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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Christmas Eve, 2013

Christmas Eve, chromolithography

Christmas Eve, chromolithography (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is Christmas Eve, 2013, the day most of us choose to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  I say “choose,” because no one knows for sure on just what day Jesus was born.  In fact, even the year is disputed.  Getting right the day of his birth is not important.  That he was born is the single most important event is history.

For those of you who found time to read this humble blog entry, here are a few notable events that occurred on Christmas Eve in years gone by.

The first radio broadcast of both voice and music took place on Christmas Eve, 1906.  Sailors aboard vessels in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea were astonished when at exactly 9:00 p.m. they received over their ship’s radio in Morse code the message, “CQ CQ CQ,” a general call to all stations within range.  The “dots and dashes” message was followed by the voice of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden.  After a brief introduction, Fessenden played “O Holy Night” on his violin, followed by his reading from the Gospel of Luke: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will.”  [A dramatic recreation of Fessenden’s broadcast:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Elu0HF4a8yI ]

Sixty-two years later the Apollo 8 astronauts were orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve.  Mimicking Fessenden’s historic broadcast, the astronauts took turns reading the opening verses from Genesis 1.  They ended their broadcast with “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”   [For live coverage of the Apollo 8 broadcast by CBS News:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aIf0G2PtHo ]

On Christmas Eve in 1818, a poem by Joseph Mohr titled “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” set to music by Franz Gruber, was performed for the first time during midnight mass at St. Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, Germany.  On Christmas Eve, 1914, “Silent Night, Holy Night” was sung in German, French, and English during a spontaneous truce along the Western Front at the opening of World War I.  It remains one of the best loved Christmas hymns of all time.  [To hear the original German:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUb8ySdERKs ]

One of my most memorable Christmas Eves was that of 1968.  It was the 150th anniversary of “Silent Night, Holy Night.”  I attended midnight mass at St. Stanislaus Church in my hometown of Bay City, Michigan.  St. Stanislaus is a neo gothic church in what was earlier the Polish section of the city.  Outside everything was covered in snow.  The beautiful crowded sanctuary was not much warmer.  At the front of the sanctuary were fresh cut pine trees and a lovely manger scene. The smell of fresh pine mingled with the smell of incense drifting through the air, added to the ambiance of the moment.  Since it was the anniversary of the first performance of “Silent Night, Holy Night,” the church’s orchestra and choir performed it in numerous languages, including of course, Polish.

I wish to complete these thoughts on Christmas Eve, 2013 with two of my favorite Christmas poems.  First, the better known “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCVnuEWXQcg

Second, the lessor known “Bethlehem BC” by Rod McKuen: http://www.rodmckuen.com/music/bethbc.mp3

Merry Christmas to one and all, and until next time, do good, be good, and always live under the mercy.

And the Winner is . . .

Those of you who read my blog are aware that I entered a short story in NPR’s contest, “Three-Minute Fiction:  Round 8.”  As expected, my story, “Return to Brighton Manor,” was not chosen as the winning entry from among the more than 6,000 short stories submitted.  Nevertheless, I had fun writing what was only my second attempt at fiction.  I am looking forward to entering Round 9 in the fall.

Author Luis Alberto Urrea was the judge who made the final selection.  He read more than a hundred of the stories, himself.  He was assisted by members of several writing workshops and university writing programs.  All of the stories were read, yes even mine, by some courageous volunteer. 

The winning submission is “Rainy Wedding” by Carrie MacKillop of Charlotte, Vermont.  Listening to it read professionally by Susan Stanford on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” I can see why it was chosen.  I love it.  

I find it interesting that Carrie MacKillop does not have any formal training in creative writing.  She has a bachelor’s degree in English UCLA, but failed to be accepted into their creative writing program.  I’ll bet they now wish that they had made a different decision.  I wonder how many agents have called her, since she was announced as the winner.

I do hope that she will write more.  Luis Alberto Urrea predicts that she is America‘s next great writer.  Perhaps.  She is off to a good start.

And so I say congratulations to Carrie MacKillop.

To listen to “Rainy Wedding”:   http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=153115410&m=153152952

Other entries considered exceptionally good can be read on NPR’s webpage:  http://www.npr.org/2012/05/20/153115410/three-minute-fiction-the-round-8-winner-is

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A Boy, A Mother, and Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment

One of the great moments in American history occurred on the hot, muggy afternoon of August 18, 1920.  The place was Nashville, Tennessee.  The issue at hand was whether or not women would be granted the right to vote.

On June 4, 1919, the U. S. Congress voted to add a brief sentence to the Constitution.   They were simple, straightforward words, no confusing legal jargon which lawyers would spend decades interpreting.  What would become the Nineteenth Amendment read:  “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

In order for the amendment to become the law of the land, 36 of the then 48  states had to ratify it.  Thirty-five states ratified the amendment by the summer of 1920.  Four states were expected to call special sessions of their legislatures to consider the amendment.  Of the four, three chose not to do so.  Only Tennessee agreed to call a special session.

It was widely believed that if Tennessee voted the amendment down, it would never secure the necessary 36 states needed to make the Nineteenth Amendment the law of the land.  All eyes were on the Tennessee legislature on August 18, the day the delegates would vote “yea” or “nay”.

The leaders of both sides, the suffragists and the anti-suffragists, set up headquarters in the Hermitage Hotel.  The opposing sides identified their supporters by wearing a yellow rose (suffragists) or red rose (anti-suffragists) in their lapel.  Members of the legislature did likewise.

A quick glance at the legislators revealed that the suffragists were in trouble.  In this “War of the Roses,” there appeared to be more red than yellow.  The first roll call revealed a deadlock, 48 to 48.  A second roll call resulted in the same.

