28 December 2009

The Ghosts Are Gone

Every year I re-enact Dickens' great Christmas tale, literally and figuratively.

First literally - On the Sundays of Advent I read it aloud after church, to a small but devoted crowd. Reading aloud has all but died, and what a shame. For generations this was the way most people 'read' a book. Reading Dickens is especially fine because he wrote it to be read aloud, I think.

Much of the humor and insight is in the words, you see, and not just the dialogue. The anonymous narrator's voice begins the tale and ends it, and along the way embellishes and explains and critiques the whole story. Even fine cinematic versions lose this. Reading silently, though also fails as the sound of the words, the clauses piled on clauses, gives pleasure to the ear as well as the mind.

I am contemplating recording it as a podcast. Copyright is no problem of course. Would you like that? Do let me know.

Figuratively - I am an Advent Grinch. The whole run-up and hoopla and constant racket of Christmas merriment drives me to distraction. Scrooge had three ghosts to contend with, but I have thirty, for each day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mine are less terrible but they make that up in sheer volume.

But Christmas Day and the week between it and New Year's are among the most pleasant of the year. Exhausted by the lunacy, there is a lovely calm to the days as the two holidays are too close to attempt serious work, and too far apart and too different to blend together. They force us to leave off serious plans and just let the days pass.

The best thing so far this season was Christmas dinner, a large affair even for the four of us, as it requires roasting some seriously fine beast, and surrounding it with suitable companions. The menu varies slightly each year, but this year I fired on all cylinders and there was as much huzzahing as there was at the Cratchit's table when the goose spilled forth.

In case you are interested here is what made the perfect meal for us.

1. Boneless rib roast. Departure from tradition, the boneless part. And I seasoned it with a coating of 2-3tb soy and 1-2 tb Dijon mustard mixed and layered on, upon which I stuck thin slices of onions, over which came another lathering, followed by generous grindings of salt and pepper. This sat for 30 minutes or so until it went into a 450 degree oven for 20 minutes, reduced to 350 for an hour and reduced again to 300 for another hour. I took it out and let the juices settle before slicing it.

2. Roasted vegetables. Most years there is something mashed along with something cooked. But the simplicity of cooking with the roast made me try this. Yellow squash and zucchini chopped into 1.5 inch hunks, along with carrots and potatoes of similar size. Two whole onions, peeled of course. Bathed in olive oil and rosemary leaves and more salt and pepper, they sat in that until the 70-75 minutes of the roast.

3. I needed a something with a different texture and character, and decided on cucumber salad simply dressed with whole milk yogurt based tzatziki sauce and a hefty seasoning of dill. This was mixed up first actually, and allowed to get acquainted while I prepared the first two.

Then I was free for most of the next two hours.

After the vegetables went in I prepared the kicker, Yorkshire pudding, or yorkie puds as my son's Canadian friends call it. It is completely unhealthy - flour, milk, eggs and fat from the roast. But once a year is forgivable. The "Joy of Cooking" has the basic recipe but you don't need to refrigerate it long. Just let is cool enough to settle down.

This year though I followed the advice of the Minimalist and cooked it in muffin cups. First I put the muffin pan in the oven, which was not back at 450 while the roast cooled a bit. Leave the veggies in for the next 15 minutes. I put the roast back in for this portion to keep it from getting too cool.

Remove the pan and quickly slosh some rendered tallow from the roast and melted butter in the bottom of each cup and then spooned enough batter to fill each half way. Back in the over for 15 minutes. Turn down the heat to 350, remove the veggies and the roast. Cook the pudding for another 10-15. They become extremely rich popovers with tiny flecks from the beef roast on them like a dusting of cocoa.

In those ten minutes slice the roast, and when the puddings come out plate it all lickety split. Memorable, I promise you. Made me want to exclaim, "God bless us everyone."

26 December 2009

One Last Chance

End of the year is here, and one last chance to use the tax code to your benefit by giving away money. This week we will be writing a few checks that will amount to a goodly sum, and as I have discovered in the last five years to goodly effect on my heart as well. I am glad to be able to tithe, when all our donations are amassed and counted. Being able to support causes and institutions we believe in is very satisfying, and the more I can give the more satisfying it is to support them.

What makes me write, though, is not my charitable activities, but my church. (As you probably know I rarely talk about my church. This blog is not about my outer work as much as I my inner life. Less adventurous perhaps but no confusion about who speaks for whom as it were.) But I just gotta brag.

Last January, with my enthusiastic support, our lay leaders decided to take all 'free cash' from the Sunday offering and set it aside from community support. That was daring for us. Through 2008, you should know, we put social ministry money in the overall operating fund like heat and copy machine supplies. The collection was added to pledges and other income. In 2008, for example, social ministry was budgeted for about $10,000 and the cash in the Sunday plate amounted to $16,000. This year we put no money in the budget for it and said that whatever came in on Sundays would be it.

Tomorrow we come to the end of the first year of 'giving away the plate.' And the total through Christmas Eve is over $32,000. Yes, twice as much as we put in the plate all last year. Twice! It represents 3% over and above our operating budget.

This is during a recession, remember? This is Michigan, remember? Back in March we cut our operating budget, cut back on personnel hours, I personally took a pay cut. But we stuck with our promise to reach out and at the end of the year twice as much had come in. As far as anyone knows, this is the most the church has ever given to the wider community.

And we feel great. Great enough to do it again.

Oh, we still have to struggle when it comes to pledges and operating funds. We even disagree about why it's a problem and how to solve it.

But we are all feeling good about what we did for the wider community this year. It feels great to hold up your part of the sky.

20 December 2009

Nothing Up My Sleeve...

But sometimes it feels like folks are pulling a fast one. Consider this article from today's NYTimes, about 'cancer treatment centers.'

Now, I would never wish to dishearten someone who is facing medical crisis, but the idea that hospitals and clinics are playing a little fast and loose with facts is distressing to me. Sure, we all should be able to promote our services and products, but this strikes me as playing too obviously to people in a state of emotional intensity. Who makes good choices when your own life and limb are suddenly insecure?

Of course, there are those who actually use numbers. But few do because of the hubbub over mammography recommendations. But as another article shows, even numbers can be confounding. (The graphic connected to the article is really good!)

Numbers sound factual, so many this and so much of that. But I know numbers are just as easily misunderstood or put to obfuscation as words. Just look at how both Republicans and Democrats cite the CBO about health care reform, and how there are so many different numbers about the deficit, and so on.

Numbers are powerful, but we still have to think about them. Thinking, it seems, is what is in short supply everywhere. I commend it as a New Year's Resolution. It's on my list, for sure.

16 December 2009

Officially Over The Top

They say you can't be in two place at once, but I managed it on Sunday.

My Friday radio show (hyperlinked there in the left column) is rebroadcast on Sundays at 7 am. A few days ago I recorded a pair of programs for another show, "Common Threads" which airs on a different station and is broadcast when?

Sundays at 7 a.m.

I was in competition with myself, you might say. We all know that the yuletide season is way too busy, but I never thought it would get so frantic that I would be literally beside myself.

Doesn't it seem odd that we constantly bemoan the frenzy of the holiday season even though it is entirely of our own devising? Was it John Grisham who wrote a book called "Skipping Christmas?" Sometimes I wonder what it would be like not to take part. That would be easy in Asia and the Middle East where Christmas is a minority voice.

(I got a taste of that when I was in Istanbul, where Christianity is mostly an historic thing - old churches and stuff. The two actual operating churches I saw were outnumbered by the dozens of mosques. Iznik, the ancient city of Nicea where the creed was formed and which I visited, has no working church and likely no resident Christians. And I must say it was oddly exhilarating refreshing to be in a place where none of your cultural assumptions preside.)

