Saturday, July 30, 2011

We hold these truths to be self-evident? Really?

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

What is truth?

Okay, that may be a little heavy to ponder on a Saturday morning when the only thing moving is the swirling vapor rising above my hot coffee cup, made visible by a single ray of the sunrise streaming through the window of the kitchen door straight to the coffee table.

See? That's the problem. It is Saturday. I am sitting on the sofa. I am drinking coffee. And the only thing I notice moving is the misty plume rising from my coffee. But my idealistic description of my morning contains non-truths. The vapor is not the only thing moving, there is movement all around. The room is full of morning light, not just a single ray of sun, whatever that is. But it sounded pretty. And it describes what I feel about my surroundings this morning. If you were here with me you might notice completely different things about the scene. I suspect that your first observation would be that I need to put on a shirt. And that it might be helpful if I choose one from that pile of laundry on the love seat that never made it to the closet. Or that you don't notice any plumes of vapor coming from the two coffee mugs on the coffee table obviously still there from previous mornings. Perhaps that is why you haven't been invited to join me.

Sometimes our disagreements would suggest that one of us is not telling the truth. For instance, I would describe my Saturday morning coffee ritual today as quite close to perfect. You, on the other hand, might have entered the doorway and seen nothing but the mess, which would have had to be done away with before any ritual could be enjoyed. Our views of the scene are so different. Was one of us lying? Which one of us saw the truth?

Silly, I know. We both were seeing only a part of the whole truth of the room. Each view was a partial truth.

But it is important how we deal with our limitations on knowing the entire truth of a situation. If we accept a partial truth as the whole truth, we will end our pursuit, and our partial truth will become a lie. But if we accept a partial truth for what it is, we are on our way to discovering more of what we have yet to see.

A few years ago on an Appalachia Service Project mission trip the staff assigned the group I was in to a mobile home in a small town a few miles up the road from Flagpond, in Unicoi County, Tennessee. Normally the staff would have fully investigated a work site to define the work to be done, but for some reason they had not done so this time. The instruction I received on Sunday evening before we started work on Monday was to check out a little weakness in the floor below a window and repair it. Apparently they had noticed the floor gave a little when they walked on it.

Monday morning, after we had introduced ourselves to the owner of the house, visited and mosied for awhile, we took a closer look at the problem. We pulled back the floor covering below the window. The floor disintegrated into small particles. We could have stopped there, repaired the floor and wall immediately under the window, and had an easy week. But we couldn't see the edge of solid flooring, so we pulled the flooring back a little more. The floor continued to disappear. As it turned out the flooring in the entire den and kitchen area was nothing but disintegrated particle board held together with floor covering. So, in order to fix it, we had to remove all the flooring, as well as the kitchen counters and cabinets. Upon lifting the counter top we were treated to the sight of about a billion little roaches scampering to find darkness again. Then the cabinets fell apart. It was then that we discovered the root of the whole problem, a serious leak in the plumbing below the sink. I could go on. It was quite an adventure. But the point is, the truth turned out to be a whole lot more than what the staff had perceived by sensing a weak place in the floor below the window.

To fix what was broken, we first had to uncover the whole truth, as ugly as it was. Believe me, there were moments when we wanted to declare the whole truth discovered and not go any further in that pursuit. Especially when the roaches were revealed. But we had yet to discover anything solid. Replacing the flooring without uncovering and dealing with the whole truth would have been pointless. In this case the partial truth, had we taken it as the whole truth, would have been a harmful lie.

We know how hard it is to deal with the truth in personal relationships. Often it is so much easier to ignore the truth, to put a nice shiny linoleum over it without checking the sub floor, or refusing to look for the leak caused the weakness in the first place. Peeling back the layers is painful, and sometimes scary, like a plague of roaches. A quick patch might avoid immediate pain, but will probably result in a full collapse some time down the road. And maybe the hardest thing in relationships is to remember that each is viewing the same truth, but from different vantage points. How the differing views are used can be the end of the relationship, or a new beginning.

And the same is true in our collective and political lives. There is nothing wrong with differing viewpoints. In fact, differing viewpoints should be encouraged and treasured. The more views we have of the truth the more realistic picture we have of the whole thing. It is when we begin to believe that our viewpoint from our limited vantage point captures the whole truth that we get into trouble.

And as a nation we are in a bit of trouble.

As a nation we owe a lot of money. We need to pay it back. To raise money to pay these debts we need to cut what we spend. That is a valid part of the truth. We need to raise more money, that is, to pay more taxes, to pay the debt back. That is another valid part of the truth.

To claim either partial truth as the whole truth is to transform it into a dangerous lie.

None of this truth stuff is easy. Much of the time I can't see the truth, or I wonder if the concept of truth applies at all.

So I need help.

And maybe that's enough truth for this morning.


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Werewolves or Vulcans . . .

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

I just heard an interview with Glen Duncan, author of "The Last Werewolf." The interviewer asked Duncan what, in his opinion, was the basis for readers' apparently insatiable appetite for stories about werewolves and vampires. In responding to the part about werewolves, Duncan said that while we may fear the primal instincts that seem to have ultimate control over werewolves, there is something in us that envies a creature who is not expected to deliberate and agonize over the proper choice, but rather is expected to act according to that primal instinct, to act on that impulse of desire. Duncan then read an excerpt from his novel which was a bit racy for early Saturday morning. Morning Edition's host's voice was blushing.

