Balaam’s Donkey

Superlatives interest me: the best, the brightest, the first, the highest. The word itself has to do with extremes and exaggerations. While that may not be the “best” approach, it is useful to introduce what I think is the oddest story in the Old Testament, that of Balaam and his donkey.

Here’s the basic tale. Balaam is not a particularly good guy, not the worst, but certainly not the best. He trades in curses and divination. The Israelites had left Egypt and multiplied, so they needed a lot of food. That kind of thing. To Balaams’ credit, his asks God what to do when King Balak wants him to come and curse Israel, for a price, of course, but to his shame, he ignores what he hears. He’s told not to go more than once, but finally, the price is right so Balaam loads up his donkey and heads out. (Because I don’t use coarse language, I won’t be calling her a dumb a__, but that was what she was, Biblically speaking.) The word “dumb” means two completely different things, as you know—either unable to speak or stupid. As it turns out, she was neither. Balaam angers God by being disobedient, and the donkey sees an angel standing with a sword no less in the way, prepared to cut Balaam down. She changes course three times, ostensibly to protect him. He beats her.

After the third time, God allows the donkey to speak (the oddest thing). She asks why he’s being mean, and he says she’s mocking him. He’d kill her, if he had his sword, he adds. She reminds him that she’s never done anything like this before. Then God opens Balaam’s light to see the angel. That gets his attention, and he repents. What’s more, he goes back on his promise to curse Israel. When Balak takes him up to the place from which he wants the curses to flow, Balaam blesses Israel instead. He also sees her future and the coming of the Messiah.

Besides the talking donkey, what’s odd here? Balaam doesn’t even seem to think it odd! That’s almost weirder than the animal speech. He’s in a state about the entire matter, but you’d think he’d at least ask her how she can suddenly converse. I’d assume he doesn’t think hers is the voice of God, or he wouldn’t threaten to kill her. Just one of those things that happens.

Are there lessons to be learned here? Always. Obedience, first. Best. Always. This little donkey was obedient but also protective, in service but also a master in that she was dutiful to her responsibilities. So I’m going to have her be the hero of this little incident. Balaam comes off humbled, Balak vanquished, Israel ultimately victorious. The Old Testament is hard going, but Numbers 22-24 is worth the time. I just wish I knew that little donkey’s name, perhaps an odd idea as well.

My Friend’s Love

On Saturday evening, I received a challenge to get off all negative media and reflect on my feelings while doing so. Some friends have already left FaceBook for the next eight days, and I considered a break from blogging. However, for me it is such a positive thing, I decided to write about love (a positive itself) even if some of my readers have to wait awhile to read this. “My Friend’s Love” was written for a particular friend who has since passed away. When she moved here, she didn’t think any of us were too friendly, but that didn’t stop her inimitable ability to make us her friends. I shared this poem with her (and its dedication), and she sent it out to other friends, who told her they loved it and who put it on their frig doors. I think Wordsworth could not ask for more, these days. I miss you, Peggy, and wish I could be the person you thought I was, and my children as wonderful as you told me they were.

My Friend’s Love

Someday, I shall be sitting among the jewels

Of my life, my experience in this estate,

And I shall come across a thing,

An object which I will recognize as

My friend’s love.

I shall take it above the rest for a time

And hold it to sparkle in eternity,

Remembering the one who loved me,

Who made me believe in

Noble purposes,

The depth of wisdom,

The goodness of life—

Seen and measured in meaning—

For the glory of God.

And I shall find that this thing—

My friend’s love—

Has become an object of great worth

Which, as it leaves my fingertips,

Shall enter the heavens and shine,

Warming anew a world entire,

A world waiting for its sun,

A billion souls to bask in its light:

My friend’s love which once—

An age or so before—

Had given its warmth to me.

 

For Peggy

 

DRAFT: National Day of Giving

Some years ago, I had a student from Nepal who had worked with the United Nations rescuing child soldiers. Needless to say, I learned much from him. One day he made a challenging comment: “If Americans could only be taxed one percent of their income for charity, poverty would end in the world.” I explained that we were not likely to do that; it’s not our way to be compelled to give.

