A Peculiar Kind of Thanksgiving

During one of the 2016 Republican primary debates, Sen. Marco Rubio said, “I thank God that George W. Bush was president on 9/11.” He was implying, of course, that a President Al Gore would not have handled things so well as Bush did during the aftermath.

In a sense, though, Rubio was thanking God for two protracted wars and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people; thanking God for the billions of dollars wasted on those wars; thanking God for destabilizing the Middle East and opening the way for ISIS; thanking God for yet another generation of broken soldiers and broken families, some of whom live in broken cars and under broken bridges. There is more, of course, but that’s the picture.

Knowing now the consequences of the 2000 election—an election predicated and fueled by intense hatred of Bill Clinton and, by extension, Al Gore—would your vote then have been different? Could anyone who voted for Gorge W. Bush honestly say, “Well, so what? It would have been much, much worse with Gore as president.” Worse how? I ask.

Surely there was a lot of God-thanking when the Electoral College tipped in favor of Donald Trump, giving him the presidency despite Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote. Never mind that we have set ourselves up for potential consequences more terrible than those brought on by George Bush.

Some of us Americans are comfortable with the prospect of living under an authoritarian, white-nationalist regime. I can imagine how grateful they are for the opportunity. Others of us are not so enamored of the idea.

But who knows? There could be reason for optimism. Take one example: Maybe under Trump the middle class will rise to its former glory days. Maybe all those shuttered factories in the rust belt will spontaneously rev to life. Workers (non-union, of course) will enjoy a wage high enough that families can once again be single-earner households. Dad will truck off to the plant while mom cooks a nice hot breakfast for the kids before she drives them to their excellent charter school. Wouldn’t that be great?

Today, we can only predict how a Trump presidency will play out. But the anomaly that was the past campaign and election doesn’t bode well for the country and the world, let alone for those who championed him.

Yet someday, no matter how bad things get over the next four years, someone undoubtedly will “thank God” that Donald Trump was president. Because under Hillary Clinton, just like under Al Gore, things would have been so much, much, much worse. For the believers, it could not be otherwise.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

(For the record, I supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, but voted for Clinton in opposition to Trump. I would have preferred another Democratic candidate. Clinton’s sense of entitlement to the presidency and her close association with Wall Street were off-putting for me. However, she has suffered years of assault by the right-wing propaganda machine, and I don’t think she deserves the reputation the right has assigned to her.)

The Power and Fallacy of Belief and Our New Civil War

Battle of Franklin, Nov. 30, 1864. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

With all the disinformation, fake news, innuendo as fact, and lies gone unchallenged, it’s been difficult to get a grasp of anything close to truth during the past campaign for president and post-election. This onslaught of propaganda has rendered truth irrelevant, further cementing Red-Team beliefs and Blue-Team beliefs as well. Belief is a Kevlar vest against sharp attacks of disagreeable facts. And it’s an armor-piercing bullet, a weapon of force and power.

It’s been difficult for me to disentangle what I read in the news from both camps and make of sense this of war of beliefs between the Reds and the Blues. To help me put things into perspective I reached back in history to an era where the destructive forces of belief split the nation.

We all know of the Civil War, the War Between the States, between North and South, between the Blue and the Gray. Although I think even today some would deny it, the root of this war was slavery.

Slavery was the way of life in the South. It was as natural as magnolia blossoms. It’s mentioned many times in the Bible and not unfavorably. Belief held that God approved of slavery, endorsed slavery. It was right and good. Moreover, it was a necessary duty. Such was the belief that made slavery possible, thus making it possible for those upright people of Southern gentility to sleep well at night and with a clear conscience.

Ah, but those in the North, those abolitionists, believed slavery was an abomination. It could not be possible for a good and gracious God to condone slavery. Slavery was evil and it must end.

So here we have two strongly held and conflicting beliefs. Some 500,000 people died for those beliefs. Those conflicting beliefs ripped families apart. Those conflicting beliefs wrecked the Southern economy.

