Tag: #colorado

When it all comes together like this . . .

The Huckabey Family

The Huckabey Family

. . . bet on it.  The Lord’s in there somewhere.

I’ve written about Forrest and Lakin Huckabey before.  He’s the shrimpy guy (despite this, his best high school sport was basketball) who did two tours as a sniper in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division.   Before being permanently disabled by his combat injuries.  While Forrest was deployed, Lakin held down the home front at various army bases.  Tall and slender with raven black hair, Lakin has the look in her eyes of a woman who’s trying to keep up with five inexhaustible kids-all while going to night school in her “spare” time.  On Forrest’s “work ineligible” discharge from the Army, they settled near their families in southeast rural Kansas about 10 miles from Independence.

I got to know the couple a bit when I volunteered for Project Sanctuary last spring in Granby, Colorado.  Insistently, their story tugged at me.  Well, actually it was probably more like the Lord: “You know you have more to offer this couple and their kids beyond just handing them a paper plate while they wait in the lunch line for cold cuts and chips at this Project Sanctuary retreat.   Why don’t you do it?”

Out on a limb

Our family has a nice condo in Silverthorne, Colorado-smack dab in the middle of some of the prettiest country of a state that has no shortage of pretty country.  And, on top of that, plenty of fun, family activities that draw hoards of tourists to this part of the Centennial State.

My wife, bless her soul, has spent many hours making that condo “just so” for our family of five and our five grandkids.  There’s lots of room for the ten of us-and more.

So, I had to work up my nerve to even make the ask:  “I met this Huckabey family at the Project Sanctuary retreat.  He’s disabled by his combat wounds in Afghanistan.  He and his wife have 5 young kids.  What,” I concluded, “do you think about letting them use the condo for a week this summer?  I think they’d really appreciate it.”

It wasn’t easy for either of us, but we finally came to a “Yes” in May.  And then the work began-with all deliberate speed.

Johnny on the Spot

John Greene’s an old friend from church.  A navy vet, he was a globe trotting petroleum geologist before retiring in the Silverthorne area.  Until, that is, his first wife passed away.   At which point he moved to the Denver area, joined our church, Greenwood Community, and met his second wife, Diana.  John and I got to know one another through the Under Construction ministry that does “fix-it” type work for people, in and out of the church, who need a hand.

John’s a “can-do, take-charge” kind of guy.  So, when I finally confirmed that the Huckabeys were coming to the condo, he was the first guy I called.  After telling him the Huckabey’s story, he hesitated-about a second-before diving into the deep end.

“I worked with Rob,” began John, “who was a Green Beret and a Vietnam vet when I went to the Dillon Community Church up there in Silverthorne.  I think Rob would be glad to lend a hand.  And,” John continued, “since Forrest was with the 10th Mountain Division, we could take  them over to Camp Hale and see where the Division trained before World War II.  That would also give us the chance to show them Vail and then swing around to Leadville.  There’s lots of really neat things to do up there.”

And that was just the beginning

At the Country Boy Mine

At the Country Boy Mine

Silverthorne has a nice rec center, swimming pool, climbing wall, skate board park-the works.  But for a family of seven on a tight budget, it all can get to be a bit pricey.  So after some snooping on the internet, I called the Town Manager, Ryan Hyland, and told him the Huckabey’s story.  Again, with no hesitation, he jumped in and the family had a great time at the rec center and skate park, courtesy of the city.

Next, I talked to my church.  Again, with almost no prompting, they came through with a $100 gift certificate for use at a local grocery store.

A few weeks before, I’d sent the family a package of material about touristy things to do in the area.  One of the brochures was for the County Boy Mine in Breckenridge.  It particularly caught the imagination of the older Huckabey kids; during one of our many email exchanges Lakin said the boys were fascinated by gold mining.

Even though Breckenridge, just down the road from Silverthorne, has a proud mining tradition, I was at a loss about what to do until I was in bed the night before I was scheduled to meet the family at the condo.  And then, like a bolt out of the blue, Robin Theobald came to mind.  An elementary school chum of mine, Robin probably knows more about Breckenridge mining history than anyone else alive.  But it’d been decades since we’d talked. Nonetheless, when I called the next day he acted as if he was expecting me.  “No problem,” he said, “I’ll speak to the manager, Mike.  If he’s around, I’m sure we can make it happen.”  And Robin was as good as his word; the Huckabey family had a great time poking around at the old mine site.

