Category: family

Out of the mouths of babes

400x500 cowgirl

Too soon old, and too late smart

Tuesday mornings have gotten to be one of the best of the week for me.  I get to go to my daughter’s home, take my four year old granddaughter by the hand, and walk around the corner to Duffy Roll.  There, we both tuck into one of their delish “minis” over a cup of joe (for me; Bridget can’t stand the stuff) and orange juice (for her).

That delightful “chore” done, we pull out one or two of the books we’ve carried along and, with the sun streaming through the windows, I read to her.  Titles like “Every Cow Girl Needs A Horse”; the kid is pumped about going to the National Western Rodeo in a few days.  And “I Wonder Why I Blink”; I swear that her mom is letting her cheat off her anatomy notes from nursing school days.

By then, it’s time to walk back home, get her buckled into her car seat (which, in my estimation is like most child safety devices: almost entirely adult proof-at least for an old curmudgeon like me).  And head to her preschool, where I give her a kiss and a hug before she circles up on the floor with her buddies.

400x500 wonder

Can you believe this?

This little weekly ritual all got started nearly nine months ago.  Why nine?  Because that’s when my daughter felt a need to get a little break from raising two still very young daughters.  While holding down a part time nursing job.  All while coping with the stress and strain of growing a third little munchkin.  Which, we were eventually delighted to learn, will be our first grandson.

Boy, is Bridget excited to have a baby brother!

But, at least initially, I wasn’t so thrilled to help out every Tuesday morning.  “After all,” I thought to myself, “I may be retired.  But I still need to spend a lot of time working on my blog and the other stuff I do.  This babysitting thing is really going to cut into my day!”

You probably can’t believe the thought even crossed my mind.  And, at this point, I’m ashamed to have to ‘fess up to it.  Yet there it is.  But now am I ever glad that Bridget’s mom asked.

“I’d rather be a mom.”

Not long ago, as we walked home after reading about how our muscles and bones work in, I Wonder Why I Blink, I asked, “Do you think you might like to be a doctor or a nurse when you grow up?  You already know a lot about the various parts of our bodies.  Your mom’s a good nurse and helps little kids.  Maybe that’s something that would interest you.”

“No,” she answered, without skipping a beat, “I want to be a mom.”

Now, do I really have any idea what this bright little four year old is going to do for an occupation?  Of course not.  No more, in all likelihood, than she really does.  But I definitely admire her aspirations.

She doesn’t know it yet, but society will probably pressure Bridget to change her mind.  As if aspiring to be a “mere” mom is a second class calling.

But Bridget’s answer was also very revealing.  It says a lot about her mom.  And, for that matter, her dad.  How she admires them.  How she loves them.  And how they love her and her little sister.  And their new baby brother.

Shoot for the moon. Miss, and land among the stars.

So, here I am.  Initially a bit resentful at being dragooned into spending one morning a week with my granddaughter.  But also thinking that, at least, I’ll be able to pour a few drops of wisdom from my “vast reservoir” into the empty cistern of this little child’s mind.

But what really plays out?  Just the reverse.  Little Miss Sunshine turns my Tuesday mornings into one of the brightest days on my calendar.  And then takes me to school on straightening out my work and family priorities.

So, Bridget, you hang in there.  Pay no attention to your old papa.  Or any of the other nay sayers.  You’re definitely on to something.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I. The Communion Of Saints.

Mom's old home in North Dakota

My mom and her family were blown out of their North Dakota home during the dust bowl days.

PAST.  Present.  And Future.

I’m on the road.  Again.  Marleen and I flew to visit our son in Omaha.  But, because she’s not a fan of long road trips-and I still am-I rented a car and took a circuitous, sentimental  journey back to Denver.

On the way, I listened to hours of recorded books: one of the pleasures of road trips for me.  One was The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk.  The other was The Heart of the Mattera novel by Englishman Graham Greene, considered by many to be one of the best writers of the 20th century.  More later.

My first destination was the far south east corner of North Dakota.  It’s where my mom grew up during the Great Depression in a small farm house with her parents and six siblings.  The family was blown out during the Dust Bowl.  After selling all they could at a farm auction, they headed to west to Yakima, Washington to work in the fruit orchards and canning factories.  For some reason, the last two to leave North Dakota were my grand mother, Hazel, and the youngest daughter, Connie.  They hitchhiked the 600 some miles from North Dakota to Yakima, Washington.  Real Grapes of Wrath stuff.

The nearest towns to where my mom grew up are Lidgerwood and Wahpeton.  My mom’s last remaining relative in the area, Clark Williams, was my gracious host and guide on what was a cool, grey day.   Wikipedia characterizes Clark as one of the Wahpeton’s “notable people” because he represented the area for years in the state House.  Not much older than I, his health isn’t good.  While we were waiting for our hamburgers at Dee’s Bar & Grill in Lidgerwood, he stepped out the back door for a smoke-before coming back in to hook himself up to his oxygen tank.  I was disappointed to learn that his side of the family seems fractured and that I wouldn’t be able to participate in a family reunion-because they don’t have them.

It wasn’t easy to tell if my mom’s old house hard by the Wild Rice River is still occupied; Clark thought it was.  Brown William’s house, my grandma’s brother, was just around the corner.  Although the house is no longer in our family, it still looked good with a fresh, grey tin roof.

