Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Phone Rang ...

It was James calling to say hi from Fort Leonard Wood, MO. In the course of our visit Joyce mentioned that she and I had been playing Scrabble. James inquired, "So who won?"

I confessed, "I did."

"Dad, you've just got to quit beating your wife."

UPDATE, October 27th: James will be relieved to know that his poor little battered mother thoroughly bloodied me tonight --- 292 to 251.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Talk Radio

My dad used to listen to talk radio all the time. It tickled me that he'd get all worked up about Super Handyman Al Carroll's giving out bad advice: "You idiot! That's just stupid. You can't stop a wood floor from squeaking by spraying WD40 on it!"

But as that old saying goes, what goes around comes around. Recently that old man who speaks only when the radio needs correcting has been mocking me when I shave. So, the time has come for me to confess: "Hello! My name is Bob, and I ... am a geezer. I'm powerless to kick my AM radio addiction."

Of course, I haven't gotten past step one of my twelve-step, and I see little evidence that I'll be making any further progress soon. In fact, my pusher has been cranking up the potency of my drug. Lately I've been mainlining Mark Levin and I find myself suffering severe withdrawal when the local station interrupts Mark in favor of Dallas Stars play-by-play. I mean, Get real! Honestly, can anyone actually tell the difference between a radio broadcast of a hockey game and a spirited reading of a Czechoslovakian phone book?

Anyway, recently I was listening to the morning show and I heard some banter between the host and the sports reporter that went something like this:

Today is the birthday of Rosa Lee Parks. Born in 1912, that makes her 96 years old today. Wow, still alive at 96. That's amazing!

Well, yes. That would be amazing ... if it were true. But Rosa Parks died four years ago.

Oh! ... Uh, well - you must be thinking of Rosa Parks - the lady on the bus in Alabama. I was talking about Rosa "Lee" Parks.

So you're telling me that this Rosa "Lee" Parks is a different person than Rosa Parks?

Well of course she is. It's a lot like the difference between Jerry Lewis and Jerry "Lee" Lewis. You know, the French can't stand Jerry Lee Lewis.

So what did this Rosa "Lee" Parks do?

Do? Why would she have to do anything?

No, no! If this Rosa "Lee" Parks is so famous, what exactly is she famous for?

Well, before she married MacArthur Parks, she was just Rosa Lee, Sara's sister. No doubt you've heard of Sara Lee. Anyway Rosa and Sara had a bakery, but they had a falling out when Rosa left a cake out in the rain and Sara never found that recipe again. After Rosa Lee left the business, Sara Lee went on to built a pastry empire. (Maybe you've heard of their other sisters, Brenda and Vivian.)

Any relation to Robert E. Lee?

Don't be silly!

It's astounding, the things you know.

I amaze myself sometimes.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Shame

I remember once (when I was about 14 years old, I think) my little brother Charlie did something that prompted me to haul off and hit him. I don't remember his offense, but (trust me) it must have been something really bad to require such drastic action. Of course, Charlie immediately went tattling to Dad, so just moments after the informant had departed, he returned as the bailiff -- now ordering me to appear before the paternal tribunal. When Dad asked me why I'd hit the rat fink, I boldly cited Dickie's original offense as full vindication of my actions.

Dad acknowledged that Charlie had acted badly, but then he shared a thought that hadn't occurred to me. Dad looked me square in the eye, lowered his voice and spoke words that still melt my heart, "Well, hitting him just makes you that much better than him, doesn't it?"

Suddenly I realized that I'd lowered myself to Charlie's level. I felt so ashamed!

A few days later Roy had occasion to show me his superior ability as a pugilist. But thanks to Dad I now knew how to deal with bullies. I self-righteously countered Roy's blow with Dad's hard-hitting words, "Well, that just makes you that much better than me, doesn't it?"

Roy laughed, "Nah, I just enjoy clobbering you every now and then."

Sheeesshhh --- sometimes you just can't win.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sharp Eyes

Our son Andy recently forwarded us an email advertisement for a cruise. Here's the image that was embedded in the ad (which, one might note, promises upgrades to higher class cabins for free).