War at Home

Sure, it was fun and a privilege to be a bit player in how the Lord made this week come together for this family.

But life’s probably never going to be easy for the Huckabeys.  If you doubt that, consider this “War at Home” post put up by Lakin that she described to me as “real or . . . raw?”  Now, there’s an understatement: not easy to imagine an any more graphic description of the physical, emotional, and mental scars that these wars have inflicted on a young man, a young woman, and their five young children.

And yet, the wars drag on.  And on.  And on.  Lord, have mercy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ho-hum. Just another day at the library

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This is not your father’s “World Kissing Day”

I spend a lot of time in Koelbel Library, a very nice facility in a suburb south of Denver.  While I could blog at home, I prefer the library because it lacks two very tempting distractions:  the refrigerator and television.  True, there’s usually a lively background hubbub of little voices who don’t have a clue about traditional library courtesies.  But at this point, that’s white noise I easily tune out.

Each day as I walk in, joining swarms of little kids and their moms, we pass displays that highlight books and themes that are featured for the week or the month.  This July’s?  “World Kissing Month”.  Or was it “World Kissing Day”?  No matter; it’s the books on display that count.

And “Soft Place To Fall” was enough to push me over the edge.  Front and center, it was right where hordes of little kids walked by; I think I’m finally pissed off enough to do something.  More, that is, than complain to the low level library functionaries I’ve spoken to before.  Who patronizingly pat me on the head and say, in effect, “How could you be so prudish?  We have to appeal to all audiences.  Move on; nothing to see here.”

OK.  I can buy that.  But let’s quit kidding around and start appealing to all audiences.  Why not Larry Flint’s Hustler up there next to “Soft Place”?  Or, if that’s a bit on the rough side for the little tykes, at least Playboy?

An attractive nuisance

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Once the kids have navigated the gauntlet of “World Kissing Month”, most of them veer left to the children’s section of the library.  It’s the kind of place that draws kids to it like a magnet; a full size sculpture of Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat beckons them through a child size door that, obviously, is made just for them.  And they love it; whenever I’ve come with my little granddaughters for “Story Time”, they invariably make two or three passes through their “own door”.

And most of what goes on in that special space that’s been reserved for little children is just fine.  But why not keep it that way?

But no.  In one shelf, literally right down at floor level, in reach of even the smallest hands, is Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies.  It’s no wonder that the book, published in 1989, is described as “groundbreaking”; it was the first LBGQT novel aimed at the children’s market. The American Library Association ranked it the 9th most frequently challenged book in the United States in the 1990s.

But by comparison with another “children’s” book, It’s Perfectly Normal, Heather is child’s play.  In the stacks, but at eye level for our four year old grand daughter, Normal‘s only a hop, skip and a jump from Heather.  And, indeed, it is an eye full.  Full frontal “cartoons” of male and female genitalia, many images of people performing intercourse, and an introduction to anal and oral sex and masturbation.  Take it from me, this is one book where words are completely incapable of capturing its “charms”.   Particularly for little kids.

“I READ BANNED BOOKS”

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Koelbel is part of the Arapahoe Library District.  Every day as I walk into the building, I pass one of their “Bookmobiles.”  The folks that run the District seem to have a “thing” for bumper stickers.  “I BRAKE FOR LITERACY”  is one.  But the one that grabs me when I’m  in this kind of mood is, “I READ BANNED BOOKS.”

Now, bear in mind that neither Heather Has Two Mommies or It’s Perfectly Normal are banned.  The Library District has, obviously, given them their seal of approval.  In fact, they’re right out where little kids can freely pick them up and page through them.

Which makes me wonder.  Just what kind of books are sufficiently lewd for Library District employees and their bosses to ban them?  And therefore read them?

 

 

 

 

It’s All About Family: Part II

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When it finally quit going wrong

Just good folks.  That’s how I’d describe the 150 or so people, overwhelmingly Canadian, who attended our Reist/Archer family reunion near the little farming communities of Didsbury and Olds north of Calgary.

