Monday, December 17, 2012

My Granddaughter is 5. Please Help Us Protect Her!

My granddaughter Ashley will be five years old tomorrow. I know that is why I found myself an emotional wreck on Friday, spinning between a crushing sorrow and a seething anger. This is way too personal, way too real.

As I went about my normal activity on Friday morning I didn't pay much attention to the beeps emitting from my iPhone and other gadgets laying here and there around my study. I knew they were signaling that there was "breaking news," but I also knew there was rarely much significance to the notices. Probably Lindsey Lohan violating her parole while shopping at Gucci's, I muttered to myself, or perhaps the fiscal cliff negotiators are reporting no progress.

And then I picked up the phone and saw the words scrolling across its 2" x 3" screen. I could only grasp it in pieces. It was as if the full picture, the truth of it all, was too much to take in at once. I turned on the television and just sat there for most of the day. And I cried a lot, something I don't do much.

Later that morning our daughter-in-law sent us a text recounting a conversation she had with Ashley, explaining why she had been crying all morning. I was so grateful for Lyda who knew she had to find words for Ashley at a time when she didn't have the words for herself.

Usually things like this prompt me to write or pontificate in other ways. I try to piece it together, make some larger point, sometimes generate a little dialogue, and then move on. But this time it seemed different. The news outlets were awash in words as people tried to find context or meaning. Sometimes a slice of understanding emerges but the reality evades any kind of summing up. We will have to settle for glimpses here and there, perhaps depending more on poetry than prose.

If there is a big picture here, a sliver of hope, it may be in what feels to me like disorientation. Roles are changing. People are questioning their own positions, no matter how devoted to them they may have been.

The President is being referred to as the Comforter in Chief. His tears on Friday have been replayed over and over, perhaps too often. He takes pride in his stoic demeanor, especially in difficult times. But this time the tears were what we needed. Somebody had to cry for all of us. It was not planned or rehearsed. It just came, undoubtedly in part because the President's own beloved daughters were in his heart as he walked to that podium in the White House.

Sunday night he became a preacher, matching the need to console the broken-hearted with the need to proclaim justice. Religious language does not come easily to him, but he knew that this was a time when the familiar words of scripture would speak in ways that his words would not, especially when spoken with his voice. It was disorienting, but that is why it was important.

Even the gun issue is being processed in a new way. Oh, the talking heads from the NRA are out in force as they always are. But already they are seeming to be irrelevant. Their mindless defense of the right to bear arms like these assault weapons that spray 30 blood-spattering bullets with the pull of a trigger is being seen for the nonsense that it is. For the first time in my memory politicians and commentators with 100% ratings from the NRA are stating, sometimes with passion, that things MUST change. Again, disorienting, but also promising.

The narrative that began on Friday has lurched and lumbered clumsily across the national landscape. It turns out that the mother of the shooter was not a teacher killed in her classroom, but herself a gun owner and outspoken advocate found dead in her home at the hand of her own son using one of her own weapons. Disorienting, and troubling.

Lisa Belkin writes provocatively that gun control is a parenting issue:
We can't just grieve and hold our children close. We have to demand that our country earn the right to call itself a civilized nation. We need to do this because our central job as parents -- maybe our only job, really -- is to keep our children safe so they can grow up. Easy access to guns keeps us from doing that job.
It sounds like she is saying that the problem is with me. And with you as well. Disorienting, but I'm afraid she may be right.

We don't know where all this goes. We have a history of having to face events like this, expressing our despair or anger or grief, and then allowing them to slip quietly out of our consciousness.

There is one thing that is different. These were children. Twenty of them, aged six and seven. That is the difference, they say.

My granddaughter turns five tomorrow. Please help us protect her.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Pondering Out Loud as the Clock Ticks Down

Two weeks from now we will know who will be president of the United States for the next four years. That assumes, of course, that there will be no intervention by a Supreme Court that seemed to enjoy appointing the president when the opportunity came their way in the 2000 election (okay, okay, it's cheesy and should be beneath me, but still...). In truth the razor thin margin this year doesn't guarantee any outcome--a tie in the Electoral College is far from impossible, leaving the decision to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Oh my!

I'm cursed by being interested in all this. I watch the darn debates. I listen to the cable television talking heads prattling away into the night. Sometimes I watch the late, late night reruns hoping the blue vote in Wyoming might have slipped beyond the statistical margin of error that Rachel or Wolf reported three hours before.

It never does. But then, before I could trigger the remote I would find myself in the middle of an infomercial for some kind of cream that repairs your male pattern baldness, restores your libido to when you were 14, and when properly applied reminds you (men only please) to put the toilet seat down. All this for only $14.95 plus shipping and handling, bringing the total to $87.58. It's deals like this that keep you interested in politics.

