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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Join the army. Go to distant lands.

5280 Magazine cover

Making War Cool

Meet exotic people. And kill them.  Even for women!

5280 magazine is the cool magazine for Denverites. Which, if you believe our press clippings, is among the coolest cities in the nation.

The magazine’s usual beats are Colorado’s pricey ski resorts. The latest and greatest on Denver’s foodie scene.  All things culture.  The groovy health trends. The best Colorado workouts (and those are different from the best Iowa workouts how?).

But, because I tend to come down on the cranky, old curmudgeon side, I usually don’t pay much attention to the publication when I see it in the checkout line.

But the November cover picture made me take a second look.  An attractive woman, in full battle rattle, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, her helmet tucked under her arm.  The headline?  “On The Front Line:  Embedded With American Female Combat Soldiers In Afghanistan.”  And, even before I’d read the first line of the article, I picked up a copy.

Why we fight.  Who knows?

9/11.  Does anyone besides me have trouble remembering the third two numbers in that now talismanic combination of digits?  They’re 01.  Or, to put it in plain English:  September 11, 2001.  That’s nearly 20 years ago.

And still we fight on in Afghanistan.  The human toll is staggering.  Over 2,300 dead U.S. soldiers.  (And, as of a few of days ago, 3 more.)  More than 20,000 maimed and wounded.  Countless others dead by suicide as a result of the mental trauma of war.  Who knows how many families shattered by repeated deployments.

And dare I mention the toll on the Afghan people? While estimates vary in the fog of war, the number of killed or wounded Afghanis ranges in the hundreds of thousands.  And we wonder why so many Afghans have made common cause with the Taliban?

Making war cool

So now 5280 puts out a puff piece that makes this conflict look like the latest front in a noble struggle for equal rights for women.  Rather than a ruinous war that will, at some point, inevitably result in this country finally admitting that the conflict can’t be won.  And, like the Soviets once did, coming to our senses and leaving.

It’s astonishing that in this lengthy article there is only the briefest mention of what these women, who serve in an artillery unit, actually do:   [Her] “greater concern had less to do with gender and more to do with the actual job she was carrying out: She was killing people.”  This particular woman reconciled herself to this grim reality with the thought  that, “If I didn’t like the idea of killing people I shouldn’t have joined the Army-because that’s what the Army does.”

So, join the Army and grow to like killing people?

Bleeding Air Force blue

Picture of Mariah

Making War Uncool

While writing this post, I happened to meet a young woman named Mariah.  Twenty seven years old, her appearance reminded me of the woman on the cover of 5280: striking red hair pulled back in a severe bun.  But while she also shared the military background, the rest of her story is anything but cool.

A self described “Air Force brat,” her dad put in 30 years in the service.  While she was still an infant, the family was transferred to Buckley airbase in Aurora, where she grew up.

Her dad was deployed repeatedly.  “Which,” according to Mariah, “was pretty negative; my mom had severe abandonment issues. However,” she continued, “it was a also a benefit because there was no abuse at home while dad was gone.”   Domestic violence, as is well known, is a risk of multiple deployments.  So is divorce; Mariah’s parents separated after 30 years of marriage.

To escape an intolerable home life, Mariah enlisted in the Air National Guard after high school; the Guard provided her with the financial resources to make the break.

But as her LinkedIn profile reveals, it’s been anything but a smooth flight.  While she’s earned an I.T. degree and become an articulate writer, she’s also flirted with suicide.  And had a run-in with the law.  Which resulted in a seven month jail sentence; something to do with sending an ugly email to a counselor that violated a restraining order.  Which, in turn, caused her to lose the V.A. benefits she’d been awarded as a result of the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) she says she suffered at her father’s hands.  An appeal’s pending, but with the V.A.’s enormous claims backlog, who knows how long it’ll be before her case is resolved?

Darkness, darkness, be my pillow

And now, with winter closing in, homelessness.  How she manages is hard to fathom.  Crashing on friends’ couches some nights.  Sleeping in her car others.

I’ve suggested several possible resources in the Christian community with which I’m familiar.  Also some in the secular world that I became acquainted with during my service in the legislature.  Do they have room for her?  Has she applied to get in?  I’m not sure.  At one point, she described the shelters with which she’s familiar as “sketchy.”  That’s easy to believe.