Sure, there was a nuclear physicist and linguist among us.  But they were the odd exceptions.  Many more were things like cement truck driver, bear hunting guide and professional paint baller, electrician, missionary, gold prospector, welder, retired minister.   And, of course, farmers, dairymen, and ranchers.  Hard working, blue collar types.   Many full, grizzled beards were in evidence.  In short, a bunch of good ol’ boys.  And their good ol’ wives.  And a passel of their good ol’ kids.

The Harmattan Community Center where we met was a former one room school house.   To the east was an infrequently traveled gravel road.  Beyond that, fields of golden rape seed and barley stretched to where the sky reached down to touch the prairie.

The Center was surrounded by a couple of acres of closely mown grass.  When Linda and I checked in Friday evening, the field around the building was largely empty.  When we’d returned the following morning, husky pickups and big trailers with pop-out sides had sprung up like mushrooms after a spring shower.

A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet

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Much of my time at the reunion was given over to trying to figure out just how I’m related to all these people.  And trust me, after a day and a half, I barely scratched the surface.

Why?  Our ancestors had big families.  It wasn’t so much the challenge of deciphering the family tree-as the forest.  

One example, in particular, stands out.  A man, I believe he was an Archer, married a woman who, I believe, was a Reist.  They had four or five kids before she died.  

He then married her sister-and they proceeded to have at least four or five more.  Most of these kids were girls.  (I’m confident that the man marrying two sisters part of the story is accurate.)

My grandmother, Mabel, was one of these Reist girls.  She, in turn, married my grandfather, Wesley Swalm.  (That my middle name is Wesley is pretty good evidence that he’s the right guy.)

Wesley answered the Lord’s call to be a Nazarene minister.  So, the young couple moved to Pasadena, California where he studied at a Nazarene Bible school.  From there, they went to Berkley where he earned an advanced degree.  Wesley then got a job as the librarian at the fledgling Nampa Nazarene Bible College just west of Boise.

By now, it was about 1918 and Wesley and Mabel had two children of their own: Paul, my father, and his big sister, Alice.

Wesley, however, also had something a good deal less cuddly:  TB.  His health failing, the family resorted to a desperate expedient to try to cure the deadly lung disease for which no real cure was known:  cold.  And there was no better place for cold than the Alberta prairies in winter.  So they returned to Didsbury where, during the day, Wesley did his best to pastor a church.  And where, at night, he was put in a frigid tent in the hope that exposure to “fresh air” would cure the “consumption” that was destroying his lungs.

The “cure” didn’t work; Wesley died in 1922 at the age of 32.  But Linda and I were able to find his gravestone in the little Didsbury cemetery.

Reunion.  Repeat.

After dinner on Saturday night, there was an auction of a table full of white elephant type items to provide “seed money” for the next “Reist/Archer Reunion” three years hence.

The auctioneer (don’t even ask me which grove of the forest he hails from), owns a nearby spread numbering in the hundreds of acres.  He wore a smudged baseball cap with a seed company logo perched above his deeply tanned face.  Despite the small potatoes at stake, he did an admirable job calling out the “Who’ll give me eight?  Eight?  Eight?  Eight!  Nine? Who’ll give me nine?  Nine . .?  Nine?  Last time . . .  No?  Eight!  Sold,” he cried, gesturing with an outstretched palm,  “to the young lady there on the side!”

Auctions are fun, but they make me nervous.  It’d be just like me to not pay attention, absent-mindedly raise my hand when chit-chatting in the back of the room, and find myself the owner of something that would be very difficult to explain when I got home.

But I managed to avoid that pitfall this time and actually bring home something that both fit in my suitcase.  And makes me proud to own.  It’s the

Archer & Reist Family Cookbook

So, for only $15 Canadian, I’m now the owner of what the sticky note on the plastic bound book describes as “Good item for auction as is the last one left!”  It’s no surprise that it’s the last of the Mohicans; it was produced for the 2010 Archer Reist Reunion.

As the auction continued, I sat to the side and and enjoyed skimming recipes like “Pickled Pineapple,” and “BBQ Stuffed Peppers,” both by Marybelle Archer.  But it wasn’t until I got to this one, that the book really spoke to me:

DAVE ARCHER’S SECOND-BEST COMPANY DINNER

Go to a nice grocery store, and find the frozen food section.
Look for the package with the best-looking meal pictured on it.
Buy it and take it home.
Put in microwave.
Serve.

