Field of Dreams

Spring begins this weekend, and a young man’s thoughts turn to… baseball. Spring training is underway, and the regular season approaches quickly. With that, the time has come for me to review my favorite movie involving baseball. Warning: spoilers abound in the following paragraphs.

Field of Dreams, made in 1989, is about baseball and about much more. It is about pursing one’s dreams. It is about reality and how poorly we notice what is truly real. It is about the relationship of parents and children. It is about two hours long.

Ray Kinsella and his wife, Annie, own a farm in Iowa. With their daughter Karen they live in a farmhouse next to the cornfields. One day, as Ray is inspecting his corn, a voice tells him several times, “If you build it, they will come.” Ray has visions of a ballfield and of the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball because of his association with gamblers. In spite of his doubts, Ray plows under some of his corn and invests the family’s savings to build a baseball field. He installs a small set of bleachers behind the first base foul line. There is no outfield wall; the corn begins where the ballfield ends.

Many months pass before the ballfield receives its first mystical visitor. One evening Shoeless Joe Jackson appears. Ray hits a few fly balls to the outfielder and then throws some batting practice. Joe reminds Ray that seven other White Sox players were banned from the game. Ray assures Joe that they are all welcome.

Meanwhile, Ray and Annie are facing financial hardship. Annie’s brother Mark offers to help them by buying the farm from them. Annie was willing to consider his help until Joe appears. Ray and Annie discover that Mark is unable to see the baseball players; neither can Mark and Annie’s mother. Ray is delighted being able to hang out with the baseball players, but then he receives a second message: “Ease his pain.”

A meeting is held at the school. Some parents are demanding that certain books be removed from the curriculum, particularly books written by Terence Mann. Annie defends Terence Mann, one of her favorite authors from the 1960s. Ray concludes that he is supposed to ease Terence Mann’s pain by driving to Boston and taking Mann to a baseball game. When he does so, Mann is skeptical and even hostile toward Ray. Reluctantly he attends the game with Ray, where Ray receives a third message: “Go the distance.” On the scoreboard, statistics are given about a former ballplayer, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one inning of one major-league game in 1905. Ray decides to drive to Chisholm, Minnesota, to meet Graham. Surprisingly, Mann decides to accompany him.

Throughout these occurrences, Ray reveals to Annie and to Terence Mann that he regrets being alienated from his father, who has since died. In Minnesota, Ray and Terence Mann learn that Graham became a doctor, a pillar of the community of Chisholm, but he has also been dead for years. When Mann learns from a newspaper that his father has reported his disappearance to the police, Mann telephones his father, and Ray goes for a walk. He finds himself walking the streets of Chisholm in the year 1974, where he encounters an elderly Doctor Graham. Graham invites Ray to his office and reminisces with him about his brief baseball career. Ray comments that some people would consider coming that near to their dream and having the experience end as a tragedy. Graham replies that if he had only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, that would be a tragedy. He declines Ray’s offer to visit the ballpark on Ray’s farm.

The next morning, on their way out of Chisholm, Ray and Mann pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a youthful Archie Graham looking for a place to play baseball. He accompanies Ray and Mann to the farm, where the three of them discover that Joe Jackson has invited other deceased players to join him on the field so they can play ball. Graham is welcomed to join the other players.

The next day Ray, Annie, Karen, and Terence Mann are watching the players on the field. Archie Graham takes a turn at the plate. Shortly thereafter Mark arrives. He tells Ray and Annie that they are delinquent on their mortgage and are about to lose the farm. Terence Mann gives a moving soliloquy about the importance of baseball and promises Ray that “people will come” to his magical baseball field. In his exasperation at Ray’s seeming lack of concern about his financial predicament, Mark accidently knocks Karen off the bleachers. She lies on the ground, not breathing. Annie is ready to phone for an ambulance, but Ray’s eyes turn to the field. Young Archie Graham rushes to help. An instant later, the elderly Doctor Graham is tending to Karen. She was choking on a piece of hot dog, but the doctor revives her. Only then does Ray realize that Archie will not be able to play baseball again, but the doctor assures him that he doesn’t mind. He then walks off, disappearing into the corn.

Terence Mann is invited to explore the unknown with the baseball players through whatever spectral gate exists in the cornfield. Ray objects, but he is reminded that his family needs him. With the help of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ray learns that the man catching in the ballgame is his father, now young and living his dream of playing baseball. Ray introduces his father to Annie and Karen. The two men are seen playing catch as a line of cars is revealed approaching the field, carrying those people that Terence Mann promised would come.

The movie succeeds on many levels. The themes of baseball, finding one’s dreams, accepting alternate realities, and loving one’s family are skillfully intertwined. The movie is filled with memorable scenes: a debate between Annie and another mother about Terence Mann’s writings, Mann’s initial refusal to let Ray take him to a baseball game, Doctor Graham’s conversation with Ray in the doctor’s office, baseball players emerging from the corn and disappearing into it again, and Mark striding across the field oblivious to the baseball game happening around him. The script, the scenery, and the soundtrack are all superb. Many of the exchanges of dialogue are classic lines: Shoeless Joe asks Ray, “Is this heaven?” and Ray responds, “No, it’s Iowa.” Mann says to Ray, “You’re seeing a whole team of psychologists, aren’t you?” Ray, watching to find the gate in his cornfield protests that he has taken so many risks and done so much work to provide the ballfield, “and I’ve never once asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’” “What are you saying, Ray?” Joe asks him, and Ray shouts back, “I’m saying” (pause) “’What’s in it for me?’”

Even the casting is superb. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella. Costner also played a minor league catcher in 1988 in Bull Durham, and he would go on to play a major league pitcher in 1999 in For the Love of the Game. Amy Madigan plays Annie, and Gaby Hoffmann plays Karen, one of several little-girl roles she portrayed around that time. Ray Liotta is Shoeless Joe Jackson, Timothy Busfield is Mark (Annie’s brother), James Earl Jones is Terence Mann, and Burt Lancaster is Doctor Graham.

Field of Dreams is based on a book, Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. The book is good, but the movie is excellent. The book includes several additional characters: Ray has a twin brother named Richard, whose location has been unknown for years until he appears at Ray and Annie’s door. Ed Scissons is the farmer who sold Ray and Annie the farm; he claims to have pitched for the Chicago Cubs and to be the oldest surviving member of the ballclub. Instead of Terence Mann, the writer whose pain Ray seeks to ease is J. D. Salinger. By replacing Salinger with a fictitious writer, the moviemakers managed to avoid a lawsuit and also were able to have some of W. P. Kinsella’s best lines in his book written or spoken by Terence Mann in the movie.

