31 December 2011

Roger's 2011 Look-Back Good Book Canon

It was an average reading year - the usual bell curve of quality and interest. In no particular order, let me give you the 2011 Look-Back Good Book Canon:

Ghost Country, by Patrick Lee (HarperCollins, 2011) - A nice “near” science-fiction. “Near” sci-fi is set close to the current era in time and culture. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the first movie reference that comes to mind. Patrick Lee postulates a multi-dimensional doohickey that delivers objects that defy known physics and materials science, and he deals with nice speculative political overtones. If you like sci-fi, it’s fun.

The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason, by Melville Davisson Post (Hyperion Press, 1975) and The Man of Last Resort; or, The Clients of Randolph Mason, by Melville Davisson Post (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1897) - The canon consists of things I discover or even reread in a year, not just what is published then. Melville Davisson Post was a West Virginia author of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His character Randolph Mason was a lawyer of great learning and stiff philosophy, who shamelessly applied the strict rule of law to achieve spectacular results. Members of the bar and law students will find a lot to enjoy and talk about here. Those outside that community likely would find it boring.

How to Build a Fire: And Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew, by Erin Bried (Ballantine Books, 2010) - They have a COMPASS AP for iPhone. No kidding. A picture of a magnetic compass appears on the screen, and the user is supposed to feel like Daniel-Damn-Boone. It’s sickening. Bried teaches skills that we have forgotten because we are lazy. Those skills work even in a power outage.

West Virginia: A History, by Otis K. Rice and Stephen W. Brown (The University Press of Kentucky, 1993) - This is a local thing. If you are going to be involved in business or government in West Virginia, knowing how the state’s unique culture has developed is helpful.

Inside the Giant Machine, by Kalpanik S. (Center of Artificial Imagination, Inc., 2011) - This author was an IT manager with Amazon. Have you ever wondered how Amazon has achieved the spooky ease with which it fulfills orders, gives relevant recommendations and expands products? A lot of it is in the IT. The author also dispels the notion that CEO Jeff Bezos is a benevolent Spirit-of-Christmas-Present. Amazon is the same kind of corporate eat-your-own-young culture that is found in lots and lots of other successful businesses.

Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy, by Robert M. Hazen & James Trefil (Anchor Books, 2009) - We don’t know shit about science. Hell, we BRAG about that. Oh, I don’t need to know how to do anything on my own, I’ll just sell stuff on eBay, buy real estate with no money down, and let the worker bees take care of the rest. Much of reality is science. A poor understanding science is a great weakness, and we are already paying the price.

The Fifth Witness, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company, 2011) - Here is a “lawyer novel” of top quality. It’s a story of a trial lawyer (the same protagonist as in The Lincoln Lawyer) who gives a reasonably accurate and awfully interesting view of the thought process of trying a difficult case.

Self-Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson - There is a reason that some things are considered “classics.” “Old” isn’t enough, or we’d all still be reading Wilkie Collins. (Who’s that? Quod erat demonstrandum.)

Do The Work, by Steven Pressfield (The Domino Project, 2011) - Pressfield does really great historical novels. (E.g., Gates of Fire, the story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.) This is a short motivational work on getting off your ass and doing the work. I’ve purchased several copies to give out.

2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, by Albert Brooks (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) - The author could have played this one either as scary near sci-fi or as a predictive social work. He chose the latter. His conclusions and predictions are logical. On this course, the 20th Century was the LAST American Century. This is valuable for those who actually give a shit.

Hellhole, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Tor, 2011) - Good, solid, old-fashioned science-fiction is alive and well and still being written today.

License to Pawn: Deals, Steals and My Life at the Gold & Silver, by Rick Harrison (Hyperion, 2011) - The TV series Pawn Stars has made the gloomy and glitzy pawn shop more socially acceptable. This is by the proprietor of that shop, and is informative about that business, about some general commercial principles and about human behavior.

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris (Random House, 2010) - This is the long-awaited third and final installment of Edmund Morris’ three volume biography of TR. (The first two are The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex.) Have you taken a look at what passes for heroes these days? Less than 3 divorces, 2 or fewer rehab stays and no felonies, and you’re in. TR was the real thing.

The Final Storm: A Novel of the War in the Pacific, by Jeff Shaara (Ballantine Books, 2011) - Jeff Shaara has continued writing “you are there” accurate historical novels in the tradition of his father, Michael Shaara (The Killer Angels).

Eyewall, by H.W. “Buzz” Bernard (Bell Bridge Books, 2011) - This is a first novel of a retired hurricane hunter pilot. I like books that take you to worlds that I’m totally unfamiliar with, and this does it.

A Book of Burlesques, by H. L. Mencken (Alfred A. Knopf, 1916) - Another newly-discovered oldie. H.L. (Henry Lewis) Mencken was a curmudgeonly satirist-humorist-columnist for the Baltimore Sun. His writings pass the test of time.

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2011) - One would think that a history of the 265 (or so) popes would be deadly dull. And yet, it is the eldest continuous political/religious office on Earth, and has been fraught with great stories of naked power.

God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, by Penn Jillette (Simon & Schuster, 2011) - Penn Jillette is (mostly) an brilliant and outrageous guy. His commentary on atheism is worth the trouble for anyone to read. I didn’t abandon my faith after I read it, but I enjoyed the living hell out of it anyway.

Strong at the Break: A Caitlin Strong Novel, by Jon Land (Forge, 2011) - Land has written adventure novels for 30 years. The “Strong” novels are an excellent example of a fairly new angle, the use of strong and believable female protagonists. I don’t know if this sub-genre will become more attractive to women readers than the run of the mill adventure yarns, but there’s a possibility.

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, by Michael Gates Gill (Gotham Books, 2007) - Another worthwhile reread. Gill was a fat cat rich guy who was fired and left high and dry by his huge Madison Avenue ad agency. This is a transformative story, where he gets a job and Starbucks and learns what’s actually important. Hint: A Mercedes in the garage ain’t it.

The Race (Isaac Bell), by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011) - For 30 years, Cussler has written the Dirk Pitt novels and co-written at least three other series. The Isaac Bell series is set in the early 20th Century, a unique time for a hero-centered adventure novel.

Built for Adventure: The Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt (Putnam Adult, 2011) - Cussler is a prolific collector of classic automobiles, and he has woven some of them into his Dirk Pitt novels. Built for Adventure is a visual treat for lovers of old cars & engineering. This is the only "coffee table book" that I've purchased in years.

Only Time Will Tell (The Clifton Chronicles, Vol. 1), by Jeffrey Archer (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) - Archer really hit a slump after his stay as a guest of Her Majesty. It could be that he is back on track with a promised multi-volume history of families through the 20th Century. Shades of Ken Follett here.

In My Time, by Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney (Threshold Editions, 2011) - Dick Cheney has gotten a terrible rap. I don’t know the guy, so I can’t say how justified that is. But after hearing the guy’s own story, I regret forming a negative opinion based solely on hearsay. This is good history.

Supreme Courtship, by Christopher Buckley (Hachette Book Group, 2008) - Another reread. If you need something to brighten you up, go for a Christopher Buckley novel. The guy is outrageous. In this one, the President cannot get a decent nominee past the Senate for a Supreme Court vacancy, and so he nominates a “Judge Judy” type as a sort of joke. She’s confirmed, and the whole thing is just delicious.

The Litigators, by John Grisham (Random House, 2011) - After each of the last six or seven Grisham novels, I’ve sworn I wouldn’t read another. My problem usually has been that he has written one chapter too many and brought the stories to ridiculously improbable conclusions. The Litigators is Grisham’s best since The Firm and A Time to Kill.

Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, by Juan Williams (Crown Publishers, 2011) - Juan Williams said on Fox that he was nervous around Arab-dressing guys in airports, and NPR canned him because he was intolerant, racist or some such bullshit. Muzzled is a bit repetitive, but still a strong call for reason in public discourse.

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel, by Anthony Horowitz (Little, Brown and Company, 2011) - The Sherlock Holmes character has become trendy for I-wish-I-could-write-that-well authors. The problems with those contestants range from inaccurate period language to sex-violence-horror focus that is foreign to Conan Doyle. Horowitz brings off Conan Doyle well, and is the first Holmes by someone else I’ve read that is worthwhile.

The Jones-Imboden Raid: The Confederate Attempt to Destroy the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Retake West Virginia, by Darrell L. Collins ( McFarland & Company, 2007) - Here again is a purely local tome. The Jones-Imboden raid was a well-planned, so-so executed attack on the B&O Railroad bridges in Western Virginia which were, in the Civil War, a critical east-west transportation link. A battle in our home town is still remembered, and it is always interesting to read about what has happened on ground you have walked.

No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster, by Bonnie E. Stewart (West Virginia University Press, 2011) - Here is another local interest book, but it still has widespread value. The 1968 mine explosion was eminently avoidable, and Stewart does a nice job on both the technical and human details.

Heaven is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent (Thomas Nelson, 2011) - Oopsie, how did this one get in here? Well, it will be the next book in the church book group discussions. That’s why I include it. And I must say, I have a problem. Heaven is For Real is a really cute story and in a macabre way it’s uplifting and encouraging. But it is hugely improbable, scripturally shaky and patently absurd as a factual account. My problem is that if I attend the book group and open my mouth, I may be burned at the stake. Is there a Roger-Doppelganger out there willing to attend?

New Coastal Times, by Donna Callea (Self-published ebook, 2009) - This was one of the real delights of the year. Callea is an independent author who has done a very nice job with a post-apocalyptic theme. The publishing industry is changing. It is MUCH harder for a merely good writer to become published. Publishers are looking for writers who already have a following to boost their own marketing strategies. It could be that a lot more real gems are going to be found in the indie world.

Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football, by John U. Bacon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) - WVU brethren: If you’ve already decided that Rich Rod is Satan’s Spawn, don’t bother. Bacon makes short work of the WVU debacle (and he’s very critical of West Virginia), but the great bulk of the book is a description of how Rich Rod got royally screwed by the Michigan Men.


21 December 2011

One Hour Dry Cleaning and the Shroud of Turin

I have awakened to the joyous news that well-qualified scientists now believe that the Shroud of Turin is authentic.

