Monday, October 29, 2012

like . . .

like a whisper

like a knowing . . .
without knowing how
or why I know . . .

like a sunset

like snow falling
in the quiet of the night

like the nagging
of a two year old
who will NOT be ignored

like the coolest
coincidence ever

like coming home

like nothing and
everything all at once

What does God’s voice sound like? my friend once asked – not very satisfying if trying to ID God in a line-up, I know – but this is what I’ve got.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Driving in Circles

Just a small town girl . . . I never thought those words would apply to me.  But they do.  Yesterday, I, along with hundreds of others, spent time helping with a fundraising dinner for a little girl in need of heart surgery whose parents’ health insurance will not cover the cost.  So here in smalltown America, someone organized a dinner and everybody came, bringing dishes and donations and hands to help.  The ladies here have a long-established rhythm born of years of experience in the industrial-sized kitchen where such things happen.  Yet they welcome me in and show me their ways.  I become their sous chef apprentice, doing as they direct, trying to help and when I can’t, to stay out of the way.  It’s a grace-filled place, that kitchen.  Every now and then, someone new who comes in comes bossy.  But instead of putting her in her place, these ladies just step back and make room for her ways.  How I wish I had their class.  At the end of the night, we all went home tired, yet most managed to make it to church this morning.  Their staying power puts me to shame.

Just before I went over to start helping yesterday, I checked FB and there was a message from Tiffany, No more stop lights in Highland!  I grinned in appreciation.  The 18-month-long bridge project has come to an end and the temporary stop light, the source of much complaining, wonderment, and perceived inconvenience, is gone.  So with a little extra time between the two church services this morning, I drove past the second church and crossed our new bridge, breezing by the now colorless stop light, took a right around the store and cheated through Obaugh’s parking lot to come back out on the road back and recross the bridge, grinning like a fool as I passed with nary a pause at the famed stop light now no more.  Oh, happy day!

Yes, I am a small town gal who cruises in circles just to enjoy not having to stop for a light and who loves that she gets to help sometimes just by being there.

If you’d like to donate to the Ella fund, you can make a check payable to Hiner Church of the Brethren and mail it to Hiner Church, c/o Charles Varner, 6527 Highland Turnpike, McDowell, VA 24458.

Ella, who is five years old, has a heart defect which requires surgery.  As I said above, her parents’ health insurance will not cover the surgery because they say her condition is congenital.  The surgeon’s cost will be anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000.  The Affordable Care Act provision regarding pre-existing conditions does not go into effect until 2014.  The dinner and other fundraisers have and will continue to raise a goodly sum, but more is needed.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

My Erdős–Bacon Number

Mayim Bialik’s Erdos-Bacon number is 7.  Dr. Bialik was the central character in the 1990's sitcom Blossom and now plays Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler on my now-favorite television comedy, The Big Bang Theory.  In between, she earned a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA.  Wikipedia

Mayim Bialik’s Erdos-Bacon number is 7.  Mine is non-existent.  Apparently, so is Kevin Bacon’s (the ‘Bacon’ of the Erdős-Bacon number) as he has presumably not authored a mathematical paper linking back to Erdős.  Too funny - Kevin Bacon can’t even play the game of which he is one half.

If we stretched a bit, I could have a Bacon number of 2, as I faithfully watched and was a fan of Bacon’s wife Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer.  And maybe I can finagle a math credit somehow for some of my grade school algebraic machinations.

A stretch, I know.

But aren’t scientists cute?  They’ve actually tried to make what is clearly a “I know somebody famous” exercise into a scholarly pursuit, labeling it an effort to measure the “small world phenomena in academia and entertainment” Wikipedia: Erdos-Bacon number The point of the exercise is to track your own degrees of separation from a mathematician and a movie star and add the two together to arrive at your own number.

In other words, I know somebody famous!  And I know them closer/better/with more bragging rights than you!

Like I said, it’s very cute.

Hey, I once saw John Larroquette in an airport in Toronto.

Better yet, I once chased Jimmy Fallon in his limo as he departed from an SNL taping.  You had to be there – let’s just say that a mom will do a lot for a beloved step-daughter, even at 2 a.m in NYC.  So – Jimmy Fallon and Kevin Bacon appeared in the same article in Deadline Hollywood

And I actually have been in a film (about peacemaking) and I’m pretty sure Kevin Bacon is a fan of world peace.  I know, I know, I really don’t get the concept, do I?

But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it: I have Bacon score of 2 and an Erdos score of 2 trillion (it takes awhile to get from my grade school self to Dr. Erdős), giving me an Erdős-Bacon score of 2 trillion and 2.

Top that!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Ann Coulter: Just a Thought

"I'm a Christian first and a mean-spirited, bigoted conservative second, and don't you ever forget it."   –Ann Coulter

Whatever I am politically, I am not a conservative.  Consequently, I am no fan of Ann Coulter.  And her recent Tweet using a pejorative word to describe the President which is hurtful to others – it was on the playground and it is now -- is not one I appreciate.

That said, I have to admit that I both laughed out loud and admired the spirit of the quote above, cited by Wikipedia's bio.  I have had to wonder whether the same is true of me or not.  Am I a Christian first and all the other things that might describe me second?

The judging me wants to say that if you’re truly a Christian first, you don’t get to be bigoted and mean-spirited at all, let alone second.  But the humor-appreciating woman me wants to say hat’s off for a really good self-lampoon that just might point to a larger truth: there are many ‘mes’ in each and all of us.  To observe that about ones’ self can be a canard – offered up to deceive others with one’s apparent true civility, all other evidence to the contrary.  Or it can actually be a candid moment of self revealing.  In Ms. Coulter’s case, maybe it’s both.  Maybe it’s neither.

But before I go off on a rant at someone else’s behavior, I might do well to stop and take stock of my own and ask what list might be reeled off about my own second-place characteristics and found wanting.

Just a thought.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Bears and Bobcats and Such

Last night a friend visiting from Galax (not exactly NYC, but apparently a buzzing metropolis compared to where I live) and I went over the mountain to dine out.  I drove.  That, enough, was cause for concern.  I thought I was driving reasonably, well within the speed limit.  Helen, however, experienced a ride of terror.

Then there was the deer.  Dead.  In the middle of our lane.  I swerved and missed all but a hoof of the carcass.  Crisis averted.  Then I stopped at the nearest house to ask if they’d call the sheriff about moving the carcass (I wasn’t dressed for the occasion and probably couldn’t have managed the dead weight on my own anyhow).  Back in the car, I noticed Helen’s wonderment.  “That’s how you do it.”  “Do what?” I asked.  “Take care of something like that.”  “Yep, that’s how you do it,” I replied.  Actually, moving it out of the way yourself is how you do it – shame on whoever left it there for me to come upon.

A little ways on, I asked, “did you see that?”  “What?”  “The bear,” I replied, having noticed a bear scooting into the undergrowth on the right of the road.  “No!  And I’m glad I didn’t!” was Helen’s somewhat chagrined reply.  Truly baffled, I considered my own delight at spotting yet another ‘bear in the woods’ and wondered at Helen’s dismay.

Helen:  “The next thing you know, we’ll see a lion.”  Me: “no lions.  A bobcat, maybe; but no lions”, meaning to be reassuring.  Somehow my words had the opposite effect I’d intended.

Off to dinner, good conversation and lots of laughter, as we got back in the car to return home, Helen put on her heavy coat saying that now we could safely return, since she was wearing her ‘lion coat’, as she put her right arm forward in a protective posture.

We laughed and laughed all the way home – no bobcats, more’s the pity.  Helen was ready.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Walking Wounded

There are so many of us walking wounded these days - perhaps all days - some with wounds writ large on the face of history - some the harder-to-see wounds real nonetheless.

What prescription do we seek?  What cure can we find?

Medicating of self?  One more drink - one more pill?  It works - until it doesn’t.

Examining and reexamining with friends and strangers what went wrong and why?  Hard to know when we slip from needful reflection to needless self-infliction, reliving the pain over and over again.

Blaming God or the cosmos at the injustice of our peculiar suffering?  As if suffering were ever a matter of justice.  Suffering, after all, is different than pain.  The pain of the moment may be unjust.  But the rental space in my head that is suffering, the afterburn of pain, isn’t about justice, it’s about health and wellness – or its lack.

These are the things I think about today as I consider so many among us who are the walking wounded.  I wonder and hope and pray that my noticing, all our noticing, matters.  I know that our not knowing does – its own form of wound – as the one barely able to put one foot in front of the other must wonder what they have to do to get a busy world just to notice.

God notices.  This I know.  Deep down.  In the place I have no other name for and so call my ‘knower’.  Deep down in my knower, I know God notices.  That carries me.  But some days, to borrow from a quote I heard a long time ago, I just need skin.  Some days, so do you.  On those days, I am hoping and praying that I offer you the face of God and that you offer the same face back to me.