That sums up the struggle to be human. We are still of the animal kingdom, subject to animal instincts. But we are more than that. We can make choices against our instincts.

I was passing by one of the mobile rabies clinics the other day. The dogs did not like the shots. They wanted to bite the hand that hurt them. They could not understand that the same hand also helped them. But the vet, with the help of the owners, held the dogs still while the shot was administered, often while the dog growled meanly with bared fangs. The dogs could not make a choice not to react to the pain with the instinctive growl and tooth display. If not restrained, the dogs would have followed their instinct away from there as quickly as they could run. The vet, being human, also had an instinct, to be afraid of a mad, growling, fang gnashing animal. But he calmly did his job in delivering the vaccine. He chose to act contrary to his animal instinct.

It is not that we humans should not rely on our animal instincts. Sometimes a quick action based on instinct and not deliberative thought can save our lives. Adrenaline produced from fear can produce amazing results, even in humans.

But I tend to be analytical. A wise friend recently pointed out a problem I have. She said that I analyze a situation as it is today, decide how it is going to turn out tomorrow or in a week or in a month, and then I go into a depression about the bad thing that I have decided is sure to happen. My instinct was to slap her. But I didn't. I couldn't reach her through the phone, and besides, she is right.

It is obvious that we humans have the best of both worlds. We have the advantages of instincts built deeply into us as survival tools, and we have reason to allow us to advance beyond the rule of instinct and make choices to act otherwise.

Getting the balance right is the problem.

We are wired to be dominant, to win. Survival of the strongest. Death to the weakest. When long horned rams do battle to see who shall lead the herd and get the pick of the ladies, there is no compromise. The one who is the most butt-headed is the winner. And winner takes all. This instinct is still with us as humans. It is no accident that the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama is set on goat-hill. There are other more prominent legislative venues that deserve that title at least as much. Compromise and better choices are often the victims of the instinct to dominate, win, and take it all.

But it is hard to be reasoned while standing in the path of a runaway train. Reason may have been appropriate when the train was still miles away, but when it is in sight and blasting its horn, fear takes over, adrenaline kicks in, and decisions of survival are made, or tragedy results. The action taken as a result of the instinct for survival may save the moment, but is probably no where nearly as good as the action that might have resulted from reason and choice while the train was still in the next county over. Take the debt ceiling crisis. Or social security or medicaid. Or dependence on oil. Or pollution of the environment. Or illegal immigration. Or the tax structure. Or any number of other runaway trains.

But our ability to reason can be a hindrance as well. We delay action, always looking and hoping for the better way, the more certain way. Or a way to get our way. Then all of a sudden we hear the whistle of the approaching train and it is too late.

I am a David Wilcox fan. The David Wilcox from North Carolina, not the one from Canada, although he is a fine musician as well. The Carolina David Wilcox wrote a song that means a lot to me titled "Just Get On." The chorus says:

And I'm running out of time
And my heart says, C'mon let's go
And my mind's saying, I don't know
And the train is at the station
But I'm lost in contemplation
And this ticket's only good for just so long
I can think about it 'til that train is gone
Or just get on

I like being analytical. I don't like being surprised by the future. Live long and prosper.

But even so, some of the best moments of my life resulted from a moment's decision based not on reason, but on impulse. Like the werewolves.

I guess it's just something we have to live with, this tension between instinct and reason.

Or more accurately, that we are blessed to live with.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

And it came to pass . . .if we let it

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee

It is almost cool this morning.

There were times during the past few weeks I wondered if it could ever be cool again.

But it is. In the heat of things it is hard to remember that things change. In a little while it will be cooler. A little bit longer and it will be cold. (At least here in the temperate zone). But the hope of that change is hard to remember when the heat seems to threaten my next breath.

I looked back over my blog posts for the past couple of years. There were many moments of heat, not the thermal energy kind, but the human condition kind. Wars, racism, presidential elections, governor's elections, Supreme Court decisions, second amendment issues, health care reform, earthquakes, tornadoes, unfair taxes, immigration issues, economic catastrophe, and the role of government. And that doesn't count the vague references to moments of heat in my personal life, which shall remain vague, but which certainly left me breathless.

It is interesting to look back at those moments in which I was so thoroughly engulfed. It seemed as if there was no end in sight to the heat.

But the heat is gone from many of those things, for good or bad. There is always a new fire to run toward with bucket in hand.

We have all heard that the discovery and control of fire was a major leap in the progression of humanity.

But fire is a tricky thing. Under control it can be transforming. It can make food edible and safe, turn stony elements into liquid, provide heat against oppressive cold, provide power for transportation and manufacture.

But out of control, it is destructive.

Sometimes in our attempt to deal with the fires we go through we are reckless. In our beating and flailing to put out the flames we only fan them higher and hotter, all the while screaming at someone else for doing the same, only from a different direction.

And fire is no respecter of persons. If the fire gets too hot, we all burn together.

The heat of the moment will pass, if we let it.

And then maybe we can get things under control.


