Month: March 2019

There’s A Clean, Well Lighted Place

750x450 a clean well lighted place

And Then There’s Family Promise

No less a literary titan than James Joyce once described Ernest Hemingway’s short story, A Clean, Well Lighted Place, as ” … masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written…”

And there was a time when, as a youth who aspired to write the mythic “great American novel”, I would have unquestioningly agreed; I was a big fan of anything by Hemingway. However, I’m now, at best, ambivalent about the author.  Like many of his stories, booze and “nada” are central to A Well Lighted Place.  Which, I suppose, isn’t surprising given the horrors that Hemingway and the 40 million other members of his “Lost Generation” endured in the trenches of World War I.

But I was reminded of the story last Saturday as I was waited in a clean, well lighted place, i.e., my church, to shuttle a van full of homeless Denverites to their next stop in the Family Promise program.  And, it is to be hoped, their next stop on a road that will eventually lead them out of homelessness and to a place they can call home.

What they do.  And how they do it.

750x450 family promise

Started in 1982 from a businesswoman’s chance encounter with a homeless woman, Family Promise has grown into a national organization engaging 180,000 individual volunteers and 6,000 faith congregations.

On several occasions during the year, our church hosts families referred to us by the organization.  The accommodations are anything but fancy, but they’re clean and well lighted and safe.  Teams of volunteers feed our guests.  The bathrooms include showers.

During the day, families stay at a downtown Denver location where long term planning for employment, housing and financial stability are the focus.  It was my job, this time, to drive the van to that location.  On previous occasions my wife and I have helped provide dinner.

You can lead a horse . . .

I’ve lived in Denver my entire life.  And there’s little doubt that I’ve been blessed.  So, I’m certainly not as well acquainted with the tougher side of life with which others are familiar.

But sheltered existence or not, no-one who drives around town can miss the countless beggars and panhandlers that are seemingly a permanent fixture on so many street corners.  This is particularly noticeable to me because I remember seeing few, if any, of these people growing up here.

I hope that Family Promise can make a dent in the problem.  Especially for those-and you’ve seen them as well-who have kids sitting by their side as the mother (don’t think I’ve ever seen a man doing it) holds out a hand to cars at the red light.

But I fear that making a dent in the problem will be tougher, and more complex, than we imagine.  One of the issues that defies easy solution is the deinstitutionalization of individuals with mental illness.  This “reform” may have seemed like the right thing to do at the time.  And relieved severe over crowding at Pueblo’s state hospital.   But how many of those patients wound up begging on street corners?  And not really interested, or able, to lead lives off the street?

I don’t know.  I just know what I can do.  And invite you to do the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But there came a time, after I became a Christian, that I soured on Hemingway.  His nihilistic atheism.  His misogyny and the way he treated women as mere objects.  His he-man bravado on African safaris and lion hunts.  And the tough guy bravado in the many war stories he wrote from personal experience.  And, finally, the alcohol and even binge drinking that played into so many of his novels.

 

 

I, Claudius

Decadent Rome.  Decadent America?

I don’t really remember how I, Claudius got on my Netflix radar.  I think it was my sister who suggested it.  But in any event, it took months, even years, for it to work its way to the top of my queue.  But I’m glad-I think-that it eventually did.

1976 BBC TV series, the show depicts the early days of the Roman Empire.  From the Pax Romana of Augustus, to Tiberius, and then to Caligula the Empire sank ever further into corruption, depravity, luxury and ruthless violence.  There’s a brief respite when Claudius, who escaped assassination only by playing the part of a harmless idiot, assumes the throne.  But at the death of Claudius (probably at the hands of his wife Agrippina), the loony excesses of Nero lead the Empire over the cliff to ruin.  And so, with a whimper, ends the line of emperors that began with the mighty Augustus.

Allowing for dramatic license, the show actually seems pretty accurate.  Moreover, the show was a huge commercial success and was voted by others in the British film industry as the 12th among the 100 best TV programs of all time.  

Fine.  But what’s ancient Rome got to do with us?

Good question.  But, unfortunately, I fear that the excesses of the Roman actually have quite a lot to say to the America of our day.

Start with something simple: the relative burdens of “empire.”  Ours, with its globe girdling military presence, dwarfs anything Rome ever ruled.  The Pentagon “estimates” that we have 5,600 bases around the world.  Which, when you’re fighting perpetual wars, isn’t all that surprising.