I've got some things rattling around in my head about this election and think it might be a good idea to get them written down before they become tainted by outcome. There is nothing to ruin a good night of pondering more quickly than to have it ratified or repudiated by facts.

Not my granddaughter but almost as cute.
For purposes of full disclosure let me acknowledge than I consider myself an independent but I mostly vote for Democrats. In 2008 I enthusiastically and tearfully voted for Obama and will do so this year, perhaps without the tears. I not only support him but I admire him. I am furious at the Republican intransigence over the last four years so it is going to take a while for that party to regain my acceptance in those few places where I might be inclined to support either an idea or candidate.

In addition, I recently turned 65 and am now the recipient of government largesse via Medicare and the Social Security Trust Fund (which I understand is currently busy paying off unfunded war expenses and other such obligations). I tell you all this because I believe that the closest one can get to objectivity is to disclose one's subjectivity.

What follows is a handful of words that prompt in me some reflection or feeling pertaining to the current election cycle. Each word could probably stand on its own merit but I'll give them a couple of sentences explanation just in case you, dear reader, think differently, and therefore wrongly, about its meaning. We can't have that.

INCIVILITY: During a speech by the President to a joint session of Congress Rep. Joe Wilson yelled aloud "You Lie!" That is perhaps the benchmark in a season of rudeness and disrespect that does not auger well for a political climate worthy of our highest aspirations.

PROPORTIONALITY: Little things weigh too much. That can apply to a poorly phrased idea or a faulty memory, but a deeper illustration is Obama's admittedly poor debate performance in his first standoff with Romney. Most analysts think a good debate by Obama would have virtually locked the race down; instead it energized the opposition and left an election still in doubt just two weeks away. Pretty serious consequences for a bad day.

CARNIVAL: The Republicans rolled out about 20 debates with a cast of characters that rivaled the traveling carnivals of my youth. We got a bunch of wannabes dancing on the edge of embarrassment--Herman Cain (thin crust), Newt Gingrich (smart but tone deaf), Michelle Bachman (scary cute), Rick Perry (even God's endorsement didn't help), Ron Paul (unpopular truths stir fried with blunt fun), Rick Santorum (see Manchurian candidate), and others. Eliminate those and you're left with two Mormons--Jon Huntsman (ignore because he makes sense and is experienced) and Mitt Romney (well no one will vote for a Mormon right?). A few others didn't make the cut. Can you imagine being told you don't qualify to be among THIS field of candidates? But the bottom line is this: the quantity and quality of these debates did not serve us well.

RELIGION: I spent 33 years on the staff of a faith community, eight years as the denominational president. I know a bit about faith and politics and I find the use of those principles in today's campaigns to be appalling. Several candidates said they were running in response to a call from God. I always thought God was too busy controlling the outcome of football games to take on politics as well. Those who want a reasonable understanding of church and state would be well advised to note that the constitutional "wall of separation" is designed not just to protect the church from the state but also to protect the state from the church. And to that I say,"Amen."

EXTREMISM: Even as I write this there is much ado on the television about the congressman who stated that a child conceived in a rape is a "gift from God." My own state features commercials about one of our congressmen who seems to know that if it's a "legitimate rape" a woman has the ability to close it down and presumably prevent conception. I can't even believe I'm writing this stuff. This campaign cycle has featured a war against science, a battle over the rights of women to control their own bodies, and it has put extremists in a position of forcing candidates to embrace positions they do not believe in for the sake of getting elected. We have a right to expect our leaders not to be scared of scary extremists. In 2012, alas, that is misplaced hope.

MONEY: This is the worst of all. Thanks to the same Supreme Court mentioned above, virtually any meaningful campaign finance limits were struck down. That left us with an orgy of spending beyond belief, and some billionaires or poorer millionaires made it clear they would use their PACs and Super PACs as vessels for contributions without limits and often without disclosure. I might be good for a $200 political contribution in a race I care about, maybe some smaller amounts for local elections. Why would I feel motivated to give a couple hundred bucks in a time when the well-heeled have bought the election for the price of a $10,000 breakfast and a photo op? I eat my Raisin Bran, sip my coffee, read the morning paper, and sulk. And for good reason.

So now we await the outcome of this tortuous process. We will each do our part in accordance with our convictions. It looks like a mess, but somehow it usually seems to turn out okay. I trust that it shall be so in this election year.

And then, could we please turn our attention to things we can learn from the flawed process leading finally to November 6, 2012. This grand experiment in democracy is sorely in need of a tuneup.

Note: This version differs slightly from the version posted online around noon on 10/25/2012. Edits were primarily grammatical or for clarity. In a few places, notably the last two paragraphs, a few additional sentences were written. The basic premises are identical in both versions.  (10/25/2012, 8:00pm)

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Disappointment, History, and Popeye

Politics will infuse your dreams with hope and the next day smash them cruelly on the rocks. It's horrible, and then you suddenly realize, "My gosh, it's already the next day."