Friday, July 15, 2011


I sent a friend a photo of a project he had begun years ago, which continues today, having affected many, many lives in a positive way. In the photo were the signatures of some of the people on the ground floor of the project, with their hand prints by their names on the wall, created at the time the whole thing started. It was a happy memory and I thought he should know that his good work continues.

A message of thanks came back. But the thank you was followed by another line. It said, " and thanks for letting me know that my fingerprints still exist somewhere."

I sent an immediate response of chastisement, reminding him that he was clueless about how many peoples' lives he had affected in the past and still does to this day and to get over his feeling of uselessness.

And I meant that. That's what friends are for. To be sensitive.

But his words bounced around in my head for the rest of the day. I'm pretty sure I understood what my friend was trying to say, questioning whether his life's work really mattered to anybody.

But his words began to speak something different to me, whether he meant them to or not. I'm pretty sure after the comfort I offered in response to his message he would be glad something was bouncing my head.

"Thanks for letting me know that my fingerprints still exist somewhere . . ."

Fingerprints are synonymous with identity. It is said that no two designs are alike. I have had clients who obliterated their fingerprints, or attempted to, to further their chances of success in their chosen fields of theft and burglary. They wanted to lose their identity, or at least that part of it.

But some of us lose our identity without meaning to. Our days are filled with things to do, goals to meet, people to help, people to please. Passions and politics that don't play well with the crowd we must satisfy are stashed away. Sensibilities that seem senseless we accept to fit in. Time taken by and given to others leaves no time for ourselves. Before long there is no ourselves, we have given us away. Just a collage of others' expectations. Our true identity is gone. The world around us has given us a new one. And we can't remember where we set the real one down.

It might be nice to have what my friend has, even though he doesn't realize it. A place in the past with his fingerprints right there on the wall, a monument to at least a part of his true identity reflected in the productive passion of earlier days. A place where, if he can't remember where he set his old identity down, at least he can be reminded of where to start looking.

I saw a lone Canadian goose fly across the sky over a pasture today. It was flapping its wings furiously and honking like an ambulance clearing traffic, but there was none around him up in the sky. I don't know why the goose was flying solo, but he looked odd, being away from a formation of other geese. He looked odd because a Canadian goose is not supposed to be flying alone. He is supposed to be a member of a large flying V. But he was just a flailing punctuation mark streaking across the sky. He had lost his real identity, and he was straining to find it again, flying as fast as he could, and making as much goose noise as possible, to get to that place where he knew it lay, where he saw it last, in his case, back with his flock. He was heading in a direction he had been before, the way that they had always come. He at least had a place to start looking.

So, I don't know, maybe my friend was saying both things. He wasn't sure that what he has done and what he is doing really matters. Or maybe he just can't see it anymore because he left his real identity somewhere back a ways, or perhaps the people he helped then and now took it from him without thinking.

Either way, at least he's got a place to go back to and start looking. Fingerprints on a wall.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thurvey 7/14/2011

Time flies. It is once again time for the Thurvey, the Thursday survey. Your chance to let your voice be heard, if you are bold enough,on a variety of topics from serious to not so serious. Just enter your answers in the comment box below, or if the box is not there, click on the little "comments" below and follow the instructions. You may use the anonymous option and remain anonymous, or use the anonymous option and type your name at the end of your comment, or whatever other way seems to work best for you. Be advised that the Thurvey responses will be made available to Congress for public policy considerations.

Before we get to the Thurvey questions, the much awaited results of last week's lazy survey responder poll (those who don't want to write essay answers) over on the right indicated that fifty percent of those responding thought that coffee in the morning made them happiest, twenty-five percent preferred a good steak, twelve percent chose chocolate chip cookies out of the oven with milk, twelve percent chose wine with friends, and ice cream at night, well it just didn't do well at all. A new poll is being put up for this week. Now to the Thurvey questions:

#1 In the last week, what did you laugh hardest at?

#2 Which character from a TV program, movie or literature would you support for President?

#3 How do you find new music to listen to, what have you found that you would recommend, or have you just no clue?

#4 Why does the government need to set spending or debt limits? Shouldn't it be able to act responsibly without them? Why don't they?

#5 What question of your own would you like to have answered this week?


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The fat of the land . . .

Have you ever been in a swimming pool and stood in front of the nozzle where the water is pumped back into the pool from the filter? The water shoots in a jet stream. And if you have done that did you let the jet stream of water hit you in the stomach and look down at it? Your belly I mean? If you have I bet you considered going on a diet or possibly throwing up. The jet stream makes the fat around your middle ripple and shake like cottage cheese. It is disturbing. Try it and tell me I'm wrong.

Or have you actually started an exercise program (maybe after the swimming pool nozzle experience) that included running and realized your thighs or love handles started aching, not from the muscular strain but from bouncing up and down with the rhythm of your stride?

Or have you looked in the mirror after dressing and wonder whether you put your belt on because it is being obscured by something lapping over it, which you wish was just extra material of your shirt but you know it is part of you?

Have you added bacon grease to salad dressing?

Have you tried frying fresh fruit?

Have you planned a complete football Saturday during which you never had to leave the sofa except to go to the bathroom? (Let me know if you found a way to get around that)

You may be an Alabamian. But the good news is Alabama is not number one. We are number two.

