Tag: #colorado

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.

The Feast Of John The Baptist.

John the Baptist Head on a Platter

A Very Merry Unbirthday To You!

There are two requirements, I’ve learned, to successful blogging: quality and quantity.

So, how is yours truly doing about a year and a half into this blogging thing?  I hope you believe that the quality of what I put out is generally acceptable.  Usually understandable.  Mostly interesting.  Sometimes even provocative or entertaining .

My real problem is quantity.  I’ve put out about 45 posts over a span of over 75 weeks.  You gotta’ be kidding!  That’s not even one a week.  I hope the only way from here is up.

The Mad Hatter And Me.

My intent was to put out a post about John the Baptist in time for his “birthday”-which many Christians celebrate on June 24.  Which, to my chagrin, is now rapidly fading in the rear view mirror.

So, John, as they sang at the Mad Hatter’s party: a very merry UNbirthday to you!

John The Enigma.

There’s no question that John is a man to be reckoned with.  Jesus says of him, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” (Lk 7:28).

For the longest time, however, John was an enigma to me.  But it wasn’t the strange stories of a wild man in the Judean desert, eating locusts and honey, clad in camel hair, that puzzled me.  Odd?  Yes.  But straight forward enough.

Nor, during his early ministry, did I have any trouble seeing John fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way-
a voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.'”
(Mk 1:2-3)

During those few, shining moments John’s out front where he’s supposed to be.  Preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to SRO crowds.  Telling of the One to come, “more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”  Even baptizing Christ, seeing the heavens torn open, the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. And listening in as the voice of the Father tells Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:7;11)

Yes, it’s easy to see John making those straight paths.

But thereafter, aside from some brief, apparently random glimpses, John is almost entirely eclipsed by the brilliance that is the eternal Word Himself.  How can John be the pathfinder, if the trail he leaves is so faint and uncertain?

Making Sense Of The Forerunner.

So what do we make of John’s other appearances?  His birth?  His brutal death?  Even the troubling scene where, from prison, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Mt 11:2)  Do we treat these events as mere surplus?

Definitely not.  The key is understanding John is just like what it says:  “I will send my messenger ahead of you . . .”  Wherever you see John, look for Christ to show up.  But later.  True, John’s story, by comparison with Christ’s, is writ small.  In some cases, barely a wisp.  But it’s there.

Count on it:  where John leads, Jesus follows.

Two Miraculous Births.  And In The Right Order.

The “Christmas Story” only shows up in two Gospels:  Matthew and Luke; Mark and John say nothing.  Matthew is silent with regards to how the Baptist’s birth interacted with Christ’s.

Luke, in contrast, more than makes up for what the others fail to say.

In Luke, it’s clear that John goes “ahead”-he was born before Jesus.  (Lk 1:57-66)

And, like that of Jesus’ birth, John’s nativity was replete with “signs and wonders.”  His parents, “well along in years,” were past the age of child bearing (Lk 1:7).  Elizabeth gets pregnant anyway (Lk 1:24).  Angels run wild (Lk 1:11).  His skeptical father is struck dumb (Lk 1:20).  And then speaks again (Lk 1:64).

No, John wasn’t born to a virgin.  But it’s also clear this was far from your run of the mill L&D.  And that what we see through a glass darkly in John’s birth, we see face to face in Christ’s.

Two Public Ministries.  And In The Right Order.

Saint John the Baptist preaching to crowd

I’ve already talked about John’s public ministry:  huge crowds, preaching repentance, baptism.  Very explicitly pointing to the One who is to soon come.  What else can be said?

Probably no more than this pithy summary in the Gospel of John at the close of the Pathfinder’s public ministry: “He (Jesus) must increase, I must decrease.”  (Jn 3:30).

Two Gethsemanes.  And In The Right Order.

As those paragons of Christian theology, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, put it, “I was ’round when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain.”  But, to our everlasting gain, Christ’s response to Lucifer in the garden was, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  (Lk 22:42)

But Christ’s moment of doubt and pain was, again, foreshadowed by John.  His public ministry came crashing down when he told King Herod that “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mk 6:18).  Herod was no doubt upset, but his wife, Herodias, was furious.  So she persuaded her husband to have John thrown in the slammer.  (BTW, if you’d like to get a sense of what prison conditions in the ancient Mideast may have been like for The Baptist, watch the gut wrenching movie, Midnight Express.)

