Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Office at the Cottage on the Moor

An Old Man Looks at his Office:
      And Likes What He Sees
          (A Haiku Inventory)
                by Jim Rapp
a door cut in the
west end of the south wall gives
entrance and egress

walls, well utilized,
hold up – or are held up by –
treasures old and new

a cheap Rockwell print
shows two old men quarreling
over great issues

a photo-cluster holds
eight four by six reminders
of friendship’s wages

gold-imprinted plaques,
signed by notables, declare,
“For Years of Service”

a large calendar
records the progress of a
little progress made

a Jesus plaque, shaped
as a copper fish, recalls
a young tinner-friend

decoupage gift-plaques
express regard from students
tutored years ago

a little brass bell
honors me, one who never
rang a true school bell

award pins – en-framed –
recall events of two lives;
my father’s and mine

photos celebrate
fifty years of faithful love
now increased by four

an eastward window
provides a year-round view
of squirrels at play

two knee wall shelves that
flank the view, bear a trove of
useless trinketry

a drama prop, kept
from Inn At Bethany, hangs
prominently proud

six-foot high bookshelves
flank a shorter one along
the entire north wall

a few score of books –
culled remnant of former days –
await re-reading

ad hoc studio –
tape decks, turn table, TV –
sits on shelves near by

CD/DVDs
in rows preserve a thousand
sermons, songs, and scenes

photo albums span
two clans’ generations and
many cherished friends

atop the shelves mugs,
once prized and diligently
sought, now gather dust

a south wall closet
built, of course, to hold wardrobe,
holds instead, supplies

furnishings profuse,
clamor to be named, so I
will do them honor

rug Ubiquitous
clone of all tan rugs – born in
Georgia carpet mill

ceiling light named Cloud
florescence hangs over head –
compliments Menard’s

“Tilt”, the floor lamp, leans
behind my chair sharing her
glow with the whole room

“Chair” – reclining type –
suits my present state of health,
sleep – then write – then sleep

a lap-top table
holds coffee, calculator,
and – surprise – lap-top

a nineteen-sixties
oak-frame chair – cloth pad and back –
waits for guests to come

“Guitar”, old, forlorn –
seldom played – hard to part with –
slowly gives up hope

putty colored files,
two drawers each, stacked with
papers to be filed

an Epson printer
hovers over plastic drawers
filled with this and that

a spartan desk from
Menard’s – via China – sits
under the window

a Dell “tower” and
monitor share desk space with
a phone and clutter

assortments abound –
photos in frames, little gifts,
things bought and not used

another eye might
view it all with scorn but I
have grown to like it

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Old Man’s Guitar
         (A Haiku Trio)
           by Jim Rapp

leaning long in dust,
wanting fingers, stiffened now
by age, to play it

slack-stringed, impotent,
guitar-shaped beauty with no
way to raise its voice

silent elements –
wood and steel and air, all of
low regard, alas

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shed No Tears For King Handkerchief
                     by Jim Rapp

Alas for the handkerchief,
a noble 14th century relief
for good King Richard (the 2nd)
and his drippy nose.
Because the faithful cloth
has made the “powers” wroth,
its long illustrious reign
is coming to a close.

Before King Rich was known
to blow his royal nose upon
a square of regal cloth
the handkerchief was King.
Its uses – far too long to list –
from head to waist and wrist,
in cold and heat alike,
made handkerchief the King.

In time of joy and time of grief
the handy hanky was, in brief
the only recourse, save the sleeve,
or, God forbid, a turned up slip.
But try to find a ready cloth these days
when tears – or something worse – dismays;
no male nor female can produce
from pants or purse a handkerchief.
 
The only time I really grieve the loss of handkerchiefs is when the modern replacement is nowhere to be found. (I’ve been reminded by one who never carries the cloth variety, that there is almost always toilet paper if “Kleenex” isn’t available. Good luck if you can get it.)

Well, it isn’t exactly true that the only time I miss the handkerchief is in the absence of its paper replacement. There are other times when I’m reminded of its utility.

Growing up in the mid-South I have memories of the handkerchief’s usefulness in all seasons and all domains. In summer large bandanas mopped our brows or, worn around the head or neck, absorbed the sweat that stung our eyes or soaked our shirt. Ladies dabbed the moisture from their face too “keep their powder dry.” Preachers proved their worth by the sweat their sermon generated, both in the pulpit and in the pew. Their gleaming white handkerchief was more than a mere “mop”; it was a prop and an essential part of the uniform. In pre-air-conditioning days the handkerchief doubled, mostly for women, as a fan and, in a certain kind of meeting, a “flag” to wave in praise of God.

Of course, winter was the kerchief’s season. On a good day, with a good head cold, one could soak a half-a-dozen hankies, and in an emergency borrow one, clean or partly used, from a generous friend. There were different theories about what part of the laundry the hankies belonged in; with the underwear, the tea towels, the bedding, the diapers. (Diapers is a subject for another blog, another day.) Every household made its own decision about what to combine them with in the laundry, but one thing was certain, each hankie had to be pressed. And dress hankies, particularly those used in the service of God, had to be bleached white from time to time. Bandanas and “work hankies” were less fussy but needed ironing nonetheless.

A handkerchief was a one-piece first-aid and tool kit. When noses dripped, or tears flowed, or someone sneezed, hankies were extended, some previously used, some used more than others. A skinned knee, or a gashed hand required the loan (no return expected) of a handkerchief. A freshly pulled tooth could be carried home to the tooth fairy wrapped in a handkerchief.  Likewise a biscuit or some hard candy could be “kept clean” in a hankie. One could use their hanky to shine their shoes, or wipe up spots from the floor, shine the jalopy, or clean their hands after fixing the car, but there was usually a price to pay for such uses.

The handkerchief was decorative as well. The well dressed man’s suit coat sported a specially folded handkerchief inserted in one of the breast pockets. And a lacey hankie could be tucked under the cuff of a lady’s long sleeved blouse, or dropped coyly as a gentleman passed, eliciting his assistance in retrieving it. These special handkerchiefs were not intended to be utilitarian but, in an emergency, the owner could display their selflessness by quickly offering their ceremonial hanky to meet the present need.

There is hardly anyone alive today who grieves the loss of hankies. Sniffling, or smearing on the back of the hand, or up the face, over the forehead and into the hair seems to be accepted remedies for a runny nose in the absence of the paper hankie, or its rolled cousin. There are, however, a few subversives who still tuck a hankie in their pocket or their purse in case they come upon an accident; a runny nose, a teary eye, or a bleeding wound in need of a tourniquet. But you will probably never see one waved again, in church, in praise of God.





Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Making Sense with Pseudo-Science

            Half-lives
            by Jim Rapp

What is the half-life of an idea?
Like all other elements
it depends where it sits
on the periodic table.

The half-life of a lie
appears to be forever
but truth alone is infinite.

The half-life of a promise
depends upon the half-life
of its issuer and the half-life
of the issuer’s wisdom and integrity.
 
