, but city officials and Salvation Army volunteers are waiting and watching and preparing against the worst.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Arts and Crafts Weekend - Photos

I had intended to make this post much sooner, but the days got away from me. 
So, now a week later, here are some photos from the Arts & Crafts weekend:

 We arrived Friday afternoon at The Salvation Army - Northern Division's camp in Finlayson Minnesota.  The ground was covered in a slurry of melting snow and mud.  And, as the days are getting longer, the sun was still shining. 

As they arrived, the women began working on various projects - scrapbooks, cards, crocheting, knitting, etc... and a few brave souls wandered over to the area of the room where I had set up my sprawling work center.

Cherrie was one of the first.  She claimed no previous painting experience and even said that she nearly failed chalk art class at seminary.  She didn't fail because she dropped the class.  I wouldn't have guessed that from the painting she produced in the few hours with me.

Donna also claimed to have no prior experience - though I think she was shamming.  Her work turned out great.  Donna taught the photography group on Saturday, so she jumped right in Friday evening (and then wandered back and forth between the two groups all day Sat.)

She painted an arrangement of various flowers that she had photographed in Colorado.   You can see that she had a good time with this.

Rhoda (seen not painting in the picture to the right) painted a very nice picture of a cardinal.  I didn't get a photo of her completed work, but it was great.  She, like Donna and Cherrie, claimed to have never painted before.

And get this:  There wasn't a single 'Bob-Ross-Happy-Tree' the whole weekend.

Crystal started painting late into Saturday.  She was frantically trying to put something together as most everyone else was packing up.  She had some good ideas - even if she was more than a little bit scattershot about them.   I didn't worry about Crystal's painting.  I know she's been painting for some time.

 I also didn't get a picture of Donna's completed painting, but you can see here that it was turning out very nice. 

And, just in case you were wondering what I worked on during the weekend, I have this one last photo to show you.  Though you should be aware of the fact that the painting has changed quite a bit since this picutre was taken.
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