Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wendell Berry

“Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”
Wendell Berry

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Wendell Berry speak at Samford University.  If you don't know who Wendell Berry is, I am not surprised.  Berry has never sought fame, despite a wildly successful literary career. In fact he has spent considerable effort running from it. He is a man of quiet wisdom.  While I love Wendell Berry quotes, one cannot fully appreciate his expressive gifts by reading these stingy samplings.  His stories are meant to be savored. His characters are meant to be learned as old friends over a period of years.  And his thoughts must be chewed like a cheap steak, though ultimately much more satisfying.

I get intense these days about politics, about government, about justice or the lack thereof.

But I have been blessed in the past few days to be reminded of balance.  Last night Mr. Berry expressed a radical thought disguised as an ordinary observation.  He said something like "well, I guess you could say we are in a crisis (referring to the world food/population problem).  But, we too often forget to be patient in a time of crisis . . ."

He read a story.  For about 40 minutes a crowd of about 900 listened spellbound as the 77 year old author-poet-philosopher-activist-farmer read his latest work "Sold."  He stood at a podium and read to us, breaking only to occasionally drink from a glass of red liquid.   His yarn made 3-D movies seem like  primitive drawings from a child's coloring book, restricting art to inside the lines.  I do not know how others reacted to his reading, because I didn't notice anyone else.  I didn't really notice him after a while.  He drew rich, colorful pictures that filled my mind, dancing with sounds and smells and emotions that took me away from Wright Hall, transporting me to the countryside of Port William, the hometown of Berry's works.  And there I stayed for years.  But it only took about 40 minutes.

Mr. Berry chose not to make any other prepared remarks but he did agree to accept a few questions.  When asked a good question about whether he wrote the plot first and then developed his rich characters, or developed his rich characters and then created a plot, he quickly retorted, "Well, if it was that difficult, I doubt that I would ever have written anything at all."

The room became quiet as a questioner asked if Berry had any thoughts about the Alabama immigration law.  It was if the crowd were wishing to protect their grandfather from such a pointed question.  Just as he writes, his answer moved slowly, and thoughtfully.  While denying much knowledge of theology, he began his answer by citing Biblical references to God's creation of all of humanity.  He said he had often thought of how much we would have to pay to illegal aliens if we were to pay them adequately for all the work they had done for us. But then he said that it was important to consider our "carrying capacity,"  a reference to how many head of cattle a pasture can accomodate.  He seemed to be struggling with the answer within himself as he spoke.  He said many things that I wish I could remember.  But his last thought on the subject was that whatever the solution, we just can't be mean about whatever we do.

I left the auditorium feeling refreshed, as if I had been for a slow walk through the woods and fields just outside of Port William, as if I had just left a conversation with old friends outside the stores in town on a clear cool evening.

I felt as if I were a child, gently corrected by a wise grandfather.

Thank you Wendell Berry.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Passing (up) gas . . .

I learned to drive behind the wheel of a circa 1952 army jeep.  The gas tank was under the driver's seat.  The gas gauge did not work, but that was okay because all a driver had to do was reach down with his or her left hand, unscrew the six-inch wide cap, and stick the hand into the tank. One could do this while driving, unless one also had to signal for a turn.   If the fingers quickly got wet, it wasn't yet time to pump any more gasoline. I have  fond memories of driving up to the pumps at the  "Egg Barn," an ancestor of  present day convenience stores (yes, they did sell eggs there, at least at first, which was amazingly convenient). Gasoline was priced around thirty five cents a gallon.  That memory is growing fonder by the day.

The prospect of rapidly rising gasoline prices is particularly troubling to those who have a memory.  Around June, 2008, about the time the U. S. economy went into freefall, gasoline prices in the U. S. had climbed to about $4.12 per gallon.

In 1979 the world suffered an energy crisis as a result of the reduction of world oil output.  

The reduction of worldwide oil production in 1979 was the result of political revolution in Iran and the resulting disruption in oil production and transport from that oil rich country. The price of oil was driven to unprecedented heights more by fear and panic than reality. OPEC, the middle eastern oil cartel, upped their production to soften the supply problems.  As a result of the fear and panic the prices remained high, and OPEC, like other oil producers, got richer.