Such is the power of belief.

But who was right? Where lay truth?

Did Northern victory prove that God abhorred slavery? If so, all those Southerners held wrong beliefs about God and a few other things, too. Or could it be that God got whupped along with the true believers? If that’s the case, then Satan, not God, stood behind Northern victory. And, hell yeah, the South will rise again!

Or maybe, just maybe, God had no opinion of slavery or the war, for that matter. If so, the South used God as an excuse for deplorable behavior (not at all uncommon, don’t you agree?).

Such is the fallacy of belief.

So what do you believe? Is slavery right or wrong? Was God with the Gray Team or the Blue Team? Or nowhere to be found? Is belief the same as truth, or is truth independent of belief?

And here’s another bit of perspective-putting: Abraham Lincoln, that good and deliberative man so determined to keep the union together, was despised by half the country for what he believed.

Now take this perspective on truth and belief, pop it into this very day, and make of it what you will.

What Makes America Great?

uncle_sam_pointing_fingerI am 65 years old. I remember the day, November 22, 1963, that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John Kennedy. I remember, two days later, watching on black-and-white television as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. I remember my father asking: “What’s this country coming to?”

Fifty three years later, a bi-polar answer appears imminent.

On November 9, 2016, Donald Trump fired a bullet into the heart of the American psyche and of democracy itself. Half of us watched in stunned disbelief as he won enough electoral votes to become the 45th president of the United States. The other half, the people who provided the gunpowder, will dance with self-righteous joy as their savior begins making “America great again” when he takes office on January 20, 2017.

For some (myself included) his election to power is a tragedy. For others it’s a hallelujah moment. It’s pointless to rehash the details because so much has been—and will be—written about that already. Rather, Donald Trump has compelled in me an examination of conscience about the United States and its presumed greatness within the context of my upbringing and understanding of the world.

I am a third-generation American—with German heritage on my father’s side and Scottish and Polish on my mother’s. My parents raised me with the implicit understanding that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. It alway has been and ever shall be, world without end, amen. I was born just six years after the end of World War II. My father didn’t go to war—he wasn’t old enough—but he did enlist when of age, first in the Air Force, then in the Army. When I was 21, he retired (in a ceremony at the Pentagon, no less) as a Lieutenant Colonel. Growing up in the classroom of the military family reinforced my education in patriotism.

An early memory is of watching on television, with my mother, the opening-day parade of the Olympics. She took the opportunity for a lesson in patriotism and American exceptionalism. She prompted me to notice that when each team passed the reviewing stand, the flag bearer would lower the staff, bringing it parallel to the ground. “Dipping the flag” was a sign of respect to the dignitaries of the host country sitting in the stands. “Now watch,” she said as our team approached the stands, Stars and Stripes held high. Team USA walked right by the stand without giving the flag so much as a twitch. “Our flag dips for no one,” my mother said. I suppose I felt proud. I think that was the point. But I didn’t, and don’t, understand the need for such blatant arrogance.

Encompassing my childhood were the specter of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the fear of being overrun by Communists, and the massive effort to beat the USSR to the moon. Also in the mix were the baby boom (I’m in there somewhere) and the rapid rise of the middle class, supported by spectacular industrial and technological advances. There was no doubt that America was the most powerful country in the world in all respects. We manufactured the best products, built the best roads and buildings, excelled in everything. We had very recently conquered Hitler, liberated Europe, and blew Japan to smithereens.

We are Number One! We are the Best! And, with implied importance, we are good—so very, very good—meaning our moral superiority in the world is unquestionable.

At age 14, in 1965 and just 20 years after the war with Germany and Japan, my father’s duty to country took him and his family to Europe. We landed in Paris on a sunny day in late August or early September, just before I would start ninth grade. I have no way of knowing how different my life would be today had I not lived those three years in Europe, first in France then in Germany. But I do know that what I saw and experienced there was awe-inspiring: the rich cultures, the industry, the buildings, the history, the art. National pride was palpable, especially in France. From then on my impressionable mind understood that greatness was relative.

