Thursday, October 18, 2018

On Redemption


I use two redemptive concepts in holding out hope for America: “The Thomas Beckett Moment” and the “Saul on the Road to Damascus Realization.” The first happens when a person decides that there is a higher calling than political expediency or personal riches. The second happens when a person decides that one doesn’t have to be a jerk forever.

We can hope, can't we?

Saturday, September 8, 2018

On Kneeling …

Yesterday, I spent two hours with an AT&T tech, fixing an internet snafu at our Little Rock condo. On leaving, I discovered that he had served in the U.S. Army, with assignments in the Middle East, including Afghanistan. He didn’t learn his technical skills there. He served as a medic. My mind shot back to when I was waiting for the bus to take me to the air base at Da Nang to “leave country.”

Amidst the happy, talkative group waiting to go home, there was a young man in a wrinkled outfit with insignia stating that he was a Navy Corpsman. He didn’t talk, just stared through vacant eyes into space. I remember thinking how, after a year in a war zone, I couldn’t imagine what that man had experienced. That’s why I don’t respect people who swagger around with flag decals on their lapels and ask why I don’t wear one.

My oath of enlistment stated that I would “… support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I [would] bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” I’ve researched it numerous times, and I can’t find an exemption limiting that oath to people who look and believe like me.

After we boarded the plane, and it rose aboard the blue waters of the South China Sea, applause broke out. Among the celebrants was a sizable number of shipmates and comrades who, when arriving home would find themselves denied the opportunities and personal safety that I, a white man of Northern European descent, would enjoy. Some had fought their way through Hue, during the Tet Offensive. Some had defended Khe Sahn. Some had held dying friends in their arms. Some had served on riverboat patrols.

All had spent a year or more not knowing what breath they took might be their last.

Some had been called “boy” on the same day they had had suffered wounds on behalf of their country. Some would be stopped for “driving while black” on arrival in an ungrateful country. Some would be denied the opportunity to purchase a home, as I did, in a decent neighborhood. Some would be denied jobs because of the color of their skin.

Their oath of enlistment, which they had fulfilled with honor, was the same as mine.

I think about these things. In the famous line from the movie, they just wanted “their country to love them as much as they had loved it.”

 Kneel for the music, or stand for the music, it’s your right. I don’t give a damn one way or the other, and don’t expect me to. Flag decal or no, standing without having sacrificed will never make you as tall as a kneeling comrade who was shortchanged by the country he served.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

On honoring honor …

Yesterday, a friend and I discussed the phenomenon that has accompanied death of Senator John McCain. It has been amazing, nearly causing a psychotic episode with at least one of his enemies. Overall, the outpouring of respect and admiration has been grandly comforting and reassuring. But why?

One can’t simply apply the usual explanations to this unusual situation.

We must, I think, avoid the temptation to under-symptomize our analysis, that is we shouldn’t seek one overlaying reason for the national outpouring of respect for John McCain’s life. It isn’t based on any uniform set of catalysts.

There are those who respected his military service but didn’t care for his political views.

There are those who scarcely know of his military service but resected his career as a senator.

There are those that believe he was following noxious orders when shot down but exhibited sublime heroism as a POW.

There are those who simply believe he was an orchid growing from a cesspool.

We could go on and on, and add greater complexity, but let me add a reason of my own to the mix.

First, I recall that someone once commented, I think it might have been Thomas Hobbes but I’m not sure and too lazy to research it, that “Our passions don’t change, just the objects of those passions.” Add to this my belief that our passions can either be good or evil “monsters of our Id.”

This reference to the film Forbidden Planet responds to my lifelong fascination with the science fiction films of my youth. In many, the Earth harbored subterranean monsters of cosmic threat and danger. Something (in the 1950s it was nuclear testing) unlocked these monsters, often mutations of insects or reptiles. The monsters rose to surface and threatened to destroy our way of life until some hero, often as not B-Actor John Agar, pronounced the ubiquitous phrase “It just might work.” He would then save us all from the monster-of-the-day.

In a social, but horrific, negative example, we witnessed, with the election of Barack Obama as president, such a seismic release of our national monster. We thought we were conquering the lingering rot of racial hatred. Alas, that monster only lay buried, awaiting a nuclear bomb-like explosion in the form of the election, to our highest office, of an African-American. In contrast to the movies, though, society was not united in defeating the monster and sending it back to the bowels of the earth.

No, evil people fed and nourished the monster. Worse, they set it upon their enemies and opponents, enlisting the services of a foreign enemy and the foreign owners of an influential television show. It worked. The monster grew and began consuming us. Would we survive? Where is our John Agar?

Perhaps we see hope. Can goodness lay buried in a subterranean tomb? Can some event loose it from its captivity? Can the better monster of our nature rise to fight the other?

