Wednesday, December 19, 2012

God and Sandy Hook Elementary

There seems to be a widespread belief among Christian fundamentalists that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary was somehow directly or indirectly caused because “God is not allowed in schools”.    As if to double down on this theology, several fundamentalist leaders have made public statements to that effect.  Mike Huckabee says school shootings happen because, “God is absent from our schools.”     Bryan Fischer from the American Family Association believes the same thing.  He says “We've kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, 'Hey, I'll be glad to protect your children, but you've got to invite me back into your world first. I'm not going to go where I'm not wanted. I am a gentleman.’"

 Apparently chivalry is now an attribute of the divine nature. 
These ideas are nonsense.  God has not abandoned schools, nor does it make any sense to characterize him as someone who sits on the front porch sipping mint juleps and tipping his hat when a lady walks by.  There are many descriptors that can be applied to God’s’ character, but “gentleman” is definitely not one of them.   A quick look at Jesus’ life reveals that he had little interest in gentlemanly behavior.  Indeed the one thing that can be said about Jesus is that he purposely chose NOT to conform to the standard of propriety of his day, nor did he value superficial courtesy for its own sake (which is the underlying definition of ‘gentleman’).   Jesus overturned tables in the Temple and excoriated religious leaders as venomous snakes on a regular basis, things a gentleman would never do.
While it might feel tingly to imagine God as a chivalrous but deferential consort who wouldn’t think of intruding where he isn’t wanted, such an idea fails to correspond with an omnipotent, omnipresent deity “who works all things after the counsel of his own will”. 
Religious rhetoric that intends the phrase “we’ve kicked God out of our public school system “ to mean that we have defined and limited what God can and cannot do and where he may or may not go is a gross misrepresentation of the concept of human free will.  We may decide what we will do, individually and collectively, but we have no authority or power whatsoever to determine what God may do, or how or when he chooses to manifest his presence.   God does not abandon or desert public schools simply because a legal opinion requires that he do so. 
God is not constrained by human laws nor does he disregard or forsake his sovereignty.  It is not enough to say that God has the “right” to govern all things according to his own will but is prevented from doing so by human conventions.  If he is God, then it is necessarily the case that he does, in fact, govern all things always and without exception.  God is not merely sovereign in principle but is sovereign in practice.
As regards matters of practical sovereignty, God exercises what has come to be called providence, which is his continual upholding, sustaining and caring for all that exists.  God’s providential care is unaffected by the whims of human contrivance; he need not seek our permission or obtain our consent.  And, in fact, public school presents endless opportunities for providence to work.
Common sense tells us that public school isn’t an isolated, self-contained component of a child’s life, divorced from the balance of their experiences.  Schooling doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Teachers, administrators, students, staff and volunteers bring their life experiences, their worldviews, their spiritual ideologies with them every time they walk onto campus.  And it is not secular humanists that are teaching and staffing our elementary and secondary schools.  Overwhelmingly, it is Christians.  Three-quarters of all Americans identify themselves as Christian, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, and of that number, fully 68% responded that their religious beliefs were “very important” in their daily lives.  Does anyone really believe that Christian teachers and staff remove their religious beliefs and hang them in the cloak closet until it’s time to go home?  Are teachers and students prevented from engaging in an internal dialogue with God throughout their day?  Is there something about a school building that prevents God from initiating acts of providence in and through the lives of those attune to his presence? One passing comment, one small deed, multiplied countless times throughout the fabric of a typical school day might be just the vehicle that ensures God’s providential work is carried out as he decrees.   And because public schools are local in nature, students are likely to attend the same churches or belong to the same civic organizations as some of their teachers and fellow students.   Parents and families know each other, socialize together, worship together.    
Some people would have us believe that our public schools represent a kind of moral wasteland where God has been excommunicated and our children’s physical and spiritual lives are at peril.   Nothing could be further from the truth.
These fundamentalist leaders know full well what they’re doing.  The real purpose of their statements is to assign blame and guilt, and to further a political agenda.  By doing so, however, they diminish the very God that they purport to revere, and twist his character into a petty, narcissistic demigod whose moral maturity is far less developed than the first graders that he supposedly left to fend for themselves.
We cannot know the “why” of the tragic events in Newtown Connecticut because its very nature is senseless.  But we need not imagine that the children who were killed were alone, abandoned by a God in which most, if not all, believed, on a day that they needed him most.  To envision such a scenario would be cold and heartless. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Christmas with Kierkegaard

I love the extended end-of-year holiday season.  I enjoy everything about it, but I especially like Christmas.  Given a choice between the two major cultural-christian holidays, Easter and Christmas, I’d take Christmas every time.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying “humbug” to Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.  In the framework of western philosophical and religious thought, Easter – or its equivalent – is inevitable.   Humanity seems inexorably drawn to reminders of our imperfection and alienation, our struggle to define the sacred, our emptiness apart from something greater than our self.  Easter is the perfect complement for such ruminations.  By contrast, the advent season is the antithesis of that.  Christmas reminds us that the story of humanity need not be bound up in the existential angst of uncertainty and despair.
It’s about innocence, new beginnings, gifts and celebrations. It’s about family and community.  When distilled to its essence Christmas is about us; a proclamation of the value of the human race.  It’s a season to celebrate our worth, our purpose.  It begins with an announcement, but not one made with the bravado of human hubris.  Rather it is a declaration from an other-worldly choir heralding “peace on earth, good will to all people”.  It is God’s messengers who usher in this season, their joyous song a reflection of what deity thinks about us, what he envisions for us, and what we should envision for ourselves. It is not a time of doubt and estrangement but of faith and community.  Fear not, we are told, for this is an occasion of good tiding, a time of great joy. 
As befits a celebration, a gift has been given. 
The miracle of Christmas may not lie so much in the fact of incarnation as in the expression of ultimate worth revealed in its effect - that the manger’s babe is a child of humanity.  Our merit, indeed our intrinsic value is revealed not in that God has come to visit with us but that He has become one of us, and more importantly, that he has become one of the least of us, a helpless child.  By this simple yet profound act God affirms his trust in us and the value of who we are.  Christmas is a reminder that life is pregnant with purpose and meaning and that each of us independently and as an organic whole is favored and deserving of good will and peace.