I was profoundly disappointed by the performance of President Obama in the first presidential debate for the 2012 election. I think I have made it very clear that I admire the president and support him in his efforts to build a nation that appeals to our highest values. That admiration has not moved one iota on this day after Mitt Romney trounced him in their first of three such encounters leading up to the election.

Let's be honest and realistic. The spin doctors waste their breath in trying to snatch victory from defeat. It may work with sports but not here. The majority of voters will not make their decision on some intricate mathematical formula that suddenly explains the deficit or keeps grandma's Medicaid coverage in place. It has to do with how we felt about what we saw. It has to do with likability and confidence and trust. You can't spin that.

Mitt Romney stumbled and bumbled his way to the nomination and has run what looks from the outside to be a futile campaign with a deeply flawed candidate. Then, inexplicably, he gulps down a can of spinach, pounds his fists on his chest, and knocks Bluto on his arse. And Olive Oyl swoons.

So, give the guy his due. He prepared, and to his credit he prepared content and not one-liners. You can make all the excuses you want for Obama--he has a day job called "being president," he underestimated Romney having seen his GOP debates, he was tired or had jet lag, or was not feeling well, he just had an off-day as we all do. Doesn't matter. Romney wins, Obama loses.

Richard M Nixon debates
John F Kennedy in 1960.
History is littered with failed debates and victorious candidates. The first televised presidential debate was Nixon vs Kennedy in 1960. Many thought Nixon lost because he had a five o'clock shadow and droplets of sweat on his upper lip. It took him a while but eight years later he was the president, winning a second term before being forced into resignation to avoid impeachment. It is a case study in winning and losing and we need to learn history's lessons.

Today all around the country there are pundits and campaign officials smarter than me criticizing, advising, retooling, and rethinking. It woud be self-indulgent to believe I have anything to add to that mix. My priority now is personal. I need to figure out what I am going to do about this disappointing day. A few preliminary ideas have already come to mind.

A few days ago I got an Obama-Biden bumper sticker through the mail. It's been laying on my desk. Today it goes on the car.

I will try to do my bit by passing out literature, making phone calls, putting up yard signs and all that stuff that works even thought we hate it. I will NOT participate in anything that smacks of robo-calls.

I've read enough to know that Romney's debate performance was built on an altar of half-truths and fuzzy math. I have given him a lot of credit in this piece, but that doesn't mean he gets a pass for his shameless game of cat and mouse with the truth. I will learn what I can and offer the unrequested service of correcting these mistaken notions when I hear them. I will be forthright but I'm no Popeye. I will be gentle.

I will expect the president to carry the water to the finish line. On this day, the day after, he has already begun. It's good to have him back. Mr President, a can of spinach at breakfast might be a good idea, just in case.

And most important, I will remind myself over and over that disappointment fades and today is a new day.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Death and Diplomacy in the Grip of Politics

This morning I was up and about in my house in the early hours as I often am, passing my interest between the morning newspaper that flopped onto my driveway about 4am, one of the half dozen books that are laying around vying for my attention, and the cable news stations that suddenly turned from fluff to substance.

The American ambassador to Libya and three members of the diplomatic staff had been killed in a brutal attack that appeared to be targeted and likely timed to coincide with memorialization of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Within hours the name and sterling reputation of the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, was being transmitted around the world. Suddenly everything changed in a flash, something we see all too often these days. If you like stability you're living in the wrong century.

I am writing this just a few hours after the attack. I know nothing for sure. Some say it was stimulated by a video posted on the internet and deemed derogatory of the Prophet Muhammed, and thereby offensive to Muslims around the world. If so, it is a conflict between religion and free speech, a volatile crucible in the incendiary climate of the Middle East, not to mention the United States.

I don't pretend to have credentials to comment with any veracity on the religious and cultural issues of this sad and fearful day. In our country we look to those who have experience and knowledge to understand it, explain it, and then deal with it.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her role as the country's top diplomat, stepped forth within a few hours and gave an elegant and nuanced statement, mourning the dead, speaking thoughtfully to the sensitive issues, and standing firm against those who perpetrate such horrible deeds in the name of faith or country or mindless ideals.

But then cometh Mitt Romney. First, he fired an initial salvo in the middle of the night, launched before the deaths had been reported, laying the violent demonstrations in Syria, Egypt and Libya at the feet of President Obama's "failed foreign policy." He then held a news conference basically restating his initial bellicose inaccuracies. He ridiculed any effort on the part of the administration to understand or explain the complex issues of faith and freedom.