Nerves became frayed and the tension grew moment by moment.  Then, the decisive third roll call began.  It appeared the deadlock would continue, that is, until the youngest member, twenty-four year old Harry T. Burn, elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1919, cast his vote.

Burn wore a red rose in his lapel.  He was a member of the anti-suffragists.  He voted against the amendment on the two previous roll calls.  But on the third he switched his vote to “yea”.  At first it was thought that Burn was confused.  He must have meant to say “nay” rather than “yea”.  When asked to clarify, Burn boldly affirmed that he had voted in favor.

Shock was followed by pandemonium.  The anti-suffragists were enraged at what they regarded as Burn’s betrayal.  According to one account, in order to escape their anger, Burn climbed out a third story window and crawled along a ledge to a hiding place in the Capitol building’s attic.  Everyone, suffragists and anti-suffragists alike, wondered why the young freshman legislator switched his vote.

Before the third roll call, Burn received a telegram from his mother.  In it, Mrs. Burn told her son, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt [Carrie Chapman Catt, the national women’s suffrage leader] with her ‘Rats.’ Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! No more from mama this time. With lots of love, Mama.”

Years later, Burn explained his vote: “I had always believed that women had an inherent right to vote. It was a logical attitude from my standpoint. My mother was a college woman, a student of national and international affairs who took an interest in all public issues. She could not vote. Yet the tenant farmers on our farm, some of whom were illiterate, could vote. On that roll call, confronted with the fact that I was going to go on record for time and eternity on the merits of the question, I had to vote for ratification.”

At another time, Burn gave five reasons for his voting in favor of women’s suffrage.  Among them, number three, was perhaps the real reason:  “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

On August 24, 1920, two days after Burn followed his mother’s advice, Governor A. H. Roberts signed the bill.  Two days after that, on August 26, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution became the law of the land.  Women were now equal to men, at least so far as the right to vote was concerned.

Harry T. Burn was reelected to a second term in 1921, while others who had voted “yea” on that fateful day were defeated.  He later served as a state senator, member of the state planning commission, and as a delegate to the state Constitutional Conventions of 1953, 1959, and 1965.  Harry T. Burn died on February 19, 1977.  He was 81 years old.

What is the moral of this story?  Never underestimate the influence of a mother on her children, nor a son’s love for his mother.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

What is Happiness? A Review of Lily Tuck’s I Married for Happiness

I Married You for Happiness* is a beautiful love story.  It is not a
romance novel in the style of Erich Segal’s Love Story, or a charming
story of boy meets girl and they live happily ever after.  Lily Tuck’s novel goes much deeper.  It must be read slowly, word for word.  The reader must allow himself or herself tobecome emotionally involved, to identify with Nina, the main character.

I love theway the novel opens.  Nina is sitting beside her husband, Philip, who died only a short time before.  She is not weeping and wailing, or overcome
with grief.  She is holding Philip’s hand as it gradually grows colder.  She tells
him, “I love you.  I always will.  Je t’aime.” She bends over and places her cheek against his.

As the night progresses, Nina remembers her life with Philip in a string of memories that pass through her mind.  They come and go without any chronological sequence.  At first, I found this “stream of consciousness” difficult to follow, but as I kept turning the pages, I found it to be essential to the story.  I know from my own experience, that when a loved one dies, a lifetime of memories of the deceased, especially moments spent together, randomly pass through one’s mind.  Those special moments are experienced
again.  Even the emotions, and perhaps particularly the emotions, attached to those memories are relived.

We come to know both Nina and Philip through Nina’s memories.  We discover that each kept secrets from the other.  Both were involved in
extramarital affairs.  Nina was raped by a mutual friend of theirs and subsequently had a “back alley” abortion without informing Philip of either.  We cannot avoid feeling irritated with Philip, as is Nina, a mathematician who cannot resist displaying his brilliance at every opportunity.

Despite all the petty irritations that would destroy most marriages, Nina’s love for Philip, and we assume his love for her, continues to grow and deepen.  At one point during the night, Nina recalls that they were married forty-six years and six months.  She wonders how many days and how many hours?  She tries to recall how many countries and how many different homes they lived in, and even how many pets they owned.  These are rather mundane things, but they are the sort of mundane experiences upon which a truly meaning relationship between two people is built.

The beginning and body of the novel are very good, but I love the ending.  However that must be left for each reader to discover.

An award winning author, Lily Tuck has written four previous novels.  She received the National Book Award for The News from Paraguay (2005).  I
Married You for Happiness
is the first of her novels that I have read.  Perhaps I will read another.

*Lily Tuck.  I Married You for Happiness.  New York:  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

A Short Story

This is my first ever attempt at writing fiction. I wrote it more as a challenge to myself, than for any other reason. Whether or not it is any good, I will leave up to you, the readers of my blog, to decide.

I will post the first part today and the second part tomorrow. Why two parts? I thought you might be more likely to read it, if I did not dump the whole thing on you at one time. Also, if you are bored by the first part, you need not bother with reading the second part.

So, get yourself a fresh cup of coffee and couple biscotti, relax, and peak into a day in the life of “Mr. Hopper.”

Mr. Hopper
A short story by Paul R. Waibel*

Monday began like any other day for Mr. Hopper, except for the brief encounter on his way to the dining hall.

As he walked slowly down the hall, he heard someone say, “Good morning, Mr. Hopper.”

“Mornin,” he replied, instinctively, and continued on his way.

Such casual greetings were not at all unusual. People often greet each other, even if they are total strangers. No one expects an honest answer, much less a conversation, only an acknowledgement.

Perhaps it was only a moment’s curiosity, but Mr. Hopper paused. Steadying himself on his cane, he turned his head to see who it was, but he caught only a glimpse of the gentleman’s back. “No matter,” he thought, “just another unfortunate soul.”