His comment sparked my interest in offering a voluntary way for people to give, if not to the world, at least to our own communities. The economy is doing well these days, for which we are thankful. But the foodbanks are hurting. For example, the North Texas Food Bank offers a listing of its available food to the local pantries that purchase its goods. Last week, it was a page and a half; in the past, it was usually five. What’s more, the list includes many items that most families don’t need: two flavors of coffee creamer, five varieties of Ensure, two kinds of baking chips, seasoning packets, pumpkin spice latte, vinegar, canned pitted plums (the only canned fruit), and ring pops candy. Obviously missing are basic items like tuna, chili, spaghetti, and corn.

An international giving day already exists, run by an organization called Giving Tuesday. Last year, over $300 million was raised for participating organizations. However, this group provides funding for all kinds of non-profits, not just food resources.

I have a simple request: As a bipartisan effort, encourage donations to local food charities by designating a National Day of Giving. Gaining national recognition would grow awareness and increase funding for food pantries across the country. Food providers have in place their own application processes and boundaries. None support dependency. Government aid through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps), when appropriate, should continue. Americans want to help those in need directly, however. These days, how gratifying, how satisfying it would be for the nation to come together for this simple effort!

My suggestion for a time would be the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Americans are looking forward to a meaningful holiday. Many are more aware of their community efforts to supply meals to their neighbors during this season. While holiday giving always increases over usual monthly donations, an influx of food and money—and potentially new volunteers as well—would boost many food banks for months to come.

Thank you for considering this proposal. I appreciate all that you do for our state.

 

Warm regards,

Mary Ann Taylor

 

 

 

(Not) Rock Bottom

Once, interesting. Second time, that’s odd. Third…and, wow—I better write about this, especially when everything came within a day and a half.

At 6:24 a.m. last Friday, I was waiting for a meeting to begin when a woman sat down beside me and said, “What a horrible week it’s been!” She meant the events in Washington. When a third woman said she really doesn’t watch the news, I told her she was lucky and not to start this week. The first woman and I commiserated a bit about the horrors and then let it all go.

Later in the day, I saw this posted on Facebook: “The next election isn’t just between two parties. It’s between good and evil.” Chilling, that.

Finally, another friend had this experience to report: “Just received a text from someone asking who I was voting for Senate in November. They also told me who would be best for the job. Reply: I’m voting for whoever does not steal phone records to mass text people and also profile last names such as Garcia to gain the Hispanic vote. Freaking idiot (emoji).”

On one hand, we are looking for “the truth” about what happened or didn’t decades ago, talking about “credibility” and “believability” and “culpability” and “suitability,” watching hostility, anger, even violence roil into public life, and wondering when or where or how it will all end.

On the other hand, we can just ignore the whole thing until it comes for us. Acknowledging, of course, that this is not a particularly provocative choice.

But here’s the quinkydink—not a single reference to a party or a person appears in any of these exchanges. I think that’s remarkable. I don’t know whose side my friend from the meeting is on. It didn’t come up: it was a bad week for everyone. Two parties were mentioned on Facebook, but the writer didn’t say which one is evil, which one good. And interestingly enough, my last friend didn’t say who’d sent the offending text. While I have a pretty good idea, I won’t say because it doesn’t matter. One candidate is not terribly well liked and has the reputation of running a campaign with some odd tactics. He sent out letters for fundraising marked SUMMONS ENCLOSED, for example. The other candidate uses a Hispanic-sounding nickname even though he isn’t Hispanic. I’ve had to tell three of his supporters that he’s not because they just assumed he was, on the side which obviously isn’t.

There doesn’t seem to be a good choice. Almost 100 years ago, W.B. Yeats wrote “The Second Coming,” just after World War I. Things were horrible then, really horrible, worse than now. No one really knows what the poem means, of course, since it’s modern, but it seems to be about the end of something, and the beginning of something worse. It’s quoted a very lot. People talk about 1984 these days, but this poem may be more relevant.

