The Beat Goes On (and On, and On)

I expected the views of the Earth from the moon would have brought us closer together. The image of a fragile blue-white pebble from space shows just how small this space is we fight over. But instead of unifying us, we seem to have forgotten the lessons we could have learned from seeing Earth as a tiny ball suspended in a cosmic sea. We now insist that our version of humanity is the only one worth celebrating, and indeed, we must reach back into our past to recapture greatness rather than reaching forward towards new opportunities.

How close did we come to losing our cherished form of democracy during the 2020 Presidential election and its aftermath? A lot closer than we thought. Try these “what ifs” out for size. What if the endless stream of ludicrous lawsuits about the election found one of those Trump-appointed judges who were given incompetent ratings by the ABA? One of these judges may have viewed their fealty towards their nominator as greater than their belief in the law, and ruled in favor of the ex-President. What would that have done to the electoral aftermath?  Or, what if the roving mobs had come across one or more of their intended targets, and actually managed to hang Mike Pence, or pillory and puncture Nancy Pelosi? Would we still see Trumpistas referring to the mobs as nothing to be feared if they had taken a human toll in the form of the lives of members of Congress?

Just when you thought we had gone beyond this past presidency, along comes another Republican member of Congress who insists on stirring the festering pot of divisiveness. According to them, it is only those who want this nation to fail who insist that the previous election was fair. I’m wanting to go on to discuss real solutions to problems we have in this nation, only to be stymied by legislative representatives at the state and federal levels who care more for cultural hyperbole than the real work of legislation. But then someone like Ted Cruz comes along and informs the business elites that if they dare to express an opinion about a legislative matter, then they can just forget about having their bribes responded to by members of his party. We may have believed in the corruption of these legislators, but now we have them openly reveling in their moral turpitude in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal.

If you think about it, this resistance is to be expected. The mantra of the Republican party since the primacy of Reagan has been that government is incompetent, and we’re all better off if we go it alone. Funny how it took over a half million deaths to disabuse many folks from continuing to believe in that mantra. Still, when you see the number of people who refuse to get vaccinated, you realize how deeply the poison of this past administration has seeped. As I’ve said, seldom do we have the chance to see evolution in action at the human level, but the differential survival rates between the vaccinated and those who disdain vaccination may eventually show up in a human preference for science at the genetic level.

But to have the beliefs of 40 years torn asunder by the reality of nature is tough for many to accept. It was tough for all of us when we learned the reality about Santa, and the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Those myths sustained us in our innocence. Likewise, the myths fed the American people about the sanctity of Republicans as exemplified by Trump were comforting to many, causing them to abandon their ability to apply logic to what they saw in front of them. I had never believed that so many people would ignore their logical brains in favor of accepting what Fox and Newsmax and OAN whispered in their ears, night after night. Combine this with the power of social media, and you had the perfect storm for the 21st Century USA. And thus, we barely escaped this last election with our democratic republic intact.

Reasonable people can disagree with programs and priorities. That what elections are supposed to decide. But it is unacceptable to have discussions about programs usurped by those who refuse to accept reality, and insist on re-litigating the last election time after time. What will it take to make those who still follow their orange champion (#cheetojesus) to give up their folly? Will indictment and conviction on criminal charges disabuse his followers from their cult? Probably not, he will be viewed as a martyr. Will the release of the internal documents that William Barr used to proclaim Trump’s innocence convince millions that the Russia investigation was not a hoax? Probably not, since the phrase Russian Hoax was uttered so often that many will not go beyond the headline. No, it will take some event yet to come, where their champion does something so gross and crass that it breaks through the impenetrable force field protecting him in the eyes of his cult followers. And when that break comes, it won’t be pretty, since no one likes accepting they are the foolish victim of a con. It’s always those who are most invested in the scheme who insist in their belief until the end. Once that end comes, they will turn on him with the same fury that they supported him in the Capitol on January 6.

Seasons Change (And So Did I)

All pictures by author

The squirrels and birds will soon have to work for their living. No longer will their food be provided inside of a porch swing feeder handcrafted by my late brother, or suspended inside of a suet feeder. The seasons have changed, and spring obviates the need to provide supplemental food.

Oh, we will be bringing out the hummingbird feeders shortly, and giving away mealworms, but that’s not the same as the buffet we have provided during the winter months. The squirrels in particular, are enjoyable to watch. We have two who have claimed the feeder. No bird dares to swoop in for a bite while a squirrel perches in or on the feeder. But the second squirrel eventually becomes impatient, and jumps in itself, prompting the first squirrel to abandon the feeder and perhaps chew and swallow what it had placed in its mouth before it scampers off.