I suppose what I want is not the end of Christmas but spreading it out more, not packing all that merriment and charity and good will into a few weeks. Do you find it odd, as I do, that on December 26th it is all over? Carols quit, trees are hurled into the street, and we just stop.

At our house we actually begin our enjoy the day itself, but then observe the full "twelve days" through Epiphany by opening a small gift each day (thank you Hannukah!), indulging treats, making each day a little more than just a day. We spread the cheer out as it were. Our tree is among the last to arrive and the last to go, like reluctant hosts who want their guest to stay longer. And we use winter, those long cold nights, to compose and send our greetings to others, be they New Years greetings or Ground Hog greetings or even St. Valentine's greetings.

Hardly Skipping Christmas, and yet subtly subversive. If you find the season too demanding, so that you are beside yourself with business, you are allowed to do things differently. Who knows, you might start a trend - "keeping Christmas" not just spending it.

13 December 2009

Ho Ho No

As Grinch-in-chief, being merry is never high on my list even though I read the eponymous book aloud in church this morning (with my black Santa cap on) to robust applause. No, my lack ho-ho-ho-ness is more immediate. The chimerical senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman has announced he will vote against the Senate Health Care Reform Bill. Read more.

Tomorrow my gall will be more settled, and my spleen, but these items are less likely to be in good health if the senator has his way. I truly hope this is a matter of principle for him, myopic as those principles seem to me, because if he is doing this to leverage his influence or win favor from the minority or because he simply cannot vote against the moneyed interests and keep his job then several poxes be upon him.

And may they be judged previous conditions as well.

12 December 2009

I Had An Idea

Then the snow came. Big snow, the second in as many weeks. This one lasted two days. All in all about 8 inches, not including the sleet and the slush that started it.

Today is sunny, and for the first time my brain isn't snow bound either. How intriguing, that the mind can be so affected by things out there. At least mine is. All of which is to explain why I have not written for a week, and how even when I have an idea to share it vanishes quickly in the flaky landscape.

One thing I have done is write, finishing (almost!) a manuscript I have been writing for the last 2 years. No you can't see it. Too raw, too personal, too unruly. But a few wise friends who have previewed parts will give me feedback. From what I understand, writing is easy; editing is hard. If so, then I may not live long enough.

This means that my mind has been on that project and not on the continuing saga of health care legislation, the president's trip to Oslo, the Pakistan 5, and certainly not Tiger Woods. On this latter matter I saw that virtually every major network - broadcast and cable - was talking Tiger last night. I ended up watching the Food Channel.

What I can give you are some juicy hyperlinks to articles I have caught of late. Check these out.

- Carl Jung's Red Book has been published. He kept it secret because it was too weird to share. Take a peek.

- I have known several people who had 'essential tremor,' which until now has had little understanding. There's news.

- And sometimes I really wish I were in the big city, in this case to see a peculiar and powerful one man play called "The Last Cargo Cult."

That should turn your head around a little, like mine often is. And for those who want to focus on the yuletide hoopla, there's lots of stuff at my church website. Check it out.

Now, back to my sermon and my delectably close to complete manuscript

04 December 2009


When you pass the halfway mark in life it means new stuff tends more and more to remind you of old stuff. You hear echoes.

This evening, standing on my back porch, after the first snowfall of our very long snowfall seasons, the cold had that familiar snap and bite I remember from the few winters I spent in Vermont as a college kid coming home for the holidays. It was only three holiday seasons actually, 1974-76. My folks moved there in the summer of 1974 and I was married in late 1976.

Anyway, I remember the cold there because all my life up until then had been in Maryland where winter is cold but not frigid. Arriving there from St. Louis where I was a student my breath fairly froze on my lips the first time I breathed the local air. At the house I marveled at the frost forming on the inside of windows and the roar of the winter wind. Any romance I had about snowy mountains cracked like an icicle.

Over time, though, I adapted. Being in my early 20s I did not feel the cold quite so deeply then as I do now.

What I remember this evening, the echo that tingles the edge of memory's ear is a morning back then, after a great snowfall, when the sun was wildly bright against the snow. Mother sent me out to shovel the area from outside the door of the mud room (New England term for the air lock one enters in winter to put off wet and muddy boots before actually stepping into the house itself) to the kitchen porch around the corner. Not a long way, but it was a handsome snowfall of about a foot. Serious work.

I was bundled well, and booted, my hands mittened and head encased in toque and scarf. But in only minutes I was unwrapping the scarf as my breath steamed, and then I was loosening the top of the coat, then taking off the hat, then even the coat, as the work made me so warm I was sweating in the cold morning air.

When it was over I marveled at how warm I was standing outside on that Vermont January day. I could feel the sunlight on my face and see straight up to it through a sky swept clean of moisture and haze, so blue no paint or pixel could match it.

Those skies are still there, now and then. And the snow of course. But perspiration in the snow, that is gone. Back then I was so young and vital that my body could literally ignore winter.

Maybe that is why the only thing I anticipate with pleasure in winter is snow shoveling. Bizarre on the face of it, I know. But sometimes, even when my hips mock me and my hamstrings refuse to stretch, I can feel a little trickle of sweat on my back and at my brow. The coat stays on and the gloves, but even now there are days when I doff the hat because it is too warm.

And for a brief while the blood runs as hot as it did back then, radiating like a stove, and life burns its way up from the belly as if reaching for its source and cousin, the sun.

Not so often now, nor so easily. But it does happen. And I wipe my forehead with my sleeve and stomp the snow from my boots and walk back into the house as juicy and alive as I was in 1975.

03 December 2009

Pick Me!

Did you hear, Fritz Henderson is out at GM? The board fired him because he was too much a company man, having worked for them 25 years. The board chair, Ed Whitacre, said "that G.M. was 'on the right path,' but needed to more quickly under new leadership.

the board decided that the 25-year veteran of G.M. was too tied to the company’s past mistakes to bring a fresh approach that could help reverse its decades-long slide.

According to a person with direct knowledge of the board’s deliberations, there was no final straw that led to Mr. Henderson’s forced resignation. Rather, G.M.’s directors began discussing weeks ago that the company needed to seek an outsider to lead the company.

“Fritz was just not enough of a change agent,” that person said.

Well have I got an idea for them.


I'm an outsider, way outside, as in walk to work and drive a 2003 Toyota my mother left me when she died. (Our other car, a 1991 Toyota, was damaged over the summer and we sold it, but it too came to us when my mother-in-law died.) I am the un-CEO and yet have been leading organizations for all of my 30 years of service. And believe me I know how organizations can get into ruts. One I led was founded in 1655. GM has nothing on that.

Honestly, people underestmate us clergy as leaders. They think that because there are no big numbers or fancy campuses that our work is light weight. Just ask any business leader who has ever served on a church board and they will tell you the minister has a way tougher job.

And the best part, I do not need to succeed. One thing I have learned anything over the years Jesus taught me, "Whoever would save his life (job) will lose it." You gotta do what's right and if that means you get fired, OK. Obviously, playing it safe did not save Fritz his job.

So what would I do?

Tell them to make the car that will save the industry. The future belongs to home grown renewable fuels, to people who want to choose whether to drive or walk or ride the bike or the bus. GM ought to provide transportation solutions, not surrogates for power or pleasure or sex. They should make the Swiss Army knife of cars, the dependable tool people need to live solid and satisfying lives.

Then I would ask them why this can't happen, what is keeping us, America, GM, from being the leader not just in profits and market share but in ideas and hopes and dreams. GM is trying to do what Henderson did, keep its job. And that's why they will fail. But who will tell them?

Yep, that would be me. And besides, I do not need anything close to the salary they paid Fritz. Mr Whitacre said this would be a problem in searching for a new CEO:

“The biggest impediment to hiring someone from the outside as C.E.O. will be the compensation issue,” said Jerome York, a former G.M. director who had pressed for new leadership at the company. “Most executives of that caliber expect a boatload of money to join a new company.”

