UK-1920, US-2010: Slouching in Kind

I'm reading Paul Johnson's "Modern Times"—particularly, the section on the cultural shifts of Brittan in the time between the wars (1919-1935). How like today it was then—a nagging consumption with inopportunity more than injustice. About license and freedom, bound almost unexplainably by boredom, weakness, and exhaustion—an image captured in the airport gambler that I noted during a recent trip through Utah. Surrounded by flashing lights and happy sounds—communicating energy and excitement—this shell-of-a-man sat slumped in his chair, mindlessly pushing buttons and pulling the switch with a unhindered fervor. And yet his eyes wandered aimlessly about the room—never on the screen before him—scanning the passing faces with as much disinterest as one man can present.

The current administration has been criticized for its policy on Iraq. Accused of neo-colonialism (echoing from the 1920s Brittan) the rhetoric has been touted, “The advance of democracy” (where 100 years ago it was the "Advance of Industrialism"). And yet that rhetoric has only come in the past four year. Prior to that—as one op-ed in the WSJ noted—our foreign policy on Iraq was framed around a Hussein that regularly ignored UN resolutions (nearly 15 of them all told).

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)? Certainly—the biochemical nerve agent known to exist (and documented by UN forces) in Iraq prior to a US invasion were never found. Could other weapons have gone the way of these unaccounted-for means of aggression (think Kuwait)? Probably—given the continued soft-border policy Iran has held to date with the Taliban. So, the US tenor of war changed from “international threat” and “failure to abide by UN resolutions” to “advancing freedom and democracy” around the world.

But to the point—why this change(again, a question asked by the WSJ op-ed writer)? Someone in the administration recognized that the heart of the people—that is, us: you and me—rested on the issues of inopportunity than with objections to injustice. Resolutions? Threats? WMD? Whatever!

It was supposed than an appeal to our carnivorous fascination with licentious freedom might spark a glimmer of compassion for Iraqis. Alas, no. And in this—we see ourselves laid bare—that nagging consumption with opportunity (how quickly heath care has become “a right” and not “a privilege.”); exhausted (despite our national—and my personal—addition to caffeine); and the extremes of perfection and destruction. Best noted in the lives of high school students of affluent communities—as pointed out by a friend of mine—they pursue perfection for the maximum advance (on the one end) or total and absolute rebellious, self-destruction (on the other). Straight A's or straight F's. Everything in the middle is mediocrity—and the guarantee of being forgotten—a lonely gambler in some corner of an airport. When every gate around him offers the opportunity to take him somewhere else, he remains in the in-between, nowhere; not going; not coming; just barely hanging on to existence: bored, witless, weak, and exhausted.

We do not travel unfamiliar roads—“there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9). The invitation remains—“Take the blue pill…and you wake up in your bed believing what you want to.” Contrary to Morpheus-ology, the story doesn’t end. The narratives of history are either our tour guides or else our bedfellows. Ecc. 1:9 is the blue pill. Ecclesiastes 12 is the red pill.

The only question is—do we have the strength to take it?


Pathways In My Garden

Too long the desires of the world have traveled through my garden lot,
and trampled down the flowers planted, broken limbs and every pot,
left worn the ways meant for grass, left bare the places saved for life
and made a joke of Godly peace, and made a home of trouble strife.

But no more—for I take anew to patch the breach of walls
to fill those holes left blank by every stone which falls
with the inclination of invading thoughts; my captains,
my captives—I know not which: to bring me joys, or bring me pains.

I till the ground and break it up, and feed it seed and water drink,
and tend these hopes against vain guests that make me think
more of this life—and her every glistening gem—than the one to come.
Still a stranger, I have a home.

I cannot keep all invaders from this plot—nor is it mine to try,
but is mine to care to hold the breach and fix it by and by
perchance in time, my foolish thoughts will be to weak
to tarry here much longer. With delight, my soul the stronger—
That is what I seek.


Fathers & Sons—Retreat or Defeat?

