Monday, September 08, 2014

Derek Jeter Day

image
I was glad to watch from the comfort of my home as Derek Jeter was honored at Yankee Stadium yesterday. He has been a fine player and he is a fine human being. I was glad to see the assemblage of athletes and celebrities who turned out to recognize him. I was glad to see him get a base hit on his first at bat. I was glad to hear the roar of the crowd who had watched him play his entire career in Yankee pinstripes. 
And most of all, I was glad to see my Kansas City Royals recognize Jeter by pasting the Yankees 2-0, and continuing their march to a playoffs that could very well include the Royals and exclude the Yankees. Now there is something to celebrate, eh Derek?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

From Free Libraries to Free Birth Control: The Stranglehold of Rigid Literalism

Spencer Collins, 9, stands in front of his Little Free Library before leaders
of his hometown of Leawood, Kansas, shut him down.
An updated and somewhat expanded version of this post appears on Medium.com.

Perhaps you've heard the story of Spencer Collins, the nine-year-old boy who got crossways with the civil authorities when he erected a "Little Free Library" in the front yard of his home. It seems that the city codes in the plush suburban environs of Leawood, Kansas, prohibit structures that are not attached to the primary residence--things like tool sheds, side-buildings, detached garages, and such. They don't specify free lending libraries operated by nine-year-old kids, but clearly it's the same kind of crime.

The gravity of his offense did not occur to Spencer when the avid reader built his roadside stand as a Mother's Day gift. He figured that the love of reading instilled in him by his mother could be shared with other kids in his neighborhood. So imagine the surprise of Spencer, not to mention his parents, when they returned from vacation and found an official-looking letter providing a few days to dismantle the library or face a citation and attendant penalties.

The issue with the city officials isn't content; no books on evolution or other insidious topics deplored by many Kansans are to be found here. It isn't a matter of licensing businesses; this isn't a blood-sucking, profit-making enterprise like a lemonade stand or its ilk. No, the sole issue here is consistency in enforcing laws and codes. If you make an exception for a kid the next thing you know some developer will be running an outlet mall in his backyard. Enforce the law!  Who can argue with that?

I'd like to give it a try.

In doing so, however, I'd like to elevate the arc of the argument so as to begin with Spencer's predicament and then follow it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Spencer has one thing going for him. Virtually everyone, save only some bureaucrats and those who bring them food and water, agree that the city's position is silly at the least. Some, myself included, might consider it breathtakingly stupid.

Having said that, there is nothing I can see that is wrong with Leawood's residential codes, nor is it improper for the city to enforce its own regulations.  The thing is that most people who agree with this paragraph will also agree with the one preceding it. In other words, there just simply are times when reasonable rules should be ignored by reasonable people. The apparent complaint of one neighbor in desperate need of a life should not trump common sense.

Spencer's library came to my mind when I was reading with dismay the most recent debacle foisted on the American culture by what was once a revered and trusted arm of government-- the Supreme Court, where liberals became conservatives on some issues, and strict constructionists sometimes reinterpreted the Constitution to meet the needs of a changing world.

Hobby Lobby argued that a requirement to provide
employees certain forms of birth control in their health care
plan violated the company's religious freedoms,
Every pundit with a pen or keyboard has pontificated on last week's decision, the so-called Hobby Lobby Case wherein a company whose owner held certain religious views argued that it should be exempt from providing certain federally-mandated  health care benefits to employees if delivery of that benefit somehow violated the religious views of the owner(s). [Click here to read the full text of the majority decision and Justice Ginzburg's dissent.]

The decision turned largely on the First Amendment, which reads in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." This is one of the treasured phrases of American life, a bedrock embraced by virtually all citizens and a hope of those who would be citizens. Its power is in the spirit of the phrase, in its very heart. It is not fodder for political conflicts or religious debates--it is the foundational principle that enables such debates in American society.

When justices like the five men rendering the majority opinion play small ball with the First Amendment they create something as ludicrous as the objectors to Spencer's library. In effect, corporations are granted the same religious freedoms as the rest of us mere mortals. The four dissenting justices, one male and three females ruling on what is essentially an issue of women's health care, see the slippery slope that this decision creates. By deferring to a mindless literalism the Court has abdicated its responsibility to interpret the law in an era of partisan division and ideological jousting. Instead of allowing the First Amendment to be the framework for civil debate, the Court took the easy way out and made the Amendment a club instead of a gavel.
2014 Supreme Court of the United States

This curse of literalism is an increasingly destructive force in American society, whether it is those who believe in inerrant scripture, be it Bible or Koran, or those who take centuries-old constitutional phrases and lock them up, ignoring the context in which they were created and through which they can be properly understood.