And the sheer cost of our military?  The U.S. spends more on arms than the next six countries combined.  And four of those six could be considered allies.  Keeping the Empire’s barbarian hordes at bay eventually bankrupted Rome.  What makes us think we’re any different?

As depicted in I, Claudius, the Legion’s elite Praetorian Guard routinely interfered with politics, making and unmaking Emperors and even assassinating some, such as Caligula.  Now, under Trump and for years before him, key cabinet posts are filled by generals and admirals.  Are we to the point of having our own version of Rome’s lawless and cosseted Praetorian Guard?  Perhaps not yet.  But who can make a persuasive case that is not the direction in which we’re trending?

And then there’s Harvey Weinstein

weinstein sketch

By today’s standards, I, Claudius is pretty tame sexually.  But what it lacks in today’s explicit, pornographic images, it makes up for with suggestion and imagination.

For example, there’s the scene where Caligula (who’s declared himself the incarnation of the god Jupiter), suspends his nude, very pregnant wife by golden handcuffs.  (She‘s also his sister. And, as is only fitting for a god’s consort, is a goddess herself.) As her nervous titters morph into horrified awareness, he proceeds to disembowel her because the unborn infant “might become a threat to my rule.”  Which, judging by the standards of the rest of this despicable bunch, is a reasonable prophesy.  

At the outset, we only see the woman’s back.  And, fortunately, the relatively prudish 1970’s era camera diverts its eye even further at the end of the scene so that we only hear the woman’s hideous screams from the other side of a closed door as she’s butchered.

But no such luck with the low life Harvey Weinstein and his vile film, Pulp Fiction.  Harvey and the film’s director, Quentin Tarantino, hold nothing back: gore, graphic sex of all varieties, drug fueled orgies, you name it. (I couldn’t bear to watch this stinker through to the end.) Sure, I know most critics fawned over it.  But so what?  The cowering sycophants around Nero and Caligula did the same for their “gods.”

But what’s really troubling about Pulp Fiction isn’t so much the film itself, but what it’s enthusiastic reception has to say about our larger culture.  What can you say for a nation that celebrates all the varieties of perversion and violence that were on display in this movie?  Probably the same thing you’d say about a decedent Roman empire that did very much the same thing.

Is it too late for us to draw back from this yawning brink?  I’d say no; it’s never too late.  But I’d say that this is equally true:  those who fail to learn from history, are condemned to repeat it.

In other words, I, Claudius is a show all concerned Americans should watch.  Carefully.  And learn from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The energizer politicians.

750x450 energizer bunny

They just keep going.  And going.  And going . . .

I don’t need to remind you of the Energizer Bunny commercials.  How can you forget them?  You know, the the mechanical rabbit with fake pink fur that relentlessly marches across your TV screen, pounding a big drum.

But this isn’t about bunnies.  It’s about that exceedingly large number of politicians out there who seem to think that the world just can’t possibly carry on without them.  But be forewarned:  I’m gonna’ name names.  But, given that this is an exceedingly target rich environment, I’m almost inevitably going to miss far more names than I actually hit.

Kickin’ butt.  And takin’ names.

Let me start with one of my least favorites:  Mike Coffman.  (I’ll concede, up front, Mike’s distinguished military record.)  But that record can’t insulate him from a jolt from the Energizer Bunny.  Between military tours, he’s held more political offices than you can shake a stick at:  several terms in the Colorado House of Representatives and Colorado Senate, Colorado Treasurer, Colorado Secretary of State, and then five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the U.S. House, Coffman succeeded immigration hawk, Tom Tancredo (one of few politicians who actually kept his promise to limit his time in office).  In the House, Coffman began his career as the heir to Tancredo’s hard line position on immigration.  But only until that stance threatened Mike’s reelection chances when his House seat was redistricted and became more competitive.  At which point, he cast aside his immigration “convictions” in favor of a higher “principle:” getting reelected.  Which cadged Mike six more years in office.  But despite turning on Trump on “The Wall,” Coffman was swept out when the Democrats took back the House.

But did losing his House seat slow down Mike?  If you thought so, you don’t understand the Energizers.  No sooner had the ashes cooled on his last failed bid for the U. S. House, Mike announced he was running-again.  But this time for Mayor of his home town, Aurora.

Will Mike win this race?  No idea.  But I’m sure of this: even if he doesn’t, I doubt this Energizer Bunny is done pounding his drum.