The half-life of an invention
equals the square root of genius
minus the square of human
resistance times the square
of human restlessness.

The half-life of a politician’s
“firm conviction” equals
the shortest distance between two polls.
 
The half-life of “puppy love”
is the time between feedings.
 
The half-life of true love –
strengthened by a double bond –
increases toward infinity
in direct proportion
to the obstacles it overcomes.
 
The half-life of hope
is half the length of a human life.
 
The half-life of faith is forever!
Eternities of eternities.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Death to Malicious Anonymity

   e-mail interlopers
  ghosts of the internet
         by Jim Rapp

there are those
who cannot live in light
but thrive in
dark secrecy

someday
in brighter light
we’ll see them
coming from the gloom
no longer faceless
anonymous
whisper-thin wraiths
predicting doom
inventing proofs
to buttress lies
denying truth
before their eyes

someday the light
will show them
withered
self-destroyed
by ill-content
miscreants
annoyed
at all dissent
who willingly
deceived themselves
contrived
to keep alive
a cherished lie
for which
they wished
but couldn’t see

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Eve Long Ago

Christmas Eve was a magical time for us kids. Of course I’m projecting my thoughts and feelings into the minds of my brothers and sister and my thoughts may not reflect theirs. One brother and my sister were six and seven years older than I was respectively. And even my other brother was a year and a half older. So their greater age may have jaded them a bit. I can’t say for sure. If it had, they didn’t let on.

I’ve wondered if poverty served to focus our enthusiasm for the holiday. There weren’t many new toys or gadgets coming into our lives throughout the year, but at Christmas we had reason to hope. The Sear Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and Spiegel’s Christmas catalogs were lying around thoroughly dog-eared from our continual searching and dreaming – and announcing what we’d like to receive. When gifts were opened on Christmas Eve they were seldom the things we had marked in the catalogs; those were too expensive. But in the excitement of the moment all our catalogue-dreams were deferred until the next year and we gladly received our new shirts and jeans and possibly some lesser toy.

But that was Christmas Eve and there was still hope for Christmas morning. For me, and I think for my brother just older than I, Santa Clause was a real, even if a rather rascally and mysterious, character. I don’t recall ever writing him a letter but somehow we knew that he was aware of our wishes. And theoretically he was not hampered by the same lack of resources that our parents were.  It was just possible that he might bring one of those cherished dreams to fruition, leaving it in or near a stocking (not a fancy one made especially for the occasion but more likely the one we took off just before running off to bed) hung over the post on the back of a dining room chair. Some things we knew would be in the stocking: an apple, an orange, perhaps a banana, and a plastic bag of candy. But there would be one other item, and our hope, as we were shooed off to bed, was that it would be the crown jewel of the season, the one thing we had drooled over in the previous weeks as we scanned and rescanned the catalogues.

Thus it was that one Christmas Eve – I’m guessing perhaps 1942 or 1943 – we were being urgently encouraged to get to bed so Santa could come. As usual we resisted, not wanting to relinquish a moment of the anticipation; knowing that sleep would not come easily if we went to bed too early. So we were all still gathered in the living room and the adjacent dining room when suddenly there was a sound of jingling bells and deep laughter. Dad ordered the kids off into the bedrooms that flanked the living room and dining room and warned us not to peek. I can’t swear that we didn’t peek a little but we saw nothing, only heard a brief excited conversation and sensed that things were being brought into house through the back door. When the commotion had died down and we heard the bells receding into the distance we were allowed to come out.

There on the dining room table were grocery sacks of food and another with toys. Santa had arrived early, Dad explained, and because there was no snow for his sleigh, he had commandeered the local fire truck in which to make his rounds. What an ingenious old fellow!

My gift was a small cast aluminum airplane with two engines and propellers that actually spun. It was no longer than four or five inches with a wingspan about the same. But it was beautiful and became a favorite toy for years afterward. I had seen nothing like it in the catalogues but nothing I had seen there, and dreamed of, was better than the gift Santa brought me that year.

It took us even longer to get to sleep that night but once we did another miracle occurred. Old Santa must have had second thoughts because, when we arose and went to our stockings in the morning, they were filled with apples, oranges, bananas and candy. But on top was yet another toy to enjoy while we waited for a meal, the likes of which occurred only once every year.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Twelve Haiku For Christmas

(One for each of the 12 Days of Christmas)

1
The kids love the gifts,
and gifts define the season.
Why do you love it?

2
It’s the world God loves;
His Gift initiated
a long tradition.

3
Mary – chosen one –
wrapped God’s Gift in human flesh;
God-man, He would be.

4
Shepherds – sheep-watchers –
were sent to Bethlehem to
see the Lamb of God.

5
Simeon’s ancient heart
that yearned for Messiah’s birth,
cradled him at last.

6
Anna, the aged,
declared to everyone there
the child’s destiny.

7
Magi traveled far,
as did the star, both guided
by a higher pow’r.

8
Herod – king of fools –
feigning a worship wish, was
thwarted by the Wise.

9
Joseph – husband true –
but father not – warned to flee,
whisked the babe away.

10
Mary stored it all
away in her heart against
hard times sure to come.

11
The child grew up with
no beauty the world could see;
a Gift rejected.

12
What is the meaning?
Christmas is all about us
God’s wish to save us.

The kids love the gifts.
A gift defines the season.
Do you love the gift?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Haiku for Truth

       by Jim Rapp

A lie seeks instant
satisfaction – In patience,
Truth waits its reward.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Onward Christian Enablers

       by Jim Rapp

The Devil is a liar
and the father of lies.
He was so named by One
who said of Himself,
“I am the Truth.”

It is no mystery then
that lies exist;
there is one who
fathers them.
The mystery is
that he finds,
in those who claim
to serve the Truth,
willing carriers
of the lies he births.

Willing!

Able to know the truth –
and by it be set free.
Willing to remain enslaved,
bond servants
of the father of lies.

They come;
in Christ’s name,
conveying Satan’s lies,
a mighty army of enablers.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Man With The Lantern

I’ve always felt a little sorry for Diogenes. Even in his own time he must have been considered a little odd, strolling around with a fully lit lamp in broad daylight, searching, he said, for an honest man. But the media of his day picked up on his story and he is now a source of amusement for the ages. But perhaps he should be a source of instruction for the ages, reminding us of how difficult it is to find truth, even in the full light of day. Even in “Christian America.”

Given mankind’s nature it is not surprising that he lies. Truth, as we’ve recently been reminded, is often inconvenient to say the least. It can tarnish or destroy a reputation (or confirm that a bad reputation is well deserved). It can jeopardize the safety of a mission. It can sink the hopes of a political candidate. It can reduce a profit margin. It can destroy a relationship. It is seldom as “interesting” as is un-truth. In court it can doom either side to failure.