The gun debate is another example. The Second Amendment reads thusly: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." It could not be more clear that this Amendment is framed by the experience of the Revolutionary War and pertains to the right of Americans to defend their liberties, something few of us would reject. Never mind that in the year 2014 organizations that call themselves "militias" are more of a threat to our society than a virtue worthy of constitutional protection. Whatever that may be, it is absurd to see gun advocates reading that Amendment with simplistic literalism in arguing that second grade teachers and airline attendants be allowed to pack heat in the conduct of their duties.

Churches of all types and religions of all the world are often guilty of the same kind of adherence to religious texts claiming religious authority by virtue of their inerrancy, thereby draining those texts of their poetic and metaphorical power. Instead, they become books of polity and conduct, often harmless but sometimes leading to grievous acts inimical to the laws of love and acts of social justice they proclaim. Witness, for example, passages in the Book of Leviticus that when literally read led to tragic persecution and incidents of violence and even murder of gays and lesbians over many generations. Nearby passages in the same book of scripture were often ignored because their provisions were inconvenient or unaccepted by the prevailing culture.

Our young man Spencer simply wanted to share his love of reading with his friends when he ran into a buzz saw of silliness fabricated by well-meaning people who could not see beyond the words in a city code book. If the city officials refuse to succumb to public pressure Spencer will tie his library to his house with a rope or come up with some other clever solution. Spencer will be fine; he has learned something that will serve him well in life. l hope he becomes a poet and not a lawyer.

It's the rest of us I'm worried about. The scourge of literalism that afflicts our everyday life will have tragic consequences if it continues unabated. Our pluralistic society cannot flourish, and may indeed flounder and fall, if literal interpretations of widely divergent sources of authority are embraced by many different groups seeking their own visions of America.

Wise counsel comes to us from the Book of 2 Corinthians 3:6 in the Christian Bible where it reads, "The letter kills but the spirit gives life." The words are worthy of thoughtful consideration by preachers and politicians, judges and educators, and by all of us, young and old. Read them, embrace them, use them.

Just don't take them literally.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Mortality and Other Annoyances: When the Body Speaks the Soul Listens

This is a substantially revised version of a piece I posted on this blog on March 14, 2012. It is published simultaneously on Medium.com, an interesting new venture in blogging. 


They tell me that I’m going through the “aging process.” I always thought of that as something that can be fixed with a pad of steel wool and a can of Rust-Oleum. I’m now informed that it is far more cosmic than that—something I had begun to suspect a few years ago after a round of doctors appointments to check on a few maladies of seeming little consequence.

What I discovered is that the “aging process” is a default disease. Floaters in your eye? Just part of the aging process. Ringing in your ear? Yeah, that just goes with age. Bladder not fulfilling its part of the deal? Growing old has its issues.

The thing is that while there may be a default diagnosis there is no default treatment. While I am a reluctant pill popper, I figured that surely something as universal as this “aging process disease” could be annihilated by a fat pill, pink in color, with letters like 6YTK inscribed on them. Far from it. Turns out that everything requires a different pill and each one costs something like $357.62, unless you inquire about a generic version, in which case it costs $4.98. Glad I asked.

I’m starting to get annoyed, however. It’s the little things. I’m always happy to get those 10% senior discounts; my longstanding reputation as a good steward (which my kids translate as “cheap”) overcomes admitting that I am old enough to be worthy of this act of benevolence on the part of the local merchants. But just once it would be good to have them inquire as to my eligibility rather than have it assumed. I want to be carded when ordering Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast.

It may be that part of this is punishment from beyond. I used to travel a lot and that put me sitting across many hundreds of tables accompanied by many more hundreds of people, often seniors. Most of these dear folk seemed able to talk only about the side effects of their various prescriptions, the bedside manner of their physicians, and the latest Medicare loophole to exploit. I know my eyes glazed over. I know I muttered silently something to the effect of “Dear God, why me? Why oh why me?” I’m now wondering if this is the Affordable Health Care version of the Myth of Sisyphus, whereby one is sentenced for all eternity to push a Tylenol up a long hill with the tip of his nose, only to reach the peak and watch helplessly as it rolls back down again.