History is repeating itself.  Iran has cut the UK and France off from its oil due to international sanctions imposed on it as a result of Iran's apparent race to produce a nuclear bomb.  A decrease of that magnitude in the international flow of oil drives the price upward.  But just as significant is the potential that Israel will attack Iran, and will diminish Iran's capacity to produce and deliver oil.   While this has not happened, it is the fear of such a shortage that is driving the price of oil upwards on the futures markets, and consequently, in the actual markets.

Let me dispel a lie that you will probably hear within the next few days.  You will hear that the price of gasoline is being driven up because the United  States is not producing oil like it used to. You will hear that environmental policies have reduced production in the U. S.    That is simply not true.

The United States is producing more oil than it has since 2003, and 2011 was the first time in recent memory that oil imports were less than domestic oil production. 

No, the reason for the increase in gasoline prices is fear caused by the uncertainty of the future of Iran.  Especially if Israel continues to rattle its formidable sword.

There may not be much we can do about it.

That's not true.  There really is. There always has been.

We can quit using so much gasoline.  

But that would take a little action, a little sacrifice on all of our parts.  We are not used to that.  We won't even sacrifice when our country is at war, at least not lately.

But wouldn't it be a great time to start?  Tell the rest of the world that we have some national will that comes from the grassroots up instead of the top down?

I'm not an economist, so maybe I'm wrong.  If I am, tell me.  What if every driver in the United States cut his or her gasoline consumption by ten percent?  Or twenty percent?

The first thing that would happen is that the increase in gasoline prices wouldn't hurt us nearly as much because we are not buying as much.  That might be the only thing that would happen.  But if millions of Americans cut gasoline consumption by ten to twenty percent, things will change, I bet. At least I think that's what I remember from the curves in Econ 101.

Tell me why it won't work.  But don't take too long. We really need to get started. We'll need to get t-shirts and bumper stickers and a website.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

The political righteous . . .

First, listen to one of my favorite Johnny Cash tunes.  If you want to read the rest of the post, which is not nearly so clever, read on.

I thought Rick Santorum was running for President.

Apparently he aspires to be Judge.

Speaking to a Tea Party rally in Columbus, Ohio Saturday, Santorum said that President Obama  believes in “some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology."

A few hours later Saturday he refused to back away from the statement, saying that he did not intend to question the President's Christianity with this statement, but then questioned the President's plan to require insurance companies to provide coverage for birth control as an intrusion on religious liberty.

Then today on Face the Nation (CBS), less than 24 hours later,  Santorum said something entirely different.  Santorum said he was talking about “radical environmentalists” who “have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says that we can’t take those resources, because we’re going to harm the Earth by things that frankly are just not scientifically proven.” He spoke of global climate change as evidence.

Perhaps Santorum has been under the influence of Mitt Romney for too long, but in Romnean fashion he has offered us a multiple choice explanation, vague as the choices are, for his unequivocal condemnation of the President's Christian theology.

But now he says that he doesn't question Obama's Christianity.  After it has swirled around the spin cycle of the news outlets for 24 hours.

" . . .some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology."

It's easy to see how that statement could be misunderstood.

 In his assertion about the President's position on the environment, Santorum said:

"I wasn't suggesting the president's not a Christian. I accept the fact that the president is a Christian. I just said that when you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says that we can't take those resources because we're going to harm the Earth; by things that frankly are just not scientifically proven, for example, the politicization of the whole global warming debate - this is all an attempt to, you know, to centralize power and to give more power to the government."

Jesus didn't talk a lot about taking.  Because taking gets in the way of giving.  Taking gets in the way of sharing.  I know a lot of environmentalists.  For the most part they are pretty normal people.  They are not druids who worship the trees or mother earth, although it is fun to have a little fun with them about those caricatures.   What most of them do understand is that the "taking" of earth's resources by one person, or group, or nation, affects the ability of others to share in those limited resources. That is a belief that is Biblical.