Mr. Henderson’s cash salary, for example, was cut 25 percent, to $950,000, once the government became majority owner after it helped G.M. emerge from bankruptcy.

Since saving money is important right now, I would settle for half that, easy. They would only have to change the last name on the door and the business cards, as Fritz is a common nickname for Fred. (Kinda like it actually. Zippy sounding, and not a whiff of Flintstone in it. My dad sometimes called me that actually.) And if they want, I can commute from the west side of the state. No need to relocate. How sweet is that?

01 December 2009

On Another Subject

I know this is my second post today and also that there is clean laundry to put away and papers to file and the garbage to take to the curb, but as I was reading this evening something popped into my head that may be worth mentioning.

There was a conference in Alexandria Egypt in November about Darwin and his ideas. Now, if we think evolution is having a tough time in America, you should do to an Islamic country. But my point is not Muslim suspicions of Darwin. It is why, which the article focuses on as well. Here is a quote:

While defending Darwin, it was this broader theme, the idea of at least listening to new ideas, that the library’s director, Ismail Sergaldin, emphasized in his opening remarks. He pointed to the Koran, which he said emphasized study and scholarship, as well as early Muslim scientists, to make his point. He cited the words of the pioneering 13th-century physician Ibn al-Nafis:

“When hearing something unusual, do not pre-emptively reject it, for that would be folly. Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies. Truth is truth unto itself, not because people say it is.”

What happened between the 13th and the 21st century? Lots of things of course, but one of them is imperialism. From the 18th through the 20th century, European powers effectively controlled much of the Islamic world. And occupying powers almost automatically treat those occupied as lesser, often as children. They maintain their parental authority by treating those they control as being unable to control themselves. Those who saw the movie "Ghandi" remember how well Sir John Guilgud oozed condescension as he explained British rule as necessary because Indians were incapable of self rule.

I now wonder if the sorry state of education in once highly sophisticated cultures is part of the result of being treated like children. I have seen it in individuals, families, and organizations. We see it in the state of African American culture and Native American culture. When you treat people as children they tend to become children, especially when you have parental like powers such as an occupying armies or absolute economic or physical power.

What I see happening in the Middle East and Africa often seems to be the long term effect of centuries of imperialism. Western culture is reaping what is has sown. If, after all, Irish Catholics still remember with intense anger battles fought 400 years ago between British and Irish armies, enough to propel them to modern violence, we should not be surprised to find a similar residuum in other places where the imperial boot was planted.

I'm Curious...

Every week I get a spike of visitors on Sunday-Monday. Why is that?

If you are among those who stopped by recently I would love to hear what made you do that.

I would also love to know what you think of what you read and what would make this better. Like it or not, the personal digital connection will be the dominant medium for the near and foreseeable future and knowing how to use it well is important.

As the man used to say... "I'm listening."

25 November 2009

When All Else Fails

Tell a story. I was i n the middle of a pilgrimage to Istanbul a few weeks ago, and then news and life and stuff all came along. Now it is the day before Thanksgiving, and while I could rant at the weird transformation of Ben Stein into the a shill for the ranting right, I will instead return to that more entertaining saga of Fred in Istanbul.

Besides, there are pictures to share. So where was I?

Evading my first rug merchant by slipping out of the Blue Mosque by the side door and exploring the old circus maximus and Museum of Islamic Art and Culture. There were lots of exhibits and it was not crowded, so I could linger over things like these carpets and Qur'ans, set in a room that was once the audience hall for Ibrahim Pasha, the grand vizier of the Sultan.

On my way out of the Museums there was, in a hall opposite the main entrance, a special exhibit on the confluence of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths, titled "Plurality in Unity," and brought objects from all three culture together. Not large, and not heavily trafficked, the selections were not only religious but medical, cartographic, and artistic. Lables were uneven, but each showed the influence of one of the other faiths in how it was decorated or what it depicted. I wish there was a website I could point to, but sadly no.

Next I made my way through the narrow streets of the Sultanahmet quarter to two other mosques off the beaten track. My aim was to encircle the neighborhood and arrive back at the great Ayasofya in the mid afternoon. The two mosques along the way were worth visiting, but the walk to them was every bit as engaging.

The first was, like so many mosques, built by a benefactor. called the Sokullo Mehmet Pasha. Photos were forbidden, but its claim to fame is that three small (olive sized) fragments of the Kaaba from Mecca are enbedded in the inner side of the entry door. Barring my conversion to Islam and thence making the Hajj, it is as close to the Kaaba as I am ever going to get. (Only Muslims are allowed in Mecca.)

I did, however, take this picture of the cemetery near the outer wall. As you can tell, the abandoned washing machine tells you this is not an official museum but a working mosque in a poor neighborhood.

Like most mosques, it was enclosed in a courtyard created by a madrasa, school, in the center of which was a fountain for washing hands and feet prior to making salaat. I could not help but notice how the architecture of the fountain, very typical, migrated west and become the pattern for kiosks of all kinds, but especially those in parks. It could easily be an ice cream stand or ticket booth in an old fashioned amusement park. Evidence of Victorian interest in 'the exotic east' due to its colonial network, it was later adopted by America which aped all things British as it tried to look more sophisticated in the world.
Outside the mosque, which was enclosed in a larger wall that took in the cemetery as well, I walked down a hill, pausing to gaze at ships in the harbor again. Now that I live in the heartland I treasure seeing the sea. And as I have noted before, how full the harbor was with ships waiting to make their way up the Bosphoros toward Russia.

Down the hill, surrounded by the warrens of narrow old streets, I was struck again and again by the immediacy of people and poverty.

Clotheslines hung from sagging balconies strung across narrow streets. Children were all about, and their mothers in windows or doorways but not on the streets. Old men occasionally walked by, and it was possible to think that the rhythms of life here were not far removed from a century or more ago.

But right next door was a new house, in the old style, and right next to that a burnt shell of a house. Compact trucks wobbled down the streets now and then, and satellite dishes were lashed to roofs and eaves wherever they might fit.

17 November 2009

Talk To Me

Once again I am non plussed by something that just happened to come under my eye. As ever I find it in the NYTimes, which is the only thing I read reliably, and even that I do not read completely. Hardly enough to justify the trees killed for the cause.

Anyway, I found a cool piece from last Saturday, the regular time for the "On Religion" column to appear.

(Parenthetically, this is all the Times does about religion on a regular basis, contrasted with the weekly section nearly ten times as large published in my local newspaper. But the inverse proportion is also true. The Times has ten times more actual news, so it evens out I guess.)

This past Saturday, religion editor Samuel G. Freedman wrote about Shekinah Ministries in Queens NY. It is about a rising young pastor named Din Tolbert, but what struck me was the sort of congregation he serves and leads. Go and read it, and then come back and finish this post.

Yes, I mean that. Here's the link

Done? If not the rest of this post is useless, so go and read it. Really.

I'll wait.

hmmmm................. hmmmmm............ hmmmmm.................

Ok, are you ready?

How cool is this? An entire congregation under 25, and they do it all, and well. That's exciting, but what excited me was that their worship life is in their hands. They create the experience, shape it, lead it, do it, and the preacher is just that and only that.

They own their worship.

My generation, and those before me by several generations, partake of worship, but they rarely take part, and even more rarely take a part (though there is an equally long tradition of worshippers 'taking apart' worship services afterward.)

My tradition talks about democratic religion, but when it comes to worship we very much rely upon the experts (clergy, musicians, ushers, etc). Why this is true would take more than a simple blog post to examine. But part of me wonders whether it has to be this way, even whether it ought to be this way?

Ponder this, readers. Ask your friends to read the article and ask whether or not we in the liberal wing of the religious world should not learn from this radical experiment in spiritual trust, in faith not in technical expertise but in spiritual and moral honesty.