The geography of the area is peculiar.  Although it’s not far from the headwaters of the Mississippi in Minnesota, this flat, extremely fertile country is drained by the Red River that runs north to eventually drain into Canada’s Hudson Bay.  As I drove north from Omaha on a dark night, it was disorienting for a Coloradan to see a road sign flash by telling me that I was crossing the Continental Divide hundreds of miles west of the Rockies.

The Past: Custom and Tradition.

In his frightening novel, Nineteen Eighty-FourGeorge Orwell depicts a world in which “Big Brother” manipulates everything, including history.  An entire bureaucracy, the “Ministry of Truth,” is given over to rewriting the past to make it conform to the current party line-which changes from day to day.  Inconvenient historical facts are consigned to the “memory hole.”  The fickle nature of the past adds measurably to the hellish world that Orwell, drawing on the hellish world that Joseph Stalin had created in reality, depicted in his novel.

The antidote for the horror of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Stalin’s gulag?  Russell Kirk’s 1953 tome, The Conservative Mind.  The book-be prepared for a long one-surveys conservative thinkers and their ideas from Edmond Burke (1729-1797), an English politician and philosopher, to T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), the Nobel laureate author of what is perhaps the most famous of modern poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  

For a book that was written as a doctoral dissertation, The Conservative Mind is remarkable not just for the breadth and depth of its scholarly content.  It also played an enormously influential role in reinvigorating conservatism when the movement had been almost entirely written off in the wake of what seemed the irrevocable triumph of New Deal liberalism.  The book’s a “must read” for anyone who wants to understand the rise and meaning of modern conservatism.

It’s Burke that casts the longest shadow over the pages of The Conservative Mind.  His extended essay, Reflections on the Revolution in France, profoundly influenced both the England of Burke’s day and the modern conservative movement.  Written as a warning against the bloody excesses and turmoil of the revolution, Burke was not an advocate of putting society in a straight jacket. However, he believed that change in a healthy society should be evolutionary and guided by tradition and custom-or, as he put it in the language of his time, “prescription.”  In so doing, society fulfills its obligation to generations past, present, and future.

Bonanza!

One of the early conservative statesmen that Kirk describes is John Adams.  Founding Father, our first Vice President, second President, and rock ribbed New Englander, Adams sired a host of descendants. Including John Quincy Adams, the sixth President.  Somewhere down the line, another John Quincy Adams came along who lived in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

In 1881, this particular Adams took advantage of cheap railroad land in the Dakota Territory to purchase 9,600 acres and gave it to his daughter and son-in-law as a wedding gift.  It eventually became the Adams Fairview Bonanza Farm, about 15 miles from Wahpeton.  Making the most of the flat, fertile land, Bonanza farmers put together armies of workers, mules, and capital to grow enormous quantities of mostly grain to feed the world’s rapidly expanding population.  At one point, the Adams farm was a virtual small city, with bunk and mess houses, several barns, an office building, and a grain elevator at the end of a rail spur.  There was a herd of 10,000 sheep.

Now, the original rambling farm house is now a lovely B&B; I stayed two nights in the master bedroom suite.  One gray morning, to stretch my legs, I walked to the nearest section crossroad.  It might not have been in the middle of nowhere, but I think I saw it somewhere out there beyond those fields that ran as flat as a table to the horizon.

 

John and Tuula Kube,my gracious hosts

John and Tuula Kube, my gracious hosts.

My gracious hosts, John and Tuula Kube, are, just like my mom’s family, good Scandahoovians.  (They’re no relation to the original Adams family.)  Great French toast and Swedish pancakes were served up for my two breakfasts.  It goes without saying, slathered with plenty of butter.  And, despite my having invited myself to dinner, a wonderful meal of local beef and steaming bowls of fresh vegetables out of their garden.  While they don’t farm the place themselves anymore, they do rent it out to other local farmers.  Their daughter and her family live just across the gravel road.

Was it an accident that I stayed in a bedroom in a house that had once been owned by a descendant of a man who’d played such an important role in our nation’s history?  And whose story I’d been listening to?  Probably.  But it sure was a nice serendipity.  And more than enough to slingshot me on to my next destination, far across those lonely plains, as John and Tuula shrank in my rear view mirror.

 

 

 

 

 

Remembrance of things past.

750x450 stew potLike a fish out of water.

You’ve seen, of course, that Sears is going bankrupt.  From its humble beginnings selling watches, Sears grew to be the world’s largest retailer, selling everything from insurance to car batteries.  Before, that is, it went into a long, painful, and, now, terminal decline.

My wife, Marleen, and I were married in November of 1979.  That’s 39 years ago.

Marleen’s uncle, Bud Pickford, was a long time Sears employee.  For our wedding, he and his wife, Peg, gave us a set of Sears stainless steel cookware.  There was a large pot for pasta, soup and the like.  And a frying pan.  Both of them were in use last night at our home.  The original small grooves etched on the bottom of the pots have been worn nearly smooth; countless trips through the dishwasher have left the bakelite nob of the lid cracked.  The bottom of the fry pan is a richly burnished black.  The sauce pans, after decades of faithful service, fell apart years ago.  Bud and Peg, along with their quirky senses of humor, have also been gone for decades.