Authentic what?

The Shroud of Turin is a large cloth consistent with those used to wrap bodies in the Middle East in the first century. On the cloth, there is a negative image which appears to be that of a bearded man who fits the generally accepted images of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Some contend that this image also depicts the wounds suffered by Jesus as set out in the biblical account of the crucifixion.

There has long been some controversy over whether this is the authentic burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified in Jerusalem (at the town dump, actually) some time between A.D. 25 and 35. (Archaeologists insist on using “C.E.” for “common era” rather than “A.D.” for Anni Domini. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.)

Some years ago, the Vatican permitted scientists to test (and destroy) a very small part of the cloth for radio carbon dating. The test showed that the sample tested was made from plant fibers which were harvested around the year 1300. (When plants or animals die, they cease taking in new carbon. The isotope Carbon 14 decays at a known rate, and how much carbon 14 is present gives a reasonably accurate estimate of age if the object is within a few thousand years old.)

The current claim that the Shroud is authentic is based upon a negative result and a theory. First, the scientists say that they cannot duplicate the image on the shroud by any currently know method. Second, they believed that the tiny sample tested years ago was from a patch used to repair the shroud, apparently around 1300.

These new conclusions are welcomed by many Christians who see this as anything from some welcome corroboration of Jesus to irrefutable proof of the historical accuracy of all parts of the New Testament, including those involving the supernatural.

To my brothers and sisters in faith: Come on, folks, if we end up making this some kind of a defining event, we're going to look like idiots.

Authentic WHAT?

Well, if the scientists are correct, it is a first century burial shroud with an image on the cloth put there by some process which they cannot now explain or duplicate.

That’s all.

It may indeed be the burial ground Jesus of Nazareth. The image may be on the cloth due to some flash of angelic light or something equally magnificent and holy.

Or not.

Or even if it’s authentic, it may be somebody else’s burial shroud with an unexplained image on it. It’s not autographed and it hasn’t come with a certificate of authenticity. Or we would have heard about it by now.

Even then, I would have to wonder. Every other commemorative doodad you can order off of TV or the Internet comes with a “certificate of authenticity.” It says, “This here’s an authentic doodad.” Is the certificate, well, authentic? Beats me.

Our faith would be pathetic if we needed the Shroud of Turin, the one true Grail, The Robe, a video, or any other physical manifestations in order to believe. And if we don’t have that, what do you plan to do, my fellow Christians? Say, “Oh, gee, must not be true! We’re outta here!”

As long as I can recall having read things about the Shroud, seldom have I read anything that was not shot through with “confirmation bias.” That’s just a label we put on the phenomenon celebrated in an old song lyric from the 60s, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Those opposed to faith embraced with confirmation bias the news of the radiocarbon dating. “Aha, you superstitious nitwits! This proves that your whole Jesus thing is a fairytale.” And now, boy, are they getting their comeuppance: “Aha, infidels! They were testing the wrong part of the cloth! This proves that the whole Jesus thing from virgin birth to ascension into Heaven is objectively true.”

People really are this dumb. The truth of the matter is, it just doesn’t matter. There is an objective truth out there. What physical manifestations there ever were are hidden by 2000 years of deterioration. The rest of the objective truth is not subject to quantitative or qualitative analysis by any scientific process we now have.

In truth, not a whole lot of the obvious mystery of this universe is subject to any sort of rational analysis.

Attached is an image from the Hubble space telescope. The Hubble is able to see fainter objects in greater detail than any other telescope in history, because it is outside of the atmosphere. This particular image is known as the “Hubble Deep Field.”

There were parts of the sky which, so far as astronomers knew, were vacant. And so astronomers picked a little tiny postage stamp sized piece and pointed the Hubble at it for many days in order to collect enough of the extraordinarily faint light to make an image, in case there was anything there. To their drop dead amazement, they saw the attached photograph which shows some thousands of heretofore unknown galaxies.

Based upon the population of galaxies in that little postage stamp the sky, these astronomers extrapolated the data to come up with a rough estimate of how many stars there are in the known universe. Their rough estimate? 70 sextillion stars. That’s 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That’s a lot of stars.

Okay, lovers of science – explain that one.

For that matter, people of faith – explain that one.

Is it starting to make sense that there are lots of questions out there for which we do not have any answers, let alone answers that can be proven by a junior high school science project?

That’s why it’s called Faith. There is some part of our mind that accepts our faith, or you can call it spirituality or whatever you want. And, darn it, we are right. Or we are wrong. Or I don’t know. Or I want my mommy.

That’s why it’s called Faith.

I don’t care what the shroud of Turin is. I don’t need it to be “real” to prove my own faith to me. I don’t need some confirmation so I can stick my thumbs in my ears and waggle my fingers toward unbelievers with a “Nyah, nyah, nyah, you’re going to Hell and I’m not!”

It just doesn’t matter.

How many times do I have to make the point? Eye on the ball, people. Eye on the ball.

Mizpah! (Thanks, Oce.)

17 December 2011

A Christmas Miracle?

A reader cannot escape titles like “A Christmas Miracle”’ around this time of year.

There is a formula for those stories. It is Christmas time. Someone is having some sort of really big problem. God intervenes through some kindly agent, and something highly improbable happens which brings peace, love and cookies. Ideally, the reader will smile and tear up a mite.

Hey, I have no problem with formula. Look where formulae got Dickens and Michener.

What I offer you today is A Christmas Miracle with a question mark. I will lay out the facts of what actually occurred. I have always wondered if this was indeed A Christmas Miracle or A Christmas Darn-wasn’t-that-a-bunch-of-coincidences-that-worked-out-really-great.

I almost stuck in a “you decide” there. If you want to, go for it. But you are in no better position to make an objective judgment than I am.

The end of the story: I worked as an EMT and paramedic for many years. Most of that time we were an all-volunteer company which ran about 5000 alarms a year. (Later, that call volume necessitated converting to a career service.) West Virginia was a leader in EMS training and we put people on the street who were, for the time, very well-trained.

(Son Tim the Paramedic made a joking offer for me to go help him with paramedic testing today. The only skill I still have with any competency at all is in reading field EKG’s for dangerous dysrhythmias. But the treatment standards I know for dealing with them are nearly 25 years out of date. Believe me, EMS people today are much better trained than we were “back in the day.”)

It was a in December 1976. Three of us, John, Lee and I, picked up two patients from a motor vehicle accident, a young mother and a baby. We took them to WVU Hospital, the only trauma center in the region. After some weeks they both were released to continue normal lives. The doctors at the trauma center said that we got them there just in time. Had they arrived minutes later, they would have had really, really bad outcomes.

That part of the story really is not a big deal. We did what we were trained to do. When a trained singer sings a song well, that’s nice but not stunning. When a decent golfer makes a good drive, ditto. (When I make a good drive, it’s a fluke.) If an artist paints a nice picture, that’s just what they do. Just not a big deal.

The story, the miracle part, lies in how and when we got into position to do anything at all.

The accident took place at the county line, far from any rescue station. No ambulance could have gotten there within 15 minutes of being called. That would have been too late for these patients. We were on scene within about 3 minutes of the accident, and that’s what made the difference.

Several unusual things had to happen, in order, to put to us on that accident scene at the right time.

a - There had to be a special duty day at the station.

In 1976, the company was only four years old and was still in pretty rough rental quarters. Let’s see, an example of pretty rough – A couple of times, a particularly troublesome rat met his/her demise in the middle of the night by gunshot. If the neighbors called police, they would walk him on a bunch of totally innocent looking guys. That’s what I mean by rough.

We had a new chief, and he called for a G.I. Party to spiff the place up. A dozen of us showed up and were working around the crew on duty, painting and so forth.

b - A random emergency call had to come in.

The on-duty crew went out on a call.

c - A particular type of call in a particular place had come in.

Our station was in Fairmont. The iron-clad rule was that we were to transport any patient to the nearest available hospital, which was almost always Fairmont General. This second call was for a patient with some kind of mental health or addiction issue. The patient was located in the part of the county toward Morgantown, where West Virginia University Hospital is located. WVUH was the nearest facility which treated mental health/addiction issues at that time.

But we had that darn rule. So the way such a call typically would go was that the patient would be transported to Fairmont General, and a half an hour later Fairmont General would call us back to take the patient to Morgantown. But rules are rules, right?

d - It had to be as us who answered the call.

Those who know me might suspect that I chafe a bit over pointless rules. The three of us, dressed like painters (or bums), took the call. John and Lee likewise weren’t total by-the-book guys. I remember nothing about that call other than it was some mental health deal and we decided, screw the rule, we’ll transport this patient directly to Morgantown. We were sure we’d catch hell for it, but we didn’t really care very much. We wanted to get the painting done.

e - The charge nurse in the WVU Hospital Emergency Department was Ann, a member of our rescue company. She had to be on duty.

f - The Emergency Dept. wasn’t very busy. Ann room was a good friend to each of us, and so we had time to talk a bit. She had to be free, which was unusual in a large university hospital.

g - We had to take our time goofing off and talking to her. We sat in the communications room and shot the breeze for about 15 minutes.

Let’s see, that’s seven things that had to happen for the day to end well. From this point, the day was on automatic pilot and things just unfolded as they should.

We left the hospital and returned by the interstate toward Fairmont. About a mile from the County line, a car on the other side of the road flashed its headlights at us. It being a week from Christmas, we figured they were saying “Hi,” so Lee who was driving gave them about five cents worth of red lights from the light bar. Over the next 30 seconds, several more cars flashed headlights at us, and we started to wonder. No random bunch suddenly gets the Christmas spirit, so we figured something was going on. And if it was something that would cause people to flash their lights at an ambulance, it probably was something bad.

So I felt the rig pick up speed and about the time we were approaching Mach 1, John piped up from the back that Lee we might want to flick on the red lights. We crested a hill and could see the bridge at the county line on our side of the road. Traffic was at a dead stop.

A note here – I drive a lot. West Virginia has nice interstate highways. I will come to a dead stop on the interstate maybe twice a year. This is not the Washington Beltway. When you stop on an interstate in West Virginia, something bad is happening.

