A Fair Hourly Wage

“God sells us all things at the price of labor.”   Leonardo da Vinci

The first job that paid me was delivering newspapers when I was eleven or twelve. The tools were a large, double stitched, sturdy cloth bag, a list from the newspaper distributor, a zipped folder to track collections and hold cash and a bicycle.  Each day but one (because an adult with a car delivered Sunday), the truck from the newspaper distributor would drop a large bundle of afternoon papers at the corner of our street. I would unfetter them and put them in my bag.  My route consisted of four streets and around forty stops. There were five papers of varying design and thickness: the Boston Globe, the Boston Evening Traveler, the Boston Record American in a tabloid format, the Walpole Times delivered by subscription on Thursdays and the Norfolk County Free Press free to everyone on Fridays.  Almost all customers took one of the Boston papers and most took the Walpole Times, a weekly local paper.  Everyone took the Norfolk Free Press, but I suspect most took it to look quickly for grocery specials, if any neighbors were embarrassed in the police blotter or to train puppies and line bird cages.

Most papers were left between the storm door and the inner door, front or back per the customer’s preference.  Saturdays, I would go to each house and collect payment, then bike down to the distribution office and pay my paper bill. If the tips were good (ten cents a week from a customer was good), I’d net seven or eight dollars, a princely sum for a twelve-year-old in 1958. A non paying customer who refused to answer their door was on me. Wet, beat up or late papers earned me a reprimand from the distribution manager who took all complaint calls. More than a couple of these, and I would be without employment.  I learned that promptness, diligence and friendliness along with a clean paper without blemishes earned me the most money. Ironically years later, I was back in the business with the daily Patriot Ledger for which I worked as a local stringer, writing columns about town politics and events.

The next rung up the ladder was climbed when I gained the strength to carry two golf bags by caddying on the local course. Getting a double would earn six or seven dollars and three to four hours of work depending upon the skill and patience of the customers. Most days I spent waiting for customers, and some days came up empty, playing desultory cards in the caddy shack, practicing spitting and obscene language, innocent of its real meaning.  If I only had a single bag with another caddy and a couple of golfers pulling their own wheeled carts, I could work a whole day to make three or four dollars, five with a good tip. I learned patience, getting along with older caddies, remaining calm and helpful with manic and demeaning customers and expanded my vocabulary considerably.

“No man e’er was glorious, who was not laborious.” Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin

Next came one miserable summer when I turned fifteen as a bundle boy at the local grocery market, a branch of the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (the A&P).  My tools were an A&P apron and company supplied paper bags and metal framed, pressed board carts that would roll on a wheeled manual conveyor through an opening in the front wall to a similar conveyance for pick up by the customers in their cars. Some days I would pack bundles and send them on their way; others I would be outside under an inadequate canopy, which protected no one from windblown rain. Very occasionally there would be a tip. Otherwise it was $1.15 an hour and accommodating unhappy front of store managers and customers. I learned how to pack a paper bag, the heavier items on the bottom, squaring off the bag with lighter items on top to not overload one. A ripped bag with groceries on the ground was liable to get you sent home without pay. I learned to come to work on time, work steadily, try to help the beleaguered cashiers and occasionally clean up a spill in aisle six.

grass-hay-bale-animal-feeding-grass-hayThe penultimate job of my young life was haying for Ma Green on her dairy farm in West Walpole the next summer. A dollar an hour for agricultural work, but cash without denuding the take with the government’s cut.  Two or three of us would follow a tractor drawn wood cart around freshly mowed and bailed fields, loading and stacking hay. Once the first level was built on the cart, the lead hay worker would mount the cart and stack them high. The farm manager would pace the work driving the tractor.  When the cart was full, we would ride on top of the hay back to the barn and load the hay into the loft. No breeze there, hot, sweaty work with hay dust covering our bodies and clothes. I loved the camaraderie, the banter and the feeling of aching muscles and a shower before supper. Sunburns all around until we tanned, we labored without shirts and started to build strength with its accompanying physical confidence to last a lifetime – a grown up job, a man’s job, a wonderful job with lunch under a tree shared with my fellows.

“Heaven is blessed with perfect rest, but the blessing of earth is toil.”  Henry van Dyke

 

These jobs preceded many others over my younger years: tree pruning and topping, fence building, house framing, landscaping, truck driving, asphalting driveways, working in a concrete factory making septic tanks and pipe sections and others.  Not one of them failed to teach me something about work, co workers, bosses and subordinates. They prepared me to manage many lumberyards and commercial construction subcontracting.  We’ve raised a family and four children, educating them to the best of our ability, all enabled by ennobling work. All my jobs led me to a lifelong appreciation and respect for those who earn their way with their hands, their backs, their daily courage and commitment, their diligence and skills. “A hand that’s dirty with honest labor is fit to shake with any neighbor,” rings true to me, bespeaking the dignity of work.

I would be disappointed not to see some exceptions for new or young workers from minimum wage laws that might preclude employers from being able to afford and hire inexperienced, but hopeful employees. Such employment teaches us to show up on time, to respect ourselves, our employers and fellow workers; we learn that faithfulness to small tasks leads to larger ones and the ability for self determination and opportunity.  For this there is no substitute.