My wife, to put it mildly, has had a rough few days with a nasty stomach bug and an even nastier reaction to antibiotics.  Talk about your cure being worse than the illness.  A few day ago a neighbor rushed her to the Sky Ridge hospital ER room when they couldn’t track me down.  When I got there, she was in more pain than I’ve seen her in since child birth.  They gave her some pain killers and we eventually went home.  At 3 a.m., I rushed her back.

750x450 spencer stew

After last night, however, I’m convinced she’s finally turned the corner.  Why?  Because I made this delicious  recipe from Bon Appetit in the Sears frying pan.  It’s buttery richness is enough to turn any stomach that isn’t in pretty much perfect working order.  Marleen even went back for seconds!  Except that rather than pasta, I served it over roasted sweet potatoes.  More flavor. And healthier (slightly) to boot.  I warned her, however, that if another trip to the ER had to be made, she was Ubering it.  She took that crack in the spirit in which it was intended-and even sent our clan a Telegram recounting it.

But chanterelle mushrooms?  Who, aside from a few high brow French chefs, had even heard of them when those Sears pans were made?  Now, the most affordable place to get these still pricey seasonal delicacies is where my wife picks them up, the defiantly déclassé Costco.  A store that was scarcely more than a twinkle in its founder’s eye when we got those pans.

But the point of this little tale of domestic agony and ecstasy?  Where does 39 years go?  Sure, those pots are showing their age.  But not nearly so much as I.  We’ve welcomed three wonderful children into our lives.  And now four, nearly five, grandchildren.  And so much more has happened.  How could a life so full and eventful go by so quickly?  After all, time is the only medium that we actually know.  But the way it seems to so rapidly slip between our fingers is perpetually strange to us. Why?

C. S. Lewis, perhaps the best known of 20th century Christian thinkers, offers a winsome explanation in his little book, Reflections on the Psalms:

“For we are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished by it.  ‘How he’s grown!’ we exclaim, ‘How time flies!’ as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty.  It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water.  And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.”

By “land” Lewis was, of course, referring to that “heavenly country,” that New Jerusalem the saints of old yearned to one day see.  And which, in the fullness of time, they will.

The Rewind Button. Part III.

500x350 four kachinas sign

The Church Of Beethoven.

The next day, our tour guides, Linda and Jim, took us back to Santa Fe where we meandered up the Canyon Road art district.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for in the way of art in its countless galleries, you may as well give up.  From there, we had lunch at the the historic La Fonda hotel, right on the central plaza.  Nothing changed my opinion that it’s tough to get bad Mexican food in New Mexico.

Back To The Four Kachinas.

On out way out of town,  we drove by the Four Kachinas, the B&B I’d stayed a couple of nights before.  Something we did a few days later in Albuquerque turned my thoughts back there.

The cook responsible for the second “B” was a young woman who lived in a trailer home outside of town.  After the other guests had left, I visited with her as she cleaned up.

She’s studying to be nurse at night school.  When she learned I was from Denver, she asked, “Have you ever heard of the Victory Chapel in Lakewood?”

An impressive woman.  Working at a B&B that caters to the affluent, scraping by in a trailer park, going to night school, and yet willing to go out on a limb for her Lord.

“No,” I answered, “can’t say that I have.  How do you know about that church?”

“It’s the home church for the one I go to here,” she replied.  “And I’m going to Denver this summer for a weekend convention there.”

“Well,” I said, “hope it goes well.  My wife and I attend a Greenwood Community Church in Denver.”

The Chattering Classes.

Sunday morning, back in Albuquerque, the four of us went to Chatter.  Not our first rodeo there with Jim and Linda; it’s an intimate space in the warehouse district where chamber music-among other things-are performed.

Formerly known as the Church of Beethoven, I have to confess to a frisson of Schadenfreude when I learned that the name change was due to a trade mark dispute with the estate of the deceased founder, Felix Wurman and his collaborator, David Felberg.

While, by the way, there is some dispute about Beethoven’s religious beliefs, it is generally agreed that he never attended church.  His friend, Haydn, thought he was an atheist.

Call me hopelessly old fashioned, but why not go to a real church on Sunday mornings?   Don’t get me wrong.  I like classical music as much as the next guy.  And the musicians excelled on works by Mendelssohn and Schumann.

However, I found that a couple other offerings on the morning’s program were about as soothing as ragged nails being dragged across a chalkboard.  The “Spoken Word,” by Megan Baldridge, featured a mercifully brief anti-Trump diatribe from her cleverly titled, UNpresidented, collection of poetry.   The audience was suitably appreciative.

And then there was the “Celebration of Silence:  Two Minutes.”  It was so easy to imagine this exercise morphing into an Orwellian “Two Minutes Hate” if the fellow up front had suggested that we focus our thoughts on the President.

Classical Music Awash In An Sea Of Fracked Oil.

At the bottom right of the program there was a little box that read, “Chatter is grateful for the support of New Mexico Arts, a Division of the Department of Cultural Affairs.”

“Aha!” I thought, “just like cultural events in Denver, this outfit is probably supported by a regressive sales tax to subsidize the elite pleasures of the old and affluent.”  Sure enough, as I walked out I conducted an unscientific survey and counted no more than about 20 in the crowd of 200-300 who appeared to be under the age of 35.  The rest, like me, were old codgers.