The book explains why Mark is eager to buy the farm from Ray and Annie. It is not merely that he wants to help his sister and her family; Mark and another investor want to take several small farms and make one large agricultural establishment, streamlining production by removing all the fences and farmhouses, and mechanizing farming. This sort of thing was happening at the time in Iowa and other states. The book also makes clear that Ray and Annie’s financial difficulties were not caused merely by an acre or so of corn being used for a baseball field—the real problem is that Ray used all the family’s money to buy supplies and equipment to build the field, and now they cannot pay their debts. In the book, Ray visits other ballparks on his way to Boston, and he and Terence Mann and Archie Graham also break into the ballpark in Minneapolis to frolic on the field late at night.

More significantly, in the book much time passes between the return to the farm and ballpark and the key events involving Mark, Terence Mann, Karen, and Doctor Graham. The movie condenses those events into a single day, which is important for a reason I am just about to explain.

Before I do, however, I must again marvel over the many little touches with give the movie depth and authenticity. In a store Ray asks another farmer if he has ever heard voices in the field; that farmer and the others in the store stare silently at Ray while the overhead radio plays Beverly D’Angelo singing “Crazy.” While Ray is fretting over hearing voices and wondering what it means, Karen is watching the movie Harvey on television—when he recognizes the movie, Ray quickly clicks off the television. As Terence Mann rides in Ray’s van at night after the ballgame, the neon sign with the word “Books” is briefly reflected off the windshield in front of the writer. From all these details, I know that the moviemakers did on purpose what I am about to describe.

In Chisholm, Doctor Graham tells Ray that he mildly regrets never getting to bat in the major leagues. He reflects that as the pitcher went into his windup, he would wink at the pitcher as if he knew something the pitcher did not know. In Iowa, when Archie Graham gets to bat, he winks at the pitcher, Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte. In response, Knuckles’ first two pitches are aimed at the vicinity of Archie’s head. Shoeless Joe gives some friendly advice to Graham, who swings at the next pitch, flying out to right field. His teammate at third base then scores, beating the right fielder’s throw to the plate.

In baseball, when the ball is hit in the air, the runner must then touch the base where he was when the ball was hit before advancing to the next base; otherwise, the fielding team can throw the ball to the fielder where he was, and the runner will be called out. Once he has touched the base after the catch, though, the runner can advance, hoping to make it to the next base before the ball can be thrown to the fielder at that base, who would otherwise tag the runner out. When a fly ball is hit and caught and the runner advances, the batter is not charged with an official at bat. In other words, Archie Graham still does not have an official at-bat although he has helped his team to score a run. This play is called a sacrifice—signaling what the good doctor will do shortly to save Karen’s life. J.

On thanking God

In the Bible, Christians are told to be thankful. Sometimes Christians blame themselves or one another for not being thankful enough. More startling, however, are the times when nonChristians complain that Christians are too thankful.

A friend of mine at church has mentioned this situation more than once. When she expresses her gratitude to God for some small blessing, a coworker accuses her of being arrogant. If she has prayed for something—such as good weather for an outdoor event, for example—and what she requested happens, her coworker says it was just coincidence. This coworker insists that thinking that God manages the weather according to our requests shows extreme arrogance and a self-centered nature.

This week a WordPress friend of mine had a similar experience. Authentically Aurora describes in this post how a parking spot appeared to her benefit at the end of a trying day. She regards that event as an answer to prayer, and she expresses her thankfulness to God. That post leads to an interesting conversation in the comment section in which another poster suggests that in a world filled with suffering and misery, thanking God for a parking spot is petty and strange.

I added my two cents worth to the comments there, but I wanted to expand my words to a nickel’s worth of pondering. A nonChristian may struggle with this thought, but God is real, and he has a genuine interest in every human being. God knows everything, he can do anything, and he is eternal, without beginning or end. Unlimited by time, he can pay intimate attention to every human being. Jesus assures his followers that God knows even the number of hairs on each of our heads. If God remembers that number and keeps track of that number—especially for those of us with diminishing numbers that change each day—surely a parking spot or a sunny afternoon is not too small for God to handle.

But sometimes it rains, even upon church picnics. Isn’t a sunny afternoon merely a coincidence unrelated to any Christian’s prayers? Whether or not that is the case, I see nothing wrong with praying about what we want, even about the weather. More to the point, I see nothing wrong with thanking God when good things come our way. Lack of gratitude would be highly inappropriate in a Christian who believes that every good gift comes from God and that we all were created to thank, praise, serve, and obey God.

Why, then, do Christians not solve all the world’s problems through prayer? Why not ask for enough food for every person so that no one would starve? Why not ask for an end to all wars? Why not ask that all people be protected from floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters? Christians do, in fact, pray such prayers. God does provide enough food on this planet to feed everyone living here—if some people do not have enough, that is the fault of people who have more than enough but who refuse to share what they have. Only God knows how many wars God has prevented or shortened, how many disasters God has withheld or reduced in power, or how many ways God provided other kinds of help when he chose to permit poverty and war and other calamities.

I’ve addressed the complex problem of why God allows any problems at all to happen here. In summary, God allows suffering so we see the true face of evil and prefer to turn to the good. Moreover, God has entered the world and endured suffering himself, taking on himself the consequences of evil so he can share with us the consequences of his perfect goodness. As I commented to Aurora, it saddens me when people will blame the-God-in-whom-they-do-not-believe for the world’s problems, and then they criticize believers when we thank God for good things.

I don’t expect ever to win the lottery. Chances of winning are slim for those who buy lottery tickets; they are slimmer yet for people like me who do not buy lottery tickets. I have imagined, though, what I would do should I happen to win the lottery—perhaps one day I will pick up a scrap of paper in the grocery parking lot that turns out to be a multi-million dollar winner, or perhaps a lottery ticket as a gag gift at a workplace Christmas party will turn out to be the winner. I’ve considered writing a novel based on my fantasies of winning the lottery, and in that novel my character would thank God publicly for the blessing. He would do so very carefully, trying not to offend anyone. He would make it clear that he does not believe that he was given a winning ticket because he deserves it more than all the other people who bought lottery tickets. He would regard the blessing of much money as an opportunity and obligation to do good things with that money and to use it to help people in need. But still he would be thankful. He would say, “I thank God when the weather is good. I thank him for green lights on the way home from work. I thank him every day for my wife and for my children. This does not mean I think that I am better than people who endure bad weather, people who are stopped by a string of red lights, or people who are unmarried or childless. I thank God for my health and for the blessing to live in a land of relative peace and safety, but this does not mean that I think I am better than people who are ill or people who live in war-torn lands. I would be an ungrateful wretch if I did not thank God for the good things that I have. In that spirit I thank him for this gift, and I ask him for the wisdom to spend it properly.”