Andy's comment was: "I have a sinking feeling about this ad. You'll be free to upgrade your cabin after the first class passengers have taken all the life boats!"

Awesome job recognizing that ship, my boy.





Sunday, October 19, 2008

Luminarias

Joyce suggested I post some pictures of our house with luminarias. So just to make my wife happy (and I always aim to please), here are a couple of shots (from 19 years ago) of luminarias in our front yard.


That Andy sure was a cute little boy.

Plunging Joe

With his less-than-$250K income, his real name being Samuel (likely story about his middle name), his non-existent plumbing license, his divorce and all those outstanding traffic tickets, how dare this so-called “Joe the Plumber” question whether the anointed one would rob him of the sweat of his own brow by “spreading the wealth”? Did he actually think that blaspheming the Lord Obama right to his face would have no consequences? What hubris to believe that mere private citizens have the right to question their elected officials without fear of retaliation!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Light Reading

I rang the bell. Mrs Hochberg opened the door and was just about to herald my arrival to her sons Alan and Gary when I began my well-rehearsed sales pitch.

As I've mentioned before, I took three years of high school German, the first two under the tutelage of a tiny Hispanic lady named Frau Gomez, whom we all secretly referred to as the "Brown Frau" whenever she wasn't within earshot. (Well, I'm sure there were some good boys and girls who were respectful at all times, but I never met them.) But I digress. As I was saying, despite the fact that in El Paso it would have made much more sense to study Spanish, I took German as my foreign language.

The greatest thing about taking German (other than learning how to talk like ones vanquished former enemy) was that it qualified you to join the German Club -- an elite organization whose primary purpose was to raise money during the Fall semester so we could blow it all on a big banquet at the Edelweiss Restaurant during the Spring semester. The banquet was supposedly an outreach to German soldiers who were going through air defense training at Fort Bliss, but the truth is more like: "We invited some Krauts to justify squandering our loot."

For social retards like me the German Club was a great outreach program -- or perhaps I should say it was an excellent outreach program to social retards to like me. In a club composed of a dozen kids even someone with my crippling shyness could fit in -- and it was a place where even I (given enough tenure) could advance to elective office. That's right, through some back-door dealing I managed to get myself elected club parliamentarian. (Politics can be a dirty business.)

In the 1960s El Paso was the biggest small town in America. No doubt it still is, but the El Paso of my youth had all the urban sophistication of a Mexican village. In this quiet border city, American and Mexican cultures commingled -- sometimes charmingly, sometimes awkwardly. And so it was amid this odd confluence of cultures that we, the members of the Coronado High School German Club, chose as our Fall fund-raising event the manufacture and sale of Christmas luminarias.

For those who may have never heard of luminarias, a luminaria is just a paper lunch sack filled with an inch or two of sand and a votive candle stuck in it. Luminarias trace their origin to the Spanish Missionary tradition of Las Posadas, the reinactment of Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Each year on Christmas Eve in towns around those colonial Spanish missions, a young couple (playing the part of Joseph and Mary) would go from house to house asking for a place to stay. Of course, all of the towns-folk would turn them away. But then (as Mary and Joseph moved on to the next door) the inn-keepers who'd just refused them lodging would transform into shepherds and begin following them on their quest. And as they followed, they carried little paper lanterns -- luminarias.

The throng of lights would grow until finally, with the people of the village looking on, at the last house (typically the home of the village patron) the home-owner would invite the couple in. The host would then call to the shepherds and invite them to join in celebrating the miracle of the Christ-child's birth. The gathered villagers would put down their luminarias along the roadside and walkways to mark the way to where the the Child can be found.

It's a lovely tradition and an even more beautiful sight -- the flickering lanterns casting their eerie orange glow on the ground. If you haven't seen an entire neighborhood in the evening, illuminated only by luminarias lining the curbs and walkways, then you've missed quite a sight. Here's a photo of our house in El Paso decked out for Christmas. But long exposures like this don't capture the magical random dance of the lights.