I do not want to see you through the darkened glass of tradition, nor through the eyes of today’s values and prejudices. I want to see you as you were, as you are, and as you always will be.   - Soren Kierkegaard

Monday, September 10, 2012

Le Jardin De La Vie

“Bonjour!” Jean-Pierre bellowed happily, riding the lawn tractor up the grassy knoll and down the other side.  “Comment ca va, mes amis!” 
Every workday began this way, with the gardener shouting greetings and nodding enthusiastically to all the residents he encountered during his daily tasks.  Today was the scheduled mowing routine along the older, hilly section of the property, an area that Jean-Pierre particularly liked.  The tenants there were by far his favorites.
He set about clipping the St. Augustine grass in long, angled, alternating rows to give it a nice patterned look, winking as his mower brought him near Tee Mike who was doing his morning tumbling and jumping.  Jean-Pierre prefaced the names of all young men he knew with “Tee”, a bayou colloquialism derived from the formal French “petite” meaning small.  Cresting the knoll near the property’s small lake, he nodded at Mr. Parsons as he passed near the old preacher who regularly paced along the banks of the pond, practicing his Sunday sermons on the wood ducks and geese paddling nearby.
Making a wide turn around an ancient live oak, Jean-Pierre saw a vehicle heading in his direction along the gravel path that originated at the main building.  He narrowed his eyes and slowed the lawn mower.  Mr. Jacobs, the general manager, was paying him a morning visit.
“Dis can’t be good,” he murmured.  “Mr. Jacobs never set foot on dat cart ‘cept to bring bad news.  Good news always wait.  Bad news always in a hurry.”
Jean-Pierre knew why his boss was bobbing up and down the path in the modified golf cart that the business used to traverse the grounds.  The young man that Mr. Jacobs had directed the gardener to begin training as his assistant had been summarily dismissed no more than a half-day after he started.  By Jean-Pierre himself.
The lawn mower and golf cart met at the curve in the path and their respective drivers parked the vehicles head-to-head, each one sliding off their seat in tandem, the sound of gravel crunching beneath their feet as they approached one another for a morning tete-a-tete.   Mr. Jacob’s complexion, usually the color of paste, had taken on a ruddy hue, a sure sign that his temperament was in a fluster.
“Jean-Pierre, you can’t fire every apprentice who’s offered the job,” he began, waddling towards the gardener while retrieving a white kerchief from his pocket to dab drops of perspiration from his forehead.   Mr. Jacobs’ wide girth and black business suits preferred the cool of indoors to the warm, humid gardens.  “Surely all of them aren’t incompetent.”
“Well sir, so far dey have been.”
Mr. Jacobs sighed.  “The kid I sent to you yesterday?  He seemed bright enough to train. What was wrong with him?”
Jean-Pierre pursed his lips and shook his head slowly for emphasis.  “I ax him to drive da cart wid da tools ova to da lake.  Leave da tools dare an’ come back to fetch me.  I ax him when he come back who he done tawk to on da way to and da way from. “
“Ok,” Mr. Jacobs said.  “And then what?”
“Nobody,” Jean-Pierre answered.  “He don’t say ‘comment ca va’ to nobody.  He don’t even say ‘yat’. “
“Did it occur to you that he didn’t see anybody, Jean-Pierre?”  Mr. Jacobs feigned a gesture of searching the property.  “I don’t see anybody.  Except you, of course.”
 “Exactly dat, Mr. Jacobs.  He don’t see nobody.  He don’t look.”  Jean-Pierre cocked his head to the side.  “None of dees ‘prentisses you send me can look, Mr. Jacobs.  Dey all blind to every ting ‘cept a  damn paycheck.  When you send me a body dat can look, I hire him.  I hire him on da spot.”
Mr. Jacobs shook his head in frustration.  “Jean-Pierre, whatever qualities you think a gardener needs, I’m sure you can teach.  But you’ve got to give the poor kids a fighting chance.  You can’t fire every single one of them before lunch.”
“If dey don’t work out, dey don’t work out,” Jean-Pierre explained.  “No more to discuss, less you wants dat I should leave, too.”
Mr. Jacobs wiped the kerchief across his forehead.  A line of sweat was beginning to dampen the crisply starched collar of his oxford dress shirt and his complexion was slowly turning from a mottled red to crimson .  “Now you know good and well that’s not what anyone wants, Jean-Pierre,” he chided with sincerity.   “It’s just that, well, like we’ve discussed, you’re getting on in age now.  Some tasks aren’t getting done like they used to be done.  We’ve got a reputation to maintain, a reputation that includes a pristine setting.  Our customers pay for that.  They expect it.”
The gardener nodded in agreement.
“No one wants to replace you, Jean-Pierre.  But you need a helper.”  Mr. Jacobs waved his arms outward.  “This place needs help.  Sooner or later you’ve got to hire somebody.”
“I know dat, sir.  I know dat some well.  But Mr. Jacobs, dis ain’t your garden.  It’s dere garden.  And dey don’t take kindly to bein’ snubbed.  No sir, not at all. I done tole you plainly dat when the right one come along, I’ll know it.”
Jean-Pierre looked down at the gravel path and brushed the pebbles with one of his boots.  “If we done finished our little tawk, I got work  to do, Mr. Jacobs.”
