Wednesday, December 31, 2008

How Will It End?

The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey as Truman, is a wonderfully original film about a man whose whole life, unbeknownst to him, has been lived in front of TV cameras. His life is a TV show. The story becomes a vehicle for many insights and questions about our own lives, the roles we play, our level of awareness as regards what is really going on outside our own little world.

One of the themes in the film is a pin Truman is wearing. "When Will It End?"

Despite the comic story line, amplified by Carrey's naturally inventive style, the film is serious in tone. And this question is not simply for Truman's audience, but for each of us as well.

We're all familiar with sayings like "it came to pass," with which we comfort ourselves during hard times or a cold spell. Nothing lasts forever, we say. Yet when we say this, we seldom apply this across the board. We generally live as if we ourselves are not going anywhere any time soon. And by extension, few of us can imagine a future in which the United States is no longer the United States.

So when we read books and articles about the fall of the Roman Empire, designed to teach us lessons about how nations and empires fall, how is it that we do not, almost cannot, relate it to our own nation, which is currently the world's strongest superpower?

Last Saturday I wrote about bread and circuses. Someone responded Monday by sharing an article with me from the Wall Street Journal that day regarding a prediction that the U.S. will be history by 2010. According to Andrew Osborn, a certain Igor Panarin has predicted for more than a decade that the U.S. will break up in a civil war due to economic and moral collapse.

This is no lightweight academic. Panarin is a former KGB analyst who is head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's academy for future diplomats. The factors that will bring us down include "mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation"... along with collapse of the dollar. His new portrait of our United States will be a breakup into six pieces, Alaska ultimately returning to Russian control.

The story sounds far fetched, but stranger things have happened. No one expected the USSR to unravel as quickly as it did when the Soviet empire began to implode. Would the Wall Street Journal print something like this if it were the rantings of a lunatic? The friend who forwarded this to me found it on The Drudge Report.

There was a time when Britain basked in the glow of knowing that the sun never set on the British Empire. How long can the United States be so blissfully oblivious to the reality that all things must pass?

Which leads directly to my question. How will it end? Nothing lasts forever. We know that. So, what next? The evidence that America is in decline is all around. Predictions of decline have been heralded for some time. How serious is our sickness? Will the patient recover?

Is this all too far out? You tell me... because an inquiring mind wants to know.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Safe Haven Law Has Unintended Consequences

It’s that time of year when magazines and newspapers look back and review the year’s top stories. This one did catch my eye, though I’m not entirely sure why the Associated Press voted it the year’s top story. I mean, it’s interesting for sure. I would have thought the collapse of the world economy, or election of our first black president, or maybe the Mumbai disaster would have garnered these honors. So much for what I know.

Nebraska safe-haven fiasco voted top story of 2008
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Troubled teenagers from across the country were among children dropped off under Nebraska's ill-conceived safe-haven law. The bizarre situation was voted the year's top state story by members of The Associated Press.

Here’s the rest of the story. 49 states have safe-haven laws which are designed to ensure that mothers who choose not to abort their unborn children can have a safe place to bring them, no questions asked, without prosecution. We’ve all heard of tragic situations where a young woman conceives and throws the baby into a dumpster or similarly unfortunate response to teenage pregnancy. Bobby Gentry brought the topic front and center in her hit single Ode to Billie Joe. ("Pass the biscuits, please.")

And so the good state legislators of Nebraska, playing catch up, passed a safe haven law of their own. Unfortunately, they were unable to come to any kind of agreement about the age limit to which the law would apply. In order to keep the peace they passed the law without an age limit, probably assuming common sense would prevail.

The subsequent consequences were unanticipated. Thirty-six children were abandoned at Nebraska hospitals in the four months after the law was passed in July. None were infants. Many were teens. Some were dropped off from out of state. Three men dropped off their kids all in one day in September. One of the men dropped off nine.

It’s an interesting way to deal with your unruly children. “Hey, you better eat your vegies or we’re taking our next vacation in Nebraska.” Or, “Look junior, I'm pretty tired of your late night carousing. Next time you’re not in by ten, we’re visiting Uncle Rick in Omaha.”

Well, those Nebraska legislators did ultimately see the light, and in November passed a new law that set the age limit at thirty days. That's the good part of the story. Evidently, contrary to popular belief, it really is possible for legislators to modify bad laws.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Unremembered History, part 2

SHORT STORY MONDAY

Last week we began the story of Tom Olney and his springtime birth in rural England, 1698. Due to complications in childbirth, and the absence of a doctor, some local gypsies assisted, after which one of them prophecied over the newborn infant that "one day... he will be permitted the gift of having one wish granted by the gods, when he wishes it with all his heart."


Unrembered History of the World, continued

Many years passed and as the boy grew the strange prophesy seemed to recede in importance. These were the days when England's disenfranchised had begun dreaming of a better life, a better hope, a better world across the seas... in America. A friend of young Tom Olney's had just returned from this new world and spoke in glowing images of a sprawling untamed land, luscious as Eden, {cf. J Warwick Montgomery, The Shaping of America, chap 1, Questing for a New Eden} where a man can put down his roots and truly be a man.

Olney's imagination was stirred. His parents knew it would only be a matter of time and their son would be swept away with the currents that drew dreamers to the American Colonies.

The day came more quickly than they supposed, however. A scandal broke out amongst the Brethren, the religious sect to which the Olneys subscribed, and young Tom was in the middle of it. In the spring of 1718, a certain Molly Hartwick, daughter of the venerable attorney Lyle Hartwick, was found to be with child. Though the proper thing was hurriedly carried out, there was no escaping the chatter that accompanied their every move about the village. By the time the child was born, Tom and Molly were so wearied by the galvanized glances and wagging tongues that they determined the only hope for a decent life for their young son was in the New World. Arrangements were made, farewells exchanged. They soon found themselves residents in a place called Berks County, Pennsylvania.

The transition to life on the American frontier was not terrifically difficult. There were many Quaker Brethren here, and the young family had a heart full of dreams. The land was good, the forests amply supplied with game. The increasing numbers of settlers were eager to help one another. Settlements of Delaware, Susquehannocks and Shawnee in that region had become accustomed by now to the presence of the white man and were no serious threat.

As an aside it should be remarked upon how fertile this new colony was to become in the shaping of future history. It is noteworthy that the forebears of Abraham Lincoln resided here, that the Daniel Boone legacy originated here, that Benjamin Franklin and others of similar stature trace their roots to this selfsame soil. And most significantly, the firstborn son of Thomas Olney: Charles Rogers Olney.

Two years later Molly gave birth to a robust redheaded daughter, Elizabeth Mary Olney. It was a difficult birth and afterward the Lord closed Molly's womb, leaving her unable to bear more children. Somehow they found this difficulty acceptable, and they rejoiced greatly in the two wonderful children that seemed to blossom under their care.