I thought we had an understanding in this country that political disagreements were set aside when issues of national security were on the line. Mr. Romney seeks to become leader of the free world. After bungling his Olympics tour by insulting our allies he now puts on galoshes and stumbles his way through the tulips, showing no sense of timing or reflection. It is shameful.

Mr. Romney asks Americans to respect his Mormon faith, something many people find odd, embarrassing, and antiquarian. I completely support his request as fair and consistent with American values. Now it is time for this man to show that he can honor in others what he asks for himself.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Memories of Hope in My Junk Mail

The other day I opened my mailbox and found only one piece of mail--a letter from George McGovern, the Democratic candidate for president in 1972. I chuckled, wondering how my life had come to this. It was 40 years ago that McGovern burrowed into my soul with his quixotic campaign to end the war in Vietnam and embrace principles of social justice cherished by college students like myself. And now here he is again, and in my mailbox no less.

Lest you be unduly impressed that I should be receiving a letter from George McGovern, I must quickly acknowledge that it was only a mass mailing encouraging folks to give money to Democratic and social justice causes.

I can remember a time when I thought it would be cool to be wanted only for my money. Now the worst has happened--I have no money but there are computers out there that think I do, and those computers are connected to devices that call me every day, send me emails every day, and mail me letters every day. I don't think he licked the stamp, but the letter from McGovern was of that type.

I am willing to be forgiving of George, however, because there was a time when he embodied things I deeply believed and he gave me hope that a peaceful world was within view. The letter in my mailbox made me mostly sad, awash as we are in perhaps the worst election tactics in many years, arguably ever. It does not seem that we have come much closer to those dreams we dared dream.

For those reading this who don't know much about the election of 1972, this Wikipedia link is a pretty good overview. What follows here is a brief summary of what it was all about, followed by a brief summary of why I care and why the envelope in my mailbox was a kind of postal epiphany for me.

Why Everyone Should Care: The election of 1972 must be traced to Southeast Asia where communist incursions in the 1950's began to make it a battleground for America's Cold War foreign policy to stop the spread of communism around the world. By the 1960's American escalation of an unwinnable guerilla war in Vietnam was sapping the country's resources, killed over 58,000 U.S. soldiers, and left the country rioting in the streets. The incumbent president, Richard M. Nixon, had campaigned in 1968 with the pledge that he had a secret plan to end the war.

Four years later, with no reasonable plan in view, Senator George McGovern, a soft-spoken history professor from South Dakota, took advantage of new populist rules forged during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention, and an enthusiastic coalition of college students, traditional liberals, and ethnic minorities, to capture the nomination. His election campaign was plagued with missteps, lack of enthusiasm on the part of the traditional Democratic base, and a well-oiled Nixon reelection effort that managed to dispel allegations of ethical misconduct. Two years later that would bring Nixon down in the swirl of scandals usually collected under the term "Watergate."

But it was too late for McGovern. He was thumped with the worst loss in American history, winning only the state of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. We all should care, even today, why that happened.

Why I Still Care:  In 1968 I cast my first vote for president of the United States, having become a naturalized U.S. citizen just three years before. I was a student in a small sectarian college in southern Iowa, not particularly sophisticated in politics or history, and an opponent of the war to the extent one can oppose war in small colleges in southern Iowa. I had thought it through and voted for Richard Nixon and his secret plan to win the war in Vietnam. 

My bad. 

I had to wait four years to do penance but then, married and in seminary, I engaged for the first time in grass roots American politics. We met in small groups, organizing to take over the caucuses used by local politicians to control the presidential nominating process. We bushwhacked our caucus by flooding it with new activists and taking control from the establishment politicos for whom this gathering had always been perfunctory. We swarmed Kansas City's Union Station late into the evening when McGovern's whistle stop campaign train stopped for a brief rally. We handed out brochures, made phone calls, talked to our friends and family, and felt connected to the democratic process. It was exhilarating. 

Then, on the night of November 7, 1972, we watched our television screens with dismay as our youthful dreams were swept away in an avalanche of votes across the nation. We all should care, even today, why that happened.

When I opened my mailbox this past week to find only George McGovern's request for funds I was struck by how it seemed like a metaphor for our time. The political process that seemed so inclusive and invigorating is now overcome with deserving cynicism. The belief that our voice and votes matter is riddled with scorn by those who now, aided by a shameful Supreme Court decision, use their mind-boggling wealth to buy elections from right under our feet. Many people understandably ask, "What's the point?". And now, refusing to learn the lessons of history, we wage unjustified, unfunded, and unbridled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are a host of things--ethnicity, poverty, women's issues, misguided budget priorities, among others--that still feel burdensome all these years later.

I'm glad George McGovern dropped me a note. It reminded me of when I was young and dreaming big dreams. In retrospect, despite that thrashing at the polls, we have seen that he was mostly right back in 1972. Knowing that helps.

