Month: December 2018

The Decline And Fall

750x450 northern lights

North To Alaska!  I’m goin’ north, the rush is on.

In fall of 1975, after graduating from CU Boulder with a European history degree, I headed North to Alaska to find my fortune.

An intrepid friend of mine, Jimmy Gray, had done it.  A few years before, he’d gone to Alaska’s North Slope and gotten a job working on the oil pipeline.  Like everyone, I knew the working conditions were brutal:  long hours, isolation, frigid temperatures. But, working on the pipeline paid more than almost anything else someone like me could do.  And, if you didn’t blow it, in a year or two you could have a sizable nest egg.

And, that’s what Jim did: his few years on the pipeline gave him a financial kick start on life.

But, for me, no dice.  By the time I got to Anchorage, for every unskilled job opening on the pipeline, there were at least 10 applicants cooling their heels in the union hiring hall waiting for a call that never came.

So, I went to plan B.  First, driving bus for the Anchorage school district.  And then, when school let out, driving taxi around Anchorage during the night shift-it was still dark at night when I first got to town.

The land of the midnight sun.

500x600 decline fall

Ever tried to work the night shift and then sleep during the day?  It isn’t easy; if I got five hours of sleep after driving taxi for twelve hours at night, I felt lucky.

So, I had plenty of time to read.  And I spent most of that time reading the second volume of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  It’d belonged to my dad; his neat, cursive signature is still just inside the cover of both volumes.

Originally published about the time of the American Revolution, the book spans centuries and thousands of pages.  While modern scholars may quibble that it’s outdated, to a babe in the woods of history like me, it was a work of astonishing scholarship.

The man on the white horse.

At this point, decades on, do I remember much of what was in those thousands of pages? Not really.

But I do remember this much: the vaunted Roman Legions, which had originally conquered most of the known world during the time of the Republic, played a big part in bringing down the Empire.  Why?  Because the Legionnaires and their generals that had started out being the servants of the Republic wound up being the corrupt and cruel masters of the Empire.  They were better at court intrigue than at keeping the barbarians at bay.  Again and again, they made and unmade emperors. Sometimes in a matter of days; 193 AD is known as The Year of the Five Emperors.

And the very size of the empire became it’s Achilles heel.  With a frontier that stretched over thousands of miles and three continents, border incursions and wars were never ending.

History repeating itself.  Except on steroids.

Now, the American empire dwarfs the Roman empire.  And we suffer from many of the same distempers.

In eastern Europe we poke the nuclear armed Russian bear by pushing NATO right up to the Russian border.  In the South China Sea, rather than minding our own business, we delight in bearding nuclear armed China.  And this is not to mention our perpetual wars in the Middle East.

But, astonishingly, our own southern border remains a leaky sieve to a region rife with drugs and the murderous gang warfare that has left nearly 300,000 dead.  And anyone who has the temerity to suggest that the border be walled off is “racist”.

But did you see the news?  Trump is pulling US troops out of Syria.  Now, if he could just man up and do the same in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Those tribal, dark-age regions have been at war with one another for millennia.  And there’s nothing we can do to stop it.  So, yes, Virginia, I guess there is a Santa Claus.

For the love of money.  Blood money.

Our enormous military establishment has very little to do with national security.  And much more to do with money.  We spend more on arms than the next seven nations combined-several of whom are our allies.

And now the military is proposing that we spend morelots more.  Enough so that we can not only continue, indefinitely, to fight the low intensity wars in the Middle East that have become back page news.  But also to “rearm” to fight major conflicts against countries like Russia and China.

So, the defense contractors and their lobbyists will be on easy street.  As will the generals and admirals.  And their obedient political pets in the US House and Senate.

But what happens if we, the people, dare try to turn off the spigots?  Who knows?  But when a general on a white horse-or tank-comes riding into Washington, DC demanding that the gravy train start rolling again, don’t say you weren’t warned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The little things

750x450 mountains

And when they loom large

Decades ago-back in the ’60’s and ’70’s-I was quite the outdoorsman.  Technical rock climbing.  Big game hunter.  Fly fishing.  Winter camping.  Fourteeners.  Backpacking and mountain biking.  The Colorado Trail, which I regret to say, I never completed.

For a host of reasons, primarily age and normal wear and tear, that’s all come to an end:  this getting old stuff isn’t for sissies.  But it was fun while it lasted.  And, looking back on it, I was fortunate to get out in one piece.

One of the guys I did a lot of those adventures with was Henry Gibb.  Always upbeat, a dark bushy beard, a Vermont backwoods transplant, Henry was indefatigable.  Try as I might, I couldn’t keep up with him.