Over the course of years it seemed the Lord's hand of blessing was with this family in a special way. The fields Olney planted seemed to produce twice the harvest as his neighbors, and the skill, intelligence and character of the Olney children gained the Olney's recognition from as far away as Philadelphia. It was said that son Charles was fluent in four languages and on his fifteenth birthday demonstrated his mastery by reciting in five languages -- English, Dutch, French, and Shawnee, the local native Indian tongue -- a short narrative he had written. For all these blessings the elder Olney, with evident humility, gave all credit to our gracious and Almighty God.

Tragically, the tables turned and a series of devastating losses occurred, beginning with the death of the family dog which Olney's daughter found cruelly beheaded in a shallow stream near their home. The perpetrator of this horrible thing was a passing stranger who had been seen hanging around in town the previous week and who many believed to be demon possessed. The man disappeared and was never seen again, but the incident produced in Olney a great foreboding.

That fall heavy rains fell, lasting for several weeks, followed immediately by a severe cold snap. But for the potatoes, Olney's entire crop rotted on the vines. Though publicly he declaimed, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away," in his heart he began to be anxious, fearing still further losses.

It was February when the fire broke out that took his homestead and his wife. People say he was talking like a madman for days, blaming himself for the sin that led to his marrying Molly in the first place, though he loved her dearly and she him and that though God forgives he still punishes even though it doesn't seem right. It was the first that anyone had heard of the illegitimate conception.

Nevertheless, the church family pulled together to aid the wounded Olneys. The teenage children were housed with the Hamiltons while Olney himself was given a room with Robert Russell who promised not to leave his side till all was well. Olney wept bitterly and would not be comforted.

The gossip spread like an acid. In spite of the illogical nature of it, the neighbors began to wonder if Olney was not indeed cursed. He himself had said it, referring repeatedly to the brutal slaying of his dog as an omen. They were difficult days for everyone, as each searched his own heart and wondered the same. Even his best friends became awkward around him, and sensing this awkwardness, Olney knew inwardly that he was no longer at home here, that he had become an alien.

That spring the house was not rebuilt. Olney and his two children determined instead to move further west, to clear a new homestead, more isolated and remote, deeper in the Blue Mountains.

Of the difficulties that summer, the small crop, the ramshackle one room home -- there is no need to create details which have so long been forgotten. What is known about this period is that people in those days experienced many hardships. In addition to disease and famine, the occasional Indian uprising presented a serious threat to personal safety.

For the sake of this story we are most concerned with an incident which took place during one such uprising in the autumn of 17xx.

TO BE CONTINUED

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Ethics of Usury

"Debt, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slavedriver." ~ Ambrose Bierce

The word usury comes from a Latin word meaning "interest" or "excessive interest", and originally mean the charging of interest on loans. Two dictionary definitions that pretty much give shape to the concept are these:

2: the lending of money with an interest charge for its use ; especially : the lending of money at exorbitant interest rates

3: an unconscionable or exorbitant rate or amount of interest ; specifically : interest in excess of a legal rate charged to a borrower for the use of money

On Wednesday, our paper picked up an L.A. Times story titled, "Student loans turn into crushing burden for unwary borrowers." It begins by telling the story of Natalie Hickey who graduated Brooks Institute with $140,000 in student loans. Some of these were at an 18% inyterest rate, which feels outrageous to me. Her monthly payments are currently 1700 dollars on the interest alone.

Another story is titled "Families losing appetite for college debt" and the Badger Herald highlights the issue with this story, "Why college debt hurts generation."

Over the past fifty years there has been this major push to get kids into college. Was it because the kids all needed college? Or was it because when the Baby Boomers were in college during the Sixties, they built too many dorms and schools?

Everything has value, but exactly how much value is often difficult to define. The cost of college has risen 439% since 1982, but has the value of a college education risen by 400%? All these kids get told that in order to compete in the modern world, they need college. The banking industry obviously steps in an sees all these young people as a source of ready revenue. They are young, inexperienced, easily enticed by the prospects of easy money to help get that essential degree. They do not understand the heavy burden debt and interest on debt can become.

There's another surprise waiting for this debt-laden generation now entering the workforce. Multinational corporations are now outsourcing white collar jobs to India. By 2015, according to Robyn Meredith in her insightful study of the rise of India and China, The Elephant and the Dragon, more than 3 million white collar jobs will have been exported. Programmers and positions that once garnered six figure incomes are being swept overseas, leaving service sector jobs in their wake.

In short, young people have imbibed a false gospel, never questioning the message because their parents were likewise mesmerized by its apparent validity.

In order to help them solve the Watergate scandal, Deep Throat encouraged Woodward & Bernstein to "follow the money." Let's see where the money goes in this instance. To colleges and universities. And all that interest, where does it go? Lending institutions. And where does it come from?

Please understand, this is not an attempt to denigrate the value of a college education. It is only a challenge to the ethic of loaning money to people who do not fully understand the compact they are getting into. Until you are free from debt, you are not free to come and go as you please.

Similar unconscionable lending is occuring now in Third World countries where people are being given loans at twenty and thirty percent interest, without ever having had training in what interest rates mean. It is essentially a suckerpunch to those who are already economically on the ropes. What looks like easy money ends up being a ball and chain.

Ben Franklin called debt a vice, Disraeli called it the mother of folly and crime. But our modern era wants us to believe this is a perfectly normal way of life. I'm not really sure what I think of that.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bread and Circuses

Are Americans indifferent to the events in the larger world because of their preoccupation with bread and circuses?

In the course of a lifetime I’ve often seen writers compare our American empire to that of Rome. As with all the great empires beforehand Rome, too, fell. In Gibbon’s classic analysis, the cratering of that empire was due to internal factors, not external.

By means of bread and circuses the ruling class of ancient Rome maintained their power and control of the people. As long as the masses were happy, their labors could be used to fuel the wheels of progress... or at least maintain the status quo.

Starvation, infant death, malnutrition, terror, slaughter, oppression, torture, violence… these things abound in our world today. Simultaneous to these global maladies, we have in this country a 24 billion dollar amusement park industry, a 30 billion dollar entertainment industry, a 200 billion-plus sports industry, and an even larger gambling industry. (Called “gaming” because gambling has negative connotations.)

Meanwhile, according to the World Hunger Organization, 800 million people go to bed hungry every night, mostly women and children. 24,000 die every day. Two hundred million children under five years of age are underweight due to lack of food, which can lead to mental retardation and stunted physical stature. And while you read this, one child will die of starvation every seven seconds.

By way of contrast, according to A.C. Nielsen stats from a recent year, the average American watches 3 hours and 46 minutes of TV each day (which would add up to more than 52 days of nonstop TV-watching per year). By age 65 the average American will have spent nearly 9 years glued to the tube. A few may be watching educational television, but most are simply watching whatever distraction the channel is tuned to at the time.