Wrong again-at least about the sales tax.  Although I checked the NMA website when I got home, it only said that the state devotes “1%” to support public art.  But one percent of what?  It didn’t say.

So I called.

The lady who took my call was pleasant and helpful.  “I went to Chatter recently,” I said, “and saw that you provide some of its support.  I looked on your website, but couldn’t figure out where that money comes from.  Is it a sales tax or something else?”

She reported that the legislature set the budget each year.  “And,” she continued, “a lot of that comes from oil and gas revenues.”

Indeed.  New Mexico recently passed Oklahoma and California to become the third largest oil producer in the country.  Being pumped from the Permian basin just across the border from Texas, virtually all of that oil is coming from fracked wells.

Maybe at the next Chatter, the leader of the “Celebration of Silence: Two Minutes” can suggest that the crowd send happy thoughts the way of the oil business.

What’s In A Name?

According to an Albuquerque newspaper, the organization’s founder, Wurman, intended the name, The Church of Beethoven, to be “ironic.”

Now, I know that “ironic” can be one of those slippery words with multiple definitions.  But according to Google, some synonyms include sarcastic, sardonic, cynical, mocking, satirical, caustic, wry.”  And context is telling.

And could the context make it any more plain what was intended by the original name?  The Church of Beethoven.  On Sunday morning.  This, in other words, is where the smart set is on Sunday mornings.

And to what end?  To demonstrate that these “church” goers aren’t among the booboisie squandering their Sunday mornings at those oh-soretrograde real churches.

Like, for example, the Victory Temple. The church the young woman at the Four Kachinas attends.  And who, scraping by in a trailer park, is going to night school.  And is, no doubt, a card carrying member of that booboisie.

I wonder what those two Jewish founders of the Church of Beethoven would think of a Friday musical soiree, at sundown, called the Shabbat of Wagner?  The irony would probably have them in stitches.

Happy Trails To You.

I could probably go on.  But, I fear, I’ve already kicked over too many hornets’ nests.

So, until we meet again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There I Go. Part II.

600x450 marcus asmus

Truckin’ Like The Doodah Man.

As Jane Austen’s novel, Pride And Prejudice, works so deliciously toward its satisfying conclusion, Mr. Darcy’s housekeeper says of Darcy’s sister, “. . . and so accomplished!-She plays and sings all day long.”

Also true of my Albuquerque sister, Linda.  But playing and singing is just the beginning.  Yes, she’s good on the piano and guitar. And she’s sung in choral groups that have taken on some of the most demanding works in the repertoire.

She’s also multilingual, including fluent Swahili.  During her career teaching English as a second language, heaven only knows how many languages she picked up.

A serious birder, she has somewhere near near 6,000 species, of the world’s 10,500, on her life list.  A good enough seamstress, in her younger years, to make her husband, Jim, a work suit.  (My wife’s also very good, but that’s something she never even attempted.)

And, something I particularly admire, she’s given to hospitality with their elegant adobe style home that she largely decorated.

After retirement, and nearly single handedly, she ran a school for children in Tanzania for several years. She’d gone there originally to climb 19,340 foot Mt. Kilimanjaro-which she did.  But she fell in love with the people of Tanzania.  However, this was where the force of her irresistible personality ran up against the rock of African corruption.  Despite hiring a personal guard, the rock prevailed.

She wrote a book about getting up the mountain called, Climbing Kili.   She still writes.  But, now I think, mostly indignant letters to the editor about Trump, guns, and New Mexico’s notorious drunk drivers.

Did I mention that she and Jim are inveterate world travelers?  Oh, yeah.  I did.

I could go on.  But I’ll leave it at this:  of us four siblings, Linda best fits “and so accomplished!”

On To Taos.

But I get ahead of myself; I haven’t even gotten to Taos.  Let alone Albuquerque.

From Cimarron and lunch at the St. James, I headed west and then turned right on 38 to drive the northern half of the loop around the state’s highest peak, Mt. Wheeler.  The shortest day of the trip, it was a scenic cruise to my room at the Taos Inn, where they’ve been welcoming guests since 1936.

Not sure what came over me, but while at the Inn, I sprang for a whimsical, colorful painting by Mark Asmus of a matador leading a parade of bulls past the Taos library.  Entitled Mayhemit was one of a series based on quirky police blotter reports.  Marleen wasn’t amused.  When will I ever learn?

Going Nuclear.

The next morning, and at Linda’s suggestion, I headed northwest from Taos on US 64.  Good thing, too.  Otherwise, I might’ve missed the “High Bridge” over the thin, green ribbon of the Rio Grande, an airy 800 feet below where I iPhoned this picture.

Rio Grande Gorge

Rio Grande Gorge

That third day was the longest of the trip.  A favorite among bikers, I saw more motorcycles on the sensuous two lane road than cars.  Punctuated by views that seemed to stretch out forever, by the time I’d loped around to Española, my right knee was feeling every inch of it.  Badly in need of a break, I pulled into a taco joint that, at best, looked greasy.  But, apparently, it’s tough to get a bad Mexican meal in New Mexico; the food was fine.

The couple in the next booth, although a bit rough rough around the edges, were very friendly.  When I started off with, “You look like you know your way around here.  How do I get to Los Alamos?”, he was ready with an answer. “No problem. Go left out of the parking lot, take another left at the first light, and then go left at the highway.  That’ll take you right up to Los Alamos.”

