Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Another Ward

I realize that there was no blog entry last week. My excuse is that we were involved in eight days of child care of three grandchildren, the oldest only five. We had a few tough moments, but got through it OK. There could be a bonus blog this week.

The Church (the same one I always write about) from time to time looks around and notices a large number of single members in a certain area. In an effort to let these folks know they are known and appreciated, the Church will sometimes sponsor a local "conference" for singles for a couple of days. If attending members should meet and become attracted to one another, well, that's not a bad thing, is it?
A family member attended one of these wingdings in the Midwest. She's under 35 years old, and turned out to be the youngest person there by 10 years or more. What was even more surprising was to be outnumbered by people using walkers (2), and to see at least one attendee pulling one of those little portable oxygen tanks. Hearing that, I don't know whether to shake my head in sympathy or take my hat off in recognition of their unfailing optimism. Maybe both.

And while we're on the subject, after the return of the parents Saturday evening, we were free on Sunday to attend one of the local congregations, known as "wards". The closest one is in an upscale community on the East side of the San Francisco Bay area.
Everyone is welcome at these meetings, which are intended to be operated in pretty much in the same way throughout the world. Still, you can't help noticing these these are folks, let's face it, are pretty well off. Otherwise, they would be members somewhere else, since this church is about the only one that's organized geographically based on the members' home addresses.
Ward members don't build their church buildings themselves, but you could easily tell a thing or two just by observing the parking lot. Minivans, large SUV's and luxury cars predominated. A motorcycle or dune buggy would have stuck out like lobster at a bar mitzvah. The ward members weren't all white, but I don't recall any hispanic faces, either. All the men wore dress shirts and ties, with suits outnumbering sport coats. The women wore dresses and skirts, and the children, and there were plenty of them, were nicely done up in imitation of their parents.
As in wards everywhere, the ward members performed musical selections and provided the sermons in a meeting that went just over an hour. The messages given were not untypical, but little personal stories used to illustrate revealed a little about the lives of the speakers. "When we were in Europe going through the art museums there..." began one story. Another speaker recalled that on the morning of 9/11/01, he was commuting to his job at the Northern Trust in Chicago. He wasn't bragging. He was just setting the scene for his story, which later somehow connected to Jesus.
I noticed a couple of other things that were new to me. Our ward has weekly printed programs, but this one included little bios of the speakers, and also listed the postlude musical selection (Bach), which was sadly ignored by the ward members. I guess they get old J.S. Bach every week.
I don't know these folks personally. And I have no reason to think that they weren't perfectly fine people, or that I wouldn't be proud to know any of them. Dropping in to visit two or three times a year, we may never know them very well. Still, sometimes it's the little, unintended things that tell you more about people than they might intend.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Could it Happen?

From the days of my youth, I've heard the message of the American political Right. "We'll give you small government, which will never interfere with your lives as long as you keep the law, which we guarantee won't be anything complicated or oppressive. We promise not to be like Democrats, who want to take over your whole life."
The message was there even through the Bush years, which should have revealed to anyone with half a brain that the days of simple, unobtrusive, easygoing government were gone forever.
How do I know they're gone? You get little glimpses into the thinking of the Right just by observing. Last week, for instance, the conservative members of the Texas State Board of Education noted that they had the power to dictate school text contents over a wide range of social science issues.They proceeded, using a straight party line majority, to ignore even the idea of small government, except as applied to, as Texans say, "bidness." Future students from Texas (and plenty of other states, too) will get special material on hundreds of subjects ranging from "American Exceptionalism", the proper workings of the free enterprise system, the great Conservative resurgence of the 1980's and 90's, proper Second Amendment interpretation, Phyllis Schlafly, the Moral Majority and the NRA. Not everything is changed - the largely discontinued terms "B.C." and "A.D." are retained. All this from the "small government" guys. Why go to such lengths to slant the message in public schools? The short answer - because they can.
Here's the real message from the Right, though it's not the one they want you to hear. "Small or no government for whatever I'm doing, but maximum government for whatever you have in mind." In fact, I've wondered how things would change if a virus that only killed liberals were to infect the land, leaving only the "small government" faithful of the GOP to remake all the government policies we've come to know.
Assuming no effective death bed repentance, the population would immediately become more masculine, white and "Christian" (a term which I realize is subject to interpretation). Some things would disappear pretty quickly. Abortions could only be obtained in a far corner of Montana, sports for women would be retained strictly on a "pay your own way" basis, and Congress would try to pound rap music into extinction by pointing at its "anti-American" image. Trade unions would disappear, and the term "Democratic" would become as rare as "Whig".
Foreign policy would be based on a simple list of five "Principles of Freedom", the breaking of any one of which by another nation would invite nuclear destruction. Other nations would be invited to join our "New Awakening", but only as junior partners. At least one of the five Principles would involve making threats, overt or covert, as judged by POTUS alone, against Israel. GITMO would triple in size and the CIA director's name would become secret, though he would be a member of the Cabinet. Torture would receive yet another name - "Christian Re-education". Anyone who died from it would be assumed to have converted after successful deathbed repentance.
Eventually, the Republican Party would face factions. The dope-using, tattoo-sporting, Sabbath-ignoring, leave-me-alone types would be known as Freedom Republicans or "Freppies", and would be the smaller branch of the Party, while corporate interests and their followers would make up the National Republicans or "Nats", who would constantly lobby for more defense spending and less for the environment. Corporations would pay no taxes, and the difference would be made up by surcharges on movie tickets and alcoholic drinks. Smoking would be more popular, while the ensuing spike in the death rate would be blamed on "poor parenting". A possible final split between these two GOP groups could revolve around the question "Should concealed handguns be merely legal or, to save on local law enforcement and discourage crime, should they be made compulsory for those over 15 years old who could pass a simple eye exam?"
Of course, you know I'm only speculating here based on what I've observed. But could it happen? Oh, sure.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shame on Them