Go west, young woman. Go midwest

She expressed her determination to move to the midwest, where the cost of living is lower.  Given Denver’s fevered economy, it’s not difficult to imagine that a place like Des Moines would be cheaper.  But I had to ask: “Does it really make sense to go to an entirely strange city to start over?”  She had a ready answer: “I can’t take the chance of running into my dad. And,” she says, “the criminal justice system in that part of the country tends to be more lenient than it is here.”

So, just another chapter in an old American story?  The one about those who are sufficiently adventurous (or sufficiently desperate), to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.

Or something more sinister?  A tale about yet another desperate attempt to escape the pity of war.

Bud’s Warehouse: Rebuilding lives

750x450 buds

How we do it

Bud’s Warehouse is a Christian ministry helping individuals rebuild their lives from prison, addiction and homelessness by providing entry level jobs and discipleship.

Largely self sufficient financially, Bud’s sells gently used, donated construction materials out of our 30,000 square foot retail space a few blocks west of I-225 at Mississippi.  A favorite donation are kitchen cabinets being changed out in a remodel.  As we like to say: DON’T PUT ‘EM IN THE LANDFILL.  DONATE ‘EM TO BUD’S!

kitchen cabinets recently sold at Bud's

A set of kitchen cabinets recently sold at Bud’s

What was meant for evil, God used for good

You wouldn’t guess Pat Stewart’s rough past if you ran into him at Bud’s.  At least, I didn’t.  Always ready with a broad smile, he does customer service with a will.  And pretty much anything else that needs to be done around the place.

In high school he excelled at sports, playing defensive end and kicker; also a Golden Gloves boxer.  He earned the cuddly sounding nickname, “Papa Bear.”  But don’t let that fool you.

Born under a bad sign

He grew up in Denver in a normal family:  father, mother, brothers and sisters.

But at age 11, he went to a nearby park with some buddies and, without really understanding what was happening, he found that he had suddenly become a member of Denver’s notorious “Bloods” gang.  The initiation process?  Getting “beat in.”  When I asked, “What’s that?”,  I learned it’s like it sounds; Pat woke up in a hospital.

The initiation continued with him taking occasional pot shots at rival gang members.  “I didn’t hit anyone,” he told me.  “Almost impossible to hit someone with a pistol.”  Especially for an eleven year old kid.

If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all

450x450 Pat

But while Pat wasn’t a great shot, he had a knack for making enemies.  And they were better shots.  “I was shot twice,” he says, “and died twice on the operating table.”

A few years later, Pat’s “luck” ran out during a drug deal gone bad.  To even the score when a customer failed to pay him for some drugs, he burst into an apartment, gun drawn.  He didn’t have much success getting back either his money or drugs.

But he did succeed in bringing the police down on his head.  For an eighteen year old, the charges were pretty impressive.  Robbery.  Firearms.  Home invasion.  Drug possession.

The sentence was equally impressive: eighteen years.  He served six years, followed by three years of parole.

What’s it take to change?

But as is so often the case when God steps in, what Pat thought was rock bottom, was when the Lord finally got his attention.

It was the death of his mother.  Or as Pat puts it, “The Lord had to take the biggest part of my heart to let me know that I had to trust and believe in him for the rest of my life.  So that’s what I did.  And he’s blessed me abundantly.”

Taking a chance.  Transforming lives.

Pat is the kind of person for whom Bud’s exists:  taking a chance on hiring a him-or her- when no one else will.  And our investment in Pat has paid big dividends.  Spiritually and otherwise.

“When,” as Pat relates it, “I came to Bud’s, I couldn’t read a measuring tape.  But,” he continues, “I wound up leading the New Beginnings Custom Woodworks cabinetry operation.”

From a man whose life was in tatters, he now mentors others with daily Bible studies.  “For me,” he says, “it’s Jesus every day.”

So, come on down.  Say “Hi” to Pat.  Learn about the other businesses that we’ve started which, yes, make a profit (not a bad word for us), but, just as importantly, transform lives.  And where, of course, we get by with a little help from our friends:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And, while you’re at it, pick up one of those whatchamacallit construction thingamajigs you know you need.

III. The Communion of Saints.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

Past.  Present. And FUTURE.

Hit the rewind button.  Again.  Back to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore for a couple of nights at the beautiful State Game Lodge.  I stayed there as a kid with my mom and brother on two trips we made to visit her relatives in far southeast North Dakota.

