Monday, January 19, 2015

Preaching to Extremists (essay)


               Preaching to a Terrorist

When you hear Be strong, I say to you Be calm.
When you hear Honor, I say to you Virtue.
When you hear Be afraid, I say to you Be joyful.

When you hear Revenge, I say to you Justice.
When you hear Hate, I say to you Respect.
When you hear Kill your enemy, I say to you Consider no one your enemy.

When you hear Loyalty, I say to you Responsibility.
When you hear Righteous, I say to you Moral.
When you hear Evil, I say to you Wrong.

When you hear Good, I say to you Good.


In cultures where there is no dependable system of order, people must learn to live under their own private value systems.  These private systems - contrasting with the impersonal legal systems of civilized societies - are based on survival, protection, personal relationships, power, and decisiveness.  The consequences of actions are measured in minutes, hours, and days, with little regard to the consequences within weeks, months, years, and decades.  Since such basic goods are always at stake in these situations- even life itself - emotions predominate, especially fear, excitement, and pride.  The goals of actions are avoidance of pain, pursuit of pleasure, and exercise of domination.

When one has no access to a dependable system of laws to insure social justice, one is forced to live by such a private code, seldom allowing for long-range planning, analysis and reasoned judgement, or disinterested respect for competitors' needs and values.

This is true of clans and tribes in what we call under-developed areas of the world.  It is true of terrorists who are systematically excluded from the externally imposed rule of others and who, within others' social and economic schemes are seen to have no intrinsic value.  It is true of gangs in poor neighborhoods or prisons.


I have said that an undeveloped society's private value system is based on survival, protection, personal relationships, power, and decisiveness.  What we consider a civilized society's social, moral, and legal system is based instead on social and individual justice, a stable distribution of power, interdependence, and long-term continuation or even "permanence."  The goals of action are security, prosperity, amity or fellowship, and shared labor.  Balance is a governing principle, sought through reasoning and communication.

Emotions, or even intense and enduring passions, are not shunned in civilized societies, but strong emotions do not predominate in public life and are not considered trustworthy guides to significant decision-making where cool observation and reflection are more highly valued.  Most or even all civilized cultures accommodate religious observances, rituals, and organizations, for instance, but any society whose legal, economic, or political systems are controlled by religious leaders make secular nations uncomfortable, often more so than the most authoritarian secular tyrannies.


So, there is not likely to be a "Preacher" of the most fundamental values of civilization.  But if there were to exist such a phenomenon, he or she might address an agitated crowd as I have imagined, proclaiming the superiority of values based on social stability and enduring peace over the values of the dispossessed and powerless: The Preacher would praise justice over revenge, joy over fear, virtue over honor, right action over righteous action, and conscience over personal or communal loyalty.

The poet Yeats observed that in his world of 1919, "the best lack[ed] all conviction, while the worst [were] full of passionate intensity."  That seems true of our world today too, doesn't it? in our world where fanatics - whether Islamic jihadists or white supremacists or the ELA Dukes or Clarence Street Locos, the loudest Tea Partiers, the extremist anti-abortion Christians, or the Boko Haram - where fanatics of any stripe or color seem to be on the rise, and the rest of us seem numb, "etherized upon a table."

Where is our Preacher? our passionate intensity?


Primitive or undeveloped societies do evolve into civilized cultures, although it may take centuries.  Uncivilized groups or individuals can vary between showing characteristics of impersonal public virtues and those of fanatical cults or terrorists.  Individuals in all societies can swing back and forth from behaviors we associate with socially responsible citizens to those typical of clans or gangs or primitive tribes. And our culture is definitively moving in the wrong direction: away from the comfortable, pleasant and prosperous society of our parents toward the fearful, fast-changing, action-packed, violence-riddled, addle-brained times from which we began to escape about two hundred years ago, replacing a world driven by force to a society ordered by laws.

How can we turn the tide again?

Can we be passionate, decisive, confident about our civilized values, or do we actually hold those values anymore, and live by them?


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

When They Were Very Young (Reminiscence)


On vacation one July, we went with L------ (5 years old) and W----- (3) to a twilight fireworks display on the beach.  It was great, and we all loved it.  Not only was the beach crowded with happy spectators.  All over the little harbor were the lights of the boats who had come in close to shore for the fireworks.

Afterwards, as we marched along with all the people across the sands, headed for our little rented cabin, I asked L------ if she'd had a good time.

"I'm so happy," she said, "my smile is not big enough to let all my happiness out."


S----- home-schooled our children for two years before we moved from our tiny mid-western village to a larger city in the east.  For our daughter it was 2nd and 3rd grades, and for our son it was kindergarten and 1st grade.  Of course this was a huge commitment for S-----, and she did a great job.  I was "superintendent" - that is, the State required that someone with this title file an annual home-school curriculum.  I assumed that role; S----- did all the real work.

This whole experience was great for our family.  S----- kept the children busy throughout each day, and we all considered just about everything our family did a teaching-learning experience.

For example, at one point during the first year we could see that an opportunity to visit Chicago would be coming up in several weeks.  Not only did we plan our travel and talk with the friends who were going to be our hosts.  Since we knew that one of our treats would be to spend some time in the Chicago Art Institute, we started to play regularly a board game we owned called "Masterpiece."

This game involved buying, selling, and trading great paintings according to instructions on the board determined by rolls of the dice.  Also by chance the values of each painting was determined, including some "forgeries."  It was pretty simple and good family fun for the four of us.  The thing was, the postcard-sized reproductions of the masterpieces was taken from the Chicago Art Institute.  We talked all the time about how we might actually see in person the paintings themselves.