I found myself in an actual conversation with a teenage girl last weekend. That's pretty rare, not, I hope, because they all dislike me, but because they just seldom have any real reason to talk with me. To them, I'm just another old guy. I understand.
This particular teenage girl is a crack student, as well as an athlete. She plays on her school's varsity basketball team even though she's only a sophomore and not yet 16 years old. I asked about the team and got a surprising answer, one that gave out some gossipy details describing which teammates are friends and which aren't. This was in the conversation's first two minutes. We were in a large noisy arena, and so our time was limited, but it reminded me of something I should never forget: males and females see things differently, and heaven help the coach/teacher/church leader who forgets it.

I have stated before in this space that not all the good guys in our political world come from one side, and that the nature of a "one winner" system means that both sides are tempted to bend the truth. It's a "tough old business", no question. When you throw in things like the radio right, the "punditocracy", TV's talking heads and even a comedy show or two, the lines can become very blurry.
Having so stated, I still have to shake my head in disbelief over the recent disclosures regarding the next GOP campaign plans. Through the ineptitude of one attendee at a strategy meeting in Boca Raton, FL (in winter these events seldom take place in Fargo or Camden), we learned that President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are all in line for caricature treatment as cartoon characters, and that the GOP battle cry will be something like "Save the country from socialism!"
When this was disclosed, Republican leaders started backing away from the specifics, though not completely. A Party strategist named John Feehery attempted to do a kind of "end justifies means" play by stating "If you can't scare the hell out of donors, you're not going to get any money." Is that meant to be reassuring? Should we just take for granted that anything coming from the Republican National Committee (which this did) is short on truth, while long on "truthiness"? Why not just leave the real nasty stuff to the radio guys or Congressmen with safe seats in places like Oklahoma or Georgia?
I think we have to realize something: the Republican Party has stopped thinking of itself as being for much of anything. Their legacy going back to Lincoln isn't going to win the next one, they seem to be saying, and so why not just think of ourselves from now on as the "not Democrats" and put a "caveat emptor" sticker on our candidates' foreheads? That way we could scream that Democrats AREN'T using stickers. Heck, that could be good for a few votes, don'tcha think?
When one of our two major Parties gives itself over to this kind of thinking, I think they deserve to be publicly shamed. It's one thing to have some shady ally out there spreading garbage on the land, but quite another to have the Party itself doing it. Shame on them.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Ask the Right Question

The reason I'm not launching into witty observations about the recently concluded Olympic Games is both stupid and a little sad. Our efforts over many months to get the digital, non-cable signal of the local NBC affiliate, located right here in town, failed. I didn't see a thing. That being said, I still offer congrats to the USOC for helping pull in all those medals and to Canada, for proving that it is STILL the King (and Queen) of hockey. Condolences to Georgia for losing a luge-er even before the Games began. If you're still confused on the difference between Nordic combined and biathlon, you can revisit the question in another four years, when it won't matter too much again.

Sometimes at church, perhaps ten times a year, I find myself assigned to give a "lesson" to a small group of distinguished older men. How old? Anywhere from their early sixties to late eighties.
I admit it can be a challenge. There is literally nothing I can say to this group that they haven't heard many times before, and their presence in the class proves that they already believe my thesis, more or less.
Where does that leave me? I find myself concentrating not so much on the doctrines being discussed, as the questions I can ask about them. Ask the right question and you've got an instant discussion. Ask the wrong one and you've got silence, which lets you know the question was wrong and allows you to rephrase or just move on to something else. In any case, the goal is to have someone's comments connect in a new way to someone else. It doesn't have to be my words at all. I just get the ball rolling.
So it was my job to review a message with a very simple thesis on two principles that we should pursue no matter WHAT economic circumstances we find ourselves in. The two principles - "work" and "learn". And the question that turned out to be the one that broke the dam of silence - "What are some jobs you have done in order to meet your family's
Boy, did I get some answers! A former teenage husband talked about working as a pinsetter at a bowling alley. Our senior guy, now pushing 90 years old, worked the weekend shift at his grandfather's Chinese restaurant in Portland - 2PM to 6 AM for a buck and a half! Various kinds of brutal-sounding work in the agricultural sector were mentioned, and I'm still trying to see the profit of spending all day with a team of horses plowing a neighbor's garden - for $1.
I could tell pretty quickly that there was nothing I could tell these old guys about working for a good cause - yourself and family, and so I didn't even try. It's easy to forget that the world is still full of people who have to do some pretty tough things to make ends meet. As for learning, it works the same. Just ask the right questions, have a little patience in actually listening for the answers that come back and you'll learn more, much more, than you thought you would.