As we got closer, we could see two mangled cars. I called in to dispatch, asking if they had been notified of a bad accident at the county line. The dispatcher replied in a very deep base voice, “Negative, 23." As we pulled to a stop, I told dispatch, “You do now, send me everything in the station.”

A state police trooper (who became and still is a good friend) was on scene. He was an old ambulance man and he had quickly triaged the five patients. He pointed us to the two who needed immediate treatment and transport. I took the baby, John took the adult, and Lee turned the rig around for a quick trip to the trauma center.

A lady came along who identified herself as a nurse, and I put her in the ambulance with the baby after we discussed what needed done. (The Lord loves a volunteer, remember?) The baby was crying and while that’s disturbing to a lot of people, believe me, it is music to an EMT’s ears.

John had drafted a couple bystanders and was packaging the adult. I helped him finish, we loaded and in something under 5 minutes of getting to the scene, we were hitting Mach 2 going back up the interstate. There were limited things that EMTs could do in those days on a trauma call and we did them like we were supposed to. We arrived, the patients were swept into the trauma service, end of story for us.

But if we hadn’t been on that call or had left WVU Hospital earlier, the happy ending just wouldn’t have happened.

Here, a Christmas Miracle story is supposed to make a firm conclusion of divine causation. I’m not smart enough for that. I’m going to leave it there. I’ve seen no burning bushes nor heard any ethereal voices explaining what happened.

I have my theory. You now have the facts. Make of it what you will.

Pippa passes.

04 December 2011

For the People of Central Christian Church -- So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

Not often do I target a blog post. But these precincts are more appropriate to share some thoughts, because here it is easy to quit reading them and even to say out loud that Roger is wrong.

By the way, it doesn’t bother me in the least when people tell me to my face that I’m wrong. Often, I am. And even when I don’t think I am, that good old First Amendment gives everybody the right to think and say that I am. It seems to bother people, however, to give voice to their disagreement at times. That’s okay, too.

After a four-year stint, Pastor Josh Patty has moved on. We all wish him well. I'll miss him, but he knows darn well that my reach extends to KC, so sooner or later some sort of gag will show up courtesy of moi.

I’m concerned that this whole search-for-the-new-pastor thing is taking on some kind of scary life of its own. And I’m also concerned that lingering disagreements about how former pastors or, for that matter, other people in church have done things in the past are getting in our way.

And so, some lessons!

(“And who is he to be teaching us lessons!?” Just a guy who pays attention and tries to learn things when life beats him about the head and body. And I’m not alone in that, we have a lot of savvy people at CCC.)

Lesson No. 1: Keep your eye on the ball.

Every beginning has living right within it an ending. The first time Josh walked through the door at Central Christian, it was guaranteed that there would be a last time he walked out the door. The same goes for every pastor the church has ever had. The same goes for me. The same goes for you. Pages in the book – you turn them.

A discussion of anything from the past which has present pain makes little sense. I’ve checked those beautiful new calendars that Karen has been selling. I really checked them over thoroughly. For the life of me, I cannot find a rewind button.

Quick, let’s do a prayer test! Right now, while you’re reading the blog, get out your watch. I want you to do an eyes-open test prayer. Look at your watch and pray with all your might that God will slow down the passage of time to 10% of the current rate. That should be easy, I’m not asking to stop time, let alone throw it into rewind. Remember, pray real hard! Ready? Go!

No, really – go!

Hey, obviously, you didn’t pray hard enough. Let’s give it the good old college try this time. Sacrifice something, burn a $20 bill! Ready? Pray!

Darn. What happened? The God who knows the falling of the sparrow, who created the DNA molecule, who put us around a star powered by nuclear fusion, He didn’t pull off a little thing like slowing down time when requested by really Godly people?

Well, no. I have no idea why. I’m nowhere near that smart. I just doubt that this particular prayer ever works under these experimental conditions.

With the assumption that is part of “The Plan,” what can we draw from that?

How about, don’t fret over the past, It’s DONE.

That doesn’t mean we ignore lessons. Josh was around when there were a lot of innovations, some of which were his idea. No doubt we'll keep some and alter others. I would like to keep the Tenebrae service. If we do, yippee. If we don’t, there’s not enough interest, and I’ll live with it. Not a big deal.

What else? Beats me. And if it takes until June to figure that out, no worries. If it turns out we don’t have the time, that means something wonderful will have happened and we didn’t need the time anyway.

Lesson No 2: See lesson no. 1. This isn't rocket science.

God bless the people who are doing the pastor search.

That being said: Relax. On the universal scale, it’s small stuff.

Do we need a committee to search for a dependable God? Nope, we got one.

How about a Committee to find us a Savior, a Christ? No, we already have the only one we’ll ever need.

Holy writ! We need the revealed word of God in English in our hands so we can become a little smarter in faith. Let’s get one of those, let’s appoint a committee!

Oh, yeah, that’s been done, too.

Music, that’s a hot button! We need music! A committee, committee! Oh, okay, I guess the hymnals do have a lot of pretty good stuff in them and we seem to have an abundance of really good musicians who are bringing in even more good stuff.

Maybe one of Christ’s messages is we don’t have to feel so serious and intense all the time.

Relax. Listen to the message. Feel Christ's message.

Just sayin’.

A touch of lyrical poetry from my misspent youth:

So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.
I can't believe your song is gone so soon.
I barely learned the tune
So soon
So soon.

I'll remember
Frank Lloyd Wright.
All of the nights we'd harmonize till dawn.
I never
laughed so long
So long
So long.

Architects may come and
Architects may go and
Never change your point of view.
When I run
I stop awhile and think of you.

So long, Frank Lloyd Wright
All of the nights we'd harmonize till
I never laughed so long
So long
So long.

To borrow from my brother Oce, Mizpah!

27 November 2011

Crappy Old Buildings or Architectural Treasures?

Are they old dilapidated buildings? Or are they architectural and historical treasures?

It really beats the hell out of me.

[For the “Where you been?” thing, see note at the end.]

The “old” Fairmont Theater is being torn down to provide a site for the new state office building. The need for the building came on rather suddenly. State offices were located in the old Hartley Department Store building, but unlivable and unrepairable structural issues forced a move.

Some fellow from Charleston wrote to the local newspaper on behalf of “the Preservation Alliance.” He touted the architectural value of the old theater and maintaining it in its rightful place as a historical landmark. The fellow strongly intimated that he had a good bit of expertise in this field and that the people in Fairmont making the decision to bulldoze the place were showing a “lack of wisdom and cultural refinement.”

I’ve never claimed wisdom and if someone attributes that to me, I’m flattered.

No one is their right mind would suggest that I have cultural refinement. If I ever suspected that I’d gotten any, I would look for a 12 step program.

The County Manager has responded somewhat angrily. He doesn’t see the architectural and historical value of the Fairmont Theater but then he may be as big a Philistine is I am. He does talk about the current commercial disinterest in a large single screen theater. He doesn’t like “out-of-towners” telling us what to do. And he points out that dumping a whole bunch of money into an old building that nobody’s going to use may not be the best use of public funds.

As far as the out-of-towner thing is concerned, we have to watch that, particularly those of us in West Virginia. We are awfully touchy sometime. People do not become elitists, idiots, snooty, or snooty elitist idiots by living somewhere else. Some snooty elitist idiots live right here! OK, lots of them live elsewhere, but that’s beside the point.

We should consider ideas from “foreigners,” applying the same criteria as those from local: What are their qualifications? (I’m talking REAL qualifications, not just the certificates framed and hung on the wall.) Do they have some unexpressed bias or interest in the outcome? Will they share in any down side or cost of their own idea? Does their idea makes sense?

And then we have to do the hardest thing of all – we balance the pluses and minuses of their schemes against the pluses and minuses of all the other competing schemes.

Once again, if you’re talking to someone who tells you “all you have to do is…,” you’re talking to a provocateur or a dumb ass. Or maybe both.

I like old buildings and I agree with the notion that many of them contain elements which you do not see in buildings today. The National Cathedral is the only place I know of the United States where actual operative freemasons are working; Those are artisans who carve building stones. Fine woodwork is almost unheard of. Decorative details, finials, gingerbread, that sort of thing are well-nigh non-existent unless it’s stuff made out of plastic.

There is a lot to be said for standing in the same place that something historic occurred, or being in a building that has memories. I like to do that, especially in the town where I live. I’d like to be able to do it a lot more.

I wish I could walk into Skinner’s Tavern. It was located on the west side of the Monongahela River at the bottom of where Madison Street now ends. It was built around 1820 and torn down sometime in the mid 20th century. A thoroughly undistinguished building for an Elks Lodge was put there and it was also torn down about a decade ago. I understand some people have found a few bricks down there from the old tavern. What a joy it would be to go there and have a quaff of whatever they were serving.

I would like to go to the house or pavilion or whatever it was where John Tyler gave a campaign speech in 1840, on the top of the hill near where Woodlawn Cemetery is now located.

I would love to see the 600-foot B&O Railroad iron bridge which was destroyed by Confederate raiders under Gen. “Grumble” Jones in April 1863. I would like to see where in Coal Run Hollow the running fight between the Confederates and the makeshift militia took place.

I’d like to go back to the Virginia Theater and the Lee Theater such as I did when I was a little kid. There are parking lots there now.

But things change. We can’t afford to decoupage everything and keep it in the same condition as it was in whatever we consider to be the “Good Old Days.”

I love history and I love to connect with history. If we start worshiping history, we may forget where the hell were going.

By the way, please God don’t name the new state office building for somebody who is currently alive. The only so-names structure I ever approved is the John Saylor Sewage Plant at Camp Mountaineer. At the time, that was a great joke, especially enjoyed by Big John himself.

I have floated my own idea to name the new building. Nobody has yet reacted with horror. Our current senator and former governor Joe Manchin doesn’t have stuff named for him, and I like that. His mother was an extremely hard-working and likable lady, and an excellent example of what women did despite their more restricted roles in society in the first half of the 20th century. So my proposed name for the new building is the “Mama Kay Manchin and West Virginia Women’s Office Building.”

You don’t like it? Suggest something better, don’t just bitch.