In short, there aren’t many good reasons to tell the truth. That is why lawyers, whose clients are sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, artfully lead them in court, to tell a part-of-the-truth, something that sounds like the truth, or nothing close to the truth instead. That is why fact-checking organizations like Politifact.com or Snopes.com find that only a tiny fraction of the claims they are asked to verify are actually true. Another tiny percent contain a little truth, but well over 80% of them are totally false.

A few organizations (particularly businesses) have determined that honesty gains them a loyal clientele but they must compete with many others who make the same claim while consistently mis-representing their product or service. Some, rather than risking an all-out lie, build their advertizing around themes wholly irrelevant to the goods or service they provide.

So light your lanterns, folks, and join the Diogenes parade. Even in “Christian America” you must examine every assertion under a strong light to avoid being taken in by charlatans.

The only people I know who have a strong motive for telling the truth are those who profess to be followers of the one who declared, “I am the way, the Truth, and the life.” It would be inconsistent, to say the least, for followers of Jesus Christ to be liars, or even to be carriers of lies. They have presumably become convinced that the morality insisted upon in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Epistles in the New Testament, and other teachings attributed to Jesus and his apostles would indeed produce a better world. They are presumably committed to that morality both in that which they do and that which they approve. No one should need a lantern to examine their assertions of truth. Their yes should be yes and their no should be no.

I don’t want to imply that only Christians are truth-tellers. There are non-Christians whose commitment to truth is greater than that of some professing Christians. We should be thankful for them.

It is perhaps the greatest irritation (and sadness) I experience that I must hold a lantern to an e-mail sent to me by a fellow believer. Why did that believer not hold their own lantern to it to determine if it was worthy of being sent on under their Christ-linked name? Is it a laziness or a disregard for the Truth that allows them to overlook the outrageousness of the claims they are passing on without at least attempting to verify them?

It is a sadness to me when I hear those who profess to follow the Truth repeating, over and over, lies that have been refuted by reputable sources long ago? I know there are differences of opinion on important issues and it isn’t always easy to determine where truth lies. But until we are pretty certain where it lies and are able to express our reasons for believing a claim we should restrain our urge to pass on the information.

I’m embarrassed when fellow believers resort to half-truths in support of causes that, if worthy, deserve to be defended with the full force of truth. It takes time and work to ferret out facts and establish truth. Those unwilling to do the work of Christian “craftsmanship” should not be pedaling their wares.

Too many Christians have lost (or never been taught) a respect for the truth and thus have adopted the practices of the culture and the courtroom. Truth is too inconvenient to serve as their standard; it costs too much to tell the truth.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Zeal of a Recent Convert

          by Jim Rapp

I look with scorn upon
my brother’s cluttered desk,
wondering how anyone,
so encumbered, could rest
with reparations still undone.

My desk has been clean
for twenty minutes now.
After it had not been seen
for months, beneath a stow
of “treasures”, now it’s clean.

All desks should be as mine –
as mine now looks, should they.
And I shall seek a law – in time –
to charge offenders, who leave lay
a mess upon their desk, a hefty fine.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Oh, For the Good Old Days! John Warner Remembered

Time was when your home mortgage was negotiated with a local banker or one of his long-time employees. The bank in my childhood town was the John Warner Bank, and John Warner III was likely to be the person with whom you discussed a loan. The money for the loan came out of the big vault with the gleaming brushed steel doors. The money had accumulated in the vault in bundles, mostly of ones, fives, tens, and twenties, because you, and scores of other people like you, had put your savings, and any other cash you didn’t immediately need, in the care of the banker who promised to pay you interest for the privilege of using it to lend to customers just like you. When the loan was approved you got the necessary cash which you paid to local carpenters and businesses who supplied the materials and labor for your home. They, in turn, deposited a portion of the cash they received from you in their bank accounts where it started its rounds again, and you began the ten, twenty, or thirty-year process of paying the bank the money you had borrowed plus a certain level of interest. That interest provided the banker and his employees with their living.

Only in very small, conservative, communities was the process that simple, at least within the last century. But that generally describes, I believe, the basic principal upon which the home mortgage system worked, or was expected to work, for generations.

Now, however, things have changed. The mortgage transaction I am currently concluding involves no local participants except an appraiser, who visited the house, and a title company that will administer the signing of documents. Instead I’ve talked, via phone and e-mail, to individuals and companies in So. Dakota, Texas and Illinois, and been aware of the interests of agencies in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. The mortgage is formally concluded with a well-known “bank” of national stature but the actual process of “getting the loan” has involved several sub-contractors of that “bank” who handle all the data collection and forms processing. I’ve not seen, face-to-face, and probably never will, anyone associated with the “bank” who is giving me the loan. And I’ll not see a single dollar bill during the whole process.

I am made to understand, in the fine print, that my loan can be sold at any time to another entity or groups of entities, meaning that, an hour after the papers are signed, I may no longer be obligated to the “bank” with whom I concluded the mortgage but with some other “entity” anywhere on the planet.

A really curious aspect of our modern financial system is that my loan may be split up into segments of varying value, bundled with segments of similar value from other mortgages, and sold to speculators as – if I’ve got it right – derivatives. For example, the first three years of my mortgage (in which the chance of default on my part is slim) would be bundled with the first three years of other loans of similar risk and sold to speculators at a relatively high cost. Likewise the last three years of my mortgage (in which the chance of default would be significantly greater) is bundled with other mortgages of similar risk and sold at very low prices to speculators willing to take a chance that few of us in their “bundle” will actually default.

Is that confusing? (One might ask if it is an accurate picture of reality, and I confess that I’m no expert on the subject, but I think I’ve described the essence of our mortgage system today.)

I’ve lived long enough to have dealt with both systems described here. The old system where I sat across from the banker, or, if not John Warner himself, at least Mr. Kratz, his agent, was an uncomfortable one. Often you were made to feel as if you were somehow delinquent if you needed to ask for a loan for any purpose. Why hadn’t you saved the money in advance? The banker seemed to feel that every dollar in that vault was his, or at the least, his responsibility, and he wanted you to know that, even if the “board of trustees” approved a loan to you, it was a close call. You would be informed in a week to ten days whether you qualified, perhaps a month if the “board” happened to have had its monthly meeting only the day before you applied.

Now, no one makes me feel inadequate because I want a loan. (I may make myself feel that way but there is no one to blame for that but me.) Indeed, I’m inundated with solicitations for my credit. Approval has already been taken care of – someone presumed I wouldn’t mind if they surveyed my vital statistics and credit reports.

It is convenient I must confess. And for some it must be comforting to know that the credit (no money ever passes from hand to hand) is extended by no one, apparently; no one who could show up at their door to demand repayment if they fall into arrears on the payments. What Chinese investor is going to fly to American, look up your address, and demand payment of the one tenth part of your monthly mortgage payment that belongs to him?

