Home again

 My family adventure of the last nine days contains three highlights: meeting my granddaughter, driving many miles, and seeing the Grand Canyon.

  1. Those of you who have met a grandchild for the first time already know what I would be describing. The rest of you might or might not understand. Either way, words fail to convey the most important moments of a voyage that lasted slightly more than two hundred hours.
  2. The voyage, from driveway to driveway, was roughly 1,900 miles, or a bit more than 3000 kilometers. We were in five states but saw license plates from 46 states (missing only Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Vermont). We experienced open highways and construction delays. We saw spacious skies and also drove through heavy rains in northern New Mexico and Arizona. (Who ya gonna call? Drought-Busters!) We observed smoke and ash from western wildfires. Our trip included mountains and canyons, hills and valleys, prairies and deserts and conditions in between, oaks and pines and mesquite and sagebrush and cacti (clearly planted in crop rows) and corn and alfalfa. At one point we drove through the region where Apollo astronauts practiced walking on the moon. (Only on the last day of our voyage did it occur to me that, at roughly the same time fifty-two years earlier, three men spent nine days in a little metal box so they could walk for an hour or two on the surface of the moon. They had no rest stops, no restaurants, and no motels—just a long trip in a small metal box.) We saw the Hoover Dam and Area 51. I stood—not at a corner, but in a gas station—in Winslow, Arizona. We should have turned left at Albuquerque.  
  3. When we told people back home that we planned a side trip to the Grand Canyon, they assured us that we would be amazed and astounded and awed. That concerned me—when people tell me how to feel, I often feel the opposite. But viewing the Grand Canyon was memorable and impressive. Rather than merely driving there and looking around on our own, we paid to join a tour group that traveled from Flagstaff, Arizona, up to the South Rim and back. Our driver and guide was a geologist who also leads hiking and rafting tours through the Grand Canyon. He drove us to six different locations on the South Rim, giving us twenty or thirty minutes at each location to view the Canyon and explore the area, while he parked the vehicle and then met us again, sparing us much of the hassle that many tourists face in that National Park. A generous lunch was included in the package, and our guide was able to share copious information about the geology, history, flora and fauna, and significance of the Canyon and its surrounding area, including personal anecdotes and observations. He mentioned, for example, that most of the deaths at the Grand Canyon are the result of heat and dehydration, not from falls into the Canyon. The guide said that an average of five people a year die in the Grand Canyon but that there have already been ten deaths this year. (A later Internet search gave an average of twelve deaths per year at the Grand Canyon, but that statistic included aircraft crashes and drownings in the Colorado River.)

For the journey, I brought books from my long-term reading plan and also drafts of writing I hope to publish. I found little time for the latter project, but I did keep up with my reading. Ironically, before going to sleep the night after we visited the Grand Canyon, my reading included the following selection from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five: “…and Billy was flung back into his childhood. He was twelve years old, quaking as he stood with his mother and father on Bright Angel Point, at the rim of the Grand Canyon. The little human family was staring at the floor of the canyon, one mile straight down. ‘Well—’ said Billy’s father, manfully kicking a pebble into space, ‘there it is.’ They had come to this famous place by automobile. They had had seven blowouts on the way. ‘It was worth the trip,’ said Billy’s mother raptly. ‘Oh, God—was it ever worth it.’ Billy hated the canyon. He was sure that he was going to fall in. His mother touched him, and he wet his pants. There were other tourists looking down into the canyon, too, and a ranger was there to answer questions. A Frenchman who had come all the way from France asked the ranger in broken English if many people committed suicide by jumping in. ‘Yes, sir,’ said the ranger. ‘About three folks a year.’ So it goes.” J.

God bless America

This weekend citizens of the United States of America celebrate the 245th birthday of our country. Plans are already being formed for our Sestercentennial, our 250th birthday celebration in 2026. Any year, the Fourth of July is a national holiday, a day to rejoice in the blessing of being Americans. We rejoice because our celebration commemorates, not a war or battle or military victory, but an idea. Our country was founded on the premise that all people are equal, that we possess human rights, that freedom benefits us all and is something worth celebrating and worth sharing with the rest of the world.

I am not ashamed of the United States of America. It is my country. I thank God for it, and I pray that God would continue to bless it. The USA is not perfect. Many times, we have fallen short of our goal of providing liberty and justice to all people. We cannot erase the mistakes of the past, but we can hold to our national principles and work for a better future. We learn how to work together as a nation, even though at times we disagree with one another. The America I love is based on certain truths. They may not be self-evident to all, although Thomas Jefferson once wrote that they are. But the truths of freedom, equality, and justice come from God, and these truths apply to all people, not just to some people.

Our human rights—call them life, liberty, and private property—are God-given rights. They do not come from our government. Instead, our government exists to protect and preserve those rights. If our government fails to do that fundamental job—if it ignores those rights or tries to rob us of those rights—we have an additional right to alter or replace that government. If each of us fought for our own personal rights, protecting our lives and liberty and property from one another, chaos would result. Therefore, we join together and respect a government that defends us from enemies abroad and enemies at home, from nations that oppose our freedom and criminals that would cheat us of what is ours. In defending our human rights, the government is consistent with God’s Ten Commandments, which protect (among other things) our lives, our marriages, our personal property, and our reputations from the sins of others.

