Thursday, December 15, 2011

Help me fund a wheelchair

Brad Blauser, 2010 CNN Hero of the Year Finalist, Texas A&M University graduate and all-around good guy is back home in Texas this Christmas after spending seven years distributing care packages and study Bibles to soldiers and wheelchairs to disabled children in Iraq.

If you have the ability, please consider supporting Brad's missions. He will be headed back to Iraq in January to continue his work distributing wheelchairs and working to fund a factory to build the wheelchairs there.

While it might seem insignificant, you can also help Brad out by voting for my beard. As a contestant for Beard Nation's 2011 Best Beard, I have a chance of winning $250 if I take the most votes. This amount will just about cover the cost of a single wheelchair, and if I win, I'll be donating this to Wheelchairs for Iraqi Kids.

Be sure to check out Frank Longay's site. Frank is a thirteen year old boy that has raised over $27K to date for WFIK. His goal is to raise $1M.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Second Guest Post Up at St. Lydia's Book Club

My second invited post at St. Lydia's Book Club is up.

When Melinda first asked for a guest post, I wasn't certain if she wanted to hear about my creative process since that seemed to be the theme of her previous guest post, or if I was free to consider a more esoteric subject. So, I wrote both and Melinda liked both. The first, One Thing is Needful, was published first and I was gratified by the generous response.

This one, Reverse Perspective, doesn't begin with the same kind of narrative hook. While the read might be drier, I think I'm even more pleased with this piece of writing because of the focused nature of my reflection. Give it a read and tell me what you think.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fightin' Texas Aggie Bonfire

Overnight here in Aggieland, we will commemorate the loss of 12 young men and women whose untimely deaths are forever etched in the collective memory of Aggie faithful. 

Pulling material from the old Tomes site again, here is a letter I wrote the day after Bonfire fell in 1999 and a reflection I wrote when I put this on my site a couple of years later. It has now been 12 years since Bonfire fell and as Stephen King might say, the world has moved on since then. The most marked change has been how students relate to one another on campus. I can't exactly place the difference, and I can't attribute the change all to the loss of Bonfire from campus culture, but I do know that the change I've notice dates from the disappearance of this tradition from campus.

Since I wrote these, I think that my understanding of the symbolism of Bonfire has changed, too. I think that it was an instance of rhetorical violence that got grandfathered into our modern consciousness in the name of "Tradition." Given the visceral reaction I've heard from others who have no context for Aggie Bonfire as anything other than a lynching, this isn't a tradition that could have evolved in our era, and I don't know that that is a bad thing. Like the 12th Man tradition at Texas A&M, I cannot separate the love I feel from revulsion at an ugly history.



The following is an email response to a friend. SG wrote me after hearing of Bonfire’s collapse, and my response to him is the only way that I was ever able to capture my feelings on the catastrophe.

Even after a post-traumatic stress briefing and a year-and a half the subject still hurts to think about; it probably always will. I will probably always feel guilt for a number of reasons: for not being at work, for not being on stack, for never having taken part in stack, load, or cut…

Today, after my classes, I walked to work instead of driving. I walked across the polo fields, but had towalk well to the side because the feeling was that I was walking on holy ground. The reason why is easy to understand, shortly after I wrote this letter, Tim Kerlee died, becoming the twelfth person to lose his life due to the accident. If you are not an Aggie that might be of little significance to you; here in Aggieland, that final touch concreted Bonfire ‘99’s collapse as a mythic occurrence.

There will be other bonfires, but there will never again be Bonfire. Daily, articles in the Batt (the campus paper) talk about the administration’s idea that contractors can cut, stack, and build bonfire so that students can watch in safety. I guess this is the same sort of thinking that made them want to trademark the Bonfire image. They’ll never really understand it though until they realize that Bonfire is nothing without the spirit of the student body behind it, fueled by our Burning Desire.

Date: Fri, 19 Nov 1999 08:57:59 -0800 (PST)

From: Jon

Subject: A Sad Day....



Thanks for your call yesterday; it means a lot that you thought of me. I was on campus, but not anywhere near the stack when it fell. I know several who were out there earlier, or who were supposed to be out there but for some reason or another weren't there when it fell. I also know a paramedic who was on duty at the site when it happened.

All these people are looking at life in a different manner today. I am too. I spent 8 hours yesterday working perimeter security at the Bonfire site. Even after seeing the stack on its side, it's hard to comprehend that 9 young men and 2 young women gave their lives for what, I am confident, they felt was the ultimate symbol of our school's spirit and traditions.

