Category Archives: Background Perspective

Pharming for Profit Part One

‘Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it – would they let me – since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.” Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”

In a terrible hot summer when I was nine or ten, my mother did not allow her then five children out of the yard because the plague had come to my hometown, and no one knew what to do about it. No pick-up baseball games or stickball with a chalked strike zone on the cement of the school wall as we usually played almost every day. The town swimming pool was drained and closed with locked gates and warning signs. Life Magazine had cover stories and pictures of the paralyzed kept breathing through a tube loaded contraption called an “Iron Lung.” The patient victim was laid on their back looking up with only their head exposed, a seal around their necks and haunted eyes; a mirror was suspended at an angle attached to the mouth of the machine so they could see visitors.

The white and chrome gleaming artificial lung alternated pressure and non-pressure to fill and empty the lungs with an ominous repetitive pumping sound as it filled and emptied the chamber enclosing their body, reminding all with every pulsation of fragility and mortality. White and chrome cylinders the size of coffins with thick windows so the doctors could monitor the movements of the chest, but a harkening to the rack in a wicked baron’s castle troubled all who saw them. After the disease ran its course, some of the afflicted would regain their strength, some would die, and some would pass the rest of their lives with metal braces on their withered legs to enable them to get around. We’d see them lurching about and avert our eyes. Polio. Polio. Polio. Polio. Fear in whispered conversations among the mothers of the neighborhood. Like practicing by futilely ducking under our school desks for a Cold War nuclear drill, polio left a mark on all the children who went through that summer.

When Jonas Salk tested and developed his vaccination a year or so later, we lined up for the shots at the town Blackburn Memorial Hall.  All the school nurses administered them when we came back in the fall for any who had missed the first round. Jubilation. Freedom to roam and swim and play pick up baseball. Polio shots were added to smallpox inoculations with their telltale irregular round scar on our upper arms as regular immunization against that with which we had no other defense. Vaccinations. Miracles.

But something has gone amiss, and like all man-made miracles they can run awry with unforeseen, powerful consequences, especially when the miracles intertwine with political agendas, social engineering and money.

“This is the first time in medicine’s history the drug industry has placed at our disposal a powerful, disease-producing chemical for use in the healthy rather than the sick.” Dr. Herbert Ratner, so called Senate “Nelson Pill Hearings,” 1970

Dr. Ratner will reappear in a later post, and probably more than two for this is complicated. Drawing analogies between vaccinations and birth control pills will take some explanation, but for now, we will stick with the former and postpone the latter. But analogy does exist, and the implications are alarming. His quote almost fifty years ago was prophetic; limiting his observations to just the Pill was optimistic. What could be a better business model for big Pharma than producing something highly profitable for healthy people, not just the sick? There is a much larger market with the well.

Both before and after the polio terror, most of us developed normal immunity to what were called normal “childhood illnesses” through exposure, various rashes, fevers, swellings and outbreaks. I had them all: mumps both sides, measles, chicken pox and rubella, along with the usual panoply of flus, stomach bugs and fifty or so upper respiratory infections. During this rite of passage, we acquired for the most part lifetime immunity. Deaths from these diseases were very rare and usually in people otherwise compromised by poor health. I never heard of anybody dying from one of them; most, like me, rested quietly, isolated as much as possible in rooms shared with siblings with some books and a hovering mother bringing sweet drinks, Jello in our favorite flavor (I liked the red stuff) and whatever else we could stand until the symptoms passed. Our siblings usually wound up sick too. Sometimes we skipped a few days of school unless we were unlucky enough to catch one during vacations. If we developed a spectacular rash or swollen glands, there were pictures taken for family albums to torture us as adolescents at gatherings and with prospective spouses.

Vaccinations do not grant lifetime immunity in most cases and require booster shots (whatever that means) from time to time, which most adults do not get. Most adults in their thirties think they are fully immune because of their childhood inoculation, but they are wrong.  Childhood diseases incurred as an adult are more severe, more unpleasant and can carry more serious consequences.

We had two vaccinations: smallpox and a combination diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT) in a few stages. Before we were two, we had five shots and never more than one in an office visit. Later came polio, first as shot, later taken orally.  In 1986, there were twelve shots. Today there are fifty-four with multiple shots for some and kids get up to five in one visit. Check the attached schedule. [i] What was when I was a kid a small part of the pharmaceutical industry is now almost twenty percent of their revenue and a fifty-billion-dollar monster revenue producer. And miracle of miracles for a business, the vaccine producers are indemnified against any losses by a Federal piece of legislation called the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986. Can’t be sued. Skate free from any threat to their guaranteed profits. Any claims go into something called the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) that was set up after lots of claims had the pharmaceutical corporations threatening to stop producing them. The government in its capacity as grand nanny decided that the public interest was best served by covering the tail side of Big Pharma. Did you know that? [ii]More next time.

One more piece of data to mull over before the next chapter: the flood of children with chronic diseases [iii] breaks down like this: children born before 1989 when the new vaccine protocols vastly expanded are afflicted with a chronic illness at a 12.8% rate. Those born after 1989 are stricken at a 54% rate. [iv]Bet you didn’t know that either.

Hopefully without drawing the quick and understandable wrath of either the proponents or the anti-vaxxers and being immediately consigned to the crazies, we will explore this a bit more in the next post.  Please hold your fire until then.

“The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is cruelly hampered by the fact that he cannot tell any lie unless he thinks it is the truth.” G.K. Chesterton. From the introduction to “Orthodoxy” about his good friend and frequent debating opponent, the Progressive, George Bernard Shaw.

[i] From the Children’s Health Defense organization: CDC Recommended Vaccine Schedule

[ii] Would be like if the car companies came up with a pure hydrogen powered car that fixed much of the CO2 emissions terror and fit right in with the anthropogenic climate change scare agenda. Trouble is in some very rare instances they would explode into tiny pieces, killing everyone in a 100’ radius. Then the government to push the progressive rock up the hill passes legislation to indemnify the car companies from damages, so that they’ll keep making the damn things. Far-fetched? Maybe. The good of the many outweighs the assured harm to the tiny few.

[iii] They’re the neuro-developmental diseases, ADD, ADHD, language delays, speech delays, tics, Tourette Syndrome, ASD, and autism. The auto-immune disorders, Guillan-Barre, multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. The anaphylactic diseases, food allergies, rhinitis, asthma, and eczema. (From a speech this year by Robert Kennedy Jr.)

