Friday, December 20, 2013

Do-It-Yourself Holy Ground--Here and Now

I got to Rob Bell's latest New Age Parable Challenge after he'd already posted "the answer." But I stopped myself from reading the post with the answer(s). You're just going to have to take my word on that. I went back to the parable(s) Bell had posed as a challenge for his readers' interpretation. [And I invite you to play along with me and take the challenge yourself before you read any further and see our answers.] I slept on it. Nothing came to me by this morning (maybe the bed was too comfortable?) so I read it aloud to Dear Husband (DH).
Not Larry, but DH and Sam, oblivious to the
possibility that Dublin airport may be Holy Ground

But as I was reading, The Answer came to me: Bell had told three stories about amazing real love, lost and recovered, that could have been unfolding at the baggage claim area of an airport (while you wait with Clueless Larry for an aunt and uncle from Sarasota). You, standing with Larry, think you may be witnessing the kind of love many of us are lucky enough to experience just once or twice in our lives--the sometimes-bittersweet love made only more poignant for all the work (emotional, physical, artistic, charitable...) that we and others did, all the obstacles that were overcome, to get to that miraculous place.

Yes, I was sure of it. Bell had given us three mini-parables about love, loss, and the heavenly joy of recovered treasure. In this case--and maybe every great case--the recovered treasure is love. Love Wins, as they say.

So in response to the first part of Bell's challenge, which was replying to our clueless friend Larry, who does not appreciate the miracles unfolding before him,  I would say: "Larry, the Kingdom of God is like this baggage claim area."

I'm not good at citing chapter and verse, but -- in response to the second part of Bell's challenge, guessing what part of the Bible this parable is inspired by, I would say: "This alludes to Jesus' three 'lost' parables describing the Kingdom of God." The great thing about Bell's parables is that they're not about Pie-in-the-Sky-when-we-Die Heaven, but rather describe heavenly possibilities right here, right now, in 2013--almost 2014--if we only have eyes to see it, ears to hear it, hearts to find it.

The parable brought DH to completely different places. The first was reflecting on a time when he was flying out to meet his late wife (who had been working for the U.N. in Kosovo) in what had very suddenly become a war zone in Eastern Europe. Not sure he'd make it back alive to see the 18?-year old son he and his wife had left at home in the UK, he wrote a letter with all the things he meant to tell son-Rob about how he loved him. When both DH and his wife survived, he wondered why he hadn't realized that every day is just such an opportunity to tell others how we love them.

But DH knew this was a very personal response to Bell's challenge. From there he stepped back a bit and thought about how, all too often, (especially when it comes to religion?) we try to strong-arm other people into seeing one particular, narrow view, namely OURS--rather than just opening a skylight and inviting people to identify their own bit of heaven (gratuitous Woodstock reference).

And then DH said how moved he'd been by something I'd emailed him -- a brilliant exchange from my old church's seasonal "Twittering Through @dvent." Evidently my old (--sorry, Ron, I should say my FORMER) pastor had opened a skylight in his sermon last Sunday, and this week #PhuongBui, a member of the congregation, had made quite a heavenly sighting. You have to read that to appreciate it. DH and I were both gobsmacked, blown away by this sighting, and by the power of just opening the observatory roof and letting people have a look. That's what Rev Ron Foster had done, what Rob Bell had done... It's what parables do. Maybe what all would-be evangelists should aspire to.

So DH, being a Franciscan (St. Francis evidently having been misquoted on advice to use words only as a last resort in preaching the gospel) fills in the blank in Rob Bell's challenge thus: "Larry, let me buy you a coffee." Presumably this invitation will also include your aunt and uncle. Who knows what little bits of heaven will come upon you all in that conversation.

And the bit of the Bible that DH concluded Bell was drawing on follows the parable of the sower and the many types of ground/ears that seed (or The Word / enlightenment from God) falls upon. Back in Jesus' day, when they used broadcast sowing of seed, some landed amidst weeds, some on rock, some in the mouths of varmint. Some gets lost to Larry's preoccupation with air dryers.