I know it makes me pause. Tell me how you feel. Really.

15 November 2009

So Proud!

I can hardly contain myself this morning. A friend, the sort of friend you can not see for years and yet when you meet instantly be in each other's arms and hearts, has had a stirring success. Few things are more pleasant than that.

Sara Davis Buechner is a concert pianist, a prodigious talent recognized 25 years ago when she was David Buechner. Her transition from David to Sara just about killed her career and when someone wrote about her struggle in the NYTimes magazine ten years ago I saw the article and replied. The short reply was printed. And lo and behold she was in a pew the next week.

While we were both in NYC we met a few times, discovered common roots in Baltimore where we both grew up, albeit a few years apart (she is 6 years my junior). Then she moved to Vancouver and I to Michigan. Now and then we would send email.

Out of the blue she writes me an email two weeks ago, says she is doing an anniversary concert in NYC. It turns out she reads this raggedy rant from time to time. I am flattered, write her back. We come within hours of connecting but do not.

Anyway, I troll over to NYTimes.com this morning and there is an article and video about her comeback. What a pleasure. And you can enjoy it with me. Go, read, and watch the video too. It will make you happy, but not as happy as me!

11 November 2009

So Tired

It's 10 pm, and soon I will to bed. But being the 11th day of the 11th month, Armistice Day, Veteran's, something popped into mind. As ever, it is dangerous and probably best left unsaid. Yet, as many have found when the years have accumulated, the fear of speaking badly is now less troubling than the fear of not speaking up.

(Unlike others, it seems, I grow more radical with age not more conservative. Those who know me and my contrarian humor will not find this at all odd.)

Why are all our service people called heroes? I know why we do it, the rationale that is. Because we have been working off our Viet Nam guilt since 1975. And Korean vets had little better treatment. We extol them to compensate for those ignored, our national and lingering guilt at ignoring those who served in conflicts the nation was conflicted about.

But does that make them heroes?

Truly some are heroic, facing dangers and rising above and beyond. But most are not heroic in any personal sense. By calling them all heroes, however noble the intent, we subtly tell ourselves they are exceptional, atypical, special.

This is wrong. Serving one's nation should not be exceptional. It should be normal. Behind all our genuine desire to honor those who serve is a deeper shame that we do not all serve.

I did not. But only because I was not called. My number (a phrase now meaningless to those under 50) was low and my turn was coming. The draft ended before it got to me in 1972.

I was terrified then, for lots of reasons, most of them personal and far from political. But I did not seek an exemption because at heart I knew any excuse I got would be equalled by someone else who could not get one as easily as me. My fear was not unique. Every young man felt it. We had a very real, deeply personal, stake in the war and in those who chose to wage it. And this too has been lost.

Now that serving your nation is but another career choice, it has ceased to be what citizens do for their country. The sense of obligation to something larger than self, career, or even family, is gone. Everything is about calculated self interest, even patriotism. It is patriotic to serve but also good business, and better business to be a contractor, and better yet to be a supplier. See, we have even commodified and outsourced patriotism.

Calling our vets heroes is our way of emotionally justifying this commodification, a cheapening into money of something that was once chiefly about duty and honor and courage. We would be a better nation if we had fewer heroes and more citizens. O tempora! O mores!

09 November 2009


... is not always a blessing. I have an abundance of thoughts to share and not enough time to share them.

Since my last post I have been to see friends in NYC and substitute preach for a friend there. The church sits on Central Park West, very near to the Natural History Museum. You may have glimpsed it in opening scenes of the original "Miracle on 34th Street," when Santa is on his parade float sleigh, as it is on the route of the Macy's T'giving Day parade.
My trip allowed me to visit to the new High Line botanical walk created from an old elevated freight rail line abandoned to nature a generation ago. Very cool. See below.

But I also lost a dear member of my church to death and six days later a dear personal friend of twenty years died. Both of whose services I must and will gladly take part in, but not without considerable intellectual and emotional effort.
My church annual meeting is next week, and the holidays are breathing down our necks. Christmas carols played at the book store on Saturday. My skin crawled reflexively.
I began reading Tolstoy's War and Peace while staying with friends in Tribeca. What a great book, and what a great big book. Meanwhile I resumed the second of three volumes on the history of liberal theology in America by Dorrien, finished a cute little book about the Auden and Britten and McCullers and Bowles and others called February House.
And there is more to say about my journey to Istanbul last month, so much more. But what really caught my eye today was an article by the movie critic A. O. Scott in the NYTimes, reflecting on the movie "Where The Wild Things Are," which I saw last week. He/she (I have not idea which gender Scott claims) really nails some cultural nuggets and I recommend it to you all. Here's the link
Sorry about the layout. Creating blank lines and also inserting photos takes more wits than I have.
More later, I hope.

29 October 2009


I am not so sure, even though I am glad to see something happening to a long empty corner in my fair city.

Grand Rapids MI, like many other flyover towns, is laid out on a grid that is divided into quadrants. Two streets, one north-south the other east-west, form the physical sign of that grid such that everything in town derives its location from the intersection.

For many years, long before I came, this intersection, Fulton and Division, was a bit run down. Urban renewal came after the place had declined in the late 1960s, leaving a modern courthouse cum police station on one corner, a small Civil war memorial park on another, an abandoned Five and Dime looking place in late Deco style, and an empty lot on the fourth. Hardly worthy of our city center.

But one thing was there that I loved. An old painted advertisement of the time from the 1930s to the 1950s. We actually have a hard number of these left on the walls of old buildings. Most are more faded and less colorful. But they had a certain panache about them, a level of craft that was admirable even if the product was ordinary.

This year we broke ground on a new art/business/residential building that will fill the old lot. And this week the concrete pillars and piers that are the parking garage (called a 'ramp' in these parts) finally obscured the wall. It's still there but the view is gone. It will be great, but I will miss the White Sewing Machine sign and the Coca Cola lozenge. Progress, too, has its price.
(And if you don't know by looking, the parking ramp is what will be on the corner, which is no great improvement even over a empty lot.)

25 October 2009

Moving On

I was wrong. The Blue mosque was designed by a student of Sinan. Read more about this history of this place via Wikipedia. There are also better photos there than I snatched.

Sure enough, upon leaving the mosque and putting my shows back on, my self appointed tour guide was there, waiting for me. Talk about determination. He wanted me, of course, to see his stuff. I said I needed to return to the courtyard to take a few pictures which I did, but like the wise men from the east, I left by a different route.

This put me on a plaza to the north of the mosque, which is what is left of the Circus Maximus, or Hippodrome, that was the main stadium of old Constantinople. Nothing of the stadium itself is left, but there are two objects still in place - columns - that were once along the 'spina' or spine that formed the divider of the race track around which chariots sped.

This is one of them. Like most Roman obelisks, it is actually Egyptian, purloined from there to stand as a trophy here, testimony to the power of the emperor and the empire to do as it wishes. Old Roma has several such stolen obelisks, including one standing in the center of the Vatican courtyard. It was in Rome long before the Vatican was built, but the pope as the de facto monarch of medieval Rome appropriated one to make his Kilroy mark on the city as well.

I believe there is a spot, the piazza quatre fontane, where one can look down each of the four streets and see in the distance an obelisk in a distant square or piazza. But the point of these monuments was, as I said, to demonstrate the power of the emperor.

So, to make it clear who put it up, Theodosius, an early successor to Constantine, created a new base that is carved with Latin (which was still the official language) and and Greek, and illustrated with bas reliefs of the emperor at the circus doing mighty things. Again, article about it on Wikipedia is fuller and had better pictures.

Today, the circus is a narrow park that is surrounded by roads. Another column, the walled column, is younger by centuries but of less sturdy stone because it once was clad i n bronze and another shorter bronze column, called the serpent column also still stands in broken splendor. All three actually sit about 2 meters below grade, as the city has been built and rebuilt several times, always on the rubble of the previous structure. Families are everywhere in the little park, which is dotted with palms. The sun is bright and I decide to move on.