[iv] Ibid

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Lil’ Rhody

“Louisiana loses 30 miles off our coast a year. We lost 100 miles last year off our coast thanks to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We have lost a size of land equivalent to the entire state of Rhode Island.”  Bobby Jindal (former governor)

Rhode Island has its own miles of beaches and estuaries. Through a series of circumstances that were in retrospect fortuitous, we have recently retired on Aquidneck Island near some sublime geography like mile long Sachuest Beach (Second Beach), Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, Norman Bird Sanctuary, and over the Mount Hope bridge into Bristol an Audubon refuge with an adjacent bike path through estuary and coastline that runs fifteen miles along Narragansett Bay. Although smaller than some ranches in Texas, Rhode Island is a lovely place to live.

One of the original thirteen colonies, tiny Rhode Island possesses the cockiness of a persistent undaunted underdog. Nearby to us, Newport was occupied for a time by British troops during the Revolutionary War after they defeated a small contingent of colonials in our town of Portsmouth on the north end of Aquidneck Island. Mansions were commandeered by British officers and are still gainfully inhabited by locals; one is now the Newport Art Museum. The International Tennis Hall of Fame is located on Bellevue Avenue along with its “cottages” like The Elms and The Breakers. Newport is on the south end of Aquidneck with a long history and many homes from the early eighteenth century and a few from the seventeenth. The oldest still open tavern in the country, the White Horse Tavern, is in Newport, built in 1652 and a tavern since 1673. The Declaration of Independence was read from the balcony of the Old Colony House (Original Rhode Island State House) a few hundred yards away. Fine dining, lively pubs and sailboats in the harbor abound. The America’s Cup races have been held in the waters here.

Rhode Island was just recognized as the most peaceful state in the union by USA Today[i], based on its lowest composite violent crime rate. We have come a long way since Raymond Patriarca[ii] ruled New England organized crime from his lawn chair on the sidewalk outside his vending machine distribution company on Federal Hill. Very little, if any, violent street crime, at least crime not authorized by Raymond, occurred on Federal Hill then, but for different reasons. Muggers may or may not have been successful in their felonious intent towards some Rolex wearing out of state patron of one of the fabled Federal Hill Italian restaurants, however no second attempts by the perpetrator were recorded. Nor were their bodies usually identified, even if scattered pieces were discovered in the Johnston landfill.

Irony is the mother’s milk of Rhode Island. The long list of governors, congressmen and mayors of at least four cities that went to prison just since we have lived here rivals any collection of woeful miscreants in the country. But a few were memorable and contributed to Lil’ Rhody’s ambiance.  One of the Federal prosecutors who put Raymond Senior away for good was a young firebrand, Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. Buddy eventually rode his hard charger reputation to become Mayor of Providence for multiple terms. Twice he lost his mayoralty, both for his own felony convictions. The first time was for straightening out a contractor who had slept with Buddy’s wife during the separation, but before the divorce. This correction was aided by a fireplace implement and (perhaps) a lighted cigarette extinguished on the face of the guy who made Buddy a cuckold. Buddy served no time but lost his job. He took advantage of his temporary ineligibility for office to become a hugely successful radio talk show host while he waited for his parole to wind down: witty, charming, quick and funny, he knew where all the political bodies were buried. His regular callers ranged from shock jock Don Imus and experts on government waste and budgets to Joe the Barber who knew everyone worth knowing among Rhode Island’s panoply of fascinating characters.

When his parole was completed, he easily won reelection swatting away the neophyte pretenders like annoying horseflies on Salty Brine Beach. During his tenure, the city was transformed from potholes and litter into a show place. The Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers, long imprisoned by concrete and steel conduits and buried by pavement, were dug out and exposed to the sunlight after a century. The confluence of the reborn rivers merge into the Providence River and now play host to gondolas and Waterfire events with music in the adjacent streets. The roads were well maintained, the schools were highly rated. The fire department was one of the best small city units in the country, all while keeping the tax rates low for longtime residents. Mayor Cianci loved his city; his politicking skills and reading of crowds that frequently gathered at his events were legend. We have a picture of him with his arm around our youngest daughter in her baseball uniform at an opening day event. Meg said he was nice and smelled of cigars. He was dressed in pressed jeans and a Providence sweatshirt, managing another city event picking up winter litter along the city roadsides. Ironically, he often held court at one of the Federal Hill restaurant’s sidewalk tables talking to anyone who stopped by. Everyone called him Buddy. His enemies called him Vincent. No one called him Vinny that I ever heard.

His second felony conviction for criminal corruption ended his string of terms after new Federal prosecutors investigated the Mayor’s office for a variety of offenses like cash in envelopes for parking lot permits, liquor licenses not renewed after the Mayor was blackballed by an exclusive and snooty East Side brandy and cigar men’s club and sweetheart snow plowing contract deals. No specific bribe was ever credited to Buddy, but his city hall administrators were knee deep. He rewarded personal loyalty with appointments and trust, and his courtiers profited. The RICO conspiracy due to the stench of his associates brought him down. He spent five years in a Federal prison without public complaint (don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time) and then was almost reelected to a third set of mayoral terms. Now in full disclosure with his famous toupee discarded, his luck ran out, and his independent run after the Republican Party disowned him fell short in a three-way race.

Back at the radio station to much acclaim and enthusiastic welcome from his loyal constituents, Buddy fell ill while on the air and died shortly thereafter to be mourned by most of the city. Despised by the progressive politicians who circled him constantly like a pack of jackals stalking an aging lion, he reveled in ridiculing their pretentions and hypocrisy. A particularly egregious representative of their ilk, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a doctrinaire and unctuous progressive, was always referred on the air as Weldon Shitehouse[iii] whenever Buddy would eviscerate him for some profoundly stupid ideological remark the hapless Senator solemnly opined. I still miss Buddy. The annual oldest in the country Fourth of July parade in Bristol will never be the same without him riding by in the convertible pointing to and greeting those he knew at every turn. The world is less interesting without him.

“Political corruption is to Rhode Island as smog is to people who live in Los Angeles: nobody complains of its absence, but when it rolls around everyone feels right at home.” Phillip Gourevitch, “The New Yorker”

Space and the beleaguered reader’s patience and attention span prohibit more for this post. The next one will address the soulless landscape of the current batch of more sinister and cowardly politicians who this year enacted some truly despicable legislation with a series of backroom power moves. More adventures in the Ocean State to follow.