But some seed lands on good soil/receptive listeners. Phuong Bui hears Ron Foster's message, sees the generosity of the person working on the cash register, and is moved to pay the last bit on the grocery bill for a woman who can't cover it. But I digress. DH, struck by Larry's obliviousness and the fact that this is a parable challenge, responded to Bell's Bible citation quiz with Matthew13:10-17:
"10 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
. . .
"17 For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them"
So what was the "real" answer -- at least the one Bell claims he had in mind? Bell says respondent sethbthomas got it right:
You look at [Larry] and say - 'That isn’t just two people embracing. That is two people realizing life will never be the same again.' This is based off the story of Jacob Genesis 28? Jacob falls asleep using a rock for a pillow (Serta, if you’re reading this, ditch the memory foam - nothing says good night’s rest like stone), had a crazy dream with angels climbing a ladder, and God said 'Dude, the ground you're on is yours” Jacob is given insight and was made aware that surely, God was in that place
Holy Ground in Aller? Sunset over
the Levels,  Dec. 19, 2013
[Choristers may now suddenly hanker for the Gaither classic, "Standing on Holy Ground..." or one of my favorite bits of spiritual/gospel, "We are climbing Jacob's Ladder".]

We're just going to have to trust Bell when he says he really did have this answer in mind when he wrote the parable. This despite abundant clues that Bell is an imp, full of playful fun, laughter, and sly humor. I wouldn't put it past him to toss out a parable with no rational, logical answer in mind --  just a feeling that there was some kinda holiness in these seeds he was broadcasting -- and faith they would hit some good soil among his online congregation.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Eulogy for Koz

I wrote this in 2001, in the week before my husband's memorial service. I gave it to my pastor, #Ron Foster, to use in preparing the eulogy that he gave in church, complete with a video clip from Ferris Bueller's Day off. Sam and I attended the service with our Siberian husky, Voi. Probably not the most dignified memorial service ever, what with kids running around, a dog sitting quietly in front of one pew, and my singing along with Twist and Shout. But maybe Koz would have wanted it that way. Besides, I didn't actually have much control at the time. It felt like an out-of-body experience.

Michael Thomas Kozlowski
Apr. 10, 1953 - Dec. 31, 2000
We come here today to mourn the untimely loss of a dear friend, husband, father, brother, relative, and fellow geek. But more importantly, we come to celebrate a life lived to the fullest by a just and loving man. 

Who was  Koz? 

Koz called himself the Big Bear. He was not a ferocious bear—just a giant Teddy bear. He had a generous, childlike spirit, a curious mind, a loving heart, a winning sense of humor, but above all, a vast zest for life.

Koz could be compared to two movie characters. He was in many ways a grown-up version of Ferris Bueller, and a male, geek version of Babbette from the film “Babbette’s Feast.”

Like Ferris Bueller, Koz was a bit of a prankster, but his little tricks were always meant to help and delight his friends and family. This year he hid rolls of pennies in a package of sox for Sam at Christmas. After Celia complained repeatedly about his pulling the sheets out from the bottom of the bed at night, he pulled every summer camper’s favorite prank -- he short-sheeted Celia’s side of the bed.

Like Ferris Bueller, Koz was charismatic, lucky, and lovable—he made you want to join his parade and dance and sing to Danke Shoen or Twist and Shout. And like Ferris Bueller, Koz believed there was no problem that couldn’t be tackled with a creative technological fix—a new gizmo, a program, some software, a re-wiring. When his beloved Westfalia van was in peril of failing inspection because the
Koz's Westphalia van with Dave, above,
and Sam playing computer games on a
trip to Maine

defroster didn’t work, Celia jokingly suggested installing a hair drier in it. An hour and a half later, the fan and heater had been removed from a spare hair drier, the electricity converted from AC to DC, the unit inserted into the van’s air system and connected to the fan switch. The soft hum and small amount of air the jerry-rigged thing produced were just enough to get the van through inspection.