As a Christian, I look to my Father in heaven for all good things. I ask for good things for myself, and I ask for good things for other people. When good things happen, I am grateful. I don’t thank God as much as he deserves for the good things I have received and for the many ways I have been protected from evil. And I confess that I do grumble at times about the problems that I have, small as they are compared to other people in this world. Among the many gracious qualities of God is his loving willingness to overlook my flaws and to accept my tiny expressions of thanks and praise. I await the ability to thank and praise him in a better way when I meet him face-to-face. J.

Taxation

The Christian attitude toward taxes is set in the New Testament. Jesus said, “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give God what is God’s.” Paul wrote to the Romans, “If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Christians living in a democracy can do more, though, than pay what they owe. They can advise their leaders on the topic of taxation, they can choose their leaders according to their statements about taxation, and they can speak and write to shape public opinion about taxation.

Taxes are part of the social contract between government and its citizens. Citizens surrender some property to the government in the form of taxes, and the government provides benefits for its citizens in exchange for that property. Benefits can include armed forces to protect the nation from attack and police forces to protect communities from crime. Using tax dollars, governments build and maintain roads, finance schools, and provide parks, museums, libraries, and community centers. Tax dollars maintain the judicial system in which criminals are prosecuted and (if found guilty) punished and by which two parties can settle their differences without resorting to physical attacks on one another.

Taxes can take many forms. In a head tax, every person pays the same amount. In a flat tax, every person pays the same percentage of his or her income. In a graduated tax, wealthy people pay a larger percentage of their income and poor people pay a small percentage (and some of them pay no income tax). Tolls are collected from people as they use highways or bridges. Import fees and export fees can be charged on products when they cross borders. Sales taxes can be assessed when products are bought and sold. Fees for licenses to own a car or a gun or a pet are taxes. Money paid for a marriage license or a fishing license is a tax. Landowners pay taxes on their land. Investors pay taxes on their profits. Even money won through gambling is taxed.

Governments assess taxes for several reasons. The most obvious reason is, of course, to gather money for government services. However, taxes can be used to discourage some kinds of behavior and to encourage other kinds of behavior. Taxes on tobacco and on alcohol discourage people from smoking and from drinking. Taxes on gasoline might motivate drivers to drive less or to purchase more efficient vehicles. On the other hand, capital gains are taxed at a lower rate to encourage people with extra money to invest in businesses that provide jobs.  Property taxes on industrial land frequently are reduced or eliminated when a city or state wants to encourage companies to build new facilities that will provide jobs.

Taxes sometimes have unintended consequences. Some years ago a state wanted to raise more money to cover unemployment benefits, and it wanted to raise that money by taxing only wealthy people. For that reason, the state government enacted a special sales tax on luxury yachts. To avoid paying that tax, the wealthy people in that state decided not to buy new luxury yachts. Because yachts were not being bought, the yacht manufacturing companies had to lay off workers. Instead of raising money to cover unemployment benefits, the state’s yacht tax only increased unemployment.

An increase in the gasoline tax causes an increase in the price of a loaf of bread. Farmers need gasoline to operate their machinery when they plant the seeds and when they harvest the grain. Then the grain must be driven to the mill, and the flour must be driven from the mill to the bakery, and the bread must be driven from the bakery to the store. No one in this chain of production is willing to pay more for fuel while receiving the same amount of money for their work. The cost gets passed along the line until it reaches the man or woman who is buying the loaf of bread. By the same token, other taxes on products and the producers of products only raise prices in the stores. Governments that tax the factory owner may think that they are taxing the wealthy, but they are only driving up prices for all people, including the poor.

Many citizens would like to pay less money for taxes. To achieve that, they have to be willing to have the government provide fewer benefits to its citizens. Other people want the government to do more for its citizens. They have to be willing to pay higher taxes. Any request to have the government do more to help one group of people while asking another group to pay for the service with higher taxes misses the point. People pay taxes willingly only when they know they are getting something for their money. Again, this is part of the social contract.

On its own, a tax is neither good nor bad. It just is. The value of a tax comes from the government’s ability to use tax dollars to provide citizens with the services they want. Politicians who want to be elected sometimes promise to cut taxes without reducing popular services. Others promise to provide more services without raising taxes. They rarely keep these promises if they are elected. Sometimes politicians who have been elected threaten to cut funding for popular programs (or actually do cut that funding) until citizens object, funding is restored, and taxes are not reduced. If I were running for office, I would never make a promise I couldn’t keep. If I were elected, I would be responsible with your tax dollars; I would not play tricks with them or waste your money. J.

 

Is Donald Trump the Antichrist?

One day last week one of my coworkers asked me if it is possible that Donald Trump is the Antichrist. Her question was no idle jest. She knows that I have theological training, and she is concerned seeing Trump attracting such great fervor in so many people. She wanted seriously to know if there is any danger that the man, Donald Trump, who could become President of the United States next January may be the Antichrist.

I gave her a short answer, but I will expand here upon what I told her. To know whether or not Donald Trump is the Antichrist, we must compare Trump to the description of the Antichrist in the New Testament. Jesus, for example, calls the Antichrist “the abomination of desolation” (Matthew 24:15). Paul calls him “the man of lawlessness… who opposed and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the Temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (II Thessalonians 2:3-4). John wrote, “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that Antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us…” (I John 2: 18-19), and, “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (I John 4:3). In the book of Revelation John describes the Antichrist as a beast that rises out of the sea, is given power by the dragon (Satan), is worshiped by the world, makes war on the saints, and speaks blasphemies against God and against all who dwell with God in heaven (Revelation 13:1-10).