In addition to protecting and defending these rights, the government also provides for the general welfare of its citizens. By common agreement of the majority, the government provides (on its own or with the cooperation of private organizations) highways and other transportation, hospitals, schools, libraries, museums, parks, and recreation facilities. Citizens willingly surrender land to build these facilities and tax dollars to operate them; then, citizens are free to use them or not use them. If the way these facilities are operated begins to infringe upon our rights as citizens, we are free (and obliged) to alter them or replace them. We elect leaders and advise those leaders about how many government services we require or desire and how much freedom and property we are willing to surrender for their existence. Although citizens disagree with one another about public services and about their funding, we continue to work together to form a functioning society, compromising when we must and convincing others when we can, doing what is best for ourselves and for our neighbors (never thinking only of ourselves and our individual wants and needs).

A truly just society protects and defends all human lives. Care for the young, the elderly, the sick, and the weak begins in the family. It extends into the community, especially into faith-based communities. The government might connect needy people with resources in their community; it might even supplement the help available some communities to protect and defend lives. As the government also seeks to protect and balance other human rights, a truly just government never overlooks the most basic human right, which is the right to life. When a child is born to parents who do not want him or her, or who are unable to care for him or her, connections can and should be made with families or other institutions who will provide that child with the care and upbringing he or she needs.

A truly just society keeps a watchful eye on medications and on other substances that may be abused to the harm of its members and their neighbors. The government does not prohibit substances that can be used safely, but it regulates the use of dangerous prescriptions, striving to ensure that they are prescribed and taken properly and safely. It prohibits all substances that cannot be used, even in moderate doses, without harm to the user. The government penalizes people who knowingly sell and distribute dangerous substances to the harm of others. At the same time, it connects addicts and other damaged persons with the care they need to recover from their problems and overcome their addictions. Meanwhile, moderate and appropriate use of those substances that can be consumed safely is not prohibited or penalized. Lawmakers must keep themselves informed of the latest research regarding medicines and other dangerous substances.

A truly just society protects its citizens from criminals bearing dangerous weapons without restricting the right of law-abiding people to own weapons. Once again, law-makers will need to be informed about what weapons are available, what persons are shown to be at high risk for access to such weapons, and what provisions can be made for care and treatment of those who might be dangerous due to poor health rather than due to criminal intent. No doubt compromises will need to be reached between the extremes of comprehensive gun control and unlimited access to weapons. These compromises might be accomplished on a regional basis rather than at a national level.

A truly just society protects and defends marriages, which are best defined as one man and one woman who have made a lifetime commitment to love and support and honor each other. Along the way, a government might help to preserve friendships without judging the quality of those friendships or interfering with their privacy. Where marriages do not exist, friends should be allowed to share their property with one another, to make friends their heirs, and to give friends legal rights of visitation while sick, representation in financial matters, and the like. Sexuality is—and should remain—a private matter, not a concern of the government. Sexual interests and preferences should not be material for public discussion and debate. Even while defending freedom of speech and expression, governments should be allowed (on a local level) to limit and restrict discussion and description of matters that are considered private and personal, offensive, or obscene. Families, businesses, and other community organizations should be allowed to block broadcasts and transmissions into their property of material that violate their private and personal values.

I cannot imagine, let alone defend, a society that encourages and perpetuates confusion about gender. The vast majority of people are born with information that they are either male or female recorded in their chromosomes contained in every cell of their bodies. They are born with organs that match that chromosomal information. Rather than permitting or encouraging people to attempt expensive surgery, hormonal treatment, and therapy to change their gender, society should help people to accept and embrace the genders with which they were born. The tiny percentage of people born with a birth defect causing genuine confusion deserves medical and therapeutic help. The rest of us accept the bodies we were given and help others to do the same. People before, during, and shortly after puberty already face enough challenges, including confusion about who they are as male or female. Permitting, even encouraging, them to contemplate changing their gender at such a time only magnifies trouble and confusion; it solves nothing.

A truly just society allows successful entrepreneurs to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but a truly just society also does not force other citizens to remain trapped in poverty. Taxes that support the work of the government remain fair for all people, not robbing the rich to give to the poor, nor lining the pockets of government bureaucrats. Assistance to the poor begins in the family and community but is supplemented by government assistance when needed. Such assistance may include temporary provision of food and shelter, but it also includes education and job training, access to information about available jobs, and community renewal. Employers are encouraged through government incentives to create jobs, to train and educate workers, and to provide those workers with benefits beyond their hourly salary. Help that flows from the centralized government is applied at a local level by resident citizens who perceive how best to assist their neighbors and improve the quality of life for their city, neighborhood, and the surrounding area.

A truly just society places few limits on the freedom of speech and expression. Deliberately dangerous and harmful communication is regulated, as are deliberate and harmful slander, libel, and other lies. Beyond these few limitations, governments allow communities to set and enforce their own standards of speech and public discourse. People can ignore messages that are obscene, hateful, or otherwise provocative. Open discussion of political matters is encouraged, not limited or censored. Artists of every kind are allowed to practice their arts, as their communities recognize and reward talent while ignoring and marginalizing poor and inappropriate expressions described as art. Companies that distribute individual expressions internationally are not permitted to censor their contributors on the grounds of political opinion or other controversial standards. Such companies have the right to limit obscenity, incitement to violence, or deliberate falsehoods, but beyond such limitations their control over the work of their customers is restricted.

