Sunday, December 31, 2017

Losing Friends 2017

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

(From In Memory of W. B. Yeats by W. H. Auden)



***

2017 has, in many ways, been a season of loss for me. I already mentioned that I lost my tribe and connection with our church. Along with that also came the loss of a number of friendships, primarily because I discovered that some people I thought I knew had disturbing views on race and poverty. It was kind of like running across the white robe and hood in the coat closet.

But this post is about four people we lost to death this year. These four were meaningful to me for different reasons, but all were significant parts of my life, and I feel the void.

***

My first job after passing the bar exam was at Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, where I worked with senior citizens regarding basic needs like housing, healthcare, and safety. It was kind of like working in an emergency room, but with law rather than medicine.

One of the other programs that GBLA administered was the Long Term Care Ombudsman, which advocated for nursing home residents.

Nona headed up the LTC Ombudsman program during most of my time at GBLA, and we continued to work together on cases involving nursing home residents after I left GBLA to hang out my own shingle. We became more than mere coworkers and colleagues, particularly after we joined Facebook. (For us introverts, Facebook has been a fantastic tool for keeping up with people we otherwise would not see regularly.) We realized we shared a love for poetry, music, literature, and nature. And Filipino food.

Nona’s advocacy over the years really did make the world a better place. I can think of numerous clients whose lives were made better because she was looking after them, making sure that they got appropriate care.

Heart disease took Nona away from us all too soon, and I miss our conversations. I remember the last time I saw her in person. We ran into each other at the local Filipino grocery, and talked about Death Valley, and other winter destinations.

My biggest regret is that I never did get to writing about the political nature of music, a topic Nona encouraged me to write. Here’s hoping we can continue that conversation in the next life.

***

Dan was married to one of my Symphony colleagues. He played keys in a local blues band, had a life history full of fascinating stories, and always had time to chat with my kids. He also blogged, and encouraged me with my own blogging. Likewise, as an author, we enjoyed talking about books and words and the like. He was a constant advocate for the arts, and all of us who perform locally feel his loss keenly.

After the diagnosis, Dan continued to come to our concerts - up until the end, really. He had no illusions about the endgame, but kept on living while he was alive, and I really admire that.

Another thing that I admire is the way that Dan treated others. If you read his blog, the final entry is from his stepson, who maintained a good relationship with him over the years. As a lawyer, I have seen a lot of bad step parent relationships. (The old fairytales are sometimes right…) But there are good ones too, and I believe one of the best indicators of a person’s true character is how he or she treats other people’s children. (This applies to politics too. You cannot turn your back on other people’s children and call yourself a decent person. Sorry.)

Dan’s legacy lives on in the impact he made on individual lives, and in the local arts scene. I have his CD, but you can listen to a bit of his stuff on SoundCloud. (Under Dan McGuire 2.)

I miss you, Dan, and I’ll think of you every time I hear your voice and keyboard work on my playlist.

***

Jennifer married my cousin a year before I got married. I assume I must have met her at a family gathering before that, but really got to know her later, after their kids were born. Jen taught high school English, so naturally we talked a lot about books. And kids, and cats and food and Disneyland.

And, in the last couple of years, we talked a lot about raising kids to be decent, compassionate, informed people in an era when hate, tribalism, and willful ignorance are newly emboldened. (And in charge of the government.) It was she who recommended that I read Kindred, which I have since encouraged others to read. I can’t even remember all of the children’s books we discussed, but I know I learned a lot about resources for discussing racism and sexism. She was an ally for someone like me, who grew up in the ultraconservative homeschool culture (and in a mostly minority neighborhood at the same time) and didn’t know too many fellow parents with the same concerns. I know she made a difference in the lives of her students (the outpouring of love throughout her entire illness from former and current students was amazing), and the world is a more lonely place without her in it.

She left behind a husband and two small children. Life isn’t fair.

Jennifer also deserves credit (along with a law school colleague) for introducing us to Terry Pratchett. My kids now are huge fans, and I have found that they are practically an ethics course for kids. I really wish we could have continued to talk about the books as we work our way through them. I’ll think of her with each book I read.

The last real conversation we had was about Hamilton, right before I went to see it. I’m keeping her #riseup tag in mind as I work to continue her legacy of fighting against the darkness that surrounds us right now.

I recently read Homegoing, which she recommended, and I promise that one of these days, I will read The Great Gatsby, her favorite novel. And maybe the Dodgers will win it all this year. I hope you’re watching, Jen.