One winter, we decided to ski into 14,421 foot Mount Harvard, spend a night at the base, and climb the peak the next day.  Hardly anything about the trip was short of crazy.  A night in a ramshackled mining cabin that did nothing to keep out either the snow or bitter cold.  Henry breaking trail up the steep side of the valley at the crack of dawn, trying our best to warm up after a long night shivering in our sleeping bags.  Despite the lodge pole pines that grew thick as grass, at one point the snow slumped, giving off a resounding “whoomp,” making us uncomfortably aware that an avalanche was not beyond the realm of possibility.  And which, if it had run, would have ground us up and spit us out.  Not to be found ’til spring-if then.

Nonetheless, we made the summit before noon on what turned out to be a blue bird day.  Need I add that we had the place to ourselves on back in those days?

To save the planet

Henry had, on occasion, what I considered eccentric views.

“You know,” Henry began as we drove south along the frigid waters of the Arkansas River in my used, ’65 VW Bug, “I’ve been thinking how much better it would be if we were all a lot smaller.  Say, six inches tall.”

“Interesting idea,” I replied, eye brows raised, looking over briefly while still trying to keep us from plunging into the river. “But, how would that make things better?”  Knowing Henry, I expected it had something to do with the environment.  But this one was a puzzler.

“Well,” he answered, “think of how much less we would need in terms of natural resources.  The water.  The air.  The steel and copper.  Everything.”

“True,” I said, “but it’s pretty hard to see how that’s going to happen.”

A prophet without honor

But wouldn’t you know, Henry pretty much nailed it.  At least in Hollywood.

During one of the apparently interminable legs of my flight to Greece last spring I was desperate for any sort of diversion.  I managed to stumble on the movie Downsizing with Matt Damon.  And what to my wondering eyes did I see but that Henry’s wild idea has been translated onto the silver screen.  Not that the film made any money.  Or that it got great reviews.  But nonetheless, the film’s premise was exactly what Henry suggested: shrink humans to clean up the environment.

And, who knows, perhaps Henry will someday nail it in the real world. Stranger things, I suppose, have happened.

750x450 trail sign

The ties that no longer bind

It’s been years-no, decades-since I’ve been in touch with Henry.  I miss those hair brained adventures.  And not just for the adrenaline jolt.  But for the camaraderie that those experiences engendered.

I feel largely at fault for the rupture.  It was, I’m sure, politics.  And probably, to some extent, it was my bipolar illness talking.  At times we had angry disagreements.  About what specific issues?  Who knows?  And who cares?  But I leaned right.  And Henry leaned left.  And the ties that bound us first frayed.  And then broke.

And so, Henry, where ever you are, here’s My Grown Up Christmas List for you:

No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end, no
This is my grown up Christmas list

(With, of course, a tip ‘o the hat to Amy Grant.)

He who must not be named

750x450 polar express

Out of the mouth of babes

Our two little granddaughters spent the night with us a few days ago.  It was the first time we’d had them both at once.

Although we were a bit concerned that the movie picked out for the evening, The Polar Express, might go over the two year old’s head, she was entranced.  Her four year old sister, of course, was all in right from the beginning.  In part, no doubt, because my wife practices what Toy Story preaches:  No Toy Gets Left Behind.  At least when it comes to the grandkids.  There was the conductor’s cap.  And the silver bell.  Not to mention the bottomless bowl of buttered popcorn.

And, because nothing succeeds like excess, a live, repeat performance of the story a few nights later at the Colorado Railroad Museum.  But this time, the grandkids dragged along their parents.  It was a fine evening, too.  Especially chugging around a loop about 10 times, sitting in a beautiful old narrow gauge passenger car, while the coal fired steam engine blew it’s whistle every time we crossed a road somewhere out near Golden.   (Warning!  Don’t even attempt to find the museum without tuning up your GPS.)  The conductor and the white jacketed chefs, replete with toques, served hot chocolate and cookies.

When the silver bell falls silent

The story’s about a kid who’s an agnostic when it comes to Santa Clause.  But as he’s dozing off one Christmas eve, a big coal fired locomotive and passenger train mysteriously whistles to a stop in front of his house as snow drifts down through clouds of smoke and steam.  Despite his skepticism, the boy climbs aboard and off the train goes on a wild, gorgeously animated ride to the North Pole where Santa and hordes of elves await.