When Celia proved unable to remember to close the cupboard doors, he installed light-sensing crickets that chirped until the doors were shut. But surely what Koz most shared with Ferris was his pure enjoyment of life.

Babbett in the 1987 film “Babbette’s Feast” was a cook in a sad, aging Danish village. When she wins 10,000 francs in the lottery, she spends the entire sum on an astonishingly sumptuous feast that she lovingly prepares for her conservative employers and their spartan Lutheran neighbors. 

Like Babbette, Koz loved good food and cooking. He saw his role in life not as the center of attention, not as the boss, but as the one who prepared the feast that brought people together, gave them joy, and catalyzed priceless interactions among them. He made a creative, loving environment for friends and family; whether through his food,
Koz in the Kitchen, many
years before I met him
his love, his nurturing, or his technical know-how, Koz laid the feast that brought people together to work, laugh, grow, and enjoy life.

Early years—The making of a geek

Born on April 10, 1953, Koz grew up in Hammond, Indiana.  As soon as he could count change, he worked the cash register for candy sales in his parents’ grocery store. He had fond memories of early-morning weekend trips into Chicago’s Maxwell Street market with his Dad and brother, followed by visits to the Museum of Science and Industry. Later, when his parents, Lucille and Casimer, bought an A&W Root Beer stand, Koz worked every job, from making the root beer to dealing with difficult employees. Money from his work at the drive-in allowed Koz and his brother John the luxury of buying a van, which expanded their boundaries as well as their appeal and opportunities with young ladies…

Koz’s childhood pastimes included riding his bike, building things with his Erector set, experiments, and astronomy, He loved playing with model trains and learned about electricity by building electrical devices and sticking his fingers in a few live circuits. His love of these activities was cultivated and encouraged by his Dad’s tinkering and by his Uncle Frank Wegrzyn. At Hammond High School these interests channeled into working as a stage crewmember and participation in a Boy Scout program that gave him early programming experience on the main frames at Standard Oil. Tragedy struck the family in 1971 when Koz’s Dad Casimer died at age 53.

Koz attended Illinois Institute of Technology, but his fondest memories of the place had little to do with academics. Working with some fellow geeks,  Koz was able to find a way  of hooking into the transmitter for the campus radio station. For a number of weeks, he and his friends pre-recorded the “IIT Underground”—a program of music and irreverence that went on the air after the regular station’s midnight sign-off. The pranksters were careful to make their pre-recorded broadcast sound “live” and made themselves conspicuous in public when the show was airing. The show earned a circle of late-night devotees and Koz and his friends were never caught.  Ultimately “IIT Underground” was blown off the air by the demands of studies and exams.


Shortly after leaving IIT, Koz began his first job in the computer world as a Computer Operator with Computer Science Corporation’s Infonet Operations. His connections to Infonet would continue until the day he died. He advanced at Infonet to Senior Tape Librarian, Customer Systems Representative, and then Manager for Technical Training. Koz particularly enjoyed this teaching job, as well as his next Infonet position as an International Support Manager. This position included extensive travel to the Far East and Europe.
Koz as a teacher & author of
Koz's Hitchiker's Guide to CSVS

In 1986, somewhere in the lost years of computer science that lay between the pre-eminence of mainframe computing and the dawning of the internet, Koz was laid off at Infonet. Not one to waste time worrying about his unemployment, Koz sat down with a map and asked himself where in the world he would really like to work. His finger landed on Washington D.C. and the just-stirring Dulles high-tech corridor. He bought himself two plane tickets, two weeks apart and flew to this area to find a job.

The position he took was with NetExpress Communications. After lining up the job and a house, he flew back to his home in Manhattan Beach, Calif., packed his things and flew back here, as planned, to meet the moving van and settle into a large, peaceful house in a woods in Herndon, Va.

Koz worked just over a year for NetExpress, then spent a year as an independent consultant,,  doing database work and technical training for contractors to the U.S. Army and Department of Justice. By 1988 he was back at Infonet, although by now Infonet was no longer a part of Computer Sciences Corporation.  Koz worked six years at Infonet during this stint as an EDI Services Support Manager.

