Saturday, October 3, 2015

Ann & Al Simpson-Play Cupid

This may be the “feel good” story of the year. Not a word is fiction. From where he sits even today, Shakespeare is writing the sonnet. It’s about the time Al and Ann Simpson played cupid.

Where’d they shoot their arrows? At the hearts of an unlikely couple. Their aim was dead-on. Arthur Middleton is a South Carolinian; Ann Sale a New Yorker by way of West Virginia.

Studying wolves, elk, and bears connected Middleton to Wyoming. Middleton connected Anna. Alone they are intriguing. Together they are captivating. Dr. Middleton is a research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science. Dr. Middleton once left college momentarily to travel to England to become a falconer. Later he returned, eventually earning a doctorate in ecology from the University of Wyoming. Anna attended Stanford before finding herself a radio reporter in New York City.

Anna and Arthur met at a Fourth of July party hosted by Matt Lieber, owner of a company producing Brooklyn podcasts. Long story short, it was love at first sight. Though, the Simpsons couldn’t have played Cupid if it had lasted. It didn’t.

Over the next couple of years, Arthur squeezed in the completion of his dissertation and some fieldwork in South America. Anna roamed the country reporting on the 2012 Presidential contest. Often they went as much as six weeks without seeing one another. A weekend here, a day or so there.

Then came the break-up. As Anna described it for the New York Times, she asked him, “Are we buying a couch for our living room, something that we are investing in together, or am I buying a couch that is mine?” Arthur gave the wrong answer. He was outta there.

His heart was broken. He wanted another chance. He called and texted and flew to New York trying to make up. Didn’t happen. He brooded. Then he remembered the award ceremony.

Dr. Middleton was scheduled to receive an important award; something called the Camp Monaco Prize, for his study of elk in Wyoming. The ceremony was set for Cody. Cody, Wyoming? Isn’t that where former Senator Al Simpson lives? Dr. Middleton didn’t know Al; had never met him. But somehow he knew Al could save him from his broken heart.

Arthur wrote Al. Asked if he could help him get back the love of his life. He wanted Al to call Anna. He told the newspaper, “I decided if you want something so badly and you are not willing to humiliate yourself, get down on your knees in front of everybody, then what’s wrong with you?”

Al was inclined to ignore the letter. It was too weird. Ann Simpson told him he couldn’t blithely ignore a lovesick man who’s willing to risk embarrassment to seek Simpson’s help.

Al called Anna. Left a voice message. “Hello, this is former Senator Al Simpson. Could you please call me in Cody, Wyoming.” Anna listened. She’d never heard of Al. Was this a prank? What the heck? She returned the call.

Ann Simpson and her husband talked long distance to the woman they’d never met about a man they’d never met about how deeply in love he was with her. Al asked her, “What do you have to lose?” Come to Cody. Be there when Arthur receives his award. If you still don’t want to get back together, go home contentedly.

Anna Sale came to Wyoming. She went to the award dinner with Arthur Middleton. Later they talked as they hiked. Love rekindled. Cupid hit the target.

They were married in Cody on August 15. The ebullient Simpsons watched with their long, loving marriage a testament to how good it can be.

“I can’t believe how the hell I got into this,” Al told the New York Times in his inimitable way. “He (Dr. Middleton) realized he’d been out there messing around with the elk when he could have been messing around with Anna.”

Ann and Al Simpson. Cupid. You gotta love Wyoming.

What is "liberal Christianity" ?

I was “all in” when Rev. Bob Norris suggested we write point-counterpoint articles defining differences between liberal and conservative Christianity.  We’re both Christians though our views of what that means vary considerably.

We agreed to write a series of twelve columns over the next year. They’ll appear the first Saturday of each month, each tackling a different doctrinal issue. While neither of us speaks for all our brothers and sisters of the faith, we’ll attempt to provide the basis for defining conservative and liberal Christianity.

I ascribes to a liberal Christian theology. What does that mean? Those who share that theology are variously referred to as liberal, progressive, or mainline Christians. The so-called “mainline” churches include, among others, the United Methodists, Episcopal, American Baptists, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where I am ordained, and the Presbyterians, where I serve as a pastor.