The suet feeder was where we saw some of the best birding action. The rarest of visitors is the pileated woodpecker, who visits so seldom we’ve been only able one time to capture a picture of this king of woodpeckers.

What has replaced the feeders of winter? The flowers of spring. Our yard is at its peak bloom right now with daffodils, hellebores (Lenten rose), and flowering trees. In the almost 30 years we’ve lived at this house, we have transformed our spring landscape by cultivating and spreading daffodils. We have literally thousands of them blooming right now, and when they fade, the jonquils will take their place in providing spring beauty. But we are most excited this year to see the blossoms burst out of our cherry tree. We’ve been babying this tree, trying to keep it safe from our ravenous deer, and whereas last year we had five lonely blossoms, this year it has burst forth gloriously.

The self-propagating hellebores are something that takes little care. They loves shade, which we have in abundance. Deer don’t like it, which makes it in high demand as a source of greenery that stands up to the deer’s predations. And pollinators of all types love its pollen-rich flowers. The only problem we have with it is that last year’s leaves flop over onto the ground when the tender strands arise with the delicate flowers. You have to cut them off and gather them up, trying not to get abraded from the raspy leaves, or else you just have a mass of greenery where the bottom leaves rot in place.

We like it when both of the Lenten rose and daffodils share the same slope. The Lenten roses are prolific in spreading their seed, and eventually you do have to ride herd on their spread, but this is their time of year.

It takes patience to transform a landscape. We’ve had nearly 30 years. Now the only thing we do beside cutting back the Lenten rose, is to look late in the summer and see where the daffodils are crowding the surface. When they do, I dig them up and spread the bulbs to share with others. Our bulbs are now found in 3 states, and in many places around Charleston. But the rewards come to those who have the patience to wait year after year and enjoy spring when it finally does come. Patience is a virtue we all need more of. Seems like the world now puts a premium on instant gratification, which does not usually work well.

Superior? It’s So Much More Than A Lake.

Inflamed Trump supporters stormed the Senate side of the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, after the president’s rally.Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times

A premise of white supremacy is that the culture created by whites is superior to that of any other ethnic group. I for one do not believe that, and to prove my point, I only have to refer to what seems to be the cultural beacons for much of the nation. Reality TV. Really. This genre is aimed at the lowest common denominator among TV viewers, as it allows people to vicariously share in the lives of those who are viewed as superior. And how are they superior? Well, many on the airwaves prove their merits by being the chosen one, that is, the one among the rest of the beautiful people who end up winning the affection of the ideal mate. How do they do that? Besides the natural advantage of beauty, they are able to manipulate the emotions and actions of their competitors, and ultimately the emotions and actions of the supposed ideal mate. Stabbing in the back is not only desirable, it adds to the drama for all those who turn in week after week to see the soap opera play out. Ah, yes. The superiority of white culture.

When I was in college, wrestling was big. There were many local television stations that broadcast the regional wrestling circuit. I even had my favorites, a father/son team that used real wrestling moves to subdue their opponents. Sad (and easy) to say, they didn’t have enough pizazz to be fan favorites. I moved after college to Memphis, and there I encountered Jerry Lawler as the local king of wrestling. Very appropriate for the hometown of the King to also serve as the site where the King of Wrestling held sway. But since I first moved to Memphis, the sport has morphed and ended up as a bloated corpse, floating in the flotsam of popular culture. What’s more, the world of boxing has devolved into the world of MMA, where both men and women can aspire to be the peaks of their species by knocking the crap out of their opponents. We know so much more about head trauma than we did when I was a child, it literally hurts to watch any of this, yet so much of what we as a nation desire is more and more mayhem. If this is the epitome of culture that whites can generate, then let me be the first to say it ain’t worth crap.

The US has survived its episode with a reality TV star in charge. This was the fulfillment of H. L. Mencken’s prophecy from a century ago, where he said: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” A moron who reached back into some poorly remembered recesses of his mind to a time when America was great.     I am so grateful that he is no longer in charge, and my hope is he becomes fully discredited as he wades through his morass of legal issues. But just remember, he is still the embodiment of the superiority of white culture.