As I was saying, only in El Paso would a high school German Club decide to raise its operating capital by selling luminarias. We'd set the price at a ridiculously handsome figure of ten cents per luminaria, which was nearly four times our production costs (the most expensive component being the votive candles, which we bought in bulk from a candle factory in Juarez). Our sales pitch was that for a mere dime we'd do everything except light the candles. We'd fold the bags, add the sand and candles, deliver them to your house on Christmas Eve and place them along your walks and curbs in whatever way you wanted them arranged. Then on the day after Christmas, we'd come around to dispose of them for you.

In my heart of hearts I knew we were price gouging, but nonetheless, I set myself a personal objective of selling between 25 and 50 luminarias to each and every house on our block -- a lofty goal when one considers that our block included two Jewish households. Even a dolt like me sensed that asking our Jewish neighbors to pay the Hitler Youth retail prices for Christmas decorations might prove dicey.

I figured I stood the best chance of making a sale to our Hebrew friends if I could tell them, "Everyone else on the block has bought some; I'd hate for your house to be the one that stands out." So after I'd secured buyers from almost every house on the block, I made my slickest sales pitch to Jerry Lowenmensch's mom. She countered my appeal with, "You do know we're Jewish, right?"

I replied, "Sure, so how many Hanukah lights can I put you down for?"

She smiled and said, "I'll take eight. And don't worry, it'll be okay even if you deliver them the week after Hanukah, let's say around December 24th?

I acknowledged that the calendar that particular year (1966) could have been a little more cooperative. Jerry's mom was a peach. (His dad was a thorough schmuck, but that's a different story.)

Suddenly sensing that I must be a pretty decent salesman, I trotted straight down to the Hochbergs' house to ply my charms on Gary's mom. (I knew this would be the big test of my heretofore winning sales technique.)

So ... as Mrs Hochberg eyed me over the top of her bifocals, I yammered on about the the beauty and popularity of these very reasonably priced holiday decorations. I knew Mrs Hochberg to be a stern woman, so I was more than a bit apprehensive and probably set some mongering speed record. Well, it turned out I needn't have worried. As I sprinted to the finish, without any change of expression and without uttering a word, Mrs Hochberg ... closed the door.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Wessen Schuld?

I took three years of high-school German, and therefore (of course) I know almost no German, but there is one phrase I haven't forgotten: "Wessen Schuld?"

My German teacher was a retired Army colonel. Colonel Price had been a U.S. Army infantry lieutenant during World War II and his lessons in German diction were often sprinkled with his personal experiences from the post-war German occupation. One time he was explaining the difference between "leider" (pronounced "LIE-duh") and "entschuldigen Sie mir" (ent-SHOOLT-uh-gun zee meer), both of which can be translated as "excuse me". He told us that "leider" is an adverb meaning unfortunately or regrettably. It's a weak apology, the sort of thing one might say as he steps in front of a fellow theater-goer in getting to a seat, but "entschuldigen Sie mir" expresses culpability and actual regret for ones actions. Colonel Price went on to explain that the "Schuld" (pronounced SHOOLT) in "entschuldigen" is the German word for "fault" or "guilt". So "entschuldigen" literally means "to un-fault", "to un-guilt", "to pardon".

To illustrate the word "Schuld", Colonel Price explained how it was used by the Allies after the war to get Germans to acknowledge their complicity in the holocaust. All across Germany the Allies put up posters that showed scenes of Nazi death camps. Atop those photos were two simple words: "Wessen Schuld?" - "Whose fault?"



This propaganda campaign, designed to force the Germans to admit their complicity in the Nazi atrocities, was very effective. So effective that nowadays the word "Nazi" is universally accepted as a synonym for "evil". The word "Nazi" has become the insult of choice whenever your argument is so weak that you have to resort to impugning the character of your opponent. It puts an end to all rational discussion. (For example, calling President Bush "Chimpee McHitler" is not an invitation to discuss the merits of American Middle East foreign policy.) But "Nazi" wasn't always such a pejorative term. It certainly wasn't in 1933 pre-war Germany when the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei came to power.

