Category Archives: Journal

Born on Third Base

Chuck Collins, heir to a wealthy trust fund, decided at age 26 to transfer his wealth to four grant-making foundations. He made this decision after working with a group of mobile home owners struggling to raise money to buy the land where they parked their trailers.

Collins could no longer justify to himself his advantages over the “99 percent” (including those mobile home owners) because he was born wealthy. He had paid his college expenses out of his trust fund, yet had seen that fund double during his college years.

He likens being born wealthy to being Born on Third Base, the title of his book. He did not earn the education or the upper class home or the security and safety that would forever give him an advantage over the 99 percent, even if he gave away his money.

However, Collins is not interested in shaming the wealthy. His goal is to convince the wealthy to become partners in building a more just society.

He points out the benefits reaped by Americans of a few decades ago which grew the economy of the country: GI education bills, cheaper college tuition, affordable mortgages for homes, workers’ wages that were not so unequal to those of their bosses, higher taxation on the wealthy.

He believes some redistribution of income is only fair, since the wealthy have themselves benefitted from subsidies for years: tax breaks, for example, which amount to a subsidy for the more well off. He favors a “GI Bill for the next generation.”

He wants the help of the rich in creating a tax system in which the wealthy pay their fair share. He hopes to persuade them to understand “the shortsightedness of an economic system that funnels most income to the few.”

Digital Servants: Candidates for Spiritual Discipline

Spiritual disciplines aren’t necessarily about giving up evil practices. They deal more with disciplining ourselves to control the neutral or even good things in our lives.

Food is not only enjoyable but necessary. So is our need for social interaction.

But just as we can overeat, we can overindulge in the time we spend with our digital devices.

We gain too much weight, not only from overeating, but also from eating the wrong kinds of food like refined sugar and trans fats.

We can spend time with the wrong kinds of digital input like pornography, but we can also waste time with gossipy items on celebrities.

In my case, I’m inclined to overdose on news items. In the hyper charged political climate we live in, I can spend hours following rabbit trails about our political leaders and their outrageous antics.

I try to limit the number of times I enter internet space. The early morning tends to be my most productive time for writing, so except for checking the weather, I ignore the internet, including emails. Than, after a few hours of writing, I break for exercise and checking the news on my iPad.

Unless I’m waiting for something urgent, I wait for afternoon to check emails, scanning for important items that may need a response, and deleting junk stuff. The more important reading I usually save until later in the day, when I feel I’ve accomplished more worthwhile tasks.

Obviously, if communication is a regular part of your job, or you are a parent of young children, or you work in certain kinds of employment, your routine will differ.

The point is to discipline ourselves to use our devices at proper times of our choosing. They are helpful servants but atrocious masters.

Thoughts on Reading Atlas Shrugged

I read Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, several years ago. Granted I did occasionally skim through the dialog, some of which is not dialog but long speeches. (Presenters at writers’ conferences warn novelists to avoid this type of dialog like a mortal sin.)

The main characters are Dagny Taggart, a railroad magnate, and the mysterious John Galt, who, as it turns out, has established a hidden capitalist nirvana, for such people as Taggart. As the world collapses from the weight of the undeserving masses living off the work of the brave capitalists, true capitalism lives on in this heavenly retreat.

As I read Rand’s book, I wondered what happened to people who were handicapped or became ill. Unfortunate accidents do happen to people, rendering them unable to work. Do we leave such people by the side of the road to die? Kill them, resembling Nazis executioners?

Following World War II, capitalism defeated Soviet-style communism, which Rand knew as a child and rebelled against. Capitalism is an efficient way to run an economy, as long as capitalists are understood as humans like the rest of us. Any of us can become dangerous if we have unfettered power—whether we are socialists or capitalists.

Would some capitalists, being human, if given absolute power, not be tempted to worship wealth? To accumulate wealth with little regard for worker safety or clean air and water or the ability of their workers to afford decent housing or send their children to college with the wages paid them?

Read Adam Lee Alternet’s critique of this book in Salon (“10 (insane) things I learned about Atlas Shrugged,” April 29, 2014) for some interesting observations.

Then read other views of Rand’s philosophy in The New York Times.

When We Want the Good Guy/Gal to Win, but They Don’t

The good guy or gal traditionally wins in movies and books because we want him/her to do so. Most of us want good to win. We want fairness to win. We want the oppressed underdog to win. Stories that play to this deep-seated hunger satisfy us.

More books and movies today project a dark edge. Evil may win or, as in Gone Girl, the story doesn’t have a “good” protagonist.

Perhaps we are exhausted by the violence and hatred we witness in today’s world, the seemingly endless acts of anger: ISIS, school shootings, road rage, political hatred, slaughter of children in Syria—they go on and on and on. Perhaps the new stories cater to our pessimism.

Choosing hope while working for change during times of hopelessness requires courage. Those who do so are the placeholders. They keep hope alive for better times.

 

Leaving Our Tribe

Whenever we leave a “tribe”—a group of people we’ve been closely associated with for a period of time—we may feel we’ve lost our identity on returning to “normal” society.