By the time I finished, I was in tears.  I immediately searched out Dave-and got his autograph.  (He’s the guy who organized the paint ball war outing.)  When I got home, I proudly showed my family my acquisition and asked our daughter Jocelyn, who’s a chef extraordinaire, to read the recipe around the kitchen island.  Halfway through, she was laughing uncontrollably.  As were the rest of us.

So, am I going to the Archer/Reist reunion three years from now?  Johnny Cash puts it best for me:  If the Good Lord’s Willing and the Creek Don’t Riseyou can count on it.

 

 

 

 

 

Still coming home

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Fiddling while Rome burns

I spend many hours blogging at my local library.  They regularly host events on a wide variety of topics.  I rarely take one in; its tough enough for me to keep on track without one more distraction.

However, recently a program called “Still Coming Home” caught my attention-so I attended.  Organized by the Colorado Humanities council, it was billed as a program featuring veterans reading what they’d written about their war experiences.

In a small, dimly lit auditorium, the barrel chested first speaker read his account of a drunken brawl he’d been involved in after Marine basic training at Camp Pendleton before he shipped out to Vietnam.  The second, also a Marine and a Vietnam vet, read his account of how he, again drunk, had taken down and properly disposed of a giant but tattered American flag that was being used as a mere advertising device by an auto dealer on Havana Street, one of Denver’s main drags.  The third, this time a younger Marine and vet of one of our current, perpetual wars, read about how his experience had led him to enroll in a Catholic seminary.

But what about . . .

The was a brief time for questions and answers after each speaker.  Before asking mine I waited till everyone else in the audience had their chance.  And, to be frank, the questions from other audience members were softballs; about writing style and whatnot.  So then, a bit nervous, I asked each speaker in turn, “What’s your opinion of the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria?”  Then I shut up.

To a man, they opposed them.  But the last speaker-by then he knew what was coming-asked me a question: “But what’s your opinion of the wars?

“Well,” I responded, “initially I was an enthusiastic supporter.  But now I’m completely opposed.  After nearly 20 years, I can’t see that we’re doing any good.  As far as I can tell, about the only thing we’re doing is making a bunch of defense contractors wealthy.”

At that, one of the previous speakers, exclaimed, “Amen!”

I didn’t, but wish I had added, that Israel is probably the main beneficiary of our wars because they do such a great job of deflecting Muslim anger away from the Jewish state. And turning it on us.  Oh well, this won’t be the last time I suffer from delayed intelligence.

Whatever happened to “Peace Now!”

I came of age during the 1960s, the height of the Vietnam War.  The country bristled with anti-war rage:  kids burning their draft cards on college campuses, protest marches, riots, rock concerts.  And the protests played a big part in bringing our involvement in Vietnam to an end.

So, 20 years on in our current perpetual wars, what’s changed?  Why have we become a nation inured to war?  It’s certainly not that the death and misery have gone away.  Either for us. Or, for that matter, our enemies a half a world away.  And these wars are every bit as futile and costly as Vietnam ever was.

But here’s one thing that has changed: the draft is gone.  Sure, they’re still protesting on college campuses.  But not, as far as I can tell, about our endless wars.  Instead, college students are fiddling about “big” issues-like the largely imaginary slights to the LBGTQ community.  And the countless other whiney groups that indulge in identity politics.  While their largely white country and urban poor cousins join the Army, travel to distant, sandy lands.  And get their legs blown off.

And, as far as I can tell, things aren’t likely to change so long as things don’t change.

 

 

 

 

Project Sanctuary Redux

Project Sanctuary Bus at Snow Mountain Ranch

What is impossible for man is possible for God

Well, here I am again.  At a Project Sanctuary retreat, the only organization designed to serve the entire military family, helping them reconnect after a member returns from one of our perpetual wars.  Except it’s winter this time and we’re at Snow Mountain Ranch, a YMCA camp just over the Continental Divide from Denver.

Much is the same.  Lots of hyperactive kids who, before the week is out, have made some new buddies.  Plenty of opportunities to unwind:  ice fishing on Grand Lake, snowmobiling on the Continental Divide, a trip to the Fraser Rec center for the water slides or flips off the tramp into the foam pit.  Like last time, I’m sous chef for Tom who, despite laboring under the handicap of institutional raw materials, manages to whip up pretty tasty meals that satisfy the whetted appetites of everyone from kids in high chairs to their parents.