Economically the situation today is similar to the early days of the Great Depression. Foolish/greedy speculation, aggravated by governmental interference in the market (i.e., the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930 versus the Community Reinvestment Act), had created an unbalance in financial markets that the government only exacerbated with its attempts to fix. And in some ways this year's presidential election is similar to that of 1932. But the similarity there is merely superficial. I believe this election much more like the German election of 1932 which resulted in the appointment of Aldolf Hitler as Chancellor on January 30, 1933. One must note that, in the month following Hitler's ascension, the Reichstag was burned and that by July Germany had become a one-party state.

This rapid consolidation of power by the Nazis in 1933 was facilitated by the mood in Germany. Historically the Germans had been a deeply religious people. Based on their religious faith they had built a strong Protestant work ethic. On that work ethic they constructed an industrial machine; and on industry they had built a strong central government under the Kaiser.

But with economic and political gains came spiritual loss. In the closing years of the 19th century the Germans lost faith in their God; then they lost the Great War (and with it their Kaiser); then they lost faith in their money, and finally they surrendered all faith in their government. By the early 1930s Germany was desperately cynical. Of course, the Nazis were eager to exploit this deep well of cynicism: inviting the German people to place faith in a more modern god, a god who promised to restore all of Germany's fortunes.

But more than promising mere material blessings, this modern god promised commodities that Germany desperately and undeniably needed even more: "hope" and "change". The Nazis did a masterful job of portraying themselves as the likeliest source of these core needs. In 1933, National Socialism was - rather than "evil" - seen as (to sum it up in one word) "progressive".

In economics, National Socialism was middle Europe's middle road between the failed experiments of American capitalism and Soviet communism, but it was much more than the thinking man's economic choice. Nazi social policy was the distilled wisdom of social Darwinism, which held the philosophical high ground in Europe and was even endorsed by the humanist elite on this side of the Atlantic. Only narrow-minded religious reactionaries could fail to see that human evolution had raised us from the primordial slime, and that technology had given us the power to seize control of our own evolution. No one dared deny the "modern" truth that man, by means of man's own efforts, could (and ought to) make himself "superman".

A little background is called for here as explanation of that last sentence. Long before the Nazis came to power, men of stature throughout Western society openly supported the eugenic policies that the Nazis would later implement. In the years leading up to Hitler's election, eugenicists (including H. G. Wells [renowned author], George Bernard Shaw [respected playwright], John Maynard Keynes [prime architect of the New Deal], Julian Huxley [acclaimed scientist] and Margaret Sanger [founder of Planned Parenthood]) were lauded as the thinkers of their day. And even before the Federal government became the prime sponsor of social engineering, the work of these enlightened ones was well-funded by respected institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

In 1907 future president Woodrow Wilson championed legislation in Indiana that required the involuntary sterilization of genetically unfit persons. By 1930 similar laws had been passed in thirty states. And even for some time after Adolf Hitler's rise to power, such notables as Charles Lindbergh and Joseph P. Kennedy (Ambassador to England and father of future President John F. Kennedy) were among Hitler's staunchest supporters. National Socialism was not an instant phenomenon; it was merely the political manifestation of popular ideas that had been circulating for a half-century.

The humanist message was very simple: human life has no intrinsic value. Given this fundamental tenet, its corollary was thus undeniable: some unwanted persons are expendable. In this regard, 21st century America compares unfavorably with 1930s Germany. In 1933 the Germans were on the verge of exterminating 6,000,000 unwanted Jews whom they hated; we have already killed 40,000,000 unborn children whom we simply find inconvenient. In place of the Nazi's selfless goal of "eugenic progress", our rationale is the mere selfish motive of "personal choice". Instead of isolated, demonized Jews - the target has become our own innocent, womb-cradled babies. And (most damningly) the slaughter has lasted two generations, not just a decade. Today the issues are different than they were in the 1930s, but the apologists for evil are ever the same.

All this brings me to my real subject. National Socialism grew in soil well prepared for that hemlock seed. The soil of Western Civilization, broken with a half century of humanism, was seeking human solutions to humanity's problems. The people of Europe and the elite of America had long ago abandoned the religious tenet that all human life is the gift of God and that each of us is accountable to our Creator for how we use or abuse that gift. The simplistic morality of the Victorians had given way to a more modern wisdom: "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Which is to say: man had arrogated to himself (not just the power to choose right from wrong) but the authority to define right and wrong.