The big day came.  Imagine the scene: on a weekday morning, the Institute galleries very nearly empty except for a few elderly patrons along with the guards in each large gallery.  In one such vast room, it was silent; on the walls were huge Renaissance paintings by the grand masters of Europe.  There was one guard and in one corner, two gray-haired women looking intently at the little placard next to one of the paintings.

Crashing into this peace was suddenly the excited voice of a tiny 5-year-old scampering toward the far wall.  "Look, Mama," W----- cried.  "The Rembrandt, Mama!  The Rembrandt!"  The guard, who had been preparing to sprint over to protect "Night Watch" relaxed a bit.  The little old ladies were nodding in admiring surprise.  They must have thought a boy genius had appeared before them.

And it was all from playing a home board game.


When the children were still very young, I kept trying to do some of my work at home, as I'd always done before.  It became harder and harder to quash the temptation to play with L------ and W----- .

One morning as I sat behind my desk (made of a door on top of two 2-drawer filing cabinets) I had to say: "No, W-----.  Daddy has to work."  Then a little later: "No, W----- .  Daddy can't play now."  Finally, in my sternest voice: "Leave Daddy alone, W----- !  Go play by yourself!"

S----- was in the kitchen, the room next door.  W----- shuffled in, looking very sad.  When she made eye-contact, he said mournfully: "Daddy is child-abusing me."


When our daughter L------ was four and our son W----- was two, S----- use to have to strap each of them into separate car seats in the backseat of our little Vega station when errands had to be run or shopping had to be done.  The children both faced forward, but S----- had L------ and the rear-view mirror positioned so that their eyes could meet as, for example, the car was stopped for a traffic light.  At most times a stop-and-go conversation would be proceeding as the drive continued.

One day in December, as L------'s and S-----'s eyes met at a stop light, L------ said brightly: "I know how to spell Santa."

"Oh?" S----- replied cautiously.  "How?"

L------ said slowly, drawing it out: "M - A - M - A."  She sat there looking into her mother's eyes with just a shadow of a smile on her lips.

"Well!" S----- said. "Don't tell W-----."

The look on L------'s face showed she was pretty darn proud of herself.


L------ was sitting in her high-chair one morning when she was about two.  S----- was bustling around the kitchen getting her something for breakfast.

After a moment, she plopped down in front of the child a bowl of Cheerios in milk.  Then "Mama" turned away again for a moment so that L------ could pick up her spoon and start eating.

"Mama?" she said instead.

"Yes, L------"

"What are these?" L------ was gesturing toward her cereal.  She certainly knew what Cheerios were, so S----- went over to take a look.

"Oh, L------," S----- said as she picked up the bowl, "those are weevils."

" I thought so!" L------ said in an authoritative tone.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Free At Last! (essay)



A recent radio broadcast of American folk music was organized around the sentimental theme of "Take a Train." Songs like The Wabash Cannonball, Davy JonesGotta Travel On, From a Boxcar Door, The Hobo's Last Ride, and Waitin' for a Train were featured, by The Weavers, Jimmie Rogers, Boxcar Willie, Roy Acuff, and others.  Those are great songs, and the mythology of trains in America - probably in most developed parts of the world, in fact - is an irresistible self-indulgence for many of us from time to time.

On this program there were quite a few songs from or about the Thirties, songs about hobos riding the empty cattle cars and even flat cars looking for work, songs by men looking back over those hard times, not with horror or fear, but with nostalgia.  The theme was often how free a guy felt, riding the rails.


It seems politics have never been more all-encompassing than they are these days, and the attractiveness of freedom is a standard rhetorical tool for many politicians and commentators. 

     "My party is based on freedom."
     "I'm going to protect your freedom; vote for me."
     "The other party wants to take away your religious freedom."
     "America is the land of the free."
     "Corporations need to be free to compete globally
             and keep America the greatest nation in the world."
     "All peoples of the world want to be free."

These are typical political lines we hear these days that are sure to arouse cheers.

Some of us find it loathsome that someone who claims to support freedom backs laws that would in fact deny the level or kind of freedom that others - like women, or gays - already have.  That has happened often enough that the question has been discussed just how large (and loud) groups could seriously think such legislation could strike a blow for freedom.  I have asked myself if it could be that these people in fact want only themselves and other like-minded people to have the "freedom" they want in order to take away the freedom of those who think differently.

"Whose freedom does that party or that individual really support?" I feel forced to ask myself, since they so clearly don't support "freedom for all."


How many different meanings does the word freedom have in common usage today?

     "Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves."

     "Send us your name and address, and we'll send you - 
       absolutely free of charge -  this marvelous product!"

      "When can we meet?  I'm free all day tomorrow."

     "You gave how much as a tip? Mighty free with your money, 
        aren't you?"

     "That soda is sugar-free."

     "Sky-diving makes me feel free."

     "What's the difference between blank verse and free verse?"

     "The United States is a free country."

     "The opponents of Assad want the Syrian people to be free."

      "In the privacy of your own home, you are free to do as you like."

     "I'm a free man [woman], responsible only to myself."

Besides, if we go beyond explicit words, we have to recognize that one can feel free or not-free in many other ways too.  For instance, if your family is depending on you to do well in school, you might feel you are not free to just be yourself.

Or if you have little or no money, you might feel trapped in poverty.

When you're sick, you're not free to have fun or eat or drink your usual favorite stuff, or go out.