One combat veteran who suffered post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suggested that veterans of combat be sent back together when returning to civilian life. They had formed a unit. Perhaps return to society could be done together. They would confront “normal” life as a unit, just as they faced combat together. (What It Is Like to Go to War; Karl Marlantes)

In Saudi Arabia in 2003, where I served with U.S. embassy and consulate staffs during the second Gulf war against Iraq, we had experienced a prolonged period of increasing danger to Americans. Several terrorist incidents finally led to partial evacuation of staff.

As one of those sent “home,” I experienced a strange sense of loss. My disorientation was hardly worthy of the name when compared with someone returning from combat. Yet the sensation, half of sorrow for no longer having a “tribe” of fellow colleagues facing danger together, was real enough.

I incorporated them into one character’s feelings in Tender Shadows on her return to the States from a similar situation:

“ . . . she remembered last evening in her sterile apartment. Flipping through fifty television channels from sheer loneliness and finding nothing of worth. The country she’d come back to . . . offered twenty-four-hour food service, shop-‘til-you-drop malls, and movies filled with angst and black humor. Washington allowed no ready-made community like her foreign assignments.”

For this fictional character as with others in real life stressful situations, community is the missing ingredient.

Capitalism: Neither God nor Satan

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s incisive book, Strangers in Their Own Land, portrays citizens in Louisiana caught between watching the industrialized devastation of their beloved state and their need for jobs. “It’s the sacrifice we make for capitalism,” one says.

Some of us see capitalism as some kind of god that we must serve. One may also worship socialism or money or government. In fact, all, it seems to me, are neutral, capable of either evil or good, depending on the type of allegiance we give them.

A saying of the early Christian missionary, Paul, is often quoted as “money is the root of all evil.” That is not what he said. He said “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil . . .” It’s the love of money (or capitalism or government or whatever) that is the problem.

Capitalism is neutral. It can be used for good: money from individuals pooled to form companies and create jobs. Or it can be used for evil: the extraction of maximum profit no matter what ecological or human damage it causes.

Government, I believe is similar. It is neither good nor evil in itself. Rightly used, government protects us from foreign enemies, crime, and economic predators. It can create programs that serve its citizens, like social security, in a way that private industry can’t.

Wrongly used, it can take from workers in order to give to the wealthy. Without adequate oversight, its resources can be wasted or riven with corruption.

Workers, needing jobs, tend to worship capitalism and hate government. Others, seeing only the tragedy of ecological devastation, tend to reverse their worship.

In fact, worship is a poor choice for either. Better is a watchful use of both.

You’re Not From Here, Are You?

As I shopped in a supermarket in my northwest U.S. community, a woman asked me where she might find a certain item. I gave her the information.

“You’re not from here, are you?” she responded.

I admitted my birth and rearing in Nashville, Tennessee. It doesn’t matter that I’ve lived all over the United States and in several foreign countries for decades. The accent remains.

I was reminded of my origins when I read an article in The New York Times, “The Passion of Southern Christians” (April 8, 2017) by Margaret Renkl.

One paragraph especially moved me, reading it as I did after returning from a church service a week before Easter. The service had reminded us of Jesus’ disciple, Peter, and his actions following the arrest of Jesus by the authorities.

Fearful of consequences if he was seen as a Jesus person, Peter denied all connection with him. One person thought Peter had to be a follower, though, because his Galilean accent betrayed him.

Renkl wrote: “I have a lot of sympathy for Peter these days. Here it is nearly Easter, and for the first time in my life I don’t want anyone to know I’m a believer. To many, ‘Christian’ has become synonymous with angry white voters in red hats, personally responsible for handcuffing all those mothers and wrenching them out of their sobbing children’s arms.”

Yes, I’m a Southerner, still following Jesus, the person I first learned about in a church in Nashville, Tennessee. So it’s not just my accent but my religious persuasion that may mark me as “not from here.”

Despite the accent and the religion, I didn’t vote for Trump. As Renkl writes, “Watching Christians put him in the White House has completely broken my heart.”

On the other hand, with Renkl, I believe in resurrection. The accent matters no more in the Christian faith than those early differences between Jew and Gentile.

So What’s Wrong with Doubt?

In a thought provoking article, Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, spoke with a Christian pastor, Timothy Keller: ( “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?” December 23, 2016).

Keller makes the argument that faith and skepticism are not necessarily opposites. Reasoning can, and probably should be, a part of faith. He also answers in the affirmative that he and most people of faith struggle with doubt at times.

Keller says, “Neither statement—‘There is no supernatural reality beyond this world’ and ‘There is a transcendent reality beyond this material world’—can be proved empirically, nor is either self-evident to most people. So they both entail faith.”

Useless wars, religious and otherwise, have been fought between groups, each certain of their reasons for killing the other. The author Ron Hansen was quoted as saying, “the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.”

Mystics, whom we hold to be especially close to God, have nevertheless spoken of a “dark night of the soul,” a moment of despair that they must work through.