Come, let us walk together.

No need to talk.

Just look at me and see my wounds and know you do not travel alone.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In Heaven It Is Always Autumn

God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; in Paradise, the fruits were ripe the first minute, and in heaven it is always autumn, his mercies are ever in their maturity.  –John Donne

In Heaven It Is Always Autumn, by Elizabeth Spires

In heaven it is always autumn. The leaves are always near
to falling there but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking
heaven's paths no longer feel the weight of years upon them.
Safe in heaven's calm, they take each other's arm,
the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone.
But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept
as Eden would be with the walls knocked down,
    the paths littered
with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes
for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling
the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome.
The last roses of the year nod their frail heads,
like listeners listening to all that's said, to ask,
What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom?
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?
Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might,
if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves,
tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere.
It is the last of many last days. Is it enough?
To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?
To watch the lineaments of a world passing?
To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal,
press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds
pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow?
And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun
    shining brightly
as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure
leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth.
My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been.
To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence
where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening.
The light is gold. And while we're here, I think it must
    be heaven.

In heaven it is always autumn

Today my friend Walt shared Elizabeth Spire’s poem taken from a line in a sermon by John Donne.

His sermon and her poem, both beautiful each in their own way, stir that thing of Fall in me – the thing so many find in Spring – the life-stirring thing – that makes each smell more pungent, each feeling more poignant.

My spring cleaning has always happened, when at all, in the Fall.

My joy has always come not at the flower’s first bud, but at the leave’s last burst.

It is the fullness of what has been more than the promise of what might yet be that captivates me.

Thus does the ugly-spoken word always jar the more in Fall – not here, not now – wait til Winter or better still, Spring, for such things.  They must not be spoken here.

With the greed of the small child, I am jealous of each Fall – for every bend, every curve in the road, brings a new panoply of color and movement and sound – each more spectacular than the last if only for its first viewing by my esurient eyes.

Were I a dog, it would be dropped golden leaves and not a stick that would jut ridiculously from my mouth.  Were I a cat, it would be crunchy curled leaves and not the mouse, played and replayed between my claws.

I am but a woman and so it is my eyes, my nose and my feet that feast.  As it should be.

For the sheer bravery of Fall, as each thing dies sure it will be resurrected, moves my eyes to tears, my nose to lift seeking into the air and my feet to dancing.

Fall again.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A(nother) New Day

I love the potential of a new day – opening its sunshine welcome through the curtains – the promise of possibility like an infinite blanket of hope – small things come to mind mostly – maybe today I’ll finish the ironing – I actually like to iron – it’s pleasing somehow to press out the wrinkles and the smell of clean linens a bonus to the senses – maybe I’ll finally begin repairing the quilt I made for Mom and Dad more than 30 years ago – I am old enough to have created something now time worn – how well I remember my own pride at the gift when given – satisfied with what I had made passed down through my grandmother’s hands – maybe I’ll start walking again – it’s been too long – I will mail a letter that needs sending – maybe I’ll actually schedule that long-overdue hair appointment – that will feel like progress – I will look upon the mountains and be refreshed – their presence my comfort – I will listen to cat’s purr and smile benediction upon her contentment – maybe I will tick a few things from the list – my perpetual write-down of the next indicated things – or not – I will read – glad that I finally can again – leaving behind the tens if not hundreds of books begun and set aside – it’s a perfect laundry day – my only regret that I have no laundry to hang – so many roads spread out before me at the beginning of this new day – it matters not much which I take – for now – in this moment – the promise – the possibility – is enough and more than enough – and I am grateful – it is tomorrow and I am begun again.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Being Friends with Jenny & Steve: Adventures from Robocall Land

I live in Highland County, Virginia, a predominantly Republican county in the western mountains of Virginia.  There are only about 2,300 of us in the whole county.  Maybe 1,000 of us will vote.

And thus it is with some amusement as well as bemusement that I answer my phone only to find that it is Jenny calling me – again – from the RNC.

Jenny sounds nice.  From her voice, I would say she is young.  I feel I am getting to know Jenny pretty well, as she’s called me about 5 times in the last week or so.  Sometimes we have dinner together over the phone.  Sometimes she catches me in the middle of work so I don’t have much time to give her.  Sometimes I’m out and Jenny just leaves me a message.  But more and more I wonder about Jenny and how she’s doing.

I admit I haven’t been a very good friend to Jenny – as soon as I hear her voice these days, I just hang up the phone.  Of course, I comfort myself that Jenny doesn’t know how rude I am – after all, it’s just a voice-recorded robocall.

But I do worry about Jenny – they’re working her pretty hard at the RNC with all those phone calls.  I hope her voice is okay.

And I wonder why Steve from the DNC hasn’t called.  Does he not like the mountains?  Does he think my friendship with Jenny means we can’t be friends too?  I hope not.

Maybe Jenny and Steve will meet some day.  Maybe they’ll fall in love like James Carville and Mary Matalin.  Maybe they’ll come to dinner and we’ll talk – really talk.

I’d like that.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Life is My Religion*

Not mine . . .

Life is my experience,
but it is most definitely not
my religion.

my life is how I worship
but it is not what I worship

I celebrate my life,
but I do not worship it.

I celebrate your life,
but I do not follow it.

Even the more amorphous but broader ‘life’
does not claim my allegiance – my allegiance
is to God – and thus do I honor, respect and
rejoice in life, because it is God-created

Life, wonderful life, finite
with an end-date
a wind-down-the-clock
out of or around which
I cannot see
for all of us,
and not just for me

I don’t spend much time
thinking about or even
talking about my religion –
my ways and means of
observing, celebrating,
co-creating, entering,
living into –
the reality that is God

God is the subject
as well as the object
of my worship

religion is how I go
about that

it’s the day-to-day
of it all
so maybe life actually
is my religion
my how-to
my show-and-tell
of the guy-gal I call

*FB friend Jim Palmer has a blog Life is my religion.  Jim posts many amazing photographs to accompany his FB posts.  They always catch my eye.  They are often accompanied by the simple one-line tag:  life is my religion.  My own reflection above was a literal journey of words, thoughts, movement away from and movement towards.  Here's where the journey took me:  whether life is or is not my religion, religion is not my religion - of that I am sure.  So perhaps life actually is my religion, my steps both towards and away from, God -- the ways in which I worship God, describe and enact my experience of and encounter with God.  I think Jim may be on to something.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Where Levi Walked

In a little while, I will go and
stand with family and friends
as they remember their Levi,
gone a year now – was it today?

I will watch they who watched
Levi go from boy to man
they who hold the picture memories
so close in their hearts – always
the smiles are what grab and hold

smiling Levi holding a crab up
to the camera . . . smiling Levi
posing for the senior picture
perfect moment picture –
so much more important
than he could have ever guessed

It is that smile I remember
on the face of the boy-man
I barely knew but who
inhabits my refrigerator along
with so many others still here,
smiling new picture memories

I will go to the woods today
I will walk where Levi walked
and I will stand – for a time –
with those who love him best –
witness to their love, their loss

Thursday, October 18, 2012

21 Questions for the Candidates on Foreign Policy: Just a Suggestion

Here are some suggested questions for next week's foreign policy debate.  I really don't want to waste a single minute on how it's been gotten wrong or right in the last four or even last twelve years.  I want to know where we go from here.  And in order to know, as best we can when it comes to predicting future behaviors, I have some questions.

1. Why must Israel be our ‘special’ friend?  Why isn’t it enough that we are allies?  Shouldn’t our goal be to be ‘friends’ with all the nations of the world?  Does speaking ‘for’ human rights for Palestinians equate in your mind to speaking ‘against’ Israel?

2. Why should we arm anyone around the world?  There is a call to arm folks in Syria, which overlooks the obvious question of why arm anyone.  In Syria in particular, who would you arm?  Why?

3. When will either of you bring all our troops (mercenaries/private contractors included) home from Iraq?

4. What is the tipping point for you in moving away from sanctions and towards military solutions (including nuclear attack) against Iran?  In other words, what would trigger a justification for war or military action against Iran?

5. What WWIII dangers do you see right now in the world?  What about Syria/Turkey/Iran/Russia/China/US alignments in regards to the Syrian civil war?  Do you see a danger there of missteps that might lead to global conflict?  What will you do to avoid that?