The general manager sighed again and walked back to the golf cart, mumbling and shaking his head.  The little vehicle groaned as he plopped his massive frame onto the seat and started the ignition.  “You’ve got to hire someone, Jean-Pierre,” he called out to the gardener, maneuvering the golf cart and aiming it towards his air-conditioned office.   “Soon.” 
Jean-Pierre spent the balance of the day in a funk, going about his routine mechanically.   He knew that Mr. Jacobs was right.  He did need help to maintain these huge grounds.  But he also knew that Mr. Jacobs, like all the young men that had applied for the training job, were blind to the interests of the residents.  It had taken a long time but for the most part they  trusted Jean-Pierre.  He had earned that trust because he respected them.  And he was determined to hire somebody that he could not only train to prune the camellia bushes and fertilize the prized rose garden, but also train to interact with the tenants.  On their terms.   They deserve that, he thought.  He was determined not to let them down.
Two more trainees came and went and when Jean-Pierre saw the golf cart rumbling down the path toward him later in the week, he figured that Mr. Jacobs’ patience was at an end.  As it approached the stand of azaleas that he was trimming, he breathed a sigh of relief to see Matthew, Mr. Jacob’s son, behind the steering wheel.  Sitting next to him was a young man dressed in a neatly pressed khaki shirt and pants with wavy black hair and a broad smile. 
The cart stopped next to Jean-Pierre and Matthew motioned to his passenger.  “Jean-Pierre, please meet John Akers.  He’s here to try out for the apprentice position.”
Jean-Pierre approached the passenger’s side, shook the young man’s hand and offered his standard greeting.  He noted the kid’s strong grip and stout frame, qualities amenable to manual labor, and the congenial smile that seemed relaxed and genuine.  “Hop off dat cart an’ I’ll give you da grand tour.  After dat, we see where it goes.”
John Akers exited the vehicle and followed Jean-Pierre to the old Jeep that served as the maintenance truck.  Matthew yelled “Good luck” and turned back towards the main building.
The Jeep cranked to life, belching a small plume of smoke in protest and Jean-Pierre steered it around the lake and across the knoll, heading to the hilly parcel of land at the far end of the property.   He explained in general terms how the property was divided and the overall routine and responsibilities that would be expected of a trainee.  Having gone through this routine countless times without success, he was dubious that John Akers would last the week.
A bend in the path gave way to a lovely bed of flowers beneath a sprawling live oak a few yards from the road.  On a bench next to the colorful display, an elderly lady sat in a pose of serene contemplation, her gaze somewhere beyond the boundaries of the surrounding gardens.
“She looks lost in thought, doesn’t she? John Akers commented as their vehicle rounded the bend.
“Where?  Whatchu see?”
“Sitting on the bench under the live oak.  Right there,” John pointed.
Jean-Pierre cracked a smile.  “Dat’s Miss Beaujouis.  More money dan God, dat one.  See how she dress?  Pearls all over.  She don’t talk much, but she don’t like bein’ snubbed, none-de-less.  We gonna nod like da gentlemen we are, as we pass by.”
John Akers looked quizzically at Jean-Pierre for a long moment and then broke into a broad smile.  “Yes, sir.  We should definitely nod like the gentlemen we are.” 
Both men smiled and bowed their heads briefly in the direction of the finely-dressed lady as the Jeep drove past .  She acknowledged their gesture with a faint smile at the corners of her mouth. 
“Does she come here often?” John Akers asked. 
Without answering the question, Jean-Pierre stopped the vehicle and turned to face the young man.  “I tink I’ll call you Tee John, if you fine wid dat.”
“Sure, that’s ok,” John Akers responded.  “Tee John it is.”
“Good,” Jean-Pierre said, turning the Jeep around and heading back to the maintenance shed.  “You hired, Tee John.  Da job is yours.”
John Akers smiled . “Thank you, sir.  You won’t regret it.”
“No, I don’t tink I will,” Jean-Pierre answered.
Back at the maintenance shed, Jean-Pierre directed his new apprentice to drive the Jeep to the main building and inform Mr. Jacobs that he’d been hired.  
“Da day is almost done, so you show up in da mornin’, bright an’ early.  You got lots to learn, Tee John.”
“Yes, sir,” John Akers replied and he headed to the office.
Jean-Pierre walked into the maintenance shed, a feeling of relief washing over him.  To no one in particular, he said “He’ll work out fine, Tee John will.  It’ll take him awhile, but he’ll work out jest fine.”
He placed his set of hand tools in a large trunk and latched it closed.  Brushing some grass clippings off the brass nameplate on its lid, he rubbed the inscription with the sleeve of his shirt, giving it a quick polish.   The brass label announced that the contents belonged to the business.  Property Of Restlawn Cemetary and Eternal Gardens, it read.
“Yep, Tee John’ll work out jest fine.  He can see an’ dat’s what counts.  He can see da ghosts.”
Locking the shed door and heading for his car in the parking lot, Jean-Pierre bid the residents goodnight. “Bon nuit,” he said.  “Reposer en paix.”   Rest in peace.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Olympic Medalists: You Didn't Win That.

