Sunday, June 27, 2010

Istanbul Of The American West

Austin, NV – named for Austin, TX but that’s where the resemblance ends – got its start when Wm. Talcott, a Pony Express agent, discovered silver at this point along the legendary trail that is today Highway 50, “the loneliest road in America.” The silver boom is long gone, but Austin remains the richest source of entertainment in Nevada. I say this with all due deference to the Strip. This weekend was my annual visit to St. George’s, Austin.

Saturday evening began with dinner – a meatball sandwich – at the Last Chance Saloon on the east edge of town. Despite its name The Last Chance is “a clean well lighted place” (Hemmingway) with a homey atmosphere. The proprietor gave me a favorable review of our new priest Darla Cantrell’s first time officiating at a wedding and gave me the card for her bed and breakfast, which is a castle 12 miles out of town. I later learned her husband is building an actual water filled moat around it. It sounded eccentric to me until I learned Austin has another castle, this one built in 1897, modeled after a Roman watch tower. A few weary gold miners were dining at the Last Chance as well. When they left, the miners gave me all sorts of brochures for local archaeological sites, caves, petro glyphs, pictographs, etc. That was pretty hospitable for tired miners on a Saturday night.

I then made my annual pilgrimage to the International Bar, not “a clean well lighted place” – a deliberately darker ambience. Odo the bar dog remembered me – or feigned recollection with the pastoral pretense common to bishops and bar dogs. The crowd was thin this time, but the television was showing The Magnificent Seven so I settled in for a long slow drink watching the complex heroism of Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the ptsd/ alcohol afflicted Robert Vaughn (the character, not Vaughn himself) unfold for the cause of justice in Mexico. The other patrons were well drillers. Austin is home to quite a gathering of well drillers this year since they discovered a hotbed (so to speak) of geothermal energy. There was much talk of virtues of geothermal in contrast to oil and coal. But the conversation also drifted to Emiliano Zappata and Pancho Villa. I am not sure they noticed the connection to the movie.

At one point a driller from California discovered that someone had written “(expletive deleted) yeah” on the wall. He was greatly offended – not by the expletive per se – but rather because he believed he had coined the term “(expletive deleted) yeah” 30 years ago. He regarded the graffiti as an infringement of his intellectual property rights in the expression.

Back at the Pony Canyon Motel, I fell quickly asleep but was awakened early by the television on the other side of the paper thin wall. It was saying “Thirty-three dollars and thirty-three cents. That's right. Only thirty-three dollars and thirty-three cents a week.” I hastily showered, dressed, and headed off to breakfast at the Toiyable CafĂ©.

The Toiyabe is a wonderful place complete with deer heads. I sat there waiting for my breakfast reading the emotivist rather Zen verse of Alberto Caerero, a heteronym of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa – poems written in 1914 generally about how things are only what they are but that’s just fine. Reading Pessoa/Caerero in the Toiyable struck me as perhaps somehow out of step. Then a couple sat down in the next booth. The man was large and white bearded; the woman a bit younger and subtly artsy, but very subtly. They began talking about visual arts in conceptual terms I did not understand. Their conversation turned to matters of technique which I also did not understand, but I could tell the woman was making a case for simplicity. She said something like “I just used pieces of purple cut glass. Some of them were pie shaped. Some were carrot shaped. I put them in triangles and that was enough.” The last part captured my attention. “That was enough.” Caerero’s Zen simplicity seemed right at home.

Then I stepped next door to St. George’s, the quaintest of quaint old brick churches with ancient gnarled poplars in the front yard. You may recall from earlier posts that St. George’s, a building on the historic registry, is also distinguished by its bell tower which doubles as the restroom. Worship at St. George’s was warm and engaged. Their veteran priest, Estelle, has been away quite awhile now with health problems. But their new priest, Darla, the Lander County dispatcher, fighting crime by day and preaching the gospel on weekends, is doing a magnificent job of holding the community together. They sang out the hymns with gusto accompanied by an ecclesiastical karaoke machine. They nodded and facially encouraged me through the sermon. They said the responses with energy and received communion with reverence. The morning could not have been better.

Then it was back to the Toiyabe for lunch with about half of the congregation. The server spoke to each and every one of them by name. One of the congregation, Frank Whitman, is working on a pictorial history of Austin and likes to wander the cemetery looking at tombstones. He described the tombstone of one Kee Lee whose epitaph read “Here lies a good Chinaman.” Ethnic sensitivity had apparently not made it to Austin by the time of Mr. Lee’s death. But the “unfortunate language” (Barak Obama speaking of Sen. Reid) was redeemed when it turned out most of the people at the table had actually known Kee Lee and remembered him with affection and respect as a wise and artful story teller.

Austin refuses to be reduced to any simple characterization. It is a post modern mountain mining town where geothermal green energy is discovered and developed among the ruins of played out silver mines and archaeological relics of human habitation 8000 years ago. It is pride in crude expressions set alongside sophisticated artistic minimalism. This is surely the Istanbul of the American West compressed into a village -- all this without broad band access. Every visit to Austin amazes me and I know I have barely scratched the surface.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Jefferson Starship At The Red Dog Saloon

An incredible evening with Jefferson Starship at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City. What is Jefferson Starship like on tour in 2010? I will tell you all, but first, for those of you dear readers who do not know this Battle Born State, a word about Virginia City – forget Bonanza. Virginia City was never a cow town with broad dusty streets. It was a mountain top mining town -- the center of the Comstock Lode named for the successful speculator Henry T. Pancake Comstock who struck it rich in 1859, sold his claim, invested in stores in Carson and Silver City, purchased a Mormon wife who ran away, then prospected unsuccessfully in Idaho and Montana where he killed himself in 1870 – no relation to John Henry Comstock, the noted entomologist. For the truth – using the word in a loose literary sense – about Virginia City, better to consult their premier journalist, Mark Twain.