Where I’ve been:

I still really, really enjoy writing. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot, just not here. Much of it has been in petitions to various Courts, including two to the Tribunal in the Sky (U.S. Supreme Court). (That’s not all that impressive. They get thousands of petitions a year and grant maybe 100.)

I’ve also been working with and assisting my friend and brother Oce Smith in keeping his “Just Observin’ “ column going weekly in the Times-West Virginian. Currently, Oce is doing rehab at the Arbors in Fairmont, a nursing home/rehab place up on Watson Hill. Oce never got the hang of computers and hasn’t even used electric typewriters much. He writes on a manual typewriter, and right now doesn’t have the hand strength. So he dictates to me, I write, we both edit, and I’ve been learning stuff.

This is, to me, a graduate level writing course. Oce learned from old classic newspaper writers, and has a distinctive style. His memory of political and local events is phenomenal, and he has personal recollections of Truman, LBJ, JFK, Bobby Kennedy and lots of others. It is always good to be reminded that we can always keep learning.

And, to borrow from Oce,


09 October 2011

A Massive Dose of Good Sense?

Yes, massive good sense. Perhaps that’s what we’ve got going on here today. Perhaps not. Do you agree? Wonderful. Do you disagree? Fine with me.

The sounds of silence –

I’ve had some comments to the effect “Where the hell is a new post?” In response thereto (Jeez, I love lawyer-speak, I sound like an idiot), I would say “Here it is,” and “Vishnu on a rotisserie, get off my case, I’ve been busy.” Indeed, I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, but the great majority of it has been for work. Discussions of a case with legal authorities submitted to a court are called “briefs.” Briefs are not, well, brief. Over the years, I have developed a bit of a prose-centered style in writing legal briefs. Most places, that works. Or at least it’s what’s expected from me. But the West Virginia Supreme Court has recently adopted new rules which greatly formalize the appeal process and the United States Supreme Court always has had very formal rules, and I’ve had to write stuff for both places.

Diamonds and pearls in the dairy section -- Attention shoppers. There are no diamonds nor oysters containing pearls in our conveniently located dairy coolers. What we have there consists of dairy products. The milk is clearly marked as to fat content. The containers are conveniently and obviously sized so that you may quickly see the difference amongst one quart, half-gallon and gallon container. You will find nothing of greater value than a gallon of milk there. The labels are not great art and do not require extended examination to appreciate them. We recommend that you know what you’re looking for and what quantity you want, that you walk to the dairy case, you pick it up, put it in your basket, and then move the hell along so that others may do likewise. Thank you for your attention.

All my rowdy friends – Country music crooner Hank Williams, Jr., showed up on the Fox News last week to give us his particular political opinions. Hank Williams, Jr., is not particularly rule-bound in his musical offerings. His rhymes don’t exactly rhyme, the cadence or meter or whatever the hell you want to call it isn’t real smooth.

To the best of my knowledge, he has no particular education or study in politics other than the various places that rednecks go to get their opinions. (That’s not a pejorative – I enjoy going to some of the same places.)

As is the case with several country music singers, some of his work has been expressly patriotic. I for one particularly like his “America Will Survive” done right after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The line “No more Yankees, no more Rebels” is the first recognition in country music that the damn Civil War is over.

But asking him for political opinions has only the same value as asking any other quasi-informed citizen. In responding off-the-cuff to a question, he compared the much vaunted golf game between the president and the speaker to Hitler and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu playing a round.

Okay – references to Hitler are greatly overdone. If you want to say somebody’s bad, comparing them to Hitler is the ultimate verbal extreme, although it has become so common that is really rather silly. However, for uttering the name on television, Williams was inundated with criticism over what a nasty, insensitive jerk he is. Mind you, for all I know he is an insensitive jerk and sometimes that’s the appropriate response to certain stimuli. But the Hitler thing was just a blowsy comment and those objecting are having a great time because now they can enjoy being victims.

The Anti-Defamation League broke out in sweats, demanded that ESPN dump Junior’s music from Monday Night Football and maybe hang ol’ Hank from a gibbet. Jeez, guys, have a Coke and a smile and shut the hell up – Williams is an ignorant cretin, and you guys are well-educated cretins. I’ll take the former every time.

The sissies at ESPN did dump Hank’s music.

The Obama effect – President Obama will be nominated by the Democratic party for another four year term. Nothing reasonably foreseeable is going to stop that. The results of the election likely will turn on how big a whack job the Republicans nominate and who turns out their base best on election day. Well, that’s Politics 101.

Obama and the Great Republican Hope likely will visit West Virginia during the campaign only enough to say they have hit all 50 states. If the Great Republican Hope avoids getting caught with dead people in his/her bed, our five electoral votes are going with the Republicans.

My fellow Democrats, you can like it, you can dislike it and think it’s horrible to acknowledge it, I just don’t care. Reality is a bitch. This is reality. Where this becomes a big local problem is in the state and local races.

You can be sure that every Republican candidate for every office including the petty stuff will be calling their Democratic opponents friends of Obama, followers of Obama, lovers of Obamacare, blah blah blah. Now, in effect, Pres. Obama has the weakest following of any president or presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in any campaign I’ve been involved in since 1972.

The problem for state and local candidates is not whether they’re going to buddy up to Obama. Trust me, they are not. The issue is going to be whether they have the nerve and the guts to expressly separate themselves from him. And that’s not political opportunism, every new plan coming from Washington creates a “You got to be kidding me” response in West Virginia. The latest dead-on-arrival $447 billion jobs package is an example of trendy and unrealistic leadership.

We’re back to the days of Will Rogers: “I don’t belong to an organized political party – I’m a Democrat.”

Governing -- This past week, West Virginians elected the sort of incumbent acting governor as Governor for the 15 months remaining in the current term. In another eight months, there is yet another primary election.
This election cycle was unfortunate. The Titanic hitting an iceberg was a darn shame. The Apollo 13 flight could have been a bit smoother.

Gov. Tomblin won by one percent. Someone in his camp went babbling to the press that now they have a mandate. Great Caesar’s Ghoast, is anyone dumb enough to believe that?

2 ½ things bother me about the election. Number one is the heavy use of attack ads. Everybody talks about how little they like attack ads. So why are campaigns using them? Because they work. Because people respond to them. Everybody bitches about politicians buying elections. If there were not so many damn sellers in the market, the elections would not be for sale.

The one half is all the soft money that poured in. The best estimates are that the Republican Governors Association dumped in $3 million and the Democratic Governors Association ponied up $2 million. Of course, since that is soft money, those are at best estimates. But neither the Republican Governors Association nor the Democratic Governors Association really give a left-handed shit about West Virginia. It’s a head hunting expedition to put numbers on the board and control the financial destiny of our nation. And we the people are not the beneficiaries of their plans. Jesus in St. Louis, are we ever dumb.

And the other disturbing thing about the election is that it shows a great disunity in a state that has been fairly united in the past. The Governor absolutely murdered Bill Maloney, the Republican, in the counties south of Route 60. Maloney scored less drastic but still convincing wins in most of the counties north of there, and he swept the Eastern Panhandle. The Eastern Panhandle is the fastest growing area of West Virginia and in the future nobody who is going to win an election will be able to do so and also get buried by the other side over there.

Did we really need an industrial revolution? -- In the early 18th century, Britain had a problem. The society was fueled by wood. The population was growing and the need for fuel was growing. The need for fuel wood rose nearly to the level of the ability of the islands to grow and harvest wood. Anybody that does wildlife management knows what happens on those occasions – you get a sizable population die off.

And then the rock that burns, coal, took the place of wood. Methods of mining were developed which fed the fires with vast quantities of fuel.

Coal had so many advantages. First and foremost, there was a great deal of it. Second, the energy was highly concentrated. A pound of coal provided many times the heat energy of a pound of wood. On industrial scales, coal was easier to obtain, easier to transport and cheaper than wood. Finally, coal burns at temperatures much higher than wood, so it is suitable for more industrial purposes.

Part of the downside was immediately apparent. In the 18th and 19th centuries, coal was burned in open furnaces or furnaces with straight stacks. Coal burns dirty. There is a lot of particulate matter, soot, that comes from coal fire. As chemical tests were developed, scientists discovered that burning of coal was releasing sulfur, heavy metals and other products into the atmosphere, soil and watersheds.

More recently, the fact that coal liberates a lot of carbon that was bound up underground has become a concern.

But coal still fueled Industrial Revolution. Without coal, we would not have automobiles, steel, computers, petroleum products, or lots of other things, and the population would be a great deal smaller.

So does the United States need to transition away from coal? Yes, for that matter the whole world does. But those who say that we should fundamentally change the way we use it, curtail its use, make power from burning coal much more expensive, are using intentional ignorance to advance ideology.

Burning coal furnishes 50% of electrical power in the United States. Terminate the use of coal right now, and then you’re going to have to decide how to live with half as much electricity. Air conditioning would have to go. Our ancestors lived without it, we will just have to suck it up. Steel manufacturing will plummet and what is left of manufacturing on this continent will take significant reductions – what you think those factories run on?

There’s always somebody who says that the scientists have always figured something out, so they’ll figure something out this time.

Clean coal technology, let’s look at that. Not yet. Current clean coal technology means that you incur an expense and reduce the energy available in a quantity of coal in order to eliminate some combustion products. Every bit as much carbon is still going to be liberated.

And then there are those who say that we’re on the verge of fusion reactors. Yeah, right, just soon as we figure a way to contain something burning at 40,000,000°.

Hysterics doesn’t make people part of the solution. It just makes them an annoyance which adds to the problem.

Of all this and other stuff, more later.


31 August 2011

God, Obama or Glenn Beck: Who Caused the Earthquake and Hurricane?

An earthquake? A hurricane? Someone out there is sending us a message!

I guess.

Two questions come to mind: Who is sending the message? And what is the message?

The most popular suspect as the perpetrator of last week’s East Coast earthquake and the East Coast Hurricane Irene that followed it is God. As the Almighty, the All-powerful, and the All-knowing, it makes sense that He’s the one who commands sufficient tera-joule level power resources and Cray-Computer-on-Steroids targeting finesse. Oh, I suppose humanity might whip up a good bit of power with a whole bunch of nukes, but tuning a large explosion into causing an earthquake far beneath the Earth’s surface or sparking an Atlantic hurricane seems beyond the current level of human science.