As the film winds down, Santa is preparing to take off in a sled dwarfed by a bag of toys.  But before the sled leaps into the air, he turns to our young, but now converted unbeliever and announces, “You get the first gift of Christmas.  What would you like?” In response, the boy points at one of the silver bells hanging from the harness of Santa’s eagerly plunging reindeer and says, “One of those, please.”  With that, it’s in the boy’s hand and from there into the pocket of his night robe.

Unfortunately, there’s a hole in the pocket and the silver bell goes missing.   But, next morning, hidden away in a little box under the tree, the silver bell reappears.  But when the boy eagerly rings the bell, only he and his sister can hear it; their parent’s are deaf to its beautiful tones.  And, with each passing Christmas, fewer and fewer of the children’s friends can hear it either.

Until, at last, even the boy’s sister goes deaf.

Meanwhile, back on the train.  And away in a manger . .

After the cookies had been eaten, the cocoa drunk, and a few spills cleaned up, the conductor and chefs serenaded us.  They had great voices, no doubt. They’re professional actors who have to knit together Lord knows how many acting and other gigs to keep body and soul together in a town like Denver.

And the songs’ sentiments were nice enough.  Santa and his elves.  Warm and fuzzy holiday feelings.  Songs that would have felt perfectly at home on Broadway.

But any mention of what Christmas is actually about?  The birth of the Savior?  Or any of the wealth of traditional carols that so joyfully and beautifully express the real significance of the season?

Not on your life.

Until, that is, I heard a small voice, down and to my left, coming from the mouth of our four year old granddaughter who was butchering the lyrics to one of those wonderful old carols:

Away in a manger, no hay for his crib,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on his head . . .”

When life is stranger than fiction.

So, when is it going to dawn on us that things like The Polar Express is a near perfect illustration of the ludicrous contortions we’ll put ourselves through to avoid mentioning what Christmas is really about?  How we’ve grown tone deaf to the One who started it all so long ago in that manger in Bethlehem?  How so much of the real significance of the season has been driven into hiding by relentless commercialization?  By the cowering fear of giving offense by even uttering the word “Christmas”?

And, above all, of mentioning the Name of He who must not be named:  Jesus.

Just because we can . . . does it mean we should?

The Island of Dr. Moreau

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Ever heard of vivisection?  It comes from Latin words meaning “alive” and “cutting.”  It’s the practice, in other words, of cutting living creatures.  Sounds pretty creepy.  And for that reason, the term’s largely fallen out of use.

But the word can also refer to what many of us have experienced as the beneficial effects of surgery.  What, after all, is surgery except “cutting” on “living” creatures?

But when H.G. Wells uses the term in his unsettling, 1896 science fiction novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, vivisection takes on a much more sinister meaning.   At it’s most basic level, the story describes Moreau using vivisection in a series of cruel experiments to “uplift” animals to something approaching a “human” state.  In other words, changing a creature into something it wasn’t meant to be, something unnatural.

Now, Before Our Very Eyes . . .

Vivisection is back in the news.  And, for our purposes, high school sports.  Articles and reports abound (here and here) about males “deciding” they’re females.  And then going out and cleaning up in sporting competitions against real females.

It’s true, for a number of reasons, most of these male to female “reassignments” don’t involve surgery.  First, surgery’s expensive (up to $50,000 and not typically covered by insurance).  It also looks pretty gruesome-but, to be fair, to an untrained eye like mine, most surgeries probably look about the same.  Nonetheless, in 2016 there were about 1,500 male to female surgeries.

Chemical reassignment via hormones is probably more common-but the changes are less comprehensive, limited to things like muscle mass and facial hair.

The Sports Problem.

750x450 girls soccer silhouette

My problem with all this “gender reassignment,” at least in regards to high school sports, is that I don’t want my granddaughters to be forced to compete against what are really someone’s grandsons.  Like this state champion track star who if, with “her” square jaw and mustache, is a “girl,” then I’m a monkey’s uncle.

If my granddaughters take after their parents, they are likely to enjoy sports.  But to throw them in against boys, who are naturally bigger and stronger, in sports like soccer, lacrosse, and track isn’t just unfair.  It’s dangerous.

And it becomes outrageous when kids, whose birth certificate identifies them as a “male” can simply, on their own say so, declare themselves “females.”  To what end?  So they  can compete on a playing field that’s not just tilted?  But pitching wildly.  And then perpetuate the fraud by scooping up college scholarships which, under Title IX, are intended to be awarded to women?  (Don’t get me wrong-I’m not a big fan of Title IX. It’s resulted in the elimination of some 400 college sports programs that mainly attracted men.  That is, real men.)