Let’s get bipartisan!

But lest you believe that Bunnies only inhabit Republican hutches, there are, if anything even more on the Democratic side.  Take, for example, John Kefalas, who’s held a long string of elected offices on Colorado’s urbanized, northern Front Range.

John and I both came into the Colorado House in 2006.  John, however, left the House in 2012 to run for a state Senate seat.  He then resigned part way through his eight year term to run for a seat on the Larimer Board of Commissioners.

Again, I am glad to give John credit where it is due.  While we didn’t often see eye to eye on policy matters, he was, like many of our legislative colleagues, smart and hard working.  But John’s legislative career path was like so many of the others I see down there: a term limit (eight years) in the House,  eight years in the Senate (or visa versa).  And then: “What’s next?”  The bunnies are always on the lookout for the main chance.  In John’s case, it was the County Commissioner seat-which pays significantly better than a legislative seat.

The vacancy game

But my real beef with John and so many other pols like him?  After promising his supporters that he is “eager” to represent them in the House-or, in Kefalas’ case, the Senate-he resigned part way through his term when the prospect of a better deal come along.  And then runs for that “higher” office-either through the truncated vacancy committee process.  Or via a regular election.

In either event, running as a current office holder-the “incumbent”-is a huge advantage in terms of name recognition.  Which also makes it much easier to raise money: the lobbyists who control donor purse strings are eager to back sure bets.  And shy away from long shot challengers.

The Greasy Pole

750x450 naval pole

And now, one of our own, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, has announced he’s running for President.  That’s a pole certainly no less greasy than the one Benjamin Disraeli climbed in 1874 to become Britain’s Prime Minister.

Again, I wish our former Governor well.  I served under him for a few years.  He’s an amiable man.  Perhaps, in fact, overly amiable for our current, bitterly partisan zeitgeist.

But I’m compelled to say this.  After 8 years as Mayor of Denver and then 8 years as Governor of Colorado, is he really any different than all the other professional politicians out there?  Or is he just on the lookout for the next hand hold on the greasy pole that will get him to the top of the heap in DC?

Where he will be content to comfortably wallow with the rest of the denizens of the DC swamp?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crawling off the marriage altar

750x450 angle of repose

The trouble with living sacrifices

I’ve been a member of The Bookies book club now for going on two years.  We’re four guys, all current or past members of the same church.

Some of the books we’ve read left me hungry for more.  Hanna Coulter, by Wendell Berry, for example.  Others, like Helen MacDonald’s,  H is for Hawkkept me doing the math on how many pages I had to wade through before the end hove into view.

We just finished Angle of Reposeby Wallace Stegner.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972.  Ostensibly, it’s the story of the hard luck lives of an engineer and his wife as they wonder between mining camps and ne’er do well irrigation schemes in the American west in the 1870’s and ’80’s. Dank, dark tunnels and dry irrigation canals torment Oliver Ward and his wife, Susan, with the allure of riches that remain forever just beyond their grasp.

Angle is the sort of book that left me hungry for more.

The crucible

The book really isn’t about the brutally tough existence of miners in hard scrabble towns like Leadville. (Although, as a Colorado native, it was a nice bonus to read a story celebrating places that I’ve driven through and been familiar with ever since I was a kid.)

The novel is actually about a highly improbable marriage.  The union of two people who could scarcely be more different.  But having made a quality, although probably ill-advised decision to marry, Oliver and Susan Ward personify the notion of “not sweating the small stuff.  And it’s all small stuff.”

The Wards are the kind of people the Psalmist probably had in mind when he wrote,

“Who may live on your holy mountain?
. . . the one who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind.”

Time and again, politicians, speculators and less honorable men cheat “Grandfather;” the story’s narrator is Oliver’s grandson, Lyman Ward.  Who, in turn, is a Berkeley university history professor trapped in a broken body-and time.  Stegner’s depiction of the “liberated,” braless hippies that swarm like so many intellectual gnats around Lyman’s typewriter provides what little comic relief the novel affords.

The story ricochets back and forth between people, place and time.  Sometimes it follows Oliver to his preferred environment, the rough-as-a-cob West, where civilization scarcely rises to the level of a veneer.  Sometimes it follows Susan to her preferred environment in the East, where where she occasionally escapes from the miseries of the frontier to revel in a civilization thickly encrusted with fine art, elite schools for her children, and literary salons.  Lyman, looking back from the tumultuous 1960’s and the ruins of his own marriage, tries to make sense of all he surveys from the wheel chair planted in front of his typewriter.