6. Explain to the American people exactly upon what legal basis, national and international, you would place US ships in the Strait of Hormuz?  Iran has threatened to blockade its own territorial waters in the Strait.  Upon what basis do you claim that the United States would have the justification to militarily oppose such an action?  Do you have any other basis for such a position than ‘because we can’?  Or that cutting off oil (even if done perfectly legally) ‘threatens our national interests abroad’?  Why would it be militarily actionable for Iran to police its own waters however it sees fit?  Please bear in mind that inconvenient or costly or even economically catastrophic is not militarily actionable, else we would have tanks parked on Wall Street.

7. Drones – yes or no.  Usage of drones inevitably takes the position that the lives of civilians, often children, are expendable, more expendable than our own troops.  After all, they aren’t our kids.  How do you justify that?  Will you at least acknowledge that modern warfare as waged by the United States has abandoned even the pretense of acting to protect civilians on all sides?

8. What do you believe solved the Cuban Missile Crisis?  Was it military strength?  Diplomacy?  Some combination?  We teach our children that it was military strength alone that averted nuclear war between the US and the then USSR, omitting from the narrative the behind-the-scenes negotiating that took place whereby the USSR withdrew its missiles from Cuba and we withdrew ours from Turkey.

9. Do you perceive engaging in diplomacy as a sign of weakness or of strength and why?

10. When, if ever, should the United States apologize on the world stage?  When have we gotten it wrong in the last 10-20 years?  Should we admit that?  Why or why not?

11. Name your top 5 principal advisors on matters of foreign policy – the people upon whose advice you most rely.  What is their experience/where and for whom have they worked in the past?  What do they bring to the table as far as you’re concerned?

12. Name one naysayer on matters of foreign policy to whom you regularly listen – someone who sees the world very differently than you do and tells you so.  Name one time when that person changed your mind and why.

13. Name the most important religious principle of your own faith that governs your views on how the United States interacts with other countries and why.

14. Name one person from history whose leadership in world affairs shapes how you think on these issues and one lesson you learned from that person.

15. You are both espousing Christians.  How does your faith inform you on matters of foreign policy?  Specifically, Jesus taught that the other, the enemy, the one not of our tribe, is in fact our neighbor, whom we are to love even as we love ourselves.  How do you see that maxim of the Christian faith played out in your presidency?

16. Constitutionally, the president is the commander-in-chief.  Why, in your view, is this role important to be held by a civilian?  How does investing the duties of commander-in-chief in the civilian office of the presidency serve and promote the public welfare?

17. Surveillance of citizens of the United States by the CIA and other intelligence agencies of the federal government – do you favor or oppose and why?

18. The Patriot Act’s provision making the education of persons or groups on non-violence, peaceful resolution to conflict and utilization of legal recourse an act of terror if provided to persons labeled by the government as terrorists – what, in your view, is the purpose of prohibiting such skills, intended to help people move away from violence and towards peace in solving problems?  How does this provision promote the national security interests of the United States, if at all?  To Mr. Romney – if elected president, would you keep this provision intact or move to rescind it?

19. NAFTA and CAFTA and other free trade agreements are attacked by working people of the countries with whom we have these agreements as decimating their livelihoods.  What changes, if any, would you make to these agreements?  How do these agreements benefit working people in the US or abroad?

20. Please as best you are able refrain in speaking in sound bites or slogans and address the role of the United Nations from your point of view – addressing specifically its positives and not its negatives.  What does the United Nations do well in your view?  Name at least one success story of the United Nations from your point of view.

21. There is much discussion about the Republican strategy regarding taxes of having a pledge, a precommitment, if you will, not to engage in tax-increasing behaviors.  Will you make such a pledge here and now to the American people when it comes to engaging in military action around the world?  Will you pledge not to engage in military action around the world unless you have first sought and obtained from Congress a formal declaration of war?  If you will not, why not?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Presidential Debate: Blue is Not an Answer

Gotcha!  Bet you thought I was talking red state/blue state or blue tie/red tie.


Actually I am harkening back to my practicing law days.  When preparing a witness to testify, one of the simple declarative sentences I used was: answer the question.  Don’t duck it.  Don’t answer the question you wish was asked or the question you hope will be asked.  Just answer the question.

The example I used to get my point across went something like this: Let’s practice answering the question.  What time is it?  The person would then give me the time.  Good, I would say.  See how easy that is.  If I ask you for the time, you wouldn’t say ‘blue’, now would you?  Because that wouldn’t make sense.  When I ask you the time, do not tell me the color of the sky.  It’s annoying.  It’s rude.  It’s a waste of time.  And it looks dishonest.  So don’t do it.  Ever.

That’s how it went, the ‘blue dialogue’ – when I want to know the time, don’t give me blue for an answer.

Ignoring the question is a pretty common phenomena in politics.  Alas.  And last night’s debate was no different.  Both candidates did it much of the night.  But two examples jumped out at me.

First, Mr. Obama and the price of gasoline:

QUESTION [from Phillip Tricolla]  Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?

ANSWER [Mr. Obama]  The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy. . . I'm not going to cede those jobs of the future [referring to alternative energy jobs] to those countries. I expect those new energy sources to be built right here in the United States.  That's going to help Jeremy get a job. It's also going to make sure that you're not paying as much for gas. [point when Mr. Obama at least attempts to tie his answer to the question asked].

ANSWER [Mr. Romney, who was no better]  This is about bringing good jobs back for the middle class of America, and that's what I'm going to do.

CROWLEY [recognizing the questioner was not getting an answer]  Mr. President, let me just see if I can move you to the gist of this question, which is, are we looking at the new normal? I can tell you that tomorrow morning, a lot of people in Hempstead will wake up and fill up and they will find that the price of gas is over $4 a gallon.  Is it within the purview of the government to bring those prices down, or are we looking at the new normal?

ANSWER [Mr. Obama]  Candy, there's no doubt that world demand's gone up, but our production is going up, and we're using oil more efficiently. And very little of what Governor Romney just said is true. We've opened up public lands. We're actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration . . . [he flirts with answering the question, but still isn’t there]

ANSWER [Mr. Romney]  If the president's energy policies are working, you're going to see the cost of energy come down.

CROWLEY [still looking for an answer to the question]  Mr. President, could you address, because we did finally get to gas prices here, could you address what the governor said, which is if your energy policy was working, the price of gasoline would not be $4 a gallon here. Is that true?

ANSWER [Mr. Obama]  Well, think about what the governor -- think about what the governor just said. He said when I took office, the price of gasoline was $1.80, $1.86. Why is that? Because the economy was on the verge of collapse, because we were about to go through the worst recession since the Great Depression, as a consequence of some of the same policies that Governor Romney's now promoting.  So, it's conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices because with his policies, we might be back in that same mess.

Whether true or not, I do not know, but the problem is Mr. Obama never answered the question of whether or not the government and the Energy Department in particular actually has a role to play in the price of gasoline at the pump.  So here’s a suggestion, Mr. Obama: the answer was yes.  In answer to the question, ‘Do you agree with your Energy Secretary . . .’, the answer is ‘yes’.  Yes, you do agree with him.  This is not rocket science.  It is, I grant you, a political hot potato.  But Republicans and Democrats in this time in history are in agreement.  Gasoline prices are not regulated in the United States.  We made that decision collectively some time ago and have never looked back.  Thus the only direct impact the government has on oil prices is fixing the level of excise taxes.  It’s free market all the way for us.  And for once, that’s probably a (potentially) good thing: the only way we’re likely to reduce our over-consumption of oil is to literally priced out of the market.  All of the other ‘fixes’ are temporary at best.  Why, oh why, oh why, would you not just say so?

And now it’s Mr. Romney’s turn.

QUESTION [question posed by Katherine Fenton] In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn? [Mr. Obama answered first and was directly responsive.  Crowley reminded Mr. Romney of the question, “Governor Romney, pay equity for women?”]

ANSWER [Mr. Romney]  And [sic] important topic, and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state [one has to wonder why Mr. Romney didn’t learn about pay equity when he was heading up Bain Capital.  His chief qualification to be president has been touted by him and others as his business experience.  Surely business experience includes at least a rudimentary knowledge of the laws against gender discrimination and the glass ceiling], because I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men.  And I -- and I went to my staff, and I said, "How come all the people for these jobs are -- are all men." They said, "Well, these are the people that have the qualifications." And I said, "Well, gosh, can't we -- can't we find some -- some women that are also qualified?"  And -- and so we -- we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. [Turns out Mr. Romney is in favor of Affirmative Action.  Who knew?]  I went to a number of women's groups and said, "Can you help us find folks," and they brought us whole binders full of women. [And there it is – the laugh line of the night. . . to be fair, Mr. Romney does talk about actively recruiting women to work for him – affirmative action – and flextime, but he never gets close to answering the question posed – never.]

