Debate analysis

The setting for last night’s presidential debate was wrong. Donald Trump and Joe Biden should not have been standing at lecterns in a sterile auditorium. They should have been seated on stools at a bar. The moderator should have been serving them each a mug of beer every thirty minutes. The conversation, rhetoric, and debate would have sounded much the same, but the setting would have been more natural—two elderly white men discussing politics, sharing their opinions and perceptions, interrupting each other—a classic American scene.

President Trump was able to use the debate to make a few statements that have been ignored and unheard over the last several weeks. He was finally permitted to explain to the American people the distinction between solicited absentee ballots cast by mail and unsolicited ballots mailed out by the thousands. He had the chance to point out that worldwide figures for COVID cases and deaths are probably not reported equally—that many more cases may exist in China, Russia, and India than have been reported. He also indicated that the harm caused by the economic shut-down—as measured in drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, suicide, and depression—offsets the lives that may have been saved through the shut-down.

At the same time, Candidate Biden was able to appeal directly to the American people, repeatedly begging them to participate in the election. This reflects the concern of Biden and his supporters that Trump is more effective in motivating people to vote, while many of those who prefer Biden to Trump might not have the zeal to cast their ballots in this election. For that reason, Biden several times looked straight into the camera and addressed the voters at home, calling upon them to be sure to vote.

Some questions went unanswered. Did Donald Trump enter office following the slowest economic recovery since 1929 and turn the country around so that (before the COVID shutdown) it had its strongest economy ever? Or did the Obama administration begin an economic upturn that continued into the Trump years but was ultimately bungled by the Trump administration?

I found the segment on climate change particularly interesting. President Trump blamed the fires in California on poor forest management and refused to address the matter of climate change causing or worsening fires. Candidate Biden insisted that building new factories with lower carbon emissions would result in fewer storms and floods, ultimately saving money. In these examples, I believe that Trump’s statements were more scientifically valid than Biden’s statements.

If the format of the debates will continue to include two uninterrupted minutes from each candidate, followed by conversation, then the moderator ought to have a cut-off switch for both microphones to enforce that two-minute rule. Donald Trump and Joe Biden will continue to pepper each other with “that’s not true” and other exclamations; neither of them is going to change style at this point in the campaign. Enforcing the two-minute rule with muted microphones, applied equally to both candidates, might benefit the production.

On the other hand, serving beer and putting the candidates on barstools would also help define the nature of these presidential debates. J.

Not my family

I am sorry to say that I am not descended from the legendary Thomas Nathaniel Edwards.

I do have an ancestor who was named Fanny Edwards (with various spellings of her name) until she married. She was born in 1790 in Germantown, New York. She later moved with her husband to Virginia, where she died in 1852. Fanny was part of a community established in the Hudson River Valley in the 1600s, originally settled by the Dutch but later claimed by the British. My ancestors from that community include Dutch, German, and Irish settlers. Their colonial history is fascinating, although I have only bits and pieces of it so far. The family even includes soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War, so my daughters are eligible (if they do the required research) to join the Daughters of the American Revolution.

But, alas, Fanny was not the great-granddaughter of Thomas Nathaniel Edwards, in spite of some information in the historical records that places her within that clan. Fanny’s father was Richard Edwards—which is why she and her husband named their son Richard—and not the Aaron Edwards of Essex, New Jersey, reported by some researchers.

Sir Thomas Nathaniel Edwards, it is said, was born in Edwards Hall, Cardiff, Wales, on October 14, 1690. His parents were Sir George Thomas Downing, a Baron, and Lady Catherine Cecil, Countess of Salisbury. Moreover, Sir Thomas’ grandparents on his father’s side were Sir James, Earl of Salisbury, Cecil, and Lady Margaret Manners, Countess of Salisbury, who was born in London in 1648 but died in Paris in 1682.

Sir Thomas Nathaniel Edwards might as well have been a Nigerian prince. He was invented in 1925 by an intrepid group of investors who sought to convince members of the Edwards family in the United States that they were owed a great deal of money due to Sir Thomas’ investments on the island of Manhattan. According to what I’ve read, these investors created the Association of Edwards Heirs, sending out a regular newsletters to members and promising to divide the family fortune among Association members once the money was legally claimed. Millions of dollars were paid into the Association. Sadly, Sir Thomas, his parents, his grandparents, and even Edwards Hall in Wales never existed.