From the inky depths of Herod’s prison, John is likewise in Satan’s icy grip.  Wondering how something that had begun so well could have gone so badly so quickly, he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”  (Lk 7:19).  How ironic, but understandable, that The Pathfinder would have his own moment of doubt and pain right after his disciples had reported that Jesus had pulled back the centurion’s servant from the jaws of death.   And raised the widow of Nain’s son from the dead (Lk 7:1-15).  John’s anguished prayer can almost be heard: “Lord, you healed the centurion’s servant.  You raised the widow’s son from the dead.  Why don’t you get me out of Herod’s prison?”  

Two “Trials.”  And In The Right Order.

But Herodias wasn’t satisfied with John merely being held in a wretched dungeon.  She wanted his head.  But Herod resisted; for some reason he took a perverse pleasure in listening to John (Mk 6:20).

But that resistance melted away in the face of incestuous lust.  At a drunken birthday party, Herodias’ daughter’s dancing so pleased Herod that he promised her anything, even “up to half my kingdom.”  After consulting her mother, the daughter demanded “the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”  Unwilling to back down in the presence of his guests, Herod ordered it done.  He, in turn, “presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.” (Mk 6:21-28)  Talk about a grizzly party favor.  And one that still lives in infamy.

Does this travesty rise to the level of a “trial?”  Obviously not.  But neither did Christ’s.  And, again, Jesus followed where John led.

A Coincidence?  You Decide.

To me, the most poignant account of John’s disciples telling Jesus of the beheading in Herod’s dungeon comes in Matthew:  “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.”  (Mt 14:13).  What was Jesus doing in that solitary place?  Praying?  No doubt.  Mourning?  Sure.

But let me suggest one more thing:  pondering his own fate.

It is only after John is murdered that Jesus begins predicting his own death.  (Mt 16:21; but also true in the other synoptic gospels).  A coincidence?  I doubt it.  Surely, by now, Jesus saw the pattern himself, as certain as night follows day:  where John leads, I must follow.

Two “Resurrections.”  And In The Right Order.

What more can possibly be said of Christ’s death and resurrection?  These events are the cornerstones of Christianity.  They’re the culmination of all four gospel accounts.  Who could miss them?

The same, most certainly, can’t be said of John’s “resurrection.”  By contrast with Christ’s, it’s the barest wisp.

Why?  Consider the source:  Herod.  That’s right, John’s murderer.  But it’s there:

“At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead!  That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.'” (Mt 14:1-2).

Is Herod a reliable source?  No.  He was more likely suffering from a guilty conscience.  Had John come back to life in Jesus and was he performing the miracles Herod heard about?  Again, no.

But it’s only after Herod’s delusional “prophesies” that Jesus begins predicting his own resurrection.  (Mt 16:21).  And if Herod’s ravings about John are good enough for Jesus, they’re plenty good enough to demonstrate to me that Christ was paying attention. And following where John was leading.

But that’s not really the point.  John wasn’t meant to be the highway, plain for all to see.  Jesus was.  John was the path.  For Jesus to see.  John’s “resurrection” is just the next paving stone in the path.

It’s Not If.  It’s Who.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to  sympathize with our weaknesses,
but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin.”  (Heb 4:15).

This is an interesting, two edged passage of Scripture.  Sure, it means that Christ is just like us-except without sin.  But it also means that we are just like Christ-except with sin.  Granted, that’s a huge difference.  But, as I take it, there are also huge similarities.

In relation to The Baptist, consider what the author of Hebrews meant.  Did Jesus really need a leader?  Unless we are to conclude that the carefully woven skein between the lives of John and Jesus was just play acting, how can it be otherwise? And isn’t this just like the Lamb of God?  To humbly submit to the Pathfinder’s leadership. Even after John’s reckless enthusiasm was reduced to bitter ashes in the furnace of Herod’s prison.

And if Jesus needed a leader, how much more us?  But the difference?  While Jesus chose just the right leader and played the game flawlessly, we’re free to err in both regards.  And how often we do.

But our consolation?  If we, like Christ, humble ourselves and choose the right Leader, He has our backs.  Because, with even greater recklessness, the Lamb humbly stoops beneath even us, making

“. . . himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself and became obedient to death-
even death on a cross! (Php 2-7,8).

To what end?  To rise to heights of unimagined glory.  And, bearing on His broad shoulders all those who also humble themselves, climb aboard, and go along for the ride.