ANSWER [Mr. Obama]  Katherine, I just want to point out that when Governor Romney's campaign was asked about the Lilly Ledbetter bill [referring to the Fair Pay Act of 2009, which effectively extended the statute of limitations for bringing an action against an employer for violating equal pay for equal work], whether he supported it? He said, "I'll get back to you." [Mr. Obama then went on to talk about contraception coverage.  Mr. Romney responded to that, but never addressed the issue of equal pay for equal work and elimination of the glass ceiling.]

The fact is that as I listened to his answer and observed his demeanor, I began to wonder whether Mr. Romney even knows what the glass ceiling refers to, although the questioner certainly gave him a big hint by referring to the ratio of earnings between the genders and given his experience in the private sector, he certainly ought to.  So having ‘helped’ Mr. Obama with an answer, here’s a similar aid for Mr. Romney.  The question was what will you do about the glass ceiling.  Your honest answer, Mr. Romney?  Nothing.

But at least Mr. Romney gave us something fun and funny to play with.  Mr. Obama’s answer didn’t even allow for that.

All joking aside, however, honest answers to sincerely posed questions is a sign of respect as well as competence.  Ducking is cheating.  And no one likes a cheater.

Whatever time it is, Mr. President and Mr. I-would-be-President, the answer is most definitely not ‘blue’.

12 Days of Christmas Rolled Into One

The last 24 hours were remarkably good to me.

The math doesn’t add up (5 golden rings ≠ 4 white-tailed deer), but imagine this sung (badly) to The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Edible Arrangement . . . 
Dinner with new friends . . . 
Cello lesson . . .
Interesting debate . . . 
Roof overhead . . .
Jesus loves me . . .
Car back -- only 5 weeks . . . 
4 white-tailed deer . . . 
3 flocks of birds . . . 
2 shooting stars . . . 
1 black bear . . . 
and the Milky Way

An Edible Arrangement came as a thank you from a friend, who knows I have always coveted my own since she received one from her son when we graduated from seminary.  Better yet, I watched the UPS guy deliver it to my back porch while we sat in Bible Study at the church next door, where he came next to drop off something for Sue, recognizing her car and saving himself the extra trip.

Dining with new friends Priscilla and Bill, I got to enjoy their lovely home and sit under the stars as we huddled around the outdoor wood stove for warmth and enjoyed the setting sun and the wonders of a night sky uncrowded by light pollution.  Tracking flight paths of the distant planes, I saw a shooting star.  When I got home, I took my last look at the night sky and there was another.  If it was an omen, a message, the only lesson I draw is to be blessed by the fleeting beauty and wonder, thankful I could see them.

The sky was so perfect we could see the Milky Way, like light cloud cover over our heads.

The deer, of course, are ever present, but out where they run free, their tails bobbing up offer a white exclamation point to their quick departure.

Earlier in the evening, three distinct flocks of birds rose up from the trees as I drove by (sorry for the intrusion).  I imagined their calls into the setting sun . . . we’re late, we’re late, we’re late, as they rushed southeast.

Indeed it was a very, very good day.

Here's hoping & praying your day comes blessed with its own soundtrack.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Seeing Stars

While in seminary back in 2005, I took a wonderful class on church art throughout history.  On a cold February day, we considered cathedrals.  By that time, I had spent my student year in Scotland, at the end of which my mother and I toured the circumference of England, visiting so many cathedrals along the way that by the time we got to Yorkminster, this Calvinist Protestant was ready to scream, No more cathedrals!

No more opulence, no more vaulted ceilings and ornate stonework, no more gothic arches and clever niches, no more high pulpits and graves inside church – it was all just too much for my love-of-plainness soul.

Photo by Francois Thomas at Wikimedia Commons
My visceral reaction had calmed quite a bit in the intervening year, so that by the time the class assignment to create our own scrapbook of church art came around, I was glad to have snapshots of all those vaulted ceilings and of the chance to learn more about what it was all intended to symbolize.

Often Jesus appears in the center of the cathedral ceiling sitting on a throne in these art pieces that make up part of the worship space (and it is pretty cool that even the ceilings were considered part of the worship ‘space’).

The artistic representation is beautiful.

Yet I am troubled –  why is it that Jesus is on the throne?  We are so in love with imperial regalia.

Jesus comes as a servant king, if any kind of king at all.  Why does not our art, especially our grandest, image Jesus on his knees, rather than as a kingly demanding figure suggesting that we must be on ours?  Not that I object to being on my knees, but it seems we’re missing something important.  Rilke well knew how the painting of Jesus in the regalia of the earthly king actually disguises him, changes him into something he was, he is, not.

We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.

Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.*

To be fair to the long-ago architects of these fabulous structures, they had a very real sense of God as architect and master builder.

But I also learned that for them, the positioning of Jesus on the throne at the apex of the high vaulted ceilings was to prefigure Judgment day.

Like everyone else visiting these places, I always look up and am reminded of my very small place within the cosmos.  But it is not judgment that I am minded of.

For where they saw reckoning, I see the stars.

*Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, Rainer Maria Rilke.  Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Trans.  New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, p. 50

Monday, October 15, 2012

9 Objections to the Rule of the Undecideds

Every voter matters for a very simple reason: every human being matters.  We each matter to God.  And though we don’t often seem to realize it, we each matter to the body of us as a whole.  We matter in our presence, but equally, we matter in our absence.

Withholding our (best) selves from the body politic matters.  And so does being withheld from it.

That’s why efforts that either intend to or result in voter suppression are so pernicious.

But what draws my attention today is my continued frustration with (and if I admit it, contempt of) the debate processes.

Tomorrow night the voters themselves get to pose questions – but not really.

The people who will ask the questions are those who have not ‘decided’ – for whom they will vote and potentially even if they actually will vote.  Weighting the debate (and the election) in ‘favor’ of the undecideds makes no sense.  I understand why the candidates themselves would court folks viewed as ‘still in play’, but this is not (supposed to be) a process to educate the candidates about the voters.  It’s supposed to be about educating the voters about the candidates.

I’ve said it before (Just Say No to Opinion Polls) – I hate polling.  In my own view, it adds nothing to the process for the voters and takes away quite a lot.

That the Gallup Poll actually chose the folks  who will pose questions to the candidates tomorrow night from its own determined pool of undecided voters is itself problematic.

(1) It presupposes that the remaining 80%+ of us have minds that cannot be changed or influenced by events and information gleaned between now and election day.  It presupposes that our elections are determined or predetermined as pollsters say they are.  Why bother to vote at all?  Why don’t we just let Gallup poll us all and then tell us who we’re going to vote for?

(2) While being undecided may mean one still has questions, it does not mean that the questions the undecided have are the best or even relevant questions.  In the informal focus group gatherings many networks have had, I have yet to hear one single question or observation that meant anything to deciding which candidate is actually the best of the two to be President.  Instead, what I continue to hear is either (a) the leanings (right or left) the person brought into the room; or (b) some amorphous something the person is looking for (call it the likeability factor) swaying the mood of at least some in the room.  How on earth is that helpful to any of us, including even the person so reacting?  I neither need nor benefit from a political discourse that continues to view my feelings as the most important thing.  Claims of feeling my pain are sometimes silly, sometimes deceitful, sometimes amusing, sometimes awkward, and almost never indicative of the overall qualifications of the person seeking the job.  I for one, am not looking for a Best-Friend-in-Chief.  Is empathy an important quality in a leader?  Of course it is.  But I am singularly unqualified to gauge the empathy of a stranger based on what they say.  I can hardly gauge my own empathy based on my words.  Actions really do speak louder – for all of us.  There is no connection between undecided voters and the quality of their questions.  They may have great questions or they may have really silly ones.  Shouldn’t it be the quality of the questions that is the focus of this interaction between citizens and their leaders?

(3) It is a myth that undecided voters decide the election.  Some years ago I watched a basketball game’s final minutes.  I think Duke was playing, but don’t hold me to that.  In any event, in the final seconds, the fouled team member stepped up to the line to take his shot.  The score was either tied or they were one point down.  The young man missed the shot and his team lost the game.  The narrative at the time and in the days following was that this young man lost the game for his team.  Did missing that last shot make a difference?  Of course it did.  But the difference was no more and no less than the difference made by each shot taken and made or missed throughout the entire game.  The fact is that the entire team worked very hard together and lost the game, a game which is scored based on an aggregate of baskets scored throughout the entirety of the game and not based on any one shot.  So it is with elections.  The last vote counted is not the winning vote.  It is merely the last vote counted.  As a friend pointed out last night, had Al Gore won his own home state of Tennessee, chad or no chad, no one would have cared about Florida.

(4) It isn’t particularly helpful to either the one posing the question or to me to see them ‘face to face’ with the person they’re questioning.  Was Bill Clinton the better candidate?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Did (or should) that have had anything to do with the so-called turning point when then-President Bush fumbled a bit on answering a question about national debt and its human face while Mr. Clinton approached the woman asking and gave her good face time?  I don’t think so.