I returned from Europe in 1968, in time to begin my senior year at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, VA, just outside Washington, DC’s beltway. I returned to a country in the midst of upheaval, a country different from the one I had left. In January of ’68 the Tet Offensive had escalated the war in Vietnam, and scenes of killing and destruction played out daily on the 6:00 news. On April 4, Martin Luther King, and on June 5, Robert Kennedy, were murdered. In August came the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and its attendant protests, riots, and police brutality. There were the Yippies, the SDS, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers and the Hard Hats. Soon came Kent State (with “four dead in O-hi-o”) and Watergate and so much more. It was an era of turmoil and tension and anger and hatred throughout the country, especially between those who supported the war in Vietnam and those who were against it. For the record I was against it, although I did not engage in any kind of serious protest.

Then came the Pentagon Papers, a Top Secret study of US involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The Papers (7,000 pages in 47 volumes). In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the papers to the New York Times. A major revelation was that the government had lied to the people and to Congress about what was happening in Southeast Asia and our reason for being there in the first place. It exposed a secret history in contradiction to the public one. Ellsberg was a hero to some, a traitor to others. Edward Snowden is in the same place.

If Ellsberg—and much later Snowden—proved that the government lies to the people, George W. Bush, with his invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, proved that the people don’t mind being lied to. It all depends on whose lies “we the people” choose to believe. Truth is not the point. Rather, we accept as truth only what we want to believe. All else is false, regardless of fact.

The election cycle of 2016 could be a case study of this phenomenon, with the constant proliferation of fake news, hoaxes, innuendo as fact, and outright lies emanating from Donald Trump, his campaign, and right-wing propaganda mills—enough to get him elected by the believers.

We know from history that some very thoughtful and intelligent men wrote the documents upon which the United States was founded. They intended a country that would distinguish itself among all others for the values contained in those documents. Yet, then, there was only potential for greatness. We also know from history how the machinery that built our country was fueled by genocide, theft, broken treaties, slavery, deception, repression, and all manner of violent oppression—much of which continues—at home and abroad.

I grew up with the doctrine of “might makes right.” But that bully’s refrain has little to do with greatness, unless all one cares about is wielding power in the upper hand while crushing enemies underfoot. I understand how projecting strength and power on the world stage is vitally important, but so too are many other qualities. They include respect, kindness, compassion, integrity, honesty, generosity (we are a generous country, to be sure), fairness, justice, judgment, virtue, and an astute, clear-eyed understanding of our world. This is wisdom. The opposite of wisdom is ignorance and delusion.

If we insist the United States is the greatest country in the world, shouldn’t we also insist that we examine, monitor, and maintain those human and humane qualities that could make us so? To exclude them makes it impossible for us to be, as Ronald Reagan put it, that “shining city on the hill.” We cannot be that country unless we the people embody those bright qualities. If we the people can’t embody those qualities, we certainly can’t expect our leaders to. And if we choose leaders who are dishonest, deceitful, hateful, mean-spirited, obnoxious, ignorant, selfish, self-promoting, and utterly lacking in wisdom, then we cannot expect to be the greatest country in the world—even if we can bomb everyone else into oblivion and force them to our will. All we can do is brag about being what we are not.

Much like the guy we just elected.

In Memmorium


Genevie “Jennie” Dietz Gerhards
January 15, 1928 – October 9, 2006

October 11, 2006
St. Paul Church
Silverton, Oregon

A Life Well Lived

I was much younger when I last attended Mass in this church. But imagine me younger still, seven years old, maybe. I am walking along with my mother. We’re about to enter a building. Sears and Roebuck, maybe. Just as we come to the door, she stands aside. I stop too, not knowing what to do next. I look to my mother for a little guidance. She says, “A gentleman holds the door for a lady. Go on, open the door.” I open the door, hold it for her. She leads the way. I follow.

There are two important aspects to this story that personify our mother’s life and our life with her.