When the stack fell I was asleep outside G. Rollie White Coliseum, Waiting to pull tickets for the Texas (read - t.u.) game. Earlier in the evening, I had the privilege to hear Ryan, the OCA (Off Campus Aggies) Brownpot, give an extemporaneous talk about the organization and hierarchy of Bonfire, I learned more in 20 minutes from Ryan than I have in four and a half years of being an Aggie. I have never taken part in the construction of Bonfire, and probably never will have the opportunity to do so.

Ryan, though he's invested a great deal of time and effort in this great Tradition, may not get the chance to build another Bonfire either. Bonfire will not burn this year to honor the students’ deaths. This is only the second time in 90 years that it didn't burn. The first was in 1964, when the students disassembled the stack log by log and didn't burn Bonfire that year in honor of JFK. This is the third time that the stack has collapsed; the two previous collapses were due in part to wet ground, and there were no injuries.

Because this tragedy, as well as other factors, there is rumour thatBonfire may never burn again. If that turns out to be the decision made I can accept that the University can not allow itself this kind of liability anymore; I will be thankful that I have had the opportunity to see it burn.

On the other hand, I'd like to see it burn this year too. It sticks in my mind that Christopher Breen, Christopher Lee Heard, Jerry Self, Jamie Hand, Michael Ebanks, Miranda Adams, Chad Powell, Nathan West, Bryan McLain, Lucas Kimmel, and Jeremy Frampton gave their lives to build this Bonfire. Their ultimate effort is to be quenched in a great smothering hug of sympathy and grief. In my heart of hearts I wish that we could push to get the thing rebuilt in a matter of days like they did in '94 and burn it in their honor.

My feelings oscillate from grief, to disbelief, to joy. Somewhere in the middle of all that there is a moral. I don't know that I can pull it out. I don't think that alone I should be able to. I think that there is something inherently collective about this tragedy. I think that is the way it will be remembered by many. For me at least, this tragedy has been bigger than life, a thing so immense in its scope that I can not encompass it. Why can't it be real? Because eleven college students shouldn't die in a horrible manner in the middle of campus in a town so small that it wouldn't exist without the school. I realize then that they didn't die in seclusion. Their end has been broadcast to every corner of the globe. It has become a mythical thing, and will grow ever grander and more distant with the passage of time.

So we go on. We will exult in these students bravery though they weren't intending on being seen as valorous. We will praise their sacrifice though they didn't intend to lose anything but a few hours of sleep. Now their slumber is undisturbed. We will grieve as a family as only Aggies can. We will attend the ceremonies, read the papers, see the pictures, console each otherand help each other along. Those of us who have the luxury of doing so will secretly be thankful that it wasn't us, or our friends or loved ones. Those who dealt with the tragedy first hand-- whether through their survival, the loss of a child, or boyfriend, or girlfriend,or best friend--will remember the good sunny things about their dearly departed, except in the dark of night when a memory so poignantly painful stabs their heart and won't let them sleep.Whether or not Bonfire ever burns again, this will be a watershed moment in this school's history. Should there be more Bonfires, they will be different, and in being so, not the same. Nothing can be the same. Though Bonfire has fallen three times, this will be the time Bonfire fell. This will define some people's lives.

My hope is that it makes me examine the long-term impact of my actions. Depending on your particular hegemony, that can mean a number of things, but I hope that you do the same. This morning in my Meteorology class(no, classes were never cancelled) my professor gave the motto of the Catholic University he attended. I do not remember the Latin, but translated it read, "Do what you do!" Do what you enjoy. Do it well. Do it regardless of the consequences. Live, laugh, love, dance, cry, experiment, party, drift. Just do it to the utmost of your ability and do not stop until it is complete and you are completely satisfied.

"From the outside looking in, you can never understand it. From the inside looking out, you can never explain it"

"We are the Aggies, the Aggies are we. True to each other as Aggies can be."


Saturday, November 05, 2011

Orthodox Doughnuts

I don't often just take things whole-cloth, but I stumbled upon this story (again) today and was reminded of the simple and overwhelming love that radiates from our great pastors. Taken from here.

Wherever bishops travel, churches plan lavish banquets and other solemn tributes to honor their hierarchs.

Visitations by Archbishop Dmitri Royster of the Orthodox Church in America were different, since the faithful in the 14-state Diocese of the South knew that one memorable event would take care of itself. All they had to do was take their leader to a children's Sunday-school class and let him answer questions.

During a 1999 visit to Knoxville, Tenn., the lanky Texan folded down onto a kid-sized chair and faced a circle of preschool and elementary children. With his long white hair and flowing white beard, he resembled an icon of St. Nicholas -- as in St. Nicholas, the monk and fourth-century bishop of Myra.