(5) If polls are to be believed, undecideds almost never ask big questions, like “what is your view about the place of the United States in the world?”  “Why in your view should the US exercise leadership in world affairs?”  “What is the source of our power around the world in your view?”  “What should we as a nation do when we get it wrong, whatever the ‘it’ might be?”  “What is your theory of the purpose of government?”  “What writers and thinkers capture your imagination and why?”  “If you could constitute your own ‘dream team’ of advisors from the history of the United States, who would you pick and why?”  “Which advisor do you value for disagreeing with you?”  “What new thing have you learned that you didn’t know in the last month/six months/year?”  “To what degree does government actually affect the performance of an economy and in what ways?”  If, as one candidate suggests, it is the ideas, the big-picture thinking that each uniquely brings to the table, shouldn’t we at least be asking them about their big ideas?

(6) Team building is one of the most important aspects of a successful leader.  And we almost never ask any questions about the ‘team’.  Who are your key advisors?  Who is your ‘go-to guy’ on critical issues foreign and domestic?  What are their core beliefs?  The leader shapes the team, but the team also shapes the leader.  So what qualities are you looking for in your team?  Undecideds, along with the rest of us, do seem to be concerned about congressional gridlock.  Maybe team building questions will emerge there.  But to what degree is it fair or appropriate to hold any president accountable for a recalcitrant Congress?  I really don’t know the answer to that one.

(7) I am guessing that there won’t be much questioning about the judiciary.  None were asked of the two top-of-the-ticket candidates in their first and only debate about domestic policy, so this next debate is our only chance to hear both men speak about this.  I hope someone asks: what kind of candidates will you be appointing to the federal bench and particularly the Supreme Court?  What qualities and skills are you looking for?  What is your ‘litmus test’?  Here’s mine: Mr. Obama supports choice – would he ever appoint a candidate whose personal views are pro-life?  Mr. Romney is pro-life – would he ever appoint a candidate whose personal views are pro-choice?  Here’s another: exactly where does each candidate see the check on executive power?  What can the executive not do in their view?  It relates to judicial philosophy, inasmuch as each candidate is likely to seek appointees who are consonant with their own views on the issue of presidential powers and prerogatives.

(8) The process is itself a construct.  It is not an open town hall meeting.  The moderator screens and chooses the questions and thus substantially shapes the discourse.  Apparently, candidates decided long ago that the free-for-all of the first town hall was not on.  More’s the pity.  If nothing else, it might give us insight into how each candidate deals with chaos.

(9) Because it is such a controlled environment, questioners won’t have the chance to do something really creative or challenging like giving each candidate an eraser board with the demand that they do the math.  Too often big and vague language conceals what they’re actually talking about when it comes to things like taxes and the economy especially.  Give them an eraser board and let them explain how their vision will work.  Enacting vision requires the ability to effectively communicate the vision.  If they can’t explain it to us, they can’t explain it to themselves and it’s just all smoke and mirrors.

Maybe I’ll be surprised.  Maybe the questions of the so-called undecideds will be more broad, important and informative than I anticipate.  Maybe the candidates will shine in setting forth clearly their respective visions and goals.  Maybe we’ll have a quality national conversation about the business we’re about when it comes to governance.

I am part of the 100% and I will be paying attention.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon Cliff Note: Stuck in the Eye of the Needle*

Jesus and Moses have a perspective of love, love which knows that when you’re stuck in the eye of the needle, you can either go backward, go forward, or stay stuck.  But in order to move forward, something has to change.

Moses and Jesus both address this condition of ‘stuck-ness’:  the concern that the very wealth of the rich, that which makes our lives so much easier, is or will become a stumbling block.

Wealth competes with God in the hearts of humanity, and all too often, wealth wins.  In Biblical terms, the concern is of idolatry, the worship of anyone or anything other than God.

This turning away from God can be likened to a disease and in our time, it actually has a name, “affluenza”.  That there can be loss in wealth, we all understand; after all, sorrow comes to us all.  But that wealth itself is a form of loss, is more difficult to accept.

The first thing we need to accept is that we are rich.  With food on our tables and roofs over our heads, and clothes on our backs, we are rich.

Secondly, Jesus’ words are motivated not by punishment, but by love.  From that love, Jesus tells the wealthy man what he must do to enter God’s kingdom.  In essence, Jesus is saying, ‘for what you need, do not look to your hands, look to mine.’

Thirdly, neither Jesus nor Moses are idealizing poverty.  The Wisdom of Proverbs chapter 30 is instructive:  “. . . give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’  Or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.”

How quickly we recognize the dangers of poverty.  Yet how rare it is that we pray, “Oh God, please don’t make me rich!”, or when rich, “Oh God, relieve me of this burden!”

But God makes it very clear that this is exactly how we should view our wealth: as burden and temptation, as duty, never as a state to be desired for its own sake, and only to be taken on with humility and care, for the temptation to become stewards for ourselves, rather than for God or for each other, is virtually insurmountable.  We succumb to that temptation to our great peril.  But succumb we do.

To be distracted by the things of this world, thus forgetting God, is to be stuck in the eye of the needle.  The irony is that the prosperity God provides can result in a turning away from the very God who provides it.

Champion swimmers shave their body hair in order to eliminate any drag on their bodies as they press forward to their goal.  Wealth can be a drag, a distraction – from God.

There is much in our world to distract us from God.  But it has a price.  In his book The High Price of Materialism, author Tim Kasser concludes that, providing basic needs are met, people who are rich are not happier than those who are not.  In fact, those who pursue wealth are generally less happy than those who do not.  Most surprising to me, Kasser found that the health and happiness of the people who have dealings with those pursuing wealth are harmed as well!  Finally, he concludes that materialism does not cause unhappiness; rather, unhappiness feeds our desire for things and our desire for things feeds our unhappiness.

Jesus’ call is to move away from feeding our own unhappiness.

Let us join with the Wisdom petitioner of Proverbs and pray, “Oh God, do not make me too rich, lest I forget you.”  Amen.

*In October of 2006, I ended up one Sunday with two sermons instead of one.  I didn’t like the first one and when it was done again, I didn’t like the second one much either.  So I gave the folks at Headwaters Chapel, where I preach first each Sunday, the choice - ‘A’ or ‘B’.  They chose B, so I preached from the second manuscript.  Then on to McDowell Church where I repeated the offer and the same choice was made (who says God has no sense of humor?).  At McDowell they asked when they would hear the other one.  “Never,” I said.  Turns out I lied.  I dusted off sermon ‘A’ for this Sunday and threw in a bit of ad-libbed political commentary on how our fear is the flip side of the same coin of our plenty when it comes to wealth, using the things I was thinking about in Friday’s blog BethRant6 - Let's End the Generational Wars as my example.  This post is the Cliff Notes version of sermon A.  The scripture passages are from Deuteronomy 8 (Moses’ sermon to the people about to enter the promised land on the temptation of forgetting the origin of the land of plenty in the grace of God) and Mark 10 (on the rich young ruler who lacks only a path cleared of wealth to enter God’s kingdom).

Friday, October 12, 2012

BethRant6 - Let's End the Generational Wars

Let’s End the Generational Wars

Right here, right now.

Let’s do it.

Let’s walk away from all the political chatter that would pit oldsters against youngsters.

Let’s abandon discussions that would preserve all of my and my kind’s advantages at the expense of our children and grandchildren.

You know what I’m talking about: the suggestion that Social Security and Medicare financial challenges be ‘solved’ by keeping my benefits intact while cutting the benefits of my children and grandchildren.

I am not saying that we can ignore the financial challenges we face.

I am saying that it is wrong to seek to solve those challenges by pitting generations against each other in their respective financial stake in the provision for old age.

So here’s an idea: if (and it is a big if, especially as I do not feel I am sufficiently qualified to even know where truth lies on these issues) Social Security and/or Medicare cuts in fact must be made, let’s begin not with our young.  Let’s begin with ourselves.

We Baby Boomers have the (perhaps unfortunate) distinction of being the largest generation numerically.  That’s why our generation is referred to as ‘Boomer’s - there’s just so darned many of us.

Thus did the many pay in for the relatively few of our own parents and grandparents.

But on top of all the other issues (economic downturn, increased longevity, increased costs of care), while there are more of us, there are less of our descendants, which means less money paid into these funds by the taxpayers.

So why don’t we Boomers think about ways we could take less from these funds to help defray the overall cost?  Why don’t we think about how we might sacrifice for the benefit of those who will come after?  Why don’t we ask AARP to fight as hard for our grandchildren as it fights for us?