***

My grandfather made it to his mid 90s. And was in reasonably good mental and physical condition up until the last year or so, all things considered. He was my last living grandparent, so his passing marks the end of an era.

My mom’s side of the family has never been the most functional, so things are complicated. My grandmother suffered from some form of mental illness which primarily manifested itself (to me at least) as an inability to carry on a conversation (in the sense of listening and responding - she was always a famous talker, but didn’t listen or respond as if she had heard you.) She died over a decade ago, and I made an effort to see grandpa when I could. I’m not sure that you could say we were close, but as I was the eldest grandchild, he was proud of me in his own fashion. Certainly, I inherited a few things from him. My fast walking speed (he walked miles a day well into his 90s), his love for growing things.

He was in many ways, a product of his particular era. A missionary to Mexico back when kids were seen as an impediment to ministry. He was from the era in which men weren’t supposed to admit weakness. He was the functional half of a difficult marriage. A man raised in an era when men weren’t encouraged to show their feelings or affection. For years, he sent birthday cards to each of his numerous grandchildren - well into his 90s. It was his way of keeping a connection. He wasn’t perfect. But I miss him.

***

So it has been a season of losses. Gains too - and I cherish the new friends and deeper friendships that have blessed me this year. And, I have a renewed appreciation for the many good people in my life, who have been gracious and loving throughout my theological and moral journey. I’m not going to miss 2017 much, but here’s to the next year. May it be better than the last.


Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George


Source of book: Audiobook from the library, but I own this as well.

I am unsure whether My Side of the Mountain or Kildee House is my favorite book about wilderness escapism. I read both several times as a kid. 

 The author's illustrations are still the best.

Let me be clear: I’m a city kid, just with a love for the outdoors. Having lived in the mountains in my teens, I’m still inclined to want to live in a city. I like being close to stuff, having a variety of people around, and not at real risk for getting burnt to a crisp or buried in snow.

But there has always been a part of me that loves the fantasy of living alone in the wilderness, like Sam Gribley.

Jean Craighead George likewise grew up in the city, raised by a naturalist father, who taught her survival skills. (Much greater than my own, I must add. I’m able to stay out of trouble, but I depend on matches, not a flint and steel.) She also had a fantasy of running away, once making it a few hours before returning home. She combined both experiences into this book. Apparently, a publisher first rejected the manuscript on the basis that it would encourage kids to run away. George countered with the argument that it was much safer to run away to the woods than to run to the city. Which may well be true. Nature can be cruel, but humans can be evil.

Because of the author’s background, the details are correct, and realistic, if a bit softened for kids. (Not nearly as much danger of starvation or freezing, perhaps, as might be there even for an experienced woodsman, but it IS a kids’ book.) George creates a fantasy, but not a particularly crazy one.

Hatchet and its successors, by Gary Paulsen, are more gritty - and also realistic. Some of the difference in grit could be explained by the setting. The Catskills, within walking distance of civilization, are far different from the remote reaches of northern Canada.

One thing that struck me this time through is the need that even Sam has for companionship. A falcon is a pretty cool sidekick (although I do better with cats…), but nothing is a real substitute for human company. I am an introvert, and I enjoy my time alone. But I also love to share the wilderness with others. As my kids and friends can attest.

In any event, My Side of the Mountain remains a delightful book, and one that I think will continue to be a classic of children's’ literature.

The audiobook was read by Jeff Woodman, who did a fine enough job. (The name may have helped…)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt


Source of book: I own this.

Some friends of ours invited my wife and me to join their book club, appropriately entitled the Literary Lush Book Club. Because food and adult beverages are also important to the experience. I previously read (but was unable to attend for) The Master and Margarita, and finally participated in the meeting for The Island of Dr. Moreau. While my music and camping schedule interfere with perfect attendance, I do hope to at least read most of the books this year. In general, they tend to pick books that I would not necessarily have read on my own. The Goldfinch is a good example of that.

The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2014. Honestly, I have always thought of the Pulitzer as something for journalism and non-fiction, and, while those categories are important, there are also prizes for fiction, poetry, drama, and music.