The goal? The Museum of Islamic Art which sits in this Ottoman palace which is along the north side of the Hippodrome, a pasha's palace in fact, Ibrahim Pasha to be specific, who was the prime minister/vizier to Suleiman the Magnificent. Note the hanging bay windows that are all but required of buildings here. But the palace is far larger than you see here. It contains a large collection I will describe another time.
But for now let me show you the best sight of all. From the covered porch and cafe of the Museum of the Blue Mosque across the way.

22 October 2009

Where was I?

Ah yes, in the park between the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque. My self appointed guide, who wants me to buy a rug, advises me to visit the mosque now and the church later. He ushers me across the park to courtyard of the mosque, which is built upon the ruins of the former royal palace which was in ruins before the Ottomans arrived, as it had been abandoned by the Byzantine emperor for better digs.

This view, from with the courtyard, recalls the Ayasofya, as the architect, Sinan I believe, incorporated the engineering techniques of half domes into his work over and over again.

All imperial mosques, so far as I can tell, have at least two minarets and a courtyard. The courtyard was where worshippers could relax and prepare for prayer. The fountain in the center, which you can see on the right, was for ablutions before prayer. Observant Muslims wash hands and feet and face before entering. Many, like this one, also once had colleges and hospitals and caravanseries (places where pilgrims and caravans could lodge) making such mosques very like Christian cathedrals in that they were meant to attract more than worshippers.

Today it is still a functioning mosque, but is a major secular tourist attraction and one reason is this view from inside. The blue color of the interior, partly from Iznik tiles and partly from the light, suffuses the place.

You can also see the nesting of the interior domes and how much light gets in from all the windows pierce the many half domes.

This picture shows a side aisle, if that word applies, and how the electric lights hand just above the people, from very long cords. Most of the light hovers above, playing in the ceiling. Down below the shadows prevail. One area, under the arches, is reserved for women at prayer, something I would find universally true.

Look at how many people there are, all tourists like me. All people are required to remove their shoes, carrying them in complimentary plastic bags. Women are asked to cover their shoulders and hair, though many ignore it which bothered me. I know that the modesty of Islam is part of its sexism, but just as men visiting synagogues should wear kippot whether they are Jews or not because it is a mark of respect, it seems that courtesy prevails over politics in a mosque.

The place for prayer is roped off, even when it is not time. And this covered woman walked back and forth - somewhat like a sentinel at the tomb of the unknowns - to reinforce both the limits of tourists and the ambience of religion.
What a stark contrast between the teeming gawkers on one side, listening to their tour guides with little flags and speaking in Turkish accented German and Italian, and this area with one woman and a man vaccuuming the enormous carpet that covers the entire interior.

I do apologize for the fuzzy photos. I was just learning how to use the camera, you see. They are fine when seen small but if you click on them to see them at full size some are blurry.

18 October 2009

Back To My Story

After the distraction of senators behaving badly, I am now returning to my intrepid travels to Istanbul.

Arriving late in the day after a long flight is actually smart. While I got some rest on the flight, it was not more than 2 hours overall, and so when I went to bed five four hours later (around 230 pm back home) I fell asleep readily and slept rather well.

The hotel had a nice breakfast included, spread out on a rooftop lounge that was where guests met.

But once dressed and fed I set out to cover the usual tourist haunts, the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya, among others. But as the whole city was new, I was instantly distracted by a cemetery.

I love cemeteries, as they are generally quiet, rarely busy, and open a different door into a new culture. This cemetery, marked with shadows, grew up around a late Ottoman sultan's tomb. The sultans often built themselves lavish octagonal mausoleums in which they placed their coffins and those of their family. I visited several over the week. Of course, people wanted to repose in good company much as they wish to live in good company, so public officials (pashas) and men of means sought to be buried nearby. This one is halfway between my hotel near the University and the ancient square that stands between the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque.

While people do visit cemeteries, and this one had a notable cafe attached, the current denizens are cats. Cats fill the corners of Istanbul. They are the favored domestic animal, at least the one not eaten. For some reason dogs are unpopular in Islamic countries. There is no rule against them, but there is a broad cultural distaste that means I saw very few canines and abundant felines. I should add that urban cats are common in Rome as well. Time and again Istanbul reminded me of Rome. Cats among the ruins was just the first indicator. The second was how ancient ruins are everywhere, a stray column, a crumbling wall, and yet the modern city simply wraps around them. Unlike the US where the old is scraped completely away, modern lives next door to ancient in a way I find consoling and appealing. Only Boston has a vestige of this in the United States. Quebec City has its old town, which evokes Old World life, but everywhere I have been in Europe the ancient is never far away. It may not be in good shape, but it is there and visible and usually preserved.

This fellow here is one of the half dozen rug merchants who approached me whenever I got close to the tourist sites. They are all well versed in English and so eager to sell that they volunteer as tour guides to get your ear. This fellow found me in the old square (you can see the Ayasofya behind him) and counseled me to go to the Blue Mosque first, as tour groups mob the Ayasofya in the morning. He insisted on walking me there, striking up conversation and trying to get me to look at his wares. I was warned of their persistence and that it was perfectly acceptable to decline often and firmly.

Crossing through the park that was once part of the Palace of the Byzantine Emperors, I turned around to get this photo. Classic, predictable, even hokey, the sight was still impressive. To know that this was both the largest church and the largest building in Europe until Michelangelo's St. Peter's of the 16th century, to know that it was 1000 years old then and is almost 1500 years old now, and that it was built when Rome itself was tumbling into a ruin that would reach a nadir of 40,000 inhabitants (less than one tenth its size in the first century) is to have your perspective on history and time and culture jolted to one side. Byzantium was Rome, New Rome officially, Constantinople by common parlance, Constantine's City, and so central to the world that people simply called it "The City," which in Greek is "sten polin," the origin of the word Istanbul.

BTW, you can click on any of these photos and see them in their larger original format. My skills are minimal, but it is a decent camera.
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16 October 2009

Balloon Boy...

... took over the news yesterday. But I still think the "dirty thirty" are more important. Thank goodness I am not alone.

Alternet posted something last week.

Huffington post commented yesterday. (But the real star was Jon Stewart.)

Rachel Maddow commented on it last week. (Long report with other stories as well)

A two year old story from Dallas, not a well known left wing town, wonders why a woman can't get a hearing even then.

In other words, there has been coverage. But I searched in vain for major dailies like the NYTimes or the DC Post or the LATimes, or network or major cable news.

I guess the fake balloon boy is more important to us than the fact that over half the Republicans in the US Senate think rape is not a crime when corporations are involved.

15 October 2009

Oh Crud

I really wanted to post a few more pictures from my journey to Instanbul and make insightful comments and stuff. But while I was away our Senate, a word which means elders and thus the thoughtful and wise voice of government, voted on an amendment to H.R.3326, the DoD appropriations bill, sponsored by the newest senator, Al Franken.

The amendment would prohibit the DoD from spending money for any "Federal contract with Halliburton Company, KBR, Inc., any of their subsidiaries or affiliates, or any other contracting party if such contractor or a subcontractor at any tier under such contract requires that employees or independent contractors sign mandatory arbitration clauses regarding certain claims."

Sounds simple, and it did pass handily. But there's more to the story. Way more.

The amendment arose from the news that an employee of Halliburton KBR working in Iraq states that she was gang-raped by fellow employees and when she tried to sue the company Halliburton KBR pointed out that her contract prohibited lawsuits and only allowed arbitration. Read the story here, from the Minnesota Post of October 6th.

The good news is that Franken amendment passed handily. The bad news is that 30 senators voted no. Thirty male Republican senators I should be precise, and they all talked about how government should not encroach on contracts and the perils of government intrusion.