Liberal Christians tend to put less emphasis on a personal relationship with God and more on the belief that faith is about attentiveness to the broader human experience. My personal relationship with the Divine is not so much about my conversion experience, but about working and advocating for justice for the poor and the oppressed.

It is the nature of Christianity described in the Book of Acts when “all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.”

Being a part of social reform movements and mission is central to our relationship with God. Most are comfortable with the Constitution’s separation of church and state. Prayer should be taught in our homes and churches, not our schools. There is no single Christian view on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Christianity is itself as pluralistic as the broader society.

We don’t see Christianity as exclusive. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life for us, and how we come to understand God. We understand that those whose lives placed them on a different path can attain a meaningful relationship with God without either Jesus or Christianity.

Underlying those beliefs are differences in how liberal Christians understand the authority of scripture. We tend to put greater emphasis on the larger story as opposed to individual verses. We advocate what one theologian calls, the “cognitive demystification” of scripture. 

The Bible is one of many sources of God’s truths and revelation. We find comfort in Biblical scholarship. While we cannot peel back the layers far enough to arrive at its original intent, we get closer by studying the language in which the words were written and the historic and cultural times the words addressed.

The Bible is not a book but a library containing more myth and legend than what we think of as history. Myth is more powerful than history. It’s not a science book. Its teachings don’t conflict with the theory of evolution or other science. Science reveals God’s work as humans learn more about the natural environment God created.

The Bible is witness to God rather than the literal word of God, to be interpreted in its historical context through critical analysis with a focus on Jesus' teaching regarding peace, justice, compassion, and love.   

Liberals downplay “original” sin as we search for meaning in God’s decision to give us free will. We tend to see evil resulting from the exercise of free will rather than from external forces some call “Satan.” God is good and perfect. Human beings were created fundamentally good and struggle with remaining so.

Bayard Rustin, an adviser to Martin Luther King, spoke about liberal Christian theology when he said of King, “I was always amazed at how it was possible to combine this intense, analytical philosophical mind with this more or less fundamental — well, I don’t like to use the word ‘fundamentalist’ — but this abiding faith.”

It is where liberal Christians find their “abiding faith.”

Rev. Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church. He received a Juris Doctorate from the University of Wyoming and a Master of Divinity degree from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Celebrate Recovery

A recent newspaper headline read, “Cheyenne Man Gets Probation For Fifth DUI.” Those who celebrate addiction recovery dream of a day when headlines for such stories might read “Cheyenne Man Given Opportunity To Join Thousands in Recovery as Community Rejoices.”

The public often relates “probation” with a sense that someone deserving of jail got off easy. If you read further into the report, you’d learn that the man didn’t get off easy. The terms of his probation require him to successfully complete the stiff requirements of Laramie County’s DUI Court. Readers learned that he’d been successfully participating in the program. His early recovery meant that for nearly two months he’d been sober and violation-free.

Hopefully, the community will someday celebrate recovery from addiction, rather than punishment for addiction. 

September is National Recovery Month. Millions of Americans across the country and hundreds here in Cheyenne, have been transformed through recovery. Unfortunately these successes often go unnoticed because of hard-to-unlearn stereotypes about addicts and addiction.

Recovery Month is a time for our community to learn of these accomplishments. Each September, those in recovery and their advocates speak about the gains made through recovery and share success stories with their neighbors, friends, and colleagues. In doing so, they increase awareness and a greater understanding about the diseases of mental and substance use disorders is achieved.

What should you know about addiction? First, it is not a moral failing but a disease. Like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other physical ailments, addiction can be, and often is, successfully treated. Jail sentences, no matter how long, do not treat addiction.

Second, while it helps if the addict wants treatment, enforced treatment works. It is why we are blessed in this community to have judges willing to make the extra effort to preside over drug and DUI courts. People often say erroneously that when it comes to addicts, “you can lead a horse to eat but you can’t make him drink.”