If your boss doesn't just tell you what to do, but also tells you exactly how do it, you might prefer to be free to do your work your way.


Our sense of feeling free or not-free depends on what we sense others expect of us.  Sometimes we expect the same of ourselves and may even appreciate the support of someone else.  But we also might resent others presuming they can impose their wishes on us, and we might resent that even when we share the same hopes and dreams.

We may go so far as to imagine that certain other people - parents, spouses, bosses, friends... - that certain others have expectations of us that they don't have, in fact.  We may not be the protagonist in their own life-drama as we imagine, but we feel their expectations anyway and do not want to disappoint them.  We resent that extra burden they seem to us to have placed on our conscience.

Who has (or may have) expectations of us?

      Parents, family, friends



     Bosses, authorities of all kinds including coaches, police, ministers ...

     The waiter who serves you, the supermarket checker, the bartender...

Most of us can find ourselves from time to time trying to "live up to" the expectations of us that we can only imagine others actually have.  Think of buying a subway ticket in New York City... or Paris, or London.

But we'd rather feel free.

          When I hop aboard a Boxcar
          And hear that mighty engine start to roar
          I miss the freedom that was mine.
                                                       ("Old Train")

One has the impression that a significant number of Americans today feel that their freedom is shrinking from what it once was.  What is creating this feeling?

Perhaps -

More and more of us are growing older, and we just can not do anymore what we used to be able to do easily ...or at least to imagine ourselves doing it someday if we just felt like it.  We are thus not free to do all we might like to do.

More of us these days live in metropolitan areas with large populations, busy highways and streets, lines at the supermarket or the huge Walmart or the Macdonalds or the beer store or the gas station...  or the public library.  We seem surrounded by people, even crowds, every minute of every day.  The houses are closer together than where we lived as children, and the apartment houses are bigger, with more people living in them.  So strangers seem to be looking at us, all the time.  We can't get free of these observers.

Besides, whether on the streets or in the media or even dealing with voices on the telephone menus, those we are dealing with are not like us - as much as they used to be.  They haven't lived in my neighborhood for generations.  They have darker skin and accents, talk faster or slower, louder or softer, and even speak different languages...  How can we feel at home anymore?  You know, at home where you feel free to just be yourself?


To whom, then, would political claims of supporting freedom most passionately appeal?  Middle-aged individuals, or older?  Folks who have to be painfully careful with their money? White racists?  People who are just not ready to take on social responsibilities?  All those, and others too?

If we are deeply and persistently emotional about something, we are unusually vulnerable to manipulation by a clever and perhaps cynical person who wants to use our emotions to make us think or act in a particular way.  If we are deeply and consistently angry about something, or fearful of something, we can more easily be misled than we might be normally.

So, those of us who resent our apparent loss of privacy, who are uncomfortable at the strangers around us, who are afraid we are losing the strength that in our youth made us feel invulnerable, and who are angry at how everybody seems to want to dictate how we should think or talk or behave - we are susceptible to the manipulation of people or groups whose success depends on our believing that they are like us and understand us and will help us fight back!

If politicians can make us feel they are on our side just by saying how highly they value freedom, then - guess what? - they will tell us that.  And we may not be as likely as we would normally be to check to see if a politician's past actions and her or his other professed values indicate that the claims to value freedom are truthful or that these claims are, instead, only dishonest attempts to use our deep-seated passions to lead us by the nose.


When I was growing up, whenever anyone mentioned freedom, a little admonition about responsibility always, always followed:  "You know, with freedom comes responsibility."  The politicians these days who talk about freedom the most often don't ever seem to mention responsibility at all.  Have you noticed that?

...And what does that tell us?


Monday, November 17, 2014

It Wouldn't Break a Snake's Back (Reminiscience)



The thoughts of youth, we are told, are "long, long thoughts."  So the thoughts of the old, like me, must be short-shorts, right?

Well, not really.  For us oldsters, we may actually be expected to ask ourselves the big (BIG) questions, like --

  • If I had it do over again, what would I do differently?

  • From my current perspective, what aspects of my life seem regrettable, and what are the achievements I'm the proudest of?
  • How do I want to be remembered?
  • What were the key turning points in my life and career?

 And so on, and so forth...  Answers to such questions are not short-shorts, and are also not based on the hopes and fantasies of a callow youth but on the real-life events or at least the memories of a reasonably sentient creature with clear recollections and mature reflections.

Such thoughts may or may not be worthwhile, even so.


Turning points?

The fact is - fortunately - there are more notable developments in the story of my career than points at which the course of things took an unexpected direction.  In other words, there were more events pretty closely in line with what was planned than significant changes of course.

Going off to college certainly started a new part of my life, living 1,100 miles from any of my family and making just about all decisions about how to spend my time all on my own. ...But that wasn't really a "turning point," since it was always assumed I'd grow up and that I'd go away to college somewhere.

Was it a turning point (that is, is it worth discussing) that I chose to go to a big state university in the Midwest rather than to stay closer to home in Texas or move to the East or the West?  The experience would have been different, to be sure, but I don't see any interesting way to think about how my whole life would have been different if I had.  It seems likely I would have done pretty well in the West or the East (based on later experience) and that my major interests would have developed along similar lines...

Now, as I finished my (midwestern) B. A., that was a turning point.

My father was a well-known college professor; also, the Director of a School at the university.  I knew from close observation what his life was like.  If anyone happened to ask me during high school or college what I planned to be "when I grew up," I always said the same thing:  "I don't know what I'll be.  But I know one thing: I'll never be a teacher, or even more surely, I'll never be a college administrator."