What it seems to me is that America has lost its ability to self-motivate. We’ve lost the drive to succeed on our own, and because of that we do not have civic energy we need to embody greatness. Part of that is systemic, since big box stores replacing smaller establishments has reduced the opportunity to better yourself by running a small business. It becomes systemic when even the jobs offered at these establishments do not pay enough to sustain a minimal lifestyle. It is only the immigrants who still see the opportunity to better themselves by running a small business. How impoverished would our cuisine be if we had not been exposed to restaurants where local cuisines from across the world were available, thanks to the energy of our immigrant community. But we must maintain the purity of our race!

Our financial system has assumed greater and greater power over our lives. Basically, for any publicly traded company, Wall Street tries to ensure that the only consideration for that company is maximizing shareholder return. Lately this doesn’t even include profit, because so many companies borrow to enable stock buybacks enriching no one other than shareholders. I’ve seen the machinations a company will go through rather than face these individuals who try to impose their will on companies to “maximize shareholder return”. My old company ended up merging with its biggest domestic competitor, then forming three corporations out of the wreckage of the merger. Along the way it was necessary to divest many of the growth products due to anti-trust considerations. All of this was because an activist investor had targeted the company since he thought their costs were too high, and they spent too much money on research. I shudder to think of all of the wasted costs undertaken to make this misguided merger/demerger happen, costs that did nothing to improve customer service, or create new products, or reduce manufacturing waste and pollution.

This over-financialization of the business world is yet another example of what white culture has done, since the world of finance is still mainly a white bastion. Yet another case where whites are causing great harm as they run roughshod over the employees of their enterprises.

All of these are examples of why I find the arguments of those who invoke white supremacy to be faulty at best, and evil at worst. It seems that those who believe in white supremacy are willing to demean any other race and culture, all in the misguided belief that only they can solve the problems. Yeah, we saw just exactly how well that went over the past four years. Unfortunately, that attitude is not shared with many who supported the last presidency. Their only complaint was that he didn’t go far enough, just like his supporters on the January 6 picnic at the Capitol who wore attire that indicated Hitler did not go far enough. But since it was white demonstrators, at least Senator Ron Johnson wasn’t worried.

Off We Go, Into the Wild Blue Yonder

rocket launch space discovery
Photo by SpaceX on Pexels.com

We are living in a golden age of exploration. Part of the human nature has always been to push the boundaries, whenever and wherever there was incentive. The spices of the Orient, along with unknown riches, tempted the explorers of Europe. Now, we are in a race for space. With the recent launch of the Perseverance mission to Mars, that planet is now infested with both unmanned rovers, and orbiting observers. Participants in this infestation include India, China, the joint venture between the Russians and Europeans, multiple missions from the US, and the mission from the United Arab Emirates that recently launched. For millennia humanity watched the planets, convinced that they held great influence over our existence on Earth. Though we may laugh at astrology today, it is undoubtedly responsible for the growth of knowledge about patterns in the cosmos, due to the need to know what the positions of the planets were at the time of the birth of individuals.

Indeed, astrology still has millions of adherents, convinced that the orientation of the planets hold the means to provide order to a seemingly chaotic life. But once our understanding of the cosmos went beyond mere observation, to a systemic search for knowledge, we have been merciless at trying to uncover the mysteries of our solar system neighbors. We have seen evidence of great floods on Mars, and the search continues to see if we can find direct evidence of life elsewhere, either from the past, or tantalizingly, still alive somewhere under the Martian surface.

Now there are private businesses aimed at the conquest of space. These are not just the vanity projects of the new tech aristocracy, but serious attempts at commercializing both near Earth exploration, and eventually solar system exploration. It will be difficult to provide a positive cash flow from these activities, but what we’ve seen is that companies are willing to fund the immense investment in space vehicles. We’ve weathered the gap between NASA’s shuttle (2 catastrophic failures out of 135 missions), to launches to the space station from US vehicles. What is different now is that it is a private corporation, SpaceX, that has contracted with NASA for a series of launches. The first of these launches just splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, completing a seemingly flawless flight. SpaceX is in competition with Boeing, Boeing concentrating mainly on heavier launch capabilities. Since private enterprise is funding the research, they will be looking for payoff well beyond what government contracts provide. And that is why there truly is a new age of exploration, one that will result in humans setting foot on Mars sooner rather than later. The moon will also be revisited, and with the current missions aiming at prospecting for ice on the surface of the moon, it may actually be possible to build a base on the moon itself.