Because I tend to be an optimist, I’ll go with George Will’s opinion that we are not in a Constitutional crisis but that, in American politics, we can always go lower. I think I’m going to pay less attention for a while. Seek beauty instead (Keats said that’s the same as truth in this poem, but no one knows what that means either.) No one is going to text me for my vote, after all. Maybe I’m safe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L’Chaim

“Ain’t anybody in front of me?” A man called out to me from his pickup, a large white affair high off the ground. I was trying to wrangle three little boys into an average minivan, and I didn’t quite understand him. “What?” He tried again: “Ain’t anybody in front of me?” Finally, I understood. He didn’t want to run over some little person but couldn’t see well enough to know if one was in the path of his mammoth machine. “Oh, no, we’re good. Thanks!” He rumbled on, and I was left to sort out the metaphor.

Our beloved Downton Abbey is over but not forgotten. The Dowager Countess is in a battle for home rule of the local hospital (Episode 44). Her foe, Isobel Crowley, has taken the opposite tack, in favor of government assistance for the greater good. Maggie Smith’s character has a particularly telling line: “Does it get cold on the moral high ground?” Of course, Mrs. Crowley could only purse her lips and carry on. (That exchange is not available because of copyright concerns, YouTube now says, but you can catch some other great ones here.)

Things are rough these days. Both sides in our country, the liberal left and the conservative right, believe themselves to be on the higher moral ground. One friend calls me every time there is a mass shooting. I often respond by sending off the latest abortion news. We have periods of time when it’s best just to be silent, or voices will be raised. All is not lost, however; we’ve almost agreed to oppose capital punishment. While I have no personal or anecdotal experience, evidence seems to suggest that capital punishment is not a deterrent. Pondering these two lofty perspectives led me to some new considerations.

My proposal seems almost too simple: Life itself is the higher ground. Could we agree on that principle and work toward solutions that don’t involve Constitutional affronts?

Is there anyone whose heart doesn’t ache when innocent students die at the hands of a crazed shooter? Yes, there are many guns in this country—112 per 100 residents by one count.  In spite of that fact, gun ownership is actually down since 1978. Yet the United States is not first in gun-related deaths but 14th. Suggesting that’s a good thing is a weak argument, but the vast number of gun owners are careful, concerned, and conscientious. Changes can be made that do not affect their rights.

On one hand, we can improve the systems already in place for gun control: background checks, better security at high risk locations, training for specialized police units, waiting periods, Internet loopholes closures. The NRA already offers liability insurance for gun owners as protection against suits arising from accidents. A legislator from New York introduced a bill that would require liability insurance for all gun owners. Opponents warn that criminals wouldn’t get it anyway. Of course not. They’re criminals. But parents might secure their guns more carefully if they knew they could be sued if their gun was used in a crime their child committed. It’s a radical idea that no one may like, but the same was true of automobile insurance when it was new.

On the other hand, changes need to be made for better mental health care, often cited these days as a major contributor to gun violence. Many psychiatrists do not accept insurance; only 55% accept private health coverage, compared to 89% of other kinds of doctors according to a 2010 study. While there may be no easy way to induce higher participation rates, insurance companies need to recognize the problem and either pay more for mental health services or provide better patient access via vouchers or reimbursement procedures.

Valuing life, though, has deeper implications that are more far reaching. Might reducing abortions be done some way other than legislating a reduction in availability?

November is National Adoption Month. One worthy goal of this designation is to highlight the need for adoptive homes for the 100,000+ children in foster care. However, only a small number of those children are infants. Before abortion restrictions were eased, 9% of children were released for adoption by their mothers at birth. That figure is now only 1%. One source cites the ratio of parents waiting for babies at 36 for every baby that becomes available. Yes, foreign adoptions are still possible, though reduced dramatically by the Russian ban. But the cost is staggering: Holt International advises parents to budget $30,000 minimum for an adoption in China, with an upside figure approaching $50,000. It’s time for adoption to be preferred over abortion.