Which makes me wonder:  how’s the #metoo movement going to handle this ploy to make women go to the back of the bus?

The Conceit Of The Far Left.  And Right.

The 20th century was the bloodiest in history.  Millions died at the hands of governments in the grip of savage ideologies which were determined to remake human nature in their own, brutal image.  The Nazi’s Übermensch.  The Soviet’s New Man.  The penalty for failing to fit the mold?  Death.  On a mass scale.  Thankfully, though the cost in blood and treasure was high, those cruel idols were overthrown.

However, now, well on into the 21st century, it seems the lesson of the impossibility and undesirability of fundamentally reshaping human nature has yet to be learned.  Except, this time, rather than concentration camps, gas chambers, and the Two Minutes’ Hate, individuals are remaking themselves. With vivisection.  Or chemicals.  Or the bare assertion that they are what they aren’t.

But It Doesn’t Stop There.

Did you see this story?  If you accept it, North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-Un, has spent billions attempting to clone an army of “super soldiers who will obey his every command.”  The article goes on to say that the hermit nation has a long history of human cloning experimentation.  Kim is also trying to insure his own immortality by cloning himself.

And Kim isn’t alone in the pursuit of super soldiers.  It’s an arms race that many, much more “advanced” nations, including ours, are engaged in.

And you thought Dr. Moreau was crazy.

So, just because we can, does it mean we should?  And even if “we” decide we shouldn’t, how do we keep this genie in the bottle if the “we” doesn’t include us all?  Will my grandchildren be forced to compete against “super” kids not just for athletic prizes?  But also for places in college?  And the work force?

Or, God forbid, on the battlefield?

On marriage.

750x450 p&p double wedding

When the movie’s better than the book.

Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, is one of those stories I’ve never grown tired of.  I’ve read it repeatedly.  Listened to it in the car at least twice.

And, on more occasions than I’m willing to admit, watched the 1995 BBC TV version starring Jennifer Ehle, as the lovely, strong willed Elizabeth Bennett.  And Colin Firth as the imperious Mr. Darcy.  (Spoiler non-alert.  If you’re not familiar with the story, this post won’t do much to change that.) 

Blame my wife; she’s the one who made watching it a Christmas tradition as she wrapped presents.  So, I now binge watch it around Christmas also, staying up far too late, guiltily creeping up the stairs, bleary eyed, hoping not to wake one of our out-of-town kids.  Or, far worse, one of the infants that now tag along with them. Talk about living on the edge.

Perhaps I should start a support group: “Hi.  My name’s Spencer. And I’m a P&Paholic.”

How can TV-of all things-improve on perfection?

Don’t get me wrong.  The TV version of the story isn’t better because it deviates dramatically from the original.  The novel’s sparkling repartee is faithfully recreated on the small screen.  As are the novel’s twists and turns that keep readers and watchers in suspense right up to the last few pages.  Or the last reel.  (Unless, of course, this isn’t your first rodeo. . . but, let’s not go there.)

No, in my book, the TV version excels because it wraps with the wedding liturgy that is taken straight from the 1552, Anglican Book of Common Prayer:  “Dearly beloved . . . ”  

But perhaps you’re dismissive of that scene, with the four newly weds standing shoulder to shoulder, because it was just too sweet.  Too “everything tied up in a pretty package with a lacy bonnet on top.”

Well, I beg to differ.  And, in fact, what makes the scene a winner is its bracing astringency.  A badly needed tonic in our world where marriage seems to owe more to the Mary Poppins’ variety of piecrust promises: “easily made, easily broken.”  Than to the solemn vows that would be commensurate with a recognition of the central-nay, crucial- role that marriage and family play in a healthy society.

Checking the boxes

The TV version of the wedding liturgy tics all the important boxes.  

“Matrimony is a holy, honorable estate, signifying the mystical union of Christ and his Church.”

Check.  

“It is not to be entered into unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy man’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts, but reverently, discretely, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”

Check.  Again.  But, how dare these religious fuddie-duddies talk about the proper role of sex right in the middle of a day that’s supposed to be about nothing but gauzy veils and getting the wedding cake frosting just so?

Well, get ready.  Because there’s more.  “The procreation of children.”  “A remedy against sin and fornication.”  “For the help and comfort of one another, in both prosperity and adversity.”

But in the end, don’t take my word for it.  Watch the show.  Right to the end.  Give it some thought.  Maybe, even, make it a Christmas tradition.

But take care.   You may wind up as a member of P&Panonymous, too.