The Internet did not exist in 1925. Scams were already old news at that time. I doubt the hunt for the Edwards family fortune is still active, or that anyone is profiting from it. Apparently, though, some people are too stubborn to admit to themselves or to the world that their parents or grandparents were taken in by such a scam. Therefore, Sir Thomas continues to appear on historical records in this Internet age, leading many researchers to believe, at least for a time, that they have discovered an interesting branch on their family tree. The branch does not exist; it is pure fantasy. J.

A brief and pointless observation

One night last week I wanted to fill an hour with mindless entertainment and scanned the DVDs on the shelf for something that would be less than a feature-length movie but more than a half-hour episode. (Yes, I could have watched two half-hour episodes, but never mind about that.) On a whim, I grabbed my set of Van Dyke & Company DVDs and selected episode six. If anything brought about that particular choice (aside from ethanol-induced randomness), it was the Justin Timberlake song “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” that I have heard too many times on the radio in recent days.

Let me explain. For reasons that elude my thinking even on ethanol-clear days, Justin Timberlake chose to record and release a song that strongly resembles the disco anthems of the mid-1970s. Van Dyke & Company was recorded and broadcast in 1976 and 1977. Being a variety show, it had musical guests, and some of those musical guests performed disco music. Trying to understand why anyone would want to revive said music, I chose an episode that features a performance of one of the original perpetrators of disco music—namely, KC and the Sunshine Band.

Van Dyke & Company was more than just another variety show. Seventies television was crowded with variety shows—some of them great, including Carol Burnett’s shows, but many of them average to poor. Dick Van Dyke was already a very popular entertainer; he had hosted his own situation comedy (sitcom) and had appeared in classic movies such as Mary Poppins. Everybody knew Dick Van Dyke. Rather than create just another variety show, Van Dyke chose to risk a parody of variety shows. Several running jokes fed subtle humor into Van Dyke & Company. For example, Dick Van Dyke presented himself as a star who was completely in control of his own show, yet he continually found himself forced to change his plans by the producers of that show. (One of those producers, also a writer of the show, was the comic genius Bob Einstein, who also played his character Super Dave Osbourne in two of the episodes of Van Dyke & Company). In episode six, Dick Van Dyke complains to the studio audience and viewers about a letter received by the show claiming that he only provided space to popular music performers to enhance the show’s ratings. Van Dyke emphasized that he personally chose the music performers and was close friends to all of them; he then completely garbled the name of KC and the Sunshine Band, leading to corrections from off-stage by Bob Einstein. Later in the show, Van Dyke complained that the producers had promised KC and the Sunshine Band two musical segments; Van Dyke went on to say that he was not consulted about that promise and that he demanded the second musical segment for his own song. As he began his song, his seat was wheeled off-stage and a curtain lifted to reveal KC and the Sunshine Band, who proceeded to perform their second song—a disco anthem which repeatedly informed the hearer, “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.”

Andy Kaufman appeared on most of the twelve episodes of Van Dyke & Company. Any fan of Andy Kaufman should own the recordings of this show, since they include Andy Kaufman performing before audiences who did not yet know what to expect from his act. In this sixth episode, Andy appeared as a cowboy. Dick Van Dyke had already selected four volunteers from the audience before Andy appeared. When he came on stage, Andy started a record and convincingly lip-synced the performer on the record, who was leading four children in singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Part of the joke was that the four volunteers apparently had no indication, when they were chosen from the audience, that they would be expected to lip-sync parts of a song. Andy was able to appear totally in control of the act, to the point of pushing his four volunteers into place and backstage as they performed for the audience in the studio and at home.