Although it is tempting to try to match these descriptions of the Antichrist to Donald Trump, a bit more research makes the connection unlikely. The “abomination of desolation” is more than a powerful insult; it is a technical phrase from the book of Daniel that refers to false religion being imported into God’s Temple. Some of the kings of Judah brought false gods into the Temple, with the final result of the Babylon siege to Jerusalem which brought about the destruction of the first Temple. Antiochus IV, who called himself Epiphanes (implying that he was a god in human form), placed his statue in the Temple in Jerusalem; but Antiochus himself was humbled and destroyed, and the Temple was cleansed and rededicated. The trial and condemnation of Jesus in the Temple might be considered abomination of desolation; other crimes were committed in the Temple in the following years, and that Temple was destroyed by the Romans forty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Since that time the Temple has not been rebuilt. Some Christians believe that the Antichrist cannot do all that is said of him until another Temple has been built. They overlook the fact that Paul—who said that the Antichrist would take his seat in the Temple of God—also wrote, “Do you not know that you (plural) are God’s Temple (singular) and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (I Corinthians 3:16), and , “we are the Temple of the living God” II Corinthians 6:16), and also, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy Temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:19-21).

The Temple, then, is the entire body of believers in Jesus Christ, the Holy Christian Church. In this Temple the Antichrist will arise and claim authority. (“They went out from us, but they were not of us.”) In this Temple the Antichrist will claim the authority that belongs only to God, demanding the worship of all people and making war on the true believers in Christ. After all, in Greek, the prefix “anti-“ means not just “opposed to” but also “in the place of.” The Antichrist is a phony Christ, a replacement Christ, one who tries to remove Jesus from the lives of Christians and tries to take the place of Jesus in their lives.

Even as John wrote, there were many antichrists. Since that time many more have arisen, deceiving people by the dozens and sometimes by the hundreds. Jim Jones and David Koresh are antichrists of recent memory. The Antichrist, Paul’s man of lawlessness and the beast of Revelation, will deceive people by the millions. That spirit of deceit, rising from within the Church but denying Christ, was in the world when John wrote and is still in the world today.

Donald Trump claims no special authority from the Church. He might appear to want to be worshiped—his opponents might even say that he thinks that he is God—but his focus is on political power, not on spiritual power. He seeks to live in the White House; he would not say, as Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

I can think of reasons not to vote for Donald Trump, but fear that he will become the Antichrist is not among those reasons. Should he prevail in the Republican primaries and then be elected President in November, it will mean changes and adjustments for some people—probably for a lot of people—but it won’t be the end of the world. That end is coming, but not because of Donald Trump. J.

 

Saving Private Daylight

A few days ago I noticed Mrs. Dim at work in her garage. She was undertaking an odd carpentry project. She had ten six-foot 2×4 boards. One by one, she sawed six inches off the right end of each board as it lay on the sawhorses, and immediately she glued the six-inch piece of wood to the left end of the same board.

I usually don’t like to talk to Mrs. Dim while she is working on a project. In fact, I usually don’t like to talk to Mrs. Dim at all. Curiosity got the best of me, though, and I went out to ask her what she was doing. With a look on her face and a tone in her voice that communicated, “Isn’t it obvious?” she answered my question with these words, “I’m saving wood.”

I didn’t ask any more questions. I didn’t want to know any more answers. As Americans prepare to change their clocks again this weekend, observing a tradition we call “Daylight Saving Time,” I wonder how much daylight will be saved this year. I also wonder what other silly things Americans might to just because our government tells us we should do them.

The last few days the sun has already been in the sky when my alarm woke me. It was easier to get out of bed and start the day in daylight. Next week it will be dark when my alarm wakes me.

In some parts of the country the sun will not reach high noon until 1:30 in the afternoon.

The cats will not understand why the family bed times and meal times have suddenly changed. It will take them a week or two to adjust to the new schedule. In fact, it will take all of us a week or two to adjust to the new schedule. Then, in November, we can adjust our schedules again.

At least the government has put the change of clocks in the first half of March. When I was younger, we changed our clocks on the first weekend of April. Often that first day of Daylight Saving Time was Easter Sunday. Getting up early for the sunrise service was made even harder with one less hour to the night.

Daylight saving time was first instituted during the Great War, also known as World War I. This clearly shows the connection between the practice of Daylight Saving Time and governments generally doing foolish and harmful things. Congress ended Daylight Saving Time after the end of the war, only to have it reinstated during World War II. Again, the practice was suspended after the war, only to reappear once again in the 1960s, when Americans were doing a lot of other strange things. In the 1970s and 1980s Americans tried to save daylight all year long, but the country chose to waste daylight during the winter beginning in 1986, shortening the wasteful period by five weeks in 2007.

I do not feel as if I have been wasting daylight since last November. How changing my clock this weekend will save any daylight is beyond my comprehension. I will do it, of course, because my employers do it and my neighbors do it and the television stations do it. Even the church does it. A few people will forget, though, and will show up during the closing hymn. At least the service they miss won’t be the Easter service.

When, oh when, will madness end? J.

 

A squirrel, a truck, and a scandal

This morning I chased a squirrel away from our birdfeeder three or four times in less than ten minutes. The birdfeeder is outside our kitchen window, roughly twelve to fifteen feet above the ground. Every time I chased the squirrel, he leaped (or leapt) toward a large oak tree several feet away from the house. Of course in leaping he plummeted several feet down before reaching the tree. Each time, though, he managed to cling to the trunk before scampering away in one or another direction, only to return again to the birdfeeder when he thought I wasn’t watching.

Other bloggers might try to make some Life Lesson from this event, something about leaping to safety or clinging to the tree. What ran through my mind this morning was completely different. Each time the squirrel jumped, I saw him follow the same parabolic arc. I learned about that arc in high school math and physics. Every unsupported object near the earth is drawn by gravity toward the earth. The speed of the fall accelerates, so unless the object is falling straight down, its path will be a parabolic arc. I remember the physics teacher explaining that if an archer shot an arrow at a monkey sitting in a tree hundreds of yards away, and if the monkey dropped from the tree at the instant the arrow left the bow, gravity would pull the moving arrow and the dropping monkey at the same rate. If the archer had aimed directly at the monkey, the arrow would reach the monkey, and its path would be a parabolic arc.

It’s unlike me not to try to find some Life Lesson about the leaping squirrel. Usually I’m good at creating analogies from any situation. I remember one event some years ago. Several of us were riding in the bed of a pick-up truck. I noticed how we could see the road behind us, where we had been. We could see other places where we had not been. We could not see where we were going. Life is like that: we observe where we were, and we see what might have been, but we know far less about where we are going.