Enter the phenomenon of John McCain’s death. Has it freed forgotten forms of decency and respect for honor that have lain buried for so many years? If so, how can we find ways to nourish it and make it grow? Can our salvation await us, birthed from the contemplation of this brave man’s life?

Perhaps it can if we realize that we are our own John Agars.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A Minor Comparison

Before being sent off to do my patriotic duty in SE Asia, I spent two full days in a fake “POW” camp, the intent of which was to prepare me in the event I was captured by the enemy. The “captors” were allowed to physically abuse us within guidelines set forth by my government.

During the ordeal, I suffered three major indignities, other than hunger and general humiliation.

While standing buck-naked next to large pile of dead tree branches, I refused to offer more than my name, rank, and serial number. For this, a gigantic guard knocked me into the middle of the brush pile and repeatedly hindered me from extricating myself.

For refusing to denounce “Ameeerica,” I was slapped six or seven times real hard by a drooling interrogator.

For being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I had an unopened package of toilet tissue (from a C-Rats box), that had laid on the privy floor for several days placed in my mouth and made to stand for what seemed like hours, but maybe 15 minutes or so.

During moments of contemplation, I have deduced that if I were suffering from two broken arms, a battered body, minimal medical care, no restraints on my torture, and could multiply that two-day experience by more than a thousand, I might be able to understand a little of what John McCain went through as a result of service to his country.

That is why I become so angry when I receive a political ad in the mail from a member of Donald Trump’s political party saying I should support that party because it loves veterans, when its very leader dishonored John McCain's military service, and the man himself, so disgracefully. 

“Oh, someone says,” that’s just him, it’s not the party.”

I invite that person to view the scene from the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri in which the Frances McDormand character tells the priest that if you belong to a gang that commits a crime, even though you had no part it that actual crime, you are still guilty.

I’m sorry for being political this morning. I try not to be, but my heart is too full. As Elie Wiesel put it, “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.” Any true American must eventually serve country and the common good. A close friend won't vote for an "independent" because it means they won't take sides, even when the consequences are clear.

Another close acquaintance of mine once said, “Silence and inaction can carry honor or dishonor with equal ease. Political opportunity can determine which course people or parties choose.”

I’m afraid our country is in grave danger and its only salvation lies in a mass denunciation of power, greed, selfishness, distrust, and loyalty to group over community. In short, we need to turn toward fellowship with all. We must take sides with those who believe in such fellowship.

History, though it may be uncovered amidst the rusting ruins of our Statue of Liberty, will tell us who was on its right side and who wasn’t.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Speech Crime as a Leading Indicator

I’ve been attempting to explain my fear of the fall of our society by using an analogy with the debasement of our language. Will crime against language presage crimes against societal norms? I worry that it is so.

For example, the term “parameter” is a mathematical one, referring to the attribute of a variable. It closely resembles the word “perimeter,” or a boundary. The terms were confused by careless writers and speakers for so long that “boundary” is now an accepted meaning of “parameter,” a linguistic crime against the glorious language of Shakespeare and Milton. It has so far gone unpunished.

I now know people with doctoral degrees from major universities who, unabashedly and without embarrassment, say “It is a secret between you and I.” In fact, I once heard, on Book TV, a woman with a graduate degree from the Columbia School of Journalism, thank the school for “inviting my sister and I here to speak.”

Let’s not even mention the misuse of “nauseous” to mean “nauseated.” Oh hell, let’s do. Ironically, it may have a ring of verisimilitude when a vapid speaker refers to himself as “nauseous,” meaning having the power to nauseate others. It sure does the trick for me.

Can societal communication survive the legitimization of such talk-crime? I, for one, don't see how.

My point? I think it may happen that this current presidential administration will burn itself out. Unless someone manages to push the wrong button, it will go the way of all sociological transgressions. I worry that, by then, we may find that our collective level of social decency may so debased that, like allowing our children to think that it is allowable to say, “would you please help he and I,” our ability to recognize the good and proper in our societal conduct may be forever lost.

"By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion." - Psalm 137

Monday, August 6, 2018

A Trip Back Home

We decided, my wife and I, to take a “spur of the moment” trip to my hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas today so I could mow some pasture land my brother owns, a part of the old home place. He’s not enjoying good health at present and isn’t even able to put diesel in his tractor. I took him some, fueled the tractor, and mowed the field while he and Brenda sat in the shade and talked. I can only hope that it wasn’t all about me.

I wasn’t bored. A portion of the field I was mowing once boasted the best homemade baseball backstop ever built by boys under the age of fourteen. It comprised sweet gum saplings sunk in the ground and backed by burlap feed sacks stitched together. Since the lads were better builders than batters, it held up to a lot of hard use. Each time I passed the spot, I could hear the sound of a ball pounding into burlap, oh, and, on rare occasion, the crack of a bat.