The two shall become one

Oliver and Susan Ward’s marriage is littered with disappointments, tragedy and betrayal.  By the end of Angle of Repose, their union is little more than a dry husk.  But a union it stubbornly remains.  Held together, probably as much as anything, by the conventions of society.  And the couple’s recognition that their’s is the hand to mouth existence described in Ecclesiastes:

‘Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.”

Those who do not learn from history . . .

Lyman Ward is depicted as a meticulous historian in Angle.  He sympathetically reconstructs the lives of both of his grandparents from from the voluminous letters that flow between Susan and her well-to-do Eastern confidant. In so doing, Lyman, by the end of the novel, changes from a dispassionate chronicler of his grandparents’ lives.  To a student of their lives.

Lyman sees the parallels in their familial stories.  How Oliver, a virtual emotional cripple, had helped drive Susan to a desperate act of unfaithfulness.   And yet how, through it all, the two remained faithful to the quality decision they had made so many years before.

And now, how Lyman’s own wheel chair bound existence had contributed to his wife’s similar fate when she took up with the surgeon who amputated Lyman’s leg.

But there, the stories diverge.  On the one hand, it’s “until death do us part.”  On the other, it’s a bitter, never to be forgiven divorce.

. . . are doomed to repeat it?

But unexpectedly, almost as if by dues ex machina, Lyman’s ex-wife, Ellen, shows up in the novel’s final pages.  No longer married to the sawbones who’d cut Lyman’s leg down to size, Ellen’s reappearance as someone willing to help care for her ex-husband is a puzzle.  After all, by the 1960’s, the societal conventions that had held marriages together in Oliver and Susan’s days were long gone-if, indeed, marriage itself was still was still held to be conventional.  And financial necessity in marriage?  Gone the way of the not-so-great Great Society.

So, what’s up with this last twist in the plot?

Although nowhere explicitly stated (like the rest of this elegantly understated novel), it’s probably about forgiveness.  About how Lyman learns that Oliver’s failure to forgive Susan didn’t maim just her life.  But, even more, his.  

And that, as the historian of the family, Lyman, of all people, was not doomed to repeat his grandfather’s error.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Censorship and social media

750x450 social media (1)

Who says the ADL dictates what we see on the Internet?

You’ve heard, no doubt, of the “snowflake” meme.  It’s a term describing usually left-leaning college kids and a vast assortment of minorities who’ve either never heard of, or forgotten, the playground rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones.  But words can never hurt me.”  Snowflakes demand shelter from unpleasant words and other realities.  College administrators and fellow enablers often go along, creating “safe spaces” where those oh-so-tender sensibilities won’t be offended.

To which I say, yeah, that nursery rhyme might be a bit rough.  But, believe it or not, life can be a bit rough.   Get used to it.  And, at the very least by the time you’re a young adult, you should’ve developed some pretty stout psychic callouses.

Safe spaces?  Or thought crimes?

Okay.  You’ve heard about the college campuses.  But you probably weren’t aware that there’s an organization out there doing its best to transform the entire internet into a “safe space.”

It’s called the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish pressure group that’s the self-anointed sheriff of internet “niceness.”  Or, more accurately, an enormous, well funded posse that, on occasion has taken the law into its own hands to achieve it’s ends.

Consider, for example, an incident that occurred in my home town, Denver.  What began as a petty dispute between neighbors, one Jewish, the other Catholic, over unruly dogs  rapidly escalated into a blizzard of civil and criminal suits involving charges of anti-Semitism and counterclaims of defamation in the Quigley vs ADL case.

The Aronsons, infuriated by the Quigley’s dog, and on the advice of their ADL attorney, violated federal and state law by tapping the Quigley’s wireless phone.  The ADL attorney then held a press conference claiming that the phone transcripts demonstrated that the Quigley’s were “vicious anti-Semites.”  The attorney repeated the accusations on a radio talk show.  Using the ADL provided transcript, the local DA piled on against the Quigleys with a criminal case.

The Quigley’s denied being anti-Semites and counterclaimed for defamation, asserting they’d been ostracized by neighbors and even had to sit through a sermon denouncing them at the Catholic church they attended.

The outcome of this mass of suits, counter suits, and criminal charges?