When it comes to being fat Americans.

Once again let the familiar cheer of gratitude ring out, "Thank God for Mississippi." Then stop to catch your breath. Mississippians are the fattest in the land. I suppose "obese" is the politically correct term. But in this case p.c. doesn't seem much better.

Why are we so fat?

It is easy to blame our recipes laden with cream, butter, and pork fat of some description, as well as our gift of figuring out how to fry anything. But that has always been the diet of the south, and yes, we should change some of those things. Even skinny folks arteries can clog up under a steady diet of fat and salt.

But we haven't always been fat. At least not this fat.

We just don't move around as much. Unless we are riding on motor driven wheels. That is another thing we are great at. Birmingham, Alabama, has recently been named as one of the top gas guzzling cities in the country. Is there a correlation between these two high rankings?

I think so.

Have you ever jumped in the car to go eat fried chicken or ice cream at a restaurant less than a mile from where you work? I have. And I jump into the car at my office almost every day and drive two blocks to find a parking place at the courthouse. But now that I've admitted that I will not do it anymore. Thanks for letting me share.

So, maybe we should all admit why we are obese, or overweight, or out of shape. Because if we admit to someone else we are a bit overweight, and that we ride when we should walk, or we eat a bag of chips because we are nervous about anticipating the conclusion of Lost or the winner of Idol or the choice of Bachelor as we lie supine on the sofa, or that we deserve ice cream because every day seems to require a bit of comfort for sanity, then we have made a start. If we choose an accountability partner who is fully capable of ridicule as well as encouragement, maybe we can change. For the lesser.

A body mass index of 25-30 is overweight. A BMI above 30 is obese. Check yours out on this BMI calculator.

Over the past ten years I have lost about 35 pounds. The first 25 pounds took about nine years and 9 months. I was proud of that sustained loss because I did it right. More exercise and a better diet. The last ten came off in the past 3 months. I lost that through stress. Not recommended.

But even with the last ten pounds, I have just lowered my weight into the healthy range, according to the calculator and the BMI recommendations. I think I must be "big boned." I don't know who made up these calculations, but I suspect it was a bunch of marathon runners and Lance Armstrong.

I may be skeptical about the BMI calculations, but the eyes don't lie. Just take a trip to Wal-mart, or to your favorite buffet. The tensile strength of spandex and knits are being tested everywhere you look and it is not a pleasant thing.

And even in the high end restaurants check the serving size on the plates. A single serving would be enough to take to a covered dish dinner at the church. And we in the south have been taught as a matter of culture to clean our plates. Especially at the prices charged by the high-end restaurants.

I ate salad for lunch. Not for my health, at least in the body fat sense. I was just trying to keep the Lester United Methodist women happy by supporting their salad luncheon fundraiser for the Lester pre-school program. I learned early that keeping the UMW happy was important.

But it was good. And then I hopped back in my car and drove the three blocks back to the office.

I've got work to do. I don't mean at the office. I mean on my health habits.

Go take the swimming pool nozzle test and I'm sure you'll join me.

Cause when it comes to our health, we need to give ourselves more than a fat chance.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Pardon my romance, but I have writer's block, and romance is the easiest thing for a romantic.

I am fighting through a significant writer's block today. These are the days that are the reason that I started blogging in the first place, to make myself write even when I didn't really want to or have anything to write about. Now, having stalled sufficiently, I shall start writing, like Anne LaMott and so many others say a writer must do. Just start writing. Today I will go for melancholy and romance. I think it's the heat. So I apologize in advance.

I want to go back to Elrod Falls.

A few years ago, after a long, hot day of work on a mission trip, our group ended the day at Elrod Falls for a picnic. The entrance to the park and dusty parking area were dilapidated, with fallen rusty chains between the cracked fenceposts and dangling and broken signs. No one had told us what the falls were like. It seemed like it was going to be the kind of evening that I hoped would end quickly so I could get to the showers, rest a bit, and get to bed.

My hard working group was later than most in arriving. We stumbled along the winding, up and down rocky trail through the woods, guided by the sound of rushing water and laughter. Suddenly there it was, Elrod Falls, a towering flat faced rock formation with water cascading down to a pool below. About halfway up was a waterfall. It was heaven.

On this hot July 11 I wish I could go back to Elrod Falls, to the laughter, to the rock slide, to the cold water of the falls massaging the heat from my shoulders, while the golden rays of a late summer evening streamed through the thick umbrella of towering hardwoods. It was perfect. And I never expected such perfection to arise on such a trip as that.

But isn't that the way it is. Sometimes the best things in life happen when you aren't expecting it, when you're on the way to nowhere, when you're too tired to say no, or when the perfection of the moment is just overwhelming. Sometimes the best things begin in such insignificance, like a glance, a touch, or a word that makes one stay. Insignificant like the small creek at the headwater of Elrod Falls. It is just a trickle up there, but after a mile or two, by the time it reaches the rocks of the falls, it is something beautiful, something perfect, something timeless.

Yea, I need to get back to Elrod Falls. I bet it's still there.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Fig-u-ratively speaking . . .