There I Go. Part II.

600x450 marcus asmus

Truckin’ Like The Doodah Man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On To Taos.

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

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

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

Going Nuclear.

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

Rio Grande Gorge

Rio Grande Gorge

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

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

Model of the Gadget

Model of the Gadget

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

Road’s End.

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

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

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

And they were just getting started.

Quo Vadis Greece? Part II.

spencer swalm and friends in Greece

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

Still Jet Lagged After All These Days.

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

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

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

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

Anyhoo.  Enough of my aberrant sleep cycles.

Looking Back.

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

Serpent column delphi in Greece

The Serpent Column at Delphi

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

Looking Ahead.

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

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

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

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

The Real Crisis?

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

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

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

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

The Serpent Column Today.

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

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

interior of greek orthodox church

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

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

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

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

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

 A Resilience We Don’t Understand?

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s All Greek To Me. Part I.

Greece - Swalm 1

On As A Passenger.  Off As Cargo.

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

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

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

Greece sunset view

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

Your Required Reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruisin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Our Strategy For Ending Our Endless Wars?

The Peace Of Exhaustionmilitary bomb disposal

If you, like me, have osteoporosis, you know that weight-bearing activities help prevent your bones from melting away.  So, I’ve started taking short walks once, and even twice, a day.  Retirement does that for you.

Often, I’m strolling around our neighborhood.  Thus, in addition to building stronger bones, I’ve  been reconnecting with a few neighbors whose kids, like ours, have grown up and moved away.  Young kids, between school, Scouts, sports and their other activities are often the glue that holds suburban neighborhoods together.  True, random encounters during neighborhood walks are less “sticky” than regular kids’ activities-but at least they help.

On two recent walks, at virtually the same location, I ran into a woman walking her frisky, English sheep dog puppy-thankfully on a leash.  I recognized her from some long ago connection with our kids, but, of course, I couldn’t remember her name.  To make matters worse, she, of course, remembered mine.

“Hi, Spencer,” she led off, restraining the lunging dog.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” I replied.  “But, please forgive me.  You’ll have to tell me your name.”

“Christy,” she said with a good-natured smile.  “Our sons were in Scouts together.  How’s Byron?”  Not only my name, but my son’s to boot!

“He was in the Navy on a sub for eight years,” I replied, “and then used that job as a springboard to get a job at Google.  How’s your son?”

“He’s in the Navy too,” she replied.  And then, very matter of factly she added, “He works in EODU.”

“EOD . . ?”, I asked, squinting quizzically as the sun declined in the west.

“Yes,” she replied, her lips still smiling, but a shadow falling over her face, “Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit.”

Great-the bomb squad.  You know, The Hurt Locker, a movie about the EODU guys in Iraq that I had to turn off at the thirty minute mark-I couldn’t bear it.

“Lord, have mercy,” I said, “where’s he deployed?”

“Well,” she responded, “right now he’s in Florida for training.”

My mind pretty much went blank after that.  I just remember thinking as I finished the walk home, “How does the woman ever sleep at night?”

Who’s Fighting All These Endless Wars For Us?

Yes, I know that Christy’s son, like all of our service members, volunteered for the military.  But that begs the question: why did they volunteer?

Because they’re patriotic?  No question-and God bless ’em.  But is it right to be fighting endless, dubious wars halfway around the world in the interests of what threatens to descend into mere displays of chest thumping jingoism at NFL games?  And how long before the patriotism well runs dry? And all that’s left is cynicism?

Or is it because Christy’s son and his buddies are adrenaline junkies?  Certainly possible.  Or just bored?  Also possible.  But maybe it’s because they need a job.  Any job.

Frankly, that’s what I suspected.  At least until I began doing the research.  But it turns out that, at least from what I was able to glean up through about 2008, enlisted recruits were more likely to come from middle and upper class neighborhoods rather than poor ones.  And since wealthier recruits are more likely to be white, the same data showed that whites are disproportionately bearing the burden in terms of fatalities and casualties.

Christy’s son fits right into that demographic.

The Army Is Too Big

The active duty strength of the U.S. military is nearly 1.5 million soldiers.  Over a third of those are in the Army.