But now here I am, knees that bark at me, an insidious disease working its inexorable way with me, and all the other ailments that accompany a body’s natural slow decline. Is this it? Will I be remembered as that guy with all those problems he talked about at dinner—ear-ringing, shoulder-aching, back-tightening, eyes-matting, knee-throbbing, belly-expanding, mouth-drying, Parkinsons-pending, arthritis-invading, libido-impairing, memory-fleeting, weight-adding, bladder-misbehaving, hair-thinning, skin-splotching, and on and on?

If it all comes down to this life starts to feel kind of trivial. But I know better. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t grudgingly admit that this rant is something of a dodge, allowing me to use my aches and pains as a way to avoid thinking critically about my own life, mining it for its moments of satisfaction, but also fessing up to its failures.

Others have done it, often by memoir or poem. Somerset Maugham called it The Summing Up. Anatole Broyard admitted to being Intoxicated by My Illness. Mary Felstiner put words to her pain in Out of Joint: A Private and Public Story of Arthritis. Elizabeth Wurtzel tapped a responsive chord that resonated across American culture in Prozac Nation. Mary Gordon‘s memoir depicted a familiar theme in The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father.

There is something about this stage in life whereby one simply understands that he is declining. For some it comes at an earlier age—there is no promise that we will all get our threescore and ten. I can’t pinpoint a day or month, but I know that in recent times I have found myself looking backward far more than forward. I don’t mean that in some maudlin, self-pitying sense. Not at all. But my body reminds me every day that there will be limitations on the path ahead.

At the same time I have realized that the path already traveled still has something to teach me, that my soul still yearns for fulfillment, and that these waning years still offer me a chance to discover anew the heart’s desires. I do not know what form that will take, whether it will be by word or deed. I just recognize that my body’s fragility nudges me to find that path on which I have journeyed all my days and to somehow redeem it through rediscovery and new discovery.

So there it is. I need to quit this ranting and get back to that path. Now, if only I could find the darn thing. Where are my glasses?

Friday, March 28, 2014

An Unexpected Book: Discovering My Life's Journey on My Bookshelves


A few days ago my friend Jerry sent me an unexpected book. When I opened my mailbox I saw the familiar Amazon logo but I knew no order was pending. If I have a book coming I listen for the sound of the Postal Service or UPS truck. I know the rhythm of their schedules, can discern the difference between the strained roar of the furniture truck and the contented whirr of the book delivery vehicle. If the books arrive early, as happened a few weeks ago when my free two-day delivery item arrived in one day, I am taken back, ill-prepared, and restlessly pleased. And when they’re late? Well, I mutter and sputter and try to decide who gets my frustration. Usually, the cat.

When I opened the package I was still a bit confused. I didn’t immediately recognize the book nor identify the sender. But after a little reflection I figured it out. A nice lunch with Jerry and Cyndi just a few days before—it had been a long time and they were in town briefly. A conversation about baseball, a favorite topic. Jerry’s inquiry about whether I had read a certain book; I hadn’t, nor had I heard of it. And Jerry, being Jerry, deciding I needed the experience. He liked it, so surely I would. Hence, the unexpected book. I have been thinking about why it delighted me so.

Our new home library contains
 the journey of my life in books,
none of which are about me.
We recently built and moved into a new home. The purpose of the move was to put living quarters on one floor so as to accommodate the bodies that continue to betray us, and to be a bit closer to our grandchildren who continue to restore us.

But if that was the purpose of the move, books were its soul. Sometimes I say we built a library and put a house around it. Between us, Joyce and I own something south of 3000 volumes—not a monumental number, but undoubtedly more than the average household.

The move to a new house stimulated conversations about culling books, but that was full of its own obstacles. In our family, even though all are readers we have different notions about books. The digital age has provided cover for those who believe books are to be read but not possessed. The advent of the Kindle and its ilk (I own one and use it all the time) allow entire libraries to be contained within a gadget about the size of the 40th Anniversary Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, thereby freeing bookshelves for the display of Precious Moments figurines and pictures of the grandchildren.

My own view makes me sound like a Luddite, which I am not. For me, books are slices of my life. They encapsulate important moments and have the capacity to stir memories and trigger ideas. Even if the book is unread there is some reason why it sits on my shelf. A gift, perhaps. An impulse purchase. Assigned reading from a dreaded class in college. A childhood favorite. Something rescued from the shelves of my avid reader father, an alcoholic mostly missing from my life, but represented in my library. Whatever the reason, it was difficult for me to let any of these books go. It felt like a violation of some kind—as if the books had tender hearts and would feel rejected.