The hurricane missed our mountains, but it did play havoc with one of my favorite places, North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Whoever was directing the storm caused it to punch through the North-South Highway and, in places, the storm punched the ocean clean through the narrow barrier islands. To be anthropocentric about it, you have to think that the message associated with that must be pretty drastic.

The earthquake did catch the mountains, but only shook already-loose bricks or stones off of buildings. I was in the middle of jury trial in Clarksburg, and the courthouse suddenly began shaking. There was a “What’s that?” moment, and the judge sent the marshals to see what was going on. Under the circumstances, a structural engineer would’ve been a better choice, but none were handy. In any event, we went ahead with the trial, because it was just nothing to freak about. I did – and I do – marvel at the amount of energy it takes to shake a steel-stone-concrete building 200 miles from the epicenter. That, together with the fact that there was no loss of life or injury, strongly supports the God hypothesis. (God is all-loving, remember?)

Of course, everybody with an agenda and a personal hotline to the Cosmic Seat of Power announced that God was sending a message (and in some instances, a punishment) and they very kindly interpreted the message for those of us not tied into the Good-Ol’-Deity system.

A notable whack-job rabbi in New York slobbered all over himself as he ranted that this earthquake very clearly was a message that by permitting gay marriage (or, for that matter, gay anything), we were exposing ourselves to tectonic terror which would terminate our time on Terra.

We can always count on the wacky Westboro Baptist Church to give us the low down on God’s private thoughts. Moreover, when they do so they grin and chuckle and wring their hands with a good deal of malicious glee about the Lord’s no-nonsense approach to smiting the wicked. Hurricane Irene, to the Westboro sprites, was a very overt signal that the Lord God of Hosts is very annoyed about gay people.

One thought I have about Westboro, however, is that they may be misreading the extremity of the so-called punishment which is being inflicted. A hurricane? Really that’s a lot of rain and a lot of wind. The death toll was in double digits and property damage was in the mere single billions. Compared to some of the other remedies used by the Ultimate Magistrate, a worldwide flood, drowning armies in the Red Sea, plagues of locusts, frogs and so forth, this level of a hurricane seems rather weak tea in tepid water.

Pat Robertson, notable for his interpretation of God’s message about the vastly more severe earthquake in Haiti, got an entirely different message this time. Far be it from me to say that any of these holy receivers are wrong, perhaps God is just multitasking. To Robertson, the earthquake was a clear sign of the Second Coming of Christ. Even if you took the Book of Revelations completely at face value (sorry, that’s a bit of a stretch for me), I can’t make that connection. Of course, I’m reading it in English rather than the original Greek so I could be wrong. If I see Heaven opened and behold a White Host, boy am I going to come around to orthodoxy quickly.

One of the most notable interpretations of the disasters came from presidential candidate Michele Bachmann:

"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."

Later, a campaign spokesman observed: "Obviously she was saying it in jest.”

Hats off to Rep. Bachmann. I think about 50% of her political opinions are pretty strange, but she has a really dark sense of humor and my book that’s a big positive. And let me say that her statement was absolutely brilliant sarcasm, sarcasm of the highest order. When your listeners aren’t quite sure whether you’re serious, you are so subtle, so nuanced, that you truly get the blue ribbon. (Now I know some of the Representative’s political enemies will say “Of course she was serious, and her campaign is just covering.” Well, how the hell do they know?)

Glenn Beck also interpreted these events as the work of God. The message he perceives, however, is a good bit more practical than the others. Beck is a convert to Mormonism. Among the important teachings of Mormonism is the encouragement of preparing for long-term self-sufficiency, including having an adequate stockpile of supplies to live without grocery stores, etc., for several months. That was the message Beck received, that the Lord God was telling us that bad things can happen and we need to be prepared for them.

Nobody is really saying that Obama caused either the earthquake or hurricane. Yet. I have to say, people accuse him of some of the weirdest stuff. This week I received a mass e-mail from a nutty website which promised to “Expose Obama’s plot to destroy the Constitution.” Goodness, I hope he doesn’t have such a plot.

However, the President took little bit of ownership, at least in the hurricane. In a speech on the White House lawn on Sunday evening, President O reminded the country that the hurricane was still a dangerous storm, that the federal government cares and would do all it could, blah, blah, blah. Mostly, it was paternalistic nonsense, and unnecessary blather.

Representative Ron Paul who, God willing, will never be the bride, has called for the dissolution of FEMA. He’s just wrong. FEMA, as the “point of the spear” of the Federal government does have an important role in emergency management. If we start with the presumption that we will respond to citizens who have catastrophic losses with something other than “too bad, so sad,” true disasters will exceed local resources and Federal resources will be required. The Feds provide money and provide supplies. When local control becomes impossible or ineffective, FEMA or other Federal agencies can provide leadership and management. But that is not the preferred model. The preferred approach remains one of local or state-level management.

One of the best things that FEMA does is train local managers to deal with disasters. FEMA trains people in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) which is a systematic and rational way to handle the demands of the mass of issues in a disaster. By the way, much of NIMS is available for study by anyone online at the FEMA website. The people who developed NIMS have the most important qualification of all: They all have ridden in vehicles with flashing lights to real emergencies.

Bad things happen. Sometimes they are ordinary things (rain, wind) in massive doses. These days, areas which are going to be pounded by a hurricane have 24 or 48 hours’ notice. The biggest urgent decision to be made by emergency managers is what areas to evacuate and when to do it. I can argue mandatory evacuation either way. If you’re dumb enough to stay for a hurricane, screw it, take your own chances. On the other hand, if by staying, you expose innocents (family) or rescuers to danger, you’re going beyond your personal rights. Evacuation prevents a great majority of what would otherwise be the loss of life due to a hurricane.

I am sure that there are a lot of county emergency service directors who are “wargaming” earthquake scenarios in Eastern United States this week. The Eastern earthquake provided a much better lesson than the Eastern hurricane. With a hurricane, you have warning. With an earthquake, within a span of 5 minutes you can go from normal life to near-complete destruction of infrastructure as well as loss of life and mass casualties, all over a wide area. As it is, the little earthquake last week reminded us that things can go to hell right quick.

It also reminded us the big dog of earthquakes, unreinforced masonry construction. The national Cathedral in Washington suffered some millions of dollars of damage. The Washington Monument was cracked. Around here, a chimney collapsed on the Barbour County Courthouse. The common theme? Stones or brick stacked on top of each other: Unreinforced masonry.

I do wonder that we’re not very good about learning lessons. Putting New Orleans where it was in the beginning wasn’t a fantastic idea, what with it being right by the Gulf of Mexico and partially below sea level. Massively rebuilding it in the same place is another head-scratcher. I’m sure that they will rebuild the National Cathedral with stacked stone, and that when the beaches and bridges are put back on the Outer Banks, people will build those beautiful coastal homes right up next to the ocean.

Of all of God’s interpreters, Beck gets closest to reality. That’s because he gives at least a partial solution, and rational reasoning. No matter what you think about this notion that it was the hand of God at work, the idea self-reliance and neighborhood reliance is long overdue for a resurgence. In North America, we have developed very effective response systems to handle most emergencies in a reasonably efficient fashion. One definition of “disaster,” however, is an event of such magnitude that it overwhelms local and regional response resources. When that happens, “they” may not be coming for a long time and it’s up to “us” to suck it up and take responsibility.

19 August 2011

Penn Jillette & God, No!: Chill, People, It’s the First Amendment

Penn Jillette self-identifies as an asshole atheist libertarian. He has written a new book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be An Atheist and Other Magical Tales, a fast, funny and persuasive promotion of atheism. Lots of believers, mainly Christian, are (to use a Jillette-ism) going “batshit crazy.” I doubt that God with smite him, but I could be wrong.

Jillette’s opinion starts out deceptively mild: “You don’t have to be very smart, fast, or funny to be an atheist. You don’t have to be well educated. Being an atheist is simply saying ‘I don’t know.’ “

Later, he expounds: “Once you’ve answered ‘I don’t know’ to the existence of a god, the answer to whether you believe in god pretty much has to be no. That doesn’t mean you’re saying it’s impossible for there to be a god, or that we couldn’t have evidence of a god in the future. It just means that right now you don’t know. Believing cannot rise out of ‘I don’t know.’ “

He’s right. I don’t know if God is there from objective evidence. As for me, I believe in God and in Jesus, the Christ, but I do not have objective evidence. And I don’t plan on getting irregular about this book.

After all there IS an objective reality. The God, A god, a FEW gods, another power (“The Force”?) or none of the above exist or don’t exist. Jillette’s statements, my rambling, the Pope speaking ex cathedra, and burning bushes (which we only know of through hearsay accounts) will not change the objective reality. So, for Heaven’s sake (my phrase), RELAX.

A favorite hymn is “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” There, “know” is not meant in the mathematical or Boolean sense. If I drive past a farm and see a shorn sheep standing there, what I KNOW is that it is shorn on one side. However, that it is shorn on the other side is way I’ll bet. I KnowThat My Redeemer Lives is a statement of the strength of faith, that I have a strong faith which nourishes me and brings me peace, even absent objective data. Don’t get confused by song titles, nor impeach me with them: After all, One Night in Bangkok does NOT Make a Hard Man Humble. My “knowing” reality is really more like another favorite hymn, It Is Well With My Soul.

Why religion? Well, because it’s true. But there are so many religions out there and they contain lots and lots of mutually exclusive tenets. In any event, that’s the bootstrap argument from Hell. (What is objective is that our language is peppered with religious references.)

A better answer is to look at society or civilization in light of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food, shelter, safety and so forth, and the human desire to continue to improve how we meet human need and develop an human culture. The presence of and absence of religion has, at various times, helped and hindered those goals. Religions teach various precepts, the most basic of which usually promote ethical and peaceful interaction. Religions have other rules, and Jillette liberally illustrates God, No! with examples of the silly ones which are at the very least neutral in meeting human needs. My favorite example from the book is the ban on the bacon cheeseburger to the Orthodox Jew. I could add things like the drinking of poisons and handling of poisonous snakes because one of the gospel writers made a single throwaway reference. Pretty clearly, the argument that religion – any religion – has a 1:1 correlation with meeting the basic benificent goals of society is pure bullshit.