But it's not enough. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

On Clarifying God's Role in Missouri Politics

I mean no disrespect, but there are more and more reports that God has been meddling in Missouri politics. Now, to be sure I am not one to tell God how to spend his time. I'm a strong supporter of God; I've even befriended him on Facebook. Maybe it's just a matter of his not having time to read up on things, but when it comes to Missouri politics I am a little worried that God may be in over his head.

It starts with the Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, whose position favoring such issues as health care, Social Security, and public education have apparently put her on political hit lists that no self-respecting Christian would want to be on.

There were three major candidates in the Republican primary this week and it would be difficult to find anything of significance separating them on issues. Mostly their focus was persuading GOP voters that they were more conservative than their opponents, or than any other human being on the face of the earth for that matter.

They did use different strategies, however. One candidate likened herself to Sarah Palin and brought Sarah to town for an endorsement. Didn't work. Another relatively unknown businessman put $7.5 million of his own money in the race. Didn't work.

The third candidate is a six-term member of Congress who is considered one of the most unflinching conservatives in the House. He kept a low profile and to his credit chose not to run attack ads. He didn't reveal the secret of his success until he was declared the winner of the primary, and then he immediately disclosed how he did it and who helped him do it:
I want to give thanks to God our Creator who has blessed this campaign, heard your prayers, and answered them with victory. Through the months, we have seen frequent instances of His blessing and are reminded that with Him all things are possible. (Kansas City Star, August 8, 2012, page 1)
That one worked.

Read more here:
This announcement by U.S. Rep. Todd Akin demands analysis, if only to avoid scorn. One is tempted, indeed required, to ask the obvious questions. Is God registered as a political lobbyist in the state of Missouri? If so, do we know for sure whether he is a Republican who drinks tea? And further, in view of his "creator" role mentioned in Akin's statement can we even assume that God is a U.S. citizen? Wouldn't the folks in Mozambique expect that God is one of their's as well? And what about birthing documents? One analyst opined that they may have been lost in the Flood. Yes, THAT flood.

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Michael visits
 President Harry Truman at the White House,
January 20, 1950
Missouri politics can be tough. Ask Tom Pendergast. Ask Harry Truman. I really do not know what kind of political acumen God brought to Akin's campaign. Here in Missouri God usually shows up at Sunday School, church picnics, and the like. I'm just a little concerned that if God has signed up for Akin it may have been because of political naiveté rather than political enthusiasm.

You see, here in Missouri these days candidates who believe in things like caring for the poor and healing the sick tend to get accused of horrible sins like killing puppies and supporting Medicare. And whether God knows it or not, if he hooks his wagon to Akin's star he is going to be expected to shed that wimpy "no attack ads" position and start turning out those commercials.

Now it is true that God has a pretty good résumé. The vetting process will be burdensome but ultimately revealing. Here's what I think will come of it all. Once these folks who claim God as their campaign manager get a good look at God's record they are going to discover that it isn't quite the fit they were expecting.

And as for God, I am confident that a few days with the Akin campaign will make it clear that there are other disasters more worthy of God's time and energy than Missouri politics.

Like Darfur.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

They Say It's Just a Game

On Tuesday, July 10, 2012, I posted the following (now slightly edited) on my Facebook page. It sets the scene for one of those remarkable days when many things converge. In this case it is sport, history, family, and much, much more. My sons Jeff and Brian and daughter-in-law Lyda (the involvement of my two year old and four year old granddaughters as co-conspirators is suspected by me but not confirmed) joined together to make something remarkable happen. I just had to write about it. There was an outpouring of comments by friends and family and once we got to the game we felt like we were accompanied by many folks we've known from many places across the years. 

I have, of course, some reflections to offer, although it's pretty hard to write anything fresh about an All-Star game. Baseball lends itself to some of the best writing in sport, often lyrical, even poetic. But this experience is personal and I guess that's kind of the point. So here are the words that framed the experience. I'll save the rest for another day.


Wow! I can't believe what this day will bring. Last night my two sons, both of them well-bred lads, presented me with two tickets to tonight's MLB All-Star game right here in Kansas City. I was stunned.

Jeff and Grant McMurray, Baseball Geeks
I imagine that those who know me are aware that I am a pretty avid baseball fan. This is probably the last such game I will ever have opportunity to see in my town. (I could bring up the possibility of a World Series, but that gets into a whole different level of discussion.) If I am still occupying space on this earth the next time such an event comes to KC I will undoubtably be living at the Home, rocking on the porch, and drooling onto a strategically placed bib.
So this is the time. I do not know how this ticket acquisition was made. Jeff lives in Chicago now so I'm not ruling out Mob connections.

Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
Home of the Royals, Host of the 2012 All-Star Game
But here's the thing. My family knows what a thrill it will be for me to attend this game and they also know I am a tad frugal. They have other terms to describe it. This is masked as a combination Fathers Day and birthday gift, but it is neither of those. It is an act of love from my sons and daughter-in-law that I will remember all my days. So Brian, Lyda, and Jeff, please know how much it means to me. I love you all in so many ways, some that you cannot even imagine. Thank you for this gift that transcends the gift.

No, it isn't JUST a game
Oh, and can you believe the pitching choices on the National League team? And what a rip that Billy Butler got bumped from the Home Run Derby? And did you hear that Bo Jackson and Reggie Jackson and Amos Otis and Bret Saberhagen are in town? And what about Jeter and..... Wow! This is cool!

Sunday, July 08, 2012

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

(A review in brief, first published in

A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had a wonderful experience with this book, but it took a circuitous journey to get me there. John Irving is among my favorite writers and A Prayer for Owen Meany is often considered his most popular and accessible book. It is also a profoundly religious book, although some might say (wrongly, in my view) sacrilegious. It's John Irving after all, so prepare yourself for a dazzling ride into the far corners of Irving's imaginative universe.

Nonetheless, I have tried three or four times to read this book and always got derailed. It just didn't grab me. I loved Garp, Son of the Circus, Cider House Rules and others, but Meany eluded me.

The first sentence of the book is this:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
Irving says he always writes the last sentence first and once written it never changes. The first sentence, however, changes many times, right up to the final manuscript. He says that the first sentence in Meany is his favorite first sentence in all his books. It is also a sentence that says everything you need to know about the book. Don't worry, however, it is not a spoiler.

I think it is the "wrecked voice" that was the problem. In the book Owen Meany's dialogue is always formatted in all caps. That seemed off-putting to me for some reason. Then I read where someone had listened to the book in audio format (on and the narrator used a high pitched voice when reading Meany's spoken words. It was screechy and annoying, but that is the point, after all. It seemed just perfect.

I now have read A Prayer for Owen Meany with my ears. There are scenes in this book that I will never forget. I don't know yet if I will hear them or see them. More important is whether I will FEEL them, and I am confident I will.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

When the Foul Ball Comes Your Way

Last Saturday afternoon in the bottom of the first inning at Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City Royals Outfielder Alex Gordon fouled off a pitch and launched it like a laser beam to Section 215, Row HH, Seat 6, which happened to be where I was sitting.

That this ball hit me in the face is not in question--I am married to an eyewitness and she has volunteered this information to several people who then looked at me with what I interpreted as admiration, although pity might be a possibility. Usually they wanted to know if I got the ball. Personally, I thought the question of whether I was blind in my right eye was more pertinent but there is no accounting for the priorities of baseball fans.

The answer to the question about the frigging ball is that I did not get it, primarily because it was hit so hard that it bounced off my thick skull and landed in what was undoubtedly at least four sections away. Certainly in the upper deck. Possibly in the parking lot. It is probably now owned by some wuss who doesn't understand the grand tradition of recovering baseballs hit into the stands.

All of this requires a little context.

This year Kansas City is the host of the Major League Baseball All Star Game and it has caused quite the buzz in town. I had a special interest in this weekend's game between the Royals and Oakland A's, largely because it was commemorating the year 1960, when the All Star Game was hosted by Kansas City, whose major league team at that time was the Kansas City Athletics. (The A's moved their team to Oakland after the 1967 season and a new expansion team, the Royals, was established in Kansas City, beginning play for the 1969 season. But I digress...)

I had a more personal reason for attending this game and that is because 1960 is the year I became a baseball fan. (That's another story involving a third baseman named Ed Charles stealing home in the bottom of the ninth while I, a 13 year old recently moved from Canada to the States, was listening on the radio. Been a baseball fan ever since. But I digress...)

The promotion also provided that each fan entering the game received a nice vintage cap with the year 1960 and the Royals logo on it. (It also has a rather obtrusive Taco Bell logo on it. I checked and Taco Bell was founded in 1962 so I'm willing to give it a pass. But I digress...)

It was the cap that saved me.

Anyone familiar with baseball knows that fans carry a secret hope that they'll catch a foul ball. Kids bring baseball gloves, sometimes their dad's tattered variety and sometimes a brand new shiny thing made in China and sold by Wal-Mart. Most of all they carry the vain hope that the foul ball will come their way. They dream that the line drive will be a couple of feet over their head and they will leap and spear it, resulting in an explosion of cheers as it is documented in high definition on a gigantic scoreboard. If the ball bounces nearby there is a scramble involving people of all ages and once the ball is retrieved there is often a drama between some husky college kid working on his third beer and a tearful eight year old learning the injustice of life.