The Lodge seemed huge then; small now.  One night, my brother and I sat out on the big front porch, watching a fierce storm, the lightning bolts turning the surrounding hills white before they were plunged into an even greater blackness.  Thunder claps coming from just over our heads and then tumbling down the valleys, the rain sluicing in curtains off the roof in front of where we, mesmerized, sat.  The show was over too quickly.

Those were lean times for our family; my dad had gone from driving big Cadillacs with those outrageous tail fins to a little VW bug with faded, orange paint.  But it did the trick, laboring up those long grades in Wyoming, getting us to mom’s relatives’ farms in southeast North Dakota.  Those farmers-those relations-are mostly gone now.

Angry hornets.

Custer State Park is something like a beekeeper’s veil:  it keeps at bay the annoying swarms of tourist traps that would otherwise overwhelm Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Badlands National Park.

Mount Rushmore in a driving rain, sleet mix is less than ideal.  But look on the bright side-I pretty much had the place to myself.  And the weather did nothing to deter those stoic, gray figures, their faces wreathed in mist, gazing out towards the horizon.

Crazy Horse Monument

Crazy Horse Memorial

Persistence and determination are alone omnipotent.

A few miles down the road, it was the same story at the Crazy Horse Memorial, where the massive sculpture pranced in and out of the clouds.

In 1939, Lakota Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote a letter to the well known Polish-American sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, asking him to create a monument so that “the white man would know that the red man has great heroes too.”  Although Ziolkowski answered in the affirmative, the start of the work was interrupted by the sculptor’s WWII Army service; he was wounded at the Omaha Beach landings.

The first blast on the sculpture didn’t come until June 3, 1948.  The work hasn’t stopped since.  Not by Ziolkowski’s death in 1982.  Nor his wife Ruth’s death in 2014.  It’s now carried on by their 10 children and even grandchildren.

When I first visited Crazy Horse with my mom and brother back in the early ’60’s, you had to have an active imagination to have any idea what was taking shape on that distant pile of rocks.  No longer.  Crazy Horse’s face is finished, even though it will be years, if not decades, before the entire sculpture is.  (This glacial pace of progress has been the object of some criticism and charges of family nepotism.)

Why has it gone so slowly?  It’s all been done with admission fees and private donations.  When federal aid was offered, Ziolkowski and the tribes he worked with refused.  When I asked one of the museum attendants, “Why?” he answered, “The federal government took our land.  We’re not going to take money from them.”

Past. Present. And future.

When Monique Ziolkowshi, Korczak’s daughter and now CEO of the undertaking, is asked when the sculpture will be finished, she replies, “I’ll be dead before it’s done.”

Is this monument, which this woman will never see completed, a strange project to devote one’s life to?  Maybe.

But isn’t it a sort of picture of how life should be lived?  Hopefully, our ancestors have bequeathed something to us we consider worth preserving.  A tradition, or, as Burke had it, a “prescription,” that we carry into the present.  And that we, in turn, live, move and have our being in such a way that makes “the Permanent Things,” as T.S. Eliot described them, beguiling to our descendants.

 

 

II. The Communion of Saints.

big boy locomotive

Big Boy Locomotive

Past. PRESENT. And Future.

Fast forward to the present.  And Cheyenne, Wyoming.  On the map, the drive from the Adams Bonanza Farm was pretty straight forward.  Southwest to Pierre, the capital of South Dakota and where I spent a night at The Hitching Horse Inn B&B, a few blocks from the Missouri River.  Then, west to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills for a couple of a gray days; I hadn’t seen that country since my mom took my brother and me there as kids.

From there, south to Cheyenne, Wyoming and a night at the Nagle Warren Mansion B&B. It’s part of “Cattle Baron Row” and was a short walk through the drizzle from downtown.   A few blocks in the other direction, there’s a park with the Union Pacific’s “Big Boy” locomotive is on display.  As a kid, I remember watching it belching black smoke as it thundered across the purple sage of Wyoming and we raced it in our car on the way to summer vacations in Boise.

The Heart of the Matter

But while my drive was linear, the listening wasn’t.  It was The Heart of the Matterby Graham Greene, considered by many to be one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists and a self described “Catholic agnostic.”