The basic setup of the book is this: 13 year old Theo is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when a terrorist bomb explodes, killing his mother among others. A dying old man hands him a ring, and points to a small painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, which Theo puts in his backpack before finding his way out of the building through the rubble. From there, Theo lives briefly with a friend’s family, before his deadbeat dad and new girlfriend whisk him away to Vegas, where is is basically left to his own devices - and those of his new friend Boris, a Ukrainian immigrant who has traveled the world. The two boys get high and into trouble, unsurprisingly. Later, Theo’s dad gets drunk and dies in a car accident, and Theo finds his way back to New York, where he is raised by the business partner of the old man who gave him the ring. I’ll stop there, because there are plenty of crazy plot twists and developments that I would hate to give away.

 The Goldfinch by Frabritius. A pupil of Rembrandt, Fabritius was killed in the Explosion of Delft, when a gunpowder magazine blew, destroying most of the city - and most of Fabritius' paintings as well. A sad loss of artist and art.

In some ways, the book is a coming-of-age story with Theo as the protagonist. But in others, it is a tale of the painting itself. When the book ends, there are a number of questions involving Theo which are left unresolved, while the painting experiences a full resolution.

I would also describe the book as a bit of a modern day Dickens story, in the vein of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. In fact, the first half of the book is chock full of “easter eggs” that Dickens fans such as myself can discover. My wife pointed out the parallels between Pippa and Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, although Pippa might also be compared to Emily in David Copperfield. There are also a number of references to Harry Potter, leading my wife to note that it looks like there is a generational divide there: from Gen Y onward, Potter will be similar to Shakespeare or Greek Mythology in that it will be a constant source of literary references that the reader will be expected to know. Which means I really need to read the Harry Potter books, apparently.

(I was 20 when the first Harry Potter book came out, so I was too old to read them at the intended age. By the time my kids were old enough, my wife read the books to them, so I just never ended up reading them. That is in addition to the fact that they were considered evil by the Fundie subculture my family was in, so I might have missed them back then. Even now, I think my kids’ love for the books freaks my mom out. Sigh.)

I do have to mention one more allusion which I thought was a nice touch. In order to return the ring, Theo has to find a certain address, and ring a green doorbell. I cannot but conclude that Tartt has given a nod to O Henry, and his delightful tale of adventure and coincidence, “The Green Door,” where a random advertisement leads to unexpected happenings. (That story is one of my favorites by O Henry - and I have read them all.)

Donna Tartt does write well, with many singularly beautiful and evocative descriptions. The book is quite long (962 pages in the paperback edition), but not long in the same way as, say, Tolstoy or Trollope. It does get a bit bogged down occasionally, particularly in the last 100 pages where it waxes philosophical. However, much of it flies by quickly, and few if any details are wasted. In fact, when I reached the end, I was surprised how many early details turned out to be important for either the plot or the character development. Tartt took her time with this book, and as a result, the book feels tightly written.

One of the choices that was interesting was the way that Tartt kept circling back to certain ideas and topics, which I believe to be tied to Theo’s PTSD and resulting obsession with his trauma. He keeps returning to the same thoughts, even as he wishes to move on, and thus Tartt brings us along with him in his spiraling inner life.

I think Tartt was really perceptive in her description of the various professionals tasked with making sure Theo is okay after the bombing. The vast majority of the adults seem rather clueless, and unfortunately, this is all too realistic. (One area I work in is in the Juvenile court system, on cases where children are removed from the custody of their parents due to abuse or neglect. There are lots of well meaning people, but all too often, the things done resemble, as Theo puts it, reading from the “checklist of Things to Say to Troubled Kids.”) What Theo needs more than anything (and that he gets from Hobie) is someone to talk normally with him, and just be a friend. I understand the need (and benefit) of professional help, and so on, but I think this is often an overlooked and underprovided need.

Looking back on my notes, I also jotted down an exchange between Boris (the Artful Dodger of the book) and Theo regarding Boris’ dad.

“He feels bad for leaving me so much alone. He knows is a holiday coming up, and he asked if I could stay at your house.”
“Well, you do all the time anyway.”
“He knows that. That’s why he thanked you. But - I hope you don’t mind - I gave him your wrong address.”
“Why?”
Because - I think maybe you don’t want him rolling up drunk at your house in the middle of the night.” 

Boris’ dad is just one of the picaresque underworldish characters that come into this book. There is a funny line about Horst, the stolen artwork dealer, who keeps chickens in his posh house in Miami - to shoot at. As Boris queries, “What kind of crazy thing is this for these people to keep chickens in Miami?” We might all ask that question.