The first is respect. How often my brothers and I heard the words “respect your elders.” That meant respect for parents, respect for family, respect for teachers, respect for rank. It was all inclusive.

The second aspect this story is example. What I learned from both of my parents is the importance of setting a good example with your life.

Respect and example, of course, are not really two things, but one.

My mother was the child of a Polish immigrant. She grew up in a small coal town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her father worked in the mines. She understood what it meant to be on the low end, the labor end, the minority end, of the social scale.

The unkind treatment of the lower class made a big impression on her. Perhaps that is the only thing she ever really hated. It also made — indirectly — a big impression on my life. Never in her presence did I hear unkind words about a person’s color, religion, or nationality. Prejudice and bigotry were simply not part of my education. Instead, all people are equal and deserving of respect.

There is an immutable truth to life that says good actions bring good results and bad actions bring bad results.

I’ll speak more about good actions and their results in a moment. Now is the time to talk about bad example, bad actions, bad results.

Those of you of her generation no doubt remember when Mother Culture taught that smoking was sophisticated, glamorous, a symbol of independence. These were qualities my mother wanted to cultivate as she escaped the oppression of small town life into the excitement of the Big City, of Washington DC.

But instead of sophistication and glamour and independence, what she ultimately got was just the opposite. As most of you know, about 18 years ago she was diagnosed with emphysema. Say good bye to sophistication and to glamour, and especially say good bye to independence.

As I said, bad actions bring bad results. We all make our mistakes and she made her share. But she was wise enough to understand that even though actions of the past cannot be changed, and we have no choice but to live with their results, it’s the actions of the present that matter, and those actions have a tremendous effect on the future.

Until just a couple of weeks ago, most of her life since that diagnosis was spent quietly in her spiritual room where she wrote her memoirs and poetry, read her Bible and other spiritual books, listened to recorded stories and watched a little TV. And, in the most positive of ways, she reflected often on her death.

The result of such reflection is wisdom. She had no delusions about how things were and how things would be for her.

What she did not do was complain about her condition or any of the negative things which that condition imposed upon her. In truth, there wasn’t much to complain about.

My mother’s life was a life well lived.

It was well lived in four ways.

It was well lived because she treated everyone with loving kindness.

It was well lived because her compassionate heart included everyone.

It was well lived because of the great joy she found in her family and her faith.

It was well lived because of the equanimity with which she faced her many trials and setbacks and limitations.

Now I ask you to consider one very important result of those good actions, of a life well lived. It’s not that she gets a heavenly reward. It’s not that people say nice things about her at her funeral.

My mother, our mother, our friend, my father’s wife of 58 years died well. She died well indeed.

May all of us benefit from the example of a life well lived.

Los Angeles to Mexico City to Oaxaca

imageOur first challenge after landing in LA at 9:00 was to get from Terminal 5 to Terminal 2 and having dinner during our two-hour lay over. After getting directions, we boarded an empty shuttle under the blue sign. We meandered through the maze of LAX, going from one terminal to another, adding passengers at each stop. Finally we squeezed our way off the shuttle at Terminal 2, which appeared dedicated to Aeromexico. Already we had the feeling of being in another country.

Security at LAX is more stringent than at PDX, and both Robin and I got frisked. At PDX we walked through a standard metal detector. LAX offered us the body scanner. You walk into the booth, stop and make a 90 degree turn, place your feet on the yellow footprints, touch your hands together over your head, and hold the pose for at least three seconds. Robin went through first. A TSA agent pulled aside. Another one got me.

“You have an anomaly in your groin area,” he said to me. I told him it was a money belt. He told me I had to take it off. He offered a private area but said I’d have to leave my other things behind—carry on, wallet, phone, iPad, passport, shoes. I untucked my shirt and pulled off the belt. He went through it and gave it back. He said he had to frisk me, presumably to assure himself I had no other anomalies.

For Robin, instead of putting her passport back in the bag she kept it in, she put it in her back pocket. Instant anomaly, according to the scanner.