The Red Dog Saloon, an intimate setting along Virginia City’s wooden sidewalks, was filled with boomers tonight. It was the 60+ crowd out in force to hear our old music. A few young folks showed up out of respect I guess. But we were mostly a collection of people who had lived through the Viet Nam era and everything since – it showed on us I must admit.

After the opening act, Jefferson Starship took the small stage. Paul Kantner, David Krieberg, and Chris Smits – 3 old guys who still love their music, playing it now with a seasoned passion. Marty Balin was not around. And of course Gracie Slick has been gone from Starship since 1988 – and lest I go overboard let me acknowledge there is only one Gracie Slick – a pioneer rock singer who was once arrested for attempting to spike Richard Nixon’s punch with LSD. Awful of course, but you had to be there or at least be then. She was one of a kind and is now a painter in New York City.

Instead of Balin and Slick, the old guys were joined by an angular young woman named Cathy Richardson who could have been their granddaughter. But she was a bona fide super star. She wore a sun dress under a black hooded sweater which she put to remarkable use. It wasn’t just the powerful brassy voice that was nothing less than Grace Slick quality; she was a performer in the 1967 sense of the word. She shot her fist up toward the ceiling, sliced the air with her hands, fell to her knees, clapped, stomped, pounded the stage with the mike stand exuding a blend of passions born of that mad era of hope, anger, and desperate aspiration. At one point she turned away, pulled her hood over her head transforming her blondness into an eerie witchy darkness, then turned on us with a rendition of White Rabbit that chilled the blood at “Just ask Alice, when she’s 10 feet tall.” In the second set, she hammered us with Somebody to Love – an existential admonition to human connection.

The closing song of the encore took a surprising thematic turn for the top band of psychedelic rock. It was a medley of Songs of Freedom, Redemption Song, and Imagine. The lyrics of John Lennon’s atheist anthem were woven into the lyrics of Bob Marley, blended into a proclamation of faith in transcendent deliverance and an invitation to live boldly in the face of all the menaces to freedom, happiness, and life itself. John Lennon no doubt turned over in his grave, but I loved it.

All this on a Friday night in the Red Dog Saloon of Virginia City. I cannot believe this life I have been given.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Walker Lake, Resilience In Reno, & How To Be The Church

On Monday, Walker Lake was perfectly still, reflecting the mountains and sky the way a serene soul reflects Christ. We were driving past Walker Lake after having flown from Reno to Las Vegas at the crack of dawn to load up our car with the rest of our belongings destined for Sparks. It was surreal, going to bed in Sparks two nights in a row, but with a plane flight and a long drive in between. That’s what I do with a day off. :-)

It had been a good Sunday at Trinity, Reno – a flagship congregation that has been through a lot of change and disruption these past few years. I was impressed by their resiliency and the energy in the room – the lay and ordained leadership and the people in the pews. They sang the hymns, said the responses – worshiped right out loud. Of course, they have the cutest family service anywhere. Then the principle service was blessed with a first class choir that is not too stuffy to get down as we said in the 70’s – I’m not sure what we say now – but they do it.

Saturday had been another Roving Workshop at St. Paul’s, Sparks on Orders of Ministry. Many Nevada Episcopalians have the notion that there are two diametrically opposed models for how to be the church and we are torn between them. I hope these workshops can help us recognize two things: 1. Neither of those models actually exists anywhere in our diocese today. 2. Neither of those models fits the ancient or contemporary Church’s understanding of our shape, our mission, or the nature of God.

I hope one basic insight will emerge from those two facts: A few general principles make up a broad outline of how to be the church. It is a deep and ancient wisdom – but the way the general principles are lived out in each local community is up to that community. Congregations have the freedom to be creative, innovative, and adaptive. We are here to connect people with Jesus “by any means necessary.” These workshops do not say“this is the way to do it” but rather "these are the resources you can use as you find your way."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Holy Trinity -- A Church On The Move

It was good to be back at Holy Trinity, Fallon today. The first thing you notice is the new sign which boldly welcomes people to worship and fellowship. The second thing is that the Holy Trinity congregation worships with energy. They sing the hymns with gusto, not dragging. They say the responses briskly. They are alert and engaged in prayer.

The next thing you notice is the pictures on the wall in the Parish Hall. Someone values these folks enough to photograph them and display their pictures with their names so people can get to know each other.

These first impressions of a healthy congregation are born out on deeper inspection. This is the first congregation in Nevada to identify someone to be trained as a lay evangelist. They offer a Bible Study, a divorce recovery seminar, a book group, a healing service, a mid-week Eucharist, private anointing for healing after the Sunday morning service, etc. They have 8 folks in the congregation trained as preachers, plus worship leaders and eucharisitic visitors.

Their challenge these days is that their Parish Hall needs to be replaced. Needless to say that is at once painful and exciting -- painful because it means tearing down the building where many special memories were made -- exciting because it promises a better space for fellowship, education, and community events in years to come.

As always, a visit to Fallon encourages me about our present and our future.