A truly just society values all its members. Therefore, it celebrates all the cultures represented among its members. Each member of such a society is encouraged to have pride in his or her cultural background, to celebrate that background, and (as appropriate) to share the treasures of that background with others. Schools, libraries, and museums help to teach members of the community about its diverse cultures and their customs. Laws prohibit discrimination against any persons on the grounds of their cultural background, including their appearance and their native language or dialect. No culture is treated as better than any other; no culture is treated as worse than any other. Historic inequities are handled by enforcing anti-discrimination laws and by providing equal opportunity to all persons, beginning with quality education made available to all children in every community. Injustices of the past are acknowledged, but they are not cast as weapons to create or perpetuate war between two or more cultures.

The United States of America can be a truly just society. We began an experiment respecting and preserving human rights nearly 250 years ago. We have made regular strides in the expansion of human rights since that beginning. We have not arrived at our goal yet, nor will we do so completely while living in an imperfect world. But, as one of our Presidents has said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” We should love our country, the land of the free and the home of the brave. We should continue to work together to preserve what is good in our country and to cure whatever ails in our country. We need citizens and leaders who love and respect all that America stands for, citizens and leaders who honor all that America works to achieve. Together, we can take what is good, and we can make it even better. God bless each of you, and God bless America. J.

Nobody expects the American Inquisition

Galileo (1564-1642) was celebrated from 1650 to 2000 as a genius who challenged the scientific thinking of his time, using his own observation to correct long-standing mistakes in physics and astronomy. He affirmed the earlier work of Nicholas Copernicus, whose writings indicated that the earth is not stationed at the center of the universe, but instead revolves once a day and travels once a year around the sun. Galileo was challenged by church researchers who quoted a half dozen Bible verses out of context to indicate that the earth is stationary and unmoving. Galileo never said or believed that the Bible is untrue. He simply indicated that the Bible is not a science textbook and that its description of the earth remaining in place is a poetic statement, not a scientific declaration. The real challenge to Galileo’s teaching came from scientists affirming the astronomy of Aristotle and Ptolemy, neither of whom was a Bible scholar (or even a Christian). Galileo became famous for his defiance against the prevailing opinions of his day. He suffered house arrest (but no further punishment) for is stubbornness. During the modern era of western civilization, Galileo was frequently regarded as a hero who risked his safety and reputation to speak the truth, defending genuine science from its detractors.

Galileo can no longer be considered a hero. Postmodern western thought has returned to the insistence that the majority must be right and that the most prominent scientific authorities may and should tell the rest of us which science to believe and which to ignore. No doubt in another generation or less, Galileo’s name will be reduced to one of the apparently nonsense words in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody just like Scaramouch and fandango.

How else can one explain the strange ways science is being defined and practiced at the present time. COVID-19 has not been around long enough for scientists and medical professionals to know whether those who have recovered from the disease maintain resistance to reinfection—all experiments that indicate that natural immunity is acquired from infection and recovery are dismissed as preliminary and uncertain. On the other hand, vaccines developed since awareness of COVID-19 happened are treated as thoroughly tested and totally reliable. Accounts of people contracting COVID after inoculation are dismissed as anecdotal, and at the same time we are assured that those who did get sick after inoculation were not as sick as they would have been had they not received the vaccine. Those who have been vaccinated are free to go maskless, but those not vaccinated must continue to wear their masks—not for any good reason, but merely because some scientific experts say so.

In fact, it seems that our medical officials—those who make proclamations telling us how to live our lives—suffer from the same problem as the legendary man who borrowed his neighbor’s bucket and was then sued for returning the bucket in damaged condition. The accused offered a three-part defense: first, he never had the bucket in question; second, it was already damaged when he received it; and third, when he returned it there was nothing wrong with it.

Not only in medicine do we see such contradictory logic. Political science has fallen prey to the same peculiar thinking. We have been told that the Presidential election of 2020 was the fairest and least corrupt election in all of history. Statistical anomalies about the vote count must be ignored. Efforts to study voting patterns from last November are labeled as “bogus.” Americans are not to be suspicious that, given situations resulting from the pandemic, unprecedented voting results came from a few urban areas in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. In each case, community organizers were allowed and encouraged to register voters, assist those voters in applying for absentee ballots, assist the same voters in filling out their ballots, deliver those ballots to be counted, and then oversee the counting of those same ballots. These individuals, on the day that the ballots were counted, even filled in missing information on the absentee ballots that would otherwise have invalidated the ballots. In the precincts where those organizers worked, heavy vote totals favored Candidate Biden, while in all other precincts of the country vote totals resembled those of the 2016 election. Yet we are told that questioning those results is unscientific, undemocratic, anti-American, racist, and otherwise deplorable. Moreover, state legislatures that try to correct the shortcomings that have been perceived in the regulations rushed into law on account of the pandemic are likewise accused of being racist, undemocratic, and otherwise worthy of scorn, insult, and hatred.