There is a fig tree a few steps from my kitchen door. It is loaded with figs, hundreds of them. Fig trees are odd things. Sometimes they bear no fruit, and sometimes the same tree will be overloaded with fruit that suddenly becomes ripe in the same moment. As I stood beside the tree today and pondered those oddities I was suddenly struck by a feeling of deja vu. I had pondered the oddities of the fig tree before.

But it was the fig trees in the Bible that intrigued me.

The whole thing began when fig leaves were used to hide Adam and Eve's nakedness. You have to admit that is kind of a weird role to play in the story of creation.

Figs are mentioned in the Song of Solomon, something about their early ripe fruit next to the pomegranates. I just can't comment on that.

There is a strange passage in Judges that no sermon is ever preached on in which Joachim is telling his countrymen about choosing a king. The fig tree refuses to be appointed king because to do so would require giving up its sweet fruit.

And the old Testament is full of the phrase, "they sit under their own fig tree." Apparently the spreading arbor of the fig tree created a place of shade, often used by the community, and was a common place for quiet study, prayer, meditation and peace.

Some commentators say that "fig" in the Bible is symbolic for "sweetness."

So now we come to the stories I was deja revuing as I stood in the shade of my own fig tree.

In one story, Jesus went to a fig tree because He was hungry, but it had no fruit. He cursed the fig tree. Now my dad likes his figs, and he is disappointed when his tree has no fruit. But I never heard him curse it. But Jesus did. And the tree wilted and never produced fruit again. Jesus' turned the whole incident into a teaching moment, somehow turning his display of anger into a lesson on faith.

But the Jesus fig story that intrigues me the most begins at John 1:43 and concerns the disciple Nathanael. Nathanael was sitting under the fig tree, getting out of the heat and meditating when Philip runs up and says that they have found the one that was prophesied about, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph. Shortly before this Jesus had said to Philip "follow me." And Philip did. Nathanael's response does not sound like one who had been drinking fully from the peace and sweetness that is supposed to be found under the spreading fig tree.

"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

Philip said "come and see."

And Nathanael did.

He left the shade of the peaceful, sweet, meditative fig tree and went to check out Jesus, from of all places, Nazareth. As Nathanael approached, Jesus said, "here comes a man of Israel in whom there is no deceit." I always wondered if Jesus fully meant that or if he was digging a bit into Nathanael's prejudicial statements about Him being from Nazareth. Nathanael asked, "how do you know me? " Jesus replied, "I saw you while you were still sitting under the fig tree where Philip found you."

Apparently that was enough for Nathanael. He followed too.

The "Come and follow me" stories in which Jesus' called his disciples perturb me. This young rabbi just walks up, says "come and follow me," doesn't give a plan, a timetable, even a purpose, other than fishing for men, which is a bit cryptic. And these guys followed. They didn't straighten out their lives, finish unfinished business, bury their fathers. They just followed. Even in their imperfection.

Even Nathanael, who thought little of folks from Nazareth. As far as we know Nathanael didn't spend a whole lot more time in quiet meditation under the fig tree. He may have, it just wasn't important enough to mention in the gospels. For three years he was on the road, leaving family, friends, peace and sweetness, to follow Jesus of Nazareth.

In times such as this it is tempting to stay and hide under the shade, the peace and sweetness of the fig tree. But it is obvious from the story of Nathanael the purpose of the shade of the fig tree is not to hide, it is simply a place to get ready,

to go.

Because we know He can see us. Even through the fig leaves.



Is it live or is it Memorex?

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

About thirty years years ago a good friend called me and said she had just bought something I had to come see, and help her figure out. It turned out to be a TV video tape recorder. It was the BETA edition. For those of you who weren't around or don't remember, when digital video-tape recording first became available to the consumer for household use, there were two formats competing in the marketplace, VHS and BETA. VHS won ultimately, but it didn't matter that day. That thing was amazing, even if it was BETA. Television programs could be recorded even while everyone was at work. It was a God-send for the Days of Our Lives crowd. But that was not all. She had also bought a video tape camera, which was about the size of a microwave oven, and weighed about the same. But it was amazing. It was cool.

And it was obsolete within five years.

There are many ways that I index my memories, not the ones on video, but the ones in my head. It seems that one of the ways is association with popular technology.

I can put a date on an event from my early childhood based on whether the TV show I was watching was black and white or color. I will never forget the first time I saw the opening animated fireworks scene set off by Tinkerbell on Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

How I listened to music may be my best memory marker, because the technology became so much a part of the memories. Early on there was the static filled, interference distorted sound of AM top forty radio from WVOK or WSGN out of Birmingham in the daytime, or the cool sound of Chicago's WLS on a night with good atmospheric conditions as I rode around with my older siblings, or lay in bed at night worrying about the Tet offensive and the draft age that I was approaching in a few years. Then there was the miracle of eight track tapes. Any car was cool if it had an eight track tape player, even if much time and money was wasted extracting malfunctioned tapes that were eaten by the machine. And the music wasn't interrupted by news of the war, which was a real plus. The proper mode of receiving music was an important element of social status and social success, especially during the teen dating years. Some of those systems would drain a battery quicker than one might think, but that's a different memory and a different story. Then FM radio, which had always been around but dominated by elevator or classical music or public service announcements, suddenly became the platform for edgy rock, and everything changed. I was in college by then and the war was ending. Now my songs are on my computer and in my ipod, many of which are reminders of the people who shared the songs with me. I like that. These days relationships are shared through playlists. The health and rhythm of my heart, physically and emotionally, are dependent on them, as I jog along an actual road or negotiate the up and downs of the journey of life.