Another line that made me smile was the term that Theo uses for his fiance Kitsey’s godmother, who swoops in to take over their wedding plans. “Wedding Obergruppenf├╝hrer.” Yep, that was an official Nazi rank in the SS. And yes, it applies to certain sorts I am rather familiar with from my days playing weddings in a string quartet. (I still do occasionally, but less since having kids.)

There is also a fun scene in Amsterdam - although it could have taken place anywhere, honestly. Those of us who live in California certainly are aware of the little hole-in-the-wall hipster health food restaurant. One is spoofed here - although they really tend to self-parody.

“Food is so awful,” said Boris. “Sprouts and some hard old wheat toast. You would think hot girls go there, but is just old grey-haired women and fat.”

One final line caught my eye. Theo and Boris are having a bit of a philosophical discussion near the end, about the role of fate and/or providence in our lives, and the way seemingly bad things can have unexpected and unintended consequences, some of which are positive.

Theo counters Boris’ optimistic view:

“I believe this goes more to the idea of ‘relentless irony’ than ‘divine providence.’”
“Yes - but why give it a name? Can’t they both be the same thing?”

I’m kind of with Boris on this one.

The Goldfinch is an interesting book. It’s a compelling read, with an interesting story and good writing. It is a bit sordid in a way, with a lot of drug use, some language and violence, but an intentional minimum of sex. Theo pushes away intimacy of all kinds as part of his damaged psyche, and this is part of how the sexuality works. Things are always mentioned obliquely, whether it is his series of non-serious girlfriends as an adult, or what probably took place with Boris when they were teens. Like his trauma, Theo doesn’t want to go there or admit what he feels. But that is part of the point of this book. Theo is damaged, but you still root for him. He makes horrible decisions, but you still want it to come out okay. He will never be who you hope he could be, but he is still human and interesting.

I was not aware of this book before it was nominated as an option for our club, but I am glad I read it. It is definitely worth reading. As with many literary novels, be sure to stay with it for a while, as the slower first pages are there to set the stage. As one of our members memorably put it, he waits to decide if he is going to finish a book until he can see that it is transitioning from the first act to the second. By that point, one knows enough to evaluate whether the book will be worth finishing. I tend to agree with that. (With the caveat that a few “books” are so dreadfully written that you can discard them within a few pages just because of authorial incompetence. But most of those aren’t the sort I would be interested in in the first place.) Once it gets going, The Goldfinch is a combination of thoughtful literary fiction, and fast-paced adventure. Enjoy the action, but savor the lovely and evocative writing, and the thoughtful deeper ideas.

We discussed a lot more than this at book club, but that is a bit beyond the scope of this review. While long, this book did spark a very interesting series of discussions, and it was fun to see what everyone brought to the table.



Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Grunt by Mary Roach


Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

Let’s get this out of the way first: I have have a serious crush on Mary Roach. It’s true. You can have your Kristen Stewarts and your Dakota Johnsons. My celebrity crushes are a bit, um, different.

Anyway, I have read, enjoyed, and reviewed a number of her books. Here are the reviews and links:

Gulp (about the alimentary canal)
Packing for Mars (about the space program)
Spook (about paranormal stuff)

Also highly recommended is Bonk, her irreverent book about sex, which I was too chicken to review at the time, but is laugh out loud hilarious. 


Roach is, as she describes herself, a writer who enjoys taking a topic and poking around in the dark corners with a flashlight, until all the creepy-crawly stuff comes skittering out. Her website even uses a cockroach liberally as her alter-ego, so to speak. There is pretty literally nothing too gross or disturbing for her to mention and make a delightfully deadpan joke about. (One of my favorites of all time is still when she footnoted “primordial soup” with “Note: Not a Campbell’s product.”) Her humor is so deliciously dry, I really don’t even care what her topic is. I know it will be fun, irreverent, and unlike anyone else’s writing on the topic.

Grunt is Roach’s latest book, and it covers a variety of interesting (and usually gross) facets of the science of keeping soldiers alive during wartime. She starts off innocently enough with an examination of the clothing of war. Which means sweat. Not too bad. But then she gets into IEDs and dismemberment in the next chapter, and it goes either downhill from there, or starts getting really fun, depending on your tolerance for crazy stuff. Yes, she talks about getting one’s junk blown off - or at least seriously compromised. One memorable line in here is the (female) army doctor’s explanation about why virtually all of their post-explosive fertility research is male-focused. “If a girl gets her ovaries blown up, she’s not going to be here.”