It reminded me of one of my graduate school professors who became legally blind. He was no longer able to use his beloved books. He decided to offer his collection for sale, listing it for what seemed to me to be an unusually generous price. When I talked with him about it he told me that he had originally planned to individually cost out each volume.

“I would pick up a book and hold it in my hand,” he said. “For me, that book was a corner turner. Its value to me was immeasurable. But to someone else it was nothing. The process just became too damn painful. I couldn’t do it. I put one price on the whole collection and walked away.”


That is what I was feeling as I prepared the books for moving. I took them off the shelves, handled them, recalled how they came to live with me. Some brought back a rush of feelings. While skimming certain theological volumes sometimes my heart was “strangely warmed,’’ like John Wesley’s, or they renewed an assurance from within my own faith tradition that if a seeker encounters something that is right “your bosom shall burn within you.” (Doctrine & Covenants 9:2b, Community of Christ, Herald Publishing House, Independence, Missouri.)

I selected a thin volume entitled The Sacred Journey, by Frederick Buechner (HarperCollins 1982). I fingered it lovingly, remembering that at a time when I was facing questions of vocation and meaning this book burrowed into my soul and gave me hope.

During my career I had opportunity to travel widely throughout the world and wherever I went I took with me a novel set in that place, using fiction as an eye into that culture. I reread Alan Paton’s classic Cry, the Beloved Country while in South Africa, and that trip washed over me anew as I slipped that book into the moving box. In India I read John Irving’s Son of the Circus, and his quirky style made him one of my favorite writers. Although best remembered as something of a 1980 potboiler miniseries, James Clavell’s Shogun was an insightful exploration of the Japanese culture. In each case handling the book in preparation for moving was like a return visit to a place fondly remembered, or sometimes remembered but not so fondly.

Hundreds of volumes have been written
about Sherlock Holmes, as if this fictional
character was real. In a way, he is.
My guilty pleasure in reading mysteries was generously stoked by the several hundred volumes on my shelves. In eighth grade I opened an Arrow Book Club flyer and was introduced to The Hound of the Baskervilles, the most revered Sherlock Holmes novel. That opened the door to a myriad of delights only true Sherlockians can understand. The Holmes canon has its own special place in the new library. While packing I was surprised anew with a short story or essay that conspired to be reread and derail the task at hand.

And that is what it comes to. Whether read or unread, these books sit side by side on their shelves. Some have life-changing significance for me. Some have no such claim on my heart, but they are still a part of the whole. Some came as Christmas gifts, packages I saved until last to open. Sometimes I guessed incorrectly and had to hide my disappointment. A few were the products of tantalizing shopping trips, gripping Barnes & Noble gift certificates. It was like when my grandmother opened the ice cream freezer at McMurray Grocery, a little corner store she ran in Toronto, and invited me to pick out whatever I wanted. Oh man! That grape popsicle has its literary equivalents and they sit on my shelves today.

They are not a bunch of books—they are a library. They belong together as a mosaic of ideas, happenings, characters, places, humor, drama, love, hope, and dreams that constitute pieces of my own life journey.

Over time they have presented me with unexpected delights, just as Jerry did with the book he sent. The books on my shelves are not done with me yet. I have a queue of about a dozen volumes on one shelf that are in line to be read next, but I have no illusions that it will happen that way. There are too many surprises in store.

Life still has its next chapters.

[This post is published simultaneously on Medium.com, an interesting new venture in blogging. Readers of this blog might be interested in seeing the good writing that appears there.]


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Perfection Just Ain't What It Used to Be

When you're dancing with the stars it's tough to
compete with perfection.
Is it just me or have others noticed an avalanche of the word "perfect" thundering into everyday public discourse?

We just finished building a house and found ourselves in many conversations with bankers, mortgage officers, and other folks evaluating our credit worthiness. It appears we are perfect in that regard, something even I would dispute.

I guess I first noticed it when being interviewed on the phone regarding our application for a home loan. "For security reasons," she said, "May I have the last four digits of your Social Security number." I provided the information and she responded, "Perfect!"

It took me back. Had I known I was being graded I would have given more thought to my answer. I surely would not have wanted the last four digits of my Social Security number to be less than perfect. I probably would have wanted to consult that flimsy red, white, and blue card they gave me back when I took a job at that godforsaken laundry when I was about 12. I didn't have it on me, but I think I know the box it's in, or at least the room. I could have gone there and found it so as to avoid any chance of being imperfect on those four digits.