The "taking" of the resources is not about simply harming the planet earth.  It is about unfairly "taking" that which God gave to us all, not just to those who can afford to buy them, or who can just take them, not under any Biblical plan, but according to a business plan contrived in a corporate boardroom.

Also this weekend, Santorum condemned public education as "anachronistic."  Mr. Santorum home schools his children.  He condemned certain prenatal tests, such as amniocentesis, as being tools to justify abortion, and said that they should not be covered by insurance. All of his assertions are laced with references to his faith.

What Mr. Santorum is saying is that President Obama's version of Christianity does not look or sound like his when it comes to birth control, education, the environment, and the role of government, and therefore it must be wrong.

President Obama spoke recently at the National Day of Prayer Breakfast.  He spoke in intimate terms of his Christian faith, and how it affects his life and how it affects his presidency.  Maybe you'll agree, maybe you won't, but at least you'll know something about what he actually believes. Maybe you want to read it too.

I agree with Rick Santorum.  President Obama's interpretation  is wrong. He doesn't have it all right.

Neither does Rick Santorum.

Neither do I.  Neither do you.

Now what are we going to do?



Saturday, February 18, 2012

Pistol Pete, Jeremy Lin, tight shorts, and change

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

I went to the Alabama-Florida basketball game last Tuesday with a bunch of old friends.  Two of them, in addition to all the other good things they have done for me, were responsible for one of my favorite basketball memories as a spectator.  On February 7, 1970, they took a bunch of us young folks to the University of Alabama's Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to watch the Alabama-LSU basketball game.  Alabama won the game 106-104.  Pistol Pete Maravich scored a record 69 points for LSU in the losing effort. I was an Alabama fan, but Pistol Pete was my idol, so it just couldn't get better than that.

Pistol Pete changed the game of basketball. He was a magician with the ball.  He could shoot from anywhere, from any position, seemingly with any part of his body, with accuracy.  Then, just when a hapless defender thought he had Pete's shot defended, Pistol Pete would direct a no-look, one handed, back-handed, sometimes behind the back pass to a team-mate.  I often imagined how difficult it would be to play with Maravich. I wonder how many times he hit an unsuspecting team-mate in the head with a no-look bullet pass. He averaged over 44 points per game in his college career.

And that was before some significant rule changes in college basketball.  There was no three point shot. Had there been a three point line, Maravich would have easily averaged more than 50 points per game.  And there was no shot clock. Teams could hold the ball as long as they could. The game could be slowed down almost to a halt.  Alabama's Coach C.M. Newton, for example, often went to the famous "four corners" offense and would run minutes at a time off the clock without a shot being taken, often to a chorus of "boos" from opposing crowds.  There just were fewer shots taken back in the days before the shot clock.  It is hard to imagine what Pistol Pete would have done after the rules changed.  And he played at a time when the shorts of the basketball uniform were indecently short and tight.  No telling what he could have done with a little more freedom in the lower extremities.

I was a basketball purist at the time.  I thought the three point shot would ruin the game.  I was sure that the shot clock would make defensive basketball a thing of the past.  Why would anyone want to change, want to ruin, the game I loved?  (Actually I was in favor of the bigger shorts.)

Of course, I was wrong.  The three point line opened up the game.  The tall guys in the middle could no longer dominate.  Defense became more aggressive as each team was guaranteed an equal number of opportunities with the ball. The bigger shorts were simply more comfortable, for the players, and the younger viewers.  The game is better than it was before the rules changed.

Changing the way the game has always been played is hard.

Sometimes we get it wrong.  We convince ourselves that change is unnatural.  We believe that the way things are is the way they were meant to be, forever.

I don't know where we get that notion.  Certainly not from reality.

The natural world is in a constant state of change and always has been.  Climates change.  The continents move.  The universe expands.

Cultures change. Scientific knowledge advances. Countries rise and fall.  New low calorie sweeteners are invented.

The only thing that remains the same is change.

Maybe it is time to change the way we look at our world.  Instead of resisting change, perhaps we need to acknowledge it, embrace it, use it if we can, to make a better existence.

Applying old, worn out rules to new, rapidly changing circumstances is causing problems. We unnecessarily waste untold energy in offering a resistance which is ultimately futile.  Clinging to institutions and methods as if they are our gods instead of tools for our benefit is an impediment to our advancement.