I'm not saying that any of that was on my mind as Alex Gordon approached the plate in the bottom of the first. In fact, I know my head was down for some reason--getting the food properly balanced on my lap, getting my bum knees into a position where I can flex them now and then, or whatever else one does to get settled in for the ball game. But then within a nanosecond or so I heard the crack of a bat and a sudden rush of air, a gasp from people around me, and then a thud followed by a cacophony of ball-smacking, people-scrambling, voices-calling. The sounds were immediately conjoined with tactile sensations--a cap askew, eye glasses knocked off my nose, and a general feeling that my head hurt a bit, not horrible pain but not pleasant either.

I was immediately surrounded by ushers and other Royals staffers, probably a few lawyers working undercover. I declined their offer to have a medic take me somewhere to ice my forehead. I'd suffered enough humiliation in one day.

The foul ball had come my way and I wasn't looking.

I don't think I've ever carried my glove to a ball game. I've not been obsessive about getting a foul ball. They've kind of ruined it these days anyway. Any ball that makes it to the field, whether through base hits or player warmups or any other method, usually gets tossed back into the stands for the kids. So you see, they don't have to earn it like I did on Saturday, looking downward at my nachos and then taking the darn foul ball right on the chops.

Which takes me back to the cap and how it saved me. I've thought about it and I'm positive the ball hit me on the brim of the hat, knocking it downward so as to change its trajectory sufficiently to minimize the impact while still giving me a jolt and knocking my glasses to my lap. This is kind of like the soldiers who tell stories of putting their small Bibles in their shirt pocket, subsequently repelling the bullet that would otherwise have penetrated their heart. I'm left uncertain as to whether to claim this as a spiritual experience. Some would. I probably won't.

I mentioned that I wanted to get that cap because 1960 was the year I became a baseball fan. My family moved from Canada to the U.S. in 1959 and I was all about hockey. But it was a late night game on my radio in 1960, I thought, that won me over to baseball. Ed Charles stole home in the bottom of the ninth to win the game. I'll never forget. I was 13 years old.

But yesterday, just on a whim, I looked it up and it seems that Ed Charles was traded to the Kansas City Athletics on December 15, 1961 and was traded away from the A's on May 10, 1967. I dug a little deeper and I'll be darned if I didn't find the newspaper clipping of the very game I have carried around in my youthful memories. Ed Charles stole home in the bottom of the ninth inning on August 8, 1962, defeating the Minnesota Twins 4-3.

Ed Charles did not play in Kansas City in 1960, which kind of messes up the significance of the cap. I now have to date my love of baseball as beginning in 1962 when I was 15 years old. This is not a life-changing piece of information, to be sure, but still a tad unsettling. It means I've been a baseball fan two years less than I thought. It took a whack on the head to get my facts straight.

As for the cap, well it put its brim between my eye and Alex Gordon's line drive. It will at least give me a pretty good story to tell about what happened in Kauffman Stadium back in 2012 when the foul ball came my way.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Stumbling Toward Truth

The events of this week surrounding same-sex marriage will be pounced on by pundits, acclaimed by supporters, decried by critics, and seared by comics. I hope there will also be time and place for it to be savored for the extraordinary slice of life it is.

Yes, it is something to be celebrated by advocates of social justice. It will be analyzed by historians and political scientists and students of American culture. But there is something else here, something serendipitous, perhaps even bewitching.

Over a few days two of the most powerful men in the world came to a nexus of decision on one of the most conflicted issues of our time. It occurred in the home of a family hosting the Vice President of the United States. And, according to the leader of the free world, it occurred at his own dinner table talking to his kids.

Cynics, stand back. Do not deny the country this moment, whatever your own sense of justice may be. There is an eternal truth here, one even more powerful than the issue of marriage, if we allow ourselves to seek it.

On Sunday I listened to Vice President Biden's interview on Meet the Press. I was charmed by his response to David Gregory's very direct questioning. Biden, often described as a "loose cannon" for his sometimes blunt or politically incorrect locution, framed the issue in an entirely new and remarkable way. The question, Biden said, is "Who do you love?" He illustrated the point by describing his reception by two children at the residence of a family in which the parents were of the same gender. Biden seemed to be truly taken by the love he saw in that home. The experience may not rise to the level of epiphany, but it sounds like it came pretty close.

Some media reports described Biden's comments as another "gaffe" and the initial response of the White House minions was to minimize the statement as wholly consistent with current policy. Well, they're wrong. By defining the issue as being about love, Biden changed the landscape and the policy wonks were suddenly out of their element.

You've got to love this guy Biden. He's smart and tough and experienced, but he also has one heck of a big heart and he can't seem to disconnect that heart from his mouth. Good for him. And good for us.