Model of the Gadget

Model of the Gadget

Forty-five minutes later, I was standing in front of a mock up of “The Gadget,” the nuclear bomb that had been built at Los Alamos and then tested in the New Mexican desert.  And which, thankfully, brought World War II to a swift conclusion, sparing American and Japanese casualties that some have estimated could have run into the millions.

Road’s End.

Given the highly toxic and sometimes dangerous experiments that took place at Los Alamos, Santa Fe seems a bare hop, skip and a jump down the hill from where the nuclear age dawned.

And, after a restful night at the elegant Four Kachinas B&B in Santa Fe, it was not much further to Albuquerque. Where I dropped off my six banger Camry at Hertz. And where Linda picked me up.  What’s the saying?  “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”  Probably not the smartest thing to have flit across one’s mind when visiting your sister. But it was going to be tough to top the journey.

However, if anyone could do it, Linda and Jim could.  They’d gotten a jump on it early that morning by taking Marleen on a day long excursion to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Reserve for bird watching on the lower Rio Grande.

And they were just getting started.

Quo Vadis Greece? Part II.

spencer swalm and friends in Greece

With some fellow Road Scholars at the amphitheater of Epidaurus, the center of the Greek healing arts.

Still Jet Lagged After All These Days.

Finally.  This morning was better.  I didn’t wake up until 4 a.m.  Rather than-boing!-bolt upright, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to be “up and at ’em” at 2:30.  Yuck.

So, rather than lying futilely in bed, I got up at 4:30, watched some of Sense and Sensibility while I made the elliptical go ’round, showered, and had a bite of breakfast.  And then crawled back in bed for an 8:30 nap.  This, needless to say, this is no way to run a railroad.

I don’t, for the life of me, see how my sister and her husband do it.  World travelers par excellence. I almost never know, literally, where in the world they’re at.  Home an extended layover; jet lag as a life style.

And, when we talked about my Greece trip the other day, she told me it’s only gotten worse for her with the passing years.  Since I don’t believe I’m getting any younger, it makes me sorta wonder if my travelin’ days are over.  Is the pain worth the gain?  Brilliant suggestions welcome.

Anyhoo.  Enough of my aberrant sleep cycles.

Looking Back.

One of the ancient sites we “Road Scholars” visited as we bussed around mainland Greece was The Oracle of Delphi.  For those of you who’ve driven I-70 west of Denver, picture Glenwood Canyon-except with the ruins of a medium size town clinging to its rocky heights.  A good good size “church” (the unusual circular temple and where the priestess received ambiguous text messages from the gods), open air amphitheater (á la Red Rocks), a full service-including pool-gymnasium, a stadium/chariot racing track.  And so on and so forth.  A marvel of engineering and testament to the genius of the ancient Greeks.  Not to mention their dogged determination-it’s built entirely of stones, countless of which weigh tons.  Which had to be, somehow, quarried, bullied, and dragged to the site from miles around.

Serpent column delphi in Greece

The Serpent Column at Delphi

For my money, one of the more significant monuments at the site was the bronze Serpent Column.  Made by twisting together a large tripod that was used by the Greeks in their sacrificial rites to the gods, the column commemorates the united front the 31 fractious Greek city states presented to the invading Persian hordes in 479-480 BC to finally put an end to their predations.  First, at the land battles of Plataea and Mycale.  And then the decisive Greek naval victory in the Straits of Salamis.   Thus were the Persians prevented from strangling the nascent idea of democracy in it’s Greek cradle.

Looking Ahead.

But why is this ancient, bronze column, even in it’s less than perfectly preserved state, still significant? Because Greece, and the priceless heritage of Western Civilization that it represents, is under assault again.

Consider Lesbos, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea, just off the coast of Turkey-the same land where the ancient Persian hordes came from.  Although the demographics of the latest wave of invaders may be in dispute, (Are they predominantly young males?  Or more diverse?), there’s no question that Greece is being invaded again.  And Lesbos is bearing the brunt of the invasion.

But the swarms of immigrants inevitably spill over into mainland Greece.  My friend, Dean, who arrived in Athens a week before me, spoke to a resentful young bus driver as he explored the city.  “I can’t,” he confided to Dean, “afford to get married or have children because the European Union forces us to take better care of foreigners than it does of our own citizens.”

Just the calumny of a bitter loser?  I doubt it.  Eleni, our very knowledgeable guide,  described the youthful brain drain from her county.  Greece has a dismal 24% unemployment rate; of those, 60% are young.  The country is only slowly healing from the 2007-2008 financial crisis; abandoned, graffiti scarred buildings pockmark the face of Athens.

The Real Crisis?

But, perhaps, money isn’t everything.   Nor are invasions.  Greece, and its culture, didn’t just endure 400 years of occupation by the Ottoman Turks.  It thrived.  It stubbornly retained it’s distinctive identity, which was rooted in the Greek Orthodox Church and, even further back, the Classical Hellenic legacy that it had bequeathed to Western Civilization.

Calling on these moral reserves and against long odds, Greeks repelled Italian aggression at the outset of World War II.  It was a point of honor to Eleni, our guide, that Greece fended off the Facist thugs of Germany and Italy longer than France did.  Thus delaying the Nazi’s invasion of Russia.  And which Hitler himself blamed for the German army being turned back, catastrophically, at the gates of Moscow in December of 1941 by the Russian winter.