To use a current basketball illustration, how about that Jeremy Lin?  If you have been in seclusion for the past two weeks, or just don't follow professional basketball, Jeremy Lin is a young man who graduated from Harvard, and was drafted into the National Basketball Association.  A few weeks ago it looked like Lin's NBA career had little hope of panning out.  Then on February 4  he got a chance to play for his team, the New York Knicks, when one of their guards was injured. Lin was due to be cut by February 10.  In his first appearance he scored 25 points, five rebounds, and seven assists, and the Knicks won. In the space of two weeks Lin has done nothing but win games, score points, and raised the Lin and the Knicks into the national spotlight.

But players of Chinese descent are not supposed to be great point guards.  Everybody knows that.

Things change.  And if we do not change with them, we will never be as good or great as we were meant to be.

The old arguments are wearing us out and holding us back.  There are a lot of points to be made, but time may be running out.  We can't hold the ball any longer.  It's time to open things up.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A thing of beauty . . .

I had a long list of things to do this week-end, and have made a little headway.  I would have made a lot more headway except that I watched SEC basketball all Saturday afternoon as I worked (Arkansas/LSU, Auburn/Miss. St, Florida/Vanderbilt.)  Then I went to Tuscaloosa to watch the Alabama Ole Miss basketball game which started at 7:00 p.m.  I planned to get home by 11:00 p.m., get a good night's sleep, then get up and go back to Tuscaloosa to worship at Taylorville UMC. Alabama won the basketball game . . .after two overtimes.  Overtimes in college basketball are only five minutes each, but, if the game is tied at the end of regulation, both teams feel like they deserve to win. The intensity in overtime compared to regulation is comparable to how NBA player play during the regular season versus how they play in the NBA championship game.  Last night the Tide and the Rebels went to two overtimes.  It was no place for the weak.

And it was no place for someone who needed to get home early, unless you are one of those people who don't deserve a basketball ticket because you leave the game early when your team goes down by three or five. If you do that, you know nothing about basketball. (Unless you have small children, as Benjamin observed, although I'm pretty sure that when he was that age he would not have allowed me to take him home early, which I never would have done anyway). So it was after midnight when I got into the house, which I then left at 6:00 a.m. to get to church.

And now I'm ready to watch the Super Bowl. (I intentionally avoided the pre-game and checked a few more things off my list of things to do)

I like games.  I like to play games.

And I like to watch people play games.

I love the team aspect of games, I really  do, and I know that team play is the politically correct thing to talk about.  But still.

As I turned on the Super Bowl programming a few minutes ago a play from a former Super Bowl was being replayed.  Super Box XLII in 2008.  Eli Manning fought his way out of three tackles and threw high above David Tyree, who made what is now called the "helmet catch."  

It was like free-style ballet.

These games we watch are full of them, people who have pushed themselves to go  beyond what prior generations thought could not be done.  

Some folks think this obsession with games is silly.  And it can be. 

But in these days when we are so disappointed by the human performances that make the headlines, maybe we have a need for it.  A need to watch a human being pushing to be the best he or she can be.   The playing field is brightly lit.  Any shortcuts of preparation or stinginess of effort will be revealed.  There is no place to hide on these playing fields, courts, and arenas.

Enough of this. Time for kick-off.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

I wanna be like Mitt . . .except he can't drink caffeine

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

And I'm glad about that.  The quiet is a comforting blanket this morning as my ears still ring from the noise of the work-week. Through the branches of the leafless trees  hundreds of buzzards are circling around the top of the hill.  That's creepy.  I may be wearied by the week, and I admit that I often appear lifeless while on my sofa,  but the interest of the buzzards in this old carcass is premature. I just need a little more coffee.

I scoffed at Mitt Romney's assertion that I might envy him cause he's got a lot of money and I don't. I thought, "how spiritually bereft to think that I might envy you because you've got money. How shallow . . ."

On the other hand . . .

Wouldn't it be nice if we all had money.  So much money stored up and  making more money without doing anything that none of us, no one, ever had to work again.  We could all just do whatever we wanted to.  Personally, I would start out with lying on the sofa, drinking coffee, and maybe writing something.  That would be great.

