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Monday, December 31, 2012

Valley Forge Vision

A group of half-starved men, their feet wrapped in rags, huddles around a small fire built of the few sticks they could scavenge from the snowy ground of Valley Forge. They try to warm their stiffened hands over the feeble flames. One of the men looks across the little circle and says, “Caleb, why do you fight?”
“Well,” says the one so addressed, “I see a day when an enormous government will collect a larger percentage of the people’s money in taxes than King George does today, and they will scarcely bat an eye. And you, Micah?”
“Ah,” came the answer, “‘tis like your vision, as I imagine whole generations of citizens dependent upon that great government for their bread. In fact, there should be more of them than there are people who pay the taxes.”
“Of course, that means the Holy Scriptures will have to be ignored,” another of the soldiers spoke. “How I long to see schoolchildren prevented from reading them. Even public display of the Commandments should be forbidden, and certainly no cross must be seen in any public place.”
“A worthy goal, no doubt, Ezra. Beyond that, oh, picture it. Some day our daughters will be able to shack up with men, and we will have no fear of their becoming pregnant out of wedlock, because they will be free to kill off our grandchildren.”
“Mm, yes, imagine. That is why we fight,” arose from every throat about the fire. “And certainly our children should be forbidden to carry such firearms as we use to feed and protect our families and our freedom.” Then all became silent. Pairs of eyes met across the flames. Each of the group rose, and with a muttered, “Hell, we might as well keep the king,” they shouldered what tattered packs they owned and trudged away into the darkness, leaving the struggling fire to die in the snow.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Hillsdale and Handel

     Are you supposed to hallucinate during Handel’s Messiah? I guess I didn’t actually hallucinate. It was more like synesthesia, seeing sound as shapes and color. Whatever it was, it happened to this Floridian in Michigan in a Baptist church that looked Episcopalian while listening to a mostly-student production of what may be the most nearly perfect piece of music ever composed on this earth. I’d been looking forward to this concert since my youngest son first applied to Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and I learned they put on the Messiah every four years in order to give every singer/musician a chance to participate. Isaac is a junior, and he was in the choir. I flew up for the weekend and attended both Friday and Saturday performances.
     Just being on the Hillsdale campus starts my perceptions altering. Strolling the “quad,” I feel I’ve been transported into a Jimmy Stewart film with the same spirit of serious study, good fun and general wholesomeness. Students smile at me and say hello. This does not happen on large state university campuses. Jeans and sweatshirts abound, but so do pretty dresses, trim wool coats and fanciful scarves. Some of the young men wear coats and ties, and even fedoras, if they happen to be members of a certain music fraternity. If my math is correct, a good tenth of the students are part of the Messiah choirs and orchestra. Their majors include everything from math to economics to biology, not just music.
     I’m told that all tickets are spoken for, and the College Baptist Church fills quickly from floor to balcony. The stained glass, high ceiling and exposed beams look more like Episcopal style than the Southern Baptist churches of my youth, and they make a perfect setting for the music. Robed choristers file onto rows of risers, followed by the Chamber Choir, boys in black suits and red ties, girls in elegant black dresses with sweetheart necklines. In the center of the orchestra is an ornate harpsichord.
     At Christmas time, I inundate my kitchen with Messiah on CD, the Academy of Ancient Music version, conducted by Christopher Hogwood. I’ve never heard the whole thing in person before, and I’m pretty excited when the overture begins. There’s the tenor, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people…” The choir belts out  “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be re-veal-ed…” Do choirs belt? At any rate, the powerful rush of sound tells me I’m to be carried out of the ordinary. They are singing the Bible to me, and I think they must believe what they are singing, or at least have a pretty good idea of the majesty and eternal importance of the words. The students all have papers due and finals to prepare for, yet they’ve devoted themselves to this production. It’s a fine thing.
     One of the lovely sopranos steps forward and begins her aria, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion…” I close my eyes to marvel at the richness and intricacy of the sound. How does it come from a human throat? Here is the synesthesia. The sound rises in plumes, bright white on one side, shaded on the other, curving around an invisible axis. I wish I could draw it. Have you seen pictures of the Spanish dancer sea creature? (It’s a “sea slug,” but that word is far too coarse. So is “nudibranch.”) Its edges undulate like the hem of a dancer’s skirt. The sound was like that. You see how weak words are for this. I suppose that’s why the sound had to go three-dimensional in my head. 
A Spanish dancer. Hear it?
       Not everyone was transported. One preteen boy near me clomped out and missed the Hallelujah Chorus. He returned at its end to drop back into the pew and just about bounce me off the end. Too bad. The rest of us had stood, like George II, and thrilled to the music. Conductor Hogwood of my CD version calls the tradition “unnecessary,” but I love it. 
      Altogether, the program was about two and a quarter hours of music, with no intermission. It didn’t seem that long. After the final “amen,” the audience stood and cheered and applauded for a long time. “The glory of the Lord” indeed.