As tensions rise between India and Pakistan, most Americans have no clue what the fuss is about. As tens of thousands visit the grave of Benazir Bhutto, how many understand the significance of this woman who was killed in a gun-and-suicide attack one year ago already? How many understand that the Mumbai incident has significance nearly as important as our 9/11? Just because it is not longer in our U.S. newspapers, it doesn’t mean there have been no reverberations set in motion.

I’d be half willing to bet that most Americans don’t even know where Pakistan is located, let alone that there was a 1971 war fought between India and Pakistan that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. We were pre-occupied that year with All in the Family, Flip Wilson, Marcus Welby, Gunsmoke, and earning money for our next Disneyland vacation.

I realize I am being a little harsh. Let me say that I am not aiming to impose new restrictions to behavior. (“Don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do.”) I am simply making an appeal to conscience. We live in a world where there is suffering, and the aim of our lives needs to be something bigger than next weekend’s bash. An Old Testament maxim from the Book of Ecclesiastes comes to mind here. “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.”

Is it possible that those who control the marionette strings love the power they hold? Who gets the bailouts? Who has the golden parachutes? Who gets the wool when the sheep are fleeced?

A lot of questions in life have no easy, clear cut answers. One of the toughest: What should our relationship be to the culture we find ourselves in? Sure, the gladiators are putting on quite a show for us today. Is that what it’s all about? More bread? More circuses?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Hitchhiking Across Antarctica

"Loneliness is the leprosy of our era." ~ Mother Teresa

I keep a scrap book of quotes from my readings. It's a useful tool for organizing pithy insights from various sources. I don't recall where this one came from, but it stuck me with enough force to record it in my book.

The observation, comparing loneliness to what is now called Hansen's disease, is quite interesting. Leprosy is not like the plague which wiped out a third to half of Europe in the first millennium. Though two to three million people have the disease worldwide, I know of no serious scientist who is concerned about a worldwide epidemic. The media is not stirring up a panic about this unfortunate malady as they have about bird flu which has now killed just over one hundred worldwide.

So the comparison to leprosy has a different meaning from just a communicable disease. One photo of a leper tells why this is. Lepers are shunned. They are ugly. They are outcasts. They're pushed outside the cheerful social exchanges that make up community.

A Google search on loneliness unveils millions of web pages on this theme. How ironic. The world has too many people, yet so many so lonely.

Many books and poems have been written on the theme. Maybe knowing that we are not the only ones who have ever felt this way is helpful. So the lonely share their painfully lovely, lonely self-expressions.

I'm reminded of Billy Joel's observation in Piano Man, "They're sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it's better than drinking alone."

Whole books on the theme have been written. Perhaps some of the great music we appreciate was squeezed from a lonely heart. For sure you hear it in Tschaikovski. Certainly most creative artists reach into deep spaces of the soul to draw on something there akin to inner isolation. Maybe what makes this experience painful is when we get trapped there, unable to connect to others, and unhappy with our selves. Like the leper, we may feel ugly... unable to see our true beauty; or desperately unaffirmed, unloved and incomplete.

There is a difference between loneliness and solitude. We are all, to a lesser or greater extent, travelling a solitary path. As the old Negro spiritual puts it, "Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody knows my sorrow..." To the extent we are able to forget ourselves and notice those around us who also have need of being affirmed, loved, valued, appreciated, to that extent we can make this world a better place and escape the prisons we've made for ourselves within our selves.

The following is a poem I wrote describing something of what loneliness has at times meant to me.

Hitchhiking Across Antarctica

So desolate here. So desolate and cold.
You grit your teeth to keep them from chattering.
By the time this is over you'll be lucky to have any teeth at all.

If only you can stop this shivering.
Standing alone, waiting for someone to come along.
So desolate here. Unbelievably cold. It doesn't seem possible.

Is this where it's all going to end?
"What was the meaning of it all? Why am I here?" you ask yourself.
You lean forward into the fierce wind.
Oh for but one spark of human kindness to re-kindle
the cold dark embers of your heart.

You stare out across the virgin snow, fingers numb with cold
under your worn mittens. You've lost all sense of touch.
It hardly matters because there is no one there.
Your arms are so stiff with cold you can no longer reach out.

"Where is everyone? How long, oh Lord?"

You have only the load on your back,
but it is more than you can carry.
And even this you can't take with you when you go,
if it comes to that.
You keep waiting, but no one comes along.
It's a frost cold chill, this loneliness.
It's like hitchhiking across Antarctica.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

O Holy Night

Christmas blessings to all on this wonderful day of remembrance. Cold though it may be (if you live in the Northland) may your hearts be warmed at this special time.

O Holy Night

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining.

It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

'Til he appeared and the soul felt His worth.

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!

O night divine, O night when Christ was born.

O night divine -O night -O night divine!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,

With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.

So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,

Here come the wise men of Orient land.

The King of Kings lay in a lowly manger,

In all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our needs, to our weakness He's no stranger.

Behold your king--before Him lowly bend.