Unintended (I think) additional humor contained in this episode lies in the fact that KC and the Sunshine Band were also lip-syncing their two songs, but Andy’s lip-syncing talents completely blew them out of the water. Especially notable are KC’s hands on the keyboards—he appears to be striking the same chord repeatedly throughout the entire song without any change in hand position. (Given the lyrics of the songs, it’s entirely possible that they also involved only one chord.) Andy’s lip-syncing as a joke contrasted with KC’s lip-syncing as a serious attempt to entertain made this episode of Van Dyke & Company even more amusingly surreal than the writers and performers had intended.

Viewing this episode did not help me to ascertain why Justin Timberlake would care to revive a style of music that quickly became obsolete and deserves to remain forgotten. This noon in the car I heard once again his rendition of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and I thought I could hear one of the background singers slipping into “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.” J.

Salvageable photobomb

A few years ago, I photobombed a street scene—not intentionally, but just by being at the right place at the right time.

I had given a presentation that morning, so I was dressed nicely—suitcoat, tie, and all that goes with them. I drove back downtown and was walking on the sidewalk toward my office. A car stopped on the street and three young women emerged—high school or college aged. Two of them posed on the sidewalk. Putting their feet close together, holding hands, arcing their arms over their heads, and leaning away from each other, they made the shape of a heart. The third young women snapped their picture, and then they entered a clothing store.

A professional photographer would have spent considerable time arranging the photograph, putting me in the right place to be framed by the heart, making sure the distances were perfect. But it happened so quickly that I could not duck out of the picture, and so I was centered in their heart. I’m sure they had a good laugh when they saw the picture. I wish I could have a copy of it… but I don’t know them and they don’t know me. Maybe they saved the picture; maybe they posted it online; maybe they discarded it. For me, it is merely a memory, the lunchtime when I did a photobomb. J.

Tropical depression Beta

I have already used all my tropical depression jokes. The rain began before dawn yesterday, brought by Beta, and it has continued right up to the present. The gentle splatter repeats drop by drop, minute after minute, hour after hour. Already autumn has begun. Mornings are dark and cool. We won’t change our clocks until November, in the senseless pretense that we are saving daylight to use in the evening. It would be easy to remain in bed, listening to the rhythm of the falling rain. But there are tasks to accomplish, deeds that must be done, and a tropical depression is no excuse to be lazy.

All year I’ve been working on a book about depression—the inner kind, not the weather kind. My working title remains The Child of Light and the Black Dog: Depression and Christian Faith. Thinking about depression, analyzing depression, describing and discussing depression: these are depressing things to do. The first draft is nearly done, but I expect to do a lot of rewriting, reorganizing, and other editorial work. Yesterday I tried to summarize the ideas found in The Dark Night of the Soul, and I realized that I will have to sit down and read the entire book again to be able to share it properly.

Last night I was reading in the family library. On a whim, I reached out and grabbed a biography of Ernest Hemingway and read the last fifty pages. His own story, as you may recall, does not have a happy ending. In some ways I relate to Hemingway—we were both born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, and both of us write. Of course his writing brought him fame and fortune, something my writing has not been able to achieve. He traveled and saw more of the world than I have seen. Also, I don’t own a gun. But I’ve read Hemingway’s novels and short stories. Even though we disagree about some important matters, I admire Hemingway’s ability to see the world and to describe it vividly. I also admire his ability to see into people’s thoughts and feelings and to describe them vividly too.

Twenty-five years after Hemingway died, his publisher printed an edited edition of one of Hemingway’s unfinished projects. Garden of Eden is a powerful novel, at least in its abridged form. It describes sordid and ugly actions by sordid and ugly people, but its narrative is not easily forgotten. Ten years ago a movie was made from the novel, although it was not widely distributed. I happened upon a description of that movie recently, which may have contributed to my impulse to read again about the author.

Many things combine to create a tropical depression. Clouds and rain and wind are only part of the story. We are what we eat; but we also are what we read, what we remember, and what we ponder. We cannot always choose our frame of mind; often it is imposed upon us. Some days we can do no more than take one step at a time, firmly confident that each step measures a little more progress toward our destination. J.

The first shall be last, and the last shall be first

On several occasions, in different contexts, Jesus swapped the first with the last. He said it both ways: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and also, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” In some contexts—such as the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which twelve-hour workers were paid the same amount as one-hour workers—Jesus seems to be saying that all are equal, that no one is first and no one is last. That approach appeals to contemporary culture, where much emphasis is placed on the equality of all people. But a more careful study of the words of Jesus in their context, and in the teaching of his Church, shows more significance to his saying than merely, “No one is first and no one is last because everyone is the same.”