Now radio is for listening to the news while I drive.

Or take phones. Please. From rotary dial landlines to keypad phones, from party lines to private lines.

My first cellular phone was a bag phone. The transmitter was in a black vinyl purse like bag, with the cord running from the bag to the handset. It was about the size of a microwave and weighed about the same. I remember the first week or so that I had it making a call from somewhere in the backwoods of Kentucky and being absolutely amazed and relieved at being able to communicate with my office from such a remote place. Now I am not so sure. Despite the bulky bag, it was so cool. But my children and their friends still make fun of it fifteen years later.

Computers, DVR's, smarter phones, I-pads, satellite technology, embedded chips, time and memories sprint along.

I started thinking about this today because of the final flight of the space shuttle, the Atlantis being the particular craft that receives that historical honor. It was about the same time that my friend bought the Beta recorder that the space shuttle program got underway. That first launch created a bit of excitement from space enthusiasts hungry for the excitement of the space race of the sixties and seventies. But the efficiency of the system and the lack of a defined mission soon made the subsequent launches seem unnoteworthy, almost mundane. Very few of us could name astronauts as we could when the moon was our collective destiny, except for names like Christa McDuffie, the first teacher to take a space ride. Unfortunately that ride was on the Challenger in 1986.

It is unfortunate that for most of us, the most prominent memories of the space shuttle program will forever be the two horrible disasters. I remember a friend, in fact the same friend with the Beta recorder, calling and asking if I had seen the news. The Challenger had blown up shortly after launch. I hung up and turned on the TV. For the first few minutes the nation hung on to the ridiculous hope that somehow the passengers could escape. I don't believe the national psyche was ever the same after that shared tragedy. And then a few years later the Columbia basically disappeared on its way back to earth's atmosphere, exploding and burning like a meteor. I was riding with a friend to a meeting in Birmingham that Saturday morning when the news came on the radio. It was a quiet ride that I will never forget.

And now the last shuttle flight is in progress. If you are like me, since the Challenger and Columbia disasters I cannot shake a lingering fear for every mission. So I pray for their safe return.

But, like BETA and VHS, big tube televisions and rotary phones, bag cell phones and eight tracks, technology will move on and give us something else to replace the shuttle.

And new ways to mark our time.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Push button politics . . .

First let me direct you to the Thurvey, which is the next post after this one. A few changes there, including a simple poll on the right. But the Thurvey staff still encourages you to go for the essay questions.

I like politics. I like to talk about it, I like to read about it, and I like to hear others talk about it.

But sometimes it makes me sick.

Last week I had my first professional brush with the effects of the new Alabama immigration bill. Someone asked me a question about child custody. The caller said he was Hispanic, but was here legally. He is divorced. His ex-wife has custody of their one child. His ex-wife is illegal. She is moving to another state to escape the harshness of the new law. The caller was upset. He said his ex=wife is a good mother and he had no desire to hurt her, but he couldn't bear the thought of his child being on the run for the rest of his childhood, nor could he bear the thought of not being a part of the child's life. I explained to him his options. Do nothing and lose his relationship and possibly security for his child. Go to court and get custody of the child, but, if the judge is doing his job, his ex-wife will be put in jail and possibly deported. He sounded as if he were about to cry.

I went to a meeting of a government body this morning. The issue being discussed was the juvenile justice system in our county. The Juvenile Probation Office supervises probation and provides and monitors other services for delinquent juveniles. Ours is a smaller county, population wise. The current JPO office is staffed with three probation officers and one administrative assistant. Last year they handled approximately 800 cases.

The State of Alabama has ordered that two of the four be let go. Either two probation officers or one probation officer and the administrative assistant. They might as well close the whole office.

At the meeting I attended the discussion centered around finding local funding, from the county government and from the local school boards.

It was a civil meeting. No one was mean. And no one on the government body said a word about the children. It was all about the money, or lack thereof, and properly placing the blame on the state government. There was no indication that help was forthcoming.

I have worked for years representing juveniles. I have seen suicidal teens brought back from the brink. I have seen youth strung out on drugs to avoid the problems at home get clean and counseled and move on. I have seen kids whose parents blame them for all the parents' problems find a reasonable ear and reasonable discipline to help them know what the world is supposed to be like.

I didn't do any of that. It was the Juvenile Probation Officers. We need more of them, not less.

So today politics makes me sick. There is not enough money to save our children, but plenty to buy fleets of government cars to drive around and new buildings to be built and meaningless state publications to be printed and thrown away.

For years every time there was an election one of the gubernatorial candidates would run an ad claiming that he wouldn't make the taxpayers pay for anymore air conditioned prisons. It played well with the people, but it was a lie. The only place that was air conditioned in Alabama's prisons was the warden's office.

We the people must wear big buttons on each of us that invite politicians to push. Plush prisons. The horrors of illegal immigrants. Evil public school teachers. Gambling or no gambling. Gay unions or none.

