Saturday, June 30, 2007

Educational Update

Several months ago I mentioned that Glenda and I had started taking the course "History of Western Civilization - Part 1", which I purchased from The Learning Company on-line. The course, on DVD, consisted of 48 30-minute lectures by Professor Thomas F.X. Noble of the University of Notre Dame. We have now completed the series, which covered the period 10,000 B.C. to about 1,600 A.D.

I was completely satisfied with the course material and the professor. Although I had read a fair number of quality histories, Professor Noble brought the many civilizations and cultures to life in a way that books just can't do. Books, of course, contain much more detail, but they generally don't summarize the essense of a topic the way an expert can, nor do they often make the great leaps of comparison ("remember when, a few sessions ago, we talked about....") that can be accomplished verbally. Moreover, Professor Noble was equally capable of discussing virtually all the characteristics of a culture - government, literature, science, religion, economics, politics, and family life.

The Learning Company advertises that course as follows: "This broad and panoramic series will help you pull an enormous sweep of history together into one coherent - though by no means closed - framework." This is not an exaggeration.

So, based on our good experience with this course, we have started another - "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition", by Professor Robert Greenberg, a noted composer and professor with wide-ranging credentials who is currently music historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances. After completing the first two of 48 45-minute lectures we look forward to each night's meeting with Professor Greenberg, a dynamic and obviously brillant man. We love "concert" music, but we have never been exposed to a more formal explanation of where and why it came from and how it is structured. By fall, we will be a lot smarter about this.

Greenberg states very early that "this is not a music appreciation course". By that, he means that he intends to give us insights about why certain music was written in certain times, and to educate us about the underlying harmonic, rhythmic and other musical structures inside the compositions. So far, excellent!

This non-compensated commercial for The Learning Company was brought to you in the hope that you might find as much satisfaction as we have from one of their great products. The subject areas are amazingly wide-ranging. Check them out at

Monday, June 25, 2007

Calligraphy Above My Computer

After several years of exiling myself to my upstairs office to use my computer, I bought a laptop & wireless to put on a small desk in the family room. Now I can work downstairs while my wife is nearby - as she is right now, ironing.

On the wall above my desk are two framed calligraphies that give me some peace when I look at them.

The first is a beautiful oriental picture of a low mountain peak, surrounded by forest, with a small man standing near the top, facing out. The calligraphy reads, "Heaven is my father and earth is my mother and even such a small creature as I find a place in their midst. Therefore that which fills the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature." Chang Tsai, 1020-1077.

The second has a vague blue-tinged background, somewhat like the thin clouds that sometimes obscure the view from a plane window. Hidden in the clouds and barely readable are 11 last names of families that had my wife as their faithful deacon for three years. The calligraphy overwriting the cloud background reads "It is a good thing to give THANKS unto the Lord and to sing praises unto your name, O Most High: To show your lovingkindness in the morning and your faithfulness every night." Psalm 92, 1-2.

God is a mystery, for sure. But for me, a comforting mystery that I have faith will someday be revealed, to my great amazement. To me, death is a doorway, not a black hole, and I will step through it with courage.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bicycle Races - The Good and the Bad

Europeans have long been enamored of bicyle races, chief among them the Tour de France, but bicycle racing is only in its infancy here in the states. Yesterday, I attended a series of races called the Rochester Criterium, which were held on a one-mile irregular circuit around downtown Rochester.

About 30,000 people showed up to view the spectacle which included four different races and lasted 6.5 hours. The afternoon races were for licensed amateurs, and the evening races were for women and men professionals. Around and around they went, flashing down the straights at up to 45 miles per hour, then slowing to a crazy fast pace to weave around the corners. Just as in the Tour de France, there was a pack and there were breakaways from time to time. The athletes, especially the professionals, were lean as greyhounds and pumped their pedals like brightly colored machines riding on top of machines. Interesting.