 

[i] https://patch.com/rhode-island/newport/rhode-island-named-most-peaceful-state-u-s

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_L._S._Patriarca

[iii] https://legalinsurrection.com/2018/09/senator-sheldon-whitehouse-grilled-brett-kavanaugh-about-a-yearbook-fart-joke-seriously/

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CRISPR Critters

“I don’t know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know.” East of Eden, John Steinbeck

We have recently taken the plunge having long ago resigned ourselves to the reality that there is no privacy anymore. Spitting into a tube and mailing it off to 23 Ancestry, our DNA sequence has been typed and available for analysis. Among the findings on me was that I have deep in my genome a tiny percentage of Italian and Portuguese ancestry. No longer can Rita lay sole claim to a Mediterranean heritage. Our DNA sequences will join millions of others cataloged in servers and can be used for everything from medical research, predicting potential health risks and tracking ethnic backgrounds to catching criminals.

DNA databases have been subpoenaed and used to close some old cold cases, including catching a 1973 serial killer, Joseph DeAngelo. Mr. DeAngelo hadn’t even been typed, but his relatives had, and when investigators interviewed the relatives, Mr. DeAngelo figuratively and literally came under the microscope. The investigative team subpoenaed a DNA sample from him in a decades old hunt for the killer. He came up 99.99 percent as the guy. More than likely, he’s breathed the last free air of his life.

A caution about our well tracked future is whether genetic markers would make their way to health insurance providers, or in some Brave New World, whether these indicators could be used to hike premiums for those with certain predispositions. Or worse, deny coverage entirely. May already be happening beneath the radar. This will be adjudicated, precedent established, and hysterical editorials will be written. Count on it.

“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled.“ 

The Times They Are A-Changin,’ Bob Dylan

Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, wanted to find a cure for HIV AIDS, surely a positive pursuit. He developed a new vein to explore. Why not, instead of curing the disease, make people who cannot get it? He hypothesized the way to do that was to alter a specific gene, CCR5. Using CRSPIR[i] technology on an embryo, he cut and pasted, then implanted tiny humans in a willing (or not) uterus and grew some people. He grew two — twin girls and maybe a third later. Once the word leaked to the international press that He was altering the DNA in genes and making designer babies, the Chinese government reacted with righteous horror, as did many. The government claimed that it was not aware of the extent of his tinkering, and that no authorization was given to implant the babies, only to grow them awhile, see what happens and kill them. He must have saved up his milk money and found some other dark funding for his enterprise. There was even talk of capital punishment for He Jiankui, not an uncommon solution to an embarrassment in China. Last week credible evidence was found by other scientists looking at grant studies that there was Chinese government funding for his research from the start, all of it. Color me surprised. Once a method of customizing human beings is perfected, can Superman soldiers be far behind? Or IQs exceeding 300? Or mutant tireless and uncomplaining laborers? Or any number of permutations of designer people? How will science ethics hold fast with trillions of dollars were at stake? Aldous Huxley writ large. The commodification of human beings continues apace.

Last week another story ran that Crispr Therapeutics and its partner Vertex Pharmaceuticals[ii] had treated a rare blood genetic disease, beta thalassemia, with a one-time application of a CRISPR invader. More trials with human beings and unintended consequences be damned. The same team has started a similar study for sickle cell anemia, a genetic plague that is especially deadly in the African American community. The shares of both companies soared. A new world is upon us, and riches are there for the brave of heart. What could possibly go wrong with purposeful, profitable tweaking of the basic building blocks of human life? Not with a bang, but a whimper.

**********************************************************************************

I had a dream — a murky vision — of emerging after a long walk in a desolate wood – gnarled ancient trees without leaves – and coming upon a clearing with a dried-up spring and an abandoned house with weathered wood plank walls and a door partially ajar hanging off just the bottom hinge. With some difficulty I pushed through the door and found only a scarred pine table and a tipped over ladder-back chair. On the table were a stale crust of bitten bread, a few broken crayons, a half-burned candle fixed in wax and yellowed books with bent back pages. A story I’ll never know.

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood

When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form

Come in, she said

I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.  Shelter From the Storm, Bob Dylan

[i] CRISPIR is the acronym for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It is powerful and terrifying tool that mimics how a type of bacteria ‘learns’ to recognize and defend against a virus. In the bacteria, the “remembered” RNA sequence cuts the DNA of a virus it has learned to defend against into pieces, rendering it harmless. The new technology uses specific RNA sequences to cut and replace targeted sequences of DNA in a cell, including an embryo, and “fixes” or otherwise alters that embryo’s DNA, its chromosomes, its genes, what makes it, it.

[ii] https://finance.yahoo.com/news/crispr-infuses-first-human-landmark-132242277.html

 

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Frogs, Hot Water and A Whip of Cords

“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”  Mark Twain

Having used a frog and boiling water metaphor to comment on gradual acceptance of radical change, I was disappointed when I learned that when put to the test (don’t ask), the story doesn’t hold water. If you put a frog into cold water in a pot and slowly bring it to a boil, absent a lid, the frog will hop out when it gets uncomfortable, and if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will do what lobsters do in similar circumstances, except not as tasty. But the lessons to us humans from the myth of frogs and boiling water applied to changing culture are true. We can be brought slowly to a boil and not notice.

At Mass recently, a visiting retired Columban[i] missionary priest with a hint of his Irish pedigree in the lilt of his speech said this, “If we do things over a long period that are wrong, they become right.” What is true in individuals is true in society. He was speaking of the Gospel reading from Luke relating the story of Jesus driving the money changers from the Temple. Over many decades the selling of animals for profit to be sacrificed by pilgrims in the Temple had become accepted practice, as was the chicanery of money changers cheating foreigners in the exchange rate to swap their foreign coins for local coins to buy their sacrifices. In another version with more detail in John’s Gospel, Jesus first made a whip of cords, lashing many cords together, which took some time to do. He burst into the Temple outer court with daunting ferocity that terrified the merchants, who certainly outnumbered Him. He drove out the sheep, the cattle and the money changers, turning over their tables and scattering their coins. He shouted to the lesser merchants selling pigeons (poor pilgrims could only afford to buy a bird to sacrifice) to “Take these things away, do not make my Father’s house a den of thieves.”