Meanwhile our children are languishing, some dying, some destined to kill, or steal, or end up for some other reason in big boy prison, which we don't have enough of now to handle the load.
Because the names and faces of those children are not on our buttons for the politicians to push and be guaranteed a vote. And the politicians know it well.

If you want new buttons, let me know. And help me pass them out.


Thurvey 7/7/2011

Once again it is time for the Thursday survey, or Thurvey as it has become to be known. Reader feedback tells me that the first question is usually too deep, and as a result, the readers in question sit and ponder without responding to any of the questions. So, let's try something different. The following questions will begin with the more frivolous and progress to the more serious, as I see it. Or if you had rather just mark a response to a survey I'll leave the one on the right up for a week and give you the results next week, if I remember. But still, the world needs your thoughts. So if you wish to actually comment on the following questions, or anything else, just enter the comment in the box below and follow the instructions, anonymous being the easiest way to go, sign your name to your comment if you wish to be unanonymous, and publish it to the world. If the box does not appear below, click on "comments" below and it should magically appear. If you are still awake, here are this week's Thurvey questions:

#1 What will be your next new car? Not your dream car, but what you are really thinking you will get?

#2 If you had to (or if you were allowed to) spend a weekend by yourself, where would you go and what would you do?

#3 What song, when you hear it, forces you to sing aloud and along, no matter who is around?

#4 What is your solution to the debt ceiling standoff?

#5 What question do you want answered?


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jellyfish of the world, unite . . .

It was bound to happen. We human beings have been so careless in taking care of mother earth that other species have taken up the mantle of caretaker. As I was perusing the various news sites today I ran across a headline on the NPR website:


I have never been a fan of jellyfish. From the balcony of the condo the beach conditions look perfect. A few clouds in a sunny sky. A breeze to cool things off. Snow white sand. Crystal blue water. But then, as you approach the waves break-dancing on the shore there they are. Jelly fish. They will sting you and it will hurt and you can't see them coming. It is hard to seem manly when squealing like a pig and dancing like a ballerina at the sight of one of those insidious creatures floating stealthily on the back side of a wave or plastered firmly in the place your next step is to land.

So, while I admire the environmentally energized jellyfish of the promised land, millions of them at that, for protesting the nuclear power plant, it is disturbing to me to think of what might happen if these amorphous creatures get organized.

Against us humans.

I don't see them peacefully protesting. But it will be a silent protest. They rarely speak. And it will be difficult for them to carry signs. Maybe sticky notes. But they will be relentless with such big numbers. They will come in waves. We could be in a real jam.

But today millions of them are threatening to shut down a power plant. That is impressive. And their commitment was even more impressive than their numbers. They threw, or at least allowed themselves to be floated, into the cooling system of the plant, which meant almost certain death.

I have been suspect of the slimy little creatures after I was stung by one as a small child walking along the shore. I tried to carry one home in a cup in the trunk of the car. All that survived was a horrible stench. But that's another story.

The real truth is that NPR composes print headlines as if they worked in radio.

So much for currant events.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Back to normal . . .

The three day July 4th weekend is over and everything is back to normal.
Casey Anthony was found not guilty by a jury of twelve, the ones who had actually heard and seen all of the evidence for the past six weeks, but the jury of public opinion, who had viewed the trial as rabidly as if it were the first season of American Idol or the final episode of Bachelor, voted guilty from their perfect vantage point. It is amazing how a jury was picked that disagreed so absolutely with the Jerry Springer audience. What were those twelve people thinking?
You thought the recession of 2007 to the present was bad? Those years will look like the good old days if Congress doesn't get off its legislative derriere and raise the federal debt ceiling. It is a no- brainer. The money has already been spent. Defaulting on debt by the government will cause a dramatic rise in interest, a cessation of governmental services, and a potentially final nail in the coffin of the economy. Treasury bonds, a chunk of which is held by China and other countries, will be suspect, and they will very difficult to sell, and thus our huge equity line of credit will be cancelled. But if you have no problem with stiffing the likes of China (which would be a big mistake), consider the fact that if you have an interest in mutual funds or retirement accounts you too are probably the proud owners of such bonds. Your retirement account will also become suspect. Your social security check, or that of your parents, which is due to hit the local post office or direct deposit on August 3 may be delayed awhile. There will probably be insufficient funds to cover the payment.
But Congress, who has never seriously considered refusing to raise the debt ceiling, is apparently doing just that. If the Republicans do not get everything they want, dramatic spending cuts and absolutely no new taxes, including taxes that would actually be generated by closing loopholes in the present tax code, they say they are willing to let America default on its debt.
Exxon Mobile, the most profitable corporation the world has ever seen, who in the past year has gained five million dollars in profit per hour (not revenue, I'm talking profit), suffered a leak in its pipeline under the Yellowstone River in Montana last Friday. As of today Exxon Mobil officials said they "were curious" about the rupture in the pipeline, which so far has spilled over 42,000 gallons of oil into the local river, coating the water, the coastline, and local wildlife, and fouling the air with noxious fumes, none of which the Exxon Mobil officials on the scene have noticed, at least until confronted by residents whose relatives had to be taken to the hospital. They have yet to discover a way to handle the spill in the mighty Yellowstone River, which is about the size of the Warrior River of Alabama. Apparently the profits were large because Exxon Mobil used none of them to enhance its response to oil spills. The spill occurred less than two weeks after local governments had requested EM to consider whether the continued operation of the pipeline under the river during floods posed any threats. Exxon Mobil said there was no threat.
I don't know if I can make it to Labor Day.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Inalienable rights . . . .