I attended the Criterium because my oldest son, now in his mid-forties, has become a bicycle nut. He trains and he races at the lowest level, but he's become engrossed in the fine points of bicycles, training, and racing strategy. Like any sport, cycling has complexities that boggle (or bore)the average person, and now I'm familiar with a few of them. But Kevin was in heaven as the various levels of racers went by us, so fast that they were a blur in my vision. Fortunately there was only one crash, and the fellow walked away with only abrasions, bruises, loose teeth, and $1,500 in damage to his bike. (One piece of trivia is that these carbon fiber bikes can cost up to $20,000.)

So, to sum up. Bicycle racing on a closed course resembles a rock concert with loud music and constant announcing - bring earplugs. The athletes are as conditioned as any I've ever seen, and the skill and strategy is apparent even to the uninitiated. The only downside is that most riding is done in tight packs, since "drafting" reduces effort by about 30% - anyone who takes off on his own is nuts. Hence, the race is won or lost in the last, final sprint as riders break from the pack and race pell-mell to the finish. It's all decided in a few long heartbeats, even though the race may have lasted two hours. Somehow this leaves me unfulfilled; it is much different than watching the drama of a two-hour marathon where individuals struggle and triumph or fade on their own in plain sight. But cycling is a different sport.

No, I didn't take my bike off the rack and take a little spin today. I'm saving my energy for the golf course, where I walk and incidentally, won my first round match play match on Thursday morning. Hooray! Old competitors never die.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Doing the Sunday Sermon

It's almost summer, and now is the time when preachers, finished with Easter and Pentecost and Sunday School teacher recognition, decide to take off a week. As they say, "When the cat's away, the mice will play." In the case of this mouse, that means I got to preach a sermon at someone else's church - a Methodist Church , no less! And this Sunday there will be an encore at my own church, since our minister is on vacation as well.

The Methodist invite was a "reciprocal". Our pastor took off the first Sunday of the year, January 7th, and after striking out with many potential substitutes, we chose to ask a friend of mine who is a "Certified Methodist Lay Preacher". He did a good job. Now his pastor took a day off, and payback time arrived. I don't have the official credential - just a lifetime of study and contemplation - and I've preached maybe ten sermons before this one. Not a very scary thing for me, and the response of the Methodists was positive. In fact, there was a Baptist minister in attendance (another preacher on vacation) and he gave me the "thumbs up."

I follow two rules when I preach: keep it simple, and keep it short. I remember that the Gettysburg Address took about two minutes for Abe Lincoln - and I'm no Abe Lincoln. So my sermon is titled "Simple Christianity", and it lasted 15 minutes. The text comes from the end of Matthew 22, where Jesus is asked "What is the greatest commandment?" Jesus answers (in short), "Love God, and your neighbor as yourself". Can't go wrong with this one!

Here is the conclusion of my sermon. "I’d like to conclude this morning by reminding myself and each of you that God has given us the freedom to choose – to choose to notice Him or ignore Him, to choose whether we will love our neighbor or only ourselves. God is right here and everywhere, in every moment, hidden in plain sight, waiting for us to take notice. Let’s choose to notice Him, to say “Thank you, God” all through the day. When we do, the Spirit will fill us, Jesus will walk beside us, and we will be joyful when we meet a neighbor who needs us. We will be a Simple Christian."

I've been studying religion my whole life, only to decide that most of what passes for religion is either legalistic speculation, organization/tradition justification, or money-grubbing avarice. Garry Wills, in his excellent book "What Jesus Meant", resonates with me when he writes:

"The most striking, resented, and dangerous of Jesus' activities was his opposition to religion as that was understood in his time. This is what led to his death. Religion killed him. He opposed all formalisms in worship - ritual purifications, sacrifice, external prayer and fasting norms, the Sabbath and eating codes, priesthoods, the Temple, and the rules of Sadducees, Pharisees, and Scribes. He called authentic only the religion of the heart, the inner purity and union with the Father that he had achieved and was able to share with his followers."