For the past five years Alexis “Alex” Hopper had been a resident of The Pines, a retirement home for those fortunate enough to have more than just Social Security.

The accommodations were not luxurious, but neither were they uncomfortable. A small bedroom, a private bath with shower and tub combination, and a living room made up what he liked to refer to as his apartment. It was located on a long hallway. Along the hallway on either side was a succession of doors, each one opening to a similar arrangement of rooms.

Meals were taken in a dining hall. Most of the tables were round, some able to seat up to six individuals, others only four. Along the outer wall that was mostly glass were a number of small square tables, suitable for one or two guests. There were also some small tables along the inner walls or next to pillars, placed in such a way as to provide a measure of privacy for those who wished to eat alone.

The tables were covered with table cloths–usually white, but occasionally some pastel color such as light blue or green. In the center of each table sat a small vase filled with fresh-cut flowers. Around each table were straight back chairs, upholstered with a fabric that reminded one of a tapestry.

Each morning at breakfast, Mr. Hopper ate alone. He liked to sit at one of the small tables along an inner wall, somewhat isolated from the rest. Everyone seemed to understand.

He was, like so many of the residents of The Pines, an individual of habit. Every morning he ate the same breakfast—two eggs, scrambled well-done; two sausage patties or links, also cooked well-done; a small portion of fried potatoes or grits; two slices of toast with butter and jelly, preferably strawberry or blueberry; and hot coffee–medium roast, breakfast blend, and brewed just a bit strong.

Often, he would add a small bowl of fruit. He did not particularly like fruit in the morning, but Mary always said: “Alex, dear, eat some fruit. It’s good for you.” He would always smile, just as he did now, as if she were sitting across from him.

Breakfast was usually followed by spending the morning hours in his apartment. He was allowed a certain amount of what the staff called “personal things.” Space, after all, was limited.

In addition to the bed, more comfortable than he expected, there were a chest of drawers and a set of bookshelves attached to the wall. Beneath the bookshelves was a small writing desk on which stood a brass lamp. A comfortable recliner that could both rock and swivel completed the inventory of furniture.

On the desk in a simple frame was a photograph of Mary with their son, William, or “Willy,” as he liked to be called. Alex took the photo one summer while they were on vacation in Washington, DC visiting the Marine Corps War Memorial. There, frozen in time, were the brave Marines forever raising the American flag over Iwo Jima. The combined experience of visiting the memorial and walking between the rows upon rows of white crosses in Arlington National Cemetery seemed to have had a powerful effect on young Willy. As they walked back to their car, he announced: “I’m going to be a Marine.”

In a drawer in the dresser, among other mementos of his many years, was a letter from a Marine officer who commanded Willy’s platoon in Vietnam. He used words like “brave,” “honorable,” “proud,” “tough,” and, the highest accolade of respect, the simple words, “a Marine.”

Alex wondered if the officer who wrote the letter actually knew his son. Perhaps he was merely writing a letter that he wrote to the parents of all the young men in his platoon who lost their innocence as well as their lives in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam. He once overheard a retired Marine officer say that during the Tet Offensive the new recruits were dying so fast he never had a chance to learn their names.

Lunch was different from breakfast. Then, he was accustomed to joining a small group of friends. “Friends, you need friends,” Mary was always telling him. “Without friends, life has no meaning, no purpose.”

“Friends?” Yes, he agreed with her that everyone needed acquaintances, perhaps, but friends? It seemed to him that there was a difference between a friend and an acquaintance.

A friend was someone close, someone with whom you could be open and transparent. That is what Mary had been–a friend, the only friend he ever had.

An acquaintance was different. An acquaintance was one with whom you chatted over a cup of coffee. You might discuss the weather, sports, politics, or even conspire to solve the world’s problems. You might exchange jokes or stories of past experiences. But you would not, could not, share personal thoughts and emotions with mere acquaintances. They must always be kept at a safe distance. There was a part of oneself, he insisted, that could only be shared with a friend. For him only one person could ever fit that description. That was Mary.

Among the residents were certain individuals who were, as he would say, “interesting.” He liked to have lunch with them. They met regularly at the same table. If one was late arriving or failed to show up, the immediate conversation was centered on the question “why?”

“Is he ill?”

“Has anyone seen her this morning?”

“Do you suppose something is wrong?”

Edna Taylor was a very proper person. She reminded him of Maggie Smith or, more accurately, “Elsa,” the character played by Maggie Smith in the movie “Tea with Mussolini.” She always sat with her back very straight, her napkin neatly placed on her lap. Her manners were impeccable. She always used the “right” piece of silverware in the “right” manner, and occasionally paused to touch her napkin to the corners of her mouth.

“Lady Taylor,” as Alex liked to think of her, often reminisced nostalgically about the many years she spent married to Henry Taylor. She prefaced her comments with, “I remember when Henry and I . . .” or “Henry would always say . . .” or “My late husband . . .” or sometimes simply “Mr. Taylor . . . .”

Alex remembered one incident when Edna was recalling a particular New Year’s celebration. It was the first New Year after the end of the war. She and her husband were living abroad in Paris. She described the evening as if it were recent, perhaps this past New Year’s Eve. When she finished, she was silent, her eyes watering, staring into space, as if back in another time and place.

No one spoke. They all understood.

Sandra Fleming was something of a mystery. She spent much of her life on the stage. She told tales of an exciting, fast-paced life among theatrical people. Unlike Lady Taylor, Ms. Fleming never spoke of her husband, if she ever had one. Instead, she recalled numerous romantic encounters with a host of men from San Francisco to New York to London.