Behold your king, your king, before Him bend.

~~~~~~~

Surely He taught us to love one another.

His law is love and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,

And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of hope in grateful chorus raise we.

Let all within us praise His holy name

Christ is the lord, O, praise His name forever

His power and glory ever more proclaim.

His power and glory evermore proclaim.


Image borrowed without permission until I either find proper owner or alternative.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Human Cost of Madoff Investment Scandal

When the story broke last week, one could sense it would have far reaching consequences, perhaps on the scale of a Jonestown or major earthquake in terms of subsequent suffering. The former head of the Nasdaq Stock Exchange had allegedly built a Ponzi-style scheme into a fifty billion dollar black hole of other peoples’ money.

Many images come to mind when I read of this seventy year old scammer with so much credibility that he could lead armies of people to part with their hard earned cash. I mean, this Bernard Madoff was a respected man in the New York financial scene. He was trusted and looked up to.

Next I read this story of the fund manager who slit his wrists after losing more than a billion dollars of his clients’ money. Then I understood something. Madoff did not have to meet the eyeballs of the very human faces whose hearts would be crushed by this shameful crime. It would be the investment brokers and fund managers who took it on the chin. Those who still had a conscience, like Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, suffered pain and humiliation. In his shame, as a result of failing to protect the best interests of those who trusted him, he took his life.

Investor who lost big to Madoff kills himself
Tuesday December 23, 8:45 pm ET
By Adam Goldman and Tom Hays, Associated Press Writers

Investor who lost more than $1 billion of client money in Madoff scandal commits suicide
NEW YORK (AP) -- A fund manager who lost more than $1 billion of his clients' money to Bernard Madoff was discovered dead Tuesday after committing suicide at his Manhattan office, marking a grim turn in a scandal that has left investors around the world in financial ruin.

Yesterday I spoke on the phone with a New York publisher who had aunts and uncles who were among those fleeced masses. She said they were devastated. They lost their life savings and it triggered a memory from my own family's history.

My grandmother grew up in West Virginia. Her father ran the hardware store in Cairo, a small rural town east of Parkersburg. At some point in her early teens, her father suffered losses in the business and the six children were separated to live with various cousins while he strove to get the family back on its feet. The splintered family was reunited in about a year, a considerable achievement requiring much labor and sacrifice.

After the kids were grown, and he had spent a lifetime saving for retirement, he was persuaded that rather than keeping his money in the bank he should invest it. The investment broker into whose hands he gave his life savings would take it to Philadelphia and the family would be secure for life on the yields or interest or whatever tale was told. I do not know those specific details. What I know is that the man never returned nor was ever heard from again.

When the truth dawned on him that he'd lost everything, Winfield Scott McGregor was devastated. It is said that till the day he died he was a hollowed out man who spent much of his time in a rocking chair on the porch, staring off into the distance. He never regained the spring in his step, never bounced back. He was a broken man.

The Madoff swindle might well be history's biggest, fifty billion dollars. A lot of those betrayed were common folk who trusted the investment community. Many will fight this in court, hoping to retain something of their dignity if not what is rightfully theirs. But many others will be broken, overcome with resignation, adrift on a roiling sea of sorrows. This is the human cost of the Madoff scandal.

Famous Lefties

Unless you’re in a minority, you can easily take it for granted that all are like you. I remember the first time I knew someone whose parents were divorced (that I knew about) and it seemed so unusual. And for most of us who are right handed, it is quite strange to find that a portion of the world is unlike ourselves… or that their needs might be different from ours.

Take the guitar, for example. Jimi Hendrix did not have the luxury of owning a guitar designed for lefties, so he learned to play a right handed guitar the opposite way, with the bass string on the bottom instead of the top.

There are actually whole stores for left-handed people. There are even scholarships for lefties, as if their minority status required our support, I suppose. Maybe some rich lefty wanted to make sure left handers got a fair shake.

In baseball I remember that one of the great pitchers of all time, Sandy Koufax, was a southpaw (nickname for left handed pitchers.) Being one of the greatest Jewish baseball players, he stands out as a double minority.

Allegedly, the following presidents were all left handed: James A. Garfield, Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton. It’s remarkable how four of the next five post-Nixon presidents were lefties. Bet you didn’t know that. (In researching, I learned something else about Mr. Hoover, our Roaring Twenties president who ushered us into the Great Depression. He died in 1964, a year after John F. Kennedy, who ushered us into the Sixties.)

Here’s a smattering of other left handers: King Louis XVI of France, Queen Victoria of England, Prince Charles of England, Fidel Castro, Henry Ford, David Rockefeller, Helen Keller, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, astronauts Edwin Buzz Aldrin and Wally Schirra, Jay Leno, Dave Barry, Edward R. Murrow and Ted Koppel. Some interesting characters in my book.

A few left-handed authors you might be familiar with include: James Baldwin, Peter Benchley, Lewis Carroll, Marshall McLuhan, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells and Eudora Welty.

The list of lefty musicians is longer still. Here’s but a portion: David Byrne, Glen Campbell, Kurt Cobain, Phil Collins, Bela Fleck, Judy Garland, Isaac Hayes, Chuck Mangione, Robert Plant, Cole Porter, Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel, Lou Rawls, Paul Simon, Tiny Tim and Rudy Valee.

Artists of the left hand persuasion include Albrecht Dürer, M.C. Escher, Paul Klee, Michelangelo, LeRoy Neiman, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci... an auspicious group.

And of left handedness in the acting profession there seems no end, much too long to list here.

I get the impression that being left handed has a somewhat negative connotation, as if a person is somehow underhanded for being a lefty. This is a strange notion, but it's born out in a number of ways. For example the Chinese character for "left" means improper.

It's no doubt a bummer that many tools and implements are designed for righties, making many activities just that much more challenging. Seven to ten percent of all people are left handed, and yet we have failed to accommodate for them in so many ways. Thank goodness for left handed teacups when we have company.

Monday, December 22, 2008

An Unremembered Historyof the World (The Beginning)

SHORT STORY MONDAY

An Unremembered History of the World
"I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself." Daniel 7:28


When we speak of history, we must always remind ourselves that we are speaking only of "history as we know it." The task of historians to document, revise and debate the events and meanings of events in human history is a daunting one, even when simplified to contain only that which is known. (By known, I mean known by the human race in our specific line of experience from Adam to the present.)

We are not debating Adam and Eve here. That is a tedious debate that is ultimately a matter of faith. Rather, I am proposing that our historians make a greater effort to record the alternate histories alternate histories, the streams that flow from alternate choices that could have been made throughout the courses of time.

In the village of Dunn on the outskirts of Devonshire, England, in the spring of 1698, a sequence of events occurred which would have a dramatic impact on the history of the world. Like the fabled grain of mustard seed, the events seemed small and would have otherwise gone unnoticed had they not been recorded in a journal which has been passed to us through the generations.

The thing that happened - or rather, the sequence of events which this story seeks to uncover beginning with this singular incident in the life of Thomas Olney, a Dunn tailor - is staggering to consider. Perhaps this is why our minds repress such knowledge. It is too weighty. But then, what if... Let us leave off from musings and examine that which we have come to know.

It is well known that in these parts nomadic tribes of gypsies passed with frequency and, on certain occasions especially associated with lunar convergences, the gypsies believed themselves to have the mystical ability to confer special powers to newborn infants.