July 4, 2011 is coming to a close and so is the three day week-end. I sang a patriotic song or two, and quite a few that were something other than patriotic. I saluted a flag, watched some fireworks, swam (actually just floated) in a lake, ate grilled meat at two or three locations, consumed watermelon, ate patriotic blueberry dessert with squirt whip cream topping, and toasted freedom with a variety of beverages at different locales.

As it turns out the pursuit of happiness can be quite tiring, and it is quite an artfully elusive prey, at least these days. But I shall not be deterred. In the days ahead I will continue the fight in honor of our forefathers. But for tonight I think I'll give it a rest.

This personal pursuit of happiness is important for my sanity and is fun, if not yet completely successful. But Independence Day is much bigger than my pursuit and the various methods I have enjoyed, many of which I am sure you enjoyed as well.

It disturbs me that we have diminished patriotism to waving the flag, identifying with certain ideologies, and saying the currently popular catch-phrases. Our forefathers argued and fought and compromised and agonized, at great personal risk, first to declare independence from the most powerful country on earth, and then to fashion a constitutional government unlike anything that had been seen in human history.

A way of life that we in the United States now take for granted were radical concepts when the Declaration and Constitution were written. Individuals had rights that were inalienable because we were born with them, and no government should have the authority to diminish those rights. Among these inalienable rights were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Constitution was a bit more specific. Individuals have the right to freely express themselves without fear of governmental retribution. Individuals could exercise their faith in any manner they choose, or not at all, and government could do nothing to promote a religion or restrict a religion, or make anyone be religious if they chose not to. Individuals have a right to privacy and to be secure from government intrusion. The government could not affect the rights of the citizen to property without due process.

There are more, to be sure. Here in 2011 we Americans look at this set of rights as the norm. We rarely think about them anymore. But in 1776 and 1784 our forefathers saw them as true, but also as a risky experiment in leaving a great deal of power with the people as opposed to the government.

"Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of bondage and slavery? Forbid it almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death." Patrick Henry said that back in the days of the American Revolution.

But what of us? Do we still have the same passion? Are we more concerned with safety than with liberty?

Here's the dilemma. It is expressed powerfully in a familiar poem by Martin Niemoller.

"When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out."

The inalienable rights are not the exclusive property of the Democrats or the Republicans, the Anglo, African American, Hispanic or Asian, the Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim or atheist, the capitalist, Marxist or socialist, the young or old, the gay or straight, the rich or poor, the intellectual or simple-minded.

The rights belong to humans. All humans. And if the rights of one human are threatened, the rights of all humanity are so threatened.

And the experiment fails.

Real patriots won't let that happen.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Life, liberty and . . .

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

Freedom. That is what we celebrate this week-end. It is so important that we are given three days to ponder the gift of our forefathers and mothers.

I always have a problem with three-day weekends. I love them. But I have a problem. The anticipation is great and they come so rarely. I start to worry as soon as they begin for fear that with every passing minute the long weekend is beginning to end and I have done little to put this precious time to good use.

The Fourth of July weekend this year is no exception. In fact it is worse than usual. It comes after a rather intense couple of weeks of court schedule so I need the rest. The blood pressure issue of a couple of weeks ago and the busy work schedule required me to put off a whole list of things to do that still haven't been done, so, I desperately need to put in a day or so of work around the house just to make it livable. And for once I actually made plans months in advance to do something really cool for the holiday weekend, but as often happens, the best laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley, and so did my plans, so now I am planless.

It is appropriate on this holiday to think about freedom. I love to think about the high-minded soaring freedoms that we associate with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that ultimately resulted. I spend a great deal of my life defending those freedoms and rights, in the courtroom and on the soapbox.

But right now the most obvious restraints to my freedom are the piles of clothes that need to be washed, the bathroom that needs to be cleaned, the floors that need to be vacuumed and mopped, the car that needs to be washed, the bills that need to be paid, and, well, you get the idea.

The less obvious chains that restrain me are more subtle. Those worries and heartaches that occupy my mind without my permission, those things that cause one's blood pressure to spike when no method of release or escape can be found.

I have learned in my years of standing on a soapbox that change does not come quickly. The chains that hold us back are secured tightly. Sometimes it seems that nothing is changing at all. And sometimes that has caused me to step down from the soapbox and try not to care about the things I feel convicted about. Patience is not an easy thing.

But I have decided that this weekend I will do what I can to gain a little more freedom for myself. I will get some of my house in order, literally, but not try to do it all. I will do a little writing and compose a couple of songs to free my mind. I will find a lake to jump into to cool my body and refresh my soul. And I will seek out the company of friends, old and new, to loosen the chains that bind my heart.

And I will eat barbecue and watermelon and ice cream and watch fireworks.

Right now I am going to get more coffee and get started . . .

On a pursuit of happiness.


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