 “To labor is to pray.”  Motto of the Benedictines

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Harkening

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” From Robert Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington from his speech in South Africa.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 27: Thousands of people rally on the National Mall before the start of the 44th annual March for Life January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. The march is a gathering and protest against the United States Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 27: Thousands of people rally on the National Mall before the start of the 44th annual March for Life January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. The march is a gathering and protest against the United States Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When I asked Rita what she would like to do for our fiftieth anniversary, she did not hesitate: The March for Life in Washington. The last time she went, she roomed with Dr. Mildred Jefferson; this time there would be a severe diminishment of intellect in that roommate, but she would have the consolation of a lifetime of companionship.  In consideration of being in our eighth decade, we lined up a sensible fly/stay package, deciding not to take the bus from Providence with seventy or so young people who do not require sleep. The young people, as it turns out, were the outstanding feature of this event.

We spent a couple of days walking around renewing our acquaintance with that mesmerizing city. Put flowers at the WWII Memorial for our dads and other family members. Visited the Holocaust Museum for the first time. Strolled in awe around Arlington Cemetery again and sat on the porch of the Robert E Lee house at its highest point, overlooking the Potomac, the Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson Memorials along with the dome of the Capitol in the distance. It was Lee’s farm that was forfeit to bury the dead.

But the highlight of our visit was the March. Six hundred thousand strong, nearly three quarters of whom were young people from all over the country. The contrast with the Woman’s March of  the week before  (link to comparison-language warningwas immediately apparent. No anger, no vitriol, no vagina costumes and obscene signs, no empty-headed egos full of their own celebrity contemplating bombing the White House. There was joy, genuine joy to be together, singing, laughing, dancing on the grass of the Mall before the March. The energy of these tens of thousands of young faces, their clear-eyed intelligence, their look you in the eye candor and confidence brought tears to my eyes. The torch has been passed and is on the move. For the first time in the forty-four years of this March, a Vice President spoke. He spoke of gentleness and love for the babies and for the mothers with an unexpected and challenging pregnancy. He encouraged us never to condemn, but to offer our lives, our treasure and our love to help. A willing audience to this call cheered and chanted, “We are the pro-life generation.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Opening paragraph from the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson

Tmarch-for-life-close-uphe young people there have the indefatigable enthusiasm and idealism of the young. They see themselves as survivors; twenty five percent of their generation didn’t make it out of the womb alive. Faith and prayer were evident with many, but science was the topic of discussion. The science is settled now. With ultrasound and fetal development studies well established, no uncertainty exists about the nature of the embryo, fully human from the start, a continuum, a personal story, needing only food, oxygen, nurturing and protection to join the rest of us in conversation and song and pursuit of happiness. The genetic inheritance of a thousand generations before them sets them apart from all other species.

They know in their hearts and in their minds and consciences what is at stake, and ask with wonder, “Can we not at least be honest about what abortion does?” It is the deliberate taking of the most vulnerable human life by a larger, more powerful human. Of that, there is no doubt. No doubt there are many serious reasons why many try to justify that taking, but it is a taking nonetheless. For these young people, this is an evil worth an uncomfortable ride for a day or two on a bus to declare their commitment to protecting this tiny life. They grew up hearing their parents from a statistically much less pro-life generation read to them from Dr. Seuss.  I saw several signs repeating what they heard as children from that eminent philosopher, Horton, in his definitive work, “Horton Hears A Who:” A person’s a person, no matter how small.

This generation’s majority cannot abide a culture that sees ending innocent lives as a necessary evil or even a desirable freedom.  “Freedom from what?”, they ask. They cannot reconcile the hypocrisy of a society that preaches fairness, kindness and tolerance, but fails to protect its tiniest citizenry from immolation. The starkness of its sheer bloodiness cannot be abided. Planned Parenthood must bring a lunch; these kids are not going gently into that dark night.

“I have given suck, and know

How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it is smiling in my face,

Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dashed his brains out, had I so sworn to you.”

Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, Act 1, William Shakespeare

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Half Way To A Century

“Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.” Simone Signoret

wedding-danceFive years ago, we celebrated our forty fifth anniversary; I looked back on our time together and did my best to tell of the marvel who is my wife, Rita. (Anniversary Waltz) Five years later, I haven’t changed my mind. Today, I look ahead a bit.

Somerset Maugham once wrote this, “We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.” At the risk of disagreeing with one of the most important novelists of the last century, the concept of the constantly growing, evolving human person is evident; however there is continuity as well. A person lives in a story, their story, and their essence remains constant. Rita remains a mystery while I know her as intimately as one person can know another. She has learned, matured, grown as all persons do, but her essence is that of the same young beauty I loved as a twenty-year-old. Changed and unchanged, far further along in the plot of our shared story, but constant in fundamental character, she remains my beloved wife.

“Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.” Franz Shubert

I think now it is the little things I most cherish. Her expressive face with a thousand subtleties cannot hide her inner being: serene, joyful, stormy, worried, love filled, skeptical, pensive and many shades between.  I sometimes see these uncanny nuances in her children. I especially love the sleepy face with tousled hair when she puts on her well-worn blue fleece bathrobe and emerges from the bedroom to greet me with a long hug and a short kiss while I’m usually reading or praying on the couch. There is the amused smile when I do something stupid or utter a remark to evoke that smile along with the pointy fist banging into my chest when I cross the line into outrageous. Her many sounds are so very familiar, her laugh, her business voice, and she makes a smile come through the telephone. I love to sing next to her at Mass and hear her soprano. Her husky, quiet voice when she shares her secrets or fears or her love and concern for her children. The scent of her on the pillow next to me lingers. Her warmth when we spoon early in the morning or late at night. The softness of her skin remains, and though time and child bearing has changed her, her feminine ways will be lovely to me forever.