Such a gargantuan force may have made sense when we were squared off against the former Soviet Union in Germany’s Fulda Gap during the Cold War. (Unless the Europeans, as can be easily argued, should’ve been defending their own countries.)  No longer.  All the men, women, equipment-and expense-required to sustain a force of this size is a classic example of the truism that generals are great at planning to win the last war.  But are much less capable, as they’ve amply demonstrated in the “War on Terror,” at winning the next one.

A few things can be said with confidence about our half million man Army:

  • It’s a standing, professional army.  And, as such, and as many of the Founding Fathers warned, they are more likely to become a law unto themselves. And a threat to the rest of us and our liberties.
  • Second, the great bulk of them are doing, in effect, garrison duty.  In other words, they have lots of time on their hands.  Not to mention, lots of very nasty weapons.  And, as the old saying has it, “Idle hands are . . . “

Although written before 9/11, this article by Tom Ricks, who’s won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of defense issues, is a thoughtful look at the growing, worrisome gap between the military and the nation that it’s called on to defend.  With considerable justification, the military perceives much of our society as alien and very different, increasingly decadent and ill-disciplined.

Now, with the advent of the War on Terror, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the gap between our military and civilian worlds has done anything less than grow to a yawning chasm.  While we party-hearty on the home front, soldiers, during interminable deployment cycles, get their legs blown off.

While lengthy, you should read the Ricks article for yourself.  Among other things, it points out that military’s top brass has, increasingly, disregarded the historic taboo on inserting themselves in the political realm. Which, heretofore, has been the exclusive province of our elected, civilian leadership.

Further, relative to the population at large, the military is also much bigger than it used to be.  In 1933, it numbered about 240,000-a mere one-sixth its current size (the U.S. population has only doubled in the same interval.)

In the past, the military shrank dramatically at the conclusion of a conflict.  For example, within two years after the end of World War II, total U.S. armed forces went from over 12 million to about 1.5 million, a cut of nearly 90%.  In contrast, when our last “major conflict” ended, the Cold War, the force only shrank by about 35% from 2.1 to its current 1.5 million.

Again, unlike in the past, when the military was seen as a temporary interruption of “real” life, our all volunteer force nows looks upon the profession as a career.  Many of them have families to support.  Like employees of any other large organization, how will they take to “downsizing”-should it come to that?  Talk about having a tiger by the tail.

You think an uprising of disgruntled, “laid off” soldiers couldn’t happen here?  Think again.  It already has.  And not that long ago.

In 1932, during the depths of the Depression, a “Bonus Army” of over 43,000 veterans descended on Washington demanding immediate payment of a “bonus” from service in World War I. Technically, the money wasn’t due until 1945.  The reliably ham-handed President Hoover refused the demand.  When the vets ignored orders to disperse, Hoover called in the troops and the protesters’ “Hooverville” shanty town was burned to the ground.  Two marchers were killed in a clash with infantry, cavalry, and tanks.

Not long ago, I chanced to sit next to the furniture magnate, Jake Jabs, at the Capital Conference, a wonky policy confab for the hoi polloi on international affairs in Washington, D.C.  It won’t surprise you that I managed to steer the conversation toward the subject of our endless wars and the size of the military.

“The Army has all these men and equipment,” I began, “often lying around doing nothing.  You know,” I continued, “how business owners hate to see idle equipment.  Why would it be any different for the military and our politicians?  To me, it must be a constant temptation to put it to use.  And what do you use it for?  Fighting wars.”

“You’ve probably got something there,”  Jake replied, who, for all his zoo animals and “ah shucks” mannerisms, is smart like a fox.  “I sure do everything I can to keep my trucks out on the road.”

What makes us think it’s any different for our enormous, professional and standing army?

The Army Is Too Small

The great majority of the fighting that is now being done in the War on Terror is being shouldered by special forces, elite units that total about 70,000 soldiers, a mere sliver of the Army’s overall force of 1.5 million.  According to a recent Time Magazine story, at any given moment, about 8,000 of these troops are deployed in 143 countries, or nearly three-quarters of the world’s nations.

While in the past these units were a supplement to conventional forces, that’s no longer the case.  In small, specialize teams, Washington tells us that these soldiers are doing tasks that sound innocuous: “nation building,” “training” foreign troops to defend their own nations, winning “hearts and minds” through diplomacy.  (By the way, how did that “Hearts and Minds” thing work out in Vietnam?)