Friday, October 26, 2012

God and Gimme

     A few times too many, I've been told that Christian charity requires support for government redistribution plans like welfare and public housing and Obamacare. This is a gross distortion of scripture. Sure, the Bible contains many admonitions to believers to care for the poor, but it never, ever tells us that government programs are the delivery system. Voting for big government to do the job of caring for the poor means outsourcing the duty that God lays on us as His people and violating a few commandments rather baldly.
     Start with "You shall have no other gods before Me," as in Deuteronomy 20:3. The Lord has just reminded His people that He is the one Who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. He fed them. He gave them water. He even made sure their clothes never wore out during their time in the wilderness. He was their rescuer, their provider, their sustainer. Those are solid credentials for being their one God, and He won't be happy if they replace Him. Now, if we claim to be followers of that same God in His Son Jesus Christ, shouldn't we look to Him first for food, clothing, shelter and freedom? Making government the source of all sustenance replaces God. He doesn't like it. He is a jealous God.
    "Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven," says Jesus in Matthew 23:9. I used to think this meant that Catholics were wrong to call their priests "father," but a look at history (and current events) showed me something different. I remember reading that in Communist China, schoolchildren were taught to begin their day with thanks to Chairman Mao for their school, their breakfast, every valuable thing. Perhaps you've seen reports of North Korean children expressing the same gratitude to Kim Jong Il. Remember Germans calling "Heil, Hitler" in place of "hello" and "good-bye." No more "gruss Gott" (roughly, "greet God") as a greeting. More recently, we were treated to video of various American schoolchildren singing praises to Barack Hussein Obama, mmm, mmm, mmm. Now that's calling someone on earth your father, seeing a human being, or a human institution, as the source of your well-being.
     Farther along in the Ten Commandments, we find "You shall not covet" and "You shall not steal." These two sins  are the basis of the welfare state. The leftist demagogue encourages "the poor" to ignore any of their own behavior which might have left them in poverty, such as scorning school, serial fornication, illegitimacy, drugs, alcohol, or crime, and to think only that some other people have more than they do. (Disregard also the self-discipline and work ethic of that group.) They get angry. They demand their "fair share." That's the coveting part. Next, they vote for the politicians who promise to use the power of the state to take what the "rich" have earned and hand it over to them in the form of food credit cards, housing, medical care and sometimes plain old cash. That's the stealing part.
     So what is my responsibility? I take my cue from Leviticus 19: 9,10. "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God." I think this tells me not to spend every penny, but to keep something to devote to charity. Widows and orphans may need something directly from my hand, but the gleaners were the "working poor," emphasis on "working." Landowners were to leave something for the poor, but the poor were to get into the fields and pick it up. (See Ruth and Naomi.)
      In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul recounts how he and his team declined to freeload off the townspeople, but worked for their food. Then he hit them with verse 10: "For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat." That's the element that seems to be missing completely from our "entitlement" system. Be responsible for yourself. Work to support yourself and your family. Make enough to help others.
     Mr. Obama is fond of saying he wants everyone to have a "fair share." Well, my share of Bill Gates's money is zero. My share of Mitt Romney's money is zero. And Obama's share of my money is zero. Listen, if you're hungry, I'll make you a sandwich. If you can rake leaves, I'll pay you for it. But don't send the IRS to ransack my pantry or my wallet and call me names when I object. I'll choose my own charities, individual or organized, and I'll answer to God. I'm pretty sure giving to the Salvation Army is better stewardship than promoting big government bureaucracy. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Penury Is the Midwife of Invention