Alex was not certain that everything Ms. Fleming recalled did, in fact, happen. One could never be sure if she was giving a performance or really recalling what must have been an exciting life. It didn’t really matter, he thought; she made her companions laugh, and that was always welcome.

Colonel Wilfred Cooper completed the foursome. The others always addressed him as “Colonel Cooper,” or simply “Colonel,” an honor he seemed to appreciate, even relished.

Colonel Cooper was not really a commissioned officer, although he was a veteran of the second Great War. The title “Colonel” before his name was purely honorary, one of those honorary commissions in the state militia handed out by Southern governors. As with Ms. Fleming, the Colonel was a storyteller. And, as with Ms. Fleming, one could not be sure that every incident he recalled necessarily happened as described. But, once again, the truth wasn’t as important as the story.

The Colonel spiced up his tales with a colorful vocabulary. He might, for example, refer to a character in one of his narratives as a “bloody fool,” or in the passion of the moment forget where he was and use the descriptive, “a bloody bastard.” When he did so, he added an apology for the benefit of the two ladies.

If the four companions were in a particularly festive mood, Colonel Cooper would relate one of supposedly many colorful encounters with a lovely young lady. When doing so, he was apt to dwell upon the physical qualities of the young lady.

Lady Taylor would feign righteous shock: “Really, Colonel!”

Ms. Fleming would laugh, and then looking directly at the Colonel across the table from her, she would say, “If only we had met, when we were both much younger.”

Colonel Cooper would straighten up in his chair, his chest expanded with pride: “It would have been my pleasure, Ms. Fleming,” he might say, the smile on his face enhanced by a wink in Ms Fleming’s direction.

With lunch over, the foursome departed to their regular afternoon routines.

After returning to his rooms for a brief rest, Alex normally spent the afternoon in the park that bordered The Pines, although it was not part of the property. It was a public park, very neat and proper, much like an English butler.

* * *
(Copyright 2011 by Paul R. Waibel)

Stay tuned tomorrow for the second and last installment. What will Mr. Hopper discover in the park?

The Real Meaning of Christmas

What is the true meaning of Christmas?  That is a question many, myself included, ponder every year when the holiday rolls around.  It seems that the real reason we celebrate is lost somewhere under all of the consumerism.  For those businesses that will either survive another year or go under depending on the season’s sales, buying the latest gadgets and widgets is what Christmas is all about.  But is it?  I think not.

During my first ten years I lived in Michigan, not far from Bay City where I was born in 1944.  Bay City was once two cities, Bay City and West Bay City.  They straddled the Saginaw River where it empties into Lake Huron.   The two cities merged into one in 1905.  Sometime around 1910 they were connected by a bridge that looked like it had been constructed from a giant Erector Set.  If you crossed the Third Street Bridge, as it was commonly called,  from the West Side to the East Side and immediately turned right on North Water Street, you encountered a large furniture store with big display windows.    

I remember in particular one evening shortly before Christmas during the early 1950’s.  My father took us to Bay City to do some Christmas shopping.  It was very cold and everything was covered in snow.  Downtown was filled with shoppers hurrying about from store to store.  It seemed like there was a Santa Claus on every street corner standing in front of a red kettle, ringing a bell.  The “real” Santa Claus was no doubt very busy at the North Pole.  The many corner Santas were merely his helpers soliciting contributions for the Salvation Army.

At some point during the evening’s shopping, we found ourselves standing in front of that furniture store, staring at a truly amazing display in its big window.  There, seated on a large green chair surrounded by a cornucopia of toys, was a giant mechanical Santa Claus.  While a model train weaved its way among the many toys and between Santa’s feet, the jolly old man rocked back and forth as he told stories about his many Christmas adventures.  From the speakers mounted above the window I heard Santa tell of how he once got stuck in a chimney.  It almost ruined Christmas.  The stories were frequently punctuated by a joyful “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

My attention was riveted on Santa and the stories he was telling, not the many toys skillfully displayed around him.  After all, the model trains, Erector Sets, BB guns (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”) and other expensive gifts were for kids from more affluent families.  My siblings and I would have to make do with board games and other more affordable gifts.  I knew, as did most of my friends at school, that Santa’s generosity was directly related to a family’s income.  Some things never change.

Just a couple of blocks down from the furniture store was Wenonah Park.  There, on the most prominent corner of the park, the city had erected a Nativity scene as part of the city’s Christmas tradition.  I doubt there were any protests from the local atheists.  I am sure there were atheists then, as there are now, but that was a time when the majority did not tremble in fear of the lone fanatic.

Upon reflection these many years later, I think the presence of the Nativity scene and Santa Claus in close proximity was a good thing.  I am aware that not everyone agrees with me.   There will always be those who would like to kill off the Santa Claus myth.  Like Ebenezer Scrooge and his Puritan ancestors, they shudder at the thought of children enjoying Christmas.  Children and adults playing Santa Claus at Christmas, like all fantasy, is simply wrong to them.  

The anti-Santa Claus people seem to fear that the Santa myth is somehow a threat to celebrating the birthday of Jesus, as if a jolly old man in a red suit could ever be a threat to the one “by whom and for whom all things were created”.  They seem to live in fear of being incinerated for setting out a saucer of sugar cookies and a cup of hot chocolate for Santa, or merely reading to children that wonderful story, ‘Twas the Night before Christmas

Some of my more serious-minded friends do not approve of newsman Francis Pharcellus’ response to eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s plea that he tell her the truth about Santa Claus.  In his editorial response, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Pharcellus pointed the little girl’s attention to the “spirit of Christmas,” a spirit of “love, and generosity, and devotion.”  A world without the magic of Christmas, Pharcellus wrote, would be a “dreary world” indeed:  “There would no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.  We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight.  The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”

The truth is that the birth of Jesus Christ brought joy to a world that lay “in sin and error pining.”  Human beings no longer need live in fear.  That was the good news of great joy proclaimed by angels to the shepherds in the fields that night.  The promised Messiah had come.  God became man in order that the wrath of a righteous and holy God could be satisfied. That task, impossible for any human being, was accomplished by the greatest act of love ever.  God offered himself as a sacrifice to himself in order to give life back to us, we who willfully shun his love.