The USA Olympic Team will come home from London with forty-six gold medals to their credit.  That’s quite an accomplishment.  While each one of these winners is undoubtedly  proud of their achievement,  they shouldn’t get too cocky about what they’ve done because using President Obama’s rationale, they didn’t win those medals.  Somebody else made that happen. 

Based on similar remarks that the president made on the campaign trail awhile back, here is the speech President Obama will likely make to the assembled USA Olympic Team when they visit the White House upon their return from London:. 

There are a lot of Olympic Gold Medal Winners, successful Americans who agree with me --  They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve won an Olympic Gold Medal, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. 

     If you are an Olympic Gold Medal Winner, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in the track field and swimming pool that you trained on.   If you’re an Olympic Gold Medal Winner -- you didn’t win that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The track and field complexes didn’t get invented on its own.  Government monies created the track and field complexes so that all the athletes could benefit from them..

     The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together.  That’s how we funded the GI Bill.  That’s how we created the middle class.  That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam.  That’s how we invented the Internet.  That’s how we sent a man to the moon.  We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.  You’re not on your own, we’re in this together


To those who think I’ve taken his remarks out of context, this is the official transcript from the White House website.  I’ve modified the text only slightly, changing the context of the speech from “business owners” to “Olympic Gold Medal Winners”. 
 I rather doubt that Michael Phelps would give much credit for his success to the contractor who built the swimming pool and even less credit to the designers of the Golden Gate Bridge or Hoover Dam.  President Obama seems not to understand the difference between social infrastructure and individual acheivement.  Not only are they completely different concepts, they have completely different goals.   The simple fact is that both the baker who’s mixing batches of dough at 4am and the athlete who’s swimming hundreds of lap every week really are doing it on their own.  It’s not something we’re all doing together.  Their success rightly belongs to them.  That’s the very thing we admire about them.  Despite what Obama might believe, they really did win that medal or build that business. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Thus Spake Susan B. Anthony

Our country has a long history of political leaders invoking God.  Even in our postmodern paradigm the majority of citizens are still theists of one sort or another, so the idea that our elected officials would invite God’s blessing on our nation at the end of a speech or appeal to his benevolence during times of national distress raises few objections.  Nor do most people object if our politicians reveal that they speak to God during times of private prayer or meditation.

We don’t mind if politicians speak to God.  We begin to worry, however, when they say God speaks back.

 Let’s be honest about it, they’re politicians. It’s not likely they’ll bump into the Almighty unless he works for a lobbyist on K Street or shows up at one of their campaign rallies.  So, if a politician announces that God is telling him or her what to do, my first reaction is “Keep that fool as far away as possible from the switch that launches our nuclear arsenal”.  Seriously, do YOU want your senator voting on bills based on a late-night vision he had with a deity after a cocktail party with apple martinis and spicy nacho dip?  Probably not.   

That’s why this video baffles me.  If we’re uncomfortable with the idea that politicians would actually listen to the voice of God and act on it, what should we think about our civic leaders having conversations with ghosts?

In the video, Nancy Pelosi once again recounts the story of how she fell into a trance during her first White House meeting as Speaker of the House with then President G. W. Bush and it wasn’t Bush that had her enraptured.  It was the ghosts of Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth.  Apparently Nancy really likes this story, since she keeps telling it over and over, usually in commencement speeches at women’s colleges (I guess women entering the workforce need to be aware of paranormal political experiences). 

In the video Nancy says, “He’s (Bush) saying something to the effect of we’re so glad to welcome you here, congratulations and I know you’ll probably have some different things to say about what is going on--which is correct. But, as he was saying this, he was fading and this other thing was happening to me."
“My chair was getting crowded in," Nancy says. "I swear this happened, never happened before, it never happened since."
"My chair was getting crowded in and I couldn’t figure out what it was, it was like this," she continues.
"And then I realized Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, you name it, they were all in that chair, they were," she says, convincingly. "More than I named and I could hear them say: 'At last we have a seat at the table.' And then they were gone.



 So, to recap, in her first meeting with the President of the United States in her capacity as the leader of the legislative branch of our federal government, Nancy is trying to pay attention to what’s going on but the president’s voice fades away as “this other thing was happening to me” and she settles into some sort of psychic trance while listening to dead feminists who are all trying to fit into the same chair.   

No reports ever surfaced that furniture levitated or coffee cups went flying across the room, so it’s safe to assume that this impromptu séance was relatively benign, although rumors persist that on occasion Nancy can turn her head in a 360 degree circle.

I’d like to believe that this is simply a quirky allegory, Pelosi’s personal metaphor about the journey of women’s rights.  The problem with this theory is that Nancy seems to really believes this stuff occurred.  In the video she says, “I swear this happened, never happened before, it never happened since."

 She’s quite animated and lively in her descriptions and I get the sense that she thinks this really happened  – that she was being chatted up by dead people during a White House meeting, that the ghost of Susan B. Anthony gave her a high-five in the West Wing.

That’s bizarre, even for Washington.  I prefer my elected representatives to limit their activities on my behalf to the land of the living and when possible, just this side of the supernatural.  After all, as a Virgo, my astrological chart says my main personality trait is rational thinking and analysis.  Who can argue with that?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Gay Dads and Fast Food

During the month of July, I spent a substantial portion of my “dining-out” time (and money) at Chick-Fil-A.  I purposely patronized the business in response to what I perceived as hypocritical intolerance by individuals and groups who purport to uphold the concept of tolerance, but most importantly as a response to attempts at political suppression of free-speech rights against a private company by elected officials in various municipalities.
During that same timeframe, Luci and I also spent a substantial portion of our remodeling budget for the master bedroom at another company, JC Penney.  How is that relevant?  Well, let me share the following with you.  JC Penney is adamantly in favor of gay marriage.  In fact, this ad appeared a couple of months ago in their Father’s Day sale.
It’s an ad featuring a real-life same-sex couple. The ad features Todd Koch and Cooper Smith hugging their two young children. The copy reads, "What makes Dad so cool? He's the swim coach, tent maker, best friend, bike fixer and hug giver -- all rolled into one. Or two."  Similar ads appeared in Mother's Day ads.
Do I think that JC Penney’s management hates evangelical Christians?  Of course not.  Do I think this ad somehow undermines traditional values? In my view, that idea seems ridiculous.  Only a shallow, convoluted, inverted kind of thinking would arrive at that conclusion, the same kind of thinking that would conclude that Chick Fil-A “hates” gays.  I’ve managed to spend a whole lot of money at both Chick Fil-A and JC Penney lately, even though I agree with one and disagree with the other.  Regardless what I believe about gay rights and gay marriage, I believe even more strongly that tolerance and free speech and an honest respect of diverse opinions and social value systems can’t be a one-way-street.  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Chick-Fil-A and Fascism

During his term as president, Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and woman.  During his senatorial debate in Illinois, when asked if he supported gay marriage, Barack Obama responded, "I'm a Christian, and so although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.”

That was several years ago.  Since then, these two politicians and the politerati at large are changing their views.  Both Clinton and Obama now publicly declare their assent for gay marriage, each explaining that they changed their view over time.  That is a perfectly valid explanation.  My views on many subjects have changed over time as well, Life experiences and personal reflection provide the catalyst for changes, individually and collectively.  Social mores and cultural paradigms are dynamic, evolving components of human societies.  It’s quite reasonable to expect people to change their minds over time and for society to change its course.  It’s the nature of human social constructs.