And so it goes. I read today that true science proves that gender is a function of the brain, not of the chromosomes or the organs one possesses at birth. Fraudulent studies that affirm global climate change are gently ignored, while studies that reveal that climate change may be part of the planet’s natural cycles, may be exaggerated in the minds of some scientists and their audiences, and may even be beneficial to some environments—all these are dismissed as unscientific and unacceptable in the post-modern world.

I do not use the word “post-modern” as an insult. Many things about modern thinking bother me; many things about post-modern thinking appeal to me. All the same, if post-modern science means trusting a small elite of self-proclaimed authorities, ignoring all the evidence that contradict their claims, then post-modern science is not for me. Give me Galileo and his stubborn adherence to the facts. Genuine facts beat fake science every time. J.

Juneteenth (and holidays in general)

I have no reason to complain about Juneteenth. I really don’t. If my employer has decided (as it has) to give me a paid day off of work in the middle of June, that’s fine. I’ll take the day off of work and accept the paycheck. My employer can congratulate itself on making the decision to recognize Juneteenth a year ago, before the United States Congress got into the act of declaring Juneteenth an official American holiday. (Not that my employer added another paid holiday to the year—we still have ten paid days off of work. Last year Veterans Day was made a paid holiday, when in previous years Presidents’ Day was a paid holiday. So they merely rearranged the calendar. Other than that, they are doing nothing different.)

The problem is not even that Juneteenth has dubious historical value. It began as an African American commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, federal soldiers announced to slaves in Texas that slavery had been banned. Setting the slaves free in Texas was not the end of slavery in the United States, though. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, announced in 1862 and made effective January 1, 1863, freed slaves only in states that were rebelling against the US government and taking part in the Confederacy. Slavery existed, and remained legal, in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware in 1863. Lincoln chose not to free the slaves in those four states because he did not want them to join the Confederacy. Missouri and Maryland outlawed slavery before the end of the Civil War; Kentucky and Delaware did not. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution ended slavery in all the states, but it did not go into effect until it was formally approved in December 1865. Even though Kentucky and Delaware did not approve the 13th Amendment, they were subject to its power, and so slaves were freed in those two states by the end of the year 1865—months after freedom was announced in Texas in the middle of June of that year.

But the Fourth of July is an equally artificial holiday. Not much of significance happened to create or approve the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, but the date was selected for Independence Day because the founders of the United States wanted a celebration to mark our ideas of freedom and human rights. Granted that the founders of the nation were all wealthy white men. Granted that human rights to women, blacks, and other minorities were only gradually established and written into law in the years following 1776. Independence Day is still a holiday for all Americans; it is not only a white holiday. None of the ten federal holidays existing before approval of Juneteenth are white holidays. (For the record, they are: New Year’s Day, Dr. King’s birthday, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.) In many places, Columbus Day is already being replaced by commemorations of Native American history and culture. But Memorial Day remembers all soldiers who died in battle, male and female, black and white and every other culture. Veterans’ Day honors all who served in the armed forces. Presidents’ Day mostly remembers the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but they were presidents of the entire country, not just of white Americans.

Someone might suggest that Thanksgiving and Christmas are primarily white holidays. First, though, Christmas remembers the birth of Jesus, who is not white—he was born a west Asian Jew. Second, these holidays have significance for all Americans, but especially for Christians—and Christianity is not a white religion. It began among the Asian Jews; two significant non-Jewish converts to Christianity, according to the book of Acts, were an Italian centurion and an Ethiopian government official. So Christianity belongs to people of all cultures and ethnic groups. Moreover, according to this survey, blacks in the United States are more likely than whites to believe in God, to attend church, to pray, to study the Bible, and to respect the Bible as God’s Word. So Christmas and Thanksgiving can hardly be labeled white holidays.

I approve of special days set aside for the various cultures and ethnic groups present in the United States. I delight in noting the Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Octoberfest, along with Juneteenth. These days should be celebrations, commemorations of their various cultures, and open to all Americans to join the celebration. I see no reason any of them should be paid days off from work. These days are opportunities for schools, libraries, and other cultural centers to celebrate America’s cultural diversity and to remind all of us of what makes each culture special. We have seen from Memorial Day and Labor Day what happens to a federal holiday. People are paid to stay home from work. They gather for cookouts and other festive events. They travel to parks and beaches and other recreational spots. Meanwhile, hospitals remain open. Police officers and fire fighters remain on call. Retail outlets—especially fast food restaurants—serve more customers than usual, requiring them to schedule more of their employees than usual. That shift is especially ironic on Labor Day.

I propose a tweak to the observance of national holidays. We should, as a nation, continue to recognize annual celebrations for our various cultures and ethnic groups, but none of them should be paid days off of work. Instead, they should be opportunities to learn from one another about diversity in our land and to wish one another a happy St. Patrick’s Day, a happy Cinco de Mayo, a happy Juneteenth, and a happy Octoberfest. At the same time, we need to add a Service Day, perhaps in early August, one month before Labor Day. This would be a holiday, not for office workers and government employees, but for retail workers and others paid to serve customers. Stores and restaurants would be closed, and service workers would be encouraged to spend time with their families and to enjoy parks and the outdoors. The rest of us would gain appreciation for service workers through this annual reminder of their work, and it wouldn’t hurt us to know that, once a year, Walmart and McDonalds and all those places we take for granted the rest of the year are closed to give their employees a well-deserved vacation.