To stop gang rape?

This is an inappropriate role for government?

Corporate liberty is more sovereign than citizen safety?

Yes, it is. When enough power and money collect anywhere, it doesn't matter who elected whom. They serve those with the power and the money. So in the end, we have 30, yes thirty, and here they are for your enjoyment (scroll down to see them in person, and remember not a single woman including Republicans voted no).

One third of the senate who would excuse rape rather than stand up to Halliburton. One third of the senate is more beholding to Halliburton than the combined populations of Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming , Idaho, Arizona and half the populations of North Carolina, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada and New Hampshire.

If I were not a clergyman whose members read this blog, I might more openly suggest that no one willingly votes to criminalize what you yourself do.

But I can say we should call them the pro-rape senators. Be it American women in Iraq or mere taxpayers in the United States, it's OK with them. And shame on us if we do not call them all to account.

Rant over.

11 October 2009

First Sights

Looking out from my hotel room, this is what I saw. Those are all commercial buildings which could be on the Lower east Side of New York City as much as Istanbul. Off to the right out of the picture and up hill about 50 meters is the local mosque, originally built in the 1480s, but recently restored. Also out of view on the right, directly across the cross street are other commercial buildings. I am on the third floor and can see into them because of the large windows. Every night men work large sewing machines for the clothing manufacturers around here.

This part of town is the old commercial center of town, less than a 1/4 mile from the fabled Grand Bazaar. A warren of narrow streets, small trucks block the streets, and men push hand carts along the narrow sidewalks. Others smoke and drink tea from little tulip shaped glasses. Men deliver the tea on platters, walking from a galley kitchen on every block whose sole task is to make tea. What New Yorkers call bodegas, tiny stores that sell soda and candy and cigarettes, are on each block. Each block also has a small eatery of some kind, usually a 'locanta' which is a simple restaurant. There is often a tourist hotel as well. In other words, every block is a complete community.

My first evening, after a desultory sandwich and glass of beer, I take a stroll on the Ordu Caddesi, the main avenue since Byzantine times. These ruins are of an arch set there by the emperor Theodosius in the fifth or sixth century. It was enormous, a double arch that spanned the wide road back then. It fell many many years later, I am not sure exactly when. The collapsed columns are so large and heavy that instead of moving them, the city simply rolled them to one side. For all I know they have been in this position for 1000 years. The tram and the traffic fill the old street where chariots and horses once went, people choke the sidewalks as they must have 1500 years ago, but now they all flow around these broken bits of glory. Oddly, I find it consoling at not at all sad. Even crumbling grandeur still has a place in this town.
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Before I Forget

Journeys begin at home. My flight to Istanbul left from Chicago. I got there very early as the flight was leaving at 1030pm.

This fellow was also going, but only as a stopover on the way to Tehran. He is Iranian-American, and started his day in Wichita Kansas. Once in Istanbul he would wait another three hours before leaving for Tehran, arriving there at 1am local time. And I thought my trip was long.

I saw others like him, on their way to Tehran, Mumbai, Amman Jordan. My European ancestry was in the minority on this flight.

Eventually, we got on board our plane and I was lucky to score a bulkhead seat with extra leg room. Lousy view, but it was mostly a night flight, so not much of a loss. The Airbus plane did have a couple of new features. The plane has cameras showing what the pilot sees as we take off. Very cool. And there was comprehensive flight info on the little TV screen if you wanted, showing how far and how long and how fast and even maps of what was below. Also very cool.

And ultimately, I was on the ground in Istanbul, riding to my hotel with this fine fellow. One must buy a visa as well as get a passport stamp. Two lines to wait in. But airports are airports in the end, with baggage carousels and people lined up outside with signs. I saw mine, and he led me through a maze that could have been Laguardia or OHare. Only when we left the airport area and entered into the evening traffic rush could I tell I was in someplace very new.

He was not well versed in English, so we made our way slowly in person as well as in traffic.
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10 October 2009


I spent a week in Istanbul, my first overseas journey in eight years. Entirely too long.

People asked me if I was going for business or pleasure. Are those the only two choices?

It was a pilgrimage. Not officially of course, like the Camino del Santiago or St. Patrick's Purgatory or the month of annual pilgrimage to Mecca. And truthfully, Christian Constantinople was a religious destination for centuries, with the largest church in the world before St. Peter's in Rome. Even after it became a Muslim country it drew pilgrims to see Islamic holy things as well.

When I say it was a pilgrimage I mean that it was an intentional journey of the spirit as well as the body, one that I made in order to venture inwardly as well as outwardly. Vacations are about vacating, getting away from it all. Pilgrimages are about getting deeply into something.

Istanbul is the place where everything meets. Ancient and modern, European and Asian, Christian and Muslim, western and eastern. It is a city as chic and modern as Paris. and as sprawling and shabby as Mumbai. In the old city center ancient Roman and Greek life is under foot on every street, and the Byzantine and Ottoman eras are visible on every block.

And yet trucks fill the old streets and students choke the sidewalks and everyone is talking on cellphones. Young girls in tight jeans laugh and walk arm in arm on the main street, the Ordu Caddesi, near the University. Young men in untucked shirts smoke and laugh in groups as well, as this is the crossroads of their world. Stores on the street are bright and white, eateries are full of people visible through large glass windows. I could be in LA or New York.

But then I see old beggar women with leather faces and few teeth and hair scarves who lean on canes and hold out their empty hands, or sit on small boxes to feed the birds and sell you crumbs to do the same. And along side the avenue with its modern light rail tramway are broken columns from an ancient Byzantine arch, too big to remove and so the city simply goes around them.

Every few hours each mosque, and there is a mosque every four or five blocks , broadcasts the call the prayer - each with their own muezzin and each at their own time so that a random choir of loudspeakers with undulating and ululating male voices rises up like a flock of birds in the ear, all at once but not in formation.

Ships fill the harbor, more than I have ever seen before in one place - the freighters anchored in long lines like a parking lot waiting for the appointment to traverse the Bosporus, the fishing boats wafting lazily between them, innumerable ferries scooting headlong about, like the cars in the streets, oblivious to physics and law. Gulls circle above the pigeons, the air is moist and smells of salt and men and diesel and charcoal.

I arrived at supper time on a Tuesday, having left 12 hours before at 1030pm from Chicago. Eight time zones and twelve hours at once. Serious jet lag. Crossing the border, getting a visa and having the passport stamped is momentous. My old passport expired two years ago so this one has gone unstamped until now.

Driven in by the hotel car, I enjoy my first traffic jam, the sight of palm trees along the roadside, the harbor coming into view, and my first sight of Asia, which lies on the other side of the straight. In the fog of a long flight and little sleep I am hyper-aware and also unable to take it all in. My room is small, clean, and at the end of the hall. The place came highly recommended and so far it has been just what I expected. My body wants to lie down, but I know it is best to stick it out until bed time, and so make my first foray into the streets which I just summarized for you. Seven days lie ahead.

This post is now officially too long. Perhaps tomorrow I can write more, and figure out how to upload a few photos as well. I did it before, but somehow it is not working this evening. They truly are worth a thousand words.

09 October 2009

But First, This Word

Yes, I am back. My brain is still somewhere over the Atlantic, meaning it takes a while for my brain to catch up to my body, which went throughy seven time zones on Wednesday.

That's further than I have even been, more than 1/4 of the way around the world. I was closer to Beijing and Bangalore than Grand Rapids. Very cool. Actually very warm, as Istanbul is a Mediterranean city, near the same latitude as Naples or Barcelona.

Anyway, I took over 1000 pictures (thanks to improved digital cards) and truly stretched my experience inwardly as well as outwardly. It is worth telling you about when I get my head together. But right now I want you to do something different.