On the Shroud of Turin,[ii] the mysterious photographic negative image shows a broad shouldered, strong, crucified man. Jesus was a carpenter, a construction worker, not a clerk, and looking at this image we can picture him in a righteous fury intimidating the cheats of the Temple marketplace. This deliberate act to overthrow years of accepted corruption was what set the course of the Temple authorities in their determination to destroy Him in a conspiracy with the power of the Roman Empire and judgement seat of Pontius Pilate.

What Jesus chose as his target was a symbol of the dishonored Temple culture and the self-serving blindness of its administrators. What analogies can we find today, and who is going to wield the whip of cords to such effect? And who will stand to be crucified?

“There’s a battle outside

And it is ragin’.

It’ll soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin’.” Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin,’ 1963

 

Lines have become blurred and grey is fashionable, but sometimes friends must talk in primary colors. What we lived in the sexual revolution and its aftermath started in fire and now is embers and ashes. Embers that are best left without new fuel and fresh oxygen.

As the first century Jewish culture had accepted gradually the commercialization of their worship, what grotesqueness have we accepted without a backward glance or embarrassment? Let me suggest the degradation of marriage and families over seventy years or so has led us incrementally, a few degrees at a time into a sanguine acceptance of unreality in what is natural in human beings, especially regarding all things sexual and even in the structure of our bodies. This has not been an accidental dance, but carefully choreographed and plotted step by step, well-funded in its implementation. Not only have we normalized the abnormal, we have made it inviolable; any questioning of this new orthodoxy is deemed not just ignorant, it is called hate speech. In some jurisdictions it is prosecutable, and lives can be laid waste. We insulate heresy to the new orthodoxy in parentheses and issue trigger warnings. Well, please take heed and be so warned. The adults must speak plainly, and the kids should leave the room, although they too are proselytized with great zeal every day.

The cascade of small stones and mud down the slope now has caused us to lose our footing regarding the immutable binary nature of the structure of our bodies. Rather than male and female, we are fungible with exchangeable parts. The XX and XY chromosomes in every cell in our body have failed us, and though they cannot and will not be changed, the results of their labor can be maimed if it suits our tortured desires. With mutilating surgeries and injections of hormone cocktails unknown in nature, we create permanently infertile mockeries with no hope of resolving into new life[iii]. Worse, rather than love and guide our children as their XX and XY chromosomes determine, when we hear their childish confusions and attempts to make sense of it all, we encourage the muddle and inflict these doomed experiments on them. Finally, we congratulate ourselves on our tolerance, and make that a god. To speak common sense regarding this tragedy is banned from the marketplace of ideas[iv].

Once we started down the road of separating the natural functions of human sexuality, of cleaving with a broad-ax childbearing from pleasure and intimacy, the landslide began: half of marriages failing across all demographics and geographies, rainbow coalitions, billion-dollar pornography empires (prostitution with a camera running) spilling into our entertainments, sexual assaults and harassment commonplace, domestic violence increases, renegade commitment phobic men, the normalizing of what was once considered degenerate and dehumanizing, large investment now into development of ever more “realistic” sex robots that completely disengage sex from human contact – the whole sorry, sordid panoply. Where is that whip of cords when you need one?

“I am a Roman Catholic. I believe that sex is both natural and holy. Its nature is reproductive. It is holy, because it is the act that brings into being another person made in the image of God. But our enemies believe neither of these things. They have said that the act is or can be merely recreational. They have said that the act implies no difference between the male and the female. They have said that it has nothing essentially to do with babies. They have even said that there is nothing wrong with its being impersonal: hence, not solely pornography, but also the delight of waking up the next morning to ask the name of the person with whom you have soiled the bed.” Anthony Esolen[v]

[i] Columban missionary order celebrates its hundredth anniversary.

[ii] See earlier blog post, Shrouded

[iii] Petition from pediatricians to uphold scientific definition of sex

[iv] Teacher fired for not calling a “transgendered” student by the prescribed pronoun

[v] Crisis Magazine, “Contemporary Culture is Not Just Unreal – It is Irreal” Oct 18, 2018

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Ride That Photon

At the speed of light, propagation of TIME stops. So, a photon does not travel forever because our concept of time does not hold true for it. Photons do not experience passage of time. Victor Mazmanian, retired Associate Professor of Physics, U.S. Air Force Academy quoted from an answer to a Quora question, “How can light travel forever?” 

I confess that I am a Quora stalker, mostly science, history and philosophy. Never have I posed or answered a question. Perhaps I will work up my courage to do so. When I read the for the most part well informed questions and answers, for now, I am content to learn and to wonder. I follow a few of the contributors like my friend Bob Cormack[i] from Colorado. Mostly though I am eclectic and follow my curiosity. That probably qualifies me as a geek in its current definition.[ii]

The Quora article I linked above is clear and simple without being simplistic about complex subjects like the quantum packets of energy called photons that are always either in motion at the speed of light or non-existent when they stop moving. For photons, time does not exist because at their velocity, time does not pass, a “trip” of twenty light years is a flash without so much as a nanosecond transpiring from their perspective.  The math of the quantum physics and relativity will remain well beyond this humble blogger’s aptitude, but the concepts and inspiration to the imagination are mine to play with.[iii]

If we were able to transform and hitch a ride on a photon, a form of time travel would be possible. Astronomers recently discovered a rocky planet circling Proxima Centauri, a mere twelve light years away. With current technology, this would be a journey of about 544 centuries at fifty two thousand miles an hour, which was what the New Horizon Pluto probe attained. It took New Horizon about nine and half years to get to Pluto. Even at the speed of light, should we be able to travel that fast, a round trip to Proxima Centauri would take a couple of dozen years. Upon our return, we would have not aged a day or perceived any passage of time, but our friends and families would be decades older. Or not here at all.