Olney's wife had been in an unusually protracted labor. He feared her life was endangered. It was a particularly bitter blow to Olney, being naturally inclined to optimism as he was. The only town physician, his name is not important, had gone to the sea for a holiday. Because Olney had expected the good doctor to return in time to deliver the baby, he thus prevented his wife from going to stay with her sister in Devonshire where there were several doctors in service.

When it appeared that all was lost, that both mother and child would soon perish, Olney sent word to the gypsies to send someone who could help deliver his wife from her suffering.

Three gypsy women arrived and his son was born within the hour. Partly out of gratitude and partly from delirium, the young father asked the gypsies to bless his son. The women wept and said it would be a privilege.

The boy, who was named Thomas after his father, was placed in the midst of a circle of candles. A strange ritual followed, with incantations in strange languages. The women rubbed a foul ointment on the infant's forehead and proceeded to prophecy. "One day, when this boy is a man, he will be permitted the gift of having one wish granted by the gods, when he wishes for it with all his heart. It will be like a dream, and the world will never be the same.

"The prophecy was accompanied by a strange feeling of both elation and dread, which pierced Olney's heart like a thorn. He wondered what it would be that his son would wish for. And he wondered how the world would be changed.


TO BE CONTINUED
Photo credit: K Pattern 3 by Susie, upper right image on this page

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

A little tribute for this, the longest night of the year, Robert Frost's marvelous poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Whose woods were they? Of what significance are these dark woods to this rider? What were those promises he aimed to keep? And why the duplicate reinforcement at the end regarding the length of the journey?

It's a simple poem, but the great poets take simple observations to new levels of understanding.

The relationship between the horse and rider is also interesting. The horse doesn't fully grasp the rider's pause. Is it melancholy, nostalgic dreams, a glimpse of something lost, or perhaps of something spectacular. And maybe that is the poet's gift to us, to paint a simple image, a moment in time, and allow our own souls to engage it, to make it ours.

Here a few images of my own from last night as the snow continued to challenge all the planned activities of this pre-Christmas weekend. Nothing so wonderful as this poem by Mr. Frost, the San Francisco born New Englander who received four Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Popeye & My First Paid Gig

Today’s libraries contain not only a wealth of literature and magazines, but also movies, videos, audio books, Internet services, and other resources. Libraries are a microcosm of the culture and I love them. I constantly thank the checkout people at the two libraries I frequent, and you should too.

Yesterday I watched a couple Popeye cartoons that were on a DVD I checked out from our Duluth library. Oh the memories. Most of us are familiar with the Popeye character, his bulging forearms with anchor tattoos, corncob pipe and sailor’s cap. And you no doubt remember his adversary Brutus, as well as his tall skinny girl friend, Olive Oyl.

According to Wikipedia, these King Features Syndicate cartoons were created for television in 1960. I was eight at the time and remember them well… or so I thought. Watching the two cartoons yesterday brought back a few forgotten memories. First, I had forgotten how much Popeye muttered to himself. He’s really quite a strange guy. Maybe that’s what sailors become, isolated and disconnected from place and society. His mumblings are seldom to communicate to others. The effect is comical though. And he is no master of pronunciation.

Popeye had first gone to film in 1933, in the golden age of theater when cartoons opened for features and sometimes even double features. The theater versions of the cartoon had Popeye’s adversary as the tough guy Bluto. But King Features was unable to obtain the rights to this name when they started making the cartoons for TV and changed his name. Alas, trademark disputes are nothing new.

One of the favorite characters in Popeye was Wimpy, who famously repeated, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

Popeye himself had a few signature lines, including, “I y’ams what I y’am, and that’s all that I y’am.” And of course the classic, "I'm strong to the finich when I eats my spinach, I'm Popeye the sailor man."

He was strong for his size, but when it came to a crunch where he needed more strength, he reached for his spinach. It’s funny how I never knew what spinach was because my dad disliked it so much we never had it in the house. Personally, I like spinach, but it does not seem to give me the superpowers it gave Popeye.

In 1980 Robin Williams starred in a feature film about Popeye. I do not recall much enthusiasm for the flick amongst my peers when it came out. At the time, I did not know it was a Robert Altman film or that the music was written by Harry Nilsson (a friend of John Lennon who famously penned the “Everybody’s Talkin’” theme from the movie Midnight Cowboy.) I will probably make an effort to obtain it now, for its historicity if nothing else.

My First Paid Gig
These past two days the Twin Ports has been on the receiving end of two major snow storms. Not a lot of fun to deal with, but if you want to live here there are few alternatives other than to deal with it.

As noted in earlier posts I have been making music with the Elliot Brothers. Despite the risks involved, I managed to get downtown to play harmonicas, percussion and sing with the team of Elliot Silberman and Ted Gay. The roads were not pretty, and the crowds were probably wise to stay home, but we’d made a commitment and had fun making some sweet sounds.

At the end of the night Elliot handed Ted and I each a twenty dollar bill. Whoa! What a nice surprise. I was just there to have fun. But it immediately brought back memories of my first freelance article for which I received payment. It, too, was for twenty dollars, in the form of a check from the Standard Publishing Company, Sept 1983. From that modest beginning unexpected things evolved. Eventually, writing became a career.

Don’t worry, friends. I’m not planning to quit my day job…

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Obama's Rick Warren Appointment Creates Minor Firestorm Amongst Gays

It's not hard to understand why Hollywood liberals were so eager to stand behind Barack Obama as he surged toward the White House. A few years back, it was easy to understand why they liked Pastor Rick Warren, too, author of the best selling book, The Purpose Driven Life. Warren was a big fan of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, though what Californian is not a fan of anything promising cleaner air?

This week Barack Obama announced that Rick Warren would be doing the invocation at his inauguration in January. The howls of protest coming from Hollywood's hills could be heard round the world.

I guess this is the age we live in. No longer can we count on common sense and civility to soothe our differences. Every decision, and even non-decisions, will have ramifications amongst one segment or another of our society. The gay community is outraged because Warren helped pass the most recent Proposition 8 which struck down gay marriage in California, an unforgivable sin.

Obama's selection of Warren is clearly an olive branch to the nation's Christian conservatives, saying let's be of one family. But many gays see Warren's selection as a slap in the face against their struggle for justice.

I have never been a big fan of Rick Warren, since I pretty much feel that the message of his books, living a purpose driven life, is not one of my weak areas.... and maybe because I am always suspicious about fame. But being a pastor of a Bible believing church as he is, and being that the invocation is historically a prayer by someone who actually believes in God, it seems Obama is not out of line in his selection.

Obama has a tough situation here. If he backs down and changes his choice, he looks weak. If he maintains the course, the viciousness of political gays may show no restraint in marring the transition of this new president to power.

The New York Times titled their article, "Obama's Choice of Pastor Creates Furor." The article focuses on Obama's response to the furor and defense of Rick Warren. "Mr. Obama’s forceful defense of Mr. Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Life, has signaled an intent to continue his campaign’s effort to woo even theologically conservative Christians. As his advisers field scores of calls from Democrats angry because Mr. Warren is an outspoken opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage, Mr. Obama has insisted that a range of viewpoints be expressed at the inauguration festivities next month in Washington. 'That’s part of the magic of this country, is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated,' Mr. Obama said, speaking to reporters here this week. He added, 'That’s hopefully going to be a spirit that carries over into my administration.'"