I was thinking about that analogy as I drove to my counseling appointment. I brought a book with me, because I usually have twenty or thirty minutes to kill in the waiting room before the counselor is ready to see me, and I don’t care much for the television news shows. Around the middle of the session, my counselor remarked, “You look tired? Did you sleep poorly last night?”

I frowned. “Not that I recall.”

“Well, is something bothering you today?”

I thought for a minute. “I can’t think of anything that’s bothering me.”

“Are you angry or irritated about something?”

“No, I’m sure that I’m not.”

“Are you not feeling well today?”

“I’ve had a little minor sinus pain, but nothing serious.”

The counselor then changed the subject, and I didn’t think much about the exchange until I was driving to work after the session. Why would my counselor think I might be troubled or angry? I glanced at the book I had been reading: In the Arena by Richard Nixon. In the pages I read in the waiting room, the former president had discussed Watergate: myths about the scandal that people have written and others have believed, what really had happened so far as Nixon knew, the mistakes he had made, and the double standard he perceived in the way he was treated compared to the treatment given other American politicians.

I can be intensely involved in my reading. I suspect that, without knowing it, I had carried Nixon’s Watergate problems into the session with me. I may be wrong about that, but it’s the best theory I can find.

Other bloggers would try to combine the leaping squirrel, the ride in the pick-up truck, and the Watergate scandal into one neat package. It would be quite a trick, but I’m sure it can be done. I’m sorry to say that I’m not having that kind of day where things knit together into one neat package. Feel free to share if you can combine these anecdotes into one Life Lesson. J.

The social contract

All people have rights. When we all try to exercise our rights at the same time, we fall into conflict. Therefore, we make an unspoken agreement with one another. We surrender some of our rights to the government, and we give that government the power to protect our remaining rights. Which rights we surrender and which we maintain—that is the difficult question. Nations differ from one another in their answer to that question, and citizens within nations argue with each other about the answer to that question.

Like many ideas of western philosophy, the idea of the social contract has its roots in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. The idea first reached its full structure in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. All three agreed that government is a necessary evil. All three wanted to see the size and the power of the government limited. Hobbes even compared human government to the Biblical monster, Leviathan, writing that it must be tamed as much as possible, because things would be worse without it.

All people have rights. Locke summarized these rights as life, liberty, and property; in the Declaration of Independence of the United States, Thomas Jefferson rephrased the third right as “the purfuit of happineff.” (All his Ss looked like Fs—Stan Freberg.) Governments exist to protect the rights of their citizens to life, liberty, and property; they do not exist to take these rights away. Locke, and later Jefferson, said that when a government fails in this basic duty, citizens have an additional right to take power from their government and give it to a new government. Locke saw that very event happen twice, first with the end of the Puritan Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and later with the Glorious Revolution bringing William and Mary to power in Great Britain in 1689. Jefferson was, of course, key in seeing the same thing happen in the British colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America.

All people have a right to life, but government can deprive a murderer of life, since that person has deprived someone else of life. All people have a right to liberty, but government can put a convicted criminal in prison to protect its other citizens. All people have a right to property, but the government can take property away from some people in the form of fines if they have broken certain laws. Citizens surrender to the government the power to seek, capture, convict, and punish criminals rather than having each citizen responsible for defending his or her life, liberty, and property all the time.

In additional ways, citizens surrender liberty and property to the government for the greater good. (In times of war, some citizens even risk their lives for the good of their country.) Many people want to travel between City A and City B. If each citizen made his or her own path between the two cities, many property rights would be threatened, and the environment in general would be harmed. With the agreement of the citizens, the government claims a strip of land between the cities, giving the owners of that property due value. The government then builds a road on that strip of land. The road belongs to the government, by agreement of all the citizens. Therefore the government can charge people money to use that road, whether through tolls or through gasoline taxes or through fees paid for vehicle licenses and drivers’ licenses. Because the government owns the road, and make and enforce rules about the road, such as speed limits, stop signs, and laws against littering. Citizens agree to use the road and to obey the rules. This is how the social contract works.

In every family, parents could teach their own children; or groups of families could band together to provide private schools for their children. However, the citizens living in a town or city have an interest in seeing that all the children are in school, both to keep them out of trouble and to prepare them for useful lives in the future. Generally in the United States public schools are funded largely by property taxes. Even households without children and families which homeschool or send their children to a private school pay for the public school, because it is in everyone’s best interests to send the neighbor’s children to school. This is how the social contract works.

Taxes are a visible result of the social contract, but most political controversies also concern the social contract. Governments decide how best to protect the lives and liberty and property of all citizens. Sometimes, however, the rights of two people conflict, and the government must decide which right to protect or how to compromise the conflicting rights. Does a child’s right to life deserve more protection than the right of the child’s mother to liberty and the pursuit of happiness? If so, when does that right to life begin—at conception, at birth, at some arbitrary time between conception and birth, or perhaps a certain number of years after birth? Americans disagree with one another about the answer to that question, as do the members of the American government. Because of the social contract, the government must provide and enforce some kind of answer.

In socialism, the government owns all businesses and industries and decides how much workers will be paid and how much products will cost. Socialist governments generally charge high taxes and then provide many services for free. These can include public transportation, education, medical care, and even housing. In capitalism, private citizens own business and industries. Those private citizens decide how much workers will be paid and how much products will cost. Taxes are lower, but people must pay for things that they need and want. Even in capitalism, though, a social contract exists. Citizens trust the government to inspect factories for the safety of the workers and the quality of the products (such as food and medicine) that are produced. Citizens trust the government to regulate industries to reduce pollution, noise, and other problems. Citizens trust the government to make laws about child labor, limits on how many hours of work a worker must perform each day and week, and even minimum wage rules. Some liberty is surrendered to the government for the good of workers and of customers. People debate the details of such regulations, some wanting more and others wanting less regulation, but very few people want absolutely no regulation of privately-owned businesses and industries.

Human life requires food and shelter. To protect the right to life, should a government guarantee that every citizen has access to food and to shelter? Locke and Jefferson would have said “no,” but today American government provides unemployment compensation, food stamps and other welfare programs, and low-rent government-owned housing. Citizens object to abuses of the welfare system, but few would say it ought to be abolished. Most Americans are willing to see some of their tax money spent to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and care for the poor people who are our neighbors.