Most of us want to be first. Few of us achieve the humility of Paul, who called himself “chief of sinners” and “least of the apostles.” But none of us deserves to be first. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all have failed to meet our Maker’s specifications. We all need to be rescued from our sins and from evil, redeemed from the cost of our misdeeds and failures, and reconciled again to God who made us. We cannot rescue or redeem or reconcile ourselves. We need Jesus to do these things for us.

Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father, and the entire universe belongs to him. He became human, like us in every way except that he never sinned. Jesus is first in a way that none of us can be first—first in divine power and glory, and first in human purity and perfection. When rewards are distributed for a righteous life, not only is Jesus first in line—he is the only one who deserves a place in line.

But Jesus, who is first, becomes last for all of us. By making himself last, Jesus makes each of us first. He puts us in the front of the line by surrendering his position to us. Being last, Jesus takes upon himself our guilt and our punishment. He goes to the cross for us so we can be rescued and redeemed. He takes for himself death, the wages of sin, so that each of us can receive the free gift of everlasting life.

God is not fair. He makes the first last, and he makes the last first. But God’s injustice is not opposed to us. God’s injustice is in our favor. Jesus is generous and does not complain that our reconciliation with God is unfair to him. Jesus gladly cheats the system, taking away our sins and giving each of us the blessings earned by his perfect righteousness.

The first becomes last to make all of us who were last into the first. No longer enemies of God, we have become the adopted children of God. In that sense we all are equal. But the first and the last trading places leads to more than equality—it leads to rescue, redemption, and reconciliation. Jesus has done this for us, because of his holy love for us. J.

Is virtue its own reward, or do nice guys finish last?

Yesterday afternoon I stopped at the bank on my way home from work. I put on my mask and got out of my car. A man who arrived in the parking lot just before me was getting out of his car; when he saw my mask, he realized he also needed to wear a mask and returned to his car. Closer to the door, I walked past a frail-looking white-haired woman with a cane. She was fumbling to get her mask adjusted. I could have gotten inside ahead of her. Instead, I waited at the door and held it open for her.

Two tellers were at their windows and there was no line. But one of the tellers was doing bank business on the computer and was not ready to work with customers. The woman I had allowed in front of me went to the other teller, and I waited in line on the red box, as the bank requires these days.

And I waited, and waited some more. The woman merely wanted to withdraw some cash from her checking account and also verify the balance in that account. But every step of this simple process took extra time, starting with finding her card and putting it into the banks machine. She had to take off her sunglasses, find her other glasses in her purse, and put them on. When the teller verified her balance, she asked also to confirm that another payment had already been processed. Even when she had gotten all the information she wanted and had received her cash, she continued to visit with the teller (who gently pointed out to her that other people were waiting in line). Still, she had to take the time to put her glasses back in her purse and put on her sunglasses before she left the spot in front of the teller.

I’m not complaining. I wasn’t in a hurry. I felt sorrier for the man who could have been in front of both of us, instead of fourth in line. (Another woman entered the bank behind me before he arrived with his mask.) But I did reflect on the choice I had made, holding the door open for a frail white-haired woman when I could have been first in line instead of having to wait. It further happened that, the instant the woman left and I took her place with the one teller, the other teller finished his task and called for the next customer.

“Virtue is its own reward” came to my mind. In a fairer universe, some privilege or blessing would have come my way because I held the door for the woman and let her enter the bank first. My courtesy was not rewarded; my time was wasted standing in line at the bank because of my choice to let her go first. A second phrase later occurred to me: “nice guys finish last.” Remembering that saying produced another rabbit hole to explore.