This proud new generation of √úbermenschen had dispensed with outmoded notions of God - joining Nietzsche in declaring that man himself is all the god mankind needs. (Or as it's been more recently worded: "We are who we've been waiting for.") But the messianic promise of National Socialism wasn't merely that we are gods; it was that we could make ourselves "like the Most High."

My point, of course, isn't simply that our grandfathers erred, but that we are in the process of repeating their error. What I find most troubling aren't the solutions that are being offered for today's social problems, but the assumptions that are never questioned. Today's universal "truth" can be summed in one statement: "The government ought to do something about [problem du jour]." But if history teaches us anything, it's that governments are much more prone to causing problems than to fixing them.

Understand, I'm not saying that any American politician today is like Adolf Hitler. It's worse than that. I'm saying that America is now so desperate for a political messiah that we'll even accept someone who is so much less charismatic than Hitler was. The problem isn't that we have demigods running for office (for there's certainly nothing new about politicians' presuming to possess divine powers). The problem is: we expect these demigods to perform miracles for us. We have degenerated from dependence on the Bible's God of the universe, past a begrudging acceptance of Kipling's "gods of the copybook headings", to worship of the Chicago machine's skillfully crafted idol. Germany bowed to an inspiring orator who stood on a magnificent stage at Nuremburg. America worships a mumbling snob who stands before a Styrofoam Parthenon that was borrowed from some Hollywood back lot.

You may be thinking: "Gee, that's quite an extrapolation. How can you say that present trends will inevitably lead to a new holocaust?" I answer, "My mentioning 'broad is the way that leads to destruction' is not the same as predicting that society will follow that road to its end. Only God's victory is inevitable; we merely choose whether our fate is in our hands or God's."

And that's precisely what troubles me most. Where is the outrage over the slaughter of 40-million babies since Roe v Wade and why are we so indifferent to the rising tide of anti-Semitism? The Germans (untroubled in the 1930s by the hidden slaughter of the mentally and physically deficient) by the 1940s had not only accepted the wholesale slaughter of society's unwanted, but even gloried in their tattooed lampshades and dental bullion.

Of course, I find it very troubling that the ridicule of those who trust in God (of us who "cling to our guns and religion") is now in vogue, but the Christian faith was born and it has flourished under far worse Caesars. So I don't fret about the persecution of Christians (for the Light shines brightest in the darkness). But I do feel horrible dread for Israel. Christians are called as witnesses to God's faithfulness, but Israel is the living testimony of God's promise. Whenever a Christian speaks up, he exposes the world's idolatry. But so long as a Jew breathes, the world stands condemned. The Christian can be silenced, but the Jew - ah the Jew - that's a problem requiring a "Final Solution".

Our Jewish brethren have just ended their commemoration of Yom Kippur (the day of repentance), but for America our Day of Atonement lies ahead of us. Before we complete the job of turning America into a workers' paradise and Israel into death camp, let's confess our idolatry and consider the words we must never forget: "Wessen Schuld?"

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Cosmological Argument

As an engineer I'm often occupied with the question how: How can we extend electrical service into a new subdivision? How do we automate distribution switching to minimize outages? But it occurs to me that the question how is a trail without a final destination. It's not merely that there's always more how than all the world's engineers can handle, but that each question of means begets a complementary question of causation (e.g., answering the question "How do we prevent power outages?" compels one to ask the question, "What's been causing outages?") And each subsequent question of causation eventually leads inexorably to the original thermodynamic unanswerable: "What's the original cause of everything?" or "How did anything come into existence in the first place?"