The Federal court found that while the Quigley’s, perhaps, didn’t use “nice” language to describe the Aronson’s in their illegally recorded private conversations, the Quigleys  weren’t anti-Semites.  The court hit the ADL with a $10 million punitive damages penalty in the civil case.  Bear in mind that punitive damages are awarded, in part, according to a defendant’s ability to pay.  Didn’t I tell you the ADL was well endowed?

The ADL’s origin myth?  Or its history?

While the ADL proclaims that it’s mission is to ride herd on the internet for all aggrieved groups, it’s primary focus since its 1913 founding has been combating anti-Semitism.  And, as the Quigley case demonstrated, it can be aggressive to the point of lawlessness in doing so.

But the Quigley case pales in comparison with the 1913 Leo Frank case from Georgia.  (To provide a sense of the significance the ADL attaches to the case, the organization’s website devotes 10 pages to the Frank story.)

Frank was was a Jewish factory manager who was convicted of the murder of one of his employees, thirteen year old Mary Fagin.  Frank’s legal team, which had virtually unlimited financial resources provided by Jewish groups all over the nation, unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the jury that either a janitor or night watchman, both black, committed the crime.  Frank was sentenced to be hanged, but the Georgia governor, after a series of appeals that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, reduced his sentence to life in prison.  Enraged Georgians, including a former Governor, took matters into their own hands, abducted Frank from prison, and lynched him.

Does the ADL ever rest?

The very lengthy Wikipedia account of the Leo Frank case begins by stating that, “Today, the consensus of researchers on the subject holds that Frank was wrongly convicted.”

An even lengthier examination of the Frank case is found on “The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection“.  It reaches the opposite conclusion.  Ron Unz, the man behind The Review and the author of it’s Leo Frank article, is a libertarian-leaning Jewish businessman who unsuccessfully ran for Governor of California in 1994.

While both accounts of the Frank case leave leave little doubt about its complexity, there is one odd fact that apparently separates them:  wherever I was, I could easily get online to view the Wikipedia account of the case.

Not so with the Unz version.  At a coffee shop, The French Press, where I frequently blog, I was denied access to the specific Unz article dealing with the Frank case.  When I attempted to open the article, I got a message about a something called a DDoS.  So, rather than taking me to the Unz/Frank article, my computer just kept grinding away, promising to take me to the site later.  It never happened.

Had the ADL persuaded the coffee shop’s internet provider, or some other entity, to target the Unz article?  No idea.  But what happens when you click on this link?

The Czarina of the internet

Brittan Heller, profiled here, is the young woman who’s the ADL’s “director of technology and society.”  Heller, in other words, is the ADL’s designated snowflake protector.  She sued and won a cyber-harrasment suit against an internet provider that failed to block messages from individuals who were harassing her.  A book recounting her experiences is given to content screeners at places like Twitter. “Screening” is a rapidly growing field that employs thousands looking for content that offends the sensibilities of the ADL and other snowflakes.

I note, in passing, the irony of the key role Jews have played in dramatically expanding First Amendment protection for pornography.  Which efforts have been glowingly portrayed in the book, Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture by Josh Lambert, academic director of The Yiddish Book Center.  So, I guess, anything goes with obscenity.  But watch out for those anti-Semitic, sticks and stones!

The internet and the Constitution

Now, understand, I’m no First Amendment or freedom of the press scholar (even if I did scrape through a middling law school decades back).  But I am aware that there are adequate legal remedies if defamatory material makes its way through the internet pipeline.  That the ADL is perfectly aware of these remedies is obvious from it’s own multi-million dollar blunder in the Quigley case.

“But that’s different,” you say.  “The government isn’t censoring content on the internet.  Facebook, Twitter and Google are private companies.  They’re the ones doing the censoring.”

But aren’t these internet information companies more like mere conduits, through which flow vast amounts of data, usually from other sources?  Most of which is unobjectionable.  But, admittedly, some of which is vile.  Perhaps a reasonable comparison would be, “Should electric or water utilities monitor the activities of their customers, either private or commercial, and cut off service to those that hold views that offend the sensibilities of snowflakes?”  I doubt that even the ADL would advocate such draconian, unenforceable measures.

And, if that’s so, why should the ADL and its fellow snowflakes be given a veto over what sluices through the internet’s aquaducts?  Or, if you like, its sewers?

The short answer?  They shouldn’t.  And like your local power company, they should service all comers. Regardless of their political views.