Why do this? Well, I for one think it much better to use humanity’s creativity in exploration, rather than in building munitions and munition delivery systems. Although there has been significant advances in our understanding of physics, metallurgy, and chemistry through the development of better means of destruction, the use of these tools comes with immense human suffering. And as we’ve seen in the recent explosion involving ammonium nitrate in Lebanon, it does not take a lot of technology to spread a lot of death and destruction.  Spending the money on science to increase our range and knowledge instead of on destruction seems a much more humane way to proceed.

Besides, there is much to learn. Even beyond the possibility of life on Mars, there is the tantalizing thought that life may exist underneath the ice caps covering the oceans of the satellites of the larger planets. The question we have is whether life is ubiquitous in the universe, spreading wherever the chemical conditions couple with the source of energy to power life. If we do find life outside of our planet, it will have immense repercussions among the world’s religions. They must see if their theology can adapt to life existing in multiple locations, and allow for a creator that likes to experiment, rather than one totally vested on earth. I have always thought that limiting a creator to a single site in this immense universe did a disservice to the creator, since it imposed such tight restraints on its capabilities.

The age of exploration we live in goes well beyond the physical limitations of earth. We have been exploring the intricacies of the genome, learning the secrets to manipulate the formulas of life for our own benefit. Tools such as CRISPR, and DNA sequencing improvements, are leading to the possibilities for us to deal with the microscopic universe. Those abilities are coming into play now with the unprecedented speed in which vaccines against COVID-19 are being developed. Back a generation ago, we would not have to knowledge to sequence the genome, learn its tricks for attaching to cells, and develop multiple ways to fight against this novel virus. It would have taken years of painful trial and error work to possibly come up with a vaccine. Today? We may have 3 modes of action incorporated into vaccines, and testing could be complete within a year from the initial confirmation of the virus’s structure.

Many ask why do we spend money on exploration, when we cannot meet our needs on earth. My answer is that it is through exploration and research that we discover the ways to increase the economic pie, thus allowing for a greater share for each individual. It is only through the growth of economic activity engendered by the discoveries from research and exploration that we can avoid the Malthusian fate that would otherwise engulf us.

Summer Reveries

Summer flowers

It is good to know in the midst of all of the concurrent crises we face, that nature  proceeds at its own pace unconcerned with all of the worries humanity has. Thus we return to summer in West Virginia, where the biggest issue is whether the cowbird will be successful in laying an egg in the wren’s nest up in one of our flower baskets.

We are loving it out in our outdoor living room, where we enjoy our coffee and newspaper in the mornings, and use its space for our afternoon cocktail. In between we can read or just watch  nature as it visits our porch. The finch feeder is in use most of the daylight hours, with the purple finches unafraid to visit while we sit there, though the gold finches are shy and only visit when we are not present. We were treated to seeing a hummingbird chase a finch away one day, though what the finch did to draw this attention is unknown. This year we are not seeing any non-conforming finches, where a brood is raised that includes a foreign egg from a cowbird. Last year we saw a young bird that was unable to use the finch feeder, though it tried valiantly. Instead, it chirped and waited for its father to deliver a seed directly to it, since it could not reach into the feeder with its own beak.

A wren built a nest in one of our hanging flower baskets. You can see it dart in and out, and it often scolds us, especially when we are at the table with our coffee. That puts us directly next to the nest, and that is obviously too close for the bird’s comfort. But it is the cowbird couple that is the most interesting. Last week I saw the couple, with the male perched a few feet away while the female scoped out the nest. At that time there were obviously no eggs there, and they flew away. But just yesterday I saw the female eyeing the nest again, and this time the wren flew directly at the cowbird, chasing it away. It remains to be seen if the battle will have future acts.

The fallout from the finch feeder keeps other birds busy who do not have the physique to feed directly from the feeder. Often we can hear the whooshing of the morning dove wings as they fly away after having poked through the rubble looking for intact seeds. And chipmunks cross our porch regularly, stopping sometime to search for seeds, while other times stopping under the hummingbird feeder and lapping up the spilled sugar water. Then they hustle off to whatever their business is.

This year I’ve seen not only the neon blue skinks skitter across the porch, but another color of skink. They are fast and you have to really be watchful in order to see them. So far they are the only reptiles we’ve shared our space with.

The flicker loves the hummingbird feeder. It will hang off of the feeder, and you can see it drinking as it brings the liquid into its beak and works it down its throat. The hummingbirds know that they cannot force the flicker away (too big), so an uneasy detente exists where the hummer will visit the side of the feeder opposite the flicker. It is amazing how much entertainment you can get out of a half-cup of sugar dissolved in water. We have seen at least one hummer battle, but know that more are to come as the alpha male perches on the wires leading to the house, keeping watch and driving away any other hummers who dare to intrude on its designated home turf.