For me, this isn’t particularly unusual stuff. My wife is an ICU nurse, so our dinner conversation is interesting to say the least. She would be right at home in the training for medics on triaging under hostile fire. If I ever get an appendage blown off, I trust her to keep me from bleeding out as much as anyone.

Another fun topic was the prevention of heat stroke. I generally tolerate heat pretty well. (Our local track club has a summer series of runs, in the Bakersfield evening heat. (Last year, our hottest race temp was about 108͒ F.) While I am pretty dang slow in the heat, I really don’t feel like I am on the verge of heatstroke or even exhaustion. Apparently, this places me in an interesting category. Apparently about 20% of people are genetically predisposed to heat stroke, while a similar number appear to be fairly resistant. The resistant ones (like me, apparently) sweat early and often, so we don’t tend to overheat. The downside is that we guzzle water like fish, and need a healthy dose of salt and electrolytes to compensate. Which is true. Also, we are pretty gross after exercise. But we stay on our feet in the heat as long as you give us water and salt.

What else is in here? “Diarrhea As A Risk To National Security” for one. Again, I may be lucky in this matter. Although I seem to be susceptible to viral gastroenteritis, which is spread by coughing, I seem resistant to food common dysentery bugs. This is kind of interesting, because I really didn’t win the genetic lottery. I was a sickly kid, and I still have every cold bug go to my lungs. Every several years, I get flattened with a series of illnesses all winter. But apparently, I am good with heatstroke and could survive the Oregon Trail better than most. Who knew?

Stink bugs? Shark repellant? Submarine survival? Maggots? It’s all in here. (Actually, my wife has used medical maggots at work - you have to count the all every time you clean the wound. And she and Mary Roach may be the only people who know the Medicare billing code for maggot wound debridement.)

I do have to talk about a few additional quotes that made me smile. Bomb-proof underwear is intended to stop the flying sand and dirt from an explosive, not the metal fragments. “Honestly,” says one source, “if the insurgents can make a bomb big enough to blow up a seventy-ton M1 tank, they can certainly make a bomb that’s going to blow up your underwear.”

For training medics, volunteers wear all kinds of cool wound prosthetics, including a backpack with fake blood. As Roach puts it, “a sort of CamelBak for vampires…”

Another amusing incident occurs when Roach is touring the collection of fake body parts. Particularly when she has trouble finding the restroom, because “head” has a different meaning when you are seeing signs for spleens and aortas.

I’ll also mention her accurate description of the major risk of rapid underwater ascent. As a licensed SCUBA diver, I remember well all the hours of practicing this: you must NEVER hold your breath. Because when you do, your lungs expand and eventually pop, which is very ungood. So we practiced always letting a trickle of air out. Always. And doing ascents while exhaling. It is really weird to kick up from 45 feet and be able to breathe out constantly because of the expanding air, even though it takes you 30 seconds to do so. But practice keeps you alive later in an emergency.

One final mention. Sadly, I could not find a video of the paintball incident at Camp Pendleton. (Here in California between LA and San Diego - it’s the only non-urban stretch of coast from the border to Goleta, really.) So anyway, Roach asked to be shot with paintballs to see what it felt like. (I know all too well. In cold weather, it smarts like hell, and can leave a baseball sized bruise at close range.) as she puts it, “Fifteen Marines volunteered. The one who did the deed - from 70 feet, hitting me precisely where he wanted to - can be heard in the background of a researcher’s video going, ‘That was very satisfying.’ ‘It’s almost like he knows you,’ said the researcher.” Alas, I can’t find video.

At least there is plenty of video of Roach talking about her books. And she is every bit as deadpan and tongue in cheek as she is in her writing. 


There is no wrong way to discover Mary Roach. Grab one of her books. Listen to one of her TED talks. Find some footage of her talking about, well, anything. For those of us who like the dark, slimy corners of the human experience, her writing is delicious.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Christmas Poems 2017


This is my third annual Christmas Poem post. You can read the others here:


And on a related note, last year’s Christmas Carol post.

Other posts on Christmas:


***


The previous Christmas poem posts included Ogden Nash, who apparently loved writing about Christmas. In a curmudgeonly way, of course.