I know I’m on shaky ground here as many literally do not have enough to meet their expenses as it is.  And more and more, the kids and grandkids are coming back home to live, unable to find jobs themselves.

But let us never, ever forget why social financial safety nets were put in place ‘back in the day’.  They were put in place precisely because we experienced a Great Depression and millions were in the position of having no means of surviving their own old age.

The safety net is worth protecting for the generations.  And Wall Street is not the answer.  I don’t know a lot about finances and economics, but I do know this: we cannot rely upon our worst selves to save our best selves.  And unfortunately, Wall Street represent our worst selves.  The idea that young taxpayers would have no Social Security but instead would be allowed to invest their own dollars in the stock market as they see fit actually puts right back in time to the place we were that led to the creation of Social Security in the first place: the Great Depression.  When things go well with Wall Street, it feels pretty good.  But things do not always go well with Wall Street.  Ask any person preparing to retire in 2008-2010 whether they’d preferred to have a 401(k) or a traditional defined benefit pension plan.  Nothing in this life is guaranteed, but a traditional pension plan is a much more sure thing than investing.  Most of us simply do not have the interest or the expertise to invest wisely even on our own behalf.  And if we don’t have to put the money aside for our old age, history tells us that we won’t.  Finally, Wall Street continues to be a place for those with a very high tolerance for risk – with OPM (other people’s money).  Gamblers Anonymous is filled with people who thought they had a ‘sure thing’.  Wall Street is simply institutionalized gambling.  We’ve learned and relearned that lesson and still we refuse to act upon the experience we’ve gained the hard way.  12 Step programs call that kind of behavior insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting it to be different).  They aren’t wrong.

So here are a few very practical thoughts/suggestions for ‘we the people’:

1. For those of us with some means, stop – right now – any and all efforts to circumvent existing laws so that your savings will to go to your children when you die rather than to provide for your care right now.  It is wrong.  It is wrong to not only because it is illegal, but it is also immoral.  It is immoral to actually have money on hand to provide for your own old age but to divert that money away from your care and require your fellow citizens to pay your freight so you can leave your kids a legacy.  A lot of them (current taxpayers) have less than you do.  So how about leaving your children the legacy of duty fulfilled, honor instilled, integrity preserved?

2. Same thing with life insurance: if you have life insurance worth more than it will cost to bury you and that life insurance has cash value, consider taking some of that cash value towards your own care.

3. Treat your kids well so that they will be willing to help care for you in your old age.

4. If you have the means, give some or all of the money back.  That’s right.  You heard me.  If you have sufficient income to provide for yourself, when you file your income tax return, pay more than you owe.  We are actually allowed to donate money to the government.  So if you don’t need the Social Security, give it back.  If you can’t get past the mental stumbling block that it’s ‘your money’, then give it back once you’ve reached the point that you’re drawing out more than you put in.  Check out PPI for a proposal to codify the idea by giving retirees the ability to select a level of benefit to receive from Social Security.

5. Pay attention to your bills and Medicare benefit statements.  Read them.  If they show a service that you did not receive, call your doctor or the provider of the service to have it removed.  Mostly, it’s probably just a mistake.  But sometimes it isn’t.  If it’s fraud, do not be a part of it.  It is dishonest.  If you know someone who is defrauding Medicare, report them.  This fraud is stealing from our own children.  Who steals from their own children?  [Check out Medicare Fraud to learn how to report problems with billing.]

5. Make it clear that dealing with this problem for all the generations matters to you and your vote.  There actually have been plans submitted to Congress that would make a difference.  But Congress will not act.  The reason is simple: Congress believes and rightly so that old folks (who vote way more than young folks do) will not stand for any of it.  We have to change in order for Congress to change.  We have to let them know that we are willing to do our part.  Tell your Senator and Congressperson that you support Simpson-Bowles, which would both (a) increase the payroll tax for Social Security and (b) increase the retirement age.  Perhaps the increase in retirement age might be a temporary measure (directed specifically at we Boomers).  I don’t know if the math would justify this being an interim measure.  But the fact remains that until we voters make it clear that we demand Congress act and recognize that it will require sacrifice on our part – a sacrifice we are willing to make – nothing will change.  And it will be our fault.  Not Congress’s.  Not the President’s, whoever that person may be.  Not ‘government’s’.  Ours.

Maybe you’ve got some ideas too.  Share them.  Put them out there.  There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ when it comes to government and it’s time we stopped acting like ‘they’re’ doing something to ‘us’.  It’s time we started behaving like grown-ups and believe and act as if economic crisis means sacrifice for everybody.  It’s time we stopped allowing our politicians to pit us against our children.  It’s time we cared about what happens to all of us and not just to me.  It’s time we acted like we are the solution to our problems.  In fact, it’s past time.

The Listening Ear

I ponder the importance of friends and friendships, thank God for the many friends I have and have had through the course of my lifetime thus far and wonder about being a good friend.

Have I been a good friend?  Not always.

Am I a good friend now?  Most times, at least I think so.

What makes a good friend?

So many things go into the hodgepodge of friendship, but the most important, I think, is a listening ear . . . an ear that hears what is unsaid as loud and clear as what is said. . . an ear that hears truths spoken into the silences in between . . . an ear that waits patiently to hear the next thing, the hard thing . . .

For all the blessed listening ears that have inclined towards me over the years, I say thank you.  Thank you especially for hearing what I could not speak.

And for all those voices longing for my ears, I say I am ready to listen.

In the words and in the silences . . .
In the laughing confidences
and shared sufferings
In the miasma of daily life
and the star-gazing plane of grand ideas,
May it always be well between us.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Road More Traveled

How I love Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, where at the last, the poet chooses the road ‘less traveled’, making all the difference.

That image of standing at forked crossroads and choosing with deliberation the path of travel, knowing the direction taken inevitably leads away from the other choice, the other road, is so compelling.

But I am a woman of the road most traveled, not least.

Thus do I stand in family, in work, in life, on a road of tradition and connection, a road of the known, for many have been there before me and reported back.

Some days I decry my own lack of the adventurous spirit.

Yesterday was not one of those days.

I drove the 10 miles or so from the village of McDowell where I live to the ‘town’ of Monterey (population 158, give or take).

It is a road taken by we living in McDowell sometimes daily.

And I know it well.

I know where to slow down to avoid the police watching for speeders (although I sometimes forget).

I know where to watch for deer (although they sometimes surprise).

I know how long it takes me to get from the beginning to the end of the journey, almost to the second, adjusted for log trucks from elsewhere who simply will not get out of the way.

But what stayed with me yesterday is that because I travel this road so often, I know where to look for beauty along a winding road already filled with nature’s wonder.

Look right on the straight stretch out of McDowell for the llama guarding Cindy & Jeff’s sheep from the cyotes, doing a quick check just before to see if Pearl and Benny and Sarah and Luke are safe at home.

Look left around this curve into the small break in undergrowth to see the clearing beyond.

Look right again checking – Patsy and Sonny are home . . . what progress the Hiltons have made to their horse training arena, emerging slowly from the woods, one stroke of the saw at a time.

Look right just there to catch the tiny waterfall of fresh streamwater grown large in fall and frozen with dappled runs of water underneath in winter.

Look straight ahead to catch the yellow leaves sauntering to earth on the breeze like old friends greeting my passing through.

Slow down around the hairpin curve to see if any eagles have come back to the pond.

View atop Jack Mountain
Look right again atop Jack Mountain to catch the vista of mountains and valleys laid out in all their glory and cast an eye downward to catch Monterey at her best, nestled in the valley below.

Look left, always left, to catch the fall wildflowers emerging stubbornly from the rock face out of which the road is carved.

While something in me fancies the idea of the road less traveled, I live on the road more traveled and I am the richer for it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Five Minutes

Five minutes – that was all it took as I sat on the road today for a crew of fellows with some very cool equipment to bring down a tree – probably 40+ feet tall, cut it into manageable bits and load it into a truck, clearing the road on which the felled tree had landed.

I pulled up as the first car at the stop sign and glanced at my clock.  Then I watched as a CAT frontloader with jaws had a guide wire attached to it to direct the fall of the tree across the road.  Down it came – looking like it moved in slow motion, but landing in a split second.

Then beyond my line of vision the guys must have quick cut the tree into manageable chunks for the CAT to come round and grasp in its claws and carry to the flat bed waiting patiently for its load.

I have no idea why that particular tree was felled.

Maybe it was diseased.

Maybe it was already leaning from this summer’s Derecho, which cut a wide swath through our part of the world.

All I know is that when I got the signal to move on, I looked down at the clock and to my surprise, saw that it was now 4:09 p.m. – exactly 5 minutes from when I pulled up to a stop.

All I can say is that was one cool CAT.