EDI is a data format that companies use to communicate with each other, and it was in this work that Koz met Mark North, a client with big dreams of creating a standard EDI and a company that would link up the far-flung parts of the container shipping industry—from giant steamship lines and rail-links to the tiniest container  depots around the world. Koz joined North’s new business, called Cedex Services International, in September, 1994 as Manager of Technical Operations.

CSI, with  headquarters in San Francisco, remained a small, close-knit  company devoted to its niche clientel. For a while, Koz closed up his Virginia house and tried living out in the San Francisco area, but decided it wasn’t for him, although he loved to visit the area. He moved back to Virginia and became an early “telecommuter” with frequent flights back to San Francisco.

In the fall of 1999, Koz helped Mark North sell CSI to Sterling Commerce Inc., a large computer services company based in Dublin, Ohio, just outside of Columbus.  Six months later Sterling itself was bought, by the giant SBC Communications, a conglomerate that grew up from Southwestern Bell. [Update: SBC became AT&T when they acquired that company in 2005. In 2010 AT&T Sold Sterling Communications to IBM. So, were Koz alive today, he might well be working for Big Blue.

Some of the key computers that handle the business communications Koz oversaw are still located at Infonet’s operations center  in El Segundo, Calif., and he continued to fly out there periodically to maintain and oversee his beloved Vaxes.

Koz as a Husband

Koz was a beloved husband. He married Sharla Cerra in 1987 and was embraced by Sharla’s large family, the Sitzmans. Koz and Sharla hosted a series of foreign exchange students in their home, with Koz serving as cook and tourguide. Sharla also brought her son Chris into Koz’s life. Although Sharla and  Koz would eventually get divorced, Koz always considered Chris to be his son. The two greeted each other with whole-body bearhugs last November when Koz attended a national awards ceremony where Chris was honored as the top political cartoonist for college daily newspapers. Koz  was enormously proud of Chris.

Late in  1998,  Koz answered an internet ad and met Celia. On their first date he wowed her by folding a spider out of a straw wrapper. The spider came to life when you sprinkled a drop of water on it and Celia knew this was one special guy. On April 11, 1999, he proposed, and on  June 5, many of you were right here for their wedding—perhaps the only Pokemon wedding ever.

As short as it was, Celia and Koz’s marriage was happy. Koz was only half-joking when he gave Celia the modest nickname “Chomolungma.” This is the Tibetan name for Mt. Everest and means “Goddess Mother of the World.” Whenever an e-mail from Koz arrived on Celia’s computer at work, Koz’s booming dramatic voice proclaimed, “Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World, I LOVE you!”
Celia and Koz clowning at Alcatraz

Beyond all his great sensitive new-age guy traits, like respectfulness, willingness to share the chores, commitment, devotion, and ability to express his love, Koz enriched Celia’s life with his infectious happiness. He was her rock and embraced the concept that love is not just the warm fuzzy feeling you get around someone you adore. Koz lived the idea that love is choosing to give of yourself to help another person grow.

Koz as a Dad

Koz was never a biological father, but he was a terrific Dad. This was especially important for Sam, the son he adopted last year, and for Chris. Koz was a natural at being a father—playful, funny, and dedicated to finding creative ways to help his kids learn, overcome problems, grow, and have fun.
Koz emerges from a leaf pile with Sam

Koz at a Renaissance Fayre with Sam,
Celia & Sarah & Adam, bottom right
Koz truly enjoyed being a Dad and his joyful parenting spilled over abundantly to any and all the kids around him—nieces and nephews and cousins and in-laws; to his neighbors Adam and Sarah; to the exchange students he hosted over the years; and most recently to Sam’s buddies, including Will, Daniel,  Samuel, and Alec.


Koz’s spirituality couldn’t be measured by his time spent in church, although he put in many hours as an altar boy in St. Kasimer’s Catholic church as he was growing up in Hammond, Indiana. But if the soul is the source of truth, honesty, courage, and vision, it is certain Koz had a deep well of spirit.