I caught on on old NYTimes magazines while flying and before bed at night. One of them was the August 23, 2009 issue which knocked me over. Until I get back, you need to read it, especially the article by Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn. So click here, and get to it. This just might change your life.

Tell me what you think.

30 September 2009


I am far from home today, exploring the future of the USA, namely Istanbul. Why I think so I will explain when I get back, but for now let me just say it is not so bad. In fact, we could
do a lot worse. But heck, I have only been here a little over 12 hours. What do I know?

Stay tuned.

22 September 2009

Moaning and Groaning

It got me.

I was feeling a little punky on Sunday, a little more on Monday, but last night I got whole and completely sick.

Yes, I did the zinc thing, but sometimes even that won't stop the viral juggernaut.

After a really restless night have forgone the gym, the most definite proof of my illness. Yesterday I went and actually felt better. Today I am so lousy just going downstairs is exercise.

One of the worst parts is that my presbyopia is worse, meaning my reading glasses are not adequate and my eyes hurt too, but we live in a go-go world where work must be done. So I shall try and do some work at home today. No slack in the system these days, you know.

Of course, I could make all this a parable of health care reform, but today I just too sick to be smart. I am stupid sick. Yes, that bad.

19 September 2009

Since You Asked

A congregant asked me recently which books I have found useful recently. She reminded me that people look for guidance going down the cereal aisle that is modern publishing. Thinking I am a thoughtful fellow whose ideas she respects, she asked me.

Fewer things could be more flattering than to be asked what to read. And more humbling. So as the news has fallen silent this evening and this task has been on my mind, now seems a good moment. I confine myself to books read in the last 18-24 months.

Colored People - A memoir by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. a window into a world most do not know is even there.

The Souls of Black Folk - W.E.B. DuBois, the opening word in the 20th century race (1903) conversation. And still pertinent.

Chronicle of A Death Foretold & One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Who knew brains could work like than and not burst.

Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald - makes despair noble without diminishing its dreadful power.

Great Expectations - C. Dickens. Wild, woolly, hokey, and yet utterly realistic and true.

What Paul Meant - Gary Wills. Redeems Paul the way Paul redeemed Christ.

The Courtier and the Heretic - Matthew Stewart. One of those new pop history books that brings two world changing geniuses together in one book and makes both of them approachable.

The Republic of Suffering - Drew Gilpin Faust. How the Civil War shaped America's attitude toward death and life. Unique idea with rich insights grounded in solid facts.

I judge a book great by how often I find myself lost in thought instead of reading. Each of these made me pause and think often, raising ideas and questions I never considered before. They made me different for reading them.

There is one more, but I am not sharing it with you. That one I have read twice this summer, and still find myself pondering almost every page. It is so challenging to me personally, that I find it hard to read without questioning my faith, my calling, and my courage. Once I have read it probably for the third or fourth time, I shall tell you. (Some already know, but keep you mouths shut) But likely I shall ask my church to read it with me and see if they find it as scary as I do.

17 September 2009

Writer Envy

This is so not pastoral, way not dignified, and downright reckless, but boy do I wish I had said it. Well, at least you can read it. It's from Tim Egan.

"I am not worthy!"

16 September 2009

You Read It Here First!

I may not be a former president, but I beat Jimmy C this week. And you were there! Mareen Dowd looks better and writes cuter, but I was days ahead of her, too.

You realize what this means? Those who read me are ahead of the curve. Felt good, didn't it, to be the one who was there first. While they were all reacting wldly, you stood by nonchalantly. Cool only begins to describe it.

What prescient word will come next? Who knows. But Daily Kos, watch out. Matt Drudge, you de drudge. The prophet has arrived!

(Yes, I am being facetious. But after all this earnest stuff a little goofiness seemed in order. We'll be miserable again very soon.)

13 September 2009

Now, Here's A Thought...

On Wednesday our president likened the hot-potato public option to private and public universities, which struck me as a great analogy. Then I realized it was not as good as it seemed for his purpose, but could be even better than he realized.

As we heard it, and assuming he is not 'lying' (shame on me for ringing that bell) the public option would be a federal program. But public universities are state run. Why have we not been looking at state organized options, which really would be like state universities.

Medicaid is state run. Federally and state funded, it is state administered. Now there are lots of problems with the program, especially in funding it. I suppose this, and that it is meant for low income folks, has kept it from being used even as an analogy. Read more about it here. I can well understand how this would scare folks as a potential future. But this is not the only public form we can consider.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield were for a long time non-profit state chartered health care systems. They are premium based programs that operated more like utilities than government programs. You can read about them as well.

In 1986 the BCBS lost their full tax-exempt status, according to something I read, and that's what got me thinking....

What if the BCBS was remodeled as a state based health utility system, a sort of electric company for health care? We would pay for it as we do electricity, too. If they were also tax-exempt not-for-profits, chartered to provide low cost health care, they could serve as the primary care system I mentioned a few posts ago.

They already manage care for 1/3 of all Americans, many government employees, and yours truly. Perfect it is not, but like our elder friends on Medicare who also then can supplement coverage if they want with private plans. I am sure private companies would love to do that kind of risk based coverage they do now but only for select services and needs.

I am surprised that we have not seen more ideas like this. First from my beloved Democrats, I love them because if I did not I would wring their necks half the time. Hey guys, get creative here. Federal government isn't alone. Use the federal part, the states. Second, for my equally beloved Republicans, whom I wish to throttle more than half the time because I share fewer of their particular values. See how federal law can empower local government and set the stage for creative and responsive answers to the health care question.

This won't happen of course. I am just a preacher, writing a blog read by less than 100 people. Even when I send stuff to my elected officials it is filed and forgotten. But as a many of faith, I continue to hope that someone like me, a little out of the mainstream but with a large vision, might help out a bit.

Besides, after all those fulminating posts it was time for a positive word.

12 September 2009

Still Too Short

Today, 9/12, marchers filled DC to protest Big Government. From what I can tell they are mostly protesting the deficit, which by the few things I read is and was mostly created by the last administration. Yes the stimulus was large, and the bailouts, but in the end , most of the red ink was created between 2001 and 2008 and the recession tipped the ink pot over. You can read all about it here (and comments attached).

Now, let's leave aside the hypocrisy of maligning this administration for not fixing in six months what the last one did in six years. That's like yelling at Hercules for taking too long cleaning the Augean Stables.

But it could be fixed if we - Congress actually - did something even my Republican Representative and I agree would do the job. It won't happen, though.

Raise taxes. Yep that's it. But this is unthinkable. We have become a knee jerk anti-tax nation that will not shoulder its own burden because taxes are bad. I admit they feel bad, but we now consider them to be bad, evil, wrong. and anti-American.

The last administration came to power on this doctrine, the several republican congressional majorities did the same, and then they passed prescription drug coverage and fought two wars while also lowering taxes. And that is what took us from a surplus to a deficit. The recession, something all that untaxed wealth was supposed to prevent, turned it from a deficit to a near collapse.

But the folks in DC this weekend are saying enough is enough. Enough of what? Deficits? or Taxes? And if we cut, what do we cut? Medicare which is the second largest hunk of money after defense?

I believe in put up or shut up, so here's what I am willing to do.

1. Raise the eligibility for Social Security and Medicare until age 70. Sixty five was a high age in 1935. We live longer, we should work longer. Sorry if you're closing in, but would you rather have it go belly up after you retired?
2. Raise the cap on Social Security taxes. Only the first $100k or so of income is taxable for Social Security and Medicare I think. Raise it now, raise it high. I can take it if I have to.
3. Raise income taxes, especially on uber-incomes. Top rates now are 35% of taxable income above $372,000. (filing single) That income, btw, comprises less than 5% of taxpayers, single or otherwise. In 2002 the rate was 38.6% of those above $300,000, which would be more tax for sure. But in the roaring 1990s, the rates were even higher.