Access to health care is also necessary for human life. Since the 1960s, American citizens have debated heatedly the question of government involvement in the nation’s healthcare system. Most Americans are opposed to socialized health care in which the government owns all the hospitals, medical clinics, pharmacies, and other health care institutions. In socialized healthcare the government pays the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care professionals. That same government sets rates for medical procedures, making the most essential procedures available for free to those who are poor. Most Americans prefer capitalism in health care. Most Americans do not want governments to own the entire system. Most Americans want doctors and other professionals to have freedom to do their jobs in the way they think is best. Most Americans want freedom to make their own choices among doctors, hospitals, and the like. Americans disagree with one another about how much the government can control the health system through regulation. The goal of government participation in health care is to protect the right to life of poorer citizens. However, the same government participation reduces the liberty of doctors and patients, and reduces the property of citizens who must pay taxes to support the system. Discussion of what compromises should be made among these conflicting rights is part of the social contract.

On another occasion, I will write more about taxation and the social contract. J.

 

First Friday Fiction: Tom Haven Takes a Leap

“Please don’t jump,” I begged Tom Haven. “Don’t do it. Nothing is worth it.”

“Only one person can talk me out of it,” he snarled back at me, his face contorted with fear or anger or mix of the two—I couldn’t be sure which. “You go get her, Allen.”

“Oh, no, Mr. Haven. I can’t do that,” I answered. “You know she’s been through too much already.”

“Do it, Allen,” he insisted. “Do it, or I’ll jump.”

Now that I have your attention, I have to back up and tell you who Tom Haven is and who he wanted me to get, to try to talk him out of jumping. Along the way, I have to tell you who I am and why I was there that day. And I have to explain where we all were, so you understand why I was desperate to keep Tom Haven from jumping.

Let me start with what I know best: myself. My name is Allen Dean. I’ve been working for Mr. Earnshaw since the day he opened his business. Mr. Earnshaw is an investment counselor, which means that he tells people what to do with their money so they end up with more money. The first year it was just him and me. Now he has eight other people working for him too. At first I was his secretary. Then I was his personal assistant. Now I am his office manager. Mostly, though, I answer the phone and take messages for Mr. Earnshaw or for the other counselors. I schedule appointments. I help the counselors remember their appointments. I even keep the books and write the checks from the business account, which is kind of funny, since I’m the only one in the office who never took a class about how to manage money.

Mr. Earnshaw says that he hired me for my voice. He says I have a fine voice for answering the phone. I give people confidence that they are dealing with professionals. At first we sat in the same room, me and Mr. Earnshaw. The phone would ring. I would answer it. A man or (sometimes) a woman would ask to talk to Mr. Earnshaw. I told them I would see if he was available. I would wait about half a minute. Then I would say, “Here is Mr. Earnshaw,” and I would hand the phone to him. After a while he had enough work to do that we needed to be in separate offices, and I really did need to interrupt him to see if he could take a call. Then, as he became even more successful, he began hiring young people just out of school, and I was in charge of taking messages for all of them. When a new person called, I needed to make a quick judgment about which counselor to assign to them. Part of my decision was based on who was least busy, but I also needed to guess if the caller wanted a counselor who was friendly and had a sense of humor, or whether he (or she) wanted a counselor who was all business and matter-of-fact. Mr. Earnshaw says that I’m a good judge of people. He says that my first impressions are almost always right. He says that’s why he’s kept me in his company all these years.

I told him once that he should advertise with the slogan, “Earn more with Earnshaw’s.” He just laughed and said that my slogan didn’t sound professional. His business does a little advertising, but not much. I know this, since I write all the checks. Mostly we get new clients through word-of-mouth. We have a very good reputation in Memphis.

I’m sorry to leave you dangling through all this exposition, as the writers call it. I’m sorry to leave Mr. Haven dangling too. But you had to know something about the work that we do so you can understand who Mr. Haven is. You see, most of our clients like the kind of financial counselor who is friendly and puts them at ease. Most of the agents that Mr. Earnshaw hires have just that kind of approach. Don’t get me wrong. They’re all very good with numbers, especially numbers about money. They understand taxes and investments and a thousand other things that are over my head. But when Mr. Earnshaw was interviewing one year, he found Tom Haven, a serious young man who had graduated at the top of his class. He had no skill for putting people at ease or trying to find out about their personal life. That made him exactly the kind of man that Mr. Earnshaw wanted. More and more of his clients wanted that all-business approach. Tom Haven is very good at what he does—dealing with money—and it shows. When I pick up the phone and talk to a client, if I get the sense that they only want to talk business, I transfer them to Mr. Haven’s line.

The company has moved three times since Mr. Earnshaw and I sat in our one little room. The last time we moved, about six years ago, we ended up in a very nice office building in Memphis. We have the entire fifth floor—offices for each of the counselors, a desk out front for me, two meeting rooms, and a staff room with half a kitchen and a coffee-maker and a table for eating lunch. There’s also a small bathroom. Mr. Earnshaw has a second private bathroom off his office, which of course is bigger than all the other offices.

A few feet in front of my desk is a glass wall with a door in it. The door has the name of the business, “Earnshaw and Associates,” stenciled on it. Through the door and the wall I can see the elevators that connect the floors. To one side of the elevators—to my left as I look through the glass—is an atrium that runs from the top of the building down to the main doors at street level, five floors below. People who come in the doors off the street and walk to the elevator cross through this open space. The floor of the atrium is some kind of hard stone. It’s not even carpeted. There’s a guard rail between the lobby and the atrium on our level and on every other level of the building. The rail is just two pieces of polished wood held up by a metal frame. The wood is waist-high, maybe three feet above the floor.

When I came back from using the bathroom this noon, I looked through the glass and saw Mr. Haven sitting on that wood, his feet dangling into the openness of the atrium. That’s when I rushed through the door and asked him what he was doing. When he said, “Life has just gotten too complicated. I don’t want to deal with it any more,” that’s when I begged him not to jump. And that’s when he told me that only one person could keep him from jumping.

Of course I knew who he meant. Jessica Green is another financial counselor who works for Mr. Earnshaw. She and Tom Haven are opposites in some ways. Where he is cold and business-like, she is warm and friendly. Where he seems to have no personal life and no interest in anyone else’s life (apart from their money), she always knows about family members and birthdays and other personal things. Not only is she charming, she is also beautiful—not in a glamorous way, like an actress or a model, but in an approachable way, like every man’s girl-next-door. I think that when she came in to be interviewed by Mr. Earnshaw, every man in the firm prayed that she would get the job. Our prayers were answered, by God or by Mr. Earnshaw, I don’t know which. Most of the men flirt with her a little bit from time to time, but that was OK, because she was happily married and we all knew it. She didn’t exactly flirt back, but she was friendly with everyone, and nothing anyone said in the office ever seemed to bother her.