The saying is attributed to baseball manager Leo Durocher. I remember Durocher as manager of the Chicago Cubs, who for many years deserved their nickname of “America’s Lovable Losers.” Checking the Internet to see if Durocher indeed said, “nice guys finish last,” I discovered several boring and pointless facts. First, the saying is a brief summary of a longer statement he made about nice guys playing baseball and how they rank in the standings. Second, he did not say it about the Cubs; he said it about the New York Giants while Durocher was managing the Dodgers in 1946. Third, the expression “nice guys finish last” is linked to copious literature about human relationships and dating, including many scientific studies seeking to prove or disprove the adage that “nice guys finish last.” Connected to the saying and to the studies are observations that “nice guys” may be overlooked in the dating game, that “nice guys” often seem less assertive and confident and masculine than other guys, and that many men think they are “nice guys” when they are merely losers.

Not that any of this matters. More than anything else, I am flailing about, hunting for something to say on my blog, at a time when creative juices seem to have run dry. Not wanting to address the topics that preoccupy most of our minds (mine included) leaves me stuck in neutral, revving my engine at the red light, losing readers by my inactivity.

How is your day going? J.

On dying for your country

The movie Patton (1970) begins with a monologue by General Patton which is composed of statements he made at various times in speeches and letters. The movie makers combined these statements into a single speech to introduce the character of the general to the movie audience. One of Patton’s statements included in the monologue is, “I want you to remember that no [soldier] ever won a war by dying for his country. They won by making the other poor dumb [soldier] die for his country.”

President Trump appears to agree with General Patton regarding which soldiers are most successful. In fact, I strongly suspect that the President once quoted that line from the movie in the presence of some person or persons who misunderstood the context of the quote and exaggerated its impact when they repeated the line to a reporter. People who know the President insist that he did not make such a statement under the circumstances that have been reported. Even if, at some time, President Trump did speak those words that came from General Patton, such a statement would not have been meant as an insult to American soldiers who fought for their country and lost their lives on the battlefield.

Ideally, the armed forces of the United States should be so powerful and so respected that they do not have to fight. No other country would dare challenge our nation militarily. As President Theodore Roosevelt said, we should “speak softly and carry a big stick.” For that purpose, the United States trains and equips the members of our Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard so they can do their best, not only in wartime conditions but also in every other task that is required of them. Nevertheless, they risk their lives by doing their duty. We thank them, honor and respect them for their service to the country, and support them as well as we can both while they are in uniform and when they are veterans. We also honor those who lost their lives. We wish they had not died, but we honor and respect them and are grateful for their sacrifice.

President Trump frequently says things that jar the sensibilities of his audience. He did so long before entering politics; this tendency is part of the image he created and marketed, and his supporters expect him to continue speaking this way. When he quotes movies, his witnesses should at least have the presence of mind to know the origin and context of the quote. Failing that basic knowledge, they do not need to be telling reporters what the President said and what he meant when he said it. J.

Do you remember the Pepsi Challenge?

In the late 1980s, competition between the two largest brands of cola was fierce. Pepsi Cola ran a campaign they called “the Pepsi Challenge.” Their workers set up booths in public places and invited passerbys to taste two colas—Pepsi and Coke. The labels would be hidden, so samplers would not know which cola was which. They would take a sip of each cola and report which they preferred. According to Pepsi, a large majority preferred their product to that of their rival, Coca Cola.

I took the Pepsi Challenge once at the DuPage County Fair. After tasting both samples, I truthfully told the worker that they tasted the same, that I had no preference. However, I also stood by and watched them work. Each time someone agreed to take the challenge, the worker would pour about an ounce of cola from bottle A into a cup, then would pour the same amount from bottle B into another cup. The worker would then hand the cup from bottle B to the sampler, and after he or she had tasted that cola, he or she would receive the sample from bottle A.

No wonder more people thought they preferred Pepsi! Invariably, bottle A was Coca Cola and bottle B was Pepsi Cola. The Pepsi sample would always be fresh from the bottle still bubbling, while the Coke sample would have had a little time to go flat. The contest was rigged; yet, most people who took the challenge probably left the booth convinced that Pepsi tasted better than Coke because of that single experience.