Yes, okay.  So looking back from this perspective, it is impossible to miss the fact that I spent over 20 years as a teacher and more than 20 years after that being a college administrator.  We could emphasize the irony of all that, but then again, that's not really the story of my life: "He did do what he said he would never do."  True enough, but frankly, it doesn't seem from this perspective to have really been a big deal.


What I would have said after about age 14 in those largely imagined interviews where somebody asked what I'd like to do with my life... is that I wanted to write.  My going to graduate school and then pursuing a teaching career did not seem contrary to that more significant motivator.  I had this, as-it-turned-out looney notion that an academic career would make it possible for me to write as my principal vocation.

As I approached college graduation, I was kind of expecting I would get on a Greyhound to New York City, where I would take whatever job fell into my hands - I thought maybe dishwashing might be a possibility - so that I could write in my free time, soaking up the energy and excitement of the big city.  After having spent a year in France as a college student, I even thought maybe there would be some way I could do the "day-job/free time writing" thing in Paris.

I did know, by the way, that some day-jobs did nothing to facilitate the off-hour writing I had in mind.  In the summer after senior year in high school, I had worked in a big local printing factory.  It was such heavy work, and the work environment in the factory was so dirty, smelly, and loud that even though my 8-hour work day was over by 3:30 p.m. I was too used-up to get anything else done before falling into bed at night.

But my career game plan - ill-defined as it was - still was "any-ol' job, so that I could write, write, write."


That has not happened. 

At first it seemed to be working out fine.  In my two years earning enough to live on as a college teaching assistant part-time and a master's candidate part-time, I wrote one novel and eight or ten short stories.  That production was pretty much according to plan.  But there did already seem to be a possible problem on the horizon: no one seemed to be interested in publishing what I wrote.  Hmmm.

But it still seemed a boost to my long-range career plans when I was able to snag a three-year graduate fellowship to support my doctoral work.  The stipend was equal to what I'd been earning teaching part-time, so I could have just spent that extra time on my writing... I did teach a little, though, and put in ten hours a week or so in summers, assisting professors with their publishing work.

But I also wrote more stories, and discovered that most of those I had written could be put together to make up a second novel, with a few holes that I set to work filling in.  Publishers continued to be uninterested.

In fact, it turned out to be a lot easier to get published some of the stuff I was writing for my graduate work ("the day-job") than any of my real writing.  A piece on Joyce, one on Proust, a couple on Lawrence...  And then, by the third year of my fellowship, my day-job itself consisted entirely of writing: writing my dissertation, that is.   


So, more or less, I was proceeding according to plan: my "day-job" was grad work, and I wrote stories and novels in my "real work" hours.  And it looked like that would continue even after I had completed my doctorate... since I was awarded a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship to France for the first post-doctorate year.  That would be a fine day-job.

While conceiving my grand plan, I had never considered the possibility that I wouldn't succeed as a writer.  Well, yes.  Call it Dumb if you must; I'll call it Naive.  Anyway, now after five years, without abandoning the grand plan, I did make a mid-course correction.  If writing great fiction was not going to work... or not work yet... then I'd write popular fiction instead.  Maybe in fact that could eventually become my day-job.

So, as I taught American Civilization to French college students in Lyon (my day-job), the rest of my time I spent writing a murder detective novel.  I sent a draft of the first couple of chapters to a well-known literary agent in New York, who said it looked good and I should send the whole thing asap.

I redoubled my efforts to finish before Christmas, did that, and sent off the manuscript in mid-December.  By what seemed like return mail, the guy said I had great talent but he advised just junking that ms. and going to work on something new.  I figured he was just screwing me around.


There I was, in France, in January by then, with no prospects for gainful employment after June... and it had just so happened that it looked like - if I was lucky - I might have met the woman who would one day be my wife!

Now, you say, that must have been a real turning-point.  But not so fast.  No, the grand plan didn't exclude the possibility that I'd marry and have a family.  I hadn't exactly planned that, because... well, getting my fiction published seemed by then only slightly more far-fetched than marrying.  The day-job plan could include a wife and family just fine, thank you.  But this at-the-time remote possibility of marrying certainly wasn't out of the question.  It just made the day-job a little more prominent in short-term planning.

It happened that a man who'd played a role in my one-year Fulbright post in Lyon, who had been teaching at the University of North Carolina that fall, returned to his regular teaching position in Lyon in January.  Learning that I was about to go on the job market ("day-job" market, right?), Professeur LeGrand mentioned that the English Department in Grenoble just up the road was in crisis because one of their two professors with doctorates had been killed in a car accident.  It usually took, he said, at least a full year to find a replacement at that level.  Dr. LeGrand could recommend me as a one-year fill-in if I was interested...?

That was good enough on the day-job side of the equation.  I had also found a one-month post in Nice for June.  I kept shopping my novels and stories here and there, or hither and yon, and went on with Plan A.


We did get married and spent a year together in Grenoble.  The department chair whose college teaching job offer I had turned down to accept the Fulbright post in Lyon hired me for the next year, so by then my day-job had become what I would once have said is the job I would never take, being a college professor like my dad.  But it wasn't really a turning point...

I still thought I could write in the "off hours," and everything would go along as planned.

After three or four more years, I'd had three or four stories published (and six or eight poems), so my writing career was still going nowhere.  But I'd been tenured and hired at a small college as a department chair.  We built a house and started family...