The novel captures the ambiguity of living on the evanescent bubble of the present.  Loosely based on Greene’s life, the setting is a west African British colony during World War II.  It’s the story of a hapless policeman, Henry Scobie. Tormented rather than comforted by his Catholic faith, he’s a trapped, despairing, and disillusioned man.  His career is going nowhere.  A loveless marriage is made unbearable by the death of his one daughter.  An affair with a younger woman is not just unsatisfactory, the church teaches that it’s a mortal sin.  Suicide, the only apparent way out, piles eternal damnation on mortal sin.  Not to mention to the human wreckage Scobie believes his death will leave in its wake.

Needless to say, the book didn’t become a near instant best seller on its 1948 publication based on its happy subject matter. My review?  It made the nearly featureless miles of the Wyoming outback melt away.

The scandal that keeps on giving.  And taking.

On Sunday morning I enjoyed breakfast with several other guests around the large table in the dining room.  On line, I’d seen that the main Catholic cathedral for Wyoming was nearby.   I asked our host, Jim, to point me in the right direction and I walked to the early service.  

The Cathedral of St. Mary

The Cathedral of St. Mary

The Cathedral of St. Mary is regal.   Very different than the evangelical, Protestant sanctuaries I’m used to and which, so often, are only a step or two up from unadorned shoe boxes.  The priest was from India and his thick accent rendered the homily largely incomprehensible.    (Catholic homilies, even when comprehensible, are usually a step or two down from the Protestant sermons I’m used to.  Well, guess you can’t have it all.)

As the homily drifted over my head in Cheyenne, my thoughts wondered back to a Mass I’d gone to at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church several weeks before in Silverthorne, Colorado.  I happened to catch Our Lady at the height of the sexual abuse scandal.  There, amidst the crying babies and fidgety kids, the minister read a letter of apology from the Archdiocese.  The stained glass windows shimmered as I blinked away tears.

But why should I be surprised?  I’ve been a Christian nearly 40 years.  During that time, I’ve been a member of four Protestant churches.  In three of the four, church leadership got tangled up in some kind of sexual misconduct.  While not excusing it, I’ve come to believe that it’s nearly an occupational hazard.  What are the chances of a pastor effectively counseling parishioners without being open and transparent?  About zilch?  But those are the very same qualities that can open the door for inappropriate intimacy.  Would the anonymity of the confessional booth help?  Not sure, but might be worth a try.

An uncivil war

A final Catholic story.  For at least 30 years, I’ve made silent retreats at the Sacred Heart Retreat Retreat House just west of Sedalia, Colorado.  Wonderful place-they welcome all comers.  Need to get away?  Forget Southwest Airlines.  Head down to the Retreat House.

Last time I was there, I read a few articles from Commonweal magazine, a Left of center Catholic publication.  Fits right in with my Jesuit friends at Sacred Heart.  But, figuring I could use a bit of leavening from the political Left, I sent away for a subscription.  While the relentless Trump thumping has given me serious second thoughts-even up to the point where I may not renew-a recent article on the church’s horrific sex scandal came as a revelation.

The article, entitled Time to Leave?, is largely about how the sex scandal is seen by the liberal and conservative wings of the Catholic church.  Paul Baumann, the magazine’s senior writer and a card carrying liberal, denounces the card carrying conservative Catholic journalist, Damon Linker, for leaving the church.  Baumann contends that the scandal is largely behind the church at this point and that to keep stirring the pot is primarily a symptom of conservative distaste for Pope Francis.

Linker explains his decision to leave the church in an article, The Unbearable Ugliness of the Catholic Church.   While the article is worth reading, you can pretty much get the gist of it from the title alone.  Linker argues that the scandal is anything but ancient history.  And that it’s a cancer continuing to gnaw at the church’s vitals.

So, ancient history?  Or torn from today’s headlines?  How’s an outsider like me to really judge?

But, to steal a line from those well known observers of all things Catholic, The Grateful Dead, “All a friend can say is, ‘Ain’t it a shame.'”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

“Madame”: God In The Box.

Screenshot from the movie MADAME (2017)

Screenshot from the movie MADAME (2017)

And The Money Changers In The Temple.

How I happened to watch the film, I’m not sure.  Perhaps on one of those interminable flights to or from Greece last spring when scraping the bottom of the barrel of viewing choices became a necessity.  When sleep, in seats built for midgets, proved so elusive.

In any event, Madame isn’t good enough that you’d want to suffer through a 14 hour flight to take in.  But it does have some redeeming qualities.  It features the pampered, sexually “liberated” existence of the ultra-wealthy of Paris. And the working stiff, household servants that cater to their every whim.  Judging by the consensus of most of the cinematic literati, it has all the  of a sparkle of a flute of bubbly gone flat (see herehere, and here).