A few days after Biden's comments President Barack Obama had a stunning interview with ABC News in which he declared his support for same-sex marriage, the first American president in history to do so. He had long been criticized by his liberal base for a position that supported civil unions but stopped short of marriage. For some time he described his position as "evolving."

But change was on the way, and he explained it to Robin Roberts thusly, just as he said it before the copy editors cleaned it up:
You know, Malia and Sasha, they've got friends whose parents are same-sex couples. And I-- you know, there have been times where Michelle and I have been sittin' around the dinner table. And we've been talkin' and-- about their friends and their parents. And Malia and Sasha would-- it wouldn't dawn on them that somehow their friends' parents would be treated differently. It doesn't make sense to them. And-- and frankly-- that's the kind of thing that prompts-- a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated-- differently, when it comes to-- the eyes of the law.
When the story of this week is told by media critics, historians, and politicians it will undoubtedly be referred to from a policy making perspective as bumbling and undisciplined. As of now, no one knows what the political consequences will be. From the ABC interview it appears that the president wasn't thrilled with the timing of Biden's statement. As for Obama, some find his admission of an evolving point of view to be a sign of weakness or lack of conviction.

As for me, I rejoice in a week in which powerful men come to life-changing decisions because they looked at two people and saw love, or sat around their kitchen table wondering how they could explain to their children that they supported something that even they knew was unfair. If Joe Biden disrupted a political timeline because his heart overflowed with love, so be it. If Barack Obama is willing to admit that he's evolving, that he's not sure about something, then we're all better off. Even those of us who don't ride around in stretch limos understand all too well that certitude is difficult to catch and usually wrong once we've caught it.

I love this stumbling, bumbling week. Somehow a convergence of gaffes and uncertainties, seasoned with a dash of love, got us a little closer to truth.

All it needed was my granddaughter's magic wand--I can only imagine what a sprinkling of Ashley's angel dust might have added to this already mystical week in May.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mortality and Other Annoyances

The Aging Process by reign 60
The Aging Process, a photo by reign 60 on Flick
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, white 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 oh why me?" I'm now wondering if this is the Medicare 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? 

Is that it? Am I now to be known by my ailments rather than my accomplishments, meager as they may be? 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 that is all that remains, the living of a life seems kind of trivial. I will have to acknowledge that this rant is a cover-up of sorts, allowing me to use my aches and pains as a way to avoid thinking critically about my own life, distilling from it the kind of insights that could be ennobling as well as disappointing. 

Somerset Maugham called it The Summing Up. Frederick Buechner described it as his sacred journey. Dean Acheson immodestly referred to his life as a Cold War diplomat as being Present at the Creation. Maybe we all need to revisit the path over which we have traveled, letting it speak to us in new ways. 

Now, if only i could find the damn thing. Where are my glasses?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sex, Politics, and Stupidity

Something to consider if you are really, REALLY getting sick of politics . . . by gwilmore
a photo by gwilmore on Flickr.
American politics never cease to amaze me. I just watched 30 minutes of Andrea Mitchell Reports, always a thoughtful interview program on MSNBC.

It began with a terrific analysis of the U.S./China relationship by Jon Huntsman, former ambassador to China and former Republican candidate for president of the United States. He demonstrated a vast command of the history and culture of China and urged all candidates to avoid the sound bites and give the issue the thoughtful reflection that this very complex and highly consequential matter deserves.
Jon Huntsman

I never did understand why Huntsman didn't make a bigger splash in the GOP nomination process. He always seemed to be a guy who understands the importance of bipartisanship; he was appointed to the ambassadorial post in China by Democratic President Obama. The Republican base saw that as a problem not as evidence of his ability to be effective across party lines.

Instead of listening to the likes of Huntsman the party preferred a three ring circus where the lion tamer was up first, soon replaced by the high wire artist, and then completely taken over by the clowns. And the ringmaster? Nowhere to be found.

Foster Friess
So just as I settled back appreciating Huntsman's civility and intelligence, there cometh Foster Friess, the millionaire backer of Rick Santorum's presidential aspirations. Asked about the statements attributed to Santorum that contraception was "dangerous" he dismissed the issue by saying, "Back in my days they used Bayer Aspirin for contraception--the gals put it between their knees." Even the veteran reporter Andrea Mitchell was nonplussed, stumbling along in an effort to salvage a moment of grace out of the statement's stupidity. 

It's this kind of stuff that comedians like Bill Maher loves. On the Tonight Show he left Jay Leno cracking up when he said that Rick Santorum "believes that life begins at erection." I laugh right along with everyone else, always willing to be titillated by a little naughty joke or edgy comment now and then. 

But then I stop. Do we realize that the world is laughing at us? We have people who are considered serious candidates for leader of the free world babbling on about social issues that have been settled for decades, sometimes generations. 

Mr Santorum, it is not contraception that is dangerous. It is you.