Please dont make fun when I tell you something true.  Across the River and into the Trees, Ernest Hemingway

John Archibald Wheeler, theoretical physicist and doctoral advisor to many, including Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, proposed that as we learn more and more about the universe, we will see that it is informational, more like a computer than a machine. Or more like a mind. Wheeler revived the study of general relativity after World War II, invented the terms “black hole” and “wormhole” and was involved with Feynman and others in the development of quantum mechanics. Many current physicists now subscribe to this “informational” understanding of the universe and believe it is the path to eventually uncovering a unified theory of physics, resolving the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory. Wheeler said this during a eulogy of mathematician Hermann Weyl in 1986, “Time, among all concepts in the world of physics, puts up the greatest resistance to being dethroned from ideal continuum to the world of the discrete, of information, of bits… Of all obstacles to a thoroughly penetrating account of existence, none looms up more dismayingly than ‘time.’ Explain time? Not without explaining existence. Explain existence? Not without explaining time. To uncover the deep and hidden connection between time and existence….is a task for the future.” [iv]

The essence of knowledge does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of difficulty, so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift—the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation: it comes effortlessly and without trouble.  Dr. Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture English translation, Random House, 1963

For God, time is not linear, rather more like a photon perceives it than like we perceive it. All of time is seen at once, as now, beyond humans to even conceive of His gaze. How this is understood in terms of free will and pre-destination, I’ll leave to the theologians. For this post, I’d like to consider where humans may find some common ground with this view of the cosmos.

The ancients and medieval philosophers taught that human knowledge is gained in two ways, which they named ratio and intellectus. Ratio was what we would now call a left brain activity, rational, discursive, leading to conclusions and requiring lots of work or study. Intellectus is more right brain, wholeness, intuitive, contemplative and receptive. The difference might be perceived in coming upon a vista like the Grand Canyon. Our left brain is curious and studies the mile-deep cliffs of the Grand Canyon dropping to the Colorado River: geological eras with their names and characteristics, rising and receding seas, the crushing together and uplift of tectonic plates and layer upon layer of aggregated stones and fossils. This is learning with ratio.

Intellectus is content to take it all in, to be silent, to think long thoughts or no thoughts at all, to grasp the canyon as beautiful in and of itself: objectively valuable, not just subjectively satisfying[v]. Ratio has to do with the temporal, with the investment of our precious time and work. Intellectus has to do with the eternal, outside of time.  Like for the photon, time stops, or rather there is no time that matters.

Gazing in wonder and gratitude at beauty changes the beholder. Contemplation, absorbed in the beauty with mind emptying peace, but filled with instantaneous knowledge and understanding, is of the soul, as well as the will and mind. I believe it is in this that we can imperfectly understand the concept of human uniqueness. We are made in Imago Dei, in the Image of God. When we perceive, however minutely, as God perceives, outside of time, we participate in our limited fashion in the Divine.  Captivated by the beauty when we visited the Grand Canyon a few winters ago, my inner voice echoed an ancient voice, “I am Beauty itself, gratuitous and without limit. Rest in Me. Trust in Me. Do not be afraid.”

Can we ever expect to understand existence? Clues we have, and work to do, to make headway on this issue. Surely someday, we can believe, we will grasp the central idea of it all as so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that we will all say to each other, Oh, how could it have been otherwise! How could we have been so blind so long? John Archibald Wheeler in his famous it for bit talk.

[i] I introduced readers of this blog to Bob Cormack six years ago. Acrophobia: Tale of Two Bobs.

[ii] Originally “geek” denoted a carnival freak who entertained by biting the heads off live chickens. To date, I have not indulged in that fowl slaughter.

[iii] , Before any physics geniuses complain that I am not qualified to remark on the details of the science, I agree completely. But the minutiae are not the point of the post.

[iv] Wheeler, John Archibald, 1986 “Hermann Weyl and the Unity of Knowledge.” American Scientist, 74:366-375

[v] See Dietrich von Hildebrand’s view of truth and beauty with the distinction of the “subjectively satisfying” from the “objectively valuable” as explained briefly by Bishop Robert Barron. Von Hildebrand, a Catholic moral theologian, was once called by Adolph Hitler his number one enemy and had to flee for his life when the Third Reich annexed Austria. Dietrich von Hildebrand and Our Relativistic Age, Robert Barron, Word on Fire website.

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Nice!

“We are apt to judge things by mere appearances, and those deceive. This isn’t always because people want to deceive. It is a feature of our frailty, sinful or not. We are imitative creatures. In our dress, our walk, the lilt of our speech, our choice of words, our posture, and even in things we think are solid results of our dispassionate thought, such as our politics, we are in part play-actors.” Anthony Esolen[i]

We have managed to place as the pinnacle of human morality something ill-defined we call “nice.” As in “She’s a nice person.” or the universal anodyne conversation concluding, “Have a nice day.” What does that mean? Why not, “Have a day full of wonder and joy and meaning.” Or “Have a day without stress or turmoil or pain or panic.” Or if you have truly caused me pain or disillusionment or great inconvenience, “Have a terrifying day when someone drops a piano on you from a great height.” Wouldn’t a little honesty at least be an improvement?

Nice has ousted virtue, and it’s a whitewashed, formless, artificial sweetener substitute like Coffee Mate or pickleball or synthesized Bob Dylan tunes on hold. Now before you are outraged and respond with, “Wait a minute, what’s wrong with nice?”, let me clarify. Nice is fine, so are crisp, hot, salted McDonald’s French fries when we are achingly hungry, but is it the best we can do? Nice is an improvement over nasty just as civility would be an improvement in our public discourse, especially political speech and social media posts. Nice is better than irritable, rude, mean, bullying or drivers in Boston[ii]. But it is not heroic, is not very challenging, is not more than a superficial communal construct or even much better than not spitting in the soup. “Nice” is a lukewarm, whimpering standard with “standard” as either a measure by which to gauge our conduct or a flag under which we can march into battle.

To be nice is to expect nice: a social contract quid pro quo. Please don’t hurt me, and I’ll try very hard not to hurt or embarrass or challenge you. I’ll leave you alone to whatever vices you want to pursue so long as I don’t have to see them, or they don’t directly affect me in my living room or bedroom, and you leave me to follow my predilections. To seek to live virtuously is different than aspiring to be nice. Virtue has no immediate expectation of reward; it is lived for its own sake. The classical Greek philosophers like Aristotle or medieval geniuses like Thomas Aquinas would tell us that to be virtuous, to know, seek and live the objective right is the beginning of the path to human happiness. Nice doesn’t make you happy, nice merely allows you to be less memorable when gossip circulates at the coffee shop. Virtue is sometimes visible and memorable, but not always. Sometimes it is most vital when no one sees it at all or ever will.