What is not reasonable, what is contemptible in fact, is for political machines to employ fascist tactics in an attempt to accelerate social change by alienating and suppressing those who are not in line with certain political dogma or a specific political agenda, in this case the contrived controversy surrounding Chick-Fil A.

I had little interest in the silly, familiar and thoroughly insipid rants from the right and left as they spewed their selective indignation at each other about an old Baptist businessman’s opinion of marriage and its boundaries.  Next week it’ll be something else with similar cosmically insignificant weight.  That was before the politicians spoke.

Individuals have a perfectly legitimate right to boycott or support whatever companies and groups they choose, based on any criteria that seems reasonable to them.  Political entities are another matter entirely.

When political leaders in Boston and Chicago publicly vow to shut down a privately-held company from further expansion into their municipalities for no reason other than the personal beliefs regarding traditional marriage held by the company’s president -- beliefs which are roughly the same as those once held by Clinton and Obama and currently held by millions of other citizens – there’s a serious problem.
   
Political suppression of private markets, companies and groups based solely on a perceived “undesirable” ideology has a name:  Fascism.  The policies advocated by the political leaders in Boston and Chicago are decidedly fascist both in principle and practice and should be roundly  rejected.
Regardless of anyone’s previous or current stance on gay marriage or chicken sandwiches or old Baptist businessmen who embrace the same principles that most of your relatives probably do, we should all be alarmed about the diatribe coming from Boston and Chicago, because it’s wrong in a way that’s chillingly wrong.  It’s fascist. If you’ve ever wondered what fascism is and how it begins to work in a society, and how a culture like Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy could ever have begun to exist in the first place – I mean, how could the citizens ALLOW it to exist, right? – just follow the news and carefully reflect on the statements from the mayors of Boston and Chicago.  If you truly find nothing wrong with their scenario, if it seems proper – or worse yet, irrelevant -to you for political authorities to suppress a company because they find it’s ideology undesirable, you’d probably have been very content living down the street from Auschwitz in the late 1940’s.  It’s a perfect example of how it begins.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Mr. Argyle

Autumn has arrived in the park.  A cooling breeze paints the air with the muted hues of blue and indigo as it deftly brushes over a dying summer, a pleasantly mild wind with only a hint of the cold that will arrive with winter.  The current of air courses the length of the open lawn and curves into the grove of oaks guarding its perimeter.  Leaves tussle against the breeze, their tenacious grip on the trees weakening as they quickly age from green into the dark golds and browns of fall.  This one and that one loosen their hold and, mounting upon an invisible wave of air, dance a twisted little jig above the lawn until the wind loses its breath and the leaves float haphazardly to the earth.   As if in concert, two oak leaves circle the park bench a few yards ahead of me and settle at the feet of its occupant, Mr. Argyle.
As has been my habit for the past three years, since moving into an apartment two blocks east and three blocks north of Hayward Park, my regular running route takes me through the gated entrance of this urban oasis, along its varied footpaths and bridges and after circumscribing its boundaries returns me again to this very spot, a row of benches facing the lawn green, near to the wide wrought iron arches that bid welcome to the neighborhood.   And near to Mr. Argyle.
Across the street, a series of small shops look toward the park, attached one to the other along the length of the block, a small train of commerce having reached its destination, with a café as its engine and a quaint little bookshop anchored as caboose.  Directly in front of me, two benches distant, Mr. Argyle sits amid a scurry of fat gray squirrels and even fatter pigeons, a small paper sack cupped in his hands.  From time to time he reaches into the bag and tosses peanuts about the ground, causing a flurry of activity among his feathered and furred companions.
 Mr. Argyle comes to the park most every day.  This I know because I also come to the park most every day.   For upwards of five hundred times in the past three years, he sits and feeds the animals while I run and feed my obsession.  Yet, despite the longevity of our encounters, we are acquaintances of the urban kind, which is to say that we are not acquaintances at all – merely two strangers whose lives regularly intersect near the periphery of a green.   On occasion our gazes meet and a proper nod is exchanged.  At other times simple phrases and greetings, as small as talk becomes, is our mutual signal that we are aware of the social convention which seeks an acknowledgement of the other.       
I stretch my calves against the brick edge of the walkway, bending to the left then to the right, holding each position until the muscles say “uncle” and give up their tension.  As I stretch, I notice that Mr. Argyle has dressed for the approaching season, a crisply starched long sleeved oxford shirt underlying his signature sweater vest.   “Dapper” is an appropriate descriptor for Mr. Argyle’s dress.   “Urbane” is too contemporary for the polished but well-worn loafers he commonly wears and “proper” is too stuffy for a man whose outfit includes a wool peacoat in January.  “Dapper” it is.
The gentleman’s name who regularly supplements the diet of Hayward Park’s birds and rodents is unknown to me.   I assign him the moniker “Mr. Argyle” as a consequence of his ubiquitous habit of donning –on each and every outing to the park, save those times during the heat of summer – a sweater vest knitted with the overlapping and three-dimensional diamond patterns of varying colors and shades whose name is that of its wearer.   I’ve lost count of Mr. Argyle’s inventory of sweater vests, yet find myself anticipating each new arrival as eagerly as I might expect my next edition of Runners World magazine. 
Today the park belongs only to the two of us as it often does.  Weekday mid-mornings aren’t popular, what with school and work schedules, and the vast expanse seems at times to have been gifted exclusively for two men to enjoy at their leisure.  If it were summer, Mr. Argyle and I would be the lone patrons of the ice cream vendor making his morning rounds through the green.   I choose vanilla.  Mr. Argyle prefers pistachio in a cup, never a cone, and he saves the last few spoonfuls until it’s melted enough to slurp. 
Springtime brings argyle-patterned sweater vests of yellows and greens and a large kerchief folded and tucked in his right front pants pocket to catch the sneezes and drips courtesy of allergens.  Yet, despite the promise of a stuffy nose and enflamed sinuses, still he arrives like clockwork, feeding the animals or reading The New Yorker, sneezing and dripping through the pages.
Winters are my favorite time to run and Mr. Argyle’s favorite time to feed his cherished park creatures.  Arriving daily with bags of nuts and pieces of fruit that he most certainly prepares himself, he sets a winters banquet for the likes of doves and pigeons, gray and fox squirrels, and the occasional colony of migratory fowl that wanders through.
The last of the peanuts are scattered on the grass and Mr. Argyle rises from his bench, crumpling the bag between fisted hands and eyeing the waste basket near the entrance.  Arcing his arms upward, he propels the paper ball towards the container and it rounds the opening, disappearing inside.  “Two points,” he says, grinning in my direction.  I smile and nod.  Walking under the archway, he leaves the park and heads to the café across the street.
I continue to stretch out my quads and in a few minutes he appears in the picture window of the eatery, walking to the table just to the right of the framed glass, a smallish table meant for two but usually occupied by one, a table with a slight tilt that makes the coffee in your cup lean against one side.  I’ve sat there myself.
Stretching finished, I look about the park for a minute before gathering my water bottle and heading for the exit.  I’ll need to consider long sleeved tech shirts from now until next spring.  A cool wisp of wind confirms my thought as I cross the street and step on the sidewalk in front of the café.  Mr. Argyle spots me through the window as I meander by and he raises his cup of coffee.  I offer a wave in return.
As I walk home, I wonder which sweater vest he’ll wear tomorrow.  I wonder where the heck he buys those sweater vests and if the peanuts he feeds the squirrels come from the vendor on the corner near the bookshop.  I wonder what he does when he leaves the little café and if he knows that a festival is scheduled in the park for next weekend.  I should mention it to him.  He  especially enjoys the park during festivals.  I turn the block and begin a mental plan for tomorrow’s run.  I’ll take the long course over the far bridge and round back across the inclined pathway.  A good workout.
 He’ll probably wear something with an autumn-colored argyle print, if I had to bet.  Not that it really matters in the scheme of things.  We’re far from friends.  I don’t even know his name.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Balancing Acts