2018 flicker

Several years ago we had to take down the hemlock tree that graced our front lawn due to storm damage. We replaced it with ornamental trees that won’t grow as tall so as to threaten the wires. The ornamental cherry directly in front of our porch is growing daily, as you can see the new leaves stretching higher each time you look at it. It may never give us shade, but that doesn’t matter to the birds who use any location as a handy perch.

We have apple trees which have very seldom given us apples. Not because the apples weren’t produced, but because the squirrels get to them first. But until this year, they’ve always left the crab apples alone. The tartness of them must be a turn off even to voracious squirrels. This year, though, the squirrels are taking the crab apples right off of the trees and eating them.

Squirrel

It is good to take the time to really see the world around us. If nothing else, this time of physical isolation and separation from the rest of humanity, has intensified the desire for watching the world of nature. It is good to realize that the life outside does not care about human pandemics, or divisive politics, or any of the other matters that occupy the airwaves. Just hearing the sounds of birds, and the chirring of the crickets helps to put things into perspective.

A Quilt For All Seasons

Anne's quilt

I’m turning this post over to my wife, Carrie, who wanted to share a little bit about the quilting  process, and how it is healing emotionally. Let me just say that this is the first quilt she has made in a long time that was not blessed by our cat Napoleon, who died in early December. Napoleon blessed the quilts by laying on them as Carrie put on the binding.

 

I am a quilter. Pictured here is the quilt that I have sent to my niece Anne, who is a 2020 high school graduate.

I had been working on this quilt since back before Christmas. While it was in progress, shortly before Christmas, something very distressing happened to me. (I don’t want to go into details).  One afternoon, I carried that distress one afternoon to my sewing machine.

Before I go on, let me explain a little about how this particular quilt block is constructed. You start with two contrasting squares of fabric, sew them together in a certain way, then cut them in a certain way, press open, turn,  re-sew, press, cut again, turn again, sew one more time to finish the block. Laying them out in rows and sewing the rows together forms the all-over pattern pictured.

So that day, as I watched the blocks form in front of my eyes and saw their beauty, the distress I was feeling just seemed to melt away. A couple of hours of doing this and a great happiness replace the distress.

So, I guess the moral to this story is that we all need beauty in our lives. Whether is doing something visual, like quilting, or making music (which I also do), the human spirit needs beauty.

Quilt closeup

Finally, I know that a comforter from Target is just as able to keep my niece warm when she is able to go to college, but a quilt also covers her with love and lets her know she is not alone.

This is why I quilt. And, indeed, quilting is one thing that has kept me sane during the social distancing.

Emmanuel Parish, Cumberland – A Gem

Emmanuel_Espiscopal_Church_Cumberland

The church on the hill. The hill that used to be where the fort stood back in the French and Indian war days. The fort where they dug trenches for the troops to walk through without risk of drawing enemy fire, trenches that were simply covered up by the church built above in 1850. Emmanuel Parish church in Cumberland Maryland has a history that can simply not be matched by many churches in this country.

Imagine a church located up above the hardscrabble town down by the river. Just across the river, a few hundred yards away, was Virginia. It was a common path for those traveling the underground railroad to take advantage of the tunnels underneath the church. Even though Maryland was a slave state, just a few miles to the north was the famous Mason-Dixon line and the free state of Pennsylvania. Today, the tunnels serve to store electrical switchgear, and the guts of the HVAC system. But always with an ear towards the past, and the footsteps of those who long ago passed through these trenches on their way to a hoped-for freedom.

My family was able to hear about the history of this church and learn the stories from its docent, Ron Growden. It was wonderful to hear him tell the stories and hear his descriptions of the church and its wonderful Tiffany windows and altar. As in many older main-line Protestant churches, the wealth of the church in the past still shines through the memorial gifts given long ago. Only this time, the gifts were manifested in three large stained glass windows commissioned from the Tiffany company. A scene showing the adoration of the shepherds was built, with the window aimed to capture the sun from the east, intended to direct the morning light of the sun  through the image of the Christmas star above the stable. Subtle shadings of blue in the Virgin’s dress were made by increasing the thickness of the glass, making the garment come alive.

Adoration of the shepherds

In the rear of the church, the windows represented the second coming, with angels carrying horns matched by the trumpet en chamade pipes extending perpendicular to the rear wall.