Too often our civility, our niceness, is merely imitative so that we will be liked. Nothing wrong with being liked, and strangers will speak well of us, but it is not enough. Not nearly enough. Serial killers can be nice, until they are not.[iii]

“The doctrine of virtue… has things to say about this person; it speaks both of the kind of being which is his when he enters the world, as a consequence of his createdness, and the kind of being he ought to strive toward and attain to– by being prudent, just, temperate, and brave.  The doctrine of virtue is one form of the doctrine of obligation, but one by nature free of regimentation and restriction” Dr. Josef Pieper, “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1954

Dr. Pieper wrote brilliantly of the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, courage and justice. Prudence in judgement and behavior, temperance in demeanor and our daily interactions, just and fair in our assessments and courageous, not fearless, but in the face of our fears.  Many other virtues can lend understanding to the cardinals [iv], standards by which we can not only pattern our actions and our speech, but our thoughts and our will, our habits and our consciences. Over our lifetimes habits become our character and our destiny, so developing those habits of virtue forms us, either accidentally as circumstances channel us or deliberately, as we choose and battle to attain.

None of us, especially your faithful blogger, is faultless in this pursuit, but we can aspire to an ideal instead of a deadening, tepid nonentity like niceness. As the marksmen will tell us, “Aim small, miss small.”  To be most fully human in the image of our Creator is a heroic challenge and worthy of a precious lifetime: a quest without equal and uniquely ours with our individual quirks, weaknesses and flaws. Nice is irrelevant when one is on a great journey and mission. Our journey, our mission, our one life is an arduous and imperfect quest that, if achieved, will leave us spent, scarred, battered and fulfilled.

When Bilbo and Frodo confronted evil in the epic quests of their lives in Tolkien’s “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, they were imperfect and sometimes irresolute heroes, but in the end heroes nonetheless. As we can be. Our victory is not in fearlessly charging into the fray heedless of the risks, but in persisting through the hundred decisions we make daily to do or not do, to say or not say, yes, even to think or not think – or at least to linger in those thoughts. Nice is not an idea large enough to forge our armor and our weapons for the epic, unique quest that is our one life. Virtue is.

“Tolkien’s work illuminates how moral weakness is the real problem of the human condition, not moral dilemmas and uncertainty. The latter are rare, the former is ubiquitous. I rarely do wrong because I do not know what is right; I often do wrong because it is fun, easy, or otherwise attractive.”  Nathanael Blake[v]

 

[i] Genuine Faith Requires More Than Niceness, Anthony Esolen, Crisis Magazine, September 11, 2018

[ii] Last fall I was confused at a rotary in the Back Bay of Boston. The layout had changed since the last time I had circumnavigated this roundabout; I slowed for a few seconds and had to make a decision. And we had Rhode Island plates. A couple of guys in a black BMW careened around us; fists with one finger prominently extended instantly shot out of both the driver’s and passenger’s window, and the driver screamed angrily that I was a “f’ing moron.” Not just a garden variety moron, so I took some consolation in that. Rita and I both burst out laughing, which probably confirmed their assessment.

[iii] Adolf Hitler was reputedly very nice to dogs especially, but animals in general, and they liked him.  See linked picture.

[iv] The Virtues Project

[v] Living With Morals: A Review of The Fall of Gondolin, Nathanael Blake, Public Discourse, November 1, 2018

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Scarborough Marsh

“The total size is approximately 3,000 acres making it Maine’s largest contiguous saltmarsh. It is fed by three major tributaries: the Scarborough, Nonesuch, and Libby Rivers.” Audubon Society website[i]

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Brush Hooks and Plumb Bobs

“The world is not like a platoon advancing at the pace of a single commander. It’s a network of events affecting each other.” “The Order of Time”, Carlos Rovelli, 2018

In 1972 we lived with our toddler Amy and our infant Gabriel in a winter rental on Mashnee Island at the north end of the Cape Cod Canal across from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. We had very little money and an old flat head six-cylinder Chevy pickup truck painted with house paint that we bought in Boulder, Colorado when we lived there. Our next-door neighbor was Fred Cheever, who was in his sixties. John’s brother and Susan’s uncle, Fred befriended this young couple, told us of local must sees and gave us his copy of the New York Times Sunday paper after he finished with it. Fred ran the advertising department of a local radio station.

 That year I worked for Newell B. Snow, a third-generation land surveyor in Buzzards Bay. Newell was in his early eighties and had original surveyor’s notebooks from his grandfather in the Civil War era. Old school and meticulous, he required a cane to get from place to place, but cognitively had lost nothing off the two-seam fastball. He remembered half-buried marble markers to help in laying out old boundary lines. Finding these markers and proving boundaries by cutting a line and researching the old books could mean the difference between a land locked piece of property and one that was accessible and much more valuable to the owners. Detective work was the fun part; sometimes I would be allowed on a rainy day to help do the math to close the traverses, which had to be proofed within a narrow percentage. If one didn’t tie out, it meant going back into the woods to remeasure until the trigonometry of angles and measurements closed back to the starting point of the lot.

Newell’s son-in-law, Charlie was the crew chief, and Bob, a retired Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer in his late forties was second man on the crew. I was the third man, held the dumb end of the hundred-foot metal tape and cut brush and trees out of the line. Newell eschewed the use of noisy and expensive chainsaws, which regrettably for me, was one of the few things I was good at when I first started my year as a land surveyor. The century old design brush hooks cut the lines so that we could shoot and measure them with the manual transits. I soon learned how to keep brush hooks sharp and use their keen ability against tough, stringy vines and scrub shrubs. When working exposed to the onshore winds in January, maintaining core body heat was an ongoing struggle. Bob gave me a woolen Navy watch cap, a kind gift that helped. Twenty below in the Maine woods was not as numbing as North Atlantic wind that cored through and was impossible to ignore. The hard work of a brush hook helped to keep me warm.

Eventually I convinced Newell to buy a small Stihl chainsaw, and while it was less effective against vines and thick underbrush, it significantly improved the crew’s efficiency on the numerous scrub white oaks and red pines that blocked the sight lines of the transit.  The Stihl immediately increased our daily production. Instead of detouring around larger trees with four short ninety-degree shoots and measurements as had been done for prior centuries, I’d quickly drop the old scrub oaks or red pines into the adjacent woods and leave them. I regretted my recommendation and its ramifications. A twelve-inch diameter tree that may have been forty years old was too daunting to attack with a brush hook, but a chainsaw put it down in five or ten minutes.