It all makes sense to me. J.

Watch for falling prey

Words have meaning. We use words to communicate with one another. Often the meaning of our words is shaped by context; a word might have a narrow, technical meaning in one context and a more general meaning in a different context. A phrase might be radically different in meaning depending upon where and how it is used. This can result in confusion, and sometimes it can result in humor. A humorous example is coming, but a certain amount of context must be provided first to arrive at the humor I wish to share.

One of the things I loved about college was taking four classes at the same time, being exposed to different thoughts from different fields, moving from one branch of knowledge to another as I read assigned classwork and as I researched material for different papers I was required to write. On many occasions, the same topic would arise the same week in two or three different classes, so I was required to consider that topic from differing points of view. Because I loved that experience, I have recreated it in my private post-college life. I don’t read one book, finish it, and start another. Instead I have a stack of books from which I read each day. When I finish one book in the stack, I reshelve it and choose another book of the same genre. My stack might be six or seven books high, and if I read twenty or thirty pages from each book, I make my way through them like a college student taking several different courses and learning about various things at the same time.

Last night I had finished twenty pages from Aristotle’s “History of Animals”—part of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World collection—and wanted to glance at something light before jumping into Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. I happened to grab a book of humorous pieces by Dave Barry, newspaper columns he had written in the 1990s, and I spent a few minutes cleansing my mental palette with that light reading before diving into the profound examinations of Heidegger.

A cleansed palette might not be ready for Heidegger. Here is a selection of where I began last night: “The formal existential totality of the ontological structural whole of Da-sein must thus be formulated in the following structure: The being of Da-sein means being-ahead-of-oneself already in (the world) as being-together-with (innerworldly beings encountered). This being fills in the significance of the word “care,” which is used in a purely ontological and existential way. Any ontically intended tendency of being, such as worry or carefreeness, is ruled out. Since being-in-the-world is essentially care, being-together-with things at hand could be taken in our previous analyses as “taking care” of them…. Care not only characterizes existentiality, abstracted from facticity and falling prey, but encompasses the unity of these determinations of being….”

Nothing funny there, I know, and Heidegger had no intention of being humorous with those words. As a philosopher, he uses technical terms such as “ontological” and “existential,” as well as his own favorite word, “Da-sein,” which he uses to search for the core of what it means to exist. As I wrote a few days ago, “What is it that makes me me? What is it that makes you you?” That’s the kind of question Heidegger is asking, and is trying to answer, in the four hundred pages of Being and Time. But with a taste of Dave Barry’s writing lingering in my mind, I could not help but visualize “innerworldly beings” in a comic way. Nor could I resist an over-the-top application of Heidegger’s assertion that worry and carefreeness are ruled out. But the piece de resistance of this paragraph was Heidegger’s reference to falling prey. He is describing, of course, the danger of becoming a victim, of our being (or Da-sein) facing threats from other thinking beings in our world, a group he rather aptly describes as “the they.” (I was already considering an entire post, inspired by Heidegger, about “the they”—you know who he means, “the they” who say things that no one we know has said, “the they” who are running the world, even though none of us knows who “they” are. Heidegger had a problem with Them already one hundred years ago.

But, with a dose of Dave Barry still in my mind, I read the phrase “falling prey” and immediately pictured white-tailed deer dropping from above. I could even picture a Far Side cartoon with a road sign on the side of a mountain that says, “Watch for falling prey,” while deer are tumbling down the side of the mountain toward the road.

Another phrase from Heidegger that has stuck with me is not his own invention. He quotes a poem by Holderlin which contains the line, “We are a sign that is not read.” I spent part of one evening trying to create a meme which puts those eight words on a highway sign, but I was not happy with the results. “Watch for falling prey” would be funnier anyhow, but I still want to contemplate further the significance of those words, “We are a sign that is not read.” J.

Recovery

Continuing to be quarantined after recovering from covid-19 resembles a long holiday weekend or a “staycation,” as they call it. I could only guess when symptoms began, so the end of the quarantine is also based on guesswork. As far as the CDC is concerned, I’m free to leave the house tomorrow; but my employer does not want me back at work until Wednesday. So the next few days will be a transition of sorts, feeling normal and doing some normal things, but not returning to the full routine yet for a few more days.

This time off has permitted me to do some additional reading and writing, as well as work around the house and yard. I have several other minor projects I hope to tackle over the next few days. In fact, this required holiday offers a glimpse into how I may budget my time when I retire. Retirement, though, is still years away. I expect to work full-time until I turn seventy for several reasons. First, Social Security is increasingly insecure because of an aging population. Second, my parents and grandparents all flourished well into their eighties. (My father is 93 and still in good health.) Third, I still expect to have talent and ideas to offer for years to come. Even when I retire, I will keep on writing, and I hope that my writing will continue to improve. I have no reason to stop working at this time.

On the other hand, facing anxiety and depression prepared me well for this covid business. I already learned how to get out of bed and get things done even when my mind and my body were saying no. I probably went to work on days I should have stayed home. But I can perform tasks adequately even when concentration and motivation are lacking. Taking it easy means diverting my energy to other activities. While the cats expect some of that time and energy to be given to them—they loved this quarantine the way they loved the whole-society quarantine a year ago—reading and writing and other stay-at-home tasks are always on the schedule, seven days a week, every week of the year.