The four-hour flight to Mexico City was inconsequential but for two things. First, I left my hat aboard. It was a favorite but not irreplaceable. The other just added to the confusion of going through the entry process of immigration and customs.

Sometime during the flight to Mexico City, the attendant handed out some forms. Robin and I were trying to sleep (we didn’t) so neither of us were paying attention when the attendant passed us by.

Once off the plane we learned we had to go through immigration. We ended up in a massive room with a couple hundred other people ahead of us in another of those long snaking lines. At the other end of the room were six or eight circular kiosks, spaced at random. Each had an  agent sitting at a desk inside the kiosk. I noticed that many of the people in front of us, and those coming in behind, had some sort of form in hand along with a passport. I asked an English-speaking person where she got hers. “On the plane,” she said.

Other people, too, were at various counters, filling out forms. I scouted around and found what we needed and got back into line with Robin. It’s difficult to fill out a form while you’re shuffling along with baggage. Eventually we got through immigration with our visas stamped.

Next was customs, with another form. We had to pick up our checked suitcase, which along with our carry-ons, was opened and searched. That done, the suitcase went back to baggage, and we hustled to the gate. When our flight was called, we walked through the door, expecting, as with all other flights, to board a plane. We didn’t. Instead, we boarded a shuttle bus that sat idling at the curb. The bus filled with people and with fumes. After fifteen or so minutes we made it to our plane, parked well away from the terminal.

The sunrise flight to Oaxaca was beautiful, with mucho mountains, including an active volcano. The flight was quick, about half as long as the itinerary said it would be. Around 7:30 a.m. we deplaned onto the the pavement, stepping down an iron stairway. It was cool and partly cloudy. I missed my hat.

Aloft and away

imageWe arrived at the airport about two and a half hours before takeoff at 6:44 Saturday. I like to be early because if there was a problem needing resolution, there would be plenty of time for it. But all went well. On a Saturday afternoon PDX was nearly empty. We zigzagged unimpeded through the stanchions as we approached the Delta counter.

Two attendants vied for our business. Robin and I each had a carry on bag, but we shared a large suitcase to check. It weighed in at 49 pounds, one pound under the limit to avoid a fee. We went through security with the same ease.

Before going through security, we stopped in at Powell’s Books. One of our traditional pastimes while on vacation is reading, but not independently. Robin reads aloud while listen. One of her favorite genres is young adult fiction.

We got a cup of coffee, wandered down Concourse D, then settled in at D5 where Robin began reading “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs. After we boarded and got underway, she read for awhile more before we went into our own worlds: I with my writing, Robin with a sudoku puzzle.

Moments ago I felt the obvious change in altitude as we began our descent into Los Angeles. Seat belt fastened. Ready for the next phase.

Pre-travel, post-nasal drip

imageIt started about a week ago, that feeling of drainage down the back of my throat. Yet my throat felt fine and my sinuses have been clear. I thought maybe it was an early onset of my expected allergies. But yesterday, departure eve, my throat took on a bit of unwelcome scratchiness. Before going to bed I gargled with saltwater. That often helps.

This morning’s hoarseness and catch in the back of my throat did not offer comfort. More salt water. And a trip to Walgreens for something to ward off the encroaching symptoms of a cold. As yet, though, my sinuses are still clear. At least that won’t pose a problem as we later climb to 30,000 feet.

At the moment we sit at home, bags packed, boarding passes printed, and all items on the preparation list checked off. We’re just waiting for the time when Margie takes us to the airport.

Through the past few weeks has flowed, I admit, a subtle undercurrent of anxiety. Not about flying, but just a subtle worry about not being ready. What about this? What about that? And this, and this, and this….? I travel so infrequently I’m not familiar with the overall process.

Just like everyone else I made flight and hotel reservations online. But what if it was a scam and our flights really weren’t booked? What if we got to the airport and at baggage check the nice attendant said, “I’m sorry, I don’t see anything in our system for you.”

I feel much better with boarding passes in hand.