Second coming Tiffany

But for me, the real highlight of the windows was the one depicting the story of Rizpah. Though I am relatively familiar with the bible, I was unaware of her story. How she was a concubine of Saul, and had bore him two sons. How when David took over the throne, he gave Rizpah’s sons up with the other male descendents of Saul to the Gibeonites, and they tortured and killed them. Then Rizpah stood guard over their corpses both day and night to prevent their bodies from being desecrated by animals. In the depiction in glass, her image was borrowed from the statue in New York Harbor, and she held a torch in her hand that lit the ground around her and on the bodies of her sons suspended from crosses. The light that emanated from her torch was golden, and soft, but through Tiffany’s artistry, it becomes a striking focal point for the wall. It is difficult to turn your eyes away from the Art Deco influenced glass portrayal of a strong woman.

rizpah

Though the church has an extensive past, and the money available to the church in the past was evident in the art work made available for future generations, the present state of the church is similar to many other old main-line Protestant churches. Ron told us about the efforts to make the church part of a National Park Service site to commemorate the underground railroad, which would help to off-load some of the support costs for the building. But when we came back to the church the next day on Sunday morning, the morning of the annual meeting for the parish, the attendance was only slightly more than what we experience in our own parish church in Charleston, West Virginia. St. John’s Charleston shares a long history as a flagship downtown church in an Appalachian city worn down by deindustrialization. It too has vivid portrayals in stained glass, although it does not have anything like Tiffany windows to share. But the attendance at services continues to slide, and it seems like the type of religious service it offers is less and less desired as our nation continues its secularization.

Our son was outed at the church that day. He is actually an organist, and has lived in the area for over three years without having revealed that side of his skills to the community of organists. That is a community that is very welcoming, since there are fewer and fewer young organists coming along. Whether he takes advantage of the opportunity and begins an association with this church, I don’t know, but it never hurts to give a gentle guiding touch in a direction that his parents think will help him in his future life.

I wish to express my appreciation to the church and to its website, for the pictures used in this post. The church’s website is https://www.emmanuelparishofmd.org/

The Silence of Sounds

neon

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

We’ve entered the darkness once again. The darkness of Mordor sprawls across the landscape, pouring out of its source in the now-fouled house of White.

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

The vision that has crept across this nation over the last few years is the stale vision of white superiority, the failed belief that European civilization is superior to any other version found across the globe. The seeds have found fertile ground and have sprouted.

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of silence

The visions I have seen over the last few years can never be unseen. Children crying as they are separated from their family by a government that cared so little for them that they could not set up a system to eventually reunite parents with children. Humans crowded into chain-link cages. Lit tiki torches marching along Charlottesville streets, eliciting the famous “Good people on both sides” quote. And still the silence remains deafening from the Republican members of Congress.

In restless dreams I walked alone

Narrow streets of cobblestone

As in a trance, we march. No, not alone, but en masse, thousands and thousands in protest. The energy that we all had those first days. But as time passed, the momentum has slowed, while the acts of evil continue to spew from the powers wielded by this administration. It now seems that we do march alone, if at all, trying to stem the tide.

‘Neath the halo of a street lamp

I turned my collar to the cold and damp

When my eyes were stabbed by

The flash of a neon light

That split the night

And touched the sound of silence

Every so often, something so egregious manages to break through the din of the mundane atrocities littering the landscape. It might be a joint meeting with Putin attended only by the principles and an interpreter. It might be a fawning show of sycophancy in the cabinet meeting where all pledged eternal devotion to this dour denizen of denial. It might be a report of an attempt to extort the leader of a nation into doing opponent research for his next campaign. Things so brazen, so outrageous, that I cannot but believe that this surely will break through the stone wall isolating his supporters from his true nature. But each time, I turn away disappointed as his spin control succeeds in removing the outrage from the nation’s discourse.

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence

The cacophony emanates from the television shows. One side fawns, makes every excuse for the behavior, and claims the real villainy came from those who would deny his immense electoral victory. The other side squirms, is so eager to denounce the actions that they violate their journalistic ethics and report poorly sourced stories that are eagerly denounced by his supporters. Both sides talk over the other side, and no one is convinced or persuaded to change their opinion. Now the opposition is more interested in purity tests than it is in the nuts and bolts of selecting a candidate who can take down the tyranny spreading from its center.