I especially love the twelfth chapter of Hebrews (18-24).  It is there that the meaning of Christmas is so clearly revealed:

“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.’  The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’

“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.  You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.  You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (NIV, 1984).

Of course the birth of Jesus Christ must not be separated from his death on a cross outside walls of Jerusalem some thirty-three years later.  They are not two events, but really one event.  Without Christmas, there would be no Easter.  Without Easter, Christmas would have no meaning.

So, what has the birth of Jesus to do with the Santa Claus myth?  Are children likely to reject Jesus Christ later in life, because at some point early in life they discovered that Santa Claus was a game of pretend?  I think not.  Children learn quickly that there are “pretend” stories and there are “true” stories.  Stories that usually begin with, “Once upon a time,” are not the same as Bible stories.

When I was a child, I thought Santa Claus brought gifts to children at Christmas, because Jesus was God’s gift to us on the first Christmas.  Far from misleading a child into a life of decadent commercialism, a sin as common among evangelical Christians as among non-Christians, Santa Claus can actually be used to introduce children to the “real” meaning of Christmas.

Perhaps at this point, I should quote from C. S. Lewis on the distinction between myth and reality, or how myth can enlighten one’s understanding of the “true Myth.”  But C. S. Lewis is “used” too often by Christians to legitimate what they are proposing.  Quoting Lewis is much like quoting Shakespeare.  It adds a kind of seal of approval, or imprimatur of orthodoxy.  Therefore, I shall make no reference to the patron saint of Narnia.

What is the “real” meaning of Christmas?  In the Christmas classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a very frustrated Charlie Brown asks the question: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas all about?”  And Linus answers saying, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pn10FF-FQfs

Merry Christmas to all!

Life Stinks, But Not all of the Time

Writer’s block!  All of us who enjoy writing must deal with it.  In years past I would sit, staring at the typewriter in front of me, paper loaded, and fingers poised for action, but my mind a blank.  In this age of high tech, the only thing that has changed is that the typewriter is now a laptop computer, and the blank sheet of paper is a blank screen with a vertical line flashing like a neon bar sign along some lonely street at night.

I have been struggling over the past week trying to think of something to write about.  Finally it came to me, a subject, that is.  It came in the form of a line from a movie I was watching, because as I was saying, I had writer’s block.

The movie was Life Stinks (1991) starring Mel Brooks as Goddard Bolt, a billionaire trying to survive thirty days as a penniless bum in the slums, and costarring Lesley Ann Warren as Molly, the Cinderella of the slums with whom Goddard Bolt falls in love.  The film was a flop financially, which is not unusual for movies that I like.

In one scene Molly fears that Goddard, lying unconscious in an infirmary for the homeless, may be dying.  Confessing her love for him, she pleads with him not to die and leave her alone.  She reminds him of things they have done together in the past few days, then she speaks my favorite lines in the whole film:  “I know they’re only moments, but that’s all life is, just a bunch of moments.  Most of them are lousy, but once in a while you steal a good one.”

I’ve been thinking about what she said, and I think it is a profound statement. Life does in fact stink, most of the time.  But we do experience joy, real joy, from time to time.  That is the real mystery of life, those unexpected moments when we are, as C. S. Lewis would say, “surprised by joy.”

The major problem with life is that it is mostly boring.  Madeline L’Engle put it well, when she spoke of the “dailiness of everyday life.”  We live from birth under the shadow of death.  We rise each morning to endure yet another day, then go to sleep knowing that in the morning we must rise to face a repetition of the previous day.  And so it continues until one day, our sentence served, we take a bow and exit the stage.

The boredom of what might be called a “normal life” is expressed well in a poem by the award winning poet, David Ignatow, titled “The Jobholder”:

I stand in the rain waiting for my bus

and in the bus I wait for my stop.

I get let off and go to work

where I wait for the day to end

and then go home, waiting for the bus,

of course, and my stop.

And at home I read and wait

for my hour to go to bed

and I wait for the day I can retire

and wait for my turn to die.

[“The Jobholder” by David Ignatow from At My Ease:  Uncollected Poems of the Fifties and Sixties. Copywright:BOA Editions, Ltd. 1998.]

The truth is that we are sojourners in a foreign land.  In the words of Leonard Cohen, we are “just passing through, sometimes happy, sometimes blue. . . .”  All too often the happy times are rare and far between.

From the dawn of human history our ancestors time after time paused during their struggle for survival to look up at the night sky and ask, “Why?” “What for?” As with us, they instinctively knew that there must be some purpose, some reason for our existence.  It couldn’t possibly be some sort of cosmic accident.  Hence, the eternal struggle for meaning mirrored in the stick figures painted on the walls of Lascaux Cave in France, all the way down to the painful cries of our own postmodern age.

The French song, “L’Important C’Est la Rosa,” translated into English by the poet-songwriter Rod McKuen, has a great line that goes:  “In the eyes of time we are just heaps of dust along the highway. . . .”  The French philosopher Voltaire put it somewhat differently.  He said we are only worms crawling around on a dung heap.

It’s easy to understand why human beings tend to have a rather gloomy view of their place in the scheme of things.  Consider the universe.   Our finite minds must think of it as an entity, that is, something with borders, something finite like ourselves.  But what we are able to discern about the universe reveals it as an endless something (the word “space” is too limiting), punctuated by glittering lights that represent planets, stars, solar systems, etc.