There  would be no more class warfare, because we would all be rich. None of us would have to work. We could play golf, watch TV, play guitar, travel, paint, go to movies and shows and plays and fancy places to eat. We could buy whatever car we want and all of us could have i-pads.  We could shop, and then actually buy all the coolest clothes, the best fishing rig, gourmet cheeses, wines, art and pedigreed pets.

We could all sit together on the fifty yard line of the Super Bowl cause we all could afford the tickets.

But with such a crowd on the fifty yard line, it would really get hot, and we'd really get thirsty.  We would look for the guy that always yelled "cold drinks."   He would be here, but not selling drinks. He would be sitting with all the rest of us rich elites.  While rich folks shouldn't have to get up and walk to the concession stand, thirst is no respecter of riches, so we might finally get up and walk to the concession stand.  There's no one working there either.  Hmmmm . . . .

So we go to the parking lot to find our brand new ride to head home.  The parking lot is empty.  New rides don't exist because the men and women that put them together don't have to work anymore. They are rich.  And even if the cars were there they wouldn't move because the folks who work the rigs, pipelines, trucks, refineries and gas stations don't work anymore.  They are much more important now. They are rich.

It is getting dark now, and we need to get home.  There are no lights. There are no movies, no shows, no fancy places to eat, not even a Krystal or TV. There are no ipads or cool clothes. There is no water to drink, even at home.  No one is at work anymore.

But it's okay.  We still have all this money,  And it is working for us. It will create jobs.

 We know that having money is the most important thing.

Just check your tax code.


Friday, February 3, 2012

Teachers all over the State are praying they don't get a raise . . .

Alabama teachers' pay raises are not Biblical.

Shadrack McGill, a member of the Alabama House of Representatives from Ft. Payne, who defended a sixty two percent legislative pay raise of a few years ago, said in an interview this week that a significant raise in teacher's pay is not Biblical.  He said that teaching is a calling.  If teachers' pay is raised too high, it will attract people who are teaching, not because they are called, but because of the big money.  And we need teachers who teach because they are called.   Reasonable salaries would defile the purity of their calling.

I assume he is tying this weird explanation to the Bible because of the calling of prophets and disciples. He didn't say, exactly.

Shadrack supported the legislative pay raise in Biblical language as well.  He said that raising legislators' pay prevented the lawmakers from being tempted.  Tempted to take bribes.

Lead me not into temptation Lord . . . a little cash will make it easier to resist evil.

Teachers must surely be relieved that legislators are once again helping them walk the straight and narrow and maintain the purity of their calling by helping them resist the evils of the love of money.  There is no sleep for the weary.  It was only a couple of months ago that the new state ethics legislation enacted by Shadrack and his guardian angels of the educators put an end to the shameful practice of students giving Christmas gifts to teachers.

Many a teacher has succumbed to the illicit urge to fudge on a grade or look the other way for an unexcused absence when seduced by the siren song of a fruitcake, coffee mug, bath oil, or scarf offered by an amoral elementary tempter, or temptress, evilly presented under the auspices of Christmas.  Shameful.

More money will help legislator's do their job better.

More money will hurt the quality of teachers.

And it is all Biblical.  Somehow.

Shadrack might want to review the story of his Biblical namesake in the, Book of Daniel, Chapter 3,

 Shadrach did not burn because he was saved by standing for truth.

That is Biblical.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Thurvey 2/2/2012

It is Thursday once again and the world still has questions.  Or at least the Thurvey staff has questions. It is your time, dear reader, to be part of the answer.    To respond to the Thurvey enter your wisdom in the comment below, type your name if you wish to be known, click on "anonymous" from the drop down menu, and click on "publish".  If the comment box does not appear below, click on the tiny "comments" below and the box will probably appear.