People are easily fooled. Studies and surveys and polls offer copious amounts of information, but often they are skewed by procedures as subtle as the Pepsi Challenge. Average people are not often able to observe the way information is gathered the way I was able to observe the Pepsi Challenge. Professional surveys contain many kinds of data that help a person to determine the reliability of the results, but that data is not distributed as widely as the results themselves. Without that data (and knowledge of how to interpret it), a person has little chance to know which surveys and studies are accurate and which are rigged. Healthy skepticism is always recommended. J.

The oxymoron of subatomic particles

Science, like money, is a human invention that is very useful when used properly and very dangerous when misused. Both money and science can be very useful; on the other hand, a lack of either can be very problematic. Neither science nor money has the strength and significance to be the foundation of a person’s life. A human life based only on science, like a human life based only on money, is sadly crippled and unable to handle the crises that can strike a life emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

One of the strengths of science is also one of its weakness: science continually changes. The more effort people put into studying the world, observing the world, experimenting with things in the world, and making predictions based on those experiments and observations, the more likely it becomes that new theories will shape science and direct scientific inquiry on paths that, until that time, were unexpected.

Science was practiced in ancient Egypt, Babylon, India, and China, developing differently in different places. Western science (which drew upon scientific observations and theories from Egypt, Babylon, and India) began roughly twenty-four centuries ago with the philosophers of ancient Greece. Among their efforts was an attempt to determine the basic building blocks of the physical, or observable, world. One early philosopher suggested that everything material is made of water—a reasonable guess, since water can assume so many forms, from ice and snow to liquid water to vapor. Others suggested different basic materials rather than water. Pythagoras and his followers proposed that everything observable consists of numbers. Greek philosophers tended to seek internally consistent explanations of the world, even when those explanations seemed contrary to observation. One group, for example, insisted that motion is logically impossible and is only an illusion—that the true universe is stable and unchanging. Until the invention of calculus many centuries later, scientists and philosophers were not equipped to refute the logic that suggested that motion cannot happen in the world.

A basic teaching of western science since Greek times has been the assumption that all physical items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces. These were named “atoms” from the Greek word for “unbreakable.” For many centuries, most western scientists considered four elements to be represented among the atoms: water, earth, air, and fire. Alchemy—the predecessor to modern chemistry—observed and experimented with physical items with the assumption that all such items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces of water, earth, air, and fire. Modern western science would never have developed without the alchemists of medieval Europe. Far from living in “the dark ages,” the medieval alchemists were at the forefront of science, culture, and civilization.

Chemists eventually demonstrated the existence of far more than four elements—for example, that water is not a basic building block, but water can be divided into hydrogen and oxygen. As they continued to experiment and observe, chemists developed a series of mathematical relationships among the elements, re-suggesting the possibility that number is the most fundamental building block of the universe. Modern physics grew out of modern chemistry; roughly one hundred years ago, western scientists began to find particles that seemed to be building blocks even of atoms.

Understand that subatomic particles are an oxymoron. Atoms are supposed to be unbreakable—the word “atom” was created to communicate that important idea. Finding that atoms contained protons, neutrons, and electrons changed the rules of science; evidence of quarks and other subatomic particles continued the process of demonstrating that atoms, though important, are among the worst-named ideas in all of science.

Huge powerful machines have been built to study the tiny pieces of atoms. Smashing atoms to observe their particles has been compared to smashing an old-fashioned watch to try to guess how it functions. One scientist, Leon Lederer, joked that God “seems to be making it up as we go along,” since every layer of discoveries suggests a new layer of tiny pieces even smaller than those already demonstrated.

Scientists continue to study the world, to try to understand how things work. They observe and experiment, not only with subatomic particles, but with viruses and other disease-causing agents, medicines, genetics, and the climate of the planet. Sometimes most scientists agree with each other about how things work; other times their research seems to contradict the research of their peers. We are all familiar with the constant revision of nutritional studies—first eggs are good for us, then they are bad for us, then they are good for us again. The old tradition of individual scientists plugging away in their laboratories to manage great discoveries has long been supplanted by teams of scientists funded by government grants and by corporate investments. Political agendas and the hope to generate a financial profit inevitably shape the work of today’s scientists. Their work is important and should not be curtailed; but every scientific discovery must also be accepted with the proverbial grain of salt. That salt is as important an ingredient as any other contribution to scientific investigation. J.