I am typing with one hand and two fingers of another. No, nothing is broken—just sore from a 24 hour father-and-son retreat, sponsored by my local congregation www.cpcstl.org. And, from the air conditioning of my office I peck out these insights:

Insight 1: Machines that claim a “full-body workout” weren’t meant to simulate throwing children five feet through the air into a pool.
Yes—and that is why my shoulders feel like an eighty pound weight is hanging on them. There is a big difference between…say, a sixty lb. dumbbell and…well, sixty lbs of pre-pubescent boys. Dumbbells don’t squirm, twist, jump right on top of you, or claw you with finger nails in a desperate attempt to increase pre-launch balance. I was accused of being the youngest father there (clocking in at 35 years). Then again, none of the other fathers was in the pool throwing children.

Insight 2: The way to earn the title “The Jerk” is to be the dad striving the hardest to WIN!
Hey, I’m an INFJ—I would rather let other people win than deal with the emotional vomit that they exude when they lose. Not so my ISFJ son who loves to win. (Granted—Jonah has more sports ability in his pinky than I have in my entire body.) None of the other dads had to listen to their son cry the entire way home last year because they didn’t win a single event. So yes, did I practice for these “father-son Olympics”? Sure I did. A regimented diet of Clif bars, rock-climbing at Ridge Haven, bringing down a 40 foot tree (piece-by-piece) in my own front yard…and a rowing machine. Yea—I caught the ball and tagged out the 7 year old who was first up to bat for the other team. Then again, he leveled me at third base, clawed my back in the pool, and “inadvertently” dripped scalding S’mores on me. (All’s fair in love, war, and Father-Son Retreats). At least I didn't dope up! (A guy has to have limits.)

Insight 3: Earplugs don’t come standard.
Snoring is the most underutilized energy source on the planet. If a presidential candidate could tap that—we’d be able to laugh off Brazil’s biofuel, the Middle East’s oil, and Vladimir Putin’s natural gas. Pillow? Check. Towel? Check. Sheets? Check. Earplugs? Earplugs? Blast it, why didn’t I check? Long nights in the wide unexplored wilderness of Camp Trinity do offer one thing—an opportunity to practice the Hebrew alphabet. Strangely, I kept getting stuck at Lamed.

Insight 4: There are benefits to having grown up in Mississippi.
Honestly, I thought archery would be a great event for the retreat. After all—when compared to the Cannonball Splash, the “Child Press,” and the Football Throw—at least Archery is in the real Olympics. I’m amazed at how few people have never picked up a bow, who don’t know why one feather is a different color, and somehow miss that the word “ARCH” is the first part of Archery for a reason. At least the 53 year old—who frowned on my record time in the father-son relay event—not only know how to shoot but also had his own bows and arrows. Good thing people from West County aren’t dependent upon the ability to shoot in order to survive. If so, Darwin would, sadly, be proved right on one point: the weak don’t survive.

Insight 5: A father who misses the Olympics at the Father-Son Retreat can justifiably be feathered.
Granted—he was tired and I don’t know what all he’s had going on. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy. And when I told his son I’d be the stand-in dad and bench-press him 20 times—I did it with the knowledge that he weighed a full 2.5 times my own son. There should still be a clause—somewhere in the Camp Kiwanas Guide to Retreats, or the Boy Scout’s Survival Guide—that outlines the judgment of “tar and feathering for failure to actively participate.” I guess it is enough to know that the Crackberry’s that were there suffered their own self-induced fate.

Insight 6: Father-Son Retreats are anything but a Retreat
A call to arms—yes. The opportunity to pretend to be younger than you are, sacrifice your quickly aging body for a moment of glory in your son’s eyes—absolutely. Now I know why the women always have a “Lock-In Hobby Night.” The term Hobby excludes—by definition—strenuous, physical, exertion. (And my wife wonders why I’m so tired!). If I ever become and Elder, I am going to vote for the Full-Contact WIC Tea. “Come On, girls. Let’s see some broken China!” “Ouch—a box of Earl Gray to the forehead! That’s got’ta hurt!”


