Saturday, September 20, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 9-25-08
Jeff Gill

Where the Foundations Are

It was likely after watching a Chicago Cubs game on WGN, the snowier channel on UHF (kids, ask grandpa what that is), that I was down in the basement getting my hair cut by mom.

At one point, there in the unfinished part of the basement, that I was looking up at the joists and stringers and ductwork branching off of the furnace, and suddenly realized – our house was not solid.

My home was a structure, a framework like the newer houses down the street going up as I watched after school, with two by eights and two by fours and a main support I-beam across the center line. The apparent unity of the exterior was an illusion made of aluminum siding and fascia board and shingles up top, while a balloon frame of lumber and sheathing held up the floors and ceilings, plywood and sheetrock coated with paint and paneling and spackle.

This new realization helped me figure out how to hide stuff in switch plates and under vents that lifted quietly away from the floor, where you could reach down into the ducts beyond what was visible. Comic books you wanted safe from little brothers, or money and trading cards you wanted safely out of sight could go behind those vents.

I never forgot, though, the real shock of seeing clearly that a house, or any building, was really the sum of parts more than it was a whole.

Years later I was involved in laying block atop footers, mixing mortar and finding out the obvious, that most homes are not built on bedrock or stone of any sort, but actually float atop soil on the pontoons of the foundation. The lowest level of most structures is not anchored in an irrevocable way to solid stuff, but moored, if you will. A foundation is as much a boat as it is roots, and the heave and sag of seasons and eras is taken into account as most substructures are planned.

Then I worked on archaeological digs, and found that soil is, if anything, even more fluid than I realized. Slopes migrate and new layers slowly build up, so that any stratigraphy is not an irrevocable record of immutable time, but is a slippery and suspect document in its own right. Delve into the geology behind the soils, and you start to catch a glimpse of glaciers plaining continents, and continents playing bumper cars with one another, sliding first against one land mass and then another.

So to find that the wisdom of Wall Street is actually a body of suspect conventional wisdom mixed with fragile trust, a confidence that can evaporate in a single trading day, is not so surprising. If a building is a collection of parts that work together, and the earth itself not immutable, but constantly changing, then the stock market may well be something less than bedrock itself.

Can the earth move? Ask a Californian. Do buildings collapse? Ask a firefighter; faster than you might think, and even when it looks stable from the outside. Do markets always self-correct? Check your mutual fund.

Somehow, the wisdom of markets needs to be tempered by human hearts, but those hearts need wit alongside of compassion. Myriad minds buying and selling have an economy of common sense that is hard to replicate in any one thinker or decider, but in unusual times a single thought may need to have a place to stand and be heard.

Clearly, one of the themes of the national election and state policies here in Ohio is who knows the right balance between decisive compassion and generalized calculation. The short-term caring choice could actually hurt more in the no-so-long run, but “help me now” always carries its own logic.

As does “I’ll help you, right now.” Is there help that isn’t worth the taking, because of the price on down the road costing more than the crisis at hand? That’s the choice we’re all working on right now.

Sept. 30th is the deadline for registering to vote in the Nov. 4th election!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s been a Cubs fan since his birth in Chicagoland a year or two ago (but not longer ago than their last World Series appearance). Give him your thoughts on impermanence at

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