Other paths can lead to the same behaviors that society should affirmatively sanction. Eastern religions such as Buddhism promote remarkable peace and order. Humanism and atheism can contain just as beneficial and ethical instruction as any religion toward the goal of advancing down Maslow’s hierarchy. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment gives us the power to practice the system of moral beliefs which works for us, with our own personal freedom.

Locking religion out is just as dumb locking people into religion. Some months back, there were press reports of a judge in Arizona who assigned criminal offenders the task of reading a certain book. This was a book on ethical and moral and LEGAL behavior and was written from a Christian faith-based perspective. Obviously, the government requiring someone to read a single religion-based volume is not a good idea. Simply abandoning the whole book report idea, however, was just about as dumb. There are lots and lots of other good books out there on decent and lawful and productive living from various faith and non-faith perspectives. Among the best are the books of Larry Winget. His specific faith perspectives are the vermouth in my martini – the bottle may be there in the room, but it doesn’t come near the glass.

In addition to the benefits that society receives from those who will follow faith as a path to progress in behavior, religion likewise is a path to internal/personal improvement. The greatest improvement is that of eternal life, but there we’re back to a fact for which there is an objective truth which is currently unknowable. Personally, I think Gandhi made the cut but I know a lot of religions disagree.

Ritual is good for turning one’s mind inward. I am part the denomination known as the Disciples of Christ. One practice of the Disciples is that we come to the Lord’s table (practice communion) in every service. That has great meaning to me. That’s about all I can attest to personally. I do not go with the transubstantiation thing, I do not believe that the wafer becomes human flesh or that the cup turns into human blood or that there is anything else of the magic show to it. It turns my thoughts to this guy whose example should be the rule and guide of my own life. I’m glad we repeat the coming to the table a lot because I never seem to get it right. Jillette talks about a ritual within his own family, annually releasing balloons in memory of family and friends who have died. This is really a touching account in the book. It’s his ritual, and it works for him.

Notwithstanding our disagreement on the “ultimate question,” I cannot help but like Penn Jillette. Oh, he’s an asshole, but so am I. I admire people who fly their own flag. If someone is an asshole, what the hell, just hoist the Jolly Roger. Jillette does.

This is a brash, vigorous offering in the marketplace of ideas. Its presence is a celebration of the First Amendment. I don’t expect to see an Arabic edition published in Saudi Arabia or an Iranian one in Farsi.

Five stars.

01 August 2011

The Debt Limit: A Pox on Both Their Houses; No, Make that ALL Their Houses

We have been stupid enough to buy into the Congressional/Presidential Create-a-Crisis bilgewater, and now we are supposed to be pathetically grateful that our ever so wise political leaders have resolved the “Crisis.” That is, they’ve resolved it long enough to delay their next crisis until election time, when a new round of “blame the other guy” will take off in full force.

And yes, we really are dumb enough to be buying into this. We really are taking sides: Oh, the poor president! Oh, thank you Jesus for our conservative sentinels! Blah, blah, blah.

In point of fact, Congress knew this particular “crisis” was coming, the President knew this particular “crisis” was coming and so did everybody else who'd had grade school arithmetic. Rather than dealing with the issues, everybody decided to play a game of political Who-Has-The-Biggest-Weenie. (Yes, I know that’s gender-specific. When people of both genders in government quit playing that game, I’ll quit talking about it. In the meantime, it’s a fair description.) I think it’s fair to assume that the government “Mastercrats” were taking a minute now and then to detect when the Treasury was going to run out of money. It wasn’t rocket science, but they had allegedly neutral public agencies (Office of Management and Budget, Congressional Budget Office) to help them count. And then, suddenly, it was crisis time, and in every instance it was “their” fault. If only “they” would quit being so rat-bastard stubborn, we could all enjoy the second coming of George Washington. Disgusting. Absolutely disgusting.

In order to blame “them” and promote the Glorious Ascendance of “us” in the 2012 elections and after, the Mastercrats played Chicken with United States government obligations and with the very real opinion of the market regarding the quality of government debt instruments. In doing so, the Mastercrats created and depended upon raw fear, in order to gain so-called grassroots support from people who were scared shitless that their military wages or Social Security benefits were not going to be paid. In doing so, the Mastercrats buried the real issues of spending and the debt rating. The latter has as far-reaching economic consequences for the United States as the former. Remember free enterprise? Even if we don’t believe in it, we sure as hell worship it. The debt ratings are standards by the marketplace of how secure treasury bills, bonds and debt instruments are for investors. If they are less secure, the investors are going to want higher returns, meaning we will be paying more interest for government borrowing. More expensive borrowing by the government means more expensive borrowing for everybody else which means fewer houses and cars sold, fewer jobs to manufacture and sell the capital products, more unemployment – but that really doesn’t matter to the Mastercrats as long as their weenies measure longer than the other guys’.

The raising of the debt ceiling is nothing new. Ronald Reagan did it 18 times and on one occasion described to Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (a Republican) the bad consequences in the event of a default:

Dear Howard:

This letter is to ask for your help and support, and that of your colleaques, in the passage of an increase in the limit to the public debt.

As Secretary Regan has told you, the Treasury's cash balances have reached a dangerously low point. Henceforth, the Treasury Department cannot guarantee that the Federal Government will have sufficient cash on any one day to meet all of its mandated expenses, and thus the United States could be forced to default on it obligations for the first time in its history.

This country now possesses the strongest credit in the world. The full consequences of a default -- or even the serious prospect of default -- by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and on the value of the dollar in exchange markets. The Nation can ill afford to allow such a result. The risks, the costs, the disruptions, and the incalculable damage lead me to but one conclusion: the Senate must pass this legislation before the Congress adjourns.

I want to thank you for your immediate attention to this urgent problem and for your assistance in passing an extension of the debt ceiling.

Ronald Reagan

Conservative icon Ronald Reagan apparently didn’t see raising the debt ceiling as a big problem for America. His was the administration that continued large deficits, his directed at the military expansion that outspent and eventually destroyed the Soviet Union’s economy. Most people (me included) don’t see that as a bad thing.

More recently, the debt ceiling has been raised repeatedly without the disgusting and dangerous spectacle we’ve been treated to this year. In 1997, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006 (Republican presidential years), the debt ceiling was raised with between 193 and 214 Republican votes. In 2007, 2008 (Republican presidential years), 2009 (twice) and 2010 (Democratic presidential years), the debt ceiling was raised again, but only in 2008 did the bill have any Republicans on board.

So let’s not continue with this “it’s the other guys fault” bullshit. Every Mastercrat wants to spend money. Nobody really wants all-out frugality. Everybody wants savings for all spending except spending for them and for those whose asses they must kiss to advance their own personal interests. All of the Mastercrats are speaking piously about their love for America and the tough choices they are making and their bravery, love of God, and sleepless nights. This is showmanship and bad theater. Author Robert A. Heinlein (among others) identified the correct way to get cooperation from most people: Don’t bother looking for their better nature, because most of them don’t have one. Look instead for their self interests, because everybody has those.

I do not exclude the Tea Partiers from the Mastercrat ranks. They were willing - no, they were downright slobbering - to crash the ship rather than compromise AT ALL. They were willing to cut any and all spending that didn’t fit their own worldview without discussing the effect on anyone. Screw ‘em. Moreover, they have the temerity to compare themselves with patriots who actually did something courageous in the Revolution. Screw ‘em, the hypocritical bastards.

A single example among the thousands of economic hypocrisies is the flap last February over the F35 Joint Strike Fighter engine. The F35 is a fifth-generation attack/fighter aircraft which incorporates the latest in stealth technology. It comes in a conventional version, a short takeoff and landing (STOL) version, and a carrier version. The idea was to incorporate the latest technology and save money by using a single basic design with many common components. The engine for the F35 is built by Pratt & Whitney, a longtime builder of jet engines. But wait, some of the Mastercrats screamed: The other manufacturer in the competition to build the engines, Rolls-Royce/General Electric, designed and built their own pretty good engine, and we need to buy that too so we have a spare engine, just in case the Pratt & Whitney doesn’t work. Horsefeathers, said the Department of Defense, we do not need it. But Mastercrats from states where that engine would be built chimed in that it was a necessity and not a waste of money. And so, they reasoned, $450 million in the current fiscal year was a cheap price to pay for a spare engine that nobody needs. Notably, the people pushing for this expenditure came from both parties. Leading the pack was none other than Speaker the House John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio (where the engine would have been built), the same guy who was leading the Jesus-Loves-Thrift money forces in the fake crisis.

The double shuffle and doublespeak associated with the spare engine would’ve shamed the town drunk showing up and insisting that he lead the church choir. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R – CA) reasoned (?) that a second engine would actually save money because then manufacturers would be in competition. In other words, they could build two for less than the price of one. No kidding, he really said that.

And so, we stumble on, the debt limit will (probably) be extended, most of the promised savings ($1.5 trillion) are as-yet unknown but “to be announced” by November and among the only people not buying this snake oil are the bond rating agencies who are about to stick it to us.

And as long as we participate - as long as we oooh and ahhh the latest Mastercrat toy store in our neighborhoods, as long as we sell out to the Mastercrat buyers, we’re going to get the same turd again and again, just in new and better Christmas wrapping.

It’s not about throwing tea into a harbor. It’s about telling the screamers to Shut the F**k Up so we can apply REASON for a change.

Jeez, are we ever dumb.

Pippa passes.

24 July 2011

Further Praise and Praise Music

The post of 22 July concerning praise music excited a touch of comment. Mostly, it was verbal and opinions were mixed. That’s a good thing. If there were only one available opinion and one available set of important or relevant facts, we would only need one blog and that would hardly constitute a thoughtful discussion at all.

So let me continue a more interactive version of these Dispatches. Perhaps this, too, will be another beaker on the burner in the laboratory of human behavior.