If you were paying close attention, you might have noticed that I said she was married. Something terrible happened last year. Her husband was murdered, right in their own home. Two police officers in uniforms with guns in their holsters got off the elevator that Tuesday morning and came through the glass door and asked me to take me to her office. They didn’t tell her right away that her husband was dead. They just asked her to come to the station with them. I don’t know, but I think they might have thought that she killed Brad, being that she was married to him and he was killed in their house at night. We didn’t find out about the murder for a few more hours. Everyone was asking me what happened, what the police wanted with her, and I couldn’t answer. The funny thing was that, from the police station, she called Tom Haven, and he went down there to get her. I never could figure out why, out of all of us that might have helped her, she chose him. But people do strange things when they are under stress. Like Tom Haven, still dangling on the wooden rail fifty or sixty feet above a hard stone floor, patiently waiting for me to get through all this exposition so the real story can be told.

I hope you can understand why I said what I said to him, that she’d been through too much already. But when he told me that I had to get her, I figured I didn’t really have a choice. I ran back to her office. “Miss Jessica, Miss Jessica,” I called to her even as I was entering. “Mr. Haven is sitting on the rail by the elevator. He says he’s going to jump. He says you’re the only person who can talk him out of it.”

“What?” Mrs. Green asked, her eyes opening wide. I had to repeat it all again. Then I added, “Should I call the police, Miss Jessica?”

“No, don’t call the police,” she answered. “I’ll talk with him.” Calmly she began walking down the hall toward the lobby.

“Are you sure I shouldn’t call them?” I asked. I was almost hopping, trying hard to slow myself down to her pace. “I think they have people who are trained for things like this.”

“No, calling the police is not going to make anything better, and it will probably make things worse.” Then, as I started to say maybe I should call anyhow, she added firmly, “Allen, do not call the police. Whatever you think, just don’t call them. I can handle this.”

By the time she reached the lobby, two other partners of the firm had gotten off the elevator and were talking to Mr. Haven, although I don’t think he was paying much attention to either of them. Besides that, two others had heard parts of what I said to Mrs. Green, and they also joined the crowd that was gathering in the lobby. I didn’t think I could add anything to the conversation, so I sat at my desk and watched through the glass. I kept looking down at the phone, wondering if I should dial 911 in spite of what Mrs. Green had said. She told me she could handle this, but how could she be so sure?

I guess I understand why she doesn’t want the police involved. I know she had a frightening experience with the police the day her husband was killed. You can hardly blame them for considering her a suspect, but I don’t think they were very nice about it, even after the other woman came in to the station and confessed to the killing.

Mrs. Green went to her parents’ house for two weeks after the murder. When she finally came back to work, she was not as lively and sparkling as she had been before. We all understood. We left her alone as much as we could, and we tried to act like everything was perfectly normal. She had no trouble picking up her work and taking care of all her clients. I don’t know what she did nights and weekends. That was none of my business.

Mr. Haven went with her to the trial, which had all of us in the office scratching our heads and wondering. She had to testify about her husband’s murder, and I’m sure she had to answer some pretty grueling questions. The newspapers didn’t report much about the trial, aside from the fact that the killer said she was acting in self-defense. Whatever reason she had for being in the Greens’ house, and whatever involvement Jessica Green had with the whole event, the newspapers didn’t say. The whole thing was done in a day. The jury reported their verdict—not guilty because of self-defense—the evening of the trial. Mrs. Green went to her parents’ house again for a few days. By the time she was back at work, we were all very good at pretending that nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

But none of us really believed that everything was just the same. I could feel the tension in each member of the staff. The men who used to flirt with Mrs. Green were far more reserved. Her smile, especially for the first few weeks, was more forced and had less sparkle. Mr. Haven, though, showed the biggest change. He glanced her direction every few minutes throughout the day, although he looked away just as quickly if she happened to be looking his way. He did not speak to her often—perhaps even less than he had done before—but I could see that he listened carefully every time she spoke with someone else.

Finally I took him aside and gave him some advice. “Everyone knows that you’re fond of Mrs. Green,” I said. “Go ahead and ask her out on a date. The worst she can do is say no, but she’s likely to say yes. There’s no harm in asking. And she probably needs someone to show some interest in her, after all the bad that’s happened to her lately.”

Nothing changed, and so two weeks later I visited with her. “I know you’re just getting the pieces of your life back together, and I know this is none of my business, but I think you should give Mr. Haven a little encouragement. He’s a nice man, and he thinks the world of you. I’m not saying that you should plan on marrying him, but let him know that you’d be willing to go out with him a time or two. He’s dying to ask you, I’m sure, but he’s very shy, you know. Drop a hint that, if he asks, you would say yes.”

She smiled at me, a sad smile unlike those she used to flash. “Thank you for the advice,” she said, but her face added the message, “It really is none of your business, so don’t bother to say anything like that to me again.”

Mr. Haven appeared more likely to listen, so I talked to him again. “You should ask her out,” I urged, “and you really need to be more careful around the office. When the other men talk to her, try not to look so jealous. I thought you were going to hit Mr. Carson yesterday, and all he did was tell a little joke to try to make her laugh. If you’d be brave enough to talk to her yourself, you wouldn’t need to worry about what anyone else says to her.”

Yes, all these things went through my mind as I watched the group in the lobby grow. Everyone from the office was there now except for me and Mr. Earnshaw. I knew that Mrs. Green was talking to Mr. Haven, although I couldn’t hear her voice over the murmur of the other men and women from the office. If they were talking to Mr. Haven, he didn’t seem to notice. He was speaking to Mrs. Green, I could tell, but the crowd and the glass made it impossible for me to hear any of the words he spoke.

Twice my hand began to reach for the phone. It would be easy to dial 911, to report what was going on, and to get some professional help into the building before it was too late. Both times, though, I remembered how serious Mrs. Green had looked as she said to me, “I can handle this.” I was worried for Mr. Haven, but I had to trust her word that she really could keep him from jumping.

Mrs. Green had always enjoyed decorating her office and the hallway for the holidays. This time, when Halloween came, none of her usual decorations appeared. Some of the other members of the staff put out a few things, but it wasn’t the same without her contribution. To everyone’s surprise, Mr. Haven actually brought in a few autumn decorations, something he had never done before. The rest of the staff eyed his effort and exchanged a few smiles and winks, but no one said anything to him about it.