Complaining about Christmas is as traditional as Christmas itself, from what I can tell. The Puritans whined about it, and went so far as to ban it during Oliver Cromwell’s government. This went exactly as well as you would expect, and was one reason the Puritans lost power soon after Cromwell’s death. Dickens railed against the commercialization of Christmas, most notably in A Christmas Carol, which remains one of the best sermons ever written. (And one that American Evangelicals seem increasingly determined to ignore…)

Ogden Nash too felt that Christmas was too commercial. This poem was written in the 1950s, which, ironically, is the era that today’s curmudgeons hold up as the last pure era in history. Apparently, the golden age exists only in our own faulty memories.

I Remember Yule by Ogden Nash

I guess I am just an old fogey.
I guess I am headed for the last roundup, so come along little dogey.
I can remember when winter was wintery and summer was estival;
I can even remember when Christmas was a family festival.
Yes, I can remember when Christmas was an occasion for fireside rejoicing
           and general good will.
And now it is just the day that it’s only X shopping days until.
I can remember when we knew Christmas was coming without being reminded
            by the sponsor
And the announcer.
What, five times a week at 8:15 P.M., do the herald angels sing?
That a small deposit now will buy you an option on a genuine diamond ring.
What is the message we receive with Good King Wenceslas?
That if we rush to the corner of Ninth and Main we can get that pink mink
           housecoat very inexpensceslaus.
I know what came upon the midnight clear to our backward parents,
            but what comes to us?
A choir imploring us to Come all ye faithful and steal a 1939 convertible
            at psychoneurotic prices from Grinning Gus.
Christmas is a sitting duck for sponsors, it’s so commercial,
And yet so noncontroversial.
Well, you reverent sponsors redolent of frankincense and myrrh, come
           smear me with bear–grease and call me an un-American hellion.
This is my declaration of independence and rebellion.
This year I’m going to disconnect everything electrical in the house and spend
           the Christmas season like Tiny Tim and Mr. Pickwick;
You make me sickwick.

The more things change…

I myself am no big fan of commercialism. I do love Christmas, however, and many of the modern trappings. I love the music. (Most of it. Could definitely do without “Christmas Shoes.”) I enjoyed playing in the local orchestra when Mannheim Steamroller came to Bakersfield this year. The kids and I put thousands of lights on our house. We watch cheesy Christmas movies. I love finding presents for family. And don’t get me started on the food.

But all these are empty without the real core of the holiday. As a Christian, the incarnation is a beautiful and central belief. God came and became one of us, suffering as we do, and triumphing over sin and death. But the life and teachings of Christ are not just about a baby born, or an ultimate sacrifice. In Saint Luke’s Gospel, Christ himself announces his ministry as follows:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

A bit radical, yes? Pretty much the complete opposite of the political goals of American Evangelicalism, I would say.

On that note, let me introduce Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. Studdert Kennedy was a British chaplain during World War One, known for giving comfort to injured and dying soldiers. (Also cigarettes - times have changed…) The horrors of war haunted him, and he devoted the rest of his life to social justice causes, before working himself to death at age 45. He saw first hand the oppressive factory systems of the 1920s, and wrote a number of books railing against the evils of unbridled capitalism and greed. One of his most famous lines is:

"If finding God in our churches leads to us losing Him in our factories, then better we tear down those churches for God must hate the sight of them."

These words still ring true today. When he died, thousands of the poor flocked to his funeral. But he was denied burial at Westminster Abbey because of his political views.

His poems are probably better known than his prose today. I was introduced to this one by a Symphony colleague, at a Lenten concert earlier this year.

When Jesus Came to Birmingham by G. A. Studdert Kennedy

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do, '
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.

This so perfectly expresses how I feel about the social darwinism that has been wholeheartedly embraced by most of those who claim my faith. Oh, we don’t kill people anymore. We just deny them healthcare, living wages, protection against abusive employers; turn away those fleeing war and poverty; look away as they are killed by the police; and more. Oh, it’s not really killing them, just letting nature take its course…

And then we sit in our churches and pretend that God is there, but not where the working poor live. Maybe it is time to tear down our churches.  

For some reason, I never read Madeleine L’Engle when I was a kid, despite the fact that we owned A Wrinkle In Time. You can read my thoughts on discovering it and A Wind In The Door if you like. Anyway, I hadn’t really thought of her as a poet, but somewhere I ended up running across this little gem.

The Risk of Birth by Madeleine L’Engle

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Savior make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

I remind myself of this regularly these days, having brought five children into a world more broken than I realized at the time, a world where those naming the name of the Christmas Child would embrace the crushing grip of Rome. And yet, love does take the risk of birth. While we were (and are) still hating each other, Christ came with a radical message of an upside down Kingdom, the very antithesis of Empire. Some of us still seek that.