Besides, healthy though I am, I always feel a bit off, and I find it easy to believe that I am battling some chronic disease. Lupus, Parkinson’s, Hypochondria, Crohn’s Disease: I can read the descriptions and match them to myself, but there’s always another part of my mind that brushes off the anxiety and keeps on ticking. This is why, the day after being tested positive for covid, I went out and mowed the lawn. A couple of people told me not to push it, but mowing is impossible with our machine without a fair amount of pushing. Afterward, I was able to tell people that I simply do not know the meaning of the word. When someone responds, “What word is that?” I am able to say, “I’m not sure what word, but if you said it, I wouldn’t know what it means.”

As long as I have several books at different stages of being written, I can focus on one of them and keep on writing or rewriting. I hope that, starting with this quarantine and continuing through the summer, I can break up the figurative raft of logs—the various books at different stages—and send them floating down the stream, one by one. J.

Grammar dalek and the pair tree

One of my elementary school teachers used a bulletin board for a class project which she called “The Pair Tree.” She used construction paper to create a tree trunk and branches and a few green leaves; then she cut out a number of yellow pear-shaped fruits to hand on the tree. Each fruit was to have two words which sound the same (homophones) such as—of course—pair and pear. She challenged the class to see how many pairs of homophones we could remember. With this creative exercise, she taught us to pay attention to words and to be aware of some of the tricky situations that arise in the English language.

In my work, in my private correspondence, and in my social media presence (including WordPress), I often notice writers who are confused by homophones or even by near-homophones. My eyes catch the mistakes. Usually I can ignore them and read the sentences for their intended meaning; sometimes misuse of words can grate upon my inner ear. Here, in alphabetical order, are seven pairs of homophones that often come to my attention:

Altar: a table-like structure upon which a sacrifice is offered; also used to describe the structure in a church building from which Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper) is served to the congregation. Always used as a noun, except when someone is making a deliberate or accidental pun about changing a life by offering it to the Lord.

Alter: to change. Many things, from clothing to news reports, are altered, but rarely does such a change have anything to do with sacrifices.

Anecdote: a brief story, sometimes told for amusement or entertainment, but often used to illustrate a point in a conversation or a writing.

Antidote: a remedy or cure, frequently a medication given to counteract a poison. Rarely can an amusing story cure a problem, although a few such anecdotes might be the antidote to a boring speech.

Calvary: The hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. From the Latin, translating the Aramaic “Golgotha,” which means “the place of the skull.” This hill, an outcropping of Mount Moriah (on which the Temple stood) evidently reminded people of a skull.

Cavalry: A military unit traveling and fighting on horseback. In the last hundred years or so, the term can be applied to fighters traveling in motorized vehicles. Family researchers and historians often say “Calvary” when they mean to say “cavalry.”

Counsel: Advice given to another; also, a team of lawyers involved in advising the prosecution or the defense in a trial. Some organizations maintain a salaried team of lawyers which they call their counsel.

Council: A group of people meeting to direct an organization. Churches, schools, businesses, and other entities, including government agencies, frequently are run by councils.

Lightening: making lighter—often used to describe a change in weight, whether literal or metaphorical (“The encouragement of his friends was lightening his burden.”) Can also be used of colors or colored objects (including the sky) becoming less dark.

Lightning: An enormous spark of electricity, jumping from cloud to cloud or from cloud to ground. Generally occurring in storms and often accompanied by thunder. Sadly, not effective in weight reduction.

Ordinance: A rule, often made by a council. For some reason, this word seems to apply more to city regulations than to state or national regulations.

Ordnance: Artillery, or guns, generally mounted. Also a short-hand label for the military unit in charge of such equipment.

Personal: Applying to a person, frequently used to describe matters that should not be shared with the general public or with a larger group of people. Confidential records might be labeled “personal.”

Personnel: The list of people working for an organization or agency. Such a list would generally be available to anyone interested, although some personnel details (including salaries and work evaluations) might be considered personal.

Please note that spell-check programs will not ask you which of these meanings you intend when you are typing. If you want to say that an idea “struck like lightning” but you type “lightening,” the mistake will be published unless you catch it yourself. J.

The best and worst of times

In January I began the great five-year adventure of reading through the Great Books—the classic writings of Western Civilization from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This being mid-March, I have just finished Herodotus’ historic description of the Greek war with Persia and have begun the equally famous Peloponnesian Wars.

Looking once again at the political adventures and battles that set the poleis, or city-states, in conflict with one another, I am reminded of Charles Dickens’ famous opening to his novel of the French Revolution. Everyone knows how the novel begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness….” Likewise, everyone knows the closing line of the novel: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done….” Probably not so many people can summarize the plot that fills four hundred pages between those lines or can remember any other memorable quotes from that novel. But I wander from my point, which is that for Greece in the years of the Peloponnesian Wars it also was the best of times and the worst of times.