And after I eventually retired, my daughter convinced me I should write a blog.  OK so it's neither a day job nor the "real work" I'd first started aiming for.  But it keeps me out of more serious kinds of mischief...

Was starting a blog a turning point in something?  No.  Just another development taking advantage of the situation in hand, and moving on.

Oh, and nine months ago, a grandson was added to our family, a more significant development.

When I was a child, if the family on a drive in the country got stuck following a winding road, my mother would say the road was so twisty it would have broken a snake's back to travel it.  There don't seem to have been twists and turns like that in my life or career.  Or maybe I just didn't notice.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

What You Don't Know Can Hurt... Somebody Else! (Reminiscence)



When I was starting as a college English teacher, I taught a section of "Introduction to Literature" in a dismal basement classroom with no windows or pictures on the walls.  Among my 20 or so students, there was especially one - Paul was his name, I think - who was really engaged.  I was glad to have him in the class listening intently, taking notes, asking an occasional question.  To most of the other students, I think he didn't stand out particularly, but as the guy in front looking out at all of them, I could see that intent expression on his face.

In this course, one section of a couple of dozens, the reading list was the same as in all other sections.  But instructors could arrange the readings and set up the schedule as they pleased.  I was real proud of myself for setting aside two whole weeks - six 50-minute classes - to spend on King Lear.  There had to be a Shakespeare piece in such a course, I guess, and probably a tragedy at that.  But Lear was a real challenge for these freshman students, few or none of whom would probably take another literature course in their very lives.

But we were going to do it up right.


And it went very well, I have to say.  Just about everyone brought their text to class every day, and seemed to have read the act or scenes I had assigned for discussion that day.  Looking back, I'm embarrassed to realize that I myself talked for at least half our time each class, and not only asking leading questions and commenting on the students' responses.  But I gave myself the impression, at least, that we were doing a good job of observing the structure of the presentation, sensing the human drama of its story and characters, engaging ourselves in questions of meaning... all the right things.


The second Friday would be our last day on King Lear.  The key matter to grapple with was the death of Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia.

Of the old king's three daughters, only Cordelia seemed to care about him - and the wrong he was doing by setting aside his crown, his power, and his duty - than about her own interest.  The other daughters had actually banded together against him - and their country - and had at last been defeated on the battlefield.  Cordelia had remained loyal to him and had suffered at the hands of her evil sisters, but now at last her father seemed ready to make things right for her and to re-establish warm filial relations between them.

But alas we learn that she has been hanged by the defeated enemy after the battle.


As I recall this last class that day, I felt good about what we had accomplished so far.  But there was just a chance that some students would end up, not attending to the tragic human suffering so convincingly portrayed in the play, but to a simple kind of "moral tale": King acts irresponsibly, world goes to hell, King is punished, THE END.  So I wanted the students to grapple with the question, "What does Cordelia's death mean?"  And I was going to enjoy showing them, "It doesn't mean anything, being like events in real life sometimes that just happen and don't make sense to us."

I was a little disappointed to note that Paul was not present when the hour came to begin class.  We got started.

After we had rocked along for a good while, 10 or 15 minutes I suppose, Paul showed up.  He silently slouched to his usual seat.  He looked terrible, unshaven, thick black hair unbrushed, dark bags under his eyes, rumply clothes he might have slept in - if he had slept at all.

Naturally, I assumed that he had just had the archetypal freshman experience of spending the night drinking and now being terribly hung-over.  It happens!

But we motored on, through the meaningless suffering and the grief and struggle.  After another 15 minutes or so, Paul - who had not spoken, no questions, no eye contact - abruptly stood and lurched out.  I assumed he'd had the urge to throw up and had gone down the hall to the Mens Room.

We finished class.  Paul's notebook and books were still on his desk, but there was no sign of Paul.


I busied myself by gathering up my own things, wondering if I should go down the hall - or ask one of the other guys to do so - to check on Paul.  But then he reappeared, after everyone else had left, looking much the same as he had before.

He apologized for having interrupted the class discussion, but his father had called in the night and was now on the way to our college town to pick Paul up to go home for a few days.  The news was bad.  His sister had died that night.


I remember that scene quite well today, from about 50 years ago.  I didn't feel guilty then and don't now.  But I do feel awful about having added to that poor young man's suffering that day.


Friday, November 7, 2014

St. Paul and the Boy Scouts (essay)


Raised in central Texas in the 1940s and '50s, among the formal influences on my developing moral values were the New Testament and the Boy Scout Manual.   I thought it might be interesting to reflect back on these important, seminal resources from the perspective of these 70 years or so.


Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians that the most abiding values are Faith, Hope, and what was called "Charity" by the King James committee of scholars.  What do I have to say now about these concepts?

a.  Faith

Well, to be frank, before I'd graduated from high school I'd already outgrown what Paul apparently expected here of the Corinthians et al.:  i.e. belief in Jesus, God the Father, and all that.  I'm glad to have learned early on what all this was about, because of its long historical influence on the community into which I had been fortunate enough to be born.  But "having faith" in this basic sense has never been of much value to me personally, since high school days.

Still, I can't help thinking that Paul was pointing to something genuinely significant when he said "faith":  especially including it as one-third of the most enduring three fundamental values for us to carry with us if we were lucky.

When he listed faith, hope, and charity, Paul was not telling the chosen ones how to behave or what mission to pursue, not telling them what to do or not do.  He was telling them that living as Christians was better than living as anything else, by listing the blessings that he thought "only" Christians could count on.  He was saying, If you stick with me you can expect to have in your heart (soul, mind...) these three wonderful qualities.  I would say there is in fact a blessing, which is like "faith" in Paul's sense, that I think we can all wish to have.