The final selection for this year is by the “Poet Laureate of Twitter.” No, not the narcissist that got elected. The poet Brian Bilston. (“I am Cinna the poet!”) Anyway, this one has been making the rounds among some of my literary friends, so I thought I would share it. It does make me smile.

Word Needles by Brian Bilston


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Anyway, while my heart remains heavy about the state of the world and of American Christianity, my hope remains in that pivotal moment, when God incarnate came to earth to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, and point us to a better way. May His kingdom come!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Of Course Roy Moore Defends Slavery and Segregation

Roy Moore may or may not be a new name to you, but I have known of him for literally decades. You see, he is practically worshiped in the ultraconservative homeschool circles I grew up in. It is no mystery why.

In my very first religious/political post a number of years ago, I discussed the roots of the Reconstructionist Movement in White Supremacy. It’s a long post, but there is a lot of information in it. Essentially, Christian homeschooling has followed one of two paths. One is the Raymond and Dorothy Moore (no relation to Roy, from what I can tell) path of providing individualized education. This is how and why my own family ended up homeschooling, and I think it is a positive. The other is the Rousas Rushdoony path: Reconstructionism, Culture Wars, and Theocracy.

Roy Moore is a Reconstructionist. Pure and simple. That is important to know.

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Roy Moore has been in the news lately because the various women who he flirted with/dated/groped against their will when they were in their teens (and he was in their 30s) are coming forward and blowing his cover.

That Moore did this really isn’t a surprise to those of us who grew up in that subculture. I mean, many of the leaders from Bill Gothard to Doug Phillips (a very close friend of Moore, by the way…) have gotten busted for getting sexual with the young girls. And also, as we know, the subculture itself kind of pushes the young girl, older man dynamic for sexist reasons. See also fellow Gothardism survivor Katherine Brightbill’s LA Times article - and note Matthew and Maranatha Chapman, who were idolized in my wife’s fundie home church…) It is disappointing, but not exactly surprising that Evangelicals will defend this guy. It didn’t stop them from voting for another pussy grabber, after all. I think in particular, white baby boomer Evangelicals are impossibly clueless as to the damage their support of people like Moore has done to the reputation of the Christian faith here in America. But hey, they got their tax cut, right?

But I wanted to discuss a couple of other things about Moore.

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Moore came to his hero status because of the Ten Commandments war, of which more later. It was his willingness to defy the law (and the Constitution) to further his view of America as a theocracy that made him popular in Fundamentalist circles.

But I think there was more to it than that. I linked my post above because there is a strong and clear connection between the Culture Wars™ and White Supremacy that continues today.

And Roy Moore is Exhibit A.

Let’s start with Segregation. Alabama, obviously, has a long and sordid history when it comes to this issue. (It also was the site of some of the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest triumphs. The two are definitely related…)

Roy Moore has gone on the record several times in support of Segregation.

The Guardian in 2004 noted that Moore was one of the opponents to a ballot initiative to remove (unconstitutional) language in the state constitution providing for segregated schools.

In an address to a religious conference a few years back, he went on a familiar screed about how God has (allegedly) been removed from government. It’s a familiar bit of red meat to Fundies, of course. But it is what came next that is interesting. He went right from “kicked prayer out of schools” to...wait for it… “created new rights in 1965.”

Anyone familiar with a famous law from that year? How about the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The one that ended Jim Crow and Segregation. You can find it on video starting at about the 11:00 mark.

That’s all bad enough, right? It gets worse.

Last month, on the Scott Beason show, Moore said that “Alabama always stands up for its rights” including “the Civil War conflict.” And yes, there is video.

And also recently, in a rally in Florence, Moore was asked by one of the few African Americans in the audience when he thought America was great. Here is his response:

“I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

Isn’t that interesting. He could just have left the slavery bit out of it. But he didn’t. I think it was intentional, and the middle finger of friendship directed at the African American who asked the question. The answer to “when was America great?” is - to many from Trump on down - “when n----rs knew their place.”

And one more: Moore has made a centerpiece of his campaign against his opponent the fact that Doug Jones has supported the right of NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality.


If the law in question were to be taken to compel a certain kind of patriotic act, it is unquestionably unconstitutional. (No one has ever tried to enforce the law in that way - it is widely considered to be a suggestion, not a binding law.)