Life gets out of balance.  Not enough sleep.  Traffic jams.  Coffee spilled on the shirt right before the client meeting.  The two-year-old decides to throw a tantrum in the checkout line.  The sixteen-year-old decides you were born in the eighteenth century. The spouse decides to blow the budget on a new gadget.  Even positive events can cause stress and varying degrees of anxiety.  That’s why everyone needs a realignment day from time-to-time.
Today is mine (and I think Luci’s as well).  I began the day with one item on my agenda: mow the lawn.  That’s it.  And since, for me, mowing the lawn is akin to meditative yoga, it only serves to help put things back in their proper place.
After spending the morning with Luci on a pleasant trek to Barnes and Nobles to pick up a couple of books (a novel by David Foster Wallace -  Oblivion – and another by Rebecca  Goldstein), we stopped by Basic Foods to load up on my latest obsession:  organic, non-homogenized milk from grass-fed cows.  I’ll give you the next few seconds to laugh.  Finished?  Thank you.  By the way, ten years after you’re dead, I’ll still be drinking the stuff.
Back home.
Luci leaves for an errand or two while I practice Zen And The Art Of Mowing Grass (I wasn’t kidding it’s like meditation), water the annuals, shrubs and Luci’s vegetable plants, splash Miracle-Gro on the lucky ones and clean everything up.
Luci returns, we both head indoors and begin an afternoon of puttering.  She lights up the Ipod dock and sounds across the last forty years begin to fill the house.  The Eagles, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Chicago, The Avett Brothers, Dawes, BNL, a good cross-section of tunes work their magic to help reset the psyche, restore the balance that daily life knocks out of kilter.
Luci settles into making a new batch of sugar scrub for her lovelies - scents of lavender and mint waft through the house – and I pour myself a generous glass of 2009 J. Lohr, putter on the computer and inhale the mood.
The afternoon floats by like a cool, slow ride in an inner tube on the Guadalupe.  On a weekday.  Without the weekend crowd and the coolers tethered to sun-burned ankles. 
I drink in the calm and it tastes like a cold Seven-Up on an August day.  Good.  Refreshing. 
We’re hungry now and a huge salad of spinach, arugula, roasted turkey, blueberries, feta cheese and hazelnut vinaigrette, along with a second glass of J. Lohr does wonders at tugging the bits and pieces of life back into their rightful slots.
The sun slides towards the horizon, Enya sings the lyrical beauty of Storms In Africa and Orinoco Flow as the day winds down and equilibrium completes its cycle.
As if to say that all if well again, the calm restored, the scales of life re-balanced and ready for whatever tomorrow might bring, Euge Groove begins a jazz rift, its pleasant energy a foretaste of the morrow’s tasks.
Ahh.  I exhale and enjoy.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Persons Of Interest