#1   In this time of extreme political polarization in America, when Republicans won't vote for a Democrat's tax cut and Democrats are criticizing Bush's Medicare Prescription Bill because it cost too much, there is an idea that should be favored by all parts of the political spectrum.  An inestimable amount of good is being done for America by "non-profits", entities that are set up much as businesses are, but with the purpose of doing some good or charitable purpose, not to make a monetary profit, but to accomplish a valuable purpose.  The work of non-profits in Alabama is being celebrated today, Thursday, February 2, during "Alabama Gives." This is the day to give to your favorite Alabama non-profit. If you do it through the link above your contribution will be included in the big total, to see how much Alabama will give to its non-profits in one day.   What is your favorite non-profit organization?  Tell us why we should give to it.

#2   Presidential candidates must do a lot of talking these days, so it is understandable, considering how much they must talk, and the grueling schedule they face, that they say something they wish they could take back.  But when should gaffe's be dismissed due to those factors, and when do they really say something about the candidate that needs a closer look?  In the summer Romney argued with a member of the audience at a State Fair, adamantly stating the "corporations are people."   He later said, though taken out of context, "I like to be able to fire people."  Last week in Florida he passionately bemoaned, commiserating with a member of the audience who was having financial trouble, "Banks are hurting, too."   Then yesterday morning Romney said, "I am not worried about the extremely poor . . ."   There are many more similar statements and incidents.  Is it important to consider these kinds of statements?  Has it affected how you feel about Romney?   In fairness, feel free to talk about other candidates' gaffes.

#3  It made me sad when I heard about the death of Don Cornelius this week.  Don Cornelius created, owned and was the face, heart and particularly the Soul of the long running syndicated TV program "Soul Train."  I watched Soul Train on a fairly regular basis decades ago.  Yes, I was an extremely white Alabama high-school kid in the early seventies and I watched Soul Train.  I loved the Temptations and the Chi-lites and Aretha and mostly I wanted to sing like Al Green.  I wanted to sing cause I really didn't think I had much of a chance at dancing.   The President sang a few lines of Al Green's song "I'm So in Love with You," during a speech at the Apollo this week.  Michelle Obama said on Jay Leno that Obama sang that song to her all the time.  What soulful song do you find yourself singing from time to time?  When did you first hear it?  
Peace, love . . . and sooooooooooul.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Deja voo doo . . .

It was refreshing to hear a few policy statements from Mitt Romney last night after the dust cleared from his Florida carpet bombing of Newt Gingrich.  It apppears that Newt is like some of his amphibian namesakes, his political life is on the endangered list. But like the simpler animals, Newt will not disappear easily.

But still, the victory allowed Romney a platform to turn toward the general election, to explain to the nation how he would correct the America's woes.  Most of his plan involved removing President Obama from the White House.  I think we can all agree that would be necessary for Romney's plan to have a chance. But what policies did Romney put forth?

He would build the biggest, strongest, most intimidating military in the world and stand shoulder to shoulder with friends around the world and speak out for those seeking freedom.

He would repeal the health insurance reform act.

He would extend the Bush tax cuts.

He would make America the most attractive place in the world for business.

He would balance the budget by cutting spending, and without any tax increases.

  A military that is substantially more intimidating than our present military will add billions of dollars of spending.  Repeal of the health insurance reform act will cost millions.  Extending the Bush tax cuts will cost billions of dollars.  Incentives and tax breaks for businesses will cost millions.

I am sure that Romney would say that the additional tax revenue created by new business and investment would make up the difference.  I believe there is a place for this type of thinking in the solution.  But it cannot be the only thinking.  We tried that.

In January, 2001, there was a federal surplus of 128 billion dollars.  The Congressional Budget Office projected that if the good times continued to roll, and the spending remained the same, there would be about 5.6 trillion dollars of surplus generated in the following ten years.

But things didn't stay the same.  In 2003 the Bush tax cuts were put into affect.  In the same year Medicare Part D was implemented, though unpaid for.   And about the same time there was a massive increase in military spending as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were begun. And a series of deregulation of business and environment for the purpose of helping business were the constant goal of the decade.

The economy, which was projected to create a 5.6 trillion dollar surplus, had created a one trillion dollar deficit by January, 2009.

Tax cuts.
Health care cost increases.
Increased military spending.
Deregulation of business and environment.

In the words of a beloved President,

"There you go again."

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