In the end, it seems to me that a person either believes in a creative and benevolent god who wishes to be noticed by creation - or in no opinion, no god or some flavor of that. I believe, simply because my senses tell me that my life and the universe around me is no accident. And people like Jesus and so many others have illuminated this idea far better than I, while rejecting the man-made baloney that masquerades as God-centered while actually being all about power.

Rodney King asked "Why can't we all just get along?" Well, we would if we truly could "Love God, and our neighbor as ourself". Some of my favorite blogger friends seem to be trying to live in this way! Thank you, God, for them.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bush Should be Impeached

Today I came across a letter of mine to the editor of Rochester's Times-Union newspaper dated July 21, 2003, four months after the March 19, 2003, invasion of Iraq. It was titled "Find Weapons Soon or Investigate Leaders". I had reluctantly support the invasion, convinced by Colin Powell - the only one in the government that I trusted - that Iraq was a real threat to the world. But by July, it was becoming evident that our government probably lied to us. Hence, I wrote this letter.

"As one who was convinced by the president of the United States, and his staff, that war with Iraq was necessary due to the "immanent threat" posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, I am deeply concerned by the failure of our forces to find these weapons.

The absence of these weapons, if confirmed, invalidates President Bush's rationale for starting this war. The international standing of the United States will be substantially diminished if they are not found, and the cost to the United States in lives lost and billions spent will be judged not to be worth the benefits to our country's security or national interest.

It is therefore essential that these weapons, if they exist, be found. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein, as despicable as he is, does not in itself justify our invasion of Iraq.

Our government must prove that Iraq posed an "immanent threat." If the weapons of mass destruction are not found in the near future, the American people's trust will have been violated.

At that point, an investigation should be initiated by congress to determine why our leaders led us into a war that should not have been fought."

We did not find the weapons of mass destruction. Our government lied to us. "Poor intelligence" is no excuse for what they did, because the president is in charge of intelligence and responsible for the errors. The cost to our country in international standing, lives, and money has been horrific and and will persist for many years.

If there has ever been, in the history of our country, an open and shut case for impeachment of a president, the lies leading to the invasion of Iraq is it. They should not be talking about building the "Bush Library". They should be talking about building the Bush Memorial Prison, where he and Cheney, Powell, Tenet, and Rice should spend most of their remaining lives considering their crimes against the United States.

If the democrats win total control of congress in 2008, the first order of business should be to put all these people on trial. The world must know that we are ashamed of what we did.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

My Mommy Trip

It's a beautiful day in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The flag is rippling gently in the wind, the sky is a deep hazy blue, and the overnight guests are trooping in and out of the Comfort Inn breakfast area, past the park bench where I sit writing my blog. I've begun another "Mommy Trip".

My mom is 86 and in great health, pretty and active. She and her 81 year old fourth husband (three have died) live in a single family home nestled in a retirement community that makes life pretty easy for them. She's busy taking care of her husband, painting pretty good watercolors (she's paints "people" very well), volunteering a bit, reading quality fiction, and staying in touch with her five children and their families. She has a good life that's likely to go on for quite a while. Yesterday she chatted with a 107 year old woman as one of her volunteer activities, and she thinks that person is old!

My primary purpose here is to get her husband on the golf course for five straight days so she can paint in peace. He's a golfaholic, and he thinks I'm his coach, which is probably right since he plays much better when I talk him through his shots. Nothing makes him happier than to put nice drive down the middle or get a par. I've had to convince him it's time to use the "senior" tees in order to make the course fair for a person of his age, and now he feels competitive again.

Soon I will leave for their home in order to accompany them to church. Then, after a quick lunch and a change of clothes, we'll head off to play nine holes. Later comes happy hour, then a quiet dinner, and I'll return to the Comfort Inn which seems more and more like home after many trips down here from Rochester. This is a relaxing time for me, a time when my overloaded life goes on hold for a few days.

My experience is typical of many baby boomers whose parents retired years ago and are now reaping the benefits of their many years of hard work in a booming economy. We watch over them like they once watched over us. We encourage them to stay active, to get their rest, and to monitor their health. We often see them get more inward-oriented as their interest in the world wanes - after all, they know their future here is rather limited. We hope they don't get a chronic condition that makes their last years or months a time of pain and worry.