Greece, in other words, is no stranger to invasion and tough times.  I discussed this with Dean.  “Perhaps things aren’t as bad as they appear in Greece. And even Europe.  They’ve done it before.  Perhaps they can turn back the invading hordes from the Muslim world again this time.”

“But,” he replied, “things might be different this time.”

The Serpent Column Today.

To put a contemporary “twist” on the Serpent Column, let’s imagine that the column represents not unified Greek city states, but a tripod of faith, the economy, and the government.  So, how are the legs holding up some 2500 years later?

I’m no expert on the Orthodox church.  But I do know that early on, as a result of Paul’s missionary journeys, the Hellenic world of the eastern Mediterranean was where Christianity first took root-and spread like wild fire.  Greek was also the language of the New Testament.

interior of greek orthodox church

The ornate, beautiful interior of one of the many small Greek Orthodox chapels scattered throughout the country.

But when I asked our guide, Eleni, about the current spiritual health of her national church, her answer was telling.  “It played an important role in helping our nation survive the 400 year occupation by the Ottomans.  But now,” she continued, “not so much.  Most homes, like ours, have a shrine to a favorite saint that we light candles to on festival days.  But the churches are largely empty.”

The second leg of the economy?  I’ve talked about that.  And, as you have no doubt heard, the picture isn’t pretty.

But the economic picture is probably made even uglier since Greece joined the European Union in 2001.   By becoming a member, Greece surrendered its ability to control its own currency, the drachma.  Thus, when the financial crisis of 2007 clobbered the economy, Greece was incapable of devaluing its currency-a commonly used response to an economic depression that attempts to jump start the economy by making exports less expensive for customers in other countries.  But with EU bureaucrats in Brussels calling the shots in Athens, no such luck.

And the government?  Well, let’s leave it at this:  even if the government is rock solid, when you kick out two legs of a three legged stool, you’re not left with much.  And that’s not even counting the scars left by the savage civil war of 1946-1949 and the military coup of 1967-1974.

 A Resilience We Don’t Understand?

One of the books on our “required reading” list for us Roads Scholars was Modern Greece:    What Everyone Needs To Know by Yale historian and professor Stathis Kalyvas.  A Greek himself, Kalyvas admits to being, on occasion, puzzled by the resilience his nation has displayed time and again in the face of invasion, economic collapse, and civil strife.

So, what can you say?  Perhaps the Greeks are just too hard headed to know when they’re licked.  Can the same be said, more broadly, of Western Civilization?  One can only hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s All Greek To Me. Part I.

Greece - Swalm 1

On As A Passenger.  Off As Cargo.

I just returned from my trip to Greece.  As you may remember from a previous post, I went with Dean, an old friend.  A few, quick reflections.

Go If You Can.  And, For My Money, A Good Touring Company Is Worth It.

We went with Road Scholar, a pun that says a good deal about the sort of people who sign up for the trips this company leads around the world: retired college professors, libriarians, and such like.  But there wasn’t a final exam on the vast amount of information that our extremely knowledgeable and friendly Greek guide, Eleni Petroutsou, imparted to us during the course of the week we spent with her bussing around the mainland. And then continued aboard the smallish ship, Aegean Odyssey,  cruising from island to lovely island for the following week.

Greece sunset view

No, the real exam came months earlier:  our bank accounts.  And it was a tough one.  On more than one occasion I heard the old gag, “We’re spending our children’s inheritance.” But, since I estimate that at least 60% of our 30 some Road Scholar participants were retired government workers (Dean estimated more like 90%), they might just as well have said, “We’re spending the inheritance of the children of the taxpayers who are so generously supporting us.”  But who would snicker at that?

Your Required Reading.

Well in advance of the trip, the company sent us a hefty list of suggested books on Greece.  I ordered most of them.  And read most of those. Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi left me cold.  So did Mary Renault’s The King Must Die, which surprised me given its exalted reputation.  Of these two books, I followed the sage advice that I heard somewhere not long ago, “There are too many good books to spend time on ones you don’t like.”

By now, you know I’m a sucker for history.  A couple of the books I’d recommend would be Modern Greece, What Everyone Needs to Know and Introducing the Ancient Greeks, From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind.  

Modern Greece was particularly interesting.  Like many others, I suppose, I’d imagined that Greek history ended pretty much ended 2400 years ago with the close of the classical Golden Age and didn’t start again until the financial crisis of 2008.  Wrong.  Before winning its War of Independence from the Ottomans in 1821, Greece endured 400 years of Ottoman/Turk occupation.  While our guide Elani did her best to play things down the middle, there was little question as to where she stood in regards to Greece’s long and glorious, but at times, tormented history.

For those really interested in cramming, here are some of the others:  The Parthenon, Athens, The Greeks, An Illustrated History, Greek Mythology, A Traveler’s Guide.  (I gave this one a pass also; seemed like a bunch of implausible fairy tales.  Although our expert guide made a good case that these apparently anarchic stories often go a long way toward explaining the more obscure aspects of the prehistoric Greek world.)

On my own, I also took the new Kindle my wife gave me for Christmas for a spin, rereading Zorba the Greek (the first time was decades ago).  I should have listened to my own better angels and quit long before I reached the bitter end; talk about unbridled nihilism.   Why this book is so widely praised is a mystery to me.  Well, not really.  It must be for many of the same reasons that Hollywood cranks out so many profitable stinkers.