I know it’s not cool to wax poetic about Caterpillar.  And true to my kind, I support the boycott and divestiture efforts against Caterpillar because of its profits from the home demolitions occurring in the West Bank.  But the engineering of these machines and the skill in the techniques shown by the guys on the road today were something to behold.  And given their efficiency, some in the county where I live are wondering whether they could give some pointers to the folks subcontracted to build the 18-month bridge (so named because of the amount of time it is taking to rebuild it).

See IPMN Divestment Call about divestment from Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlitt-Packard.  See CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) site about CPT's work and the conditions in the West Bank.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Footprints We Leave

Edna Mae has passed from this world
having died like she lived – quietly

Her warm clothes gone to the local SPCA
I will see her sweaters and sweatshirts
walking the streets of our villages
having been gotten at bargain price
at the Fall Sweater Sale

the special drinks she could no longer
drink have gone to the local Food Bank
and I will meet the people who have
drunk unto life what she no longer could

Her shoes will travel as she never did
wending their way to Kenya and to
other women living hard lives
trying to make their way and support
a family with a little help from far
away friends – fitting that these shoes
be cared for, repaired, worn, and sold
by women just like her that she never met

Kay has gone on to serve another woman
in need of her and they too will become
friends and more than friends in the
small space between them named kindness

Family have divided the rogue’s gallery of
pictures that adorned her walls – never to
be together in the same way again

Bobbi and Gary are in the house now
where night before last, unbeknownst
to me, one of her closest neighbors,
the chimney caught on fire . . . again
and the fire guys came out to take care
of their ‘best customer’ – Edna Mae’s
house – an old gal once so fine –
and silly as it sounds, we all smile
for the memory of the stubborn chimney
that would not be fixed – and amidst the
smiles we remember the woman who
called this place her home – and it is good

Monday, October 8, 2012

Snowflake People

snowflake people

we are snowflake people

I am not like you
and you are not like me
we are all of us
uniquely made

snowflake people
that’s what we are

A bit of whimsy on a day when it's snowing in the Highlands.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

That Satisfying Sound

I don’t know why

the sound
of the leaves
grown dead
on the ground
in the fall
makes a most
satisfying sound

Left to choose
the cleared yard
or the leaf strewn
I always go
straight for the

crumble, rumble

there is something
so simply right
about this sound
of the earth
returning to itself
it makes my feet
happy and my ears

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Praying Our Lives

It comes with the job.  Preachers are often called upon to pray on command: a lunch gathering here, a sick parishioner there, church on Sunday goes without saying.

We hope we’re speaking for all the gathered when we open our mouths.

We hope that our belief that God listens is true.

We hope that our prayers matter.

And it does.

Separate from how prayers enter the consciousness of God, a thing very presumptuous to claim, there is the comfort our prayers bring to the hurting, the in-gathering our prayers reflect to and of the faithful, the settling into quiet they presage, the sending of blessing and well-wishing into the cosmos.

Of late, I have begun to see prayer more expansively, literally coming to understand our lives and every heartbeat of them as their own form of prayer, an offering, a supplication, if you will, to The Highest Power, whom I call God.

Whether we mean to or not; whether we’re particularly intentional about it or not, the lives we live are an offering – to God and to the world.

Seeing my own life this way changes how I live it.  It makes me more mindful, more thoughtful, more caring.  May it always be so, for there is much to mind, think on and care about.

May the life I live this day be acceptable and pleasing to You, O God.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Symphony

I read David Byrne of Talking Heads fame waxing philosophical about music.  I read and learn and am gratified.  We have moved, it seems from music as the sounds around us to our own organization of sound full circle to music as the sound around us.

I hear the sizzle of the candle on my desk made to sizzle . . . the intermittent slap on asphalt of cars and trucks rushing from who knows where to who knows what . . . the occasional bird determined not to fly south for this is not a presage to winter or anything like it . . .

But today I wonder more about the sounds I do not know, have not heard . . . what sound does the black swift make nestled behind the waterfall?

What secret sounds do twins murmur in greeting after a day’s separation?

What sound does God hear when hands are clasped together in that moment before the prayer begins?

In what key do the winds of the Himalayas blow?

Is there harmony in the creaking and breaking of the Arctic ice?

What tempo resounds in the keening of the polar bear for its mate?

Whether I hear it or not; whether I am mindful of it or not, a symphony is happening, filling every moment in every space of this whole wide world and the keys I tap are the tiniest contributors . . . my own pizzicato contribution.

I hope The Conductor is pleased.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Grading the Debate

Grading the Debate
My Scoring of the 1st 2012 Presidential Debate
With an important post-script about Syria & Turkey

I score President Obama the winner over Governor Romney by a score of 26-10.

How did I arrive at a score?  I flowed the debate, as best I could.  Even though this was not actually a debate in any sense of the word, I scored it as if it were and to that end, I took each candidate at their word (leaving my own pre-knowledge outside the room and leaving fact checking to others).

Clash is the debate concept that each debater meets the issue(s) raised by their opponent directly and responds, with evidence rather than with mere assertion.  Mostly what I ended up scoring was clash or the lack of clash.  This approach was in order to capture, as best I was able, the content of what each candidate had to say in relation to what the other said, which is the essence of debate.  If there weren't an opponent in the room, there would be no debate.

Round 1 - The economy and jobs: Obama claimed to have created 5 million new jobs, to have saved the automobile industry, that housing is on the rise, and that money saved from the two wars the US has been involved in will be used to ‘rebuild America’, and a plan to close tax loopholes regarding overseas investments, none of which Romney responded to.  5 points Obama.  Both agreed on a need to invest in skill building of the work force and education.  Obama specifically referenced Race to the Top educational reform, the plan to invest in 100,000 additional math and science teachers and to keep tuition affordable, none of which Romeny addressed.  1 point Obama.  Obama referenced developing new energies, increasing American energy production and increased oil and natural gas production, which Romney countered with the fact that energy prices have increased under Obama, public energy leases have been cut in half under Obama and increased development has occurred on private lands, to which Obama did not respond.  1 point Romney.  Romney’s tax savings plan was attacked by Obama with specific figures ($5 trillion in tax cuts, $2 trillion in increased military spending, e.g.), saying that these could not be offset by eliminating tax deductions.  Romney countered with the assertion that it isn’t true, to which Obama responded that the math is clear and it can’t be done without other cuts or tax increases to the middle class.  1 point Obama.  Assuming a nexus between taxes and job creation (as both seemed to do, at least part of the time), Obama claimed to have lowered taxes 18 times to the benefit of small businesses, to which Romney did not respond.  1 point Obama.  On Obama’s proposal to raise taxes for those with an income above $250,000, there was clash about what is a small business, how much employment the top tier of small businesses generate, and finally, Romney’s claim that the top tier of 3% of small business owners employ 1/4 of the work force and enactment of Obama’s tax increase would result in a loss of 700,000 jobs, to which Obama did not respond.  1 point Romney.  On the big picture, there was a bit of a tie: Romney’s claim that in the last 4 years, 24 million people have been out of work; and Obama’s claim that under the Clinton/Democrat model, there was record prosperity and under the Bush/Republican plan, there was record financial crisis - 1 point each.

Round 2 - The economy and the deficit: Obama urges the elimination of corporate subsidies to the oil industry, which Romney countered with the fact that the same subsidies were extended by Obama to alternative energy companies, to which Obama did not respond.  1 point Romney.  Obama urged eliminating deductions for corporations such as for corporate jets, to which Romney did not respond.  1 point Obama.  Obama claimed a record on deficit reduction of eliminating 77 government programs, 18 educational programs, saving tens of billions in eliminating Medicare fraud and 15 billion in waste, taking 1 trillion out of the budget, a 4 trillion deficit reduction plan, a plan to increase revenues by $1 for every $2.50 in spending cuts, to none of which specifics Romney responded.  1 point Obama.

Round 3 - The economy and entitlements: Noting a problem with the usage of the word ‘entitlements’, Obama said that Romney’s voucher plan is estimated to cost each person covered an average of $6,000 per year, to which Romney did not respond.  1 point Obama.  Romney proposes shifting to needs-based coverage, to which Obama did not respond.  1 point Romney.  Romney overall attacks the expense of provision of these benefits, to which Obama responded that Medicare has less administrative costs than private insurance, which also adds in the expense of its profit for doing business.  1 point Obama.  Obama cited AARP claiming that Obamacare extends the life of Medicare by 8 years, to which Romney did not respond.  1 point Obama.  Obama said that repeal of Obamacare would cost on average an additional $600 per year in prescription drugs, increase in co-pays, and benefitting only the insurance companies, to which Romney did not respond.  1 point Obama.