In the vastness of the universe our little planet earth is like an insignificant grain of sand on a beach.  We speak of stars so many light years away that we cannot verify their existence.  By the time a star’s light reaches earth, it may well have ceased to exist long before.  We do not pause to consider that from some other vantage point in the universe, our sun is that star millions of light years away.  Likewise, when we consider that on the earth a single human being is but a grain of sand, that existential question, “Who am I?” takes on a terrifying urgency.

It seems that everything we know tells us that our existence is meaningless, or if it has any meaning, we must create it.  Something, or someone, deep inside each of us tells us that conclusion is not true.  We instinctively cry out against the thought of meaninglessness.   I like the way the singer-songwriter, Neil Diamond, expresses that emotion in his song “I Am . . . I Said”:

But I got an emptiness deep inside

And I’ve tried, but it won’t let me go

And I’m not a man who likes to swear

But I never cared for the sound of being alone

“I am,” I said

To no one there

And no one heard at all

Not even the chair
“I am,” I cried

“I am,” said I

And I am lost, and I can’t even say why

Leavin’ me lonely still

[Copyright: Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC]

I read an article recently about an experiment that has been repeated many times over the ages.  It seems that if a person is blindfolded, that person cannot walk in a straight line.  He or she will walk around in circles.  Even when not blindfolded, if the sky is cloudy or  visibility is low, a human being will walk in circles.  There is no proven explanation for the phenomena.  Still, it is true.  Without a focal point, a point of reference, we are doomed to wander around in circles.

So what does this mystery of why human beings cannot walk in a straight line when they have no reference point ahead of them have to do with the subject of this essay?

Imagine that you awaken surrounded by total darkness.  You might assume that you are in a dark room.  But where is the exit?  How do you find the exit, if you do not know in which direction to search?  How big is the room?  Ever more troubling questions arise.  Perhaps paralyzed with fear, you merely sit down and curse the darkness.  Maybe you begin to grope about in the darkness hoping to find an exit, not knowing, but perhaps suspecting, that you are wandering around in circles.

Then you catch a glimpse of something.  It’s a mere dot, or sliver, of light.  Perhaps it is coming from a keyhole, or the crack of a door?  You must make a decision.  Will you begin to walk towards the glimmer of light, keeping focused on it as you walk?  Or, will you deny that the light is really there?  Perhaps it is like a mirage in a desert?  Maybe you think that you cannot trust your own senses.  For whatever reason you may decide to turn away from the light, to move in the opposite direction, still searching for the exit, still wandering around in circles in the darkness.  Whatever you choose to do, you know that you must choose.

I believe that the answer to the human predicament, to the question of meaning or lack of meaning is similar to that illustration.  We are troubled with anxiety, what the Germans call Angst.  We feel alone in a cold, dark universe.  With the post-impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, we ask, “Whence . . . . What . . . . Whither?” But unlike Gauguin, we are not answered by silence.

In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, God speaks to the ancient Hebrews, and to every human being, saying “. . . I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Therefore choose life. . . ” (30:19).   In the midst of the darkness that is despair, there is a light, and each one of us must choose whether or not to focus on the light.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light” (John 14:6).  When Jesus asked his disciples if they would turn away like others who had followed him, Simon Peter answered him, “Lord to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life . . . .” (John 6:68).  Like Peter and the other disciples, everyone must choose whether or not to follow the light that gives life.

So, what do I conclude?  Life does stink, but not all of the time.  The path of life, down which we must walk as pilgrims in a foreign land, traverses both mountains and valleys.  The important thing is that we keep our eyes focused on the light ahead, and not be forever stuck in the “Slough of Despond.”

[To hear Garrison Keillor read “The Jobholder,”  go to http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/09/04.  To listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Passing Through,” go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAzKhhzZU0I.  To listen to  “L’Important C’Est la Rosa,” go to http://www.rodmckuen.com/music/rose.  To listen to “I Am . . . I Said” go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht0zsE9GPrs&playnext=1&list=PL05B265E4D3B36EC1&index=9.]

The Power of Symbols in History

Adolf Hitler is one of those historical characters who will forever fascinate us.  There is something that keeps drawing us back to Hitler and his Nazi cohorts.  Perhaps it is because Hitler was a sort of Horatio Alger hero, the small town boy who everyone disliked and thought would never make anything of himself, only to grow up to become a greater villain than the fictional Emperor Ming the Merciless?

Maybe we are attracted to all the pomp and ceremony that was so much a part of Nazism.  Hitler was a master of propaganda, especially when collaborating with the dwarfish Joseph Goebbels, the very lovely Leni Riefenstahl, and the very talented architect Albert Speer.  They all had in common a degree of megalomania that empowered their creativity.  Hitler was a talented but rejected artist, Goebbels a failed novelist and playwright, Riefenstahl a brilliant pioneer of the cinema, and Speer a psychologically damaged individual easily dominated by Hitler’s much stronger personality. Together they staged a drama more alluring than a Wagner opera.

The continued fascination with Hitler and Nazi Germany was brought home to me during the recent midterm elections.  Two images in particular caught my attention.  One was that of Ohio Republican Congressional candidate and Tea Party favorite Rich Lott dressed in a Waffen SS uniform.  The second was a campaign flyer put out by North Carolina Democrat Tim Spear, which mistakenly used a photograph of re-enactors dressed as German soldiers. 

There was nothing wrong or newsworthy about Mr. Lott’s participation in historical re-enactments.  Many men and women enjoy dressing up in historical garb and playing as if they were once more children.  It’s no different than adults who play with model train sets.  Lott’s knowledge of history is no doubt more extensive than the ad agency that produced the campaign flier for Tim Spear.