I'd call it Trust or Confidence, the opposite of Anxiety or Anguish.  I agree with the saint that it is of inestimable value to live with such a more or less solid base, rather than to approach every day, everyone, and every project with a quiet dread that everything you depend on as part of your life or even yourself is liable to fall away or fade out or be taken from you.  That would be awful, in fact.  He was onto something, I might say.

b.  Hope

These three qualities are intimately intertwined.  If the opposite of "Faith" is Anxiety or in the extreme Despair, then the opposite of "Hope" is Fear.  Being able to live without enduring fear - of loneliness or melancholia, of poverty or illness or infirmity, of failure, or whatever - is indeed a profound blessing.

Living in hope, by the way, need not mean ignoring the real risks one naturally faces; it just means characteristically looking on challenges allowing for the possibility they may be overcome, if not overcome easily or quickly at least overcome eventually with enough effort.  So, yes: Faith and Hope and...

c.   "Charity"

This quality is not rich people giving to the poor or to art museums, symphony orchestras, public radio or tv stations, or historical societies.  Paul's "Charity" is not exactly translated "Love" either, since love is so easily infused with passion.  The quality referred to here, both by Paul himself and by the old guy I have become looking back on what Paul wrote, is a generalized benevolent feeling toward each and all human beings.  It's the basic Love-your-neighbor-as-yourself and Love-your-enemies and so on.

To instinctively feel compassion, or empathy or at least sympathy, or to look kindly upon others - in general - is said to be the "greatest" of the three basic blessings that Paul's Christians should count on.  In other words, the benefit to the individual who has this quality of the three mentioned is the most profound.

Love in this sense may be necessary in order for one to feel grounded or secure ("faith"), as well as for one to look ahead optimistically ("hope"); and at the same time this characteristic Benevolence ("charity") toward others might not be possible without confidence in oneself and hope for the future.  The three blessings recreate and reinforce each other.

The opposite of "Charity," I would say incidentally, is contempt.

But those who move through life with trust and confidence in their hearts, a positive attitude in their minds, and fellow-feeling in their nature are lucky and good and happy.  They are not "better" (not better morally, for example), but are better off.  These three characteristics may indeed be the most important blessings one could have.


The basic official values of the Boy Scouts - that other important moral force - are articulated in the Oath and Laws.  The Oath ("or Promise," they say now) is this -

On my honor, I promise to do my best to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Laws.  To  help other people at all times.  To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

That was from memory all these years later.  I checked it, and it's correct.

The Oath is recited orally, in small phrases:

a.  On my honor

Especially when you think of an eleven-year-old boy saying this phrase, it doesn't mean more than -"really and truly" or "cross my heart and hope to die" or "honestly."

b. I promise to do my best to do my duty

Doing one's duty means doing what is owed to others, so this phrase acknowledges that a person has social responsibilities and is not free to just do whatever she or he wants at any time.  That sense of responsibility is indeed a characteristic of a mature, civilized person.  Good.

c. to God and my country

Sounds impressive.  I guess I would preferably say just "duty to others."  Actually, I guess I feel a duty to myself too, a responsibility to respect my relation with others, my sense of who I am, what I have done and what I could do in the future... So I would think of saying "duty to my self and others."  Cross my heart.

d.  and to obey the Scout Laws

[This is discussed below in Section 3.] 

e. To help other people at all times
What could be bad about making this commitment?

f. To keep myself physically strong [and] mentally awake

Yes [and] yes.  It is important to keep oneself healthy and vigorous, as well as alert and engaged.

g. [to keep myself] morally straight

   1. Doing one's duty is a basic moral imperative.  Trying to help others is too.  So listing this commitment to "keep oneself" morally upright, coming later in the oath along with keeping healthy and alert, seems to mean something else.  Is it simply "In addition to doing my duty and helping others, I will do some other good things"?  Or is it instead a general promise not to do "naughty" things?  It seems this promise is to "keep to the straight and narrow," i.e. maintaining proper conduct: telling the truth, respecting others' rights and property, keeping your word, not assaulting others, not driving drunk, and so on. 

  2.  Considering the word "straight" in the context of discussing the Boy Scouts today makes us think this promise may be to remain heterosexual.  Even as late as the 1980s, however, long after the boy I was in the '50s going through Scouting, "straight" did not have the homophobic connotations it has now.  "Morally straight" meant very broadly morally upright, including honesty, integrity, and all that.  In the 1970s, "straight" in everyday speech started to contrast with more specific behaviors such as being high on drugs, and only eventually came to contrast particularly with homosexuality.  So in the Scout Oath, this phrase is no more than the young scouts' promise to be good little boys.

And indeed we should commit ourselves to being aware of the moral dimensions of what we and others do and don't do, shouldn't we?


The Scout Laws are phrased in terms of characteristics that a good Scout - or we might say, a good person - will maintain:

A Scout is --

     Features of responsible citizens    

     Features of people who care about others and their feelings

     Uninterpreted, this quality may justifiably give us pause: but I would
      go so far as to say it is true that showing respect for women and
       men in leadership positions is a good thing

     Each an excellent character trait, valuable for anyone

     Combined with "reverent" below, this may seem like another promise
      to be a good little boy; but I think it also means simply the healthy
       habit of keeping one's body clean... And it's worth saying.