We had a full week off for Thanksgiving. Some of us traveled to be with family, and others hosted holiday banquets in our homes. We knew that the next few weeks would be busy, as investors rushed to carry through their plans before the end of the year. Since we would have another week off at Christmas, we were trying to do about double a week’s work each week between the two holidays.

It seemed to me that something changed somehow during that Thanksgiving week. Mr. Haven did not stare at Mrs. Green in quite the same way, although I could not identify exactly what had changed. Maybe it was that he did not look away as quickly when she looked his direction. Maybe it was that she seemed almost to smile and invite his attention. As Christmas drew near, he again startled us all by putting up a few decorations. Mrs. Green also did a little decorating, although it was nothing as elaborate as what she had done the year before.

Then came the Friday-night Christmas party before our week of vacation to end the year. Mrs. Green arrived in an elegant sleek black dress. No man in the room could keep his eyes off of her. She was actually cheerful, happier than any of us had seen her for many weeks. Only one man in the group stayed away from her. Wherever she went, Mr. Haven seemed to be at the opposite end of the room. He did not seem unhappy, but he did seem to be trying his best to avoid her. He was the first to leave the party. She was the second, heading out the door just five minutes after he had gone. One or two of the staff made a small comment about his behavior and her behavior, but the party was still in full swing, with plenty of other things to occupy our attention.

January came, another of our busy months. Toward the end of January, Mr. Earnshaw asked me, “Allen, is it just my imagination, or are Jessica and Tom both eating out for lunch more often than before? And does it seem to you that they are both gone at about the same time?”

“I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, Mr. Earnshaw,” I said, although my mind was less confident than the words I spoke.

Early on the morning of Valentines’ Day, a vase of flowers was delivered to her at the office. She took the card, read it, smiled, and locked the card in her desk. Everyone else noticed the flowers and commented on them. “Oh, they’re from a secret admirer,” she breezily replied. Mr. Haven was the only person who said nothing to her about the flowers, but he did not seem upset or jealous.

The next month, Mrs. Green came to work with a large plastic shamrock in her hair and a smile on her face more radiant than any I could remember. Once again, as with the Valentines’ flowers, she maintained an air of mystery. I watched Mr. Haven closely, but if he was hiding any secret, he hid it too well for me to find. Speculation ran wild through the office, but Jessica Green just kept on smiling and laughed at any guesses that she heard. Mr. Haven kept himself busy taking care of his accounts all day long.

And now, only two weeks later, he was sitting on a ledge threatening to jump and demanding to speak with Jessica Green. She was out there, talking with him, and all the other people from the office were crowded around, witnesses to the conversation. Suddenly I heard a shout, muffled by the glass. I stood quickly, dreading the worst—I reached for the phone, but missed. My hands were shaking so badly, I doubt that I could have managed to hit the right numbers if I had the phone in my grasp.

Before I could find it again, I realized that the men and women in the lobby were not frightened or worried. In fact, they were laughing. Some were calling out, “Congratulations!” Others, still laughing, were saying things like, “You really had us going,” and, “I should have remembered it was April First.” As they came through the door, one of them was saying, “Her I would have suspected, but who would have guessed that Tom would pull such a prank?”

Sitting down, I breathed out a gust of relief. Tom Haven had not jumped off the rail to drop five floors onto the stone floor. Instead, he and Jessica Green had used April Fools’ Day to announce their engagement. They walked through the doorway, arm in arm, and she showed me the ring he had just put on her finger. “It’s lovely,” I said, “and congratulations to you both. But if you ever pull another stunt like that, I’ll… I’ll push you over the edge myself!”

Seasons change

“The winter is forbidden ’til December/ And exits March the second on the dot./ By orders summer lingers through September/ in Camelot.”

I doubt that I would be fully happy in the climate-controlled world of Camelot as described by Lerner and Lowe. I enjoy the surprise of an unexpected snow in October or in April. Moreover, I prefer autumn weather to summer heat, so I wouldn’t choose to have summer linger through September.

However, part of my family routine is to mark the change of the seasons by the wreath on our front door. We have a patriotic, red-white-and-blue wreath that goes on the door during Memorial Day weekend and remains until Labor Day weekend. It is then replaced by a wreath with colorful plastic autumn leaves which stay on the door until around the first of December. Our winter wreath has evergreen and pine cones and stays on the door until the second of March. Every second of March, on the dot, the winter wreath is replaced with a spring wreath that has little yellow plastic flowers which match the flowering bush in our front yard.

This change of seasons on our front door runs about three weeks ahead of the calendar change of seasons, the changes which fall on the solstices and equinoxes in December, March, June, and September. In the United States of America the social season of summer traditionally starts with Memorial Day weekend and ends with Labor Day weekend. Both weekends are known for an extra day off of work and often are celebrated with family picnics, cook-outs, and other seasonal outings. By matching the change of seasons on the front door with those social customs, we naturally shift the other two changes to the start of Advent in the Christian Church and to the end of winter in Camelot.

March is said to come in like a lion and to go out like a lamb. I can remember frigid and snowy starts to March, and I can remember Marches that began with thunderstorms and heavy rain. I can also remember warm, sunny, calm beginnings to the month of March. Like other weather traditions, the lion-and-lamb theme is unreliable, but it is fun to remember the tradition and to pretend that it is true.

April showers, they say, bring May flowers, and that tends to be true in New England and in the upper Heartland states. Ask any child what May flowers bring, and the child will either give you a puzzled stare or respond with the correct answer, “Pilgrims.” Migrating birds respond more to the length of the day than to the weather; sometimes they have to deal with ice and snow at their springtime arrival. Onion skins and wooly caterpillars are supposed to indicate the severity of the coming winter, but they also are wrong as often as they are right.

If the weather was entirely predictable, we would have less to discuss with each other. Aside from catastrophic floods, droughts, and winds, the weather is a useful conversation-starter. It also provides enduring memories. I can recall a Christmas with temperatures in the seventies and another Christmas when the temperature remained below zero degrees-they were exactly one year apart. I can remember when the first warm day of spring happened to be Easter Day, and I remember being trapped for hours in traffic during an evening snowfall on Valentines’ Day.

Perhaps Camelot would not have ended in such frightful disputes if the knights and ladies could have spent their time commenting on the unseasonable weather. J.