And, again, more of the darker aspects of a Project Sanctuary retreat.  The Post Traumatic Stress workshops.  The “Reconnection With Your Family” sessions.  The presentation from the Cohen Veterans Network on how to access mental health care for service members when, as is too often the case, the VA system falls short.

A Well Oiled Machine

Since I was there a couple of days longer this time, I had the opportunity to get to know a few of the families better than last time.

One of those was the Johnson family.  The husband, Jeremiah, is a military nurse.   His wife is Felicia.  They live near San Antonio, Texas.

My acquaintance with the Johnsons began when I sat on a bench next to an older daughter, Toby, looking across Grand Lake where one of the P.S. kids squealed with delight as he pulled a trout through a hole in the ice.

“So,” I asked, “what grade are you in?”

“Well,” she replied, “I’m in about 11th grade.  But my mom home schools us.”

“That’s nice; home schooled kids usually do very well.  How many brothers and sisters do you have.”

“There’s 8 of us, the youngest is 1, the oldest 20.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, looking over at her dark eyes under the Prince Valiant haircut.  “And you guys all drove up here?”

“Yep,” she said, “all except my oldest sister. She lives in Colorado Springs.”

“Amazing.  And what do you think you want to do when you’re done with school?”

“I want to be a farrier.  We have a horse and I like to work with them.

“Not easy work,” I said.  “Is that why you have that splint on your wrist?”

“No,” she replied, “I’m accident prone.  I cut myself.”

But wait.  There’s more.

That evening I got the chance to speak briefly with Toby’s mom as we stood in line for supper.  

“Toby,” I began, “tells me that you guys have eight kids.  And that you have a blog.  How in the world do you do it all?”  

Without skipping a beat, and holding the one year old on her hip, she pointed upward and said “We get some help from up there.”

“I have a blog also,” I said.  “What do you write about? And how often do you post?”

“It’s about Christian homeschooling.  And I post once a week.  Here’s my card.”

“The ‘Zoo I Call Home,'” I read.  “That’s a good one.  I’ll definitely take a look.  Here’s the card for my blog.  With all your spare time,” I concluded, as a little boy in boots that looked like they’d been through several kids before him began tugging at her, “maybe you can take a peek at mine sometime.”

Life with an open hand

In the “liberated” ’70’s, when I was a new believer and a student at C.U. Boulder, I knew a guy named Mike McElroy.  He ran the Christian bookstore on The Hill.  Mike was a brilliant, thoughtful guy who had a way of forthrightly challenging my comfortable assumptions.  I’m sorry I’ve lost touch with him.

Mike and I both attended the Hillside Church of the Savior, a Protestant church that met in the home of Gene Thomas and had a vibrant outreach to college kids.  

Once, for reasons that I’ve entirely forgotten, we got into a discussion about sex, contraception, and children.  Mike’s opinion was that the Catholics had it right.  And Protestants had it wrong.  “Catholic doctrine forbids the use of contraception.  And it’s not because the Pope wants us to procreate like rabbits.  It’s because sex without contraception is to be open to how God may want to intervene in our lives.  Contraception is our way of saying “No” to that intervention.”

Mike’s argument impressed me.  But it wasn’t something we adopted for our marriage; I had my tubes tied after our third child.  The prospect of the financial burden of having more kids frightened me.  And a good case, of course, can be made that fear is the opposite of faith.

I didn’t ask, but given that they live smack dab on the buckle of the Bible belt, I’d be stunned if the Johnsons are Catholics.  But regardless of their denomination, the Johnson’s, with their 8 kids, took a different path than ours.   One that, at least from the perspective of an outsider, is driven by faith.  One that’s radically open to how the Lord might choose to disrupt their lives with little ones.  A life that puts up with cars that have 350,000 miles on them.  A life that grins and shrugs when a hand me down boot has a hole worn through the top.  But one that that allows the Johnson’s to know, first hand, the promise and, no doubt, the challenges of Psalm 127:3:

“Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” 

 

There’s A Clean, Well Lighted Place

750x450 a clean well lighted place

And Then There’s Family Promise

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

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

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

What they do.  And how they do it.

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

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

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

You can lead a horse . . .