Actually, the bitter edge to this debate might be O.K. since a lot of the issues it raises have festered in back rooms and professional convocations behind the scenes for a long time. Good luck, Mr. Obama, as you strive to bring your ideals to bear on the public square.

A couple weeks back I saw an article about a Jewish rabbi from Israel who dreamed that Obama would select two Christians, two Jews and two Muslims in a more global symbol. Evidently the idea did not get much traction.

One way or another, we're watching history unfold. The depth of venom in some quarters is going to be a challenge to all of our ideals.

I am reminded of George Harrison's soft rebuke...
I look at you all see the love there that's sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at you all
Still my guitar gently weeps

Can we find a way to love one another? We can only hope...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Unbelievable Interview with Robert Ripley

Ninety years ago Robert Ripley was one man making cartoons. Today the company he spawned is a global leader in location-based entertainment. More than 13 million guests visit its 73 attractions operating in 12 countries annually.

Believe it or not, Ripley’s first desire, like my own actually, was to be a baseball player. Unable to fulfill that dream, he fell back to doing art, again like me. In the end, he was internationally famous and the most popular man in America. Not yet me.

At age 16 Ripley played semi-pro baseball but also showed an aptitude for art, selling his first piece that year. After a few years striving to make it in baseball, his foremost passion, an injury knocked him out of the game and he continued with his art. He sold his first cartoon titled “The Village Belles are Wringing” to Life magazine when he was 18.

His road to fame took a big leap forward when he created his first Believe It Or Not panel ten years later with a sports motif called Champs and Chumps.

In 1929 one of his cartoons stated “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem,” which eventually led to legislation that made the Star Spangled Banner the county’s official anthem.

That year really opened up the big time for Ripley though as he joined the William Randolph Hearst Syndicate and went from 17 newspapers to international visibility. Hearst funded his passion for travel to exotic places and in 1930 a fourteen year stint in radio began.

Believe it or not, in a 1936 nationwide poll of newspaper readers, Ripley was voted the most popular American, beating out President Roosevelt.

His cartoons were often collected and sold in paperback books which every kid enjoyed reading. Or, at least my brothers and I enjoyed them as kids. I’m sure a quick perusal of my mother’s basement will yield some Believe It Or Not paperbacks on some of the shelves there. There may even be some of the large full color hardbacks that pepper America's libraries, an ever reliable diversion.

Ninety years ago today Robert Ripley sold his first Ripley’s Believe It Or Not cartoon, which I why I have chosen to mark the event with this blog entry, including my interview questions. I attempted to reach him, but since he passed away half a century ago my efforts proved futile.

ennyman: You recorded radio broadcasts from underwater, the sky, caves, snake pits and foreign countries. What was the most unusual place you ever broadcast from?

Ripley:

ennyman: When the duck billed platypus was discovered and sent to England in a previous century, scholars there thought it a hoax. But it was not. Did this ever happen to you, sir, where you rejected something because it was too much to believe, then recanted? What was it?

Ripley:

ennyman: On the other hand, how did you handle it when you were indeed fooled? There must have been some people who tried to do that to you.

Ripley:

ennyman: You purportedly received more mail than the president of the United States. What were the primary themes of these letters?

Ripley:

ennyman: Is there a list of the top five most unbelievable Believe It Or Not discoveries?

Ripley:

ennyman: Of all your travel adventures, what was the most interesting place in the world you ever visited?

Ripley:

ennyman: James Michener, at age 63, said his greatest achievement was that he never spent a night in jail. What would you say was your greatest achievement?

And to you, my own readers here... Enjoy something unbelievable today.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Camnesia and Other Wonders

We live in amazing times. I'm referring to the power of the Internet here. Whatever your interest, you're but a mouse click away from more info, images, sometimes even videos about that subject. And many of these cyber places and spaces have email newsletters and RSS feeds which you can subscribe to so you don't even have to look for them any more. They come looking for you.

Whatever your interest, whether literature, languages, rhetoric, philosophy, ethics, logic, sports, science, history, theology, politics, media, auto mechanics, art, shopping or simply diversion, you can probably find something in your daily inbox just for you.

I personally dislike subscribing to too many things, especially since some seem hard to unsubscribe to... and some are probably collecting emails for other things you don't really want like Rolex watches and enhancement meds. But there are some really cool things out on the Net and here are a couple of my favorites: Storypeople and wiseGEEK.

I wrote about Storypeople a few months ago and you can click the link here in my favorites list, just below Quiet Heart Music. The wiseGEEK emails are something akin to a trivia feed where the subject line is usually a question and you can read the first portion, or click on the link and read the entire article.

Here's what I received this morning...

What is Camnesia?

There's a reason why the world is not overrun with pictures of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, UFOs or your cousin Jim's first birthday party, and that reason is known as camnesia. Camnesia is a condition in which a person either forgets to take pictures at a once-in-a-lifetime moment, or else forgets to bring a camera at all. Many sufferers have a flare-up of... hotlink here

Apparently camnesia is a real condition, even though I never heard about it till this morning. I've experienced it, though.

As for the Loch Ness monster, a friend of mine did not have camnesia when he was in Scotland. He came home with an interestingly ambiguous shot and I wrote about it for the Highland Villager, one of my first published stories. Undoubtedly he'd only captured shadows, and maybe there had been a little too much time spent at the pub before that sunset boat ride. It was fun to hear and write about.

Let's hope we remember our cameras when we go to the Grand Canyon next spring.

To get your own daily wiseGEEK insights visit http://www.wisegeek.com/


Throughout this blogsite, you may click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Twine Collector Achieves His 15 Minutes of Fame

Well, it's a dream come true for Jim Kotera, who began wrapping his twine into a ball in 1979. According to a AP story that circulated the Net in mid-November, Kotera was driven by the same competitive spirit that drives the world's fastest runners and other athletes. He heard there was someone with a bigger ball of twine and he wanted to beat them. The ol' competitive spirit...

Purportedly the ball weighs just under 20,000 pounds and has enough string to reach from his Lake Nebagamon home to the Wyoming border. So, does this mean he's headed for the Guinness Book of World Records? (See Jim's AP photo here.)

Actually, in a Ripley's Believe It Or Not book called Planet Eccentric, there is a whole volume of stories with photos of people doing bizarre things or carrying out totally obsessive hobbies. And on page 41 we find Francis A. Johnson of Darwin, MN spent all his lunch hours adding twine to his own ball, which ended up 17,400 pounds when he died. Not sure how many twine ball makers they have in these parts, but no doubt Johnson was one of the people Kotera had in mind when he got to aiming for the world record.

Johnson died in 1989, which means Kotera had a real possibility of beating the guy if he just stayed with it and kept breathing. Clearly Kotera had a ball with this project, which proves that people can accomplish almost anything with enough patience and motivation.

You don't have to just collect twine to get your name in lights, however. Mike Carmichael of Alexandria, Indiana, added a coat of paint to a baseball for so many years that his baseball is now 1100 pounds with 17,000 coats of paint.

And Lyle Lynch got his long overdue recognition for making the world's largest ball of barbed wire, 5,000 pounds worth. Lyle began in 1970, the same year I started college at Ohio University. Other kids were smokin' dope or protesting the war, or both, but not Lyle. He was the quiet good kid parents all admired. They believed he would make something of his life. And sure enough, he did. He's featured on page 40 of the aforementioned Ripley book, just below Mike's ball of paint.