Against all odds, the Greeks had withstood two invasions from the mighty Persian Empire. They had overcome both the massive land army raised by Persia and also its mighty navy. Now Athens was being rebuilt, fashioning the remarkable structures that still draw tourists today. The great Greek dramatists were writing the great timeless plays that are still read and studied today. Greek science and mathematics were reaching new and amazing heights, and for the first time philosophy was being developed in the European continent.

Yet at the same time, the Greeks were destroying themselves with constant warfare against one another. Men lost their lives on the battlefield in the prime of their life, sacrificing themselves nobly for petty squabbles that were unworthy of the price they demanded. Armies leveled the crops and orchards of their opponents. Money was wasted on military equipment—money that could have further advanced the architecture, drama, science, and philosophy of the age. Crowding into their cities to escape the battles, citizens spread plague that cost the Greeks more lives and more sorrow. Wisdom and foolishness, Light and Darkness: all these contrasts can be seen in the ancient Greek wars as clearly as in the French Revolution or any other modern conflict.

One of the lessons of classic literature is this: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Centuries have come and gone, and people continue to make the same mistakes. We study the past, but we fail to learn from it. Indeed, the history of the Peloponnesian wars is, without doubt, a tale of Thucydides. J.

The Lost Week: A Winter Adventure

   Last month a polar vortex wandered down into the southern regions of the United States, where it met moisture-laden air from the Gulf of Mexico. Together, these two systems dropped a multitude of winter weather on areas that, unlike America’s Heartland, are unequipped to handle ice and snow. My life, and the lives of my family members, were disrupted by this February winter event, which resulted for us in the Lost Week.*

Forecasters warned us well in advance that winter weather was coming. They knew all about the polar vortex, the Gulf moisture, and the winter weather the two would produce. Usually this mix happens further north, in states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. Those states know how to handle winter weather. But ice and snow are rare in the southern states; when they occur, they usually melt the next day. Prolonged cold temperatures are unusual; prolonged cold temperatures with winter precipitation are even more unusual. Central Arkansas had gone more than one thousand days without measurable winter precipitation before this winter weather event. As a result, states and counties and municipalities invest little money in snow removal and other ways to handle winter precipitation.

On Wednesday February 10th, we were all talking about the upcoming winter event and the likelihood of weather-related closures during the coming days. Some freezing rain fell and hardened on cold surfaces that night and the next morning. In Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, road crews would have salted the roads and bridges even before the rain began, and all roads would have been open Thursday morning. Instead, for the safety of their workers and of those whom they serve, schools and offices and most other businesses closed for the day that Thursday. Although no precipitation was added Thursday night or Friday morning, the temperature remained below freezing. Some places remained closed on Friday, while others (including my employer) opened late and allowed us to work for a few hours.

Heavy snow was expected to begin some time on Sunday. Meanwhile, temperatures had remained below freezing all day Saturday. As a result, churches canceled their Sunday services (or followed the online protocol they had been using for the past eleven months). Snowfall did not begin until evening, but already closings were announced for Monday. Less than an inch of snow had fallen by Monday morning’s usual travel time, but it continued to snow all day. About ten inches accumulated during that Monday snowfall. The snow was light and fluffy, easily moved by shovel. Interstates were kept open through the day, but side streets and rural routes, having received no winter treatment, were impassible.

I have experienced winter weather driving before. My Driver’s Education in high school took place during one of the snowiest winters of northern Illinois history. A few scattered days of classes were canceled that month, but we were rarely off two days in a row. Some years later I attended a meeting in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, living at that time in the southeastern corner of the city. It took about an hour to cross the city to get to the meeting. Around lunchtime, snow began to fall. Plows and other weather treatment vehicles were stuck in traffic as they tried to deal with snow that evening. It took me seven hours on the road to return home. At one point, on the Interstate, I saw three eighteen-wheel trucks side by side, spinning their wheels on a slight incline, blocking three lanes of pointing the opposite direction form which I was heading. The total snowfall from that storm was 9.7 inches. When I got home, I thought surely school would be closed the next day, but I was wrong. Overnight they cleaned up the mess, and in the morning all roads were open and life had returned to normal—business as usual.

Two of my daughters shared an apartment on the west side of town. They chose February 17 of this year to move to a new apartment on the north side. Both had recently taken jobs on the north side, and their new apartment is also closer to my house. Therefore, they had packed many boxes and left them in my house to make moving day easier. Both daughters work in the health care field. One, who works in a hospital, saw the forecast and decided to take a motel room Sunday and Monday nights, sharing and splitting the cost with a coworker. The other, who works weekend nights, followed a normal schedule and managed to make it to work Sunday in spite of the beginning snowfall. Monday, she drove from work to the old apartment, but got stuck on a hill about a quarter of a mile from the apartment. She walked the rest of the way and let us know, by text and phone call, about her situation. Since we had cleared much of the driveway Monday afternoon, we volunteered to rescue us from her apartment—and, if possible, to free her car—Tuesday afternoon. Although my car was nearly stuck on another hill near her apartment that afternoon, we managed to free both cars and to bring her to our place, along with three cats and a dog, who were welcomed (with some hospitality and some apprehension) by our two cats. The other daughter then came to our place from work Tuesday afternoon. With more snow forecast for Wednesday, they agreed to postpone their truck rental and put off the bulk of their move for an undetermined number of days.