The truth is these courts have the power not only to lead the horse to water but also to make sure he or she stays there long enough to become thirsty. As drug and DUI clients become thirsty for recovery, they are also strictly monitored. There are job and educational requirements. People learn the skills they need to enter into years of recovery.  It is the most successful route to recovery. But there are others.

The third lesson is that the community has cause to celebrate everyone who finds recovery. When one person succeeds in obtaining long-term recovery it is not only that individual who lives a better life. So does his or her family. The community becomes safer, healthier and more prosperous. Money is saved. Lives are saved. And it happens every day all around us.

Cheyenne is especially fortunate to have important resources contributing to successful recovery for hundreds of people. Recover Wyoming is a non-profit organization committed to the success of recovering addicts. In 2014, their small staff and large corps of volunteers served more than1900 people. Their services include referrals to addiction treatment, self-help programs, community resources, as well as recovery meetings and special events. The Recovery Center enables people to stay in recovery.

Volunteers provided 2150 service hours at the Recovery Center in Suite 405 of the Majestic Building. Volunteers keep the Center’s doors open, greet visitors, provide administrative support, and host advocacy opportunities. 

Recover Wyoming quietly makes our community a better place to live. They and the thousands of recovering folks in our community deserve our praise. We honor their accomplishments because they’ve earned that and as a means of raising awareness.

Recovery Month highlights the achievements of those who reclaimed their lives in long-term recovery and honors the treatment and recovery service providers like Recover Wyoming. Recovery Month promotes the message that recovery in all of its forms is possible and encourages citizens to take action to help expand and improve the availability of effective prevention, treatment, and recovery services for those in need.

Celebrate Recovery!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

My friend Jimmy Valdez

Jimmy Valdez was one of my oldest friends. We met half-a-century ago. I was a disk jockey at KRAE. Jimmy had a band. I was into booking bands at venues around the region. Jimmy invited me to audition his group.

We met for the first time in a garage on the eastside of Cheyenne the summer of 1966. His band practiced there. “Jimmy Valdez and the Blue’s Revolution.” Jimmy was their lead guitar player. Jay Van Jackson played drums, Bobby Giles base guitar. They were “groovy.”

I wasn’t the best manager but we did get a few gigs. It was great fun. Jimmy and I spent those days developing a lifetime friendship. The band recorded a 45 RPM record in an old Ridge Road warehouse. One side was a remake of the classic “Daddy’s Home.” Jimmy wrote the other. “I Want You So Bad.” We received one royalty check for something like eight bucks.

We celebrated at the old “Big Boy” drive-in. We each had a coke. All I had was a twenty-dollar bill. I handed it to the curb hop. Jimmy leaned over and told her “to keep the change.” She did. We laughed, Jimmy harder than me.

Jimmy owned a 1965 Chevy Impala. Purple. Black vinyl top. Bucket seats. Chrome wheels. Beautiful, or as we called it in the ‘60s, “Boss.” Neither of us made much money in those days. There were occasional months when Jimmy couldn’t make the car payment and I could. So I got to drive it sometimes.

One day I walked to the parking lot and found the Impala had a flat tire. I’d never changed a flat. Surely it was easy. I retrieved the jack and lug wrench. I jacked up the back end near the flat tire. Suddenly the rear panel gave way. It looked like an accordion. I had placed the jack under the panel rather than where there was some steel reinforcement. I never saw Jimmy again that he didn’t tell that story with a laugh.

KRAE had a Sunday afternoon Spanish music program. The time came when the station needed a new host. Tom Bauman, the general manger, asked me if I knew someone. I did. Jimmy Valdez. He was hired before we knew he didn’t know a lot of Spanish. Never mind. He knew music and had a charismatic radio personality.

With a little help from his friends, gradually Jimmy added to his Spanish vocabulary. The show was a hit. In one form or another, at one station or another, Jimmy continued to entertain the community with his “Jimmy Valdez and the All-American Spanish Hour” for the remainder of his days.

One afternoon over lunch, Jimmy said he’d decided to go into politics. He was going to run for the city council. I tried to talk him into running for the legislature instead. “City councilmen,” I argued, “are swamped with calls about barking dogs and trash pickup.” But Jimmy was committed to the community and wanted to be involved in problem-solving at the local level.