I mowed alongside an old stock pond that probably saw more youthful recreation per square foot than any patch of ground in America. It was partly filled with debris now. But the sight of a young boy sitting with his grandmother and begging to “pish” just a little more still shines through the dim past.

Across the field, I mowed along a dirt road that lead no place geographically but to amazing places in the minds of young boys: cowboy hideouts, Indian camps, unseen spots for smoking pilfered cigarettes, and a gathering spot for bemoaning the vicissitudes of childhood and the unfathomable allure of girls for older boys.

The family home and grocery disappeared long ago. To a person growing up there, though, key markings remain. There’s my dad’s favorite tree, still bearing the signs of white paint left from a trick my brother played on our nephew. There’s the road to nowhere, originally named “King’s Road,” after an African-American man who lived toward the end of it. That name didn’t suit the 9-11 addressing crew, so it’s now named after my family, over the strenuous protests of Sainted Mother at the time.

She was a stickler for tradition and truth. I still recall her “aghastness” when a group of yuppies moved onto a road near where she grew up and made the County change the name. To mother, it had always been “Hog-eye Ben Road” and should have remained so.

There’s the house across the highway from our homeplace, standing in the exact shape as it did over 70 years ago. In my brother’s yard, if one looks closely, he can see the remnants of the pipe where our pump house once stood, From there, one can triangulate, using the painted tree, to the location of our chicken yard, barn, wash house, and even the privy.

I finished the mowing and we left, deciding to “drag Main,” and see what was happening. The old town has suffered in modern times. There’s nothing more fun for the residents of “Sundown Towns” than to laugh at the old girl and the troubles she’s seen. I suspect it’s better, though, to live in a town full of problems and people who are willing to work on them, than in a town full of bigoted assholes.

One final joy, the old Community Theater still stands intact. In fact, we enjoyed a conversation with two nice young men doing some repairs to the flooring. When I was a kid, if you were white and had a quarter, you could spend an entire afternoon there. You paid ten cents to get in, ten cents for a box of popcorn, and five cents for a cup of soda. For that, you got a double-feature and four cartoons. You had to be white, though.

Still a handsome city.
My great-grandfather's
Civil War unit once defended
this street from attack
by the Rebs.
Folks are now spending big money in the city for projects that are available to all citizens. They are even beginning work on restoring the old Pines Hotel on Main. There’s lots of new building going on, some near the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. A once distressed shopping center in our part of town now appears fully occupied. There are glimmers of hope everywhere.

Things change in this world, and they don’t change toward equity. It takes luck and hard work to provide livable and diverse communities. My hometown takes no back seat to any in terms of the latter.

Oh, and my brother was grateful for the help.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

What's normal?

Okay, here goes. Seems we need to repeat this from to time.

Gender orientation and sexual preference are physiological conditions. They result from perhaps billions of impulses, triggers, and connections within our genetic makeup, any one of which may affect our final condition. One scientific premise, for example, is that all embryos start out as female. Over time, and countless genetic maneuvers, physical folding, merging, and transformations, some develop as male, although with useless breasts, hirsute shortcomings, and a dearth of nurturing synapses.

Over geologic time, the pairings of genetic types of mostly male and mostly female tend to enjoy of the evolutionary advantage of reproduction-capability. Thus the predominance of so-called, “heterosexual” genetic models. Since we don’t believe it aborting rarer genetic types, (Right?) we fully expect to share the planet with models whose sexual preference or identity lies outside the majority but who stand among us nonetheless. In short, we are all brothers and sisters within the genomic bell-curve.

It all evolves from scientific determinants.

On the other hand. Bigotry and prejudice are conditions that erupt like projectile vomit from the basest of human sources, the worst of those among us. We, as individuals, must accept or reject the venomous teaching and societally induced impulses generated by humans, even when they are fed by so-called religious sources. Actually, we should reject those in particular, as they demean and sour the acts of truly spiritual people seeking love, stability and harmony in an unpredictable world.

So there you have it. If you went to church this morning and paid attention to the minister when he or she preached love and grace, go forth in peace. Peace and understanding may yet save the planet.

On the other hand, if you listened to a drooling bigot when he urged hatred and bigotry against a fellow creature whose genetic makeup differs from yours, you need to find another source of religion.

In short, using an exalted position to repeat false witness, hatred, and bigotry to a cult audience deprived of critical-thinking skills is a sin.

Being born with a genetic makeup that differs from that of a hegemonic minority is not.

Quit trying to create a moral equivalency.

Amen. Closing hym: Just As I Am Without One Plea.

Contributions to this sermon may be mailed to my home address or to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, folks who really know how to treat kids.

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