Over the past fifty years cosmologists have been dragged reluctantly to acknowledging what even cosmetologists have always known: There was a point of creation. The Big Bang is now universally acknowledged as the most reasonable explanation of the expanding universe we inhabit. In an instant, all the energy that exists (or will ever exist) sprang into existence. And since that moment of creation, the universe (in slavishly obedience to the second law of thermodynamics) has merely been making a flashy show of dissipating all that concentrated energy. Physics dictates that eons from now the stellar show will end and the universe will end as nothing but uniformly distributed background radiation. T.S. Eliot was prescient. The universe that began "with a bang" is doomed to end "with a whimper."

But when we turn from considering the universe without to the universe within, we see an even more awesome sight: the impossible complexity of life. If the stellar universe echoes from the remote past, "I was created", life (working so mightily against entropy's flow) shouts from the intimate present: "I was designed!" I can't help but note that those who preach so ardently against "intelligent design" do so with a little too much religious fervor for ones claiming complete objectivity. Think about it: Does the belief in a creator threaten the study of the cosmos? No, but such a belief is a serious threat to the humanist's cosmic viewpoint.

Consider an analogy: Does belief in the existence of a poet void the study of his sonnets? No, quite the opposite; it's much more reasonable to doubt the scholarship of the English Lit student who insists that all Shakespeare's plays and sonnets sprang from a thoughtless ink spill. Humanists aren't compelled to reject the Cosmological Argument because of the evidence (for all evidence points the other way). They reject the notion of a creator because they can't deal psychologically with the implications of being beholden to their creator.

Thus, the world (both macroscopic and microscopic) confronts us, not merely with something that brought everything into existence, but with someone who acted with purpose in creating all things. But the trail doesn't end there. Having followed this trail of hows to its logic end (the existence of a rational creator), we look up to see a path of whys beckoning us onward. And (as every three-year-old knows) why is a very good question - any fool can explain what, but it takes real insight to see the purpose behind things. However, (as every parent of a three-year-old knows) each answer to the question why begets yet another why. So again we're forced to admit: Why can't be the ultimate question. You of course inquire "Why is that?" and of course, I answer: "Just because!" Because in the end, endlessly asking why only leads to one answer: "That's just the way God made it."

So as worthy as the questions how and why may be (and they are far nobler than their beggar cousin what), they merely escort us to the great question-of-all-questions: "Who? Who is this Creator that the universe discloses?" Is the Creator of all things someone we can meet, speak to, and even come to know? And if we got to know Him, would He be someone we'd find appealing? Even more importantly, would He care ... for us?

C.S. Lewis (in Surprised by Joy) addresses the possibility of meeting ones Maker: "If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare's doing. Hamlet could initiate nothing." Indeed, Hamlet (during his hour upon the stage) might soliloquize about the possibility that there is indeed a playwright who has placed us here to strut and fret. And (if Hamlet ponders rightly) he will surely conclude that his play must have an author. But knowing that there must be an author is not the same thing as knowing the author. So again we ask, "Could Hamlet actually step off the pages of the script and introduce himself to Shakespeare?" On the one hand, there's no need for any introduction since Shakespeare already knows Hamlet intimately, but the question remains: Can Hamlet know Shakespeare? Plainly the answer is no ... unless of course, as C.S. Lewis says, Shakespeare takes the initiative and writes himself into the play.

Christianity is unique among religions in its claim that this is precisely what the Creator has done - the Creator of all things has cast Himself as an actor in the drama of history. (Colossians 1:15-16) Of course, the Apostle Paul's assertion that Jesus Christ is the Creator of all things is not accepted by everyone (include some who mistakenly call themselves Christian). But regardless, one thing is clearly manifest to any thinking person: God does exist. Another thing about the identity of God is also clear (though less commonly accepted): You aren't God.

Our Creator is owed our respect, but "paying honor to whom honor is due" is the one thing we are least inclined to render. In fact, human history is an unbroken account of the human race either defying God or deifying that which isn't God. In fact, those two errors (defy and deifying) are merely opposite faces of the same sin, the original sin: the creature seeking to displace the Creator. Perhaps C.S. Lewis phrased it best (in The Great Divorce): "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell chose it."

So (during this season of self-evaluation) my point is simply this:
Worship the LORD with reverence, and rejoice with trembling. Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way. For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him! (Psalm 2:11-12)