Dancing together once againOur shared time together is invaluable: mutual chores, walks, quiet conversations, reading near each other, occasionally interrupting each other’s reading to share a passage, poignant or insightful. Our closely linked heritage and faith, so dear to us both, helps bind us. Fifteen thousand nights sleeping together, sometimes restlessly, sometimes exhausted, sometimes so familiar it aches. Waking next to her; I feel her stillness next to me and her calm breathing. Forty thousand meals together, some are shared with others in good company or now mostly just the two of us.

Her silly goofiness that we share like a secret; there are aspects of our relationship that are so knowing, so intimate, they can be understood only by other couples with long, deep friendships. Disagreements, now always short lived and usually without too much fire, but it wasn’t always so.  We’ve lived a history both before and since our marriage that is irreplaceable: new places together, twelve different homes, sorrows, mistakes, joys and grieving the loss of parents. Four children, daughters and son, so different from one another and yet sharing commonalities they will never lose. And now four granddaughters of delight and wonder.

There is no substitute in this life for such a marriage. My gratitude cannot be expressed either to the Author of our lives or to His greatest gift to me. There is nothing left to say.

“My most brilliant achievement was my ability to persuade my wife to marry me.” Winston Churchill

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Christmas 2016

laughing-girlsReflecting on this tumultuous year, quiet waiting during the Advent season for Christmas was a welcome respite from the preoccupations of the last twelve months. Year end is a time of reflection, but this year, recollection seems especially poignant. Where are we?  Where have we been? Where are we going?

The model of the tiny family journeying to Bethlehem beckons us. Their loving unity of purpose and mutual reliance is an ideal, even in their adverse circumstances – away from home on the road, cold, hungry, perhaps frightened by the strangeness of the unwelcoming town.  Husband and heavily pregnant wife come in obedience to an unwelcome government edict, disrupting their lives at a time when they want only to remain protected in their carpenter’s home in Nazareth.

The unity of these two and soon these three, a family, foundation of all that is human, is part of what draws us to them. We tell and retell their story billions of times. Do we covet this unity, this certainty, this peace amidst fragmentation, adversity and loneliness?

We are seemingly ever more divided as we coalesce uneasily into the circles of a complex Venn diagram: sets based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual preference,  educational level, coastal or fly over country, urban, suburban or rural. Scattered and alienated, we define carefully how each differs from the other, competes with the other, criticizing the groups different from us.

When we look around at what is deemed the post-modern culture, is the question what are the characteristics of the American culture? Or is the question whether there is even a cohesive, intelligible American culture? Where do we find the unity and belonging our humanness so longs for?

Christmas, the connectedness of that little family in Bethlehem and within our own families and friends offers us that peace, if we choose to seek it and to live it.

This Christmas invites us into warmth and a well-lighted room. In that room, we will be content by the fire in slippers with our feet up, quietly musing on where we’ve been and who we are. Where is our center, our truth? In that room, we will close our eyes and listen to the music of our hearts. In that room is joyful serenity and Love.

God’s blessings on you and yours.

Merry Christmas and happy reveries.

Love,   Jack and Rita

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An Early Christmas at Rosecliff

gianna-the-mouse“The smells of Christmas are the smells of childhood.” The Christmas Box, Richard Paul Evans

Gianna danced in the Nutcracker this year at Rosecliff. She was a mouse and in the second act, a gingerbread. Both her mother Angela and her aunt Meg danced in Nutcracker for years with Festival Ballet at the Providence Performing Arts Center when we lived there: angels, soldiers, friends of Clara and other roles I may be forgetting. Rosecliff is a much smaller venue, a museum, not a theatre: smaller audiences and more intimate. We followed the dancers around the building for the first act with the family Christmas gathering and gift of the nutcracker in the dining room, snow fairies in the ballroom, the introduction and battle on the signature heart shaped main stairway in the rotunda. The dancers were close to us; we were nearly part of the set. The gleam of perspiration and the pumping of their diaphragms were visible after their splendid exertions, even as their faces held their smiles.

Rosecliff is one of the Newport mansions on fabled Bellevue Avenue with the Cliff Walk overlooking Easton’s Beach running behind it. Commissioned in the gilded age at the turn of the twentieth century by “Tessie” Fair Oelrich of the Nevada Comstock silver lode Fairs and her husband, shipping tycoon Herman Oelrich, it was designed by the infamous Stanford White of New York, architect for Penn Station and the second Madison Square Gardens. Rosecliff is the frequent site of society weddings still and its ballroom has been featured in films and television including the Robert Redford “Great Gatsby,” “27 Dresses” and “Amistad.”

Nutcracker is performed each year by the Island Moving Company of Newport where Gianna takes her lessons. Angela, mother of our four beautiful granddaughters, still dances in classes, but has no time for performances. Because of the small venue, the tickets are expensive and there are two casts with eight performances each. Pete and Angela told Gianna that because of the cost, participating in the cast would be the main gift of her Christmas this year; she readily agreed. What she did not know was that the tickets for her parents would also be their gifts to one another. With that and the many rehearsals, extra expenses along the way and the eight back and forth trips for the performances, it was a major time commitment for the family. They readily agreed as well.