And the worst of it?  It didn’t even have the courtesy to lull me to sleep on the excruciatingly painful and interminable flights to and from Zorba land.  Airlines!  Where they keep making the seats smaller.  And the people bigger.

Cruisin’

On the last day of the trip, I was savoring breakfast on the sun drenched fantail of the Odyssey in the port of Piraeus.  You know, my usual morning fare: an unlimited selection of eggs, meats, fruits, cereals, cheeses, grilled vegetables, juices, desserts, etc., etc.

Now, does that goofy headline make sense?  “The kind of cruise where you get on as a passenger.  And get off as cargo.”  Remarkably, however, when I fearfully stepped on the scale on my return home, I actually seemed to have lost a bit of weight.  Guess that airline food is good for something.

That morning was also a last chance to visit with some of my fellow Scholars. Among them was a woman, Kristen, from Telluride, Colorado.  She and I had a tenuous connection through my cousin’s daughter, Denver chef Carrie Baird.  Carrie was a near finalist in this year’s Top Chef Colorado show.  At least one episode had been filmed in Telluride.  Kristen had seen some of the shoot.  You heard it here: six degrees must be a reality.

As we lingered over breakfast, a cruise ship about the size of a small-correction, medium-sized city shoe horned it’s way into port and pulled into a slip to our right.  The monster towered above our heads and took at least five minutes to lumber past us.  Lilliputian by comparison, I don’t doubt that our vessel would have been able to cut neat figure eights in the leviathon’s swimming pool.

And that was the beauty of the Aegean Odyssey.  Plenty big enough for all the creature comforts.  But small enough that our relatively modest passenger manifest didn’t completely overwhelm the equally smallish, quaint island villages where we made landfall.

And Eleni wasn’t just a smart cookie.  She also had sharp enough elbows to make sure that we got into town, saw the antiquities, and did our scholarly thing ahead of the leviathons’ mobs that usually followed so closely on our heels.

 

 

 

 

My Name In Bright Lights

The Social Problems That Must Not Be Named750x450 stage lights

It happened on the morning of February 11, 2010.  I was walking from my parking spot on the grounds of the state capitol (one of the few perks of being a member of the General Assembly) to my business office on the other side of Broadway.

As I walked, I looked up to see the headlines crawling across The Denver Post building.  While I don’t remember the exact words, it said something like this: “Swalm: Dems bristle at his anti-poverty remarks.”  I made that walk many times during my eight years in the House; it was the only time my name made it into those bright lights (they’ve since gone dark).

The dust up came over an obscure bill dealing with a change to a state tax credit that redirected tax refunds from citizens who had paid the taxes in the first place. To low income Coloradans-some of whom may not have paid any taxes at all.  The Democrats who argued in favor of the bill said it was an anti-poverty measure.  I was particularly agitated because the ballot measure that created the tax originally contained a provision that any refunds would be shared by all taxpayers.  This bill overturned that voter expectation.

But what got the Dems worked up was my arguement that a transient, relatively insignificant tax refund would do virtually nothing to address the underlying causes of poverty.  And that what was really needed was a fundamental shift in attitudes among poor people around the issues of out of wedlock births, divorce, education, and employment.

As I worked my way down those talking points from the well of the House, more and more of my Democratic colleagues, their faces a picture of horrified astonishment, rushed from their seats to follow their Speaker, Terrance Carroll, to the front of the chamber. Where they gave voice to their outrage.

Carroll, who is black and was born in poverty to an unwed mother, thundered at the mic, “Representative Swalm’s comments are an insult to every single person who lives in poverty, who works their butt off every single day just to keep their head above water.”

Don’t Have Kids Out Of Wedlock

Note that Speaker Carroll didn’t argue that my facts were incorrect-they’re not.  Just that they’re “insulting”.  And, therefore, shouldn’t be discussed.  Why?  Because they’re politically incorrect. A classic example of hate facts-realities that the politically thin skinned, usually liberals, declare out of bounds for discussion because they put a favored group in a bad light.

Well, hate facts be damned.  I’m more concerned about the welfare of kids than I am about offending unwed mothers-who, after all, are adults.  Or should be.

The outcomes for illegitimate children, by virtually every meaningful measure, compare unfavorably with those kids born into families with a married father and mother.  Poverty, to be sure.  But that’s just the beginning of the bad news:  infant mortality, lower academic performance, emotional instability, criminality, drug use-all these, and more, significantly worse for children born to unwed mothers.

Does this mean that every child born out of wedlock is destined for failure?  Of course not.  Speaker Carroll is an obvious exception.  But it does mean that the odds of success are stacked against them.  And, unfortunately, those odds are rapidly getting longer as the percentage of kids born out of wedlock explodes, rising from 10% forty years ago to over 40% now.

These are the figures for the population at large, but across various ethnic groups the statistics often tell an even more disconcerting story.   Among whites, 30% unwed mothers; blacks, a catastrophic 77%; hispanics 60% (and the fastest growing segment); Asians 27%.  And, even in the few years since my name crawled across The Denver Post building, these numbers have gotten worse.