Koz’s God was not confined to traditional images and concepts. He found God in the stars—the mysteries and beauty of the universe; the elegance of mathematics and physics; in the love of friends and family. On Sunday mornings he cultivated his spirituality through walks with his beloved Siberian Husky, Voi, along the C&O canal, the Potomac River, or the parks in Virginia and Maryland.

Koz’s spiritual journey reflected his off-beat, curious take on life. He was always ready to entertain a new idea. A few weeks ago he was reading Scientific American in bed and came up with a new hypothesis, which he realized would be profoundly heretical to people with more traditional beliefs.

 What if, Koz speculated, Jesus was an early inter-galactic traveler sent to earth to elevate the understanding of then-primitive humans? The trinity, he suggested, might actually have been a way of trying to explain the three fundamental forces of nature—gravity, electromagnetic forces, and sub-atomic forces. Perhaps to make the alien visitor more acceptable to the humans, he was given human form through immaculate conception and birth. His many wise teachings sprang from the innate knowledge programmed into him by a more advanced civilization. As Koz spun out the analogy, he wound up at the conclusion that that Jesus’ crucifixion suggested that this intergalactic mission had gone very wrong and he was called home—somewhere in the heavens.

Passions and Dreams

In addition to his love of cooking, eating, and creating technology, Koz loved music—especially Wagnerian operas and Mahler. He loved travel and exploring new places;  he loved dogs, especially his big dog, Wotan. Koz was a football fan (Chicago Bears, naturally), and loved classic films. He was practically a life-long subscriber to Scientific American and Sky and Telescope. He loved science, especially physics and astronomy. He loved wood-working and building; long walks, gardening and beer-making. Two years ago he enjoyed playing a bit part (Sir Edward Ramsey) in a local theatre production of “The King and I.”

Koz died in the midst of many dreams and plans, large and small. A succinct summary of the big plans streamed across one of his computers as a screen-saver: Love Family (dot, dot, dot), Plan Renovation (dot, dot, dot), Travel (dot, dot, dot), Learn piano (dot, dot, dot), Continue education (dot, dot, dot). 

Koz was in the midst of building a system for launching backyard bottle rockets, made from soda bottles and fueled by air pressure and water. He was digging the foundation for a solar shed where he and Celia would start the seeds for next year’s garden. They were discussing plans for meeting with an architect and enlarging their house. Koz wanted a big kitchen where he could carry out his culinary dreams… and a great hearth, dining, and family room where he could again host a lively circle of friends, family, and kids.

Koz wanted to show the world to Sam. High atop Koz’s shoulders, Sammy had already seen San Francisco, Chicago, Greenfield Village in Michigan, and Pittsburgh—where they took in science museums and baseball. In November, as he’d done every year for a long time, Koz took the family up to Norwood for Thanksgiving with his brother John, sister-in-law Lynne,  niece Sarah, and nephew Matthew.
Koz with Sam and Voi

Koz, Celia, and Sam enjoyed venturing a few hours west, beyond the light pollution of the night skies to look at stars with Koz’s big Dobsonian telescope. They loved visiting the animal farm of Mike and Sue, and twice camped out at the western Maryland farm of Sam’s friend Sam Lichtman. They were hoping to buy a beautiful spot out in the countryside where Celia could set up a microscope to look at algae, and Sam and Koz could set up an observatory to look at the stars.

Koz also had dreams of learning to play the grand piano he had bought in Chicago in  the 1970s, then moved to California, Virginia, and now Maryland. He also wanted to continue his education. He took some courses at Northern Virginia, but was looking forward to more classes. His wild and crazy dream for retirement was to become a high school science teacher when he left the computer world.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Chronos, Chorus, Mindfulness

My Dear Husband thinks I'm obsessed with mindfulness -- or at least getting carried away with it as a panacea. Maybe. But today I personally discovered a new musical application of mindfulness, and read about research on yet another amazing payoff from the practice: controlling the passing of time.