For all of that, Gianna each time was enthusiastic, smiled constantly, danced with energy and trained diligently. She brought tears to the eyes of her parent and grandparents. When she finally wound down from her excitement after evening shows, Peter and I set up a mattress in our downstairs office; she camped out and slept in a bit as her noisy sisters awoke at 6 AM.

“Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.” Laura Ingalls Wilder

The choreography was joyful and deft. There have been much darker performances that we’ve seen with scary Rat Queens and Drosselmeyers.  The IMC production is jubilant, elevating and a perfect beginning to the Christmas celebrations in the first week of Advent.

 The principal dancers were professional, talented and well-practiced; their credentials in companies across Europe, Asia and North America were impressive for such a small group. Each danced several major roles – Frau Oelrich was the Sugar Plum Fairy. All of them had other jobs; dancing in other companies, choreographers, owners of studios. I expect none of them is getting rich for all the years of study, the punishment to their bodies, the commitment to the art, yet they continue. For the art, for the beauty, for the music, for the sheer joy of it.

gianna-camping-outThe music alone commends the art to us, and for Rita, Pete, Angela and me, was well worth the time and treasure to expose our children to such things. For as one of our favorite writers, Anthony Esolen, makes clear: if the mind is exposed to beauty and truth expressed in beauty, that formed mind is better able to discern the coarse from the sublime, the human achievement from the dross, the excellent from the mediocre, that which lifts the spirit from that which burdens it.  That mind seeks beauty and is repulsed by the multitude of ugliness they will confront in their lifetime.

When a child has heard Tchaikovsky and Puccini, she has no love of rapping. When she has wandered at leisure in the galleries of Renoir’s and Caravaggio’s, she cannot abide black velvet Elvis. When she has read Yeats or Shakespeare or for that matter Laura Ingalls Wilder, she will be able to better separate the wheat from the chaff, the light from the darkness.

Christmas is first about Jesus, but it is also about light and beauty and the soaring of the spirit and soul. For that, The Nutcracker is a good start.

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”  The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss

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Christmas Trees

“Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but of reflection.” Winston Churchill

Our first Christmas tree was not quite a year after we were married. Finishing up my last year at U Mass, I bought our first small tree in Northampton and dragged it up the stairs to our third story walk up railroad apartment. Rita remembers still the sound of the needles rubbing against the narrow stair and hallway walls. We set it up in an alcove off the main hall of our apartment, the only space that had room for one. Our decorations were minimal; they later accrued over the many years-some homemade by our parents or children, some gifts, some bought one by one in small shops or fairs. We still break them out once a year.

Our habit has been to put a tree up later in the Advent season and leave it up past Epiphany. Too late, and we miss the piney smell through the run up to Christmas; too early, and it is a fire hazard by the end.  A sadness overtakes me when I see Christmas trees put out for trash pickup on the twenty sixth like checking off a box, another season survived and behind us.

One of our early Christmases we were living on Mashnee Island on Cape Cod. We had little money, but decided we wanted a live tree that would get another chance the following spring. I took my pickup to Hog Island, state owned, uninhabited, and the site of a large navigational warning sign at the north end of Cape Cod Canal. The sand while frozen was easily broken, and I dug out a small pitch pine, usually called a scrub pine, Charlie Brown never had a sparser specimen. After cutting out a large root ball, I wrapped it in burlap and brought it home. We put it in a large steel washtub in the living room of our rented cottage, kept the tree watered, and hoped when we resettled it after Christmas, the pine would survive the midwinter thawing. When I checked it early in June back on Hog Island, it was green and supple.

“It still feels weird to spend money on Christmas trees. Back when Mom was alive, we’d go out “tree hunting.” That’s what she called it, anyway. I think other people might use the word “trespassing.” Jenny Han, Fire with Fire

The ten years we spent in Maine provided us with many memorable Christmas trees. When our two older children, Amy and Gabe, were still small, I would load them on a sled, put on my bear-paw snowshoes, and we would go tree hunting. We first cut on the five acres surrounding our first Mount Vernon house, and later found our trees on the hundred acres we bought with a friend in New Sharon. I preferred Balsam Fir, but once settled on a Canadian hemlock and only once on a Norway spruce. Neither one kept its needles long enough for our preferred elongated season; when we finally took them down, threadbare and forlorn, we had a lot of sweeping and vacuuming to do.

Many years the highest temperature of tree harvesting day would remain resolutely in single digits, but bundled up with big mittens, the kids would complain only if I trudged too deep into the woods and took too long in our quest for the perfect tree. Tree cutting was always followed by hot chocolate back by the wood stove. Decorating was done in stages after we’d get the tree up: a couple of days with the tree in its natural state of beauty, the scent filling the house. The tree would draw up large amounts of our doctored water, feeding and bringing it back to life until the branches fell to their accustomed levels. Next came a day or two of just lights, then another day or two of our favorite decorations and candy canes, and finally the addition of strung together popcorn or cranberries. We eschewed tinsel of any kind, preferring to leave the tree unconcealed, not hidden behind manufactured glittery shininess. The evergreen foreshadows life eternal, renewed each day and year.

“I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Papa Jack hanging Christmas lights in our first house in Maine

Papa Jack hanging Christmas lights in our first house in Maine

One of my most enduring memories of Christmas was our second in our first house in Mount Vernon. That year’s tree was a monster, rising almost to the cathedral ceiling in our dining room, a full twelve feet. I had cut a large Balsam fir. We used the lower branches for other decorations and the eight-inch trunk of the tree was used in the spring to help construct the pole barn woodshed I built. But the top twelve feet somehow were pushed through the front door and stood upright against the window.