Well, I hate to burst the bubble, but they do have their agents, and when one of them shows up to post the foreclosure sign in the yard one may begin to long for the days when John Warner – or his agent – wrote out the agreement and brought out the cash from the shining vault.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Waiting For The Fairy Godmother

                    by Jim Rapp

Three wishes, the good fairy offers for free,
and the bumbling beggar, choosing stupidly,
cancels all the good, in one and two, achieved,
by fumbling three, outstandingly.

Beggars, it appears, there will always be,
whom fairies, it seems, are created to tease;
tempting the poor, lazy creatures in their belief
that fortune’s a trick you can pull from your sleeve.

Well, maybe it is a “trick up one's sleeve;”
but those who achieve it have come to believe
the good fairy’s three wishes are, if you please,
three chances for beggars to roll up their sleeves.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Getting the Drift

I Get The Drift
    by Jim Rapp

Why snow?
Oh, I know –
or think I know –
what makes it snow;
the things the weatherman
explains about jet streams and
cold fronts sweeping up to slam
the Middle West and cause a traffic jam.
But what I want to know is why God thought of snow
instead of bricks, or cats and dogs, or other things to throw.
But on a day like this, when every branch and twig is set aglow
in lacy white, and every vista fills my heart with awe, I needn’t ask. I know.

    

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hard of Hearing

                by Jim Rapp

I never heard a towel speak before,
or if I did, I wasn’t paying attention.
But today the towel spoke to me
and, again, I wasn’t paying attention.

What it said I’ll never know;
it came and went so quickly,
but it clearly spoke in
female tones, though softly.

I wonder what else speaks
and I pay no attention –
It is lack of faith, I fear,
that dulls my aging ears.

Monday, December 5, 2011

North Crossing

                   by Jim Rapp

North Crossing was a battle royal,
mostly fought by those who wished
to save a homestead that had been
in the family for generations,
or a treasured bungalow
nurtured through a long marriage,
bearing marks of family living;
lines drawn on closet doors
to show the progress of a clan.

Some fought to save the habitat
of this or that, some bird
or fish, exotic weed, a frog,
a butterfly or centipede.
Some merely thought it
unnecessary to improve the speed
of getting there from here.

North Crossing is a fait accompli now
and all the arguments are laid to rest.
A thousand cars a day
give testimony to success.

But the earth still bleeds –
who thought to ask the earth?
Was it invited to attend the hearings?
Did it have a vote?
Who spoke for the earth?

In winter, driving east,
through the cut in the ridge
topped by Abbe Hill Drive,
ice streams down the limestone wall
to the left, evidence of arteries
severed when the hill was blown away,
cut in two by drills
and dynamitic blasts.

And to the right
a barren wall remembers;
a thirsty hillside bears no more
its ancient waters
to the shrunken streams beyond.



Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fumbling for the Light

                     by Jim Rapp

And God called the light “Day”
and the darkness He call “Night”.
Both He filled with Truth
and they were good.

And adam cherished the Day,
and trusted the Night, living
infolded in the Truth,
and it was good . . . until

adam discovered that Night
could hide a darkness
that was not Truth . . .
. . . still there was Day . . . until

adam blended Day with Night,
confusing light and dark . . . until
untruth now hides as readily
in the Day as in the Night,

until . . .

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Oakwood Hills

              by Jim Rapp

The machines are at it again,
stripping the land, striping
the terrain with unpaved paths
that will lie unfinished under
the snow ‘til Spring.

A “university”, a dentist’s office,
a residence, a hotel, a shopping mall,
a restaurant, will bear the name
once given to a row of hills
that bore a crop of oaks.

The trucks and graders,
cranes and backhoes will
stand silent vigil through
the months of cold assuring
that the oaks will not return.
 
Within a year neat lawns,
sinuous roads and curbs
will weave among the structures,
each identified by icons
honoring the banished oaks.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Here Lies John Willard

              No Place to Hide
                    by Jim Rapp

John Willard, who moved to a wood,
on the farthest edge of the world,
on a high imposing cliff,
to escape, if he could,
the political garbage that swirled,
was betrayed by the weakness of if.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Saga of Huguette Clark Continues

Huguette Gets the Last Word(s)
                         or
     The Win is in the Will-Os
                 by Jim Rapp

The saga of Huguette isn’t done yet,
and won’t be soon, you can bet,
since the lawyers were able to get
another will they can vet.

We’re up to two now, both legal;
one giving it all to her “friends” ,
the other, the family finagled,
and hopes it holds to the end.

Of a billion, nearly a half –
mere money to dear Huguette –
but a mint, if I know my math,
to those who are waiting for it.

Some may live to see it,
others to see it go “poof”;
Huguette, though, is having a fit,
enjoying her double-willed spoof.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Farewell to Peace on Earth – Goodwill To Men

It may be time for Christians to give up the celebration of the birth of Christ. Those who claim it is an importation of pagan practices have a good point, and a lot of history behind their assertion. But even if Christmas were wholly of Christian origin it has now been “paganized” beyond redemption.

The photo shown here is not the straw that breaks the camel’s back but it illustrates that its back is broken. Does anyone at the Arizona gun club see the inconsistency of making guns a featured part of the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace? Probably not. We have gone so totally gun crazy in this country that many would probably argue that Jesus could have saved himself (and the two thieves) if there had been a “concealed carry” law in effect in Jerusalem.

It is too late now to cancel Christmas; to abolish it. Like so many other damaging things in our economy and society, we are “hooked” on it and we would bring down our economy if we discontinued it. Our businesses, we’re told, achieve profitability only on the basis of Christmas spending – Black Friday and Cyber Monday. So we have to let it live on along with the sale of alcohol, tobacco, and other products and practices that are killing us but are too valuable to our economy to discontinue. Christians, like everyone else, depend upon the season of all seasons for their livelihood.

But we need to stop fooling ourselves about its meaning. As Christmas is celebrated today it has little to do with God’s plan of salvation. In fact one is hard-pressed to find any indication in the Bible that early Christians even attempted to commemorate the birth of Christ. It was his death and resurrection that became the “good news” they spread across their world. The Gospel writers who tell of his birth do so, not in celebration of a baby in a manger but to validate his miraculous Messiahship. Paul, the great apostle, said, “I determined to know nothing among you, save Christ, and him crucified.”

Our Christmas celebrations, in homes and churches and in our communities are wonderful times to bring people together and share our love, even giving and receiving gifts. But Christians need to recognize that we have lost control of the holiday. It is no longer an essentially religious holiday. It has been “stolen” by the marketers of guns, and electronics, and tinsel, and a million other things.

If we want to put Christ back into our Christmas we must look past the tree, the TV specials, the Big Box stores, to a hill with a cross on it. That is why He came to earth, and the gift He gave on that cross is the only one worth celebrating.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Seeking A Mate And Finding One's Self

               by Jim Rapp

Everything after it's own kind,
Each a doubled product of the Father's mind.
And each instructed to leave behind
Multiplied copies for others to find.

But in man's "original" it was not so;
A solitary figure sent to go
Throughout creation, yearning to know
An “other” through which his seed could flow.