     I was planning to make a pinwheel out of a Chipotle takeout lid, a sort of aluminum pie pan stretched into an oval. Two fabulous steel pinwheels already stood in one of my backyard peanut patches, but they were too darn expensive for doodads with no other purpose than to amuse the eye and make me feel cool and modern. Pinwheels are also supposed to scare squirrels. Though I could almost hear the little blighters snickering when I installed the store-bought ones, I decided to make my own pinwheels to stand in my raised garden beds.
     So there I sat at my kitchen table with a paper pattern, kitchen shears and a Chipotle takeout lid. I figured if I trimmed off the heavy crimped edge, I could flatten the rest of the lid, snip toward the center, turn in the corners, stick a small nail through the center, and voila. The shears bit in and made their way around the edge of the lid where it bent outward. As the trimmed bit grew, it began to curl, and when it dropped to the table, it looked for all the world like a snake.
     I did make the pinwheel, and it spun all sprightly on its bamboo stick, but my mind kept revolving around the aluminum snake. I set it in the garden with a chunk of concrete on one end. It was wonderfully reptilian, curving about and moving a little in the breeze. With another lid, I began cutting at the edge, and snipped around in a spiral all the way to the center, leaving an oval at the end as the snake’s head. I shook it out and exulted at the way it shimmered and shimmied.
      Last year, one of my adolescent fig trees produced a dozen or so fruits. Squirrels ate all but one of them, before they were even ripe. The only survivor was hidden under a leaf and discovered by a party guest. We shared it. Few things are as luscious as a ripe fig fresh from the tree. This year, the tree repeated its performance, only draped with aluminum snakes. We humans ate all the figs except one, which ants got into. What a triumph. Now the garden is swathed in snakeish effigies, and I’m—well, sort of proud of myself, but more than that, thankful to have stumbled on a solution to rodent depredation. I even sent a photo and description to local ag agent emeritus Tom MacCubbin, whose book The Edible Landscape, or, as my brother-in-law calls it, Eat My Backyard, inspired my plantings. He said he’d try it.
     So, after all the trapping and shooting and throwing stones at the squirrels, the sprinkling of cayenne and the dripping of peppermint oil and growling fiercely at the critters that ventured close to the porch (Yes, I confess I growled at them. I may have used some unkind words too.), the solution needed only Chipotle and cheapness to reveal it. Come around next summer. We’ll eat figs.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Write Right

     Do viruses affect the English language? Or is there a linguistic climate change? I wonder, because it seems to me that several goofy errors and misuses began to turn up in American conversation a few years ago, and now they are rampant. 
     All of a sudden, no one can write January 2 or June 3 in an ad or poster or PowerPoint slide. They add the unnecessary ordinal and make it January 2nd or June 3rd. It adds no information, and it looks clunky. So why is it ubiquitous? Perhaps it came in holding hands with the ampersand. The little blighter "&" has multiplied all over the place, like an invasive species taking over the habitat of the correct and perfectly serviceable "and." The Associated Press Stylebook allows an ampersand if it's part of a company name, like Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, but nowhere else. Poster makers and newsletter writers, take note. Please. 
     It must be about the five-year anniversary of the beginning of the language mutation. See what's wrong with a "something-year anniversary"? Check out that root word "anni-." It means "year." The "-versary" part means "return," or, we could say, "observance." So a "five-year anniversary" is a "five-year year-observance." Dumb. Redundant. All you need is the ordinal, spelled out, please, if the number is less than ten. When the ninth anniversary gives way to the 10th anniversary, use those little ordinal endings all you want. Some publications used to spell out through the "-teenths." I don't care. Just keep the ordinal endings away from the dates.
     Hey, did you notice the careful placement of quotation marks above? They are very happy when used correctly, but they will twist things up if you try to use them for emphasis. Watch for signs that advertise "vegetarian" burgers or "real" cheese or "fun" carnival. Or even "sausage" on a stick (for all you Terry Pratchett fans out there.) Tossed in like this, they nudge us in the ribs and say, "Not really." It can get so embarrassing, you want to die, literally. Ah, a clever introduction of a new fungus. Guess what? Literally literally means literally, as in "really, truly happened." So if your head explodes literally, there are brains on the wall. The literal outbreak is literally non-partisan, as Joe Biden famously misuses it for emphasis, but so does Sean Hannity. It must be stamped out before nothing makes any sense!
     Now, that was an exclamation. It has an exclamation point after it. The exclamation point belongs there because the sentence expresses emphatic emotion. Desperation, even. It probably doesn't belong with comments on cute puppies or new haircuts. And even if you think your group's picnic is going to be the best ever, a long string of exclamation points won't make it so. List all the nifty activities, and give me a chance to say, "Golly, that sounds like fun." Please don't try to force me to be impressed. That would be great. Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The News That's Unfit