My folks came up for a pre-Christmas visit. A half a dozen years prior to my father’s passing, he remained a vigorous sixty, and my mother still an Irish beauty. As was their custom with little room in our small converted barn, they preferred to rent a room in nearby Mrs. Hall’s bed and breakfast and not climb a ladder into one of our sleeping lofts.

We celebrated my mother’s birthday on St. Nicolas Day. She had begun work on the hand painted ceramic Nativity set that still adorns our Christmas celebrations. The first year brought us Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Eventually there was the full panoply of kings, shepherd, sheep, camels and a cow. She made several figures every year as Christmas gifts. Each year we carefully unwrap them from their newspaper protectors and set them out again in a central spot in our home. The carefully made wood manger itself was designed and crafted by Rita’s father, Dave, a skilled woodworker and furniture maker. The combination of the two – figures and crèche are treasured and a symbol to us of the permanent marriage of our two families.

That year after overcoming Rita’s objections to the giant tree and the extra sets of lights, in the end, our perfect Balsam fir is an indelible remembrance. After we got it in the house with much effort, trying to save as many needles as possible in the narrow entryway, my father insisted on climbing the ladder and helping with the decorating up high, including the angel at the top. I will not forget him doing this while Christmas persists in our hearts.

 “…freshly cut Christmas trees smelling of stars and snow and pine resin – inhale deeply and fill your soul with wintry night…”  John Geddes, A Familiar Rain

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Confirmation Bias

“Good sense is the most evenly distributed commodity in the world, for each of us considers himself to be so well endowed therewith that even those who are the most difficult to please in all other matters are not wont to desire more of it than they have.” Discourse on Method,  Rene Descartes

Surveys taken during the mercifully terminated election cycle concluded that fifty nine percent of us believe the economy is getting worse, sixty four percent are convinced the American Dream of working hard and getting ahead is dead, and for eighty nine percent of us, at least once a week something in the news makes us truly angry. Yet the overall unemployment (those without jobs who want them and those who have given up looking) stands at 9.5%, down from 17.1% during the depths of the Great Recession. Inflation adjusted median income (not average, so it is not skewed by the ultra large and small) has fallen to $56,516 from its peak in 2000 of $57,909, and is up substantially from 1985, when we got along with less ($48,720).  By inflation adjusted, we mean the annual income is stated as if costs had remained par with the beginning of the tracking, so that the numbers reflect a true increase in median buying power. While a slight decrease in sixteen years is not good, neither is it disaster: we have stayed about even with increasing costs, and greatly improved our situation in the last thirty years.

Just a few more statistics.  Please keep your eyes from glazing over if you can.  The middle class has shrunk from 59% to 50% from 1981 until 2015 (oh my, the middle class is dying).  Are the inhabitants of the lost nine percent living under bridges and rummaging in dumpsters as the twenty-four-hour news cycle may have you believing? The reality is a bit different. Although the so called lower middle class has grown from 26% to 29%,  the higher income upper class has grown from 15% to 21%. The rich have gotten richer, and there are more poor, but again the news is mixed. Two thirds of the diminishing middle class moved up a notch, while one third went backwards. Not that statistics make those who have fallen behind feel any better (perhaps even worse), but as John Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things.”

Difficult challenges remain ahead: promised benefits to those who contributed much for their whole working lives like Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy, and while annual deficits began to diminish, overall national debt has doubled yet again in the last eight years to a daunting $18 trillion. Undocumented immigrant workers must be resolved; they came here illegally, but without them not much would be constructed, mowed, cleaned or harvested. An implacable murderous cadre derived from a worldwide huge, heretical sect that preaches conversion by the sword and a brutal unforgiving sharia law enforced to the death. Radical Islam wants us dead. The political courage and will to fix these has not been apparent of late, but that does not preclude the rise of necessary leadership and the willing compromises of the rest of us from remedies.  However, our immediate prospects are not as dire as most believe.

So why are we so angry and depressed as a culture? So divided? So unwilling to participate in reasonable problem solving and positive communication? And so entrenched in shouting across an unbridged chasm with vitriol, condemnation and accusations of stupidity expressed as superficially clever bumper sticker slogans and insulting memes? Neither side of the chasm is guiltless in this regard as we all Facebook and Twitter away, while congratulating our associated true believers with “Likes,” laughing emoticons and clichéd internet shorthand acronyms.

“A nation divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln

franklin-jefferson-adamsToo many aspects of this destructive phenomenon to explore in a blog post, but we can look at one: what the shrinks call “confirmation bias “– that damnable tendency to filter new information per our preconceived ideas.  We believe readily everything negative about those whom we judge harshly and remain resolutely tone deaf to everything negative on our side of the big chasm. The converse also applies: we believe nothing positive of the devils on the other side and every scintilla of remotely encouraging news about our guy (or girl).

 In short we believe ourselves to be right (or else why would we believe it?), but we lose our way and become mired in the sludge of our willingness to demean those with whom we disagree. They are morons, evil and better off dead. We not only disagree, we condemn in the basest terms possible.  If Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who disagreed on many issues about the structure of a new nation, had not worked so very hard to overcome profound differences, we might still be singing “God Save the Queen.”