     I would not allow my ideal old Scoutmaster to tell me (and
       others) to believe in the supernatural, but I agree with him
        (if you will permit me to speak that way) that it is proper
         for a person to exhibit reverence for especially significant
          things (like the Grand Canyon, the Jupiter Symphony,
           or the Queen of England).


So sure enough, surprising as it may be, one can find some wisdom in these two incongruously paired sources.

All of us may hope to have hearts and minds free of permanent anguish, fear, and instinctive contempt of others and to feel instead a sense of security, a positive attitude, and an instinctive empathy for other folks.  And we would do well to honestly strive to do our duty to ourselves and others, to help others, to do what we can to stay healthy physically and to be engaged mentally, to pay attention to the moral dimensions of all we do and to pursue moral integrity. 

We can promise ourselves to manage our lives prudently, to conduct ourselves cheerfully and bravely, and to maintain the qualities of good citizens of society.

And even just saying so is worth doing, isn't it?


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Freedom and Fairness


I saw a bumpersticker the other day: FREEDOM ISN'T FAIR.  

Where do you think I saw this bumper sticker?

A.     In a MacDonald’s parking lot

B.    At an intersection in an upper income neighborhood

C.     At an intersection in a lower-income neighborhood

D.    On “Morning With Joe”

What kind of a vehicle do you think this bumper sticker was on?

A.    A Smart Car

B.    An apparently new pick-up truck

C.     A shiny black Lexus SUV

D.    A 2003 navy blue Buick

How many other stickers would you guess were on the back of this vehicle?

A.    None

B.    One

C.     Two

D.    Three, or more

What would you imagine the owner of this vehicle was thinking?

A.    Fairness is just about the most important thing

B.    We should be fair, and acknowledge that not all of us are equally free

C.     We should sacrifice some of our own freedom in order to be sure others are not unfairly deprived of their freedom

D.    Isn’t it great to be free, free even of the need to be fair

[Correct answers: B, C, A, D]

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Manifesto for Our Time


A spectre is haunting America, the spectre of Liberalism. 

From the Declaration of Independence, Tom Paines' The Crisis, the U. S. Constitution with its Preamble and Amendments, Lincoln's Address at Gettysburg, and the 1942 Pledge of Allegiance - to the spirit of the unincorporated young America of today:  liberal principles, policies, and practices inspire and ennoble us, and impel us forward to protect and preserve all that has been accomplished in our country in the past and to enrich and to strengthen our liberal nation further as time rolls on.

We shall not be distracted from our mission.

We will not allow distractions by provocateurs of anti-liberal (that is, anti-American) prejudice, self-interest, and materialism to divert our attention away from the real threats to our fundamental values in the world today, such as widespread unemployment, declining public education, rising racism, deteriorating health care, and growing holes in the American social safety net.

We will not be distracted by false claims that the great and urgent need in the American economy is for federal austerity and reduction in national deficits.  The greater and more urgent need is for direct government spending to revitalize our economy and put Americans back to work.

We will not be distracted by the bogus pretension that the worst and most urgent problem dogging our electoral system is voter fraud.  Our worst problems are the unmitigated political influence of big money and the small percentage of lower-income earners who participate in elections.

We will not be distracted by the lame assertion that the most serious problem involving immigrants is border security.  The more obvious and deeper issue is how dependent American citizens and our economy have become on the current number of undocumented, well-behaved immigrants whose situation must be normalised.

We will defend ourselves but not be distracted by the mounting attacks on women, including the attempts to roll us backward on women's rights to decide the destiny of their own bodies, as in family planning, contraception, and abortion.

We will not be distracted by unfounded claims that human beings cannot and should not act to protect our planet from devastating climate change.

Liberals, look around you.  The big money interests - financiers, global corporations, political power mongers, greedy materialists in general - they know you threaten them and throw their aims into jeopardy.  They have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise the spectre of liberalism you embody.  Do not be distracted from liberal designs and values.

Liberals of America, unite!


Friday, October 10, 2014

The Power of... the Right Surgery (reminiscence)



My wife and I were attending a meeting of the area's Association of "Ostomates,"  local women, men, and children who have had surgery to remove one of the bodily organs included in the elimination of bodily wastes.  Ostomates include those without bladders, or "urostomates"; those without a portion of the colon, or "colostomates"; or those without the whole colon, or "ileostomates".  The meetings take place monthly in a variety of hospitals around the metropolitan area.  Some who are considering whether or not to have the surgery can come to these meetings too.

Usually, 35 or 40 attend.  Programs vary but usually consist of a presentation by a Ostomy-Care nurse practitioner or other medical professional, or by an ostomate with a special message to convey.


Once a year, instead of the usual type of program, we divide ourselves up and meet in smaller groups to share personal experiences, ask questions of each other or of the nurse practitioners who run each "break-out group," and discuss whatever comes up.  These are always the best-attended and most useful and engaging sessions, although all programs are really informative and pleasant.

One reason this kind of free-discussion meeting is found by all to be so valuable and so interesting is the fact that there is so much variety among the membership.  Everyone has some kind of external device (a pouch or "bag") replacing what is usually an internal organ, but the reasons for such surgery are many and varied.  It could be cancer, or a severe colon or bladder disease.  It could be an injury (such as in a car accident), or even a criminal attack. 

[Note: My wife and I learned from an emergency nurse recently that some dreadful gangs sometimes go out to "bag" somebody... that is, shoot them in the gut so that they become ostomates.  We have never seen any indication of such a deliberate cause for this kind of surgery, but it is blood-curdling to contemplate.]