Today when “news as entertainment” is more to the public’s taste than actual news, market savvy “reporters” can turn a cat in a tree into a major news story.  I do not mention these two images so as to further embarrass either Mr. Lott or Mr. Spear.  I did not think then, nor do I think now, that either is a Nazi wannabe.  Neither do I want to suggest that the political ideas held by each, however bizarre, are as sophisticated as Hitler’s, or as evil.

If the truth be known, the macho military types among us seem to have a special admiration for the German army.  General Rommel, the Desert Fox, and General von Paulus who commanded the German 6th Army during the decisive Battle of Stalingrad are more romantic historical figures than any of the American generals, except perhaps Generals Patton and MacArthur.  Patton with his pearl handled pistols, and MacArthur with his corncob pipe were dashing figures, indeed.

 We Americans tend to have a soft spot in our hearts for lost causes.  Take, for example, the most popular of all the lost causes, the Confederate States of America.   No respectable Southern home is complete without portraits of General Robert E. “Bobby” Lee and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.  If there is not enough room on the wall for both, then one is allowed to substitute a copy of the famous G. B. Matthews lithograph of “Lee and His Generals.”

Humans are just naturally programmed to respond to symbols.  Symbols have a powerful allure because they have meaning beyond themselves.  I recall a comment by an art critic during the debate over removing the Confederate battle flag, the so-called “Stars and Bars,” from the Mississippi state flag.  He said that it would be difficult to come up with a more appealing image, artistically speaking.  The combination of colors, triangles, squares, and stars is very pleasing to the eye, even for a Yankee like me.

The same might well be said about the United Kingdom’s flag, the “Union Jack,” or even our own “Stars and Stripes.” They are emotive symbols.  Like the Confederate flag, we are attracted to them, whether or not we identify with the historical reality they represent.

Likewise, Nazi symbols have a certain artistic quality, or aesthetic appeal, to them.  Exhibits of Nazi memorabilia attract many visitors.  Last November the National Socialism Documentation Centre in Cologne put on exhibit a small portion of an enormous private collection of items illustrating how the Nazis attempted to take Christ out of Christmas by turning the holiday into a pagan winter solstice celebration.  On display were such items as swastika-shaped cookie cutters, recipes for Nazi and Germanic shaped breads and cakes, iron cross tree ornaments, Nazi and patriotic themed cards–the list goes on and on. 

The mystery of Hitler’s appeal is the subject of a current exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.  Lines formed before the museum doors opened at 10 a.m. on October 13, the opening day of the exhibit.  An estimated 3,000 viewed the exhibit on the first day, and many since.

Before leaving this subject, I should make clear that I am not equating the Confederate States of America with the Third Reich.  The Confederacy was a rebellion on the part the Southern planter aristocracy who claimed to be defending what after the Civil War was often called “states rights.”  Of course the constitutional arguments were but a ruse meant to ward off threats to the South’s “peculiar institution.”

The Third Reich, on the other hand, was a descent into the abyss.  There is nothing quite its equal in history.  The quest to try to understand how a people, who before the First World War were thought to represent the highest level of Western Civilization, could commit such atrocities will never be fully realized.

Well, I have wandered into areas I am not qualified to address.  I have no training in the science of aesthetics, if in fact it is a science.  My artistic knowledge is limited to knowing what I like and don’t like.  But I do know that we human beings are attracted to symbols, symbols that evoke emotions we cannot begin to comprehend.  Remember, Hitler did not invent the swastika.  It is a variation of the ancient sun wheel, found everywhere in the world from the dawn of human history.  In fact, until Hitler’s use of it forever changed its meaning, it was, like the four-leaf clover, regarded as a good luck symbol.  

Enough seriousness!  In my next entry, I shall return to something humorous.

The Case of the Missing Biscuit

We have all at sometime misplaced or lost our car keys.  The memory of the event lives on.  We never forget the frantic search–looking under cushions, turning out pockets, thrashing around in junk drawers, blaming one’s spouse, children, or even the family pet that cannot defend himself.  Oh, and don’t forget that all of this was done while under pressure to keep an appointment.

Losing one’s car keys is an inconvenience, or even an unexpected expense, but what if one lost something really important?

I was prompted to ponder that question just the other day while listening to the evening news.  It seems that during the Clinton administration one of the president’s aides lost, or should we say “misplaced,” a note card on which was written a code necessary for the launching of nuclear weapons.  The card, known as the “biscuit,” was needed to open the “football.”  The “football” is the little black suitcase that contains the codes. 

Wherever the president goes, he is accompanied by an aide carrying the “football.”  He is never far from the President.  As some have pointed out, he sticks to the President like glue.  Think of those pictures of Elvis on tour accompanied by his stepbrother carrying a little black suitcase filled with pills?

The revelation regarding the lost nuclear codes is found in a new memoir by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton.  The General alleges that an unidentified aide to President Clinton, one who carried the “football,” misplaced the “biscuit” for several months. The aide was able to keep his little secret until it came time to issue a new “biscuit” with new codes.  Only then did he confess, no doubt with head down and eyes sheepishly staring at the floor: 

“I’m sorry Mr. President, but it seems that I have temporarily lost the codes.  If we have to fight a war, we will have to do it the old-fashioned way.”

There is no reason to suspect that President Clinton was ever aware of the missing codes.  It seems that the aide was more successful than he should have been at carrying out his “little” deception.  However, in this age of international terrorism, one cannot help but ask the question:  “What if. . .”?  What if the “biscuit” had fallen into the wrong hands? 