But before I could process all of that, my current address was also judged by the banker to be "perfect." Ah ha! Now I had them. That address was on East 30th Terrace Court and sometimes East was shortened to E; Terrace abbreviated as Terr. and sometimes Ter.; often Court was shortened to Ct. And most disconcerting, the Post Office on occasion added an "S" on the end, presumably meaning South. It was a volunteer thing, I guess. I opted out, figuring East and South needed to play together at one end of the address or the other. I wasn't about to contribute to dysfunctional coordinates in my home address.

But here's the thing. The address I recited to this lady over the phone had at least seven or eight possible renderings. I don't know which one she wrote down or compared with what she had on her paper. But I know this for a fact. There's no way more than a handful of answers to the same question can all be "PERFECT." Nonetheless, we got the loan.

A few days ago I was in the dentist chair having my teeth cleaned and otherwise assaulted by a very nice and well-meaning hygienist. Laying there without much else to do I started to ponder the way I might put together this post, which had been bouncing around in my head for a while. "Open a little wider," she said, jamming some kind of telephone pole into my mouth. I did as requested and darned if she didn't reward me with an undeserved "Perfect!"

Undeserved? Well, let's just say there's nothing inside my mouth that's perfect. Trust me. I've seen the x-rays.

A few years ago I saw a movie called A Perfect Storm, which was about a ship that found itself in the midst of a horrendous storm resulting from the unexpected convergence of various climatic conditions. When you look up "perfect storm" you find a variety of definitions such as:
A "perfect storm" is an expression that describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically. The term is also used to describe an actual phenomenon that happens to occur in such a confluence, resulting in an event of unusual magnitude.
In other words, a variety of circumstances, many of them undesirable, converge to create something so undesirable that it is called perfect. I don't know. As I recall, the guys on that boat called the storm a lot of things. Perfect wasn't one of them.

I guess what I'm feeling here is that "perfect" seems to be used these days to apply to a whole bucket of things that don't even remotely relate to what we traditionally have understood the term to mean. Perfection is on its way to being cheapened into meaninglessness. A lot of things bother me more than this--war, poverty, hunger, the Yankee payroll--but other people blog on those subjects. I doubt if misusage of the word "perfect" is sticking in anyone else's craw. It should.

Senator George Aiken is usually the one most authoritatively attributed with saying of the Vietnam War that we should "declare victory and come home."

Similarly, it seems that recent usage implies that simply pronouncing something as perfect makes it so. Which, of course, it isn't. So, what to do?

Major League Baseball spring training begins this week (Do I hear an AMEN?). I find that baseball provides answers to most of life's vexing problems, even while posing some perplexing issues of its own. But baseball does have some things to say about perfection.


On October 8, 1956 the New York Yankees played the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. The Yankee pitcher that day was a gangly right-hander named Don Larsen, an improbable centerpiece for the first and only perfect game in World Series history. A journeyman pitcher, he ended his career with a forgettable win/loss record of 81-91. No one would have imagined it, but for one day that October Don Larsen was, in baseball terms, perfect.

The official Major League Baseball (MLB) definition of a perfect game is as follows:
An official perfect game occurs when a pitcher (or pitchers) retires each batter on the opposing team during the entire course of a game, which consists of at least nine innings. In a perfect game, no batter reaches any base during the course of the game.
The rules couldn't be much clearer, but even this search for perfection has its own challenges. Here are a few:
  • Many people think the final pitch of the game, a called third strike by Umpire Babe Pinelli (working the last game of a 21 year career), was actually high and should have been called a ball. If a perfect game ends on a blown call is it still perfect?
  • Larsen threw 97 pitches to retire 27 batters. The minimum number of pitches possible would be 27, assuming each batter swung at the first pitch and made an out. Would such a scenario be somehow more perfect?
  • Almost every game has judgment calls--a close call on a runner at first, a possible trap on a diving play in the outfield, a home run that went fair or foul. Can anything that requires human judgment to declare whether a rule has been met ever be called "perfect?"
Despite these considerations, I still think that baseball has a better claim to its definition of perfection than my loan officer or dental hygienist. At least it has a set of rules against which its claims can be measured.

However, there is one more thing. I was nine years old when Don Larsen pitched his perfect game. I watched it on a small black-and-white television in the living quarters inside my grandmother's neighborhood grocery store in Toronto. Present that day were a handful or two of my relatives, including my usually absent father. Everyone there was a Yankee fan. Except me. For reasons I would understand only later in life (in seminary, where you learn about good and evil), I held my ground for the Dodgers and against the Yankees and in the face of family scorn.

As a result, I would say of Don Larsen what I would confess for myself.

Nobody's perfect.