Yep, we have to pay in more. We can mitigate that by spending less, but unless we mean to close down a couple of wars and cashier grandma with a death panel real soon, no savings on welfare or schools or other frivolities that involve children (who do not vote after all and so have no voice) will make enough difference.

We charged this whole decade on our national Mastercard and the bill is coming due. Yelling at the president for not paying down the deficit fast enough when someone else signed the charge slip is beyond galling.

08 September 2009

Racism 101

OK, at the risk of offending some of you who get this, but with the sincere hope that this will be news to others, let me tell you a simple fact:

Racism is not about bigotry.

I say this because the intense hostility to our president, yes ours and I do mean all Americans, is profoundly racist. Questioning his citizenship, calling him a socialist, labeling him a fascist, fearing he will brainwash our children, would not happen if he were white.

Saying all the protesters are racist invites howls of protest, of course, because most people who disagree with him are not doing so because he is black. Not consciously at least. Doubtless many of them have black friends and brown friends. They are no hiding under hoods or other foul things.

It is important to see that racism is not about bigotry, because bigotry is a personal feeling while racism is a social system. Our society, not just ours I hasten to add, but ours no less than any, is based on racial privilege. Our constitution inscribed it in the provision for counting people in bondage as 3/5 of a person when enumerating the population. Only black people were in bondage by then. No white people were slaves. But that's only an illustration.

My point is that we organized our country around racial privilege and have been hacking away at it ever since. But like a dandelion, plucking the leaves does not kill the plant. Even if you get some of the root, it will grow back. The whole thing has to be removed, and the country is not yet willing to dig that deep, disturb that much soil, get that dirty.

Because we have not eradicated the whole weed, it grows back.

Would we ever question the natural citizenship of a white person running for president? Heck some Republicans were trying to repeal that provision to help the Governator of California who is undeniably not a natural born citizen.

Did we ever call Richard Nixon socialist (when it meant something) when he imposed wage and price controls or even tried to reform health care?

Did we question the integrity of Bush 1 when he addressed the nation's schoolchildren and asked them to write him telling how they would help him? Yes precisely the same request, but no fears of brainwashing then and no demand for releasing the text in advance.

Is it any surprise that the worst outbreaks of this hostility are coming from the old Confederacy?

Today's suspicion and protest is perhaps stoked by the hyper-partisan climate in which we live. This level hostility has not been seen since Roosevelt (either one btw) was accused of betraying his class. But this is worse. No one told them they were not Americans.

Well, I am telling all those who listen, which are few, that Barack Husein Obama is more American than any one of them. How do I know? Because he actually wants to make us truly,

One Nation, Under God, Indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for All.

If you look at those four qualities, and believe they are American values, and then ask who is truly American, the black man with the African father clearly is.

And that is what frightens so many people. That's why they accuse, indict, and condemn. He cannot be American because he .... does not look like us. I, at this moment, am so sorry I look like them.

How sad, how unutterably sad for everyone.

05 September 2009

I Told You So

Or maybe not. But I told someone...

Below is a newspaper column I wrote in 2002, early in the previous Administration. I thought about it after hearing the hoopla around the current president's speech to schoolchildren coming up next week. The furor is most furious in my former home state of Texas. Which is what my column was about then, and seems even more accurate almost seven years later.

Boom and Bust

So I read in the newspaper (in 2002) about the fall of Atlanta from economic grace. During the 1990s it was growing faster than New York or Silicon Valley, but now it is shrinking just as fast. And as I read it I remembered our short stay in Austin Texas.

We arrived at the end of a down turn, which meant good real estate prices for us. We sold our small three-bedroom home in exurban Boston at a small loss for $130,000 (this was 1990 by the way) and bought large four-bedroom with garage for $101,000. I liked that part. And when we left but four years later, we sold it again for $135,000. I liked that part too.

That’s Texas all over. They call it boom and bust. When things are good they are very very good, as the poem says; and when they bad they are horrid. In Texas, it was the result of a raw materials economy; one based on oil and cotton and thus affected by forces outside the state.

It was also the result of a very hands-off state government, exemplified by the fact that the oil industry is regulated by the State Railroad Commission. This is like putting the New York securities industry under the watchful eye of the State Optometry Board.

This odd state of affairs exists because in Texas everyone has a right to strike oil, make gigabucks, and keep it. Of course, everyone doesn’t strike oil, and even them that do, do not make gigabucks. But the dream that it could happen is sovereign in the state of Texas (a phrase which could be construed as similar to a state of grace or a state of delusion).

Keeping the dream alive is why Texas booms and busts. The price of allowing occasional immense wealth (no state income tax for example) is a state that relies upon property taxes and consumption taxes, which then vanish in slow times. The price of keeping the dream of grandiose wealth alive is a state that punishes poverty as a crime, namely the failure to get rich. Whenever money flows, it flows mostly into a few pockets. And when it doesn’t it mostly doesn’t flow out of those pockets.

The result is a whipsaw economy. It is quite active, but never really grows very much, because every expansion is followed by a nearly equal contraction.
I tell you all this because this is where the nation is heading. America is becoming Texas, which I do not mean in the flattering sense. Since the president was governor of that state, this is not purely accidental. But I am not disposed to conspiracy thinking, so let’s leave that one alone.

What I am saying is that a wild west economic policy, one where rules are few and far between, is not healthy. For every creative advance there is at least one charlatan and rogue. For every great new idea there is at least one catastrophic failure. It may produce booms but it also produces busts and in the long run that weakens rather than strengthens a society.

They key to healthy economic growth for the country is what we have been told to do as individuals. - Invest in solid companies. – Look for slow steady growth. – Change course rarely and reluctantly. – Do not speculate or churn your holdings. - Keep investing at the same rate, through good times and bad.

How does that turn into national policy? Well, healthy economic policy would spend money on education and healthcare so workers could be better workers. Boring but effective.

It would favor businesses that are part of their communities, serving them as well as themselves, for these tend to make real money a lot longer than bubble firms like Enron.

It would realize that the economy is many sectors, each affecting the other, and thus to change one will affect the others, so do it slowly. Business needs stability to thrive.

Likewise, it would not put all its eggs in the stock market basket, or some other industry, or hand out favors or incentives to some because that would affect all those around them

And it would not lower taxes in good times but see this as the price we pay for success, and use that good fortune to ease the inevitable recession, thus making the next recovery sooner and better.

These are the rules I use. I am not rich, but I have moved ahead overall. My bills are paid, and my debts are few. Most of you do the same. So why is this so hard for us as a nation? I am not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with a tortoise and a hare.

04 September 2009

... But Don't The Suit Fit Nice?

Despite the holiday weekend, I am at work, as this will be my first Sunday back in the weekly saddle. Like turning the old magneto crank on a Model T, there is some sputtering and wheezing, but I think the engine will catch in time.

Until then, here is a funky take on global climate change. Turns out it may not be all bad, if you can live for another 20,000 years, that is.

01 September 2009

We'll Be Back After A Few Words...

...from our sponsor of course.

Which is?

Well, take a look at Richard Wright's long Op-Ed in the Times from a week ago. More power to him and them, but this whole God/no-God Creation/ Evolution debate is so 1900. I have no interest in it.

I do know that today is the third of three wonderful days in terms of weather with more to come, that the days are notably shorter and the mornings cooler, that my vegetable garden has long ago peaked and even my sunflowers are wilting, that my porch still needs painting, that work is gearing up fast and I am not ready, that my youngest son is now at college and my eldest on his way to grad school, that I drove over 3000 miles in August and seen half of my living relatives, and that in the next month I will have been to Asia and back, celebrated my 33rd anniversary and spent way too much money.

God or no God, life is rich. I am thankful, and if credit is owed somehow I am sure the creditor knows. I'll resume my rant in a few days.