Why can’t we sit down with a cup of coffee or an adult beverage or break some bread, put on our big boy pants as Tom Hanks recently suggested and be willing to engage in rational polite discussion to present and defend our side and to listen in good faith to those with whom we differ?  No vitriol, no accusations of imbecility or demonic possession, just a conversation. Maybe we can all expand our little gray cells and comprehension, and while we may not end up in agreement in every regard, there is a chance we can understand the other a bit better. In that we may begin to forge a way ahead we can all live with.  To yell from the sidelines and hope our leaders of one stripe or another fail us once again is like hoping the driver of the bus we are all on drives off a cliff. Can we leave behind our compulsion to please our likeminded fellows, and stop poisoning political speech? Perhaps we can find both useful discourse and real solutions.

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.” Aristotle

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Three Year Olds and Socratic Learning

“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.”  Lou Holtz

Angela and Meg 1988

Angela and Meg 1988

When our youngest daughter Meg was around four, we were walking around our old neighborhood in Providence. As we approached one house, we were accosted by a malodorous intrusion.  My first thoughts were ‘broken septic pipe’; my second was that all smells are particulate, which was not comforting. I realized that Meg was just trying to reconcile an unpleasant incident and her previous experiences with smells outdoors.  “Dad, is someone having a yucky cookout?” I read that the average four-year-old asks four hundred questions a day. I thought that was an exaggeration until we encountered Meg, a mischief always ready to throw something or run from a call home and always ready to ask a question, most of the time with five follow up questions. She outdid the most dogged of journalists.

Curious Mary

Curious Mary 2015

Our third granddaughter Mary may outdo her Aunty Meg with questions. She gauges the temperature in the room, especially when she thinks she may have crossed a line. “Are you mad?” “Are you sad?” “Are you happy?”  A couple of months ago, she wanted to clear up an issue of compelling interest to her at the moment. When she was instructed to stop picking her nose (which is a remarkably cute one), she immediately asked, “Can I pick the other one?” She needed to know if the prohibition was nostril specific – not an unnecessary clarification for a three-year-old. Curiosity is what leads us first to knowledge, then to understanding, and then perhaps with “know thyself” good fortune, wisdom – that most necessary of gifts.

The wisest teach with questions, many times not providing all the answers themselves, but leading each inquiring mind to seek the truth. Not to say that truth is solely subjective, but that finding elusive, objective truth is not for the weak of spirit or mind. Socrates taught with questions and reminded us that only by coming to grasp with our own ignorance do we scratch out the beginnings of wisdom. In the biblical history of Jesus of Nazareth, we observe that in all His recorded utterances, He answered directly only ten of the one hundred and eighty-seven questions He was asked. He related parables and stories. In those same scriptures He asked three hundred questions.

“Try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.” Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”

We have learned as a people and as individuals mostly by asking questions: the right questions. For those most difficult to understand questions, a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes, are necessary, and the illumination of history helps. This is most difficult, for to understand our history, wisdom is learning what the events of history were to those who lived them, not in the revisionist light of our own interpretation. The corollary is also dismayingly true. As contemporaries within our own defining events, we don’t know how they will turn out; what the outcome will be in a hundred years or twenty of this cultural phenomenon or this movement of our rulers or this election, we cannot know.  Our understanding while living within these events is indispensable, and the decisions we make elucidated by that understanding equally so, but we cannot know, definitively know. We can surmise based on what has happened to others in similar cultural changes, making analogous choices perhaps. While consequences are to some degree predictable, absolute certainty is not ours to have.

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”

So let’s ask a few:

  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that industrial capitalism and consumerism needs reform.
  • Is that needed reform to descend into revolution and chaos as the so-called Protestant Reformation did when the sixteenth century Church required reform from its excesses and faults? Is that reform to be clumsily centralized by a coercive government or localized to the town, the association, the parish, the congregation, the family and the person? Will we learn from the last century’s bloody experiments of “reform” of capitalism with fascist and communist usurpation?
  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that the hedonism and self-absorption of a culture cannot lead anyplace good.
  • Will we regain our footing and recover a culture that seeks happiness planted in the rich soil of wisdom rather than in dissociated pleasure, shallow rooted in ephemera and trifling entertainments and sexual license? Will our inclinations lead to further degradation of the dignity and individual worth of every human life? Will our lives tend towards despair or hope; fear and anger or persistence and courage; bitterness or joy; ignorance or faith; hatred or love; humility or the condemning certainty of the self-righteous? Will we spend our precious time in regrets about the past we cannot change or neglecting the present for the chimera of the future while today is all that we have?

 “As you get older, the questions come down to two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?” David Bowie

The final questions I leave to those much wiser than I.  From Hilaire Belloc’s brilliant book, The Great Heresies, “But sooner or later every human being who thinks at all, everyone not an idiot, is faced by this Problem of Evil; and as we watch the human race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that insistent question: Why should we suffer? Why should we die?”

And from John Henry Newman: “On my deathbed, issues that agitate me most now will then interest me not at all; objects about which I have intense hope and fear now will then be nothing more than things that happen at the other end of the earth. They will have no life in them, those things that once consumed me. They will be as faded flowers of a bouquet that do nothing but mock me. What will it avail me to have been rich or great or fortunate or honored or influential?”

 Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions
Are they lost or are they found?
Have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?”
  Bob Dylan, “Slow Train”

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Spiders and Such

“He fancied he had seen the festering truth that lies at the heart of all bureaucracies: his report, he decided like all reports and all decisions could probably wait until next week.   Bureaucracy, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Help

Walking into an unlit, dank, dirt floored cellar brings with it an irrational foreboding. When my face runs into several spider webs, the distasteful sensation of clinging suffocation comes with an urge to panic, to abandon my exploration and frantically rub off the sticky filaments. My imagination jumps unbidden to a twitching in unseen regions of the webs, movement with weight and purpose, significant arachnids – fetid with predatory fangs, and my eyes feel vulnerable.

Walking into the Department of Motor Vehicles for a simple transaction like registering a vehicle and picking up license plates brings with it a sense of foreboding as well. How long will this take?  How much will it cost? How unpleasant will the experience be?  Can I wipe away the clinging after effects without getting bitten? This week, an experience reinforced the dread, emblematic of what entrenched bureaucracy can inflict upon the innocent.  Well, pretty much innocent.

The first step was positive: five minute wait to the check in desk, then the unraveling began. A pleasant woman looked over my prepared paperwork and declared it complete and ready to get in line for a take a number wait. Then she checked her DMV records and discovered a tax block on new or renewed registrations from my old hometown–speed bump. I went back to my truck and unsheathed my trusty smartphone.  A quick search got me the phone number for the City of Providence Tax Collector’s Office; I called it four times. Each time it rang fifteen times or so with no capacity for voicemail and hung up on me.  Undaunted, I went on their website.  Found my records, and they showed back excise taxes due on my old car from 2015 and 2016. Apparently when I changed my address for the registration, the DMV hadn’t notified the City of Providence. They had done so for Rita’s car, but not mine. The Post Office had stopped forwarding my mail, and I was unaware of the problem.

Since I had lived in Middletown for those years, I didn’t owe the taxes, but if I was to get my plates that day, which I needed to do, the easier course was to pay them, release the block and fight it out another day. Back on my phone on the website, I was maneuvering to pay the bill with a credit card on my phone.  I entered my address as asked, but it would not accept the payment because it wanted my old Providence address.  Joseph Heller wrote about this bureaucratic predisposition and named it for our times: Catch 22. My old address would qualify me to pay, but my credit card required my current address.  Tried calling them again-same result. Put my smartphone away and started my truck to drive the forty five minutes to Providence. One must maintain commitment to the task.

Three visits to two offices and a trip to my bank to get a certified check later (the City of Providence accepts credit cards on their website, but has no machines in the collector’s office), I was able to pay the bill.  I was told there was one more line to endure, so I brought the paid receipt ten feet to another caged station, waited again and begged for the release from the tax block at the DMV—actually I sang a couple of lines from the old Engelbert Humperdinck recording, “Please Release Me.”  The clerk laughed, indulged me and worked her magic on their operating system. Dunkin Donuts drive through for sustenance fortified me for the forty five minutes back to the DMV in Middletown.

I stood in the line this time for ten minutes at the check in booth. A new clerk stamped her  imprimatur on my paperwork, found no tax block and issued my number: A342. With a heart full of hope, I consigned myself to the oak benches cleverly designed for discomfort with fifty others, heard them announce A328 and judged myself nearing the finish line. As it turned out there were “C” and “E” numbers too.  Two hours later, my number was called. With hat in hand and with bated breath, I went to yet another stand up booth with a barrier and presented myself with a clean slate. It took another fifteen minutes or so while she left to search for the right plates, took my sales tax and fees and printed out my new registration. I dragged myself home six hours after I ran to the registry to get my plates. Talked to my daughter and her beautiful girls out in the yard under the old sugar maple tree and began my recovery.

 

“The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.”  Eugene McCarthy

 

Climbing-mountain-of-paperMy brother has been trying to help my ninety five year old mother obtain some help with her ever increasing need for nursing care from Mass Health (the model for Obamacare). He had to fill out a thirty eight page form. I called him, thinking that in his email he had to be exaggerating for effect.  Nope. Greg tried three times over two days to fax it to them. He got receipts certifying thirty eight pages had gone through without error each time. When he called them time after time, they said they never got it.  He persisted (necessary family trait dealing with government agencies) and held someone on the phone while he faxed it again, and they acknowledged that they had it. Over eighty years of paying taxes (her Social Security benefits are taxed), and she would need thirty eight pages to get some help. Without assistance from her family, she would not have a chance.

All the functionaries in my tale were courteous, most with smiles and wanting to help. No doubt the various managers and government agencies spent hugely on mandatory customer service training for their clerks after years of bad press about arrogant and unresponsive bureaucrats. Not the people anymore, but the fault is in the nature of the institution. Bureaucracies are terribly good at a few things: self perpetuation and clothing themselves in myriad rules that once set are holy; making new rules, arcane and impossible to understand; propagate like lab mice the detailed, redundant forms with jot and tittle pitfalls; and metastasizing like a malignancy.

The failures and flaws of Obamacare[i] reveal themselves as it settles in:  one third of the country with only one or no ACA exchange options in 2017; 16 to 23% increases in premiums in many regions this year; doctors retiring or cutting back due to the bureaucracy and rules to see more patients for whom they can possibly give quality care. I lost my doctor of over fifteen years because he ended his PCP practice to limit his work to cardiology. Joe told us he couldn’t see as many patients as the enforced standards mandated and still personalize, make more human and competently care for them without fear of making a terrible error. He is a superb care provider. I told him I would see him again when my heart gives out. Of course, not to worry, the government solution is what will invariably be the progressive government solution: more government bureaucracy and a single payer system. To be assured medical care will be less responsive, will engender multiple lines of the vacant-eyed disconsolate, and deliver poorer care with stacks of forms. Picture the DMV with physician assistants, computer diagnosis of our symptoms and clerks—lots of clerks with smiley faces and customer service certificates of training in their booths.