Those in the know about nuclear warfare assure us that there was never any danger of some “unauthorized” person having been able to launch any nuclear weapons.  The protocol for launching a nuclear attack is, as they say, “a multi-layered system” in which the “biscuit” is but one part.  Put simply, it could not have happened.

Such assurances remind me of the message that precedes the satirical cult-classic movie from the Cold War era, “Dr. Strangelove.”  In a rolling script that precedes the movie, viewers are told that what they are about to see could not happen.  I’m not sure that I can always trust what the government tells me, but a friend who flew one of those nuclear-armed bombers that circled the Soviet Union 24/7 during the height of the Cold War assures me that in the “real world,” the Dr. Strangelove scenario could not happen.

Still, as one newsman commented when General Shelton’s account of “the mystery of the missing codes” appeared, “It’s not quite the same thing as losing your car keys.”  What if President Clinton were called upon to respond to a nuclear attack on the United States?

The whole affair got me thinking about a one-act play, The Case of the Missing Biscuit, by the unknown playwright, P.R. Waibel:

SCENE ONE

A melody of soft romantic music is heard as the curtain rises.

 Before us is the Oval Office.  Only two figures can be seen.  One is the President.  The other is a young, female intern named, Miss Flora Williams. 

INTERN, speaking in a soft voice with romantic overtones:  Mr. President.  Slight pause.   It’s such an honor to be here with the President of the United Sates.

PRESIDENT:  Yes, it’s the Oval OfficeIt makes a visitor feel humble, even grateful, if you know what I mean.

INTERN, looking to one side as if a little embarrassed:  I do.

The President takes a few steps to the side of the room and opens a liquor cabinet.  He holds up a bottle and a glass.  Care for something to drink, Miss Williams?

INTERN:  Do you think I should?  I mean . . . well . . . what I mean is . . . it kind of goes to my head.  I lose control.  She stares at the President with her head cocked to one side and a blank look on her face.

PRESIDENT:  Where is it that you go to school, Miss Williams?

INTERN:  Ole Miss.  It’s in Mississippi.

PRESIDENT:  Yes.  I know.  A party school, or so I’ve heard?

Intern is acting very ditzy; eyes open wide, giggling a lot, increasingly animated.

INTERN:  Ooh yes.  Lots of athletes.  They’re very muscular—She puts emphasis on “muscular”—especially the football players.  Brief pause.  Intern  moves in close to the President.  I’ll bet you’re athletic, Mr. President.  She smiles while looking up at his face.

PRESIDENT, smiling with a twinkle in his eye:  I have been known to, as they say, play around a bit.  Slight pause.  May I call you Flora?  It’s a lovely name—means “flower”.

INTERN, moving in closer so that their bodies almost touch:  You can call me “Flower,” if you like.  Smiling, she moves in closer and begins to run her hand down the lapel of his sport coat.  Or, you can call me what the boys at the frat house call me.

PRESIDENT:  And what is that?

INTERN, leaning forward, their bodies touching, she whispers in his ear:  Willing!

As they begin to embrace, there is a loud banging on the door.  The door burst open.  In rushes a soldier in a full-dress general’s uniform.  Lots of medal s on his chest and tough looking.  Behind him is a young man is a suit, rather nerdy looking.  He has a small black suitcase in his hand.

PRESIDENT, surprised at the intrusion, he pushes the young lady aside:  General Lockjaw!  I must object!

GENERAL:  I’m sorry, Mr. President, but it’s a national emergency!

PRESIDENT:  Do you mean?

GENERAL:  Yes, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT:  Now?

GENERAL:   Yes, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT:  Right now? 

GENERAL:  Yes, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT:  Moving about, obviously thinking.  Stops and looks at the general.  The Klingons?

GENERAL:  No, Mr. President.  Slight pause.  Then with anger and irritation in his voice.  The Communists!

PRESIDENT:  Communists?  Didn’t we win that one?

GENERAL, moving about, agitated and, ranting:  You never win with the Commies, Mr. President.  They’re sneaky!  They’re like a flu virus.  You think you have licked them, but they keep coming back.  They’re everywhere.  Why . . . Why—pointing at the intern who is standing off to the side, trying to be inconspicuous—she might be one!

INTERN, shocked at what the General has said:  Really General!  Daddy is a Republican!

PRESIDENT:  Yes, General Lockjaw, Miss Williams’ reputation—pause—is beyond reproach.

GENERAL, anxiously looking at his watch:  Mr. President.  We have less than an hour, perhaps only minutes.  We must launch a counterattack.

PRRESIDENT, both irritated and anxious:  Very well then.  He addresses the nerdy looking man in the suit, carrying the little black suitcase.  Mr. Kent, hand me the “biscuit.”

KENT, hesitant and stuttering:  Mr. President . . . ah . . . there’s . . . ah . . . there is something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about. 

GENERAL: Not now, you idiot.  This is a national emergency.  Civilization itself hangs in the balance.

PRESIDENT:  Well spoken, General.

GENERAL:  Thank you Mr. President.  He turns to face Kent, fists closed tightly at his sides, anger in his face.  Hand the President  the “biscuit.”

KENT, steps back, fear in his face and voice:  I don’t have it.

PRESIDENT, GENERAL, INTERN, in unison:  What?!

KENT, addressing the President:  I lost it.  Months ago.  I . . . I . . . been meaning to talk to you about it.   

All present stand staring at one another silently.  As the lights dim and the curtain begins to come down, Vira Lynn can be heard singing,

We’ll meet again,

Don’t know when, don’t know where.

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.*

The muffled sound of distant explosions can be heard as Ms. Lynn continues,

Keep smiling through,

Just like you always do,

Till the blue skies chase those dark clouds, far away.*

Of course, such a scenario could never happen in the real world, or could it?

*Words and music to “We’ll Meet Again” by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles.