Author Archives: jparquette

About jparquette

Fortunate and blessed in companionship with my wife of fifty years, in health and in modest, but more than adequate circumstances. Life is good.

Maximum Benefit, Minimum Wage (Part One)

“The best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today.” Elbert Hubbard

The greatest legacy from my parents was watching them do their jobs, whether that was in a formal workforce or at home. They did not raise any lazy kids. We were all blessed with a variety of humble jobs when we were young. For me, I started as a paperboy, then shoveling snow for neighborhood driveways. After caddying at the local nine-hole golf course for a summer, I had a relatively miserable weekend job bagging groceries at the grocery store in the center of our small town.

 I enjoyed much more some side cash jobs cleaning dead bugs off and waxing airplanes at the local airport, splitting the per plane fee with my friend, and unloading railroad cars piecework with the same friends on weekends for a local lumber wholesaler. All cash jobs. Boxcars fully loaded with fir gutters were the hardest challenge to “break the car” (get started by sliding all the way into the car on your back at the top to kick out to your buddy the first few forty-foot pieces jammed up against the roof.)  OSHA and Department of Labor enforcement and the nanny state was not as omnipresent then. We learned about planning to attack the load and how to remove splinters from various parts of our anatomy.

Next followed by a wonderful six weeks before turning sixteen on a dairy farm during haying season. A buck an hour cash in an envelope on Friday evening – never – before or after – was I richer. We would follow a relentlessly moving flat wood trailer being pulled by a slow-moving tractor, passing bales of hay from the rows on the field to the foreman, who stacked them high. When the trailer was stacked high, we hopped on the back to ride to the barn. We then reversed the process, handing the bales up to the foreman in the barn to be stacked for winter forage. Going home sunburned and covered in itchy hay dust and sweat after a day in the company of similarly tired, affable friends, I do not know if I have ever since experienced as full a sense of pride, job satisfaction, and a foretaste of manhood.

When I turned sixteen, the work rules allowed me to get an “on the books” job that my dad lined up for me through a friend at a local family-owned fence company, paying minimum wage of $1.25 an hour. A quarter more an hour than haying, but much less after taxes. It is the first job that shows still on my social security history statement. I worked there summers and weekends through the rest of high school and my first two years of college. Over the many years since, the indelible lessons learned there and on those early jobs helped form me for tree climbing arborist jobs, truck driving, newspaper reporting, and ultimately lumberyard work from the bottom up in a millwork shop to executive jobs managing multiple yards with hundreds of employees.

 “We work to become, not to acquire.” Elbert Hubbard

The fence company was a small conglomerate run by a father, Vito, and three sons, Bobby, George, and Dickie (affectionately nicknamed “Space” for his cranial volume without any noticeable filler). Vito’s brother, Crazy Charlie, hung around and lived up to his name. Charlie enjoyed bossing everyone about without any defined authority to do so. Bobby ran the fence company, although his handsome visage, easy charm, and capacity to party occupied his most focused attention. He was as likeable a character as one could hope to meet. Bobby was very competent to run the place when he chose to do so. Bobby was a good friend to the Songin brothers, one of whom frequently stopped by the shop. Butch, Queey, and Harold were local sports heroes and gifted natural athletes. All of them played minor league professional hockey with the old Providence Reds. Butch was the star hockey player, although all three were very good. Butch was also the first quarterback for the old Boston Patriots before they had their own stadium.

George was the most visibly competent of the owner’s sons and built sound houses, which he framed himself; he was even tempered and a good trainer. Dicky was, well, he was Dicky, and he installed swimming pools, paved driveways, and occasionally had a contract for a tar and gravel commercial roof. While I spent most of my time at the fence company, the workflow for the family businesses sometimes moved us to framing houses with George or paving driveways with Dicky for a week or two. I especially liked nailing off spruce roof board sheathing for George and the challenge of humping bundles of roof shingles two at a time up a ladder.

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

The fence company, though, was the incubator for many skills. My first job was dipping fence posts in the creosote bucket buried in the ground next to the wood drip drying rack. Both the rack and the buried bucket have long been EPA banned, and the stuff permanently stained blue jeans and boots in a few hours. I soon moved up to feeding the other end of the posts into one of two also now OSHA banned machines by hand. One was a high-speed router that we would spin the posts into to cap them with an eased edge all around. No guards or impediments to touching the blades should one be careless. The second post cap machine was a heavy honed blade on an eccentric wheel that turned the longer posts for picket fences into a semi sharpened rough design like a pencil sharpened with a pocketknife. The machine ran like an automated guillotine, and we would feed and turn the post until all sides were hit. I never witnessed anyone feeding an arm into the thing, but there was nothing to prevent someone from doing so.

I learned to run the press to drill properly spaced holes into the posts according to the size of the fence they were to accommodate. Different spacing for different heights with marks on the table as visual stops to position the top of the post. Small posts had two. Over four feet high had three holes or six at right angles for corner posts. Posts for the middle of the line were drilled through. End posts stopped halfway. After a week or two, I learned all the jobs and could perform them reasonably efficiently as needed to produce enough pieces a day to keep the boss happy.

Making the fence panels was a step up. I learned to properly crown the rails with the flat side up and fit their doweled ends into a slotted metal table with the proper spacing for each panel height. We placed the cedar pickets and hand nailed them on with six penny galvanized nails. Twenty-two-ounce framing hammer. One stroke to set the nail, and one to put it away flush.  The key to speed was the left hand feeding the nails, a skill that was also essential to nailing off George’s roof boards later. One to set, one to put the nail flush without dinging the picket. Spin and set up the next nail between your fingers with the head ready while the right hand swung with power. Six nails to a picket to fix it to all three rails. Each picket was about three inches wide, so an eight-foot fence panel needed about thirty leaving small spaces between them and the doweled end of the rail left unpicketed to slide into the posts during installation.

Spread the pickets a bit at the top because there was a slight taper from the bottom to the top of the picket so that they stayed plumb.  A hundred and eighty nails approximately a panel. One to set, one to put it away. Spin the nail. Tap, bang. Spin the nail. Tap, bang. Tap, bang. Four or five panels an hour. Feed smooth with the left-hand fingers. Tap, bang. Tap, bang. Arm strength builds up until there is no more soreness at the end of the day. Find the rhythm. Keep focused and the day goes by with concentration, not distraction. Eye hand coordination developed to perform the work without destroying your feed hand. Immediate gratification when I pulled a finished panel off the table and stacked it ready for the job site trucks. Find the rhythm. Spin, tap, bang. Spin, tap, bang.

The next summer I was the second man on a field crew working for Elmer, the most experienced and talented crew chief. You were lucky to get one outing with Elmer. If he perceived any laziness, you never got a second. I was fortunate to work the whole summer for him and weekends after school started again. I learned to dig post holes narrow and thirty inches deep through New England rocky clay soil with a sharpened bar, shovel, and post hole hand scoop digger. Secure the posts in plumb and true with a homemade welded tamper. Nail in the panels. Hang the gates. When I turned eighteen, I ran my own crew and drove the truck to the sites. We were paid by the foot installed with a varying rate for type of fence and extra for gates. A hundred and fifty feet a day, and I made an adult’s weekly wage in the summer, a wage capable, if full time, of supporting a small family or paying fall tuition with a summer’s work. Not minimum wage anymore and never again in my life. I could install a fence today without a hitch, albeit a lot slower.

In those early jobs I learned to wield framing hammers and sledgehammers, five or six different kinds of power saws and handsaws, hatchets, wrenches, shovels, picks, a welding torch, and various types of drills – power and hand bit braces, even a machete and many more. But the more important skills were even more transferrable to becoming an adult: how to get up in the morning every day and get to work on time. How to cooperate and get along with co-workers of all personality types, intelligence levels, and moods. What it is like to work for a great mentor and boss. What it is like to work for an unreasonable, volatile, self-important tyrant, who sometimes throws hammers. How to persevere through occasional twelve-hour days and sixty-hour, six-day weeks in reasonably good spirits, resolute. How to solve a hundred problems a week. How to satisfy unhappy customers, even when they are clearly in the wrong. How to supervise and motivate, encourage, train, discipline, and praise authentically. And maybe most importantly to value and respect the work and those who do the work. So many lessons.

There is no substitute for what we learn in those early jobs.

“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”  Plato

 

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Sufficient Wisdom

“It takes a husbandman with spade and hoe

To teach the learned, who profess to know…”

       from the poem “Sufficient Wisdom” in the eponymous book of poems by Father Arthur MacGillivray S.J., 1943, Bruce Humphries, Inc., Boston

 

Robert Frost and Father MacGillivray on right

Someone once told me that part of all of us remains nineteen for the rest of our lives, which I think is true. For many in my generation, that time of greatest disillusionment and the shock of early adulthood occurred in 1968 in the terrible three months of the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy. For other unfortunates, the amber in which they stuck like fossils was the “summer of love” and Woodstock in 1969. For me, at only seventeen years old, it was 1963 outside the book depository in Dallas[i], and my freshman year at Boston College. On the afternoon of the assassination after the university cancelled all the classes, we drifted in the streets of an almost silent Boston, stunned like everyone else. Small eclectic groups of neighbors and strangers gathered around car radios or televisions in homes, bars and shop windows following the events in disbelief.

There are much happier memories though of that year after high school. Father MacGillivray with whom I studied for my first two semesters is one of them[ii]. I was recently reminded of him through a conversation with my brothers about E.B. White, author of beloved children’s books like “Charlotte’s Weband “Stuart Little,” and one of the most accomplished essayists of the American mid twentieth century. We studied White with Father MacGillivray, especially his “Elements of Style” and an extensive analysis of his definitive long essay about the Big Apple, “Here is New York[iii].” To say he opened worlds and gifted us with an irreplaceable formation previously unimagined would be a woeful understatement.

Before we started, we were assigned a freshmen summer reading list, including Thomas Merton’s “Seven Story Mountain,” James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.” There was a fourth book, I think, which eludes me.

He was somewhat dramatic with a trained theatrical voice he would employ to great effect doing readings of plays, essays and poetry. On winter mornings, he would sweep around campus in a red lined black cloak greeting all with an ironic smile, sparkling eyes and a friendly nod. We read and analyzed in some depth Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven,” which we memorized and recited. I still remember parts of it. “I fled Him down the nights and days; I fled Him down the arches of the years: I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter…” .

We studied among many works “Macbeth,” Robert Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man” and the “Road Not Taken.”  We spent almost a month on T.S. Eliot’s[iv] “The Hollow Men,” “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” “Ash Wednesday” and finally “The Wasteland,” many of the allusions in which were wasted on me.

“He seemed to know that all the choicest fruits

Mature by early tugging at the roots,

That once the earth is clear of stick and stone,

‘Tis wisdom to leave well enough alone.” 

          from the poem “Sufficient Wisdom” as above.

 

After a series of emails with my brothers and sister, I grew curious and regretted not having done research earlier. Father MacGillivray had published his own poems in 1943 in his book “Sufficient Wisdom,”  which he never mentioned to us. I learned he had exchanged letters with Eliot and knew Robert Frost well from a series of lectures Frost delivered at the college, facts also previously unknown to me. I found a picture (shown above) of him with Mr. Frost cutting an 82nd birthday cake, which was Frost’s last. The Boston College archives has a book left to it in 2000, when Father MacGillivray died: a first edition of Frost’s inscribed to him and with some lines in Robert Frost’s own blocky hand printing. At first the book generated great excitement, as it was thought the short stanza was an unpublished Frost poem, however it turned out to have been from his earlier work, “Kitty Hawk”:

 

“But God’s own descent

Into flesh was meant

As a demonstration

That the supreme merit

Lay in risking spirit

In substantiation.”

 

Father MacGillivray’s own book was long out of print, but I was able to locate a used copy, which I promptly bought for $12.50, through Abe Books in a small bookstore in Ohio. In wonderful condition with the original dust cover, a first (and probably only) edition, it found its way to Ohio from the library of Admiral Richard Byrd to whom it was inscribed by the author. He met the famous explorer  and Medal  of Honor winner on a train trip to Connecticut in 1956 six months before Byrd’s own death in March of 1957. The inscription in Father MacGillivray’s strong cursive was on the inside flyleaf: “For Admiral Richard E. Byrd with grateful remembrance of our train-meeting on your way to Bridgeport – October 19, 1956, Fr. Arthur MacGillivray, S.J.”  I fantasize a brilliant serendipitous conversation between the two, wiling away the monotony of a three-hour train ride.

 

His poems are full of tree and farming metaphors, of seasons and weather and nature’s gratuitous order and beauty. I will persist as time allows to learn why. I marveled at some of them, harkening back vivid memories five decades old. Father M was a miner of minds. He cunningly and carefully placed his charges and detonated them with perfect timing. When the noise quieted and the dust cleared, he exposed clean veins of insight in the ego encrusted bedrock of our seventeen-year-old selves. Veins that have yet to be exhausted.

A small treasure of a book that I never knew existed. Makes 2020 already a good year.

 

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.”

–Thomas Merton

 

[i] I once wrote a blog post on the Kennedy assassination. November 23, 1963, if you have interest. The same day was also the date of the deaths within hours of Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis. That coincidence was the subject of a book I enjoyed by Dr. Peter Kreeft, who is a longtime professor of philosophy at Boston College: Between Heaven and Hell, A Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death. Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/Between-Heaven-Hell-Somewhere-Kennedy-ebook/

[ii] The English Literature course with Father M was three of the eighteen credits that were considered full time. For me in addition were a lab biology intensive (my initial major), French, Old Testament theology, Logic as a prelude to Epistemology and Pre-calculus/calculus.

[iii] https://www.amazon.com/Here-New-York-B-White-ebook/

[iv] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/t-s-eliot

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Slow Loris

“I love inventing names, but I also collect unusual names, so that I can look through my notebook and choose one that suits a new character.”  — J. K. Rowling

I like the sound of words, especially names, and they make me curious. The slow loris is a genus of nocturnal, slow moving, slow reproducing mammals, mostly in Southeast Asia and the nearby islands[i]. All the identified species are listed as “vulnerable” or “endangered.” Borneo loris, Bengal loris, and Pygmy loris are some of them. We should be comforted that we are free of any known Fast loris or Giant loris species.

When we think of venomous creatures, what comes to mind are invertebrates like scorpions, Australian box jellyfish, and brown recluse spiders, or maybe vertebrates like copperheads, king cobras, Gila monsters and Mexican beaded lizards. The slow loris is the only known venomous primate (primates include chimps, silverback gorillas and Irishmen.)

This unique primate slow loris bite can cause acute allergic reactions and is a devil of a bite to heal – the toxin eats away flesh and prevents the body from mending itself properly, and sometimes their bite can be lethal to humans.  A bizarre aspect of their behavior is what precedes the thing biting you: it licks and sucks its elbow. The interaction of saliva and the venom sucked out of a hidden elbow patch is then amplified in its toxicity by the creature swishing the mix around in its mouth prior to chomping you.

If a slow loris you meet goes for its elbow, run. Fast. At least they probably will not be able to catch you.

“We are only falsehood, duplicity, contradiction; we both conceal and disguise ourselves from ourselves.” – Blaise Pascal

Our new presidential appointed climate change czar John Kerry was asked after the first day of the new administration how he believed the people who lost their 11,000 jobs due to the cancelling the XL pipeline in the Day One executive order could be helped. His answer was a masterwork of aloof cluelessness. Of course, he said, they should get jobs in solar plants.

Flying all over the planet in his family’s private jet that dumps hundreds of thousands of pounds of carbon into the atmosphere every year, it is easy for him to have missed what life is like for those who drive a well-maintained pickup with 165,000 miles on it to work. A pipeline welder – like the many other skilled craftspeople it has been my privilege to know over decades in construction and tree work – works long and hard for many years perfecting their craft, deeply identifies with the prestige their skilled job provides and takes great pride in employing those skills carefully to support their families. Welding pipe sections together so they last for many years without leaks or breakdown is not a trivial skill. A union pipe welder will average about $69,000 a year. Not a fortune like marrying into the Heinz family, or the six homes, multiple yachts and private jet Kerry and his wife own, but a solid, well earned income: enough, if one is prudent, to support a family, a mortgage, and maybe a modest annual vacation in a small-rented cabin or campsite for a week. The average worker in a solar plant makes around $40,000, and there are not many solar jobs in the states where the pipeline was being built. So, uproot a thousand miles and get your pay cut by 40%. Sounds reasonable. Why should they be upset?

Can’t see those betrayed folks from Kerry’s windsurfer anyway.

To a progressive elite on a grand mission, taking a 40% bite from their income and inflicting a heartbreaking blow to the dignity of some stranger whose life is incomprehensible to that visionary, and most likely just a “deplorable clinging to guns and bibles,” is a bit of the collateral damage necessary for the greater good when one is saving the planet.

The Biden executive order may run into some significant speed bumps, one of which contains some high political irony. There are legal concepts relating to reliance expectations[ii], and not to drift off too far into the underbrush, they were upheld in 2020 by the Supreme Court against the Trump administration decision to stop the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy. The 2012 Obama administration policy, while not providing a direct path to citizenship, eschewed deporting the so-called Dreamers who came to the United States illegally as infants or small children. Having lived for all practical purposes their whole lives in this country, been educated here, and built careers here, I think most reasonable and compassionate people would agree with some version of the policy. The Dreamers had expectations to continue their life here under DACA. The great majority of them were earning their way, raising families, paying taxes, and doing what all legal citizens do to better the society.  The Supreme Court agreed and ruled that under DACA protection, those folks should be able to rely on their reasonable expectations to not have their lives torn apart by immigration enforcement.

Well, it can be argued that union pipe welders, the Canadian oil trading providers with long-term purchasing contracts with refiners, and the multiple construction companies which geared up to fulfill signed contracts to build the XL pipeline extension have similar reason to rely on expectations to continue what they agreed to do and count on those promises without major disruption. I am not an attorney, but litigation is pending, and a court decision will probably resolve this executive action as well.

“To win the people, always cook them some savoury that pleases them.” Aristophanes, The Knights

But we sensibly ask, what of the executive action itself? Does it help our beleaguered planet to clear up its air? Plainly, many of the first day executive actions were prepared in advance to placate some of the more strident elements of President Biden’s awkwardly stitched together constituency. The XL pipeline order made a great headline in Mother Earth News. The XL pipeline had been put in place as the final connection from the Alberta oil fields to a much larger existing pipeline that runs from Nebraska to the refineries on the Gulf Coast. Long planned, construction was well underway.

For some perspective, more coal plants were shuttered under the Trump administration than any previous four-year period, and in 2020 for the first time since 1880, more electrical power was generated by renewables (wind, solar, hydro) than coal. All planned new plants in the USA to replace obsolete or closed plants are already ticketed as natural gas or renewables, with the majority renewable. However, unless all of us are willing to forgo our SUVs, pickups, and basic transportation, shut off our air conditioners and refrigerators, take cold showers, and ride horseback to visit relatives across the continent, we are going to need natural gas for electricity and fuel for our non-electric cars and jet planes for the foreseeable future. The trajectory driven by both economics and environmental concerns happily is and will continue to be to cleaner energy, but it is not going to be an instant transformation. The oil from the Alberta oil fields will be used irrespective of how it gets to the refineries.

The Biden executive action must be urgent though and will provide a safer means of transporting the crude oil the 1,179 miles from the Alberta sand oil fields to the existing pipeline head in Nebraska, right? More chance of spills with pipelines than trains or trucks, right? All the data shows pipelines, most of which are underground, are 4.5 times safer[iii] with fewer safety occurrences than those other means of transportation, and 70% of those fewer pipeline incidents have zero actual spillage or less than a cubic meter.  So, safety to those on route or to the environment is not addressed in the executive order.

Well, then, how about carbon emissions in the transportation process? This must not be just political posturing and ideological pandering, right?  Cancelling the pipeline saves the planet, right?  The pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of oil to be processed into the fuel we need every day. Trains are better than trucks for safety and require less energy (and carbon emissions,) so we will use those best-case metrics. Trucks would be worse. The railroad industry boasts it is four times more fuel efficient than trucks.

A rail car carries 650 barrels. A barrel of oil weighs 300 pounds.  That is a lot of weight to transport. The largest allowed train is 100 cars, so it would take about twelve and three quarters full trains every day to take up the missed pipeline slack. These calculations do not consider what it takes to return the empty cars for refill, or idling cars and trucks stuck on rural railroad crossings while the long trains go by. The data to feed the calculations are readily available from various public sources, and I will not make this any longer by going through the detail on my spreadsheet, which is available, if you have interest. Trains use diesel fuel to pull their loads. The results are that moving all that oil from Alberta to Nebraska will blow about 3,340 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A day. About 1,218,514 tons of carbon dioxide a year for decades that would be saved by building the pipeline. So environmental damage is not addressed in the executive order. It is a false flag project, a green initiative in optics and headlines only.

So, if you are a green advocate, or a skilled union pipe welder, or a Dreamer, and you get to meet a president or an energy czar some fine day, that will be a memorable moment for you. But I caution you, always remember the slow loris that started this post. Unlike what the taxonomists tell us, that creature is not the only venomous and deadly primate. If that politician walking over to greet you sucks on his elbow, run for the door.

“Liars make the best promises.”  Pierce Brown, Golden Son

[i] More slow loris information for the insomniac.

[ii] American Bar Association webinar transcript on reliance expectations in the DACA case.

[iii] https://www.fraserinstitute.org/article/pipelines-are-safest-way-transport-oil-and-gas

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Pardon Gray

“What’s in a name? a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

Fashion in naming our children is whimsical and changes often. Reusing names from family history is a perennial favorite. When I was young, saints were in vogue and still maintain a small, but avid, following. In the sixties and seventies, there was a wave of inventiveness. I knew children named Morning Star, Apple (the record company, not the tree or fruit), Oak and multiple lovely little girls named Meadow, then a Brook and an Autumn, both wonderful kids. I read recently that some of the old “virtue” or traditional spiritual based names were making a small comeback like Faith, Grace, Charity and Joy, but the old Puritan virtue names remain infrequent: I have met very few folks named Chastity, Prudence, Patience, Temperance, Honesty, or Humility, all of which were common in years past. Last week, I found a new one: Pardon Gray.

Looking for new walking trails to explore, we discovered the Pardon Gray Preserve in nearby South Tiverton.[i] Pardon Gray, his wife Mary and several of their children are buried on the property in the old family plot thirty or forty feet square and encompassed by a rough stone wall. Part of the original Pocasset Purchase from Plymouth in 1676[ii], the 230-acre property abuts the 550-acre Weetamoo Open Space trails; it is a lovely mix of open fields, century old stone walls and rolling hills covered partly with a once common, but now greatly diminished Coastal Oak Holly forest. The Pocasset people fished and hunted this environment near the Sakonnet River for centuries. During the Revolutionary War, Colonel Pardon Gray’s farm supplied much of the food for the 11,000 strong garrison of the Continental Army in nearby Fort Barton that was defending the mainland from the sizable British stronghold on Aquidneck Island. The Gray family is still well established in South Tiverton and adjacent Little Compton. The Gray Country Store remains open and Gray’s Ice Cream at Tiverton Four Corners is still the best for twenty miles around.

Other than his supply of the troops and namesake of the preserve, Pardon himself is not known to me. His name, however, has magnificent potential. “Pardon” connotes a forgiving spirit, a harmonious disposition, and a willingness to let go of grudges and forgo anger, righteous or otherwise. I do not know if Colonel Gray had such a kind and gentle spirit.  I suspect when it came to the Redcoats in Newport, perhaps not. But his name is wonderful.

“Your true name has the secret power to call you.” Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

Are we living in a time burdened with a radical lack of pardoning, of forgiveness? Has holding grudges, especially cultural, moral, political, or ideological grudges, become a badge of honor? We label those with whom we disagree as Commies or Nazis or demonic. Compromise is not possible when our debate is with evil itself.

Reasons for the un-sorry situation in which we find ourselves are complicated and have been sculpted over centuries. To oversimplify, which is all we can do in a short blog post, our political opinions and ideologic worldview have become not just what we believe, but how we identify ourselves. Such disagreements are not something that we should avoid with friends and family at Thanksgiving to keep the turkey peace; they are something we defend to the death because they define us. Disagreement is no longer merely uncomfortable, it is deadly, for such dissent from our personal orthodoxy is an attack on our being- an assault that negates not just what we believe to be true, it negates who we are. Those are hard to forgive and impossible to forget.

In Dr. Carl Trueman’s new book, “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self,”[iii] the post-modern age is revealed as the age of “therapeutic” man. As some reviews have stated, this book is a “mountain top” experience not for the faint of heart that helps us to comprehend the centuries of philosophical evolution that has created an environment in which we are so deeply embedded that we accept without question that this is how things are. We have made slow and inexorable decisions as a culture to abandon objective truth and shared standards which we must learn and a reality to which we must conform so that we understand our existence and evaluate our place in it. More than moral relativism, the basis for agreement or rational debate has been left behind, and in its place a confusion of jumbled and conflicting subjective ‘values’ based on our emotions. We no longer discover truth and how we relate to it; we create our own: our own self drama that we star in, direct, write, and perform such that the drama is what we have become.

Dr. Trueman wrote, “The triumph of the therapeutic represents the advent of the expressive individual as the normative type of human being and of the relativizing of all meaning and truth to personal taste.” We are self-defined and judge ourselves and others by subjective criteria. In place of agreed upon objective principles to which we all generally agree, the foundations of our beliefs and how we see our world has shifted, a tectonic adjustment beneath our feet that is unacknowledged and ill understood.

We could use an intervention from Colonel Gray, an old insight that Pardon and forgiveness is more than polite discourse, it is a prerequisite for mutual respect as human beings and the first necessary step towards healing our ills.

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” St. Teresa of Calcutta

[i] Pardon Gray Preserve

[ii]  From the Sakonnet Historical: Before Europeans arrived, the Pocasset people fished and farmed along the eastern shore of the Sakonnet River in what is now Tiverton. Forests, swamps, and streams provided fresh water, game, wood products, berries, and winter shelter. In 1651, Richard Morris of nearby Portsmouth purchased the Nannaquaket peninsula from its native inhabitants. There is no evidence of Morris settling here, so he may have used the peninsula to grow crops and graze animals. In 1659, Morris’ claim was recognized as legitimate by Plymouth Colony, which at that time included the Tiverton area as part of its holdings.

Strapped for cash by King Phillip’s War (1675 – 1676), Plymouth sold a tract of this land in 1679 for £1100 to the Proprietors of Pocasset. The “First Division” of the Pocasset Purchase created thirty large lots, with the northernmost edge close to the present-day Fall River-Tiverton border and the southern boundary at the Tiverton-Little Compton line.

Edward Gray (1667 – 1726) held nine shares along the southern boundary of this purchase. The 237-acre tract now known as Pardon Gray Preserve passed to Edward’s grandson, Pardon Gray (1737 – 1814), who farmed the property. During the Revolutionary War, Pardon Gray became a Colonel in the Rhode Island militia, and he was placed in charge of the local commissary, which he ran from his home. Colonel Gray supplied 11,000 militia and Continental troops stationed at Fort Barton prior to the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. Marquis de Lafayette briefly used a house nearby as his headquarters.

[iii] The Rise and Triumph of Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and The Road to Sexual Revolution. Dr. Carl Trueman, Crossway, Wheaton, IL. 2020

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Turtles All The Way Down

From this Quora question: In a Joe Rogan podcast, mathematician Eric Weinstein stated that the basis of all math is founded upon a few assumptions that cannot be proven. Can someone explain this to me?   One good answer from a frequent Quora poster, Andy Lund: [i]

…… Now suppose you have the number 1 and I give you another number 1, what number do you have? There is no number 1 in the physical universe. There is 1 goldfish, there is 1 oak tree, there is 1 cloud, but there is not just a plain number 1. You cannot just collect some numbers and count how many you have the way you can collect baseball cards. But we know 1+1=2. How do you prove it?

The Greek mathematician Euclid said that any two points can be connected by a line segment. How do you prove such a statement? There are no points in the universe, and no line segments either, only things that approximate points and segments. In fact, Euclid did not even tell us what a point of a line segment is, he just assumes we know what he is talking about. This kind of statement is called an axiom. It is just something that is assumed to be true because it makes sense. It is so basic that there is nothing from which it can be proven……

These assumptions are so basic that they cannot be proven, yet they are the basis for all Euclidean geometry (stuff you can draw on an infinitely large piece of paper). Try it yourself, try to prove any one of Euclid’s axioms. You cannot even show that a circle exists, it doesn’t in any real sense as everything in the real world breaks down at microscopic or subatomic levels. So how can you prove something so basic as any of Euclid’s axioms?

Math is like a tower; each new level is built on the ones below. At the bottom of the tower is the foundation, but what is that built on? It is nothing more than assumptions. Math ain’t turtles all the way down. [ii]  Quora

Hawking’s Equation

Math is the basis for most of modern science from physics to chemistry to the sophisticated statistical analysis of economics, sociology and even psychology. The foundation of the technological marvels of computer science, GPS navigation, the internet, CGI movies, everything that has so emphatically and irreversibly transformed our daily lives, is some complex mathematics.

Once we get past arithmetic, trigonometry, algebra, and basic geometry, maybe a smattering of calculus, the set of people that understands or can explain the math gets a little thin. There may be a few folks (I am not one of them) reading this who can explain and understand the depths of quantum physics or the seemingly simple “Hawking’s equation” that Stephen Hawking derived and put on his tombstone. Hawking’s most important discovery, it calculates entropy or the amount of disorder in a black hole system and changes everything apparently in understanding how the universe changes over time. Who knew? I know what pi means, that’s worth something, right?

All of it below where the turtles live is axiomatic – assumptions — are givens that we understand or intuit as true. Yet we moderns trust these turtles and more and more base our lives on what has been contrived from them. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. Just writing this post relies on a laptop that relies on some math quite a few turtles down. And yet have we left something behind in our blind trust that technology and science alone will lead us eventually to the promised land of human perfection? Does this complex tapestry of science, as beautiful and elegant as it may be, contain all the truth we need?  That we will need?

“(T)he good news is that you can rearrange any subject to learn most of it very, very quickly. The bad news is that it will feel terrible because you will be told that you are doing the wrong thing and dooming yourself to a life of mediocrity as a jack of many trades, master of none – but in fact, the problem is that the jack of one trade is the connector of none.”  Eric R. Weinstein

In his essay, “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” Leo Tolstoy writes of the slow, incremental process by which the character Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” decided to kill the old woman. “That question was decided….  When he was doing nothing and was only thinking, when only his consciousness was active: and in that consciousness tiny, tiny alterations were taking place…. Tiny, tiny alterations—-but on them depend the most immense and terrible consequences…and boundless results of unimaginable importance may follow from the most minute alterations occurring in the domain of consciousness.” [iii]

After a few centuries of deeply embedded ideas compiled from Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Hume, and many others, the tiny, tiny alterations accruing in the minds of all of us have changed us. The water in our goldfish bowl has come to be understood as all there is.  What was not that long ago discussed solely in late night sessions in the upper reaches of academia and in sophomore dorm rooms has trickled down to the commonplace axioms of post-modern humanity. We do not acknowledge that a constriction of mind has taken place, but we now operate with the unspoken assumption that only the material world we can see, touch, observe with sophisticated instruments and describe with the language of science matters in any real sense. Is the scientific method the sole crucible in which we can grind away until all is made clear?

Let us imagine that the beauty of metaphor, poetry, art, philosophy, and yes, even theology, also may contain another, a greater, more edifying, and elevated deeper truth. Let us imagine that to acquiesce in our gradually learned self-imprisonment, we have disdained the marvels to be discovered in other disciplines of our mind. In restricting our vision to only that of the science department, let me suggest that our lifelong education has become too purse-mouthed, pinched, squint eyed, and parsimonious – a stingy worldview that constricts and restricts our understanding.

“For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald was writing of the first Dutch explorers who landed on Manhattan Island, but in his most quoted passage, he was calling all of us to much more than an historical reflection. He was calling us to contemplate our “capacity for wonder.” In this most perplexing winter of 2020/2021, such reflection would be very fruitful for any of us: an ‘aesthetic contemplation’ and a conversation most needed.

We correctly take advantage every day of the giant construct that math and science has raised above the foundation of axioms and self-evident assumptions, but other axioms and their attendant beliefs have been left behind. If we are honest in our ‘aesthetic contemplation,’ other self-evident axioms answer other deeper questions most of us fear to ask because the answers will change our lives and change us.

What is the basis for the intelligibility of the universe that undergirds every aspect of science and math and the insatiable human need to know and understand? Why is the universe intelligible and possessed of an order that allows investigation and not a hot chaotic mess or a void? Why is there something rather than nothing? Below all the turtles where regress finds its base, does there exist an Axiom, an Intelligence and Will beyond our tiny imaginings? An “Ipsum esse subsistens?[iv]

What is basis for beauty and its resonance in the human spirit? All the way down below harmony, color, tone, balance, and perspective, does there exist Beauty itself that can be known?

Intelligibility and Beauty ain’t turtles all the way down.

And we know it.

“As to that which I am ignorant of concerning myself, I remain ignorant of it until my darkness shall be made as the noonday in Your sight.” The Confessions of St. Augustine

[i] https://www.quora.com/In-a-recent-Joe-Rogan-podcast-mathematician-Eric-Weinstein-stated-that-the-basis-of-all-math-is-founded-upon-a-few-assumptions-that-cannot-be-proven-Can-someone-explain-this-to-me

[ii]Turtles all the way down” is an expression of the problem of infinite regress. The saying alludes to the mythological idea of a World Turtle that supports the flat earth on its back. It suggests that this turtle rests on the back of an even larger turtle, which itself is part of a column of increasingly large world turtles that continues indefinitely (i.e., “turtles all the way down”) .https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down

[iii] Thanks to the piece “Tolstoy’s Prosaic Wisdom” by Gary Saul Morson in the Winter Edition 2020 of “Evangelization & Culture, The Journal of the Word on Fire Institute.”

[iv] Ipsum Esse Subsistens is a phrase popularized by Thomas Aquinas, that means the subsistent act of to-be itself. https://ipsumessesubsistens.com/

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The Widening Gyre

“The first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this: that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws. (from “Rediscovering Lost Values”)” Dr. Martin Luther King

In 1972 my idealism, zeal, and what I came to learn was my naivete, led me to volunteer to participate in the nuts and bolts of activism within a political party rather than the demonstrations to which I previously had  been predisposed. First, we helped staff the survey phones for George McGovern. We were given a list of scripted issue questions, which carefully avoided directly asking for whom the subject planned to vote. After each call, we noted on our call sheet a ranking based on their answers from 1 to 5 with a 1 strongly supporting the other candidate and awarding a 5 if we thought they enthusiastically were on the side of the angels.

After some other tasks like signs and posters, on election day we newbies monitored voters at tables provided for party workers near the presiding officials at the polls. We carefully marked off each voter as they were announced, and late in the afternoon, delivered the marked off lists to our party coordinator. I was assured others would contact voters that favored us and offer them rides to the polls. I was living in Massachusetts, which was the only state the feckless Senator McGovern campaign carried, so I must have done a great job. We felt like insiders who worked the levers. How little did we know. I believe now we were “useful idiots,” as Vlad the First would say.

Years later, I learned through some who  are much more aware of how the world really works (as they are well established elected Democrat machine pols), that what really happened with my marked up list was likely some others more in tune with the party were sent in to vote for those who had not yet showed up. Especially targeted were the elderly and other registered voters known to be unlikely to venture out late in the day. Whether they were tallied in our surveys was irrelevant. Once when I was voting in the nineties before photo IDs were required, I personally witnessed at a polling place in Rhode Island[i] a chartered school bus parked out front in the early evening. A line of tired folks slogging through their civic duty was patiently queued up to reload the bus. One fellow near the front of the line asked another fellow checking names off a clipboard where they were headed next.

Before you grasp your head and moan that I am promulgating voter fraud myths and proposing that President Trump really won, I am not and cannot possibly know. Five hundred odd votes in Florida in Bush/Gore in 2000 are not 146,000 votes in Michigan in 2020. If I truly believed that voter fraud could be perpetrated on such a massive scale, I might despair. [ii]However, to believe that none occurs is to be as naïve as I was fifty years ago. I am a firm supporter of photo IDs, which we now have in Rhode Island, and they are not an onerous burden, as unwelcome as they are to the apparatchiks.

Then, again, tired poll workers may not have matched up signatures on millions of mailed in ballots as diligently as one would hope, and their training as graphologists may have been somewhat perfunctory. Lies and deceit on the scale needed to steal this most recent election seem inconceivable, but I have become a cynic, which is to be nothing more than an oft disappointed idealist.

“Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” Mark Twain

Lies as morally acceptable in pursuit of desired ideological goals, the ethics of utility, relativism, and radical subjectivism should be considered in any discussion of election fraud. What is justified if our goals are considered (to us anyway) as noble and right? Does the whole democratic (small “d”) project break down when such malleable values are permissible? Are we asking the right questions?

Rita and I are more than a little wonky – no surprise, I am sure, to many of you. One night this week we streamed from a website that Rita found a ninety-minute panel discussion in 2015 between George Weigel and Yoram Hazony, well known writers and thinkers from the U.S. and Israel. A portion of the annual Advanced Institute in Jerusalem of the Tikvah Fund, the 2015 seminars covered in depth “God, Politics, and the Future of Europe.” “Tikvah hosted a conversation on “Modernity, Religion and Morality” to discuss the decline of Western Civilization and to probe some of the reasons behind it. What happens when faith in the God of the Bible deteriorates? How does that affect faith in reason and are the values of liberalism enough to sustain a society?”[iii]  See link in the notes below.

Many topics were touched on which have great relevance to that which so divides our society and whether Biblical morality has been overwhelmed by an aggressive secularization agenda, especially of the left. “Separation of Church and State,” both presenters contended means only no state intrusion into the practice of anyone’s faith (or lack of faith) and no designated state religion. Yet we seem to have decreed through an activist judiciary and press that no conscience informed by its faith has sufficient credentials to speak out on the vital moral issues of the day.  Is religion merely to be privatized, a pleasant, relatively harmless hobby for the weak, and no religiously informed conscience to be considered legitimate in public debate? The late Father Richard John Neuhaus coined a name for this public forum denuded of religion: the “naked public square,” wherein only non-religious voices should be heard. To me, these voices of objective reason informed by centuries of tradition are sorely needed, indeed critical, in a violently divided culture. What G.K. Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead” must not be silenced.

In these pages there have been previous discussions of the prerequisite of a morally sound electorate to sustain a democracy[iv]. I will not pursue those arguments again here, but I will suggest that a society deracinated of moral traditions could topple. A hundred years ago, one of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, wrote this (first stanza of “Second Coming”), probably his most quoted verse and the source of dozens of titles of blogs and books:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

In our own individual lives and in the life of our mutual and precarious society, has the falcon flown beyond hearing range from the Source of wisdom, prudence, mercy, and justice? Have we pulled up all the essential moorings and, adrift, look helplessly at the rocks and surf? Is our battle spiritual, not merely political and ideological?

With a sigh of relief, maybe we are liberated from four years of turmoil and tweets; we apparently sent the traveling circus train packing and revived the progressive Kool-Aid express in a national election. Or maybe we would benefit from re-reading the fable of the scorpion and the frog[v] and wondering whom we are carrying across the river now.

What we next encounter may be an uncertain future, however the same necessary voices that the progressive vision seeks to marginalize are those which murmur their prayers and talk quietly of hope, trust, kindness, and love for every person from tiny to aged. May these voices be heard, here and now, and by their Source and Benefactor.

Look to yourselves that you do not lose what we worked for but may receive a full recompense. Anyone who is so ‘progressive’ as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son.” 2 Jn 8-9

[i] We boast a more than 90% Democrat legislature here in Lil Rhody, a textbook of venal corruption.

[ii] This is not to say that concerns of the defeated should be ignored. All legal means of verification must be pursued to their end. I did some analysis by state, and margins in the closely decided states are razor thin. In Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, (easily enough to change the final results), the average margins per voting precinct are 5.7, 6.1,6.3 and 4.7 respectively. Per thousand voters, the average margins for the same states are 3.2, 2.8, 8.8 and 6.2. A switch of between three and four voters per precinct in these states would flip the outcome. The coronation by the media notwithstanding.

[iii] From the introduction text to the video. Well worth your time some evening when CGI superhero fantasies and the bread and circuses of professional sports are not your viewing pleasure. https://tikvahfund.org/posts/modernity-religion-and-morality-a-conversation-with-george-weigel-and-yoram-hazony/

[iv] https://quovadisblog.net/2020/08/09/quaker-hill/

[v] The scorpion that could not swim asked the frog to carry him on his back across the river. The frog refused because he did not want the scorpion to sting him. The scorpion pointed out that if he did that, both would drown, so the frog agreed to take him across. Halfway across the river the scorpion struck, and the dying frog cried out, “You’ve killed us both. Why did you do it?” The scorpion replied, “Because it is my nature.”

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Consistency

“The Tudors hated to be wrong, and therefore never were.” Jeane Westin, “His Last Letter: Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester,” New American Library, New York, 2010

         Arguably, the two most divisive and bitter disputes in our nation’s history, not to mention the bloodiest, remain the nadir of the deep rifts in our country still. The first was dodged deliberately by the writers of the Constitution, and the second not even conceived of as a possibility. Both of these conflicting visions were rooted in a fundamental disagreement about the nature of human dignity and held positions of prominence most clearly drafted by the largest political parties: positions which were utterly opposed to one another, adamantly maintained, and the same party was in grievous error on both. And for the same reason.

The first was temporarily remedied by President Lincoln in a dubiously legal executive order designated as the “Emancipation Proclamation.” A more permanent solution enshrined in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution was bitterly opposed by the Democrat Party. The 13th and first post-Civil war amendment ended slavery (except as a punishment for those convicted of crimes!?!).  Sending a constitutional amendment on to the states for ratification requires a two thirds majority in both branches of the Federal legislature.

The first step to ratification cleared quickly in the Senate. This remedy for the most grievous sin of the original Constitution was almost derailed by a larger minority Democrat contingent in the House. Passage in the House needed twenty Democrat votes added to all the Republican votes to attain a two thirds majority. Republican votes were secure in a party founded in anti-slavery convictions.  Only Lincoln’s arm twisting and procuring patronage jobs for soon to be unemployed lame duck Democrat representatives gained the requisite minimum Democrat votes, and the vote had to be taken before the post-election new Congress was formed. Some of the lame duck “yea” voters were menaced by other House Democrats who judged their self-serving betrayal of the party line as a capital crime. A few shots were fired, beatings inflicted, and dire threats abounded.

What immense harm and folly undoubtedly would befall the country if slavery were ended? What other ridiculous indulgences would follow? Would “n****rs” (their term) be granted full citizenship and, God forbid, the franchise to vote? Impossible. Most Southern Democrats saw this as a sure road to perdition and chaos. Democrats had owned all the slaves, and Democrats founded the Ku Klux Klan. Their Democrat political heirs wrote and enacted at the state level all the Jim Crow laws that perpetuated the degradation of the black population for another ninety years, and Democrats bitterly fought every measure of full equality.

As one result of the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties led by the heroes (and martyrs) of non-violence like Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson and others, those horrendous laws and practices belittling the dignity and worth of human beings based on their color finally were put to a well-deserved end. All men and women of any color in our country can sit now in the front of the bus, eat in any restaurant, sleep in any hotel, and drink from any fountain of water to slake their thirst.[i]

“I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard.” Colonel Frank Slade as played by the wonderful Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.”

 

In the latter decades of the twentieth century and persisting to this day arose the second divisive issue that assails our unity: abortion “rights” vs. “pro-life” advocates. Along with “Black Lives Matter,” not much will heat up the temperature in a room more quickly than this topic. Whether the discussion is elections, judicial appointments or endless social media diatribes, the positions seem ever more entrenched. The crux of the argument seems eerily like the first one, and just as intractable with no easy compromise possible. Is the tiny person in the womb a human being with inherent dignity and worth, and thus worthy of every protection she can be afforded? Or is she chattel, disposable, a relatively easily discarded encumbrance, and with her very life vulnerable to the decision of her mother, many times herself in desperate, lonely circumstances? Does the tragedy of the circumstances of the mother outweigh the humanity of a new victim? And if so, how are these conflicting needs to be resolved without multiplying tragedies?

The embryology, and thus the science, is undisputed: a newly conceived fetus (from the Latin meaning pregnancy, childbirth, and offspring) is forever uniquely endowed with genes from her mother and father. She begins at conception a continuum lacking only oxygen, food, and protection from harm, and without violent interruption, she is inevitably bound towards a life as a mature fully formed adult human being. The science is clear. Her fate is not.

Democrats who are not completely on board with public funding for abortion for any reason at any stage of fetal development up to birth are subject to harassment, stripped of Democrat credentials and political power or threatened with being “primaried,” which has become a coercive verb. Disavowed, disinherited, expunged from the record and party support. The money behind this comes from Midas wealthy and seemingly bottomless sources like Planned Parenthood and George Soros. They will not quit, and their pink shirted, vagina hat wearing, full throated, true believer underlings flood state houses across the land to intimidate and shout down all opposition to their program.

After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, many lamented the passing of this brilliant long serving jurist. Agree with her judicial philosophy or not, her dedicated service as a jurist was defining. Sadly, mourning was co-opted by the abortion agenda in many places. Here in Rhode Island, an RGB shrine was set up at the State House as for a saint, ostensibly to honor the memory of Justice Ginsburg, but the hardcore subtext of this shrine was the perceived peril to unfettered abortion access, the blasphemous sacrament of the progressive movement. If any doubt exists about its primacy, zoom in on the picture of the Rhode Island statehouse shrine to RBG shown above.

Just as after many battles the dignity of the individual human person of color was declared and clarified in the civil rights struggle, will the innate humanity of tiny people worthy of love and safeguarding be similarly clarified and authenticated?  Will choices we make about who is free, who prospers and who dies continue to be utilitarian decisions, disregarding the intrinsic worth of that single life created Imago Dei? By denying the innate value of even one human person because of their race, gender, ethnicity, degree of imperfection or tiny size, we diminish the value of every life, including our own.

Those, dear friends, are questions worth pondering and the answers to them will characterize our civilization or its degradation, and inevitably form our individual hearts.[ii] Will we hasten our slide into dehumanizing the most vulnerable individual human life, or will we begin to claw back up the hill towards rediscovering and resurrecting our humanity? Quo vadis, America?

“’I hope you care to be recalled to life?’

 And the old answer.

 ‘I can’t say.’”     Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities”, Chapman and Hall, London, 1859

 

[i] This is not to say that all Democrats of that era were bigots or persisted in fighting for repression of and disrespect for the dignity of black people through these heinous rules and regs. Certainly, John and Robert Kennedy along with Senator Hubert Humphrey come to mind. Ultimately after the assassination of JFK, the powers in the Democrat Party saw begrudging opportunity in the franchise for black voters, and they shifted to the cynical sanctimony many still pretend to.  When President Lyndon Johnson was speaking to his mentor and friend, Southern Democrat, Senator Richard Russell, who was leading the longest filibuster in Senate history (over 75 days) against the Civil Rights Bill (as reported by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book” “Lyndon  Johnson and the American Dream”), Johnson said this:

“These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again.”

[ii] In relating these two issues,  I was struck also by the other egregious instances of utilitarian dehumanizing of innocent men, women and children perpetrated by the United States government: the firebombing of Bremen, Dresden, Tokyo and most other large cities in Germany and Japan near the end of WWII. As well, the only use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations in world history in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was by the U.S.

One also is reminded of the stigmatizing of Japanese Americans, many of them generations deep as American citizens by the Roosevelt administration, which sequestered them involuntarily based solely on their race in stockade internment camps during WWII, judging them as less than human and not worthy of trust, respect or dignity.

All these atrocities were presided over by Democrat presidents. First it is necessary to strip human beings of their status as human beings, and once dehumanized, almost anything is possible from lynching, mass murders and imprisonment to abortion and slavery. The common factor in these affronts to human dignity is obvious: the party of the perpetrators.

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Diner Revisited 2020

Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Art Institute of Chicago

“A poet could write volumes about diners because they’re so beautiful. They’re brightly lit, with chrome and booths and Naugahyde and great waitresses.” David Lynch (Interview with Brian Hiatt in “Food and Wine,” March 2015)

Josef Stalin once said that a single death is a tragedy, while a million are a statistic. I thought of that this week when I read that New York City restaurants are suing the city for two billion dollars due to the losses incurred by the COVID restrictions and shutdowns. Estimates are that forty-five to fifty percent of restaurants here on Aquidneck Island will not be able to reopen when the dust settles over the corona demolition explosion imposed, necessarily or excessively, by a flourishing bureaucracy. Months, maybe years, and much analysis may determine eventually the wisdom of all the moves. Lives and businesses are holed and many shipwrecked by the torpedoing; some will recover and heal over time. Some will not.

We also heard recently that Reidy’s Family Restaurant in Portsmouth, which closed temporarily in March when the state shut down restaurant dining, will not reopen. Two years ago I posted on this blog a piece titled simply “Diner” on our first visit to Reidy’s and our affection for all good diners. We enjoyed quite a few breakfasts there, especially after Mass on Sunday, so their demise is a bit personal, as it is even more to many others. Crowded, hectic, friendly with a special regard for military veterans and with a crew of regular servers and customers.

While not a ‘regular’ daily visitor as some were for morning coffee and muffin and reading the Newport Daily News, a closed restaurant leaves a hole, especially for the owners, but also for the customers who frequent them and build a stop into their routine. Conversations with other first name regulars, sharing intimacies sometimes not even shared with family. Some of the NYC restaurants signed on for the lawsuit are large corporate affairs, but many are not. However, a place like a fifty something year old local diner has neither the resources nor wherewithal for such legal strategies.

Each such enterprise has an ambiance, carefully designed, or evolved; a vision, someone’s dream and fruit of long, exhausting days and nights. A neighborhood gathering place. Exhilarating days with a collapse into bed afterwards. Hopes rewarded. Years of challenges, disappointments and recoveries, victories, anxiety, and obstacles overcome; persistence rewarded. Friends made with familiar faces. The nearby Dunkin Donuts has a group of its own regulars, who while they cannot yet go inside to their accustomed booth, still gather every morning for an hour or so outside in the parking lot sitting in lawn chairs they haul over in their cars. Reidy’s familiars do not have that option. There is no facility or room for a drive through to sell their great coffee to go. So, what was a large part of a schedule, for some a lonely schedule living alone, is no longer.

As ol’ Joe said, each death is someone’s tragedy, and I wonder today, if with more prudent management and attention to some of the collateral damage from a state bureaucracy and progressive governor,[i] how many of these little deaths were essential to public safety.

“I just feel like the most important conversations I’ve had in my life have been at a diner counter.” Ramy Youssef

[i] The state of Rhode Island despite hour upon hour of public relations daily press conferences is fifth in COVID mortality in the country and worst in the country with over 80% of COVID deaths taking place in nursing homes or assisted living facilities among its most vulnerable when 94% of COVID deaths occur with those having one or more comorbidity factors. All the sanctimonious posturing notwithstanding, the state remains the only state in the northeast still on other area state’s mandatory quarantine list. Meanwhile, so many local businesses are shuttered. It seems the governor paid attention to the wrong vulnerabilities, both among its businesses and citizens.

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Unconventional

“This was the bursting of the dam of potential trouble that had been building for years. The collapse of families and communities leaves in its wake unsocialized young people…[who are the products of] a tsunami of wishful thinking that washed across the West, saying that you can have sex without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality, and self-esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement.” Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, (as quoted in “The Handwriting on the Wall “, George Weigel, “Fragility of Order,” Ignatius Press, 2018)

Kenosha Sunset

Rabbi Sacks was commenting upon the violent 2011 riots that swept major British cities in August of 2011 after the shooting of a black man, Mark Duggan, by police. Looting expensive shops, destroying whole sections of London by fire, pelting police with thrown objects, and burning buildings and cars, the rioters distinguished themselves with their viciousness, not unlike Milwaukee, Seattle, Chicago, Portland, New York,  and now Kenosha.

I am reminded of some of the peaceful demonstrations and some of the riots in 1968 here in the United States, in Chicago, but quickly metastasizing across many campuses and cities. Protests with many of the same causes began with signs, marches, speeches with hand-held amplifiers, prayers, chants, and songs: legitimate issues of concerned citizens that needed redressing and attention. Demonstrations of the heartfelt passions of citizens then too were co-opted by bad actors, many of whom had a Marxist agenda. They too diverted the protests into looting, riots, and violence, planting social unrest, fear, and chaos. Social unrest that manipulation of the media feeds by design; far Left activism grasps for power as is its nature.

Disillusionment with leaders like those from the Weather Underground[i] and Black Liberation Army drove some, maybe many, of my naïve, romantic, deceived, and idealistic generation to opt out of continuing to battle for necessary reform, retreating into a dope smoking perpetual “summer of love” haze or other more comforting options like joining the cadre of the privileged Baby Boomer generation repurposed into the unprecedented opulence of eighties greed and material acquisitions. Swap that VW bus with the tie die paint job and hand painted protest signs for the Benz, vegan restaurants, and health spas.

Bob Dylan, bard of the Sixties, wrote many protest songs in the sixties that became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war protests. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rains a gonna Fall,” and others. As he matured in his experience, genius, and craft, Dylan regretted some of them and the purpose to which they were put by others. He saw them as less nuanced and more simplistic than the understanding of the culture into which he grew later, and he was disappointed by their exploitation. He said this in interviews and in some of his later songs, most notably in “My Back Pages:”[ii]

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth, “rip down all hate, ” I screamed

Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull, I dreamed

Romantic facts of musketeers foundationed deep, somehow

Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now….

 

A self-ordained professor’s tongue too serious to fool

Spouted out that liberty is just equality in school

“Equality, ” I spoke the word as if a wedding vow

Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

“When I was at the Academy,” I said, “we had to read about it (Battle of Waterloo). The Duke’s[iii] army was full of riffraff, a lot of them had been grabbed off the street by press gangs, a lot of them let out of prison to fight.”

Virgil nodded, watching the horsemen.

“So,” I said. “Somebody asks the Duke before the battle how he feels about his army. And he says, ‘I don’t know if they will scare the French, but they scare the hell out of me.”  Robert Parker, “Resolution,” G.P. Putnam’s Sons, London, 2008

Kenosha Sunrise

The words “unconventional” and “convention” as well as “convent,” and even the derivation “coven” originate in Latin roots that mean “coming together.” Some irony exists in what political conventions have become: gatherings of the like-minded to feed division. The latest iterations, even with the COVID remote restrictions, were no exception, and there are far too many examples to cover in a blog post.

We will benefit from looking at just one.

The Democrat party convention avoided discussion of its complicity with, tacit approval of, and even advocacy for two notable and unpopular instances of violence. The tame press corps did nothing to call them to account. No surprise the Republicans sought to exploit the vulnerability.[iv]

The first instance was to ignore almost entirely the riots, looting, chaos and violence that still is rolling like a stormy tide over city streets, destroying businesses already barely surviving from COVID stress, invading residential neighborhoods, and attacking police with thrown rocks, improvised explosives and vision damaging lasers. Very few Americans irrespective of their positions on the protest issues support the violence, yet the party remains mute, fearful lest they displease the most radical elements of their base.

The second ignored violence was worse. The Biden/Harris ticket is the most radical ever of any major political party in support of abortion “rights.” Even with Roe v Wade and other Supreme Court decisions usurping all legislative prerogatives and costing the lives of sixty million tiny Americans, upping the toll remains high on the list of Democrat priorities. The Democrat platform supports abortion for any reason at any stage in human gestation up to and even past birth as well as pushing for government funding for these grotesque procedures.

Kamala Harris, when she was Attorney General in California, conspired with Planned Parenthood to prosecute and bankrupt David Daleiden[v], who published undercover videos revealing Planned Parenthood’s illegal sale of fetal body parts for profit[vi]. Harris has openly stated she favors prosecuting pro-life activities as hate speech. The convention tried to project her as moderate.

Only 17% of Americans support this radical position. Over 75% support at least some restrictions after the first trimester. Sadly, many Americans believe those restrictions are in place and are dismayed when they learn they are not. No dismay at the Democrat party, however. Their political war chest is well provisioned with funds from the wealthy abortion lobby and its allies.

In the closely scripted theatrics of the 2020 convention, they thoroughly avoided mention of the extreme methods to which they subscribe. No doubt, polling, focus groups, and highly paid consultants advised a low profile on that one. The consultants were right to try and hide the agenda; they were tragically wrong on the unfiltered agenda’s intended purpose.

Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” John F. Kennedy, Presidential inaugural address, 1960

[i] Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, spoke openly on tape of her and fellow founders being ‘trained Marxists.’ They were protégés of former Weather Underground member, Eric Mann. The Weather Underground was a Marxist terrorist organization with a string of convictions for cop killing, armed bank truck robberies and murders. Their name was derived from a line from the Bob Dylan song Subterranean Homesick Blues:  “Don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”

[ii]My Back Pages,” Thirtieth Anniversary concert with Dylan, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Roger McQuinn and others.

[iii] Duke of Wellington, who’s British forces defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, ending a bloody war and ending the string of victories for the “Le Petit Caparal” and his aspirations for empire.

[iv][iv] Four speakers at the Republican convention were explicit in this: Daniel Cameron, Attorney General of Kentucky, Abby Johnson, former Employee of the year at Planned Parenthood who now directs an organization dedicated to helping employees of that organization to extricate themselves, and Sister Dede Byrne, surgeon, retired Army Colonel and now a member of a religious order dedicated to serving the poor. Perhaps most moving was Ann Dorn, widow of retired police captain David Dorn, who went to his friend’s small store in St. Louis to try and protect it from looters. He was murdered, and his murderers posted his killing on Facebook.

[v] Webinar on Daleiden persecution by Harris from Thomas More Society, which defends religious freedom and pro-life work. https://youtu.be/tHH9Y40jikE

[vi] Watch the videos yourself and make up your mind if disclosing the illegal Planned Parenthood activity merited coverage by Daleiden. http://www.centerformedicalprogress.org/cmp/investigative-footage/

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Transcendent

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo Buonarroti

On Pentecost Sunday in May of 1972, Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian-born Australian geologist, attacked with a hammer and seriously damaged Michelangelo’s marble Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City[i]. He was never charged with a crime, but in a pretrial hearing he was found mentally incompetent. Sentenced to two years in an Italian mental institution out of “One Flew Out of a Cuckoo’s Nest,[ii] he underwent twelve electro-shock treatments, was eventually released, and immediately was deported back to Australia where he faded into obscurity. The Pieta had one exquisite eyelid and the nose of the Blessed Virgin smashed off, her right hand broken to pieces and her left arm and hand smashed and knocked off. A painstaking restoration that took eight months ensued with over a hundred pieces, including many tiny chips carefully collected at the site. Some pieces stolen by tourists at the scene were never recovered and had to be reconstructed.

Why such a massive endeavor of many skilled artists and art historians to fix a busted-up statue[iii] that a madman took a geologist’s hammer to? In just one aspect of the effort, to perfectly match the stone, like a graft in a careful reconstruction of a damaged human being, a small block was removed from her back to reconstruct her nose from the exact mold made of the statue before the attack. Donations from around the world funded the rescue project[iv].

Michelangelo only signed this one sculpture in his life and told others the large block of marble he located after a long search in Tuscan Carrera quarries was the single most perfect piece of stone he had ever found. He began an almost two-year project with a broad chisel and chipped away large pieces of marble. Slowly, carefully with exquisite attention to the least detail, he refined his work to tiny careful strokes with small tools and polishing until, as he once said, only the piece in his vision that had been potential in the stone from the beginning was revealed. From the folds of her garment, the veins in the dead Christ’s arm, the realism of her eyes and suffering of her soul, the Pietà is unique in skill, conception, and accomplishment. Considered by many the most important sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, this marvel merged the classical ideal of beauty with the astonishing naturalism and skill that made his art priceless and irreplaceable. This fortuitous marriage of the natural beauty of marble and genius is unique. No effort at restoration could be too diligent.[v]

“One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” Economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling

Why would the anger and insanity[vi] of an extremely bright troubled man express itself in such radical iconoclasm with a mad passion to destroy beauty? Perhaps that can never be answered either in our current batch of angry iconoclasts or ever. Beauty evokes the transcendent, and beauty is objective in the hearts of human beings. There are subjective modes and varying ideas of what exactly is beautiful, but Beauty itself resonates whether in nature, sculpture, painting, music, or the eyes of our beloved.

“Transcendent” derives from the Latin meaning “climbing over.” From what, we ask? To where, we wonder?  I read recently that we mistake heaven as “somewhere” else, and the more accurate insight is “somehow” else. Not a different place, but a different manner of being entirely outside of time or space.

In a time long ago when Michelangelo, Dante, and Shakespeare roamed the earth, the “transcendentals” were three: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. All were aspects of the nature of God to those who understood themselves to be creatures fashioned in Love. Now we understand ourselves to be lucky sentient conglomerations of organized protoplasm and beneath that random collections of molecules, atoms, quarks, quantum variations and energy fields. Accidentally sentient. Protoplasm organized by Whom, we dare not speak.

As to the True, that has disappeared into a pit of radical skepticism. “There is your truth and my truth and who knows?” The Good has melted away into the miasma of the “dictatorship of relativism.”[vii] “Who are you to tell me how to pursue what I desire, etc.” But Beauty still holds its own, and desecrating beauty still offends some deep aspect of our humanity. And Beauty draws us to God.

Bishop Robert Barron describes this far better in a passage from his newest book, “Renewing Our Hope,”[viii] which I advise you to buy immediately and explore in depth:

”Following Dietrich von Hildebrand, we should say that the truly beautiful is an objective value, to be sharply distinguished from what is merely subjectively satisfying.[ix]  This means that the beautiful does not merely entertain; rather it invades, chooses and changes the one to whom it deigns to appear. It is not absorbed into subjectivity; it re-arranges and re-directs subjectivity, sending it on a trajectory toward the open sea of the Beautiful itself.”

 Well before the war that defined him, Winston Churchill wrote an essay in which he imagined a future where mankind had secured a life of great pleasure, wealth, and convenience. But, Churchill wondered, would that be sufficient for happiness?

Learning to infuse our souls with the reality of the transcendentals Beauty, Goodness and Truth and their Author is the basis for our final happiness.

“What did they know more than we know about the answers to the simple questions which man has asked since the earliest dawn of reason—‘Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going?’ No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.” Winston Churchill, 1931

[i] https://youtu.be/QmngGZmkPKI

[ii] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/332613.One_Flew_Over_the_Cuckoo_s_Nest

[iii] http://www.italianrenaissance.org/michelangelos-pieta/

[iv] Reuters article on the damage and the restoration.

[v] Controversy surrounded the restoration. Some maintained the marks of violence should be left unrepaired to signify the violence of the times. Others said restoration should leave lines and signs of repair for authenticity, but finally due to the uniqueness and precious nature of the work, the decision was to make the restoration as flawless as possible.

[vi] While striking twelve blows with his hammer, Toth alternatively screamed he was Jesus Christ and Michelangelo.

[vii] Phrase from Benedict XVI. “In recent years I find myself noting, how the more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance. Political correctness … seeks to establish the domain of a single way of thinking and speaking. Its relativism creates the illusion that it has reached greater heights than the loftiest philosophical achievements of the past. It presents itself as the only way to think and speak — if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. … I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition of a new pseudo-enlightenment, which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.” Without Roots, Joseph Ratzinger, New York, Basic Books, 2006

[viii] Renewing Our Hope, Robert Barron, Washington, DC, The Catholic University of America Press, 2020, https://bishopbarronbooks.com/renewing-our-hope

[ix]  Christian Ethics, Dietrich von Hildebrand, New York, David McKay Company, Inc., 1953

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