Naming, but never claiming, he went,
And at day's end, weary and bent,
He curled himself around himself and sent
His Maker a wordless cry . . . "I am alone, I'm spent!"

And the Maker of all that was good
Saw that his Image would,
If left to himself, self-destruct; he could
Not be left alone. It was not good.
 
Carefully incising from the original clay,
The Maker fashioned a Self in an opposite way,
And gave to His Image a mate that day;
"Self of my Self," the man said, “Clay of my clay.”

"Go now, be one flesh!" the Maker decreed,
"And reflect, through your seed –
Through your Selves – My Image indeed,
Two Selves in one spirit agreed.”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Who Is To Blame Anyhow?

Ancient wisdom tells us that a farmer gets what he sows. The point of that ancient wisdom is that one cannot expect to scatter negative influences in the world and not reap negative actions as a result. And yet we are told, in word and in action, that it can safely be done.

The news today is of a four year-old beaten to death by the boy’s mother’s boyfriend. Just last Friday a crowd of shoppers in a Wal-mart became so threatening that the store’s safety personnel sprayed them with pepper spray. Last year at this time a worker at a Wal-mart was trampled to death as he attempted to control a crowd rushing in to get at the Black Friday bargains. In a city near us a home was broken into by armed people who beat and tied up the home owner and stole his cash and guns. Every day we read or hear on the “News” about adults in responsible positions sexually assaulting children ranging from infants to near adults. Shootings are a regular occurrence in our major cities. The children of our nation are assaulted daily by abortion, pre-natal drug and alcohol poisoning, post-natal neglect and violence, inadequate nutrition and medical care. The youth of the land are exiting our schools before graduation in increasing numbers as high as 41 percent in some large cities.

So who’s to blame for all of this? The security guard who used the pepper spray? The teachers who fail to educate the 41 percent who won’t even attend class? The police, afraid to patrol dangerous neighborhoods adequately? Neighbors who cower in fear in murderous communities filled with guns and drugs?

One thing we know. Our culture is NOT to be blamed.

Some have tried to suggest, over the years, that our culture, fed on violent films, brutal sporting events, sexual innuendo in film and advertising, drugs and alcohol, fascination with the power of guns, might be to blame; that in valuing and vaunting such things we might be “sowing seeds” that create the negative actions we are enduring every day.

But when they make such assertions they are quickly silenced by psychologists and sociologists who counter that there is no correlation between a fascination with violent video games and anti-social behavior; between viewing sexually explicit material and child sexual abuse; between rabid fascination with guns and warfare and violence in our streets and in our homes; between the legal and ready availability of drugs and alcohol and the dysfunction of tens of millions of our citizens; between the fractious rhetoric of our media outlets and political “leaders” and the violence directed toward other leaders and against minorities in our society. No correlation at all.

It is more than a little difficult for the average person to buy those arguments, especially when our ad men are insistent that their product does indeed influence the actions of those it targets, often with the same inducements used in our “entertainment media”. And if the words and images with which we are bombarded every day are inert, incapable of moving us to negative social behavior, why then do we restrict certain elements in our society from viewing them? We know, deep in our gut, what the sociologist and psychologist are unwilling to – or are paid not to – admit. We are what we eat! Or, as the ancient wisdom tells us, “we reap what we sow.”

History tells us that cultures (civilizations Arnold Toynbee called them) ultimately collapse because they are confronted with a challenge they cannot or will not overcome: depleted soil, a dramatic change in the climate, a technologically superior culture, a moral superiority.

Toynbee, writing in the 1950s believed that atomic power was the challenge modern western civilization had to overcome to survive. His intuition may be right but I suspect that our nemesis is much more subtle than the mere existence of a physical force capable of destroying whole cities in an instant. It is a moral rot that eats away the sustaining structures upon which it was built. Glorying in inebriation, violence, lust, insensitivity, immorality, and partisanship, we are shocked – quick to deny – that these things grow a crop of violence, dysfunction, and war.

Do not be deceived, whatever man sows, that is what he will reap.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

When We All Feel Like We Are Losing

One sign that the country may not be falling apart is the fact that both liberals and conservatives think it is, and they think it is falling apart because of the machinations of the other side. Then again, both sides could be right; the nation may be on the brink of collapse and both parties may be to blame.

But I want to believe the first proposition; that things seem bad only to one viewing them through the prism of oppositional politics. I enjoyed an exchange today with my wife’s cousin over just this point. He wrote me that, in his opinion (he views the world through a conservative lens) conservatives lose the ideological battles because they are not as good at framing their position in a way that captures the imagination of the masses. Interesting! Coming, as I do, from a more liberal vantage point I see it just the opposite. So, as I told him, “One of us is wrong and I’m willing to let you be the one.” (That was intended as humor. I hope he read it that way.)

When I’m out and about in my car I have my radio tuned to either Wisconsin Public Radio or National Public Radio. I prefer discussion at a low level of intensity (several notches below hysteria). And I appreciate hosts who allow callers of all persuasions to have their say as long as they stay on topic and refrain from immoderate speech, and who, even when callers fail in those regards, deal with them respectfully. Most of all I want to hear alternative points of view on the issues I’m interested in. Public radio may not be perfect but it makes a calculated effort to hear from all sides.

And still I hear callers saying, more than any other complaint, that NPR and/or WPR are biased. The interesting thing is that liberal callers and conservative callers make the same complaint. I suppose they could all be right, just listening to different programs hosted by different people. But I suspect that I am witnessing a version of the same phenomenon that my wife’s cousin and I illustrated earlier today. We humans want our point of view to prevail so desperately, and we fear its defeat so certainly, that we hear any attack on it multiplied many times over while hearing any defense as weak and underplayed.

We are fortunate to live in a society that allows us all to make our point. Some chose to make theirs in strident terms with little regard for civility or factuality; their heart carries them where they want to go. I tolerate such people because of my liberal tendency to defend everyone’s right to free speech. But my preference is for those who marshal evidence to support their position and are content to offer it in reasoned speech on a conversational level. It seems to me that those who adopt the mode I prefer put themselves at a disadvantage. Our culture is attuned to the “Extreme” these days. But it may be that my “emotional” fellow citizen’s heart is telling him the truth. Or it may be that my “intellectual” fellow citizen’s argument is flawed.

It is only when we allow both citizens to speak that we can give all ideas a chance.  And it just may be that the only time we are winning is when we all feel like we are losing.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Blending of Thanksgiving Traditions

The family is aging. Even the grandchildren are aging, and with their greater age comes a maturation of their tastes. Literally! There was a time when we had to have hotdogs available for Thanksgiving dinner so that everyone would have something that they enjoyed eating. Then we moved to pizza – in addition, of course, to the traditional Thanksgiving fare.

For the last several years we’ve fixed a wholly traditional dinner consisting, most years, of ham, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, Gramma’s special sweet potato hotdish, cranberry sauce sliced into quarter inch discs, a special cranberry salad, vegetables, and muffins. Of course there were pies, usually consumed later in the day.