I'm one generation away from my mom and step-dad, and probably from a life much like theirs. We are the fortunate ones, born into an affuent society at good time in history and insulated from much of the world where poverty and uncertainty reign. The big question is, did we use our good fortune wisely enough for posterity? Will our grandchildren and the grandchildren of others all around the world say that our generations built the future, or will they complain that we squandered their inheritance in wasteful, self-indulgent living?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Energy Bonanza, Not Crisis!

I mentioned in my last post that I'm reading Kim Stanley Robinson's "60 Days and Counting". It's about a fellow who is deeply involved in the U.S. government's attempt to counter the global climate change created by our excessive use of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution. Robinson is clearly a Renaissance Man who understands science, politics, human nature and the craft of writing, and it's a pleasure to turn the pages.

One of Robinson's points of view is that the oil interests have little incentive to promote alternative energy sources. He notes that oil, even at current high prices, appears to be a highly economical source of energy. Yet this apparent efficiency does not include the costs of mitigating the climate change effects of burning it, nor does it include the political costs of defending or maintaining its sources.

If burning oil raises the sea level by just one or two meters, the cost of lost property will be measured in the trillions of dollars. If we look at the cost of the Iraq war, we get a sense of how much money we spend to ensure influence over the oil producing countries in the Middle East. When these costs are added to the $3.00 or more we pay for a gallon of gasoline, the economy of oil decreases dramatically. However, the oil industry is indifferent to these externalities because the costs never hit its bottom line and its profits are addictively high. Those involved in it can't help but look the other way as their bank balances skyrocket.

This logic helps explain why our government is doing so little to promote alternative energy sources and energy conservation. It's been a mystery to me that, since 1979 when Jimmy Carter raised the alert about oil import risks, our government has not flexed its immense technological and political muscle to deal with the problem. Even today the action comes nowhere near the level of tepid rhetoric emanating from the White House. There is just too much money involved in maintaining the status quo. We should probably be amending Eisenhower's famous warning about the "military-industrial complex" by adding "fossil fuel" to it.

I have to admit that I've made quite a lot of money this year by investing in several U.S. coal mining companies. My economics background tells me that if I hadn't made that coin, someone else would have. Now I'm looking to invest some of those profits in companies that will hopefully make fossil fuel much less important to our economy, but it may be too late for us to avoid tragic outcomes due to climate changes already too far down the road to halt.

One investment sector that Robinson's novel would lead you to avoid is insurance companies, especially reinsurance companies. If climate change comes on with a vengeance, those companies will be wiped out unless they re-write their coverage to exclude their biggest risks. If they can do this, it's the coastal property holders who will see their investments melt like the arctic ice cap. Not a pleasant scenario either way, is it?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Reducing Me to Eight

I've been going through a dry spell lately. Personally, good things have been happening so it's not been my mood. However, I'm damn fed up with the war and just about everything about the Bush mal-administration makes me want to throw up - and I'm sick of writing about it. So I'm going to follow my friends RWorld and ThomasLB and do the eight things.

1. I've smoked cigarettes for 40 of the past 45 years, and I still do.
2. Last week I did 25 perfect military push-ups on a dare at the ambulance base.
3. My oldest son's birth certificate says that I was 16 years old and a university student when he was born. That's because I adopted him when he was seven and I was 23 and in school after the Army. Tennessee has some strange adoption conventions.
4. I sucessfully managed a very large systems organization without being able to write a single line of code.
5. I'm currently reading "Sixty Days and Counting", by Kim Stanley Robinson, who I really enjoy and heartily recommend to my readers.
6. Years ago I put a loaded shotgun into my mouth and my finger on the trigger. Then I thought about it for awhile and put it down. I became a different person.
7. One reason I believe in a God is that I think life would be pointless without one.
8. I've been there at the death of about 35 people in my ambulance work, so I have no illusions of immortality and I treasure every day.

That's all, folks!