In reading and listening to the range of arguments surrounding many of the current political and social issues, I am struck by the lack of a singular concept which seems to be either naively missing or purposely tossed aside in these discussions.  What was once central to any debate involving our national consciousness is vaporizing.  What seems to be missing is the classic idea as to what it means to be a person, and specifically how this directly applies to life in American society at large, our relationship to each other and the function of government.
A person is a special kind of being.  Unlike other living things, persons are unique in that they possess certain rights which are not attributed to, nor presumptive of, non-persons.   Throughout history and especially since the 16th century, persons are considered to possess intrinsic “natural” rights – rights granted by virtue of simply being persons.  The Declaration of Independence succinctly describes these as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.   John Locke, a British philosopher from whom the Founding Fathers derived much of their political theory, lists the three basic natural rights of all persons as life, liberty and property.
The right to life is prima facie a first right, a fundamental expression of all other rights.  To violate ones right to life – to exist - is to make meaningless all other rights.  The right to life, therefore, is pre-eminent above all other rights of persons since without it no other rights are possible.  Expressed another way, if one’s right to life is violated, then all other rights are also violated.
The right of liberty – what we mean when we say freedom – is the right to order one’s life and govern one’s affairs within the context of personal choice.  Liberty is not the freedom to do “whatever you want, whenever you want”.  The right of liberty within a social structure carries with it an implied responsibility that each member will exercise their freedom in a manner that does not infringe the rights of life, liberty and property of other persons. Our right of liberty embraces those ideas enumerated in the Bill of Rights – speech, a free press and religion – as well as other rights of liberty implied but not specified.
Property rights are those which involve not only land and buildings, but all material objects which rightly belong solely to the individual, including most importantly their own body.  From our property rights we derive our right to privacy and due process, among others.
Because each person possesses these intrinsic natural rights, a moral obligation concerning rights and duties exists between persons.  This moral obligation implies that each individual recognizes the rights of the other as being identical to their own.  If my status as a person grants me a right to life, liberty and property, then I must acknowledge that every other person also has the right to life, liberty and property.   Because the value of each person’s rights are equivalent, this moral obligation demands that I refrain from treating other persons as objects for my own benefit and a duty to respond to persons as ends-in-themselves.  As Immanuel Kant, whose seminal work on the ethics of duty, summarizes:
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
In other words, since the rights of every person when placed on the scale of value weighs exactly the same as every other person, we are constrained in our dealings with one another to respect each person as regards these intrinsic rights with the same diligence that we expect ourselves to be respected.   When we fail to do that, we jeopardize the free exercise of our own rights.
Finally, these rights are unalienable, which is to say that a person’s rights may not be arbitrarily taken from them without their consent.  The Declaration of Independence is unambiguous in its assertion that “we hold these truths to be self-evident… that we are endowed… with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Considered as a whole, the rights of persons are unshakably powerful and compelling and have formed the bedrock of how we view ourselves, our relationship to each other and the role of government within the larger society for centuries.
Of utmost importance, we must recognize that the rights inherent by virtue of being persons are “natural” rights.  No person has to earn these rights.  They exist simply because persons living in a common community exist.  None of these rights are granted by a government, nor are they acquired by association with a particular social or religious group.  While we may feel privileged to be Americans, our intrinsic rights are not privileges bestowed upon us by our government because of our status as citizens, nor should we desire such an arrangement even if it were possible.  No government can grant individual rights. Governments should derive their powers – we might say governments derive their rights - from the consent of the governed, not the other way around.   No form of government has a mechanism to confer rights upon any person.  Governments are primarily instituted to protect rights of persons, not bestow them. Governments whose authority supersedes those of its members may grant privileges (but never rights)  to some or all of those under its sway, or may hinder or prohibit the exercise of rights (as all governments will tend to do), but it is impossible for persons to derive their rights from an established government.  And we should not desire such an arrangement even if it were possible, since it would in essence grant privileges, not rights, and by doing so, undermine and corrupt the very essence of what it means to live in a society of free persons. 
This is what disturbs me when I read or listen to much of current rhetoric -  that we are forgetting or forgoing the principles – the groundwork - that define the unique kind of beings we are.  Regardless of our position on any political, religious or social issue, to the extent that we fail to recognize or consider first the fundamental rights of persons as they apply to ourselves and to all other persons or minimize their worth, or assign authority or control of the natural rights of persons to other than the individual who owns them, we corrode the core values that make being a person the unique and special station that it is.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Echoes From Trinity County - Memories of a country life

When I was a boy we lived for a few years in the Piney Woods of East Texas in a shack of a house with no indoor plumbing, no running water, a wood stove in the front room and chickens roaming the back yard.  A milk cow resided in the barn, pigs in the pen and corn in the field.  We moved there from our suburban home in Houson that lacked none of the modern conveniences one would expect in Texas' largest city.  Years later I came to understand that those three years were my mother's nightmare.  For me, they were some of the best years of my life.

During those years I was able to crack open a door just a bit to the world that my father grew up in. It was a fascinating place, where life was lived close to the earth, a sometimes hard and forbidding world where every success was earned and every failure measured against survival.  For me it was a time of discovery and exploration and kinship with the natural world that I've not known since.  There was something honest and true about those years that were unique to that place and time.  It was a time indelibly etched into my consciousness.  A time I'll never forget.

I'm transcribing my father's memories, written by hand many years ago, and as I typed each page I was transported into that mystical world of my childhood once again, where, for a few years I came to know the kind of world that informed my dad.

Here are a few excerpts from his childhood memories, exactly as he wrote them:

                                       ****************************************
Me and my two cousins, Bobby and Pal, always ran around together.  When we were little, Ma and Aunt Janey said we’d leave in the morning and sometimes we would not come home ‘til late afternoon.  Sometimes we would see some of Finis Tullos’ sow hogs with pigs and Bobby would put Uncle Wade’s mark on Finis’ pigs.  After I got bigger, I often wondered what Finis thought about Wade’s pigs following his sow.
                                        ****************************************

I remember one Christmas Eve we would hang up our stockings over the fireplace and the next morning they would be full of fruit and nuts.  We never got any toys ‘til daddy started working at the shipyard.  Our toy was a Garrett snuff bottle.  Sometimes when a wagon wheel went bad we would take a rim off of it.  The wheel was about ten inches around.  We would take a Prince Albert tobacco can and beat it flat, turn it up on two sides and nail it to a long piece of wood so we could roll it.
                                    *******************************************
Me and my cousin Paul, we started smoking when we got big enough to roll our own.  We used to steal eggs and take them over to Albert Terry’s store and trade them for Prince Albert papers.  Me and Pal used to go down to Uncle Sterling’s.  He had a hand roller.  You could roll ‘em and they would look like store bought.  I went down to Uncle Sterling’s and I liked it so well I would get off the school bus every day and stay down there. 
Daddy told Orville not to let me get off the school bus but I would get off anyway.  I stayed about two weeks.  One day, daddy rode his horse down to Clarence Odom’s store – it was about a five-mile ride.  He made Orville ride the horse back home and he got on the school bus with me.  When we got to Uncle Sterling’s, he asked me if I was going to get off.
I said, “No, I believe I will go home today.”
Polie heard daddy talking to me.  He went home and told Aunt Janey that Uncle Athena said he was going to give Billy some medicine when they got home.  I did not get off the school bus no more.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