Don’t Get Divorced-In The Absence Of Abuse Or Infidelity

Elizabeth Taylor was the Hollywood star who, infamously, was divorced 8 times.  One anonymous wag said that she would often wake up in the morning, stretch luxuriantly, and say, “I feel like a new man.”

Such marital chaos might make sense, at least financially, for a woman pulling down a cool $1 million per film. But for the average person, especially a woman who winds up with custody of children, divorce is usually a financial tsunai from which she will probably never recover.  The numbers are daunting: 37% of households headed by a single woman are likely to be in poverty as opposed to just 9% of those headed by a married couple.  Marriage, in other words, drops the likelihood of child poverty by 82%.

The extent to which Hollywood glamorizes the social cancers that gnaw at our nation’s vitals are virtually limitless:  sex, violence, drugs, etcetera. Pick your poison.

But the example set by scantily clad starlets and their hunk, “husband of the month,” and which they wear on their arms like so many oversized baubles, is perhaps the most damaging.  Treating marriage like Kleenex might work, after a fashion, in La La Land.  And you have money to burn.  But for the average woman, who takes her cues from what she sees on the silver screen, it’s a prescription for financial disaster in her very different, very gritty reality.

Get A High School Degree

How’s this for a news flash?  “It doesn’t cost a dime to get a high school degree.  And,” I told Jessica Fender, the former Capitol beat reporter of the now much diminished Denver Post and whose story was translated into the bright lights,  “a high school degree goes a long way toward getting a person out of poverty.”

Again, the facts are there:

  • On average, someone without a high school degree earns about $25,000 annually and faces an 8% unemployment rate in the job market.
  • A high school degree?  About $35,200 annually and a 5.8% jobless market.  That’s a 40% jump in earnings and a 20% improvement in job prospects.  For a degree that doesn’t cost a dime.

Of course, it goes without saying, the higher the level of educational attainment, the brighter the earnings and job prospects.  But at least to begin, let’s begin at the beginning-a high school degree.

Get A Job.  Even A Minimum Wage Job. And Stick With It.

You might think that this one is the “duh” factor:  having a job reduces the chances of poverty.

Unfortunately, however, it’s not as simple as it may appear, given the bewildering array of welfare type programs, and their complex eligibility rules, that came into existence with the “war on poverty.”

For example, one of the issues we repeatedly discussed in the legislature was the “cliff effect“-the circumstance where a welfare recipient would lose some or all of their benefits if their job related income went above a certain level.  And, as a result, the family would actually be better off financially without a job than with one.  Crazy.  And, trust me, you really did have to be something like a rocket scientist to calculate the impact of job earnings on eligibility for things like low income tax credits, food stamps, child care assistance, and health care coverage.  It’s like three dimensional Chinese checkers.

This isn’t the place to try to resolve the cliff effect puzzle, an issue that has bedeviled policy makers ever since it gained prominence as a result of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform efforts in the ’90’s.  Nonetheless, any solution should encourage work and avoid penalizing marriage.

But far more important than welfare in alleviating poverty is a robust economy.  As President Kennedy once said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”   And this is particularly true of low income people.

In the late 1990’s the unemployment rate fell to about 4%, the lowest it had been in three decades.  That “tight” labor market raised wages across the board, but especially for low income workers.  For instance, the unemployment rate for blacks is typically two to two and a half times the rate of whites.  Which means that if the white jobless rate can be lowered by 1%, the black unemployment rate may fall by as much as 2%.  For black teens, whose unemployment rate is about 6 times higher than whites, each 1% drop in the white jobless rate may translate into a 6% drop for unemployed black teens.

Colorado is fortunate in that its current unemployment rate, at 3.1%, is less than the 4-6% that economists usually term “full employment.”  Which translates into rising incomes for all.  But especially those in poverty.

To Solve These Tough Problems, We Must Be Able To Talk About Them

I’m certainly not the first to spark a heated response by discussing these issues.  That distinction may belong to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a brilliant and daring sociologist who was a lieutenant in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Moynihan was responsible for what became known as the controversial, but still to this day influential, Moynihan Report.  Or, officially, The Negro Family:  The Case For National Action.

In it, Moynihan, initially set out to prove what, as he described it, “‘everyone knew’: that economic conditions determine social conditions.  Whereupon, it turned out that what everyone knew was evidently not so.”  In other words, the poverty that bedeviled most black families wasn’t causing black families to fail.  And that, instead, the implosion of the black family was the cause of it’s poverty.

As it did for me, Moynihan’s conclusion set off a firestorm of controversy. And charges of racism.  Nonetheless, Moynihan persisted.  As do I.

If political correctness is allowed to stifle a frank discussion of these politically charged issues, what hope is there?  The facts are clear that rates of out of wedlock births are not just a calamity for the black and Hispanic communities.  They affect everyone.

And it’s not as if there’s no hope.  As recently as 1950, the illegitimate birth rates for whites (about 3%) and blacks (about 18%-and much lower than the current 30% among whites) were at least within hailing distance of one another.  The historical evidence is clear:  black families can remain intact and succeed, even in the face of the often intense discrimination they faced before the enactment of civil rights legislation.

It’s not without reason that Pope John Paul II said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”  The Pope was a wise man in many ways.  But not least in his understanding of how strong families can be an “anti-poverty” strategy par excellence.  As well as inoculate people against many of the other social pathologies that beset us.