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows

Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you”

But my words, like silent raindrops, fell

And echoed in the wells of silence

I took up the mantle of a blog shortly after the election. I shared items of science, of daily life and the changing of the seasons, and politics. Lots and lots of politics. I enjoyed especially the pieces I put out that used satire to express a point. For a long time, I was part a forum where active discussion occurred on all types of posts. I enjoyed my “minor league forum” and was a respected poster and commenter. Then, the forum disintegrated, and I fell into a bit of a posting depression. It is difficult to continue to pour out your thoughts when you get little or no feedback. I have felt that my words were indeed, echoing in the well of silence.

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

The neon god that took over the office of the President represented all of the glitter and gloss that a celebrity could muster. Yet when all is said and done, there is no more substance there than a bunch of gas excited by an electrical current.

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And the sign said

“The words of the prophets are

Written on the subway walls

And tenement halls

 

Maybe Banksy has it right. All art is temporary, and the ephemeral nature of a painting on the side of a building is as good and as valid as any old Dutch masterwork from the Renaissance. Yet in this day of the 4-hour news cycle, where a provocation can be answered with a response and then superseded by the next outrageous announcement or act, maybe there is a place for things that have a little more substance, and stability. Maybe things like the Constitution have a place as guidelines for our body politic to do its job and not just either fawn in supplication, or wail and bemoan in protest. Maybe, just maybe, we should place duty to the nation ahead of party and take real action.

 

And whispered in the sound of silence”

Instead of Simon and Garfunkle, let’s let William Shakespeare have the last word: It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Words to the Sound of Silence copyrighted by Paul Simon.

 

Tribalism

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This post is the fifth in a series of seven posts describing existential threats to our way of life and our civilization. It describes the increasing tendency towards tribalism seen across the globe. As our commerce and culture have become intertwined more tightly with other nations, a backlash has developed. That backlash has taken the form of nationalistic, xenophobic, populist political movements burgeoning within many nations. It evokes memories of the 1930’s, and the mass Nuremburg rallies that provided the German peoples with a sense of solidarity that really did generate the belief that it could be Germany Űber Alles, Germany Over All. The tendency within those countries that have surrendered their government to these populists is to denounce dissent, generate fear within the populace, and decry any attempt to hold them accountable, especially attempts coming from a free press.

So the expression of this populist anger is to return each country to a golden age, when the virginal nation was unsullied by the globalist villains who only wish to plunder the wealth of our nation. And a virginal nation needs to return to the state of racial purity that it held in its golden age. This may be the defining struggle of our age, where the old ideals of racial purity confront the reality of the world today. Borders cannot be seen from space (except for the South Korea / North Korea border in a picture taken at night). The world has been brought closer together by the technologies of the modern age. Whether it is transportation systems allowing mass movement of people and goods, or whether it is the internet which erases most borders for global communication, or whether it is multi-national corporations that search for the optimum global supply chain solutions, our prosperity and continued survival is now dependent upon not just those who live in this nation, but also those in other nations. The nationalist movement wishes to reverse this trend and allow each nation to float along independent of all other nations.

It remains to be seen whether the strategy of the populists can be successful. On the economic front, success has come when there are multi-national organizations that set the rules and provide a framework for transactions. But it is the desire of the populists to revert to a time when it was “us against the world”, leading to a plethora of bilateral agreements. Nations view each other using the lens of win/lose when it comes to trade relations. But once you get accustomed to looking at things through a lens of win/lose for economics, it colors your perception in all other forms of relations. Soon diplomatic relations are reduced to transactional relationships, in which one party is expecting to “win” against the other. We saw where this led in the 1930’s. One party in Europe insisted upon winning against its neighbors time and time again, eventually causing Germany to become emboldened to take direct military action against its neighbors. We have the same framework today, only the weaponry is orders of magnitude more powerful. Consider what would happen if India and Pakistan allowed their decades-long struggle over Kashmir to escalate to the point of using nuclear weaponry. Will China, lying downwind of the fallout pattern, be able to resist taking sides in this one-upmanship battle? And that’s only one of dozens of potential conflicts that can either result directly in nuclear exchanges, or cause another party to be drawn in to use them.

The structure of the post-war world has prevented further use of nuclear weaponry for over 70 years. That structure is fraying at the edges, and needs to be revised to reflect the issues of the modern world. But the desire of the populists is to tear up all arrangements and rely solely upon the internal resources of each country. Were all international organizations and alliances to be struck down, the vacuum that results will not be filled with peace and harmony. Instead, particles of strontium 90 and cesium 137 from nuclear bomb detonations will likely fill the void in the atmosphere as the children leading countries lose their tempers and cause the loss of the lives of millions of people.