Members of the group can be young or old, white-collar or blue-collar (as we used to say), rural or urban or suburban, retired (like us) or working or still in school.  They may have had their surgery a month ago or 40 years ago.  And almost everyone has a slightly different method of handling the various products and devices they have found to deal with their particular circumstances.


The four small discussion groups are the urostomates, the colostomates, the ileostomates, and the rest of us - spouses, parents, siblings, or close friends.

At this year's break-out meeting, I of course joined the spouses and other companions.   During the first part of the meeting when we were still all together, I had noticed a new couple who had not attended before; or, at least, I had not noticed them before.

The husband came to the others' breakout group and ended up sitting about a third of the way around the table on my right.  The nurse practitioner was third or so on my left.  There were eight or ten of us.  She had us introduce ourselves one by one around the table, identifying our relationship with our ostomate.  Everyone also mentioned which bodily organ had been removed and how long ago the surgery had been.

"Joe" said this was his wife's and his first meeting, since she had undergone the bladder surgery only 10 days before.  My own wife's surgery had been almost exactly one year before that night.

"Now," the nurse asked, "does anyone have anything you wanted to bring up?"

One of the older men, who had been at every meeting and seemed to know everybody, said: "Yes, our medical supplier has stopped carrying one of the supplies - our brand - that we have been using for twenty years.  Has anybody else had this problem?"

Various individuals told about occasions when such a thing had happened to them.  After finding out where this coupled lived, several suggestions were made about other suppliers not too far away who were still carrying the product, and the exchange of experiences and tips continued for a while.

When there was a little pause, "Joe" - a tall, white-haired man with a lot of dignity in his bearing and a strong voice - started to speak.  His tone was flat, and he didn't make eye contact as he went on.


"My wife was diagnosed with bladder cancer six months ago," he said.  "She's a very religious woman, and she set about praying about her situation.  A group formed itself at the Church to pray together for her several times a week.

"She had the chemo and then the radiation, but the doctor said the bladder had to go.  So we set the date and got ourselves prepared.  Her son has spent more time with us than usual, leaving his own family across town more often than before.

"One week before the surgery was scheduled to happen, we went in for some final tests.  When the doctor came in a while later, he had a funny look on his face.  He said he'd never seen anything like it: the cancer seemed to be gone!

"He said it would undoubtedly return, and the surgery was the only way to prevent its spreading.  So we ought to go ahead with the schedule.

"My wife told the prayer group they had saved her.  It proved the power of prayer and the goodness of God.  She wanted to cancel the surgery.  But her son and I kept talking with her, and gradually she calmed down.  We went ahead with the surgery after all.  Just 10 days ago."


But all that was not what "Joe" had wanted to share with us.

"Just tonight, on our way here, my wife said she hadn't needed the surgery.  God had saved her from the cancer, but we had made her have the surgery."

He didn't say anything else, didn't ask us for anything.  It seemed that maybe just sharing this experience was what he had needed. 

I felt sure that the rapt attention we had all given him, and the feeling of sympathy and support he must have perceived - it was palpable - would have reached him.

"You did the right thing!" one of us said loudly in a raspy, emotionally tight voice.  It seemed palpable again that all of us, all, agreed.


I wondered if "Joe" and his wife would return to future meetings.  It's been a good sign to see that they have.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Old Guy Meets His Maker



Oops!  No, sorry now.  Fell asleep, you know?  Just a minute.  Eyes down, brain closed for the day, checked out.  But just for a minute, see?


But who's that big guy, with the shoulders?  All the hair, see?  If he had a rifle, he'd look like Charlton Heston, see what I mean?  Who is that?


No, wait a minute, please!  Keep your shirt on, or put your shirt on, rather.  No, there's no reason you should know anymore than I do; I just thought you did, that's all.  We're just standing here in this little line.  Do you know what for?

Ok, Okay.  Relax.  I was just hoping you'd know; I don't.


Did you get that?  The old woman behind us said we're going to meet "him." 

Any idea who "him" is?  Not a clue myself.  Takin' a power nap and then waitin' here in this little line, that's all.  We should get an autograph, eh lady?  Well...  Maybe she's a little hard of hearing, I don't know.


He's on the move, heads up!


Oh my gosh, I'm going to say: Hey there yourself, mister.  I know you're a big cheese and all - maybe I should say THE big cheese, right? Haw, haw.  But excuse me, sir.  I don't know who you are or why we are here...  You know?  Could you fill me in?

That's too long, isn't it?

Or I could go on: If you can help me... I'm feelin' stupid here, and you could set me straight?  Get it?


Ok, Ok.  I'm stupid.  Sorry.  Who are you?


Ahh...  You're kidding, right? Haw haw.  Oops!


Monday, August 4, 2014

A Small Compendium of a 7th Grader's Humor, ca. 1956


1.  Q: Why do you sing in the bathtub?

     A: The door won't lock.

2.   (add your own music)

     "... And you'll never walk... (pause, deep breath)
                                                                                   ... AGAIN..."

3.   A doctor was examining a teenage girl.

      "Big breaths, Louise," he said.

     "Yeth," she replied: "and I'm only thixth-teen!"

4.  (from Summer Sunday School.  Organ accompanies...)

     "Lift up your heads, O ye gates!

     And be ye lift up, ye ever-lasting doors!  (pause)


     Only we said, "ye ever-lasting DRAWERS!"

    " ...AND THE KING OF GLORY ..." (etc.)

5.  (Pop orchestra accompanies)

     "WHEN the moon hits your eye like a BIG PIZZZA PIE,

     "That's a...