Something’s Happening.  But You Don’t Know What It Is.

And that’s pretty much how it was for me as well.  But there was also something that didn’t quite fit.

But, finally, it dawned on me:  why did a painting of The Last Supper feature so prominently in a film that most parents would want to slip out the back if their kids were sitting next to them?  And that the movie didn’t mock or demonize Christianity-which is so often the only way films seems to be able to treat the subject-was nearly as strange.

No, the painting, and the fortune that it represents, remains serenely in the background, looking on as the weaponized and heartless sexual escapades of this cast of wealthy playboys and girls manipulate each other like so many pieces on a chess board.  (In one scene, two of the female antagonists maneuver oversize chess pieces on an oversize chess board.)  The painting, by Italian Baroque master, Caravaggio, appears at least 6 times in the show; its larger-than-life financial significance is a topic of conversation even more frequently.

Bob and Anne Fredericks, the expatriate American manipulators in chief, need to sell the painting to pull their financial bacon out of the fire that their opulent Parisienne lifestyle has landed them in.  When the picture is finally sold, Bob, who fits the part of the unctuous undertaker down to the ground, watches with satisfaction as the painting is securely nailed in its coffin-like crate.  And then borne away by grim faced pallbearers.  Earlier, Bob describes the painting as his “grandfather’s greatest acquisition.”  Oh, well.  When the creditors are hounding you and there’re appearances to be maintained, what’s a Last Supper and family heirloom among friends?

Release The Kraken!

But it’s when the painting’s sold that things get really squirrelly.  Anne pairs up with the Frenchman whose wife she confronted on the chess board.   Only to be eventually dumped by the husband.  Bob canoodles with his much younger French tutor.  Maria, a maid who, despite her peasant Spanish Catholic upbringing, carries on with David the art broker/aristocrat who profits handsomely from selling the Caravaggio.  Except for Maria and David, around whose two very different worlds the movie wobbles, it’s tough to keep track of all these illicit liaisons without a program.

Holy Family painting by Svitozar Nenyek

“I’m Old Fashioned.  I Believe In Marriage.”

Just before the credits roll, Maria, an enigmatic smile on her face, is shown confidently striding through the streets of Paris.  But towards what, we’re not sure.  That she’s leaving Bob and Anne and David, who’ve treated her like so much beige carpeting to be trod on, is certain.  But is she just in search of another maid job for the ultra-wealthy, where, if she’s lucky, she can trick another gullible rich guy into believing she’s a Spanish princess?

Maybe.  But what would that prove?  That’s she’s learned nothing from observing, as only a maid can, just how heartless the rich and famous can be?

But maybe this idea fits better.  Amanda Sthers, the director and script writer, in addition to her other achievements, is the divorced mother of two children.  At one point in the film, she puts these words in the mouth of Maria, “I’m old fashioned.  I believe in marriage.”  Unsurprisingly, when Maria makes this pronouncement, the playboys and girls around her shrug it off.

At another point, Maria tells David that “I love the picture of the Holy Family that I have next to my bed.”  David, who can’t imagine such things without seeing dollar signs, wonders, “Which master painted it?  It must be tremendously valuable.”  Kitsch art and genuine feeling collide with the money changer.

Is Ms. Sthers, through one of the film’s only sympathetic characters, telling us what she thinks about marriage and Christianity?  Can’t say “Yes” for sure.  But neither can I say “No.”

Madame?  Or, In Other Words, Mrs.

The title of the movie is odd.  The French equivalent of Mrs, does it refer to Anne, the only married woman who has anything other than a bit part?  But Anne definitely plays second fiddle to Maria.  And Maria, it doesn’t appear, is married.

Turns out, however, that Maria has a teenage daughter that she, apparently, can only mother from afar through FaceTime. An aspiring figure skater, the daughter’s lessons are paid for by Bob and Anne. Fearing that Maria’s involvement with the art dealer might scotch their chances to sell the painting, Anne’s maternal instincts kick in,  “You know, Maria, if you can’t get this thing with David under control, we may have to quit paying for your daughter’s skating lessons.”  Yep.  The maternal instincts of a serpent.

So maybe, just maybe, Maria has resolutely set her face toward resuming her role as something other than a FaceTime avatar for her daughter.  And, who knows, even something as wildly old fashioned as a family.