So, what are your obsessions? I'd like to hear about it. I like to write, and make art... and am hoping my writing will make a difference in the world somehow. But at the end of the day I may just be making my own large ball of twine... out of words, words and more words.

Hmmm... I'd better not think too hard on that one.

Monday, December 15, 2008

An Unremembered History of the World

My story "An Unremembered History of the World" was written in the early days of the World Wide Web. It's aim, as in most fiction, was to tell a good story well told. It had a secondary aim as well. Because I was writing it for publishing on the Internet, I attempted to incorporate one of the unique features of the web, its ability to use hyperlinks to tell a story in a non-linear fashion.

It was a first effort, and the hyperlinks generally went to what one might call asides, the equivalent of footnotes. The following is one such aside, early on setting up the background for the story.

Unrecorded Histories

There are some who have proposed that it is sheer vanity for us to imagine our earth as the only heavenly body populated by creatures with intelligence and personality. I propose that it is equally vain to imagine that our history, the one recorded by our historians, the one we know as "recorded history", is the only valid history for mankind here on this earth.

To imagine life on other galaxies and to search for it are not unrelated. As is well known, steps have already been undertaken to find evidence in support of this hypothesis.

In regards to the latter notion, that there exists the possibility of an infinite series of parallel times... verification of this theory is a task whose path is less self-evident, obscured as it is by mists. And yet, we see glimpses of it, reflected here and there from the great minds who were not bound to earth by the pettiness that so smothers us. Goethe noted that his heart contained the capacity for all acts, from the most heinous to the sublime. Could he have been standing on the threshold of those infinite courses that sweep into other avenues of time, unseen, unknown and unremembered?

Bernard Yachtmann records instances where people have had glimpses of other histories, reiterating the conviction that time contains an infinite number of parallel streams, and in each there are alternative histories, of an infinite variety. While not every act leads to significant consequence, many acts do, and what if in an alternate history the consequences of those acts were indeed being played out. Likewise one can find similar references by Marconi, Hasjammer, and Brandt, and an exhaustive treatise along these lines by Don Luis de Nativo.

While at the University of Salamanca at the turn of the century, Don Luis de Nativo wrote extensively on this theme. Though his manuscripts remained mostly unpublished and were eventually lost, the man de Nativo is best remembered as an archetype of de Unamuno's "man of passion" as fleshed out in The Tragic Sense of Life, de Unamuno's master work. (I have been told that it was a chance meeting with Joseph Conrad which prompted de Nativo to pseudonymously publish his epic work El Mundo Gordo.)

In other words, to get right to my point: my proposition is not original. It has been well documented by others as a reasonable conjecture. No doubt it is my own insecurity that forces me to cite other, more significant voices, as if the testimony of my own experience will be insufficient.

Those of you who know me may recall that I often have unusual dreams. Oftentimes the dreams unfold as detailed stories. I recently dreamt a short skit which became a television commercial. I've had prophetic dreams, including a dream which showed me that my firstborn would be a son. I've also had dreams which I believe were gifts from God.

In September of 1984 I had a strange dream. As is my custom, I recorded the images of my dream, in as much detail possible, and its effect.

Two months later, while looking for a book by one author or another at one of our local used bookstores, I happened upon a small, Irish green, clothbound book called Flight of Gypsies. It was one of those moments when a decision carries weight, when you feel compelled to act irrationally. The price, eight-fifty, was higher than I would have expected, especially considering the broken binding and what appeared to be several loose and missing pages. Yet when I opened the book and randomly read about five sentences, I knew that I must have the book.

I'd no sooner gotten the book home than I regretted the decision. The volume was more or less a compendium of prophecies by various gypsy seers in England, from 1632 to 1785. The purpose, I could only surmise, was to assemble a record of prophetic utterances for verification purposes. For the most part, the sketchy accounts were repetitive and tedious and I soon found my self bored. There were prophecies about early deaths, unhappy marriages, deformed children, and blights on households to the third and fourth generations, utterances about flea infestations, curses of blindness and baldness, worms, contagion, and dementia. I put the book on a shelf in our garage.

The next day I found one of the pages lying on the floor next to my desk. With no intention of reading, I picked it up to deposit it in the trash when the name Thomas Olney caught my eye. Olney was the name of the man in my dream. To this man and his family I will need to return, in order to strengthen my arguments and make plain my case.

Not all dreams are stories, nor do all dreams reveal secrets about the nature of the universe -- though many reveal secrets about ourselves, and I am often quite impressed with the power of this magic mirror of our souls.

Nevertheless, that night I began a quest, the result being this which you now read, of our unremembered history.... one of many, I might add... and one which we may all, with longing, seek to gain again.... if not for ourselves, then for our heirs.

Short Story Monday is brought to you by Ennyman's Territory

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Oh, Brave New World!"

"In 1931, when Brave New World was being written, I was convinced that there was still plenty of time. The completely organized society, the scientific caste system, the abolition of free will by methodical conditioning, the servitude made acceptable by regular doses of chemically induced happiness, the orthodoxies drummed in by nightly courses of sleep-teaching -- these things were coming all right, but not in my time, not even in the time of my grandchildren." ~ Aldous Huxley

So begins Huxley's 1958 collection of essays titled Brave New World Revisited. The original story raised red flags about an engineered paradise six centuries off in the future. But less than three decades later Huxley published a book of disturbing observations, post-Hitler and Stalin, that much of what he outlined was happening more quickly than he imagined.

One of the themes in this world of tomorrow is consumerism. It is bad to mend clothes, fix broken things, to play sports that don't involve some kind of consumption of goods. Consumerism helps keep the wheels of progress turning. What an irony to hear the media drums beating this very same message in our 2008 recession economy. "Good heavens, people are not spending enough for Christmas this year!!!!" Oh, brave new world!

In Huxley's original vision of tomorrow, science had answers for all of life's unpleasantries. We wouldn't age, or ever have to be depressed, or ever have to deal with pain, physical or emotional. We are conditioned from conception to enjoy our station in life's socially engineered caste system.

Now that I just finished reading the original Brave New World this past week, I can't help but think today's genetic engineering projects, massive pharmaceutical industry and social manipulations would shock Huxley's shoelaces off and curl his toes.

What's surprising, there are many who would now propose that Huxley is a villain for scaring people away from the brave new world that awaits us as David Pearce argues here.

As we face tomorrow's tomorrows, there are real issues at stake. Central among them, what does it mean to be human? A soul, a person, a personality with mind, will, emotions... a creative force housed in a bio-system energized by a divine spark.

Another theme throughout the original novel was the end of family. No mothers and fathers. We were all twins by the score. Everyone belonged to everyone, and sexual pleasure was with all, indiscriminate. Every man and woman perfect. "Oh brave new world!"

Huxley's character John Savage came from a Southwest reservation where the old ways were still practiced. There were gods, and mothers, and yes, even pain. But this was life. Late in the book he meets and debates one of the ten world controllers, Mustapha Mond. It is a highly illuminating section of the book, as the two world views crash into one another.

Chapter Seventeen
ART, SCIENCE–you seem to have paid a fairly high price for your happiness," said the Savage, when they were alone. "Anything else?"