Take one of my customary detours, let me note that on some topics we bring strong feelings. Strong feelings and strong opinions are neither inherently good nor inherently bad except insofar as they prove that one cares and is showing interest. There’s one intellectual challenge similar to what you go through reading good fiction, which requires a willing suspension of disbelief. In discussing the controversial subject or for that matter anything where there are a number of viewpoints, it is helpful to be able to willingly suspend judgment until you have “downloaded” to your mind the information or even opinions offered. Of course, then we have to analyze what we have heard.

By the way, the best jury theory I know (and the one that I practice) is based upon the presumption that jurors do not suspend judgment until all the information is imparted. One great teacher of trial lawyers, Herb Stern, tells students that in the trial, you “hit them the firstest with the mostest,” thereby getting the jury on your side and prone to listen to the remainder the evidence while rooting for you.

Mere words about music don’t work well or tell us much. Neither do mere words describing art or nature. The words are not the reality, and the words can only feebly describe the reality. So we have to take the time actually to look at the music performed.

So, let me offer a YouTube audio/video of the untitled hymn by Chris Rice commonly referred to as “Come to Jesus,” to which I referred on the 22nd:


A short & sweet commentary: The purity of Rice’s voice strikes me. For that matter, when the musical worship leaders at our church perform this, the purity of their voices strikes me, too. The range of the song is fairly broad. And the lyrics, beautiful: “Come to Jesus… Dance with Jesus… Fly to Jesus.” These generate a response in me.

Another example:


What excitement and what joy these performers and listeners alike have. Those lyrics don’t say a whole lot to me and the music doesn’t get in the stir me at least the extent of those in that video. Do they need to? Is it enough that it stir someone and add to their faith experience?

A nonmusical (or at least non-melodic) example:


This, to me, is ultimate cutesy. It doesn’t speak to me, mostly because I lack a lot of the modern cultural references. But as you can see in this live performance, a lot of the audience does react strongly. I’m going to refrain from much discussion about the content. I think I get the message that modern cultural references are not nearly so important as “timeless values.” But I’ve never talked to the author of this one minute sermon, and she may have another point entirely.

Which is yet another point about worship styles and methodologies. Does it matter what the intent or detailed theology of the creator of the work might be if it produces a positive result? And that, my friends, is not an expression of an opinion, it’s a legitimate question.

And finally:


My commentary? None. And that’s the point of this little essay – you listen, you decide. If it brings you closer to your faith, my opinion really doesn’t matter as much as either the vice presidency or a warm pitcher of spit, to quote John Nance Garner. Pick one.

I do know that I enjoy music, but I don’t know why. How do tones, vibrations in the air really, from different devices which create those tones bring me pleasure? I don’t know why verbal material presented at various differing frequencies and in various patterns give me pleasure or inspiration or even information. Is this is purely a learned behavior? After all, we can quickly recognize the music of other cultures because sometimes it sounds strange or even cacaphonous to us. And the rules of how these tones are arranged and what devices/instruments are used are very detailed and yet from this learned behavior somewhat common knowledge to the point that we can remember lots and lots of different patterns (musical pieces) or even styles. For some odd reason, I can usually pick out Russian orchestral music. What is the common feature of that music that makes it recognizable to my brain? Go figure. How is it that these things create an emotional response? Honestly, I do not understand it.

Perhaps there’s something instinctive about all this. Parents know that strange phenomenon of sleeping through all kinds of noises and yet when your baby makes a noise, even a soft one, you snap awake immediately. What is the filtering process that goes on in the mind?

Other sounds bring associations. To me, hearing dispatch radio tones brings a strong association and I’m always up for that sweet blast of mechanical siren. Those are my associations. Others find them confusing or even annoying.

Were trying to find beauty here. I don’t know how.

Can anyone help me out?

Pippa passes.


22 July 2011

Praise Music: An Amateur Deacon Ruminates

There is a collection of church music commonly called “praise music.” I can’t call it a “school” of music even though it may be such to those who really know what they’re talking about nor can I define any boundaries of where it is or where it isn’t. Praise Music doesn’t appear in most hymnals, that’s about the best way I can describe it.

My dear friend and brother Parson Jim N. just published a fascinating blog post on his reaction to praise music as being something other than admirable Christian music. I would note at the outset that appreciating this Dispatch From No. 3 requires that you follow the link and read Parson Jim’s post. I may reprise it just a bit, but it’s well worth the effort to see what Jim says:


A quick detour – in a comment to my immediate past post, on open carry of firearms, a commentor (who disagreed with most of my opinions) reminded me that it is most convenient to post the link when I’m discussing someone else’s work. A lesson: Always mine the opinions and comments of others for good ideas. Ignoring someone’s good idea someone because she disagrees with you on other things Not Very Bright.

Okay, have you read Parson Jim’s post? No, really – read it. I’ll wait. I’m not in a big hurry.

To me, the heart of his opinion is in the fourth paragraph:

Except for one of these songs in this category I can recall singing, they are all about an unholy trinity of “Me, Myself and I.” It almost seems as if we imagine by singing such words that God is so pleased at the sound of our melodic flattery that the Divine Being surely must bless us with some sort of special or chosen status for our feel-good blather.

And so, his observations center around the lyrics as has his and my conversations on the subject.

The entire “Me, Myself and I” school of preaching is, I find, a touch annoying. My gradual return to a church life began through the “Red Letter” process. In some editions of the Bible, the quotations ascribed to Jesus Christ are printed in red. This, it would seem, would be the central part of Jesus’ teaching and, thus, his church. I’ll stay away from the entire yes-he-said-it-no-he-didn’t-history-says-doesn’t-say-whatever mud pit. I don’t really connect with a lot of the early church interpretation scholarship, probably because I know so little about it. I largely put the history on the back burner as I look for divine inspiration, and consider the words themselves. They make sense to me. They speak to me. I hope they speak to you. But if they don’t, there’s not a great deal I can do about it, we all have to row our own boats.

Another little detour – to the half a dozen people who get annoyed at the “ascribed” thing: Get as annoyed as you want, I can live with it. The one thing I’m certain of is that Jesus never said “No man comes to the father except by me,” or any of the other things ascribed to him in those words in the English language. Nor in the language of 17th century England (the King James version). Nor in Latin (e.g., the Vulgate). And I doubt if he said these things in Greek, although I could be wrong. Assuming for the moment that he expressed the quoted thoughts, it was likely in Aramaic. I have no clue what Aramaic syntax is like, but I doubt if it is a word-for-word translation. And so, back I go to reading the words in the only language I really know and listening for their inherent Truth to me.

I am inclined to doubt that my prayers induce the Lord to buy me things, give me great (and probably undeserved) health or lead him to smite my enemies. (There, I remember the “weather prayer” recited by George C. Scott in the movie Patton.) Usually, the best I hope for is understanding or, failing that, patience and acceptance. I find that placing a purchase order with God or giving him a to-do list is pretty cheeky. Sorry, Joel Oesteen, I won’t be there next Sunday or the Sunday after that or the Sunday after that.

Song lyrics range from the deeply meaningful to the idiotic. Much of the music of my youth, around 1970, contains lyrics which are excellent poetry. Simon & Garfunkel (and others who wrote the songs they performed) were pretty good poets. Ditto James Taylor. Ditto Carly Simon on a good day. Okay, a really good day. Some of this poetry set to music conjures up images and, as importantly to me, feelings of well-being or energy or excitement.

A lot of the old hymns have good poetry although sometimes gets lost in period vernacular or obscure references. “Amazing Grace” is a widely sung hymn particularly favored by folk bands and by police and fire department funeral bagpipers. So the lines are quite familiar:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind, but now I see.
Putting it in some historical context helps out a lot. That central lyric, “saved a wretch like me” is the key to the hymn. That line was written by the captain of a slave ship who reformed and repented of the terrible things he had done – – thus, his gratitude and even surprise that God saved “a wretch like me.” One of my favorite hymns, “It Is Well With My Soul” also becomes a little clearer in context. It was written by Horatio Spafford, a lawyer in Chicago at the time of the great Chicago fire. His family escaped harm in the fire but his extensive property was largely destroyed. He sent his family on a trip to Europe while he took care of his business affairs. Their ship sank in mid-ocean, killing all aboard. He took another ship to Europe and when the captain of that vessel informed him that they were passing the spot where his family perished, he retired to his cabin to pen words which I find beautiful and thoroughly Christian, that even when things are extremely bad, nevertheless I am given peace and “It is well with my soul.”

Other lyrics speak to me at times, both within and without a religious context, although with often with a spiritual one. Right now I am thinking of “My Home Among the Hills,” which is a lyrical journey about the hills of West Virginia:

"There autumn hills sides are bright with scarlet leaves,
and in the spring, the robins sing,
and apple blossoms whisper in the breeze,”
and so forth.

Certainly, that lyric and a beautiful yet hard-to-sing melody moves me.

But the music itself also creates a mood, creates an emotional or even physical reaction, a “filling of the Spirit” or a spell of just feeling good. You don’t have to have good lyrics nor even lyrics which make sense. There is the old traditional spiritual “Kum-bay-yah,” now heard more as a punchline to jokes than as a song. For every stanza, you get five syllables (e.g., “someone’s singing, Lord”) and a lot of the nonsense words “Kum-bay-yah.” Once I heard that it that was some sort of diminutive of “come by here,” but when you sing the song it’s just a repetitive chant. Babble-babble, chant-chant, feel good. Other lyrics may be utter nonsense, may fit the music and yet be utter nonsense which means nothing:

“One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble,”


get a job.”

The ballad form can be pure but even there we may indulge in some lyrical obscurity. The “Via Dolorosa,” popularized by modern day Christian artist Sandi Patty is an information-light story of Christ’s journey to the Place of Skulls. (Nickel knowledge: Actually, it was the town dump.) I think it was written in English, but part of it is been transliterated to be sung in Spanish. Well, if you want to add a little bit of the exotic to a song, throw in some language that your listeners don’t speak.

When I start to talk about the music itself, I’m going way out on a limb, because I really don’t know a hell of a lot about music. I confess that I have the rich envy of a person with a merely-adequate voice for those with true musical gifts. Some months ago, I had a really fascinating conversation with the organist of our church, a professional musician, about how good “elite” (my word, not his) musicians really have to be. And there is a gulf between the willing singing parishioner and the true musician that I, for one, will not bridge.