Not all the grandchildren appreciated the new insistence upon tradition. Some survived the day on blueberry muffins, or perhaps a slice or two of ham. Another might eat only mashed potatoes. But there was always enough of everything that, whatever they chose, they would not need to leave hungry.

But this year I saw a qualitative and a quantitative difference. All the grandchildren in attendance are now fully adult, at least according to the census bureau. I suppose they have something to prove. The meal was serve buffet style so it was easy to observe the number of trips made to replenish the plates. And the traffic was heavy. Some items were more popular than others but most plates were filled with a variety unseen in earlier years. It was a heart-warming scene; atypical, one might say.

Two incidents, though, help preserve some semblance of the past. One grandson, who refused to take any of the mixed vegetables (corn, carrots, and peas), commented to his grandmother that if she had just put out corn he would have eaten it. To her credit she offered to get him a toothpick with which he could spear the pieces of corn in the mix.

The other reminder of the past came when I saw our first great-grandchild sitting looking rather glumly at a plate with only mashed potatoes on it, the only thing, apparently, that the poor child could find worth eating.

We adults insist upon our traditions; why shouldn’t the children do the same?

Friday, November 25, 2011

An Ode to Memory

by Jim Rapp

There is only one road to travel,
The ever-unfolding, well-worn path called "now".

Standing on the high precipice
Of the eternal moment,
The unknown looms ahead,
A wispy, wishful construct, shaped to resemble
Cherished memories from the past.

The once-known, once-held, once-cherished
Lies behind us, muted mounds
Of all we've had, and said, and done.
 
As now crumbles
Under the weight of our mortality,
We cling to faith for this moment,
Hope for some tomorrow,
And draw comfort
From what used to be.

Memory -
           all that's left of everything.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Recognizing God's Goodness

                                  by Jim Rapp

Oh God, Is time a gift? I know it is the only way
That you could give me life, so when you lay
Upon my feeble frame another hour, I hear you say,
"Child, this is a gift I give to show my love today.
You may grumble at its weight, or use it in some way
That brings a pleasure to another soul today."


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Holiday Cup of Warm

by Jim Rapp

Even when we’re miles apart,
our cups are raised in friendship,
and when their nectar touches lip,
it makes, of two, or more, one heart.

So grab a cup of warm and let
us taste the joy of friendship
through every thought-filled sip we sip
and every word we send and get.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Who Is My Neighbor?

Recently I wrote a blog piece in response to an e-mail admonition to buy local goods and services at this Christmas season. The primary argument given in favor of that policy was that Christmas was not about building a glittering new city for the Chinese; that Christmas was about US. Naturally I took the position that Christmas, which celebrates the coming of the Savoir of the whole world is not exclusively about US, but about the whole world.

But lately I’ve been seeing an ad on Television promoting a “Small Business Saturday.” The point is that on the Saturday after Thanksgiving everyone should consider shopping at a small business instead of at the mega-stores and businesses. That seems like a very good idea. I’m amazed as I drive around our small city of 60,000 plus residents how many little businesses are tucked into strip malls, along the main roadways, and even in remote neighborhoods. One of my favorites is a dusty old electronics store in the basement of an old church, the upstairs of which has been turned into an antique shop. The elderly couple who own the building and businesses apparently earn enough to support their modest lifestyle but probably little more than that. I enjoy their friendly, laid-back manner, and am grateful when I can buy something from them

So I’m in favor of “Small Business Saturday”. In fact it could be extended to “Small Business Everyday” if the goods and services provided meet the needs of their customers. But the “buy local,” and “buy small business” slogans overlook some very important details that we should not forget.

First, a number of the local businesses are actually national or even international in scope. I know of a small local computer outlet that depends upon Internet sales for a significant portion of its business. A few years ago I needed a special necktie as a drama prop and when I searched for it on the Internet I found it offered by a locally owned men’s clothing store less than a half-dozen miles from me. So “local” today is not what “local” might have been thirty-five years ago before the advent of the computer.

Secondly, small businesses hire, we are told, the majority of the workers in our economy. I have no way to verify that but I’ll accept it as true. But that still leaves millions of our citizens whose livelihood depends upon the success of large – sometimes very large – corporations who either produce or retail items that we need. A large share of the retail and service outlets in our communities are connected to large corporations either as company owned enterprises or locally owned franchises of national chain restaurants, clothing stores, auto service centers, etc. Our parents, siblings, and friends who work at those places depend upon our purchases as much as any other “small business” does.

Finally, our world has become so interconnected, via modern transportation and communication, that it is very difficult to know at times what is local and what is international in scope. When I go on EBay to make a purchase it is as likely to ship from Afghanistan as it is from my neighbor next door. The local farmer, producing corn or soy beans, or some specialty crop like ginseng, may be selling it on a foreign market. The local manufacturing company with 10 employees may be selling the majority of its product abroad.

All of this indicates that, while it is a good thing to buy from local, small businesses, it may be just as beneficial to your “neighbor” – the one right next door or the one working in a Chinese high-rise factory making iPhones – to buy internationally or from a large corporation. We believe in the magic of the market; that free competition of ideas, and products, and services produces a vital economy. Our stores’ shelves, laden with goods produced locally (either a “local factory” a few miles from you, or a “local factory” a-half-a-world away) are proof of that.

I like to support a person I can see face-to-face whom I know is striving to provide for their family and perhaps give employment to others as well. But it also gives me satisfaction to know that my purchase of a shirt made in Taiwan provides employment for my “neighbor” there. I may never see him or her face-to-face but I know that his or her wellbeing is as important to God as mine, or that of any person living near me.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Friends of Huguette Clark (1907 – 2011)

                by Jim Rapp

Huguette lived to a ripe old age
but not without some assistance;
an accountant and a lawyer-sage –
advisors twain – whose persistence
kept her breathing well past the age
when most would expire, are insistent
that her will – every notarized page –
is quite legal and clearly consistent,
though she lived well into her dotage.

The doctor, accountant, nurse and her kin,
rewarded already with generous pay,
declare now, “we are all ‘written in’;
with millions to come on will-reading day.”
Some sore heads – who wish they were “in” –
have alerted the media to all of the hay
that Huguette’s “caretakers” soon will begin
receiving, and spending, and stowing away,
giving their service a self-serving spin.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Hymn

              by Jim Rapp

The heavens declare your glory –
The earth is your image displayed –
Together they blazon the story
Of wonders your hands have made.

Riding the rays of the morning –
Descending like dew from above –
Closing the day with the evening –
Enfolding us thus, in your love.

The thunderclaps speak of your power,
The lightning shows us your face,
Flashing its beams through the shower,
Inscribing your name with its trace.

The stars in the depths of the heavens
Are messengers speaking in tongues,
Bringing your word to the millions
In languages never yet sung.