Round 3a - The economy and government regulation: Romney said that while some regulation is necessary, it can also become excessive and actually do unintended harm, citing Dodd-Frank banking regulations as an example.  Obama did not respond directly to Romney’s challenge about excessive or over-regulation.  1 point Romney.  Obama specifically linked the recent economic crisis to an absence of regulation, with which Romney either agreed or did not expressly refute.  1 point Obama.  Romney said Dodd-Frank hurts the economy with provisions like protecting banks deemed ‘too big to fail’, to which Obama responded that the banks had paid back the monies loaned to them by the government with interest.  1 point Obama.  Romney said that he would keep ‘some’ of the provisions of Dodd-Frank (used as an example of government regulation).  Obama charged that Romney had previously said he would repeal Dodd-Frank, to which Romney did not respond.  1 point Obama.

Round 4 - Health Care Romney asserts that Obama cuts Medicare to pay for Obama care and that Obamacare will kill jobs because businesses are less likely to hire workers because of the additional burdens it imposes, to which Obama did not respond.  2 points Romney.  Romney charged that a private unelected board would be making medical decisions for patients under Obamacare, to which Obama responded that the board did not deal with individuals but with industry best practice standards, to which Romney did not respond.  1 point Obama.  Obama claims that repeal of Obama care will result in 50 million people without health insurance, to which Romney did not respond.  1 point Obama.  Both claimed the provision of health care to be an important goal, but when challenged by Obama to reveal what his plan is, Romney did not respond save to say he would have one.  1 point Obama.  On the Obamacare model and its workability, Obama asserted that it is the same model as that enacted by Romney while governor of Mass. Romney shifted the argument to say that Obamacare did not have bi-partisan support, to which Obama responded that it was a Republican idea using the same plan as that in Mass, with actually the same advisors helping craft it.  1 point Obama.  Romney asserted that according to the CBO, Obamacare would result in 20 million people losing their health insurance, to which Obama did not directly respond.  1 point Romney.  Obama claimed that the rate of growth of health insurance premiums has slowed, to which Romney did not respond.  1 point Obama.  Romney asserted that the (federal) government is a bad bet as an organization or institution for saving money, to which Obama did not respond at this point, although Obama had earlier made the case that Medicare administrative costs are lower than private insurance, which when added to profits private companies received, results in savings to the consumer.  No point to either candidate.  Obama challenged Romney’s plan as failing to provide for coverage of pre-existing conditions.  Romney denied that was true.  Obama responded with an explanation of Romney’s plan (which sounded like COBRA), which would not provide universal coverage of pre-existing conditions, to which Romney did not further respond.  1 point Obama.  Romney’s health care policy foundation is his statement, “the private market and individual responsibility always work best”, to which Obama challenged him to explain how he would enact to provide health care and why keep it a secret, to which Romney did not respond.  1 point Obama.

Round 5 - The Role of Government - what is government’s ‘mission’?  After outlining their general principles about the role of government, the debate focused on education and the question of whether providing education or improving the quality thereof is a role of the federal government.  It is to that portion that I addressed my judgments, making no score on the two men’s statements of principles.  Obama alleged that Romney would cut the education budget by 20%; Romney said he wouldn’t.  No points.  Romney offered his school voucher proposal, to which Obama did not respond.  1 point Romney.  Romney attacked Obama on things like investments in green technologies and an implied attack of corruption (saying that Obama gave federal green monies to campaign contributors).  This was off topic, as Romney never tied it to education.  No points.  Obama cited his program of linking community colleges with industry, providing training for students, who are guaranteed a job at the end of the program as an example of the role the government can play in education, to which Romney did not resopnd.  1 point Obama.  Obama also cited his program which eliminates banks as ‘middlemen’ in student loans, saving students on the cost of repaying their loans, to which Romney did not respond.  1 point Obama.

Round 6 - Governing and gridlock Both men spoke about their aspirations and approaches.  No points.

On the substance of any debate, which is comprised of the often boring details and minutia of an issue, the winner was clear on my flow chart.  Mr. Romney tended to speak in broad terms.  That does not mean what he had to say was either unimportant or untrue.  It does mean that when it comes to debate, there was often little upon which to judge his performance.

Some general observations about the style aspects and other random thoughts

1. Pundits asked for a substantive debate.  Even observing that Gov. Romney spoke more generally, both men in fact gave a substantive debate, outlining their worldviews when it comes to governing and at least some of their particular ideas about how we go about achieving their vision for the United States.  The sadly ironic thing is that it was that very provision of substance that results in many claiming Mr. Obama ‘lost’ the debate on style points, which simply demonstrates that we apparently have absolutely no interest in how we are going to be governed and are only concerned about whether we like the person, or think the person is most like us, or some other such ephemera.

2. Here’s my take on who you should vote for, for whatever it’s worth: if you believe that government should get out of your way, be the least intrusive as possible in your journey towards your dream, leave it entirely to you to choose, whether you choose badly or well, vote for a Republican.  If you believe government should help you and provide for the common good, even if not your own particular good, then vote for a Democrat.  It is a philosophical difference.  It does not mean that one is necessarily morally superior to the other.  And the fact is that most of us believe government should land somewhere in the middle of these two poles.

3. Both men ran roughshod over the moderator.  Mr. Romney was more obvious, interrupting Mr.Lehrer often, even talking over him.  Most seemed to have found that appealing, as Mr. Romney was assertive, like a president should be.  I thought it was just rude.  But Mr. Obama ignored Mr. Lehrer as well; he was just more subtle.  One female commentator noted last night that maybe it’s a gender difference, but she didn’t like it.  I agree.  If you’ve agreed to a format beforehand, honor it.  If you haven’t, don’t tell us you have.

4. I just googled ‘judging the presidential debate by content rather than style’ and got 65 million+ hits, but not one of them was about the debate that actually happened last night.  Not one.  That, I think, is an incredibly sad commentary on us as a people.

Finally, in my blog yesterday, I had a couple of questions I wanted answered.  Mr. Romney answered the questions I had for him:
Mr. Romney, if you wish to eliminate or substantially change the approach of progressive taxation, as your talking points suggest, upon what basis do you claim that this shift actually results in an increase in prosperity for everyone?  And as a subset of that question, if you have to sacrifice one of your taxation goals in order to achieve a balance to the budget, which goal is the most expendable from your point of view?
As I understand his position, Mr. Romney believes that lowered taxes on the wealthy (the job creators, as he describes them) generally frees up more capital for them to invest, which creates more jobs.  He did not say those words.  What he said was, “taxes slow growth”.  I extrapolate the rest, but I think I understand his position.  The second aspect was much more clear: what would Mr. Romney sacrifice to achieve a balance to the budget?  Everything – when it comes to government spending.  Everything except military spending.  And social security.  And education.  And Medicare for those currently receiving it.  But Mr. Romney made it very clear that under no circumstances would he increase taxes.

My question for Mr. Obama was answered as well.
Mr. Obama, given that as president, you are required to work with Congress, how do you propose to enact your economic programs (or any of your programs, for that matter) in the face of organized, concerted congressional opposition?  It is not enough to merely blame Congress.  What do you plan to do about it?
He said that he would take all ideas on board when it comes to solving our problems as a nation, whatever the source.  He said that he would take care to well-describe his plan so that there was understanding about what it is and what it is not.  And he said that occasionally, he would say no, to both friend and foes.

I believe them both.

Now to the hard work of citizenship and deciding where that takes us as a nation and what I intend to do about it when I enter the voting booth.

An important post-script

Yesterday as these two men were preparing to meet and debate, one of them had some other things on his mind, no doubt.

Yesterday Syria (or someone from Syria’s opposition groups) bombed Turkey.  This isn’t the first time.  But it is the first time that Turks were killed.  Five people, including a mother and her three children were killed.  Turkey responded by bombing Syria.  NATO weighed in as did Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

And Turkey’s military asks its parliament today for the authority to act against Syria.  Early indicators are that this is more symbolic than an actual precursor to outright war between the two nations and thus far, Syria has taken a conciliatory and apologetic approach with Turkey, promising to investigate how this could have happened.

But the border between the two countries is a tense place as Syria’s civil war continues and rebels move into Turkey for cover.

And lest we forget, Syria counts among her allies Iran, Russia and China.

World wars don’t always or often begin in the obvious place.  They begin with a skirmish there, an insult here, a death or two, revenge killings, drawing in of allies, and escalation.

Thus far it seems that in the aftermath, both Turkey and Syria are seeking ways to avoid war with each other – a good thing.  But allies are also being pulled in.

If you do nothing else today about world politics, pray for Syria and Turkey, pray for world leaders, that cooler heads prevail and that escalation is avoided.  In the U.S., pray that the man who you think didn’t have such a great debate last night be filled with wisdom and vision and the courage to resist violence as a problem-solving technique.  Pray like the world depends on it.