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

I, Claudius

Decadent Rome.  Decadent America?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s Harvey Weinstein

weinstein sketch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crawling off the marriage altar

750x450 angle of repose

The trouble with living sacrifices

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

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

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

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

The crucible

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two shall become one

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

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

Those who do not learn from history . . .

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

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

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

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

. . . are doomed to repeat it?

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disorder

750x450 disorder (1)

MSMS:  My scary movie syndrome

Understand.  I have a slight tremor anyway.  It’s a side effect of the medication I take for my bipolar syndrome.  And, I suppose, a natural consequence of getting older.  But it doesn’t come close to preventing me from spending inordinate amounts of time poking this keyboard trying to turn out something that might grab your attention.

And, understand further, that I’m a coward when it comes to spooky movies.  On the first date with the woman who became my wife of what is now nearly 40 years, I, for some crazy reason suggested we see Hitchcock’s Psycho.  Before the credits rolled, I was reduced to a whimpering mess, eyes closed, my head cowering behind her back.  Why she consented to marry me after that display remains, to this day, a mystery.

And then there’s the night before last.  As is my wont when watching DVD’s, I was grinding away on the downstairs elliptical.  Marleen was in the mountains, skiing with my sister who was visiting from Albuquerque.  So it was just me and DisorderIn a quiet house with nightfall rapidly coming down outside.  But by the time it was over, I was palsied like a leaf in a hurricane, barely able to get the disc back in its Netflix sleeve and rush it back to the outer darkness from whence it came.

But . . . I watched it again a few nights later.

Bread crumbs

I got to it, of all places, from one of my favorites, Far From The Madding Crowd

Matthias Schoenaerts is the common denominator: the strong, silent type.  But in Disorder he’s a veteran- and victim-of one of our endless wars: the conflict in Afghanistan.  His unsettling portrayal of the mood swings of a now body guard for hire suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was more than enough to keep me on the edge of my figurative seat while on the elliptical.  And keep me glued to the couch when I otherwise would have climbed down from the elliptical and started doing sit-ups.

But it wasn’t because I needed to see the subtitles in this French language film-the dialog doesn’t carry the show.  It was far more that the long silences and the eerie sound track were punctuated by jump-out-your-skin sneak attacks as Schoenaerts defends co-star Diane Kruger’s creepy mansion from invasion.  Even the last scene, which turned out to be perfectly benign, made my skin crawl the first time around.

But as I said . . .

I’m a coward when it comes to scary movies.  But I liked this one anyway.  How Kruger slowly, grudgingly allows Schoenaert to earn her trust and respect.  In part, because, he, a hardened soldier with plenty of issues of his own, unobtrusively shows her how to be a better mother to her young son.  Over a bowl of cereal.

But if fingernails-on-the-blackboard suspense isn’t your cup of tea, Disorder might not be for you.  But I’ll give it this much:  it made me come back for a second helping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far From The Madding Crowd

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

A real, live white male hero?  Not possible!

I’ve watched it more times than I want to admit.  But, as Sergeant Troy, the film’s anti-hero says just before he stops a richly deserved bullet to the heart, “Honesty in all things.”  So.  There you have it.  Guilty as charged by my wife, who more than once has cast a wondering, skeptical glance my way as she goes up the basement stairs while I spin the elliptical, watching Far from the Madding Crowd yet again.

I like Carrie Mulligan as the impetuous, strong willed Bathsheba Everdene.  And Mattias Schoenaerts as the wise, steadfast Gabriel Oak.  I like the marriage bond that finally unites the two.  I like that, right from the outset, “a baby or two” is recognized as the natural and desired outcome of marriage.  I like the defiant heterosexuality.  And the picture’s equally defiant sexual modesty, even prudery.  I like the gentle, English countryside. And the Victorian conventions that bound it together.  I particularly like that the film makes no effort whatsoever to appease the vast array of aggrieved minorities and pressure groups that Hollywood has seemingly come to believe are its primary raison d´être.

The thrill is gone

But all good things come to an end.  Especially after the furnace is stoked cherry red.  But in due course, I’m confident the thrill will be back.  And what’ll I do then?  Climb aboard the elliptical.  And watch it again.  Even knowing each of it’s twists and turns.

And which is something you might want to consider doing yourself.