According to the Christian New Testament, even Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” when he was suffering crucifixion.

Faith that is tested can be a stronger faith for that testing.

What Minority Do You Belong To?

Though hate crimes against American Muslims (or people perceived as such) have increased, recent news has focused on the increasing numbers of hate crimes against American Jews.

David Harris Gershon, a writer for various publications, wrote an article in November, 2015, about American hatred of Muslims from the viewpoint of a Jewish American.

Some of his remarks seem especially prophetic today:

“. . . I have watched the growth of our nation’s post 9/ll Islamophobia with not just heartbreak for Muslim Americans, but with a tinge of fear, knowing this hatred could easily boomerang and hit any group—including Jews—if allowed to continue.”

Gershon wrote after an armed band of men, some masked, stood outside a Muslim center in Dallas. They were there, they said, to protest the Islamization of America, as well as Syrian refugees, and Islam in general. Obviously, any Muslims coming to worship there would be intimidated, which no doubt was their purpose.

Whether against Jews, Muslims, Christians, persons of color, Suni, Shia, Hindus, evangelicals, tea partyers, liberals, conservatives, or any of the thousands of religious and political communities known in the world today, hate is hate.

And every one of us is a member of some minority.

Here is Gershon’s article.

Why We Can’t Sleep at Night

Andrew Sullivan, in New York Magazine (Feb 10, 2017), explores the way politics has dominated American lives since the last presidential election. Then he contrasts normal life in the United States with a dictatorship.

In a dictatorship, people are always anxious, waiting for the unasked next entry of the Great Leader into their lives in whatever unpredictable form he wishes.

By contrast: “One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. . . . A free society means being free of those who rule over you.”

The dominance of the Trump presidency in the news far exceeds that of past administrations. Its unpredictability keeps us uneasy. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. It doesn’t follow historic precedents and breaks many rules of civility. We retain a watchful uneasiness.

Sullivan compares the situation to a child trapped in a house with an abusive and unpredictable father, “who will brook no reason, respect no counter argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe strikes.”

One answer, Sullivan says, is for the press to fight every lie for what it is.

But much of the responsibility also falls on us, the ordinary citizens, to read widely in reputable media. Discernment between fake news—also called alternate facts—and the truth is our job. We can be careful what we post through social media. We can lower the decibels in our digital discussions. We can show more respect for those with whom we disagree and pay attention to what they say.

We also have congressional representatives and senators. They’re paid to listen to us. (If they won’t hold town halls, then call, write, and email them.) And we can vote in responsible men and women when we have opportunity.

Read Sullivan’s article in full.

Sidney Chambers in The Forgiveness of Sins by James Runcie

The Forgiveness of Sins is the fourth book of the Grantchester mystery series. These stories are not suspense stories but quiet mysteries, involving more than solving a crime. They offer insight into problems of evil, sin, and redemption. Critics have compared the series to G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries.

The main character of the Grantchester series, however, is drawn more fully. He is Sidney Chambers, an Anglican priest. He loves jazz and walking his dog. He constantly worries that his investigative pursuits may keep him from both his priestly duties and, eventually, his family responsibilities.

Single at the beginning of the series, he marries and becomes a father. Many of the mysteries involve close friends. One of his sidekicks in the stories is a policeman friend with whom he enjoys games and drinks in a neighborhood pub.

My enjoyment of the stories springs from the dry, British-understated dialog, as well as occasional inclusion of the political and cultural events of his time. The series begins shortly after World War II, when rationing was in effect. In The Forgiveness of Sins, Sidney and his family are in Florence, Italy in 1966 during the disastrous floods that ravaged the city. A masterpiece stolen during the flood plays into one of the mysteries.

During times of turmoil, such as the one unleashed by recent political events, I find such books as the Grantchester series to be soothing while thoughtful, a rest from some of our dystopian who-done-its.

A reviewer of the series for The Seattle Times, Mary Ann Gwinn, wrote: “Runcie meant these novels to be a commentary on life in post-World War II Britain, and so they are. But the themes of good and evil, temptation and sacrifice, remain as fresh as today’s news feed.”

Success: How Much Depends on You Alone?

Robert H. Frank, in his book Success and Luck, explores the role played by luck in the success or lack of it in a person’s life.

Those of a spiritual nature may prefer the term providence instead of luck, but no matter. Frank suggests the good fortune of a person with talent born in the United States rather than, say, war-ravaged Libya. Or the young girl whose parents care for her rather than the girl abandoned by her father and “raised” by a mother on drugs.

Frank doesn’t downplay the role of hard work. Many people beginning with life against them do succeed. He points out, however, that others with talent and a strong work ethic don’t make it to the top but live mediocre lives.

He includes studies to back his claims as well as the results of differing attitudes. Those who believe that their good fortune is a result only of their own efforts are less likely to favor programs giving the less well off a chance to improve their lives.

On the other hand, those successful people who realize how little they deserve their good fortune tend to be filled with gratitude for the good that has befallen them. They are much more likely to favor helping those who were not favored with such advantages. They wish to pay it ahead.