The reality, according to former Navy SEAL and now Virginia Congressman, Scott Taylor, is very different.  “They’re not ‘trainers’ and ‘advisors.’  That’s bullshit.  They’re constantly engaged in kill-or-capture raids against known terrorists.  They’re combat boots on the ground, everyone of them.”

Of course, making war on most of the world is a big job for 8,000 troops.  Or even 70,000. Regardless of how good they are.  One result is an endless war for them.  Sargent Major Chris Faris, who was profiled in the Time article, was a member of the Delta Force.  He was home for a total of 89 days between 2002 and 2011.  Before yet another 6 month deployment, his 18 year old daughter asked him if he remembered the last birthday he was home for.  “No,” Faris answered.  “I was 10,” she said. Before walking out of the room.

Not surprisingly, endless war is taking its toll on the nation’s toughest soldiers.  In 2017, 11 special operators were killed in four countries.  That’s the most deaths that have occurred in that many countries since the Special Operations Command was established in 1987.  Despite comprising less than 5% of the total military, they are now suffering virtually all combat casualties.

The disfunction attendant on this non-stop war has led the Pentagon to create a task force to address family crises, alcohol abuse, and suicide.  There is an open investigation into the murder of a Green Beret by two Navy SEALs and and the killing of civilians in Somalia by special operators.

Michael Repass, a retired general who formerly commanded special forces in Europe, says it best: “Our special operators aren’t just frayed at the edges,” because of their constant deployments, “they’re ripped apart at the damned seams.  We’ve burned through this force.”

To make matters worse, the tactics of choice for special operators, drone strikes and covert night raids, have probably inadvertently killed thousands of civilians across several countries, according to Andrea Pasow with Human Rights Watch.  How that magnitude of collateral damage has anything to do with making this country safer, rather than simply enraging our opponents and spurring terrorist recruitment, is a mystery to me.

Am I suggesting that the solution to these pervasive issues is to expand the force of special operators?  Absolutely not.  Rather, we should dramatically shrink the scope of the wars we’re fighting.

Unfortunately, our politicians haven’t had their bellyful of war yet.  Instead, according to Time, the latest brain storm is to shift the “training” function of foreign militaries to conventional U.S. forces by creating “Security Force Assistance Brigades.”  And how long, one wonders, before these brigades, like their special forces brethren before them, morph into “combat boots on the ground?”

Come Home, America

My son-in-law served two tours in Iraq with the Marines.  When I saw him recently, I told him about Christy’s son with the bomb squad.

“Yeah,” he responded, “we had those units with us once in a while.  But they could never keep up with the demand when I was there.  One time, I heard that a unit’s commanding officer got impatient for the bomb disposal team to show up.  So, he ordered one of his regular guys to go over and pick up a suspicious object and move it out of the way.  The guy,” he continued, “took about 10 steps and vanished in a cloud of black smoke.  The officer,” my son-in-law concluded, “was dismissed.”

Google tells me that it’s 5,966 miles from New York City to Iraq.  The bulk of that distance is over the Atlantic Ocean. The distance from Los Angeles to Beijing over the Pacific Ocean is even greater:  6,248 miles.

While our current crop of politicians seem to be ignorant of the significance of these elemental facts of geography, our Founding Fathers weren’t.  In The Federalist Papers: No. 41, James Madison wrote,

“Being rendered by her insular situation and her maritime resources impregnable to the armies of her neighbors, the rulers of Great Britain have never been able, by real or artificial dangers, to cheat the public into an extensive peace [military] establishment.  The distance of the United States from the powerful nations of the world gives them the same happy advantage.”

Correct me if I missed something, but last I heard the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are still there.  And, like 18th century Great Britain, America’s vast, watery moats are dominated by our unrivaled naval power.  We’re impregnable to a seaborne invasion.

So why do we maintain an army of 1.5 million and spend more on the military than the next 8 nations of the world-combined?  

Is it to protect our southern border?  Obviously not.  The invasion of illegals continues apace, the Wall remains unbuilt, and our D.C. elites, of all political stripes, have repeatedly demonstrated they couldn’t care less.  In fact, they cheer it on.

So we use our vast military power to invade and “manage” the rest of the world.  As if poking hornets’ nests in 143 countries is “management.”  When, in reality, it can’t be anything other than a costly exercise in the futility of making more people mad at us.

And when will it end?  Who knows.  But perhaps what’s in store for us is not real peace.  But a twilight peace of exhaustion.