First the research.

As described by Emily Nauman on UC Berkeley's "Greater Good" website, University of Kent researcher Robin Kramer and colleagues Ulrich Weger and Dinkar Sharma studied the effect of a single 10-minute mindfulness exercise on time perception.

The researchers trained students  to distinguish short (400 milliseconds) versus  long (1600 milliseconds) appearances of a shape on a computer screen. Participants then took a baseline test, estimating duration of appearance for a series of shapes presented to them.

Next, the participants were assigned to a control group or to an experimental group. The control group spent 10 minutes listening to an audiotape reading from The Hobbit. The experimental group listened to a 10 minute mindfulness exercise focusing attention on the breath.

The participants were then re-tested on duration of appearance for the series of shapes. The researchers found that participants who had done the mindfulness exercise rated the durations as being longer than they'd estimated on the baseline test. The control group showed no change in their estimates.

I haven't forked over the $36 to obtain a copy of the full research paper, so I have lots of questions about the study -- for example, how many participants were involved; whether assignment to the groups was random; whether the two groups differed in any important ways; and whether the difference seen between the groups on the second test was a fluke or statistically significant and repeatable. I am disappointed these details are missing from the abstract.

But assuming this was a reasonably large study, participants randomly assigned, groups comparable, and the end difference significant, the study would seem to suggest that even a very brief exposure to mindfulness can slow a person's perception of time.

Nauman's article gives more information about the researchers' view of their results:
"Because the mindfulness meditation exercise cued participants to focus on internal processes such as their breath, that attentional shift may have sharpened their capacity to notice time passing."
Kramer said the ability to slow perceived time could help people feel more in control in situations where it seems like time is running away from them.

Nauman reports that Kramer also speculated that a different mindfulness exercise could speed up perceived time:
"a mindfulness exercise that shifts attention to an external event could potentially make time feel like it’s passing more quickly. If this were true, mindfulness could have clinical applications for people who feel like time is moving too slowly, such as those experiencing depression, who tend to overestimate the duration of negative events."
The idea that we can intentionally slow time down or speed it up sounds pretty amazing, and until the research has more data to back it up, I won't rule out the possibility that it's too good to be true.
But it's not inconsistent with my experience. I've never been patient--I hate to wait. But waiting has become much easier since I took my mindfulness class. Or consider how time flies when you are in that mindful state known as being totally caught up in a favorite activity.

Today's personal discovery of a new application of mindfulness was completely accidental. I dedicate this discovery to my music-loving friend, the Living Anachronism.

For no good reason, I've had the song Paint with all the Colors of the Wind going around in my head today. Typical of my earworms, it's schlocky, melodic, and passionate--in a Disney sort of way. As much as it may shock the musical sensibilities of the LA, the songs from Pocohontas are one of my guilty pleasures.

Home alone, I threw myself into a full-throated run at the beautiful chorus:
Did you ev-er hear the wolf cry to the new-born moon? Or ask the grinning bobcat why he grins? 
Voi,  A Gentleman's
Canine Companion
By the third note, my voice shattered into a croak and tears filled my eyes. The wolf reference reminded me of my dear departed dog, Voi. And the moon reference made me think of my dear departed husband, Koz, an amateur astronomer who loved nothing better than gazing at the newborn moon.

Over the years, my propensity to dissolve into tears has prevented me from singing several beautiful hymns in public. I think the English have a special affinity for these. But I digress.

My mindfulness discovery was this: If I "did mindfulness" when attempting to sing the heart-wrenching bit -- intentionally focussing attention on the sound of my voice, rather than the emotional updraft of the melody and lyrics -- I could sing the chorus without breaking up.

I look forward to testing my discovery the next time one of those great anthems starts pulling on my heartstrings ...  This is my Song (sung to Sibelius' Finlandia tune ...This is my home, the coun-try where my heart is..." Shattering for an ex-pat). Or Hubert Parry's Jerusalem. Or Holst's I Vow to Thee my Country...