The problem I encounter with praise music in church is not so much the lyrics, because I don’t listen to the lyrics as closely as I do the ballads in using my youth. For one thing, I have much less exposure to each bit of praise music. Where I encounter problems is that the music has been written by really talented musicians to match their really high-level abilities. On the rare occasions that the music is printed, I have a really tough time following it. And even if I can follow it, the darn stuff is hard to sing without a really good voice. One of the really pretty pieces of modern Christian music I enjoy is an untitled hymn sung by Chris Rice commonly known as “Come to Jesus.” The lyrics are beautiful, the music is beautiful and it all speaks to me. And if I could put the music into a key that straddles my limited range, I might be able to sing it halfway decently, but only if I could do away with the key changes that confuse the hell out of me. And there, I think, is something that has led to the acceptance of some of the old hymns, fairly average voices can (mostly) sing along.

On the other hand, my brother Dave’s dad’s funeral a couple of weeks ago was at a Methodist church. Oh, I do find that modern Methodism must be theologically sound. I conclude that because the hymnal did not burn my fingers when I opened it. God talks to me that way, you know. But when they did “Amazing Grace,” I found that whoever arranged the song for the Methodists wrote a bass part that I could not have followed with a compass and a troop of Boy Scouts.

Oh, well – I’ praise God my way anyway and just try to get by.

And so, I’m neither I neither strongly support Parson Jim and everything he says nor strongly dissent. I find his opinions thought-provoking. In matters of faith, I cannot ask for any more than that.

Thank you, Jim.

Pippa passes.

09 July 2011

Open Carry of Handguns: Just Dumb?

We visit again that peculiarly American issue, the possession and use of firearms.

Today, the focus is upon “open carry,” the practice of “strapping on a hog leg” (to use the parlance of the nonexistent old West) or putting a hand gun in a holster and wearing it when you go about your daily business in public.

Like all formulaic essays, let me begin this one with a very dear thesis statement: Strapping on a hog leg and walking down the street is a really, really bad idea.

“Walking down the street” – that’s important. In rural areas, in the woods, I still regard it wise and perfectly normal to carry firearms.

What prompts today’s pique is news of a “civil rights” lawsuit filed in the Northern District (Federal) Court in West Virginia. A lawyer and his father went into the local Kentucky Fried Chicken for a meal and the lawyer was toting a holstered pistol. (This gentleman is not listed in the bar in West Virginia, but is a trial lawyer practicing elsewhere.) Presumably, someone in the restaurant took note of this singular occurrence and, after a Wheeling (WV) police officer appeared. The officer requested identification from the gun-toting fellow, took the weapon from him and ran the serial numbers through his dispatcher. The gun-toting lawyer says that he was de facto detained and at least insofar as he wanted his pistol back, that’s pretty obviously true.

After finding that the weapon’s history was “clean,” the officer offered the weapon back to its owner. According to the press report, the owner demanded that the police officer return it the way he got it, and that the police officer personally replace the firearm into the owner’s holster. (A gun owner also complains that the police officer did not handle the weapon skillfully, including hanging up a round when he cleared it.) As a result of this event, the owner has filed suit in federal District Court where he seeks money damages for his suffering (Inconvenience? Annoyance? Persnicketiness?), an order that the police be given mandatory training on how to interact with (ignore?) persons lawfully carrying firearms, and that he’d be awarded his attorneys fees, courtesy of the taxpayers of West Virginia.

Chief Robert Matheny of Wheeling (a decent fellow and a good lawman) has responded to the publicity sharply. He says that until some Court orders otherwise, his officers are still going to stop people openly carrying firearms to make an inquiry about their business. The Chief terms the act of carrying a hog leg “unnatural and uncommon.”

Why do people carry firearms? “Because I can” certainly is one answer commonly heard, which is a variation on “Mind your own damn business.”

The law regarding firearms is peculiarly American. It is based first on the Second Amendment:

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.

The United States Supreme Court was long loathe to touch Second Amendment issues. Over the years, regulations and limitations increased steadily, although nowhere nearly to the extent sought by people who oppose firearms in civilian hands. Under current law, occasional private sales between individuals are unregulated. Commercial sales may only be done by persons who have a Federal Firearms License, which places upon dealers strict record-keeping requirements and penalties for selling firearms other than provided by law. A buyer from a dealer must present identification and must be cleared in a telephone background check. Convicted felons, those convicted of domestic violence offenses, persons with dishonorable military discharges, persons addicted to drugs or alcohol, and persons adjudged mentally incompetent may not possess a firearm. Some states impose a waiting period between beginning to purchase a firearm and acquiring it and others fiddle with regulations which approach the level of out and out bans. The United States Supreme Court barred the District of Columbia from enforcing a complete gun ban in the Heller decision in 2008, and in the 2010 case McDonald vs. City of Chicago, the United States Supreme Court declared that the Second Amendment creates a personal right which is extended to all state action through the 14th amendment. Thus, the right to possess a firearm joins free speech, free exercise of religion, free assembly and so forth as individual rights. (I am aware of the interesting discussion under the 9th amendment that the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights are not exclusive but set out rather by way of limitation on the power of government.) There will be more to come from the federal courts as they build on the McDonald decision and respond to the ways that state and local governments are now regulating firearms. For example, the City of Chicago has placed such extreme limitations on firearms ownership that we must wonder if it is equivalent to another ban.

In West Virginia, firearms have both constitutional protection and traditional respect. The West Virginia Constitution provides:

A person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and state, and for lawful hunting and recreational use.

Under legislation in West Virginia, one may carry a firearm openly and if one meets a training requirement, the Sheriff of each county will issue a permit to carry a concealed pistol.

The status of firearms ownership is a tradition extremely well-established in West Virginia. There is a “frontier tradition” which is ever present. The State seal depicts a farmer with his ax and miner with his pick and before them are crossed long rifles upon which lays a Phrygian cap. West Virginia is still reasonably wooded, and hunting and other shooting sports are popular. And the concept of personal armaments for personal defense is well ingrained.

But carrying openly? Bad, bad idea.

Let’s face it, strapping on the old hog leg is indeed “unnatural and uncommon,” and just inherently suspicious. We do not need to put our common sense on hold here. When one openly displays a weapon, one is doing the equivalent of being that guy going to the gym wearing a “muscle shirt,” which gives everybody the message, “I’m a tough, baaaaad man.”

Proponents say, correctly, that open carry is lawful in West Virginia. They add that the rest of us had better just get used to it. Does that mean we have to park our brains at the door when we go into a restaurant? How about when dirtbags carry openly rather than (illegally) concealed? This is not to say that only the polo shirt crowd can be trusted with a firearm. For that matter, some of the polo shirt crowd look quite rustic on the weekends. There are simply people who will be carrying firearms for criminal acts. Moreover, the ones who are intelligent and continue to do so the way they always have, in a concealed manner.

My biggest problem with open carry is that it is ineffective. Look at the purposes of going armed as set out in West Virginia Constitution. We use firearms for hunting, for sport. There is a small community of ultra-high precision shooters for whom long-range accuracy is a self sustaining, no-other-purpose passion. Fine with me. By the way, I’m not one of them, I must confess my own marksmanship is fairly average on a good day.

For all of the sporting uses, when one talks about handguns, one is talking about a weapon intended primarily for use against people. And, frankly, some gun proponents shy away from talking about the primary anti-personnel purpose of a pistol, and that is so patently obvious it weakens their otherwise justified position.

Carrying a firearm openly does not promote personal protection. The open-carrier says to the threatening world, “Shoot me first, take me out of the fight.” Perhaps carrying a concealed weapon makes for an “unfair fight,” but if one is in a fight which is just, why in the hell would one want it to be fair? There is, after all, darn little future in a fair fight.

So what’s the other side of the coin? What’s a good reason to carry openly? Well, by God, it’s my constitutional right. Perhaps, proponents would urge that the conversation ends there. But in any thinking, reasoning and rational society, our discussions and our individual decisions should be reasoned rather than knee-jerk. Simply “it’s my right!,” carries with it a refreshing and manic defiance, the “I am a free man!” approach. (Here, I picture the open opening sequence of the 1960s cult television series The Prisoner. Also, I must note that the defiance literature and tradition seems predominantly male in American culture. Ladies, please pardon me if I follow that convention for a bit.)

Another point supporting the idea of an act of defiance is that we are “raising awareness” of the right openly carry a firearm. This argument is the old paper tiger. Do we really need to raise awareness of weapons? Hardly. The awareness we may indeed want to raise is that the criminal element cannot tell who are the “unwise targets,” who have the capacity for violence which will come as an unpleasant surprise. Defiance to “raise awareness” simply prompts counter defiance, and the discussion degenerates to a “Oh, yeah?” “Yeah!” quality which virtually guarantees that we’re not going to come to synthesis or resolution or, God help us, synergy.

In the Wheeling case, I am willing to criticize the police in one respect. I think it was a significant mistake to cater to the gun owner’s demand to put the weapon back in the holster. In doing so, the police catered to the gun owner’s petulant control game and succumbed to a bit role in the owner’s ridiculous Kabuki theater. “Here is your firearm, do you want it back?” And if the owner didn’t want it back from the officer’s hands, screw it, he wanted to make a point more than he wanted his property.

In a broad sense, we have seen political changes and policy changes. One challenge is channeling change in a way that we adapt to needs without sacrificing principles. The siren call of extremism in the firearms debate beckons us to abandon reason. Responsible policy development does not happen on the streets or in parades. Not even on the front pages of newspapers or in lawsuits. Changing growth happens in the back rooms. And in the front rooms, and the hallways, and wherever people – not “activists” – gather together and abide by the dictates of the Book of Isaiah: Come now, let us reason together.

Honest and reasoned discussion does not get the headlines. But I’ll take it as the method of responsible citizenship every time.

Note reference the old West: I was reading an interesting notion by Historian David McCullough in Mornings on Horseback, a biography of the early life of Theodore Roosevelt. He credits the writings of Eastern Ivy educated elite with magnifying the small segment of Western society from the west central and southwestern United States to full-blown myth status. He singles out The Virginian, by Owen Wister, and the accounts of ranch life, by Theodore Roosevelt.