“And because Your years do not pass, Your years are today… All our tomorrows to the end of time You shall make to be in this Your day; and all our yesterdays from the beginning of time You have made to be in this Your day.” St. Augustine, “Confessions,” Book One, Chapter Six

Long cut lines through bramble-clogged Cape Cod woods made up two legs of what we called “spaghetti lots”: an elongated rectangle with two hundred feet of road frontage and a half a mile or so into the trees and vines on each side. A lot of hills, measuring, shooting the lines and cutting.  The other surveyor’s skill that is mostly lost with encroaching technology is the plumb bob. Charlie would spot a wooden stake that we cut out of two by three studs sharpened with a hatchet on rain out days. I’d drive it into the exact location defined by the transit with a five-pound short handled sledge hammer, then nail a small tack into it as a temporary line marker for measurements. We used a metal hundred-foot tape stretched to an exact tension with a spring-loaded scale to make certain as exact a measurement as we could manage. Plumb bobs on both ends of the measurement with the other end of its string held against our tape suspended exactly over our tacks.

On inclines the tape had to be held level as well as with the proper tension. On steep hills, we could manage much less than hundred-foot measurements. Sometimes as little as a horizontal ten foot pull and we would need to place a new stake. The high end of the tape would be held precisely on the tack, the low end held high and level with straining arms and a nearly fully extended plumb bob string, the point of the plumb bob without a quiver held over the tack. The bob could not touch the nail because both the plumb and the exact dimension would be lost. On a half mile traverse, any accumulated small errors of inexactly taken measurements would ruin the closing back in the office.

Now, of course, all this is gone, along with four transit leveling screw gauges, meticulously adjusted by the crew chief at every set up. Electronic self-leveling laser transits and corresponding electronic target poles not only accomplish the exact measurements, the rectangular (or any other angled) multi sided traverses are closed and calculated as the surveying teams go along within the programming and screens of the transits. Plumb bobs, wooden stakes and tacks are forgotten accoutrements.

As I think about plumb bobs, straining arms held high to mark their precise locations to establish reliable borderlines, I ponder the lost plumb bobs of our bewildered culture, the objective moral norms held true and plumb for centuries, pointing by gravity towards the center of the earth, exactly defining with rigor and wisdom the boundaries we seem to want blurred. And I wonder about how human nature, unchanged, mocks both the convolutions and the ubiquitous noise of our technology, and marks as silly our fatuous, doomed attempts at materialistic perfectibility.

“Thus, He showed me, and behold, the Lord was standing by a vertical wall with a plumb line in his hand. The Lord said to me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold I am about to put a plumb line in the midst of My people….”  Amos 7: 7-8a

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Grind

  • “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” James Baldwin

One of the ironies for the socially concerned citizen is the uneven burden imposed on the poor by high minded programs attempting to address other compelling challenges – call it unintended (or unheedful) consequences or collateral damage. The ‘climate change’ agenda as typified by the Paris Agreement is one such dilemma. Irrespective of whose interpretation of the discredited hockey stick curve of global warming[i] for which you’ve signed up, that our abused planet will benefit from a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions bears no argument. The open questions, it seems to me, are what solutions are created, how much they cost and who pays? One answer to the last question in the short term is undoubtedly the “energy poor.”

Whether income is limited by low wages, no work, the fixed income of seniors or disability, the energy poor are defined as those for whom more than ten percent of their income is needed to cover energy costs. Since those folks many times also are housing poor (more than thirty percent of their income goes to basic housing costs), the effects grind hard on their ability to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Some live on a constant edge, a couple of missed paychecks away from sleeping under a bridge alone or with their families. During this current brutal winter in the northern United States, such a load means cold houses with thermostats set well below comfort and pipes at regular risk. Life lived wrapped in a blanket.

If Al Gore or Bill Gates (or Donald Trump for that matter) doubles his electric bill, it’s not even a petty inconvenience. More than likely since someone else probably does the mundane work of paying their bills, they wouldn’t even be aware of it. For someone energy poor, such a disaster could be the difference between fresh vegetables and cheap boxed mac and cheese, straight or crooked teeth for Johnny or a ten-year-old car that takes you to work and one that is busted or needs gas and is parked on the street outside the apartment house where the rent already strains the budget.

Just a few statistics and facts, I promise:

  • Thirty million Americans live in energy poor households. Among the population in the world’s “rich countries,” two hundred million are so burdened.
  • In Europe where renewable subsidies (and costs from emissions caps and targets) exceed the United States, thirty percent of Germans are energy poor; in Greece the toll approaches fifty percent.
  • In the United Kingdom, since 2006 while trying to hit coercive renewable targets, energy costs have risen 36% in real terms, while income has grown 4%. A poll in 2014 found one third of British elderly leave at least part of their house cold; two thirds bundle up with extra clothes in their homes.  15,000 died in the tough winter of 2014-2015 because they couldn’t afford to heat their homes properly.

And so it goes.

 “The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.”  Willem de Kooning

Brayton Point coal fired 1,500 megawatt plant in Fall River. Closed in 2017.

There is good news[ii] regarding carbon emissions with a milestone in 2016: natural gas passed coal as a source of electrical generation for the first time.  Admittedly, a short-term solution, because while gas emits about half the carbon as coal per megawatt generated, the fracking techniques and drilling that freed new sources of plentiful natural gas also emitted significant amounts of methane, an even more efficient greenhouse effect gas than carbon dioxide.

Coal use has steadily declined for the last three years after peaking ten years ago. Nuclear power generation and renewables with hydro-electric leading the pack, have grown as a percentage of power production, but they are more expensive, especially solar and wind. We’ve already noted who gets hurt with that. Who benefits? Those of means and higher income can take advantage of disproportionate government support for expensive electric cars and solar panels on their roofs. The poor and working poor will not be getting energy star tax credits; they’ll be struggling to keep the heat and lights turned on.