It isn’t too hard to see what is going on here. “Ungrateful athletes” is the new version of “uppity nigger” used against African American performers who dared to protest against injustice or assert their civil rights.

Moore isn’t even bothering to use a dog whistle. He is openly stating his racism and his belief that America was greater when we enslaved brown people.

Forget the sexual predation (which is bad, don’t get me wrong). The racism should disqualify Roy Moore by itself.

Unfortunately, as I have come to understand in the last couple of years, support for slavery and segregation not only does not disqualify a candidate with white Evangelicals. It is considered by many of them to be a point in the candidate’s favor.

These beliefs are also endemic to the Reconstructionist/Dominionist belief system. See for example Doug Wilson, slavery defender and pedophile protector. And the hate groups that masquerade as “family values.” 


***

Just a bit on the Ten Commandments and Same Sex Marriage issues.

The essential problem in both cases is that Roy Moore does not believe that the law is binding on him. If he disagrees with it, too bad. He wins and can do what he wants.

This is why he has been removed from office not once, but twice, by the Judicial ethics board in a very conservative state.

In the first case, he expended public money and space on a gigantic Ten Commandments monument. There was no higher cause here, just a desire to make a statement. A statement that we are a Christian Nation™, dammit, and we need to constantly remind everyone of that. (Particularly those damn Muslims…) Basically, an ego trip for Moore, a phenomenal waste of time and money, with no benefit to anyone.

The second was also a ridiculous ego trip with no benefit to anyone. After the US Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage, Moore took it on himself to defy the ruling.

Mind you, it wasn’t that he would himself refuse to perform weddings. No, he went so far as to order ALL state officials to refuse to follow the federal law. They were literally told that they must defy a federal order or lose their jobs. Even by the standards of Alabama conservatism, this was well over the top. And so he was again removed from the bench.

It’s not really a mystery why he has done both of these things. Both go back to his Reconstructionist beliefs, which is that [the fundamentalist interpretation] of the Bible should be the law of the land. (Ironically, he also rails against the imaginary threat of Sharia Law…) Thus, it doesn’t matter what the actual laws in our nation are. He knows better. And he should be allowed to enforce his own preferences over the actual laws of our nation.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe there is a time and a place for civil disobedience. Rosa Parks comes to mind, as do the thousands of brave men and women who worked on the Underground Railroad. I can even understand abortion protesters (although I think they are on the wrong track for a number of reasons.) If you are trying to help the oppressed, have at it. That is a legitimate reason to disobey a law - in the interest of true justice to those denied it.

But to do so for an ego trip over a monument? Seriously?

Or to assert your control over all the clerks in your state? It really is just a power and ego trip, which is absolutely what Roy Moore is and has always been about.

And that, as much as anything, is why he is utterly unqualified for office.

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I was a Republican until 2013, when I realized that the values of the party had changed radically, to the point where they were willing to shut down the government in order to try to force the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. (Because clearly cutting people off from health care was the most pressing concern for our nation…)

I am not the only one - in general, younger people are fleeing the GOP (except for the Alt-Right sorts.) Here is an interesting article by Kurt Bardella, former aide to Darrell Issa and Brietbart staffer. Let’s just say that when you are losing conservatives like this, you have a big problem.

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Just to be clear, I have every reason to believe that Roy Moore will be elected. Sadly, in our current political climate, the only thing that matters is whether you have an (R) or a (D) after your name. You can prey on women - or children. You can defend slavery and segregation, slander immigrants and Muslims, take away healthcare from the disabled and impoverished...doesn’t matter one bit.

And it particularly doesn’t matter to white Evangelicals. And I think that the racism and social darwinism are actually a major attraction, whether they will admit this to themselves or not.

This is and remains the part of the story that I believe is most important: the moral suicide of Evangelicalism. 

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UPDATE December 12, 2017: Apparently I missed the time in 2011 that Moore went on a wingnut radio talk show, and said that getting rid of Constitutional Amendments after #10 would "eliminate many problems." I assume he means ones like these:

13th Amendment: abolished slavery. 
14th Amendment: among other things, allowed non-whites to become citizens, gave equal protection of the laws to non-whites, and applied the Bill of Rights protections to State governments. 
15th Amendment: gave non-whites the right to vote. 
19th Amendment: gave women the right to vote.
24th Amendment: eliminated poll taxes.