Who can gaze on the marvelous glories
Of all that your hands have wrought,
And not be moved to tell stories
With God-thoughts and mysteries fraught?

The fool denies your existence,
Rejecting all that he sees,
But a child, offering no resistance,
Quickly and humbly believes.

As a child let me stand at the mid-night,
Or at noon under bright blazing sun;
Let me see you, O God, with a child's sight,
And give praise for all you have done.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tom Tom Theology

The idea of “calling” is pretty antiquated these days. But when I was young it was a common idea, not just among religious folks who often viewed their vocation or even their mundane jobs as a “calling” – an assignment, so to speak, from God – but also among people in many secular professions. I remember, most distinctly, my sixth-grade teacher telling our class that she felt teaching was her calling. And if her dedication to the work she did was any indication of the effect such a belief could have upon one who held it, the concept was a useful one. To a person, her students declared her their favorite teacher.

One hears the idea of calling much less today. Our society is more secular in its outlook and even in our churches professionalism has to a large degree replaced the old-fashioned sense of calling. That isn’t all bad. Many of the ministers I knew in my youth struggled to maintain their families, enduring low pay because of their sense that they were fulfilling a calling upon their life. And too many churches were willing to allow them to live in poverty or near poverty knowing that their sense of calling would hold them there. Thankfully, our ministers are generally better paid but partly that is so because churches cannot count on a sense of calling to hold a pastor in a church where pay is inadequate.

We’ve lost something valuable though, with the passing of the concept of calling. It was a strong motivator and a clear guide that is seldom active today, even in the lives of Christians. Ask someone if they feel a sense of calling and they are likely to ask you, “By whom?” The secular mind finds it inconceivable that one would subject oneself to another person’s – especially a Divine person’s – notion of what is good for them, or where they could be most useful to others. John Kennedy may have been the last national figure to be taken seriously when he appealed to the nation’s sense of calling with his challenge to, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” A whole generation of young people accepted his challenge, joining the Peace Corp and launching lives of service that, for the duration of their generation, blessed the world.

It is not always obvious that one is “off the track.” A number of years ago I was driving on a familiar highway and, because it was so familiar, I was not thinking much about where I was or where I was going. I passed the exit I should have taken and, because the scenery surrounding freeways in Illinois is much the same from highway to highway, was a hundred miles off course before I realized my mistake. That would not happen to me today because I’ve adopted the use of a GPS device – a Tom Tom – to guide me to my desired goal, reminding me when and where to turn, and rescuing me when I get off course.

A sense of calling can do for our journey through life what my Tom Tom does for my travels. A sense of calling sets a destination – a goal – for our life. It gives purpose to our planning; do I want to go by the fastest route, the shortest route, the scenic route, or are there specific stops I need to make along the way? A calling helps to answer these questions. Am I still on course to accomplish what I feel I was put on this earth to do? Calling answers the questions.

But all of this begs the question of how one “gets” a calling. As far as I know there is no Dial-A-Calling service one can turn to. The vast majority of those I’ve known who have had a clear sense that they were meant to pursue a certain course in their life derived that “call” from their relationship to God; through reading Scripture, through prayer, through conversation with other believers, through thoughtful observation of the circumstances of their life; their skills and aptitudes, their likes and dislikes, their opportunities. But most of all it included a strong sense that their life could have maximum meaning only if it was directed to the betterment of their world and their fellow travelers in life.

In the end, though, we are responsible for the course we take. Callings, like Tom Toms, do not come preprogrammed. We must consciously plot the course we want to take. And then we must attend to the signals we receive from our “Tom Tom”. If we do so we will end our life having reached the goal we set out for, and having done the things we were put here to do.

Paul, the Apostle, is a good example of one who took his calling seriously, programmed his Tom Tom, and never seemed to have veered off course. Near the end of his life he was able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” What more needs to be said?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Go Not, Like The Quarry-slave at Night, Scourged to His Dungeon

Imagine a world without death. In order for such a world to thrive it would also have to be one in which no new life was aborning. No finite world we know of could sustain the creation of new lives unless the death of previous lives would make room for the new. Some believe we are reaching the sustainable limit for our planet. Life as we know it demands death, lives on death.

We live very comfortably with death as long as it doesn’t involve members of our own species. We laden our plates with it three times a day and more. It provides the materials with which we build our houses and clothe ourselves. It provides the motive power for our automobiles and factories. Our houses are warmed by death. And at this season of the year great numbers of men and women get immense enjoyment and recreation by inflicting death on other creatures. To the fisherman and the hunter death is now a “sport” and those who engage in those activities are called “sportsmen.” We even find it acceptable to rain death down on others of our species once we have reduced them in our thinking to the status of enemy. Our race maintains armies of professional, trained, agents of death.

But, paradoxically, when we contemplate our own death, or the death of those whom we value; even the non-human death of pets or species to which we’ve developed a sentimental attachment, it becomes something to be resisted, even eradicated if possible. The literature of mankind is filled with laments over the shortness of man’s lifespan, the inevitability of death, the search for a way to delay or deny it. No novel, or drama, or screen play rivets an audience’s attention more than one in which the protagonists are struggling against a life destroying foe. The heroes of science and medicine are those men and women who have found a cure for a life-threatening disease. Even our wars, characterized as they are by death itself, are fought to preserve the lives of our people. A famine, or earthquake, or tsunami, elicit massive human effort to save the lives of as many survivors as possible.

One could almost make the case that, even in an affluent and relatively secure society such as ours, most of our energies are devoted to the preservation of our lives, even while we are inflicting death upon all the earth around us. Perhaps even more in affluent societies we are concerned to live long because we enjoy the rich benefits of our good life, purchased with the death of our fellow creatures.

But death – even our death – will not be denied. The elite of mankind die in equal proportions to the lowliest. Of all the humans born in any given year nearly 100% will be dead 100 years later, and the few who linger longer are curiosities that are either the envy of those who hope to live so long or are pitiful wards of society, withering slowly in nursing homes and hospitals.

Why is it that we humans, who can countenance death so readily all around us in the vegetable kingdom, and the animal kingdom – even make it our business to foster it in the crops we raise, the resources we harvest, the animals we slaughter for food – find it so abhorrent in the human realm? Obviously it is our life that we cherish. We want to preserve it because we sense that there is nothing left when this life is gone. We see evidence of that with each tree we destroy, each fish we fillet, each animal we slaughter. And we know that a dead human looks little different than a dead chicken, or cow, or even a fallen tree.

It is no wonder then that, as the Apostle Paul wrote, two thousand years ago:

. . . the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration . . in hope that . . . [it] will be liberated from . . . decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for . . .the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.

And what gives creation this hope of deliverance from death and decay? What causes it to struggle to create life though in doing so it is consigning that life it conceives to certain death? The same thing that gives our killer race its hope; the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ironically the One who has saved us from death and given us a hope of everlasting life is the very one that killer-man crucified. And the only cure for man’s murderous instinct is to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the one he killed. In his blood there is remission of sin and his body is the bread of life.