This is not one of the problems that is solvable using science and technology. It is very unlikely that we will be saved by an alien civilization that uses its advanced technology to deactivate any nuclear explosion. That is what it would take to tackle this risk from a scientific perspective. Instead, this is a case where if the other problems can be addressed using science and mathematics, the economic conditions will improve to the point that the populists are rejected by the citizens of their nation. Otherwise the nuclear genie will show up and let us know that it has not gone back into its bottle, even though it has stayed silent for a long while.

 

Lafayette, We Were There

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The road back was familiar. Over the hills of northeastern Kentucky, skirting the Cincy metropolitan area to the south, passing the temptation of another visit to the monstrosity called the Creation Museum, and then on through the level fields of Indiana. Onward to Lafayette, a city I had known for my entire life. Now I was to go back there for likely the last time, for the memorial service for my Aunt, and to pay my respects to her.

At times like this, you remember snatches of the past. The barely remembered scene where there was a house in a little hamlet alongside the railroad tracks where the road bent in a curve. The baseball games with the cousins in the front of my Grandmother’s house. The house out on US 52, where I learned the mysteries of CB radio back in the late 1960’s with my cousin, before the coming of the trucker CB onslaught. The small condo community on the edge of Lafayette, where my uncle died. The vacation condominium in Destin, where over the decades we saw the town convert from the Luckiest Fishing Village, into a miniature version of Myrtle Beach, with attractions and traffic that emulated that other destination resort. And finally, the house my aunt shared with her last husband, the 60’s modernistic version of an architect’s vision of the future, with three wings set at 120° angles away from the central core. Floor to ceiling glass walls filled the central wing, with heavy doors sliding open and leading you out onto stone patios. The thing that really dated the house though, was the fully capable fallout shelter you entered from the closet next to the front door. You climbed down a metal ladder into a room that, when I saw it in the early 2000’s, was not outfitted with survival supplies, but with games and battery-operated lights for use on those occasions when it doubled as a tornado shelter.

My immediate family knew her as Joyce. It was not until her last marriage to Allen that I learned her first name was Peggy, and that is how she was known to her friends. As my wife said at her memorial service, Joyce was a good name for her, since joy is the largest part of that name. She exuded joy, and welcoming. We often used their house as a way stop either going to my parents in Lincoln, or coming back to West Virginia. Our boys loved to put nickels into the genuine antique slot machine in the office. And Allen and Peggy were always happy to see us, and show off their latest projects. For Allen, it was his unending work on the wooded hillside that he was continually working on. He was able to improve upon the wilderness that came with the property, building paths, taking down scrub trees and planting more suitable foliage, clearing the debris down in the small creek. That work occupied his leisure hours that weren’t otherwise consumed by golf or Purdue sports. For both Allen and Peggy were huge Purdue supporters, and for decades had seats behind Gene Keady and the Purdue basketball team in Mackey Arena. I would look for them whenever Purdue had a home game on TV.

Peggy was known far and wide for her cooking. Whenever we made it to their house, we always had more to eat than we needed. And it was good. Universally good. We had many wonderful memories from meals we ate in that house. But she was not just a purveyor of food for humans. She had a wide range of animals that recognized a soft touch when they came across one. Many stray cats would come for the food and water she left for them. Also sharing in the bounty were the raccoons that came at night. Of course, she did have her cats that lived inside of the house as well.

My last trip to the house was for a Nebraska – Purdue football game back in 2013. I was definitely an outsider, with my red apparel, but even then I was still made to feel welcome. Even after the game, which ended up 44-7 in favor of Nebraska. I didn’t realize at the time that it would be my last visit to the house that was always so hospitable. Soon Alzheimer’s paid a visit to Peggy, and she spent her last years in an assisted living facility. Allen soldiered on, but his heart gave out this past November. Then, on Christmas eve, Peggy joined him again.

It gives you pause to realize that you are visiting a town for the last time. The memorial services for Peggy and Allen brought the remains of my father’s family together once again. Once more, we reminisced at Arni’s Pizza, with its small square pieces. But now that my Aunt and Uncle are gone, there is no more reason to go back. I have one surviving aunt on my mother’s side. On my father’s side, my cousin John is now the patriarch, he being all of a year older than me. Nothing gives you a bigger appreciation of your own mortality than to realize that almost all of your relatives you knew growing up and through your adulthood, are now gone. Life does go faster than we can imagine when we were children playing outside, unaware of the adult concerns and problems that we too would one day share.