"We're hearing the frantic 9-1-1 calls from when a five-year-old fell from a nine-foot diving board..." Oh, no, we're not, I shouted, and slammed the radio off. I couldn't move fast enough, though, to avoid the horrible image and the anger it inspired. It made me remember another case from decades ago. Here in Orlando, a man came home to find both his wife and their little grandson floating dead in their backyard pool. Apparently the boy had fallen in, and the woman had tried to rescue him, but both drowned. Neighbors were there trying to help when he called emergency services. "Are they breathing?" the operator asked, and the man cried out to the neighbors, "Are they breathing?" and sobbed. I heard this on the radio. It felt obscene to me to hear this man's anguish. 
The radio reporters added to the story by knocking on the doors of neighbors to ask how they felt about the death of the lady next door and the grandson. I wondered, did they think we could not imagine what such an event would feel like unless we heard it from the people next door? Did we need some guidance as to how we should react? That felt obscene to me too. I was telling friends at church about the whole debacle when someone else walked up to the group. She hadn't heard the news story. I gave her a quick report of what that poor man found at his home, and she gasped. That was a normal, human reaction, and she didn't need any 9-1-1 recordings or interviews with neighbors to elicit it. 
"How do you feel?" has become the reporter's standard question, it seems. Most of the time, like at sporting events, it's lame, but when it comes at a time of tragedy, it's vile. If I'd been one of the neighbors asked to comment, if I could get words out, I believe I would have said something like "How the bleep do you think it feels?" and then slammed the door with more than my usual vigor. Then I'd start to demand that 9-1-1 calls be made private, at least to the extent that they could not be played on the news without the permission of the caller. 
Both of these elements of "news-gathering" seem to me like running up and lifting the veil of a grieving widow in order to snap a photo for FaceBook. Some things are none of our business.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

I Me Me iPhone

     When my friend took a picture of me at a party and offered to send it to my phone, I had to tell her my phone didn’t do pictures. Or much of anything else. Others at the party whipped out their phones and held them up. Look! Icons! GPS! Datebooks! Angry Birds! Flip it, scroll it, explore the mysteries of the universe! I didn’t bring my poor little Nokia out. It would have been humiliated.
     I used its microscopic bowling game a couple of times, but the eyestrain was too much. It helped me summon a tow truck once or twice, and allowed me to tell the folks at home when I was running late, but mostly it sat in the bottom of my purse, totting up calls from an Air Force recruiter who had apparently been given my number by mistake, or duplicity, for a potential recruit. It sat there so long, letting the upgrades pass it by, it reverted to a tin can on a string.
     The next day our youngest son, who has suffered two years of condescension and scorn at college over his steam-powered phone, reported that his sad little device was starting to shut off at inopportune moments, and the back wouldn’t stay on properly. Off to the Apple store we went. At first I thought I wouldn’t be allowed in, lacking tattoos, piercings and spiky colored hair, but I guess the son was cool enough for admission. And so was the old lady’s credit card. The salesman we wound up with was an old guy with a hearing aid, so I felt better. Actually, I could have used a hearing aid myself. Or maybe ear plugs. Golly, it was loud in there, with all the discussion of bits and bytes and megawhatsis buzzing about in a space with the acoustics of a bunker. We’d—make that “I’d”—already pretty much decided on the iPhone 4, seeing as how the 4s that’s already poised for phasing out costs twice as much. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t cut out to be on the cutting edge of technological advancement. I’m too cheap. I mean, frugal.
     So we took home the futuristic-looking, clean, white boxes with the fabulous phones nestled inside, placed in the extra-nifty drawstring Apple bag next to the old phones, which were now paperweights. Or missiles, in case of need. Son began immediately to add apps and things. I took many tries to spell my sign-in name correctly. My fingers aren’t fat! They’re not! I had to ask the youngun for help a couple of times and try to keep my voice from quavering. Remembering the price tag kept me from flinging the phone across the room. 
     I finally got to the point of playing Words with Friends, the shameless rip-off of Scrabble that’s about my speed. I’m playing a game each with one son, one daughter, one son-in-law and one newspaper columnist. Major game-player friend hasn’t responded to the game I sent her, even though she’s the one who took my picture at the party. I am now wasting vast amounts of time on the iPhone and being looked at askance by one husband. Don’t let him fool you, though. He’s holding out for the iPhone 5.