No surprise. He was elected. Who didn’t love Jimmy? Nor was I surprised at his success in the job.

Of all that Jimmy loved about life, nothing exceeded his family. His devotion to Amelia was unquestioned. He idolized her. I never saw him that he didn’t brag about one or all his children. Nor did I ever see him that he didn’t inquire about mine. Jimmy was an over-the-moon grandpa. Five children, ten grandchildren. Each one carries forward Jimmy’s love of others and his generosity.

Husband. Father. Grandfather. Public servant. Friend. Good person.

For years I’ve kept the old Irving Stone biography of Clarence Darrow, “For the Defense,” because of a quote attributed to Darrow from a eulogy he gave for his close friend. One day I’d have a use for it.

“In the great flood of human life that is spawned upon the earth, it is not often that a man is born.” Jimmy Valdez was that man.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Wyo Liberty Group dead wrong

Ask Matt Mead about the plan to renovate the State Capitol. His mind goes first to those who made the decision to build it in the first place.  Wyoming wasn’t even a state when they sat down and made plans, appropriated the money, and started the construction.

Over the next three decades, they added the east and west wings and the House and Senate chambers. That was optimism. That was vision.

No more so than what it took Governor Mead and the leadership of the legislature to move ahead with the current renovation. The timing is never especially good to spend 300 million dollars on a project, but the time has come for a major renovation of the Wyoming State Capitol.

The project has its critics. Maureen Bader, the Canadian paid with Texas dollars to write columns critical of Wyoming for the Liberty Group calls the plans “palatial.” She predicts, “dreams of palaces (will) turn into nightmares.”

I predict The Liberty Group is wrong.

It’s true. A project of this size and scope will always experience stumbles getting off the ground. The end result, however, will be a Capitol Complex that will serve this state well for the next several decades and make its citizens as proud today as were those who built the original structure 150 years ago.

As the Governor pointed out during a recent conversation he and I had in his office, he has nothing to gain. By the time the Capitol reopens, he’ll no longer be Governor and most of today’s legislators will likewise be gone. It’s not about them. It’s about modernizing and creating a place where the people’s business can be done effectively in the 21st century.

Governor Mead meets visitors from Wyoming and around the nation in the rotunda. They are often nonplussed about the lack of access to restrooms and an elevator that may not make it to its final destination. They don’t know the half of it. The building is a firetrap. How fortunate we are that a fire has not broken out in the historic structure. The building is ill equipped for fire-suppression, putting not only people at risk but also the historic treasures the building houses.

It’s been a long while since significant upgrades were accomplished in the Capitol. The most recent was completed in 1980. That project included stripping and staining the woodwork, painting walls to match original designs and colors, replacing wooden floor beams with steel, and modernizing the wiring, heating, plumbing and air conditioning.

That was thirty-five years ago. Today, the building has grown increasingly inadequate to fulfill its fundamental purposes. It lacks the basic wiring and other facilities necessary to employ current technology. Hearing rooms are generally too small to accommodate members of the public seeking to hear and be heard when the legislature meets. The technological improvements available that would permit people from around the state to participate in their government without traveling long distances are not available. Neither is the security infrastructure demanded of modern buildings in these times.

All of those problems and more exist across the Capitol Plaza in the Herschler Building. It was built in 1981. No major renovation has been undertaken since, though the building has become more and more dysfunctional.

Noteworthy is that the Herschler Building cost $27.3 million when built in 1981. Today, the same building would cost $94.2 million. That speaks to what the much-needed renovation of the Capitol Complex would cost if there were further delays.

This complex multi-year project, which began recently, will repair the two buildings while making necessary health, safety, security and electrical upgrades.
These problems have been ignored for decades. Finally Wyoming has the political leadership willing to take the heat and get the job done.

The Wyoming Legislature set aside funds for this project for 15 years. The planning has been thoughtful. The project is underway.

Our own homes are remodeled now and then to maintain their value and appearance. The peoples’ house deserves no less.