 

“If you’re going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy.  God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.  Hyman Rickover

 

 

 

[i] Experts Predict Sharp Decline in Competition across the ACA Exchanges.  Avalere, Health care analysis and think tank.

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Independence Day 2016

Father Nick Smith celebrated his seventy-five birthday last week. Although retired, he, like many a good priest of sharp mind, blessed with deep faith and good health, never really fully retires. Father Nick still celebrates Mass a couple of times each weekend and is listed in our parish bulletin at Saint Patrick Church on Smith Hill in Providence as Senior Priest. Educated originally in the city of his birth, Dublin, Ireland, he emigrated to the United States while still a young priest. Thoughtful, kind and with a smile that would calm the savage beast, we are blessed to know him. The gentle lilt of his native brogue in his homilies brings to mind the poetry of the Irish soul. His passion clear, his authenticity doubtless.

This morning’s Mass was no exception to his well-regarded homilies and earned him enthusiastic applause, which, as most know, is not the norm for Catholic Masses, although at St. Pat’s with Father Nick and our pastor Father James Ruggieri is not an infrequent occurrence. Both are extraordinary priests and homilists. For this Fourth of July, I asked Father Nick for a copy of his homily, and with his permission, share it with you as a guest blogger today for our celebration of this anniversary of our country’s birth as an independent nation, now nearing a quarter of a millennium. Warts and all.

 Independence Day, Father Nicholas Smith

Father NickIn recent years the famous Tall Ships have been in New England, including Newport, and I understand will visit Boston next year. It’s quite amazing the thousands who come out to see them: the parade, the pageantry, and the color of it all. And well they might.

The country was discovered by a man on a ship! The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on a ship! Many of us wouldn’t be here if someone back in our family tree hadn’t come to this country by ship.  Tall ships, small ships, passenger ships, cargo ships.  All in a very unique way remind us of who we are and from whence we’ve come.

Tomorrow is the 240th birthday of the founding of our nation. Independence Day is the commemoration of what those peoples sought when they landed on these shores long ago. The first boat people, sailing away from slavery, persecution, famine to a new world of justice and equality and peace. So we don’t celebrate the land at this time nearly as much as we salute a people who came and fought and in many cases died for the privilege of being free. That’s the gift of the Founding Fathers right there in the historic Bill of Rights! That we are all free – free to come and go – free to worship – free to vote for those we want to lead us, and vote out those we don’t.

But we remember—with some reverence even—we remember that this freedom is both delicate and dangerous. It doesn’t mean that you can do what you want. It has its limitations. And the fundamental restriction is, of course, that your freedom cannot infringe on the freedom of another.

As an immigrant myself, I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating.

  • No one would want to live in an America where you can be mugged or robbed or shot.
  • No one would want to be a citizen here, and be at the mercy of the Ku Klux Klan or the hatred of the Nazi Party.
  • No would want to live in an area where you’re threatened simply because you happen to be of a particular color or race or creed.

These are sad realities.

  • We’re not free when people in some areas of cities have to put five locks on their doors for protection.
  • We’re not free to walk down the street at night.
  • We’re not free in so many ways.

Because America the Beautiful is also America the violent. The abuse of freedom—a warped sense of freedom—freedom gone wrong is rampant.

Nowhere is freedom more delicate than in the whole relationship of Church and State. They should be separate. We should be free to worship how and where we want. But when you get down to the individual person, you cannot split him up. You and I are both American Catholics. Not one or the other, but both.

So when the priest in the pulpit speaks out on the sacredness of life or against abortion for example, not only is he free to do so as an American, but it’s his duty and responsibility as an apostle of Jesus Christ. What we’re free to do is to accept God’s Laws or reject them. What we’re not free to do is to make them, or twist them around to suit our whims. Jesus gave us God’s Laws, and we are followers of Christ.

Rejection, incidentally, of Christ’s laws didn’t begin today or yesterday. It can be traced all the way back to scripture. “Come to me. Come after me,” is essentially what Jesus is saying in that beautiful gospel today. Clearly, a significant number didn’t then, and don’t now.

On this great weekend, however, we want to look at the positive! God knows we get enough of the other. So, if nothing more, recall the immortal words of President Kennedy, words which every American child should know like you know the Hail Mary. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

The only America we can pass on to the people of tomorrow is the one we create today and love today. If you’re not satisfied with it, stop sitting on the sidelines and complaining. Work at making it better—doing your bit to make it a country of high moral standards, a country of neighborliness and justice and charity. A country where the phrase “In God we trust” is more than just words on a coin.

So what are we celebrating today?

  • We’re celebrating the past—the people of the ships—your forefathers, who sacrificed not only that we could be, but that we could be free.
  • We celebrate the future—the hopes, the dreams, the ideals we have for our children—and theirs.
  • But also, and most important in my opinion, we celebrate the present—one another—because all we’ve got is one another.

Let’s pray in this Mass that we can grasp anew something of the great gift of freedom—and the responsibility that flows from that gift.

Let’s pray that God’s kingdom

  • A kingdom of love, not hate.
  • Of hope, not despair.
  • Of peace, and not war

That this kingdom of God may penetrate our very beings and sweep through this land from ‘sea to shining sea.’

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