As snacks were served, a child asked if Dmitri liked his doughnuts plain or with sprinkles. With a straight face, the scholarly archbishop explained that he had theological reasons -- based on centuries of church tradition -- for preferring doughnuts with icing and sprinkles.

A parent in the back of the room whispered: "Here we go." Some of the children giggled, amused at the sight of the bemused bishop holding up a colorful pastry as if he were performing a ritual.

"In Orthodoxy, there are seasons in which we fast from many of the foods we love," he said. "When we fast, we should fast. But when we feast, we should truly feast and be thankful." Thus, he reasoned, with a smile, that doughnuts with sprinkles and icing were "more Orthodox" than plain doughnuts

Memory Eternal, Vladika!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

River Restoration: What's in a Name?

I spent the better part of the past week in Phoenix, AZ with colleagues from around the country at the 46th Annual Conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC). Since serendipitously falling into the field over 8 years ago, I have had the privilege of taking part in what I believe to be one of the last bastions of classical liberal education in the modern university. My ruminations on what Honors education is, exactly, is a subject for another post. Suffice it to say for now that Honors is a laboratory for teaching and pedagogy, and concepts like experiential learning found their start in Honors.

NCHC's trademarked experiential learning pedagogy is City as Text™(CAT). CAT, in the context of the annual conference, gives participants the opportunity to "read" a place through the buildings, signs, and people in that place (those interested in reading up on this pedagogy can find more here and here). In Phoenix, I got to be part of a select group piloting an expansion of the traditional CAT method. Instead of an informal exploration and chance interviews with inhabitants, the organizers arranged meetings for us with city officials to get more information about city infrastructure. My assignment: the Salt River Restoration Project. Here is the report my group prepared for the CAT closing:
We met with Karen Williams, Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Phoenix, and Wendy Wonderly, Coordinator of Environmental Programs. This experience was amazing! Karen and Wendy were incredibly hospitable. They even arranged to do a driving tour of the Rio Salado project after their presentation to us; we wouldn't have had a chance to see the project otherwise. Their passion for this project showed and is likely responsible for its success.

Rio Salado sign. Copyright 2011 - Matt Butera
The Salt River is dry. Originally it was a river that supported tremendous agricultural production. The Hohokam people built a network of irrigation canals, some of which are in use today. In the early 20th century a series of dams were constructed to concentrate and divert water for agricultural irrigation. Because of this the Salt River stopped flowing. River water now is primarily dedicated to municipal use, accounting for nearly 95% of Phoenix's water.

As a dry riverbed, the Salt River became a source for gravel and sand. These mining efforts were accompanied by using the river as a dump. Development along the Salt River course in Phoenix has been dedicated to heavy industrial use and low-income housing. Many in Phoenix consider the river a dividing line between affluence in the north and poverty to the south of the river.

In the 1960's a professor at Arizona State University challenged his class to walk the riverbed and think of how to revive the river. A county-wide ballot issue in 1987 to tax property to fund restoration efforts failed to pass anywhere except in Phoenix. In 1992, the expanded charge of the Army Corps of Engineers to include ecological restoration provided a means to pursue restoration. Karen has been the public face of these efforts for 15 years. The restoration cost was $100M, 65% of which came from federal funds, 35% of which was raised locally, including voter-approved bond issues in 2001 and 2008. Ed Pastor, one of the students in that class at ASU in the 1960's and now an Arizona congressman, has helped continue to find federal funding for the project.

Because water will never flow in the Salt River again unless the dams are removed, the project will never be self-sustaining. Phoenix Parks and Recreation has partnered with the Audubon Society to make a place where the public can learn about the restoration and enjoy the benefits of this natural resource.

Rio Salado. Copyright 2011 - Matt Butera

My note about removing the dams was not off-hand; one of the questions I had prepared before we got to City Hall was, "the term 'restoration' seems to indicate restoring the river from some deficit state to a steady state: at what point does this stop being a 'restoration' and become a 'preserve'?" Another simpler way to ask this question might have been: "how will you know when your restoration efforts are successful?" I'm glad I asked the question the way I did, though, because of the answer I got: Rio Salado will never be self-sustaining. In this sense, Rio Salado is less a restoration and more of an elaborate re-creation. Given the political and environmental pressures at work in Arizona, I'm happy that we have the re-creation at least.

I asked Wendy what chance she thought that something like the Elwha River Restoration in Washington state I had read about last month. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any indication that the political will to mount such a project exists. How amazing would it be, though, to see the desert like this again? (Arrakis, anyone?)

Arizona watershed map - 1850-2000. Images from the presentation given to our CAT group. A substantially similar presentation is online at

Our CAT Exploration Group (I'm behind the camera) with Karen and Wendy.

 Photos courtesy of Matt Butera. See his Flickr feed for more.