Eight more inches of snow fell on Wednesday—again, mostly during the day. Streets and roads that had not been cleared now had double the obstruction. Where people tried to drive and spun their wheels, they often created sheets of polished ice rather than clearing their way down to the pavement. Some used sand or cat litter to try to gain traction. (Sand is a good idea; cat litter not so much—it’s mostly clay, which is also slippery once it gets wet.) Others took the floor mats from inside their cars and, putting them at their tires, managed to get their vehicles moving. My daughters managed to get a key to their new apartment and move some of their boxes out of our place, but they and their dog and cats remained refugees staying with us.

Meanwhile, my son lives in Texas. Like many other people in Texas, he lost power and water. He endured the deprivation for a few days, but then sought relief from us. After Wednesday’s snow, the main highways were beginning to open, so he grabbed both his cats and some perishable groceries and drove north to our place.

My son is an engineer. Living in Texas, he also heard information that was not shared nationwide and was able to understand what it meant. The power failure in Texas was due to solar power and wind power being disabled by winter weather. Texas utility governments petitioned the federal government for permission to burn fossil fuels using available technology, but they were denied permission because of the danger of carbon emissions and their contribution to global warming. Although other factors played a part in the Texas troubles, the stubbornness of federal bureaucracy played a significant role in worsening the winter weather crisis experienced by residents of the state of Texas.

At its peak, then, our house provided food and shelter for three human refugees along with a total of seven cats and a dog. My workplace was closed all five days of the third week of February. My daughters’ truck rental happened a week later than planned, although they did eventually get themselves, their pets, and their belongings into their new place. My son finally left for Texas yesterday.

It might be years before we face another winter weather event like this in the south. It’s fair to say that no lessons were learned, that no further provisions will be made to successfully cope with ice and snow in the future. Church services were canceled two straight Sundays, and even with all that extra “time off,” I had little success working on writing plans or other special projects. My “to-do” list is longer now than it was a month ago. But the snow has melted, the roads are open again, and life goes on. J.

*The Lost Week is a local joke (which I used at work to satisfying results) referring to the Lost Year of 1958-1959. The Lost Year followed the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, a historic event accompanied by street protests and federal troops. In the summer of 1958, the state government unwisely acted to prevent a repeat of that performance by closing all the high schools in Little Rock. That school year, when high school students had to miss a year of school or find alternate sources of education, is known in Arkansas history as the Lost Year.

False alarms

This Christmas season will be remembered by the Salvageable family as the Christmas of false alarms. It began, not on Christmas Day, but on Sunday December 27th, the third day of Christmas, when the smoke detector in the hallway began to send out intermittent signals that it sensed smoke. This alarm prompted a thorough search of the house—checking all the rooms, even those rarely visited; observing the house from outside, both front and rear; examining all electrical appliances; and even lifting the trap door into the attic to check for heat or smoke. No indication, aside from the alarm, showed any sign of smoke in or near the house or anywhere in the neighborhood. Eventually I set the smoke detector out on the deck, where it rang occasional alarms a few more times before finally settling into silence.

I should mention that the device is not one that needs a new battery every year. It came self-contained, complete with power source, and was guaranteed to last ten years. And, needless to say, the smoke detector is now a few months beyond ten years old.

Two mornings later I heard an odd hum when I got out of the shower. I was concerned at first that something was going wrong with the exhaust fan in the bathroom or possibly with one of the lights. After I got dressed and switched all those off, I could still hear the hum. In short order I traced it to the smoke detector, still out on the deck, and now dealing with moisture from inclement weather. I shook out the moisture, silencing the alarm; then I wrapped the device in a plastic bag and left it on the deck. My plan was to put it into the garbage at the end of the week and then replace it the next time I visited Walmart.

Then the rain came. The bag protected the device for a while, but not for good. Oddly, I heard it at eight a.m.—right after the Christmas carol clocked chimed for the hour. My first thought was that someone in the house had set an alarm to go off at eight, but then I recognized the triple chirp of the smoke detector. So I finally did what had been suggested the previous Sunday—I took the device out to the workshop, broke it open, and disabled it. I had planned to put it, as it was, into the garbage that night to be removed from our property in the morning. But it occurred to me that if our garbage on the curb was beeping, we might worry the neighbors, which could lead to visits from the city police’s bomb squad. Therefore, I disabled the noisy alarm.

This would be the end of the story, but it’s not. Friday night, even as our garbage waited at the curb to be removed Saturday morning, my youngest daughter was told that she may have been exposed to the crisis virus while at work—some of her coworkers had contracted the virus. So she went to be tested on Saturday (locking her keys in the car and needing to be rescued), and I notified people at church and at my workplace that I might need to quarantine. Saturday night my daughter’s test results came back negative, but I had already removed myself from church services this morning. My manager at work had relied my message up the chain of command, but I let him know about the negative result and my lack of symptoms, so I probably will be allowed back to work Monday morning.

These events confirm what I had already been saying—we put too much pressure on the New Year to be a new beginning, an end to our woes from the passing year and a chance for things to be better. None of these events were horrible or tragic, but a few bumps in the road on the first weekend of 2021 remind me that 2020 and 2021 are merely numbers. A new calendar on the wall does not guarantee a better year. And so it goes. J.