A New Economic Stimulus: In Search of an Indenture

So my wife and decided it’s time to replace that old fence. We called the county to find out what stipulations there were—and imagine my delight at being told I could get copies of my subdivision indentures via mail (that was six months ago). I guess I wasn’t that surprised when the rejection letter came—“We’re sorry, but these indentures are on public record at the Records and Deeds Office.”

Lesson 1: “Public Record” is not the same as “Available to the Public.”

Making use of a long lunch break, I drove the 10 miles to the country records department where the first lady I spoke with told me I needed the third floor. Three flights of steps later, another lady told me I was only just on the second floor.

Lesson 2: The FIRST floor you enter may not well be the First Floor—maybe the G(round), E(ntry), E(xit), S(treet), G(arage), B(asement), S(ubfloor A), or any other of the 26 letters in the alphabet.

On the third floor a gentlemen ushered me to a long line of ancient looking books. “Ah,” I thought. “Now I understand.” Then—rather to my surprise—he took me to the computer that sat in the middle of this archaic library. A few clicks took him to a very familiar page (it was the page I started on at home, six months ago, when I first wanted to find out my building permits). He pulled up my address and then clicked a link. “Oh,” I said with surprise. “I could have done this from home?”

“Oh, no,” he assured me—with a nod that told me my journey was just beginning, “this is an in-house link only.” He wrote down the number of a map that was stored…no, not in the dusty old books…but in another computer where three ladies talked. I waited nearly five minutes before one broke out of the conversation to assist me. I gave her the slip of paper, she typed, and then somewhere nearby a printer clicked out a large—very old, very antiquated, very ancient and dust- looking—image.

Lesson 3 – Technology can graphically age people, but cannot graphically un-age old government documents.

After conceding my check for $2.50, she told me that I then needed to proceed to the sixth floor to the Public Works department. Thinking that was only a place in Monopoly—and knowing I couldn’t trust my ability to count flights of steps—I took the elevator.

On the sixth floor and very friendly woman sent me to talk to a very unfriendly woman about my “corner lot.” Friendly woman said, “If you didn’t have a corner lot, it wouldn’t matter.” Unfriendly woman said, “What’s your plat number?” She again visited the webpage-that-looks-like-the-webpage-I-can-view-from-home-but-ISN’T, this time pulling up…no not a dusty book…a computer image of my property. Pointing to the corner side of the lot, “As long as you don’t build here, we don’t care what you do.”

Lesson 4 – When a government office says, “WE don’t care what you do”—it is a royal use of the pronoun.

“You don’t?” I asked.

“WE don’t,” she said, “But your subdivision might have more rigorous stipulations that we don’t acknowledge or enforce…but which you have to abide by.” Pondering this conundrum, I made may way (via elevator) to the Fourth Floor where, yes indeed, I entered another office. I don’t know what this one was called, but another woman met me, sent me to a station where another woman met me, who wrote down some numbers (her phone number maybe?) and sent me to another woman who said, “Print or view?”

Lession 5 – Viewing is cheaper than Printing.

“View please,” I said. Hoping (beyond hope) this time for a ancient, archaic, worn-out-and-dust-covered book that could have been used in a Harry Potter movie (in which I might even have found an original copy of the Declaration of Independence)—I was introduced to another computer. This one had a electronic images of anything relating to my subdivision—though with all the WHEREASES  and WHATFORTHS and WHEREWITHALLS and THEREFORES, I decided to print the images.

Lesson 6 – Printing is easier on the cognition.

Ironically, I noticed that these files were in a format which could have—emphasis upon COULD—been (future, perfect, subjunctive) emailed to me as attachments (theoretically speaking of course) if only I had know whom to email…and that individual had the permission—because, after all, the GOVENRMENT CREATED EMAIL back in the late 1980s (I believe Al Gore was instrumental in that endeavor).

I was sent by woman #10 to woman #11 where I paid another $15.00 for scans of images that I will in turn take home, rescan and save in my computer. Only now, I’m $17.50, 4 gallons, and 1.25 hours poorer.

Then again—I helped keep 11 women and 1 man employed today.

Lesson 7 – There is a reason government is considered a bureaucratic.

PS. All that to find out that I need to get written permission from the Trustees of my subdivision before I can actually make any changes to my fence.