Directives imposing or releasing coal from restrictions in the long run will make little difference. Efforts to strangle or to revive the coal industry with Presidents Obama and Trump swapping executive orders are akin to squabbling over saving fax machine manufacturing. Well, maybe not quite that depth of obsolescence. Coal is dying of its own infirmities as an energy source and will expire as quickly as alternate fuel source electrical generation can be brought on line. Xcel Energy is typical. One of the largest Midwest utilities, it has shuttered twenty five percent of its coal fired plants since 2005. Xcel has a goal of reducing their carbon emissions by sixty percent by 2030 with or without the Paris Agreement. “I’m not going to build new coal plants in today’s environment,” Xcel CEO Ben Fowke told Reuters. “And if I’m not going to build new ones, eventually there won’t be any.” [iii]

A modest, and to me, humane suggestion: avoid the “Inconvenient Untruth” histrionics and cease the ham handed, ideologically and politically motivated, big government (or worse international) draconian intervention on carbon emissions or swaps. Instead focus efforts on research and development of affordable and sustainable energy solutions that do not punish those least able to pay the bills.

“But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” William Butler Yeats

[i] See attached critique of climate modeling that was done several years ago by a friend of mine who has taught at a large university for many years. Since it is a compilation of his remarks in email exchanges with others, and I didn’t ask his permission to share this, I have taken efforts to remove his name, but he’s one of the smartest people I know, brilliantly adept in math, energy and engineering and in interpreting data. Has multiple patents and published papers.  If you object, B, I’ll take this link down. Climate Modeling

[ii][ii] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/americans-used-a-lot-less-coal-in-2016/

[iii] Ibid

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Super Moons, Shepherds and Chrétiens

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.” Edgar Mitchell, astronaut and moon walker

On December third, we witnessed a “super moon.” Before the popular media got their hands on them, the astronomers referred to perigee full moons and perigee new moons. From sixteen century French, it derived from ancient Greek meaning simply “close around the earth.” We name any full moon that comes within ten percent of the closest approach the moon in its orbit makes to earth a “super moon.”. Closer means slightly larger and brighter in our view, and stronger tides, both high and low.

What is somewhat unusual this time around is that there will be three of them consecutively. The full moons on January second and again on the thirty first will be perigee moons.  The second full super moon in January will also be a blue moon, the second full moon in a month. And to complete the January 31’st trifecta, there will be a full lunar eclipse, so super, blue and eclipsed. Quite a free show. Hope for a clear winter night in an area without a lot of light pollution. A party would be in order.

When full on a cloudless night, our closest neighbor with the enigmatic smile lights our way. Unique in our solar system with its relative size to a planet, our moon greatly intensifies the tides of our great oceans. Without it, the sun would still cause tides, but not nearly as pronounced. Those tides have a profound effect on the rotation of the earth, slowing it from its early cycle to our familiar twenty-four-hour spin. Without the moon we would see sunrise every ten hours.

“From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.”
The Cat and The Moon, W.B Yeats

From Genesis 1: God made two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night. He made the stars also. I’ve wondered what the shepherds guarding their flocks and saw the angels announcing the birth of Jesus did when there weren’t miracles about. They must have welcomed the full moonlit nights to help them in their assigned watch. I wonder if they understood the moon reflected the sun? Most ancient peoples thought the world was round, but most thought our globe was the center of the universe, and the array of the stars and planets revolved around us.

Only sixty-six years, less than a lifetime, separated the first powered flight of the Wright brothers and Neil Armstrong’s “one great leap” on the surface on the moon. Only since then, have human beings viewed images of our home planet from another celestial object. Out of all the human beings that have lived over tens of thousands of years, only we that have lived in the last half century have been graced with this revelation.

Our perspective, literally our worldview, has lifted, never to be the same. In that same sense, our view of the shepherds, the angels, even the birth of Jesus has subtly shifted as well. We see what angels see, but what those fearful shepherds never did.  They were calmed by the angels, “Do not be afraid.” Are our fears, too, put to rest?  Or has the view revealed from the moon of our luminous and fragile blue orb changed us in some way we have yet to comprehend?

“Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle,
Où l’Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle.” 
French lyrics for “Oh Holy Night”, traditional Christmas Carol [i]

 “Midnight, Christians, it’s the solemn hour. When God-Man descended to us….”

I recently learned reading one of the brilliant speeches of the late Justice Antonin Scalia[ii] that the disparaging English word used to marginalize a group of people, “cretins,” originates from the French. Unlike us (as seen in far too many social media posts), the French originally named a group of severely developmentally challenged residents of the Alps “Chrétiens” or Christians in the fourteenth century, not to demean them or Christianity, but to remind all that human beings, all human beings, irrespective of their status, their gifts or their net worth are inheritors of the dignity of man. “Imago Dei.” Made in the image of God. How many of us believe that in our hearts today?

Yet, is this not the center of the mystery of Christmas? And how, dear readers, are Christians perceived in fashionable society today? Let Justice Scalia speak for himself, far more eloquently than I could ever hope to.

“It has often occurred to me, however, that for quite different reasons the equivalence of the words Christians and cretin makes a lot of sense. To be honest about it, that is the view of Christians – or at least traditional Christians – taken by sophisticated society in modern times. One can be sophisticated and believe in God – heck, a First Mover is at least as easy to believe in as Big Bang triggered by nothingness. One can even be sophisticated and believe in a personal God, a benevolent Being who loves mankind, so long as that Being does not intrude too ridiculously into the world – by working so-called miracles, for example, or by limiting human behavior in inconvenient ways…. But to believe in what might be called “traditional” Christianity is something else. To believe that Jesus Christ was God? … Or to believe that he was born of a virgin! (Well, I mean, really!) That he actually, physically, rose from the grave?!?…”

Read the original, more comprehensive in scope. I strongly recommend this book for some opportunity to think deeply about what we may have avoided thinking about deeply. His point here is that simple and unsophisticated is not by definition wrong, and may indeed be the truth, however incongruent and inconvenient that may be for us. Be advised, though, the recognition, and our place in that truth, may call us to honest introspection and change.

Have these times of ours, so confusing, with an ever-present din of anger and fear, conflict and loneliness, concealed in its foggy night something we have lost, and can ill afford to misplace?

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

 “The Fellowship of the Ring,” J.R.R. Tolkien

[i] ‘Oh Holy Night’ Luciano Pavarotti, 1978 Montreal

 

[ii] “The Christian as Cretin,” from “Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith and Life Well Lived.” Antonin Scalia, Christopher Scalia and Edward Whelan, Crown Forum, Penguin Random House, 2017.

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