All mankind is invited to the feast provided by Jesus’ death, and those who partake of his death will live forevermore. Man, the carnivore must eat His flesh or die.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Let’s Be Fair With Our Politicians

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I have many complaints about our political system and about politicians in particular. I hope, though, that my critique of the system and those who work within it is based on reasonable expectations of what it could and should be and not just an attempt to nitpick.

Much has been made in the last week about the “brain freezes” of both Governor Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain. Their gaffs were excruciating to watch partly because I know the embarrassment it caused them and those who care about them. It was hard to watch as well because I’ve been there, unable to recall a fact I’d recited a dozen times before, unable to sort out in my mind the difference between Libya and Tunisia. Anyone who has not had those occasions is very fortunate; if they live long enough their day will come.

If those kinds of events occur too often it is probably fair to wonder at the person’s aptitude for the kind of mental activity required in a President. But when they happen during a whirlwind of debates that would try the souls of saints we need to allow for some humanity, even if those experiencing such problems don’t admit to their humanity or imperfection.

In both of the cases cited above, and covered extensively by the press, there were other, more substantive reasons to question the candidate’s bona fides than whether he could count to three or keep two countries separate in his mind. It is when the candidate has gotten over the “brain freeze” and is addressing the issue that we need to judge the worth of their mind.

In these cases, for example, I would judge the candidates wanting in both wisdom and substance based on their answer. Governor Perry’s simplistic pledge to summarily abolish three departments of the Executive Branch upon taking office was reckless braggadocio. Ronald Reagan, and others after him have said they would do the same for at least a couple of departments, Education, and Energy, two cabinet positions created by the Carter Administration. Perry would add Commerce to the list. But he should know that when others took office they found that they needed those departments, indeed found that they could manipulate them to serve their own purposes. Perry would very likely do the same. If he is serious about abolishing them then he needs to tell us who will assume the functions they now perform and why that will be an improvement over the status quo.

Cain, when he sorted out in his mind where Libya was and what had gone on there, had nothing substantive to say on the question he was asked which was, “Do you approve of what President Obama did to aid the rebels in Libya?” His answer was that before he would have taken the actions the President took he would have wanted more information about the rebels and the situation on the ground, as though the President hadn’t sought as much of that information as he could get. When asked if he thought the President hadn’t sought that information, Mr. Cain weakly responded that he didn’t know if he had it or not. But he had been, nonetheless, willing to imply that the decision to assist the rebels was made with less information that he, if he were President, would have demanded or sought. It would have been much more honest to say, “I don’t have the information the President had and without that I’m not able (willing) to say whether he made the right decision or not.”

Politicians (and all public figures) will occasionally fumble an answer or, as in these cases, draw a complete blank. If, when they get past that “freeze” they can show knowledge of the subject under discussion and propose wise and informed actions to be taken, there is no shame in a “brain freeze” now and then. It is what they say when their brain is not “frozen” that indicates their suitability for the office they are seeking to occupy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How To Speak to a Demagogue

I heard Governor Romney, one of the persons seeking to be nominated as the Republican candidate for President of the United States, make the bold statement, “Look, one thing you can know-- and that is if we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you'd like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.”

That is exactly the kind of statement too many citizens allow to go unchallenged. It goes right along with others of its kind like, “If I am elected I will eliminate the Department of Education, Commerce, and uh . . . uh . . . what was that other one.” The Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, by his “brain freeze” as the media is calling it, revealed that the dogmatic position he was laying out was not a deeply felt, sincerely intended policy, but merely a part of his stump speech which he unfortunately couldn’t call to mind under the pressure of a national debate. Representative Michelle Bachmann has repeatedly said that on her first day in office she will repeal “Obamacare.”

But these statements reveal something more serious that a mere attempt on the part of candidates to curry favor with segments of the electorate; they reveal an attitude toward “problem solving” that is unrealistic and dangerous. They look at issues faced by our nation and society as one would look at a crossword puzzle, seeing it as a “problem” that is soluble and that, once solved can be laid aside, never to trouble us again. Unfortunately issues that involve human nature and human aspirations – and in the case of nations, involving the competing aspirations of many nations – are not subject to that kind of solution.

It is small-minded men and women – or devious demagogic ones – who pretend that they can quickly, arbitrarily, and summarily “solve” any problem of significance if elected to the office of President of the United States. First, the Constitution defines the separation of powers in our nation in such a way that there is little that any President can do without consultation with Congress or without the possibility of review and rejection by the Supreme Court. Second, the fluidity of national and international events make it highly unlikely that a successful candidate will find the “problem” he/she declares “soluble” in the same state it was in when the claim was made. Third, human nature is such that any “solution” will be resisted by people in his/her own party and/or in the opposing parties, making it unlikely that he/she will ever get to apply the “solution” in anything like the form promised during the campaign. Finally, any solution applied to a problem will become subject to “erosion” due to public intransigence, corporate and special interest resistance, and criminal neglect of the law. Perfect “solutions” to “problems” are the stuff of which utopias are constructed, and so far all human attempts to create utopias have failed.

It would serve our nation well if those seeking our votes would, rather than offer us firm “solutions” to ever changing problems, speak to us about how they feel about the state of the nation as they see it, and give us an indication of what they would like the situation to be like at the end of their first and second terms of office. In other words they would not be looking at ways to slay the giant in one fell swoop, in a contest that, if they fail would leave the giant the victor and the nation a victim, but rather they would lay out a creative path to a better situation and tell us who they would work with, and how, to get to the place they envision.

I know the problems that lie in the way of such political dialogue. Our media is not attuned to rational discussion. Moderators of our debates are as interested in luring candidates into radical and indefensible positions as are the audiences (and large segments of the electorate) in seeing them embarrassed by their foolishness. Further, crowding eight men and women onto a stage to discuss a range of twenty or more questions in 90 minutes merely invites “sound bite” solutions to problems. Finally, given the choice between watching a football game between two third-tier teams and listening to a rational discussion of issues upon which the nation’s future security and prosperity hinge, most Americans will gladly watch the game.

So, sadly, we will get more of what we already have. In fact I fear that we will get progressively worse than what we already have. It is easy to say that we get what we deserve but that assumes that all citizens prefer the football game to rational discussion of important issues. And that is not true. What is true is that all suffer when we conduct our political affairs in the way we have come to do them.

The least any of us can do is laugh out loud – (or emit a Howard Dean scream) when we hear a politician declare that, “The first thing I will do if I am elected is . . .”

Better yet, we can say, in a letter to the editor, a blog, a conversation with friends, or face-to-face with the candidate if they are the type that actually listens to constituents,  “I’ve heard that claim made many times before. Politicians before you have either promised to fix the problem you cite, or claim to have fixed it, but we are still talking about it. What new ideas do you have that haven’t been tried before? How do you plan, given the limits of your power, to move your ideas ahead?”