Second Meanings.

C.S. Lewis, in his book, Reflections On The Psalms, says this about hidden meanings in those famous poems.  Or, for that matter, movies:

“Hitherto we have been trying to read the Psalms as we suppose-or I suppose-their poets meant them to be read.  But this of course is not the way in which they have been used by Christians.  They have been believed to contain a second or hidden meaning, an ‘allegorical’ sense . . .  Such a doctrine, not without reason, arouses deep distrust in a modern mind.  Because, as we know, almost anything can be read into any book [or movie] if you are determined enough. . . (Some of the allegories thus imposed on my own books have been so ingenious and interesting that I often wish that I had thought of them myself.”)

So, am I guilty of “imposing” an ingenious allegorical meaning on Madame that has no business being there?

Of course, I can’t be certain what Ms. Sthers had in mind when she created this movie.  Maybe it’s just, as most of the critics believe, a fizzy French nothing burger of a naughty comedy.

But if so, why so obviously give the Last Supper painting pride of place?  And which, at least briefly and less than perfectly, holds back the sexual anarchy, angst and greed that prevails after the painting is sold for an inflation adjusted 30 pieces of silver?

But perhaps that’s the real problem with this movie.  Maybe Ms. Sthers herself doesn’t know exactly what she wants.  A bonbon?  Or something with more substance, a commentary on the anomie that besets us when the idols of money and sex trump all other values?  And what happens to people who think they’ve succeeded in doing as Pilate directed the chief priests and Pharisees: “You have a guard.  Go and make the tomb as secure as you know how.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gimme Shelter.

Sunset photo of Colorado State Capital buildingProject Sanctuary At The Winding River Ranch.

Rand Case.  Now there’s a name you don’t hear everyday.  And neither had I until I met Rand during my last door to door campaign for the Colorado House about four years ago.

Of course, after doing it thousands of times, I pretty much had my line of front porch patter down cold:  small business owner, Colorado native, all three kids graduates of Cherry Creek schools, a son that served eight years on submarines.  Something, almost invariably, made a connection.

In Rand’s case, it was the Navy and submarines:  he’s a graduate of the Naval Academy. And served on subs.  And, for good measure, he’s also a Colorado native: grew up in the profoundly land locked little tourist town of Grandby, just south of Rocky Mountain National Park and west of some of the most rugged peaks on the Continental Divide.

Not Just War Weary.  But Actually Doing Something About It.

But by then in my political life, when I met someone with a military connection on the campaign trail, I usually couldn’t refrain from saying something about my weariness of our endless wars. The broken bodies.  The broken minds.  The broken families.  And for what purpose?  To enrich defense contractors and to justify Congressmen’s boasts about bringing home that tainted defense “bacon.”

And that’s probably why Rand also told me about Project Sanctuary.   Run by and for veterans, it’s an organization that recognizes, as it says on the website, that “The whole family serves, and the best way to ‘support the troops’ is by supporting the entire family.”  Rand serves as board secretary.  Most of the other board members are vets as well.

True Grit.

But the real impetus for the organization came from registered nurse, Heather Ehle, who, in 2007, saw the need, set up a card table in front of a local grocery store, and began asking for money for 6 day family retreats.  The retreats focus on three aspects of the lives of returning vets:  assessing the need for help, reconnecting families at the 6 day retreats, and offering up to 24 months of ongoing support.  All services are free of charge.  In their effort to take soldiers from “combat ready to family ready,” they now offer programs all across the country.

My wife and I had our first in person exposure to Project Sanctuary at their annual fund raiser.  Heather, I’ll confess, spent a good deal of time in the spotlight that evening.  And the program planners seemingly lost track of the maxim that the “brain can absorb only so much as the rear end can endure.”  Heather, especially, was a bit too much for my wife.

But it was also clear that Heather was a hero to the many vets and their spouses in attendance that night.  Moreover, who but someone endowed with enormous self confidence and grit, could raise an organization from nothing to one that has now impacted 1,000+ families in just over 10 years?

KP.  Babysitting.  And PTSD For Kids!

So, I decided to volunteer for a retreat-the 149th since PS began.  But I started by dipping my toe in the shallow end at a nearby retreat at the Winding River Ranch, just outside Grand Lake, Colorado.