One - Two - Buckle My Shoe

My five-year old grandchildren, Evan and Brianna, began kindergarten recently.   They’ve entered the brave new world of primary school and it’s fascinating to watch the rapid infusion of knowledge as they process information and conceptualize its meaning.  Of particular interest to me is arithmetic.
While we might consider mathematics to be grouped in the sciences, it isn’t.  Math is not based on science, nor is it a science in itself, per se.  Math is more closely aligned with principles of philosophy, specifically logic.  There is a unique quality to numbers and their manipulation that set them apart from other forms of mental reasoning.
Consider the concept of numbers themselves.  Numbers are unchangeable.  The number 3 (and all numbers) are never modified or changed into anything else.  Nor is the number 3 interested in the scientific method or the concept of true and false which that approach implies.  One can never  “prove” or “disprove” the number 3. The idea itself seems silly because there is no need for verification of its truth value.  It is an “a priori” truth, a valid expression that is known without reference to any external experience.  And numbers have the unusual property of being independent of everything else.  The number 3 will remain the same for all eternity, regardless what changes occur in the universe at large.  Even if all of humanity ceases to exist, the number 3 will remain.  How can this be?  Aren’t numbers a human convention, simply a way that we’ve developed to explain certain aspects of the world around us?  To suggest that numbers transcend human thought is to give them a kind of independent reality of their own.
In one respect, that is exactly what numbers are.  Consider how we conceptualize arithmetic, specifically counting.  It “appears” that young children learn to count by associating a series of objects with corresponding words.  If there are three balls on the table, the first ball is labeled “one” the second ball is labeled “two” and the third ball is labeled “three”.  But it’s more complex than that, because removing balls “one” and “three” doesn’t mean that ball “two” represents two balls.  Ball “two” has now become ball “one” if there are no more balls on the table because it’s not about labeling objects at all.  Although outwardly it appears to be a verbal association, what is actually happening internally is quite different.  The child is really applying two concepts that already exist prior to any experience of the world around them:  the concepts of space and time.  
When any of us has an empirical encounter, what we would describe as an “everyday experience”, (let’s suppose our attention is directed to three balls on a table) that encounter presupposes two underlying concepts even as the experience itself unfolds. 
Firstly, we experience all objects as they relate to space.  Everything that is outside of ourselves is known as it appears to us in a three-dimensional reality.  Even if only one object is before us, it is qualified in our mind asexisting in space.  But what about “space” itself?  How do we come to know that property?  Or can it properly be called a “property” of our experiences at all?  Let’s remove all objects from space.  There is now nothing before us except emptiness.  There is nothing to experience.  Has space disappeared?  Has it ceased to exist?  Surely not, because as soon as any object again appears before us, we experience it immediately and empirically as it is known to us in space.  So, while space itself does not constitute an experience, it is a necessary prerequisite in order to HAVE an experience.  We never experience objects outside of space.  If that is so, if the concept of space is a prerequisite in order to have an experience, it must be known prior to experience in some essential way.  Concepts that are known prior to experience are given the label “a priori” (before experience) to differentiate them from concepts known after experience, or “posteriori”.  These two terms are important because they determine how reality works and what we can truthfully assert that we can know.
Secondly, our experiences are given to us as they relate to time.  Everything outside of ourselves is known as it is arranged “before”, “now” or “after”.  Time itself is conceived as past, present or future.  Objects that are not static experiences are perceived with properties of motion, which is a linear representation of the concept of time.  Even the primary act of arranging objects of our experience requires us to place them in some kind of order, either by counting or by assembling them in a procession of “before” and “after”.  Since we cannot perceive all objects of our experiences simultaneously, we utilize the concepts of space and time that we know “a priori” to give meaning to an experience.
We see three balls on a table.  Our ability to define the experience as “balls on a table” requires that we have an inherent concept of space.  Our ability to define the experience as “three balls on a table” requires that we have an inherent concept of time, since what are “three balls” except one ball, then another ball, then another ball – in other words, a linear progression of three objects in a row.
Now, back to kindergarten.
My grandkids can count three balls on a table.  (Even Abby, at younger than two years, can perform this feat).  But counting doesn’t rely on objects to have validity.  Remove the balls and my grandkids can still count (and they love to show how “high” they can count) with no objects at all and the meaning hasn’t changed because the underlying principles do not require an external world of objects.  They are realized internally, without reference to experience.   Arithmetic is a tangible expression of the properties of space and time and as such, it gives substance to these two concepts which are difficult to know on their own. 
All of this is nice and extremely boring, you say, but so what? What does it matter?  Well, it matters because of the postmodern world in which we live.  Science and the scientific method have been elevated in our culture to the level of a demigod, with the assumption that only what we can show through experiment and conclusion is regarded as truth.  Mathematical truths reveal an opposing reality, one that presupposes a component to human reasoning that is not dependent on the empirical method or scientific inquiry at all. 
If we understand the concepts of space and time as “a priori” truths and express their meaning through the arithmetic of counting - independent of material objects - the question arises as to the origin of these concepts.  If we have knowledge of these concepts as independent of empirical encounters, if we intuitively “know” these concepts prior to our experience, if our experiences are dependent on these concepts in order for our senses to give meaning to our impressions, then we must search for their origins outside of our daily experiences.  Clearly, we cannot utilize the scientific method, since that method, by definition, is limited to only what we can conclude from our experiences. 
If we know a truth prior to our experiences, its origin must be prior to our experiences.   And that is the crack that reveals the weakness of materialism, and the reason why our search for meaning will always extend beyond the physical.  We may not be aware of the underlying reasons why we aren’t content with the limits of science to explain reality, but the nagging sense that there are truths beyond what science can tell us weighs on our mind.   Perhaps the concepts of space and time and their creative expression through one of our most elementary ideas – counting – ruminate just below the surface of our collective experiences, tugging at our consciousness and whispering faintly that our existence begins not as a tabula rasa but with a set of tools ready for our purpose. 
Any kindergartener can help point us in the right direction.  Just listen to them count.