"Well, religion, of course," replied the Controller. "There used to be something called God–before the Nine Years' War. But I was forgetting; you know all about God, I suppose."

"Well …" The Savage hesitated. He would have liked to say something about solitude, about night, about the mesa lying pale under the moon, about the precipice, the plunge into shadowy darkness, about death. He would have liked to speak; but there were no words. Not even in Shakespeare.

The Controller then shared with the Savage a number of books which he kept locked up because they were dangerous. This discussion ensued.

"Call it the fault of civilization. God isn't compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness. That's why I have to keep these books locked up in the safe. They're smut. People would be shocked it …"

The Savage interrupted him. "But isn't it natural to feel there's a God?"

"You might as well ask if it's natural to do up one's trousers with zippers," said the Controller sarcastically. "You remind me of another of those old fellows called Bradley. He defined philosophy as the finding of bad reason for what one believes by instinct. As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons–that's philosophy. People believe in God because they've been conditioned to.

"But all the same," insisted the Savage, "it is natural to believe in God when you're alone–quite alone, in the night, thinking about death …"

"But people never are alone now," said Mustapha Mond. "We make them hate solitude; and we arrange their lives so that it's almost impossible for them ever to have it."

The Savage nodded gloomily. At Malpais he had suffered because they had shut him out from the communal activities of the pueblo, in civilized London he was suffering because he could never escape from those communal activities, never be quietly alone.

At the heart of all is a question which echoes throughout the history of philosophy, articulated by Socrates and re-evaluated with every new generation: What is a good life? Or the modern corollary thought: how can a socially engineered existence reveal virtue when making a free will choice is an abnormality?

That discussion has been going on for twenty-five centuries... so I think I will just leave off here.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Babblegate Blathergate: Is the Honeymoon Over?

O.K. media people. Lighten up.

I know why Americans are sick of politics. About every three weeks we’re inundated with a new scandal-gate. This week it’s called Blagogate. (Google News: 63 stories today)

A big front page story early this week told how Illinois Guv Rod Blogojevich sought to capitalize on Barack Obama’s vacated senate seat. Yep. He was purportedly striving to strike a back room deal in which he could profit by selling the seat to the highest bidder.

“Come one, come all… Be a Senator and enjoy the benefits of power and privilege, D.C-style.”

Now here’s the part that gets bad. Within days some newsman tries to make a name for himself by giving the scandal a name. “What if we just add a ‘gate’ to the story somewhere?” Next thing you know, everyone is talking about this stupid thing that some guy did and comparing it, by the very nature of its name, to Nixon’s truly despotic Watergate atrocity.

Suddenly, no one cares about Mr. Obama’s appointments, or the continuing crisis in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan or Mumbai or Ethiopia or Somalia or Outer Slobovia…. Rather, in a strange media feeding frenzy, with tar slathering over everything related to Illinois, all the spotlights turn to the president-elect. How much did he know? Why wasn’t he outraged when he found out about it?

I guess it was CNN’s Rick Sanchez who came up with the tagline Blagogate. But someone would have sooner or later. And with deft innuendo Mr. Obama is on the defensive. Here’s Katie Couric on the theme:

Today, President-elect Barack Obama formally introduced his pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Daschle, but you wouldn't know it from the headlines. The press conference was dominated by questions about Illinois Gov. Rod Blogojevich, and very serious charges that he may have tried to sell Mr. Obama's Senate seat. Federal prosecutors have said there are no allegations that Mr. Obama was involved, and the president-elect stated he is confident his staffers had no hand in the hijinx.

So why is this news?

Fox News naturally gives an even more ominous spin in a story titled Obama Bungles Blagogate.

Hmmm… “Bungles” sounds like "screwed up" and fumbles and just plain messed up his first move. It also sounds like editorial jabbing, not news reporting.

And in what way did he bungle this “first major test before taking office”? In fact, why is this his first test? I would think his first test would been election night. He could have gloated. But he did not. He passed the first test… a gracious winner. The next set of tests were already waiting for him by week’s end. The automakers were on the ropes, and bleeding badly. He could have failed that, too. Or in his appointments to the cabinet… wouldn’t those be called “tests” of his judgment?

Instead, Fox focuses on this little item:
“In his first major test before taking office President-elect Barack Obama finds himself sucked into scandal. The governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich, a man Obama endorsed in 2006, was charged this week with trying to sell the president-elect’s senate seat in a staggering level of pay to play politics.”

Of course this piece of editorializing is written by a Republican who quickly adds the following disclaimer:

“Let me make one thing clear: Obama has not been charged, nor is there any suspicion that he had any involvement in this scandal.” If there is not even any suspicion of involvement, then why is this a story?

So what are they saying he did wrong? “On Tuesday, following the reports that Blagojevich had been arrested, Obama said he was ‘saddened and sobered’ by the news. Saddened? Movies on Lifetime make people sad. This should make him furious.”

How about the possibility that he is saddened because he is watching a public official’s life become a public ruin? The guy may have actly like a bum, but he's a human being.

Another thing Obama did wrong was probably to come from that seething hotbed of unethical slime, Illinois. Isn’t Illinois the notorious state of Mayor Daley and Al Capone and stuffed ballot boxes and corruption? Well yes, but it’s also the Land o’ Lincoln. Besides, I never knew political corruption had geographic boundaries. New Jersey famously has the Mob, and New York Boss Tweed and crooked cops, and D.C. has its history of shame as well. And let's not forget Louisiana or Mississippi while we're at it.

As for Obama and the media, can it really be that the honeymoon is over already? If the media is going to make a mountain out of this particular anthill, it’s their prerogative. I would think, however, there are more important things to be getting a grip on right now.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lennon Muerte

December 8, 1980. I was standing on the Zocalo in Mexico City, a large open plaza in front of the palatial government buildings there. The day sky blue, and I a stranger in a strange land, stood there taking it all in.

Surrounding the square there were newspaper & magazine stands, much like those one sees in the streets of New York. And as I walked to my left toward the vendor stands, every one of them was filled with newspapers displaying photos of the Beatles. This seemed so strange until the headline registered. Lennon Muerte. Lennon dead.

I stood gaping, the news failing to register. Perhaps the era of innocence had long past, but this brought it forcefully home. John Lennon's music connected with a generation, and one theme he was especially fond of was the appeal for peace. For Lennon, the only way to obliterate bad karma was through love, not violence.

I was in the midst of a three week trip to Mexico City with a Bible school choir from the orphanage. For a moment I forgot myself, remembering this man's influence. Here is a link to a collection of anecdotes by others who have remembered that moment, where they were, how it moved them when the learned of his passing.

As we prepare for the Christmas season, perhaps it is suitable to share this message from the Beatle known as John.

So this is Xmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Xmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very Merry Xmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Xmas (war is over)
For weak and for strong (if you want it)
For rich and the poor ones (war is over)
The world is so wrong (if you want it)
And so happy Xmas (war is over)
For black and for white (if you want it)
For yellow and red ones (war is over)
Let's stop all the fight (now)

A very Merry Xmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Xmas (war is over)
And what have we done (if you want it)
Another year over (war is over)
A new one just begun (if you want it)
And so happy Xmas (war is over)
We hope you have fun (if you want it)
The near and the dear one (war is over)
The old and the young (now)

A very Merry Xmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear
War is over, if you want it
War is over now

Happy Xmas