Initially, I thought I might be helping with cooking-something I’m pretty good at.  But fortunately, they had that covered.  Cooking three meals a day for 50 some people for 6 days is no mean feat.  So I did KP:  putting out food for the cafeteria style meals, washing dishes, sweeping floors after meals.  You know, the glamorous stuff.

And, while parents were in sessions where heavy topics like Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were discussed with trained counselors, I helped babysit the younger kids.  Sharon Harris, a licensed play therapist, did a great job coming up with diverting games that usually managed to sneak in a lesson about family team work or some similar moral.

It was heartbreaking to learn that there was a session for kids to help them cope with the PTSD that’s sunk its claws into their families.

When the lights went out at 9 pm, I slept the sleep of the righteous.  Despite a stuffy, far from luxurious room and a roommate I’d never laid eyes on before.

Husband Caregiver.

Two of the little kids at Winding River were beautiful, blond twins who rode in the back seat from Georgia with their parents who, after going through the program themselves, were now back as volunteers. Although you wouldn’t know it if you saw him on the street, the father’s among the walking wounded.

At breakfast one morning, I had the opportunity to speak with the wife-who described herself as a “husband caregiver.”

“How,” I asked, “is the care you get from your local Veterans Administration?  The VA hospital they recently built here has been a scandal.  About a $1 billion over budget and years behind schedule.  Has President Trump’s effort to introduce choice into the VA helped?”

“The choice program might be a good idea” she answered, “but it’s still snarled in red tape.  The GP we’re assigned to has about 7,000 patients.  There’s no was they can keep up with it.  And with that kind of workload, there’s a lot of turnover among doctors.  That’s why,” she concluded, “PS is so important to us.”

Walton’s Warriors.

Bonnie Walton was another PS staff member that I met.  When I started speaking with Bonnie, I had no idea of why she was on staff.  So I asked.

“Because my husband, Brian, and I went through the program. And it was great.  But, despite that,” she concluded, “he ended up committing suicide.”

Talk about a gut punch.  And Brian is only one of what the VA estimates could to be up to 20 service members per day who commit suicide.  But there is some hope; Brian is the only Project Sanctuary graduate who has taken his life.

And, to try to make sure that Brian is the last veteran that kills himself, the organization started Walton’s Warriors.  Although the program is multi-faceted, it’s built around “peer mentors”: vets who’ve wrestled with the same demons that have lead so many to despair and death.  Who then volunteer to be trained and ready to help others.

“Get Out Now!”

Colorado House of Representatives

When I served in the Colorado House, the Iraq and Afghan wars were still raging.  And the vet suicide issue was rapidly making its way to our attention.

In response, a bill was introduced that set up a state program providing “early intervention” mental health services for returning vets.  For obvious reasons, it was one of those bills that got unanimous support.  Members lined up to speak in favor; the phrase “early intervention strategies” was uttered repeatedly.

But while I had every intent of voting for the bill, I sat at my desk, stomach churning, a scowl on my face.  I was debating whether I should speak.  And what I should say.

Finally, mind made up, I got in line to take my turn at the mic.

When I got there, I first turned to my left to thank the sponsor, Dave Young.

“But,” I went on, scanning the entire chamber now, “how about this as an early intervention strategy?  GET OUT NOW!”  With that, my “speech” was done.

The Colorado House of Representatives operates under certain rules of decorum.  One of those is that members and spectators should observe a respectful silence when we are in session.

My fellow legislators observed the rules after my little talk.

But before I’d left the podium, a small group of spectators, above me and to the left, erupted in cheers and clapping.  I still don’t know who they were.  But the Speaker of the House, presiding over our deliberations from just behind me, immediately gaveled down the gallery, crying “Order, order!”

The Real Question.

So, here we are, nearly 20 years on from 9/11.  And we’re still not entirely out of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Not to mention all of the world’s other hot spots where our military’s presence will probably do no more to insure this nation’s peace and security than all the blood and treasure we’ve squandered in the Middle East.

And even when we do finally get out, the horses have already left the barn-and we’re not gettin’ ’em back: the vets whose lives and families have been shattered.  Whose wounds, both mental and physical, have left the VA hideously overtaxed.  And have left organizations like Project Sanctuary to pick up the pieces.  Whose efforts, although valiant, are little more than a drop in the bucket.

So what’s the real question?  Just this: Have we, finally, learned our lesson?  Yes, it may be an old saw, but we can’t be the world’s cop.  Nor, and just as importantly, does much of the world want us to be.

America, it’s time to come home.