What else is at stake? Capital punishment is legal in 31 states. Yet in 2017, 23 inmates were executed in the entire country, though only 8 states carried these out. If it is intended to be a deterrent, it’s not particularly daunting: over 3000 inmates are sitting in death row cells across the country. Even setting the legality aside and acknowledging the risk of executing the innocent or mentally deficient, the process continues to grow more difficult as methods of death decline in efficacy. Currently, a shortage of sodium thiopental limits the number of lethal injections possible. Drug companies have, in effect, taken a stand against the use of their products for ending human life. Technically, other methods are available. In 2018, I do not believe we as a country have the stomach for electrocution, the gas chamber, a firing squad, or hanging. Indeed, Pope Francis stated recently that no executions are acceptable, a declaration that will please some and discomfit others.

What might be the result of all this? It would be very bold indeed to suggest that a society that values life might actually lead to a reduction in gun violence, abortion, and capital punishment. It hasn’t been tried, but it’s time to let the moral high ground be common ground. In Hebrew, l’chaim, to life.

To Boo or Not to Boo

Two teams take the field, one in burnt orange and white, another in cardinal and gold. The stadium—filled to capacity—holds 103,507 hometown fans, a new record. Excitement builds as these two storied competitors take the field, the fans roaring, the bands blaring, the cheerleaders cheering. The University of Texas Longhorns and the University of Southern California Trojans have played each other seven times since 1955, USC taking five wins. That UT won the 2006 Rose Bowl against the Trojans must surely rankle, but their 2005 win against the Wolverines the year before was even more dramatic: a field goal putting the Longhorns one point ahead came as time expired. USC had 19 seconds left. Lots of rivalry, lots of hope, lots of emotion.

Apparently, also lots of boos. According to one report, the boos were not for a bad call or a bad act but for the Trojans themselves. This was embarrassing to at least one UT fan. Why? It’s not sportsmanlike.

Serena Williams did not have a good day recently. She lost her comeback tournament at the US Open in a fiery, furious fashion. The ins and outs of screaming at an official and throwing her racquet are still being discussed, but Serena did one good thing: She asked the crowd to stop booing. The crowd clearly favored her, and she was right to ask them to honor Naomi Osaka, the 20-year-old who had beaten her rather soundly. (On a side note, Katrina Adams, the tournament’s CEO, had said that the match was “not the outcome we were hoping for.” That sounds like an egregious error, but Adams walked her comment back, saying she meant Serena’s behavior was not what that wanted to see. She had apparently gotten her own boos.)

So now let’s talk a little about the word “we.” Unless you’re the Queen of England using the word royally, it means your group. I’ve had to have the entire of fandom explain to me carefully why they use the word “we” when discussing their teams: “We won!” works as one example, of course, but when fans get into discussing draft picks and coaches, venues and attendance using the personal plural possessive, I remain puzzled. But I respect their right to feel this way. Technically, I’ve attended four universities and have generally warm feelings about each. I’m glad if they win, but not being a sports fan, I can’t say that I care all that much.

Parallels to politics are achingly obvious. The “we vs them” divide seems particularly bad right now. I’ve discussed that several times before. Conservatives are afraid to express their views at work, a phenomenon admitted by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey this week. That seems odd, sports-parallel-wise, seeing as how their “we” controls all three branches of government. I expect they are afraid of something worse than boos.

I don’t have an answer but do propose this: Take pride in your group when they do well. Admit their flaws when they don’t. Read the Constitution regularly. Read Aristotle, who believed that happiness is the purpose of life and that “the role that politics and the political community must play in bringing about the virtuous life in the citizenry” required politicians themselves to be virtuous. More simply put, don’t boo the other side for existing. Boo the bad “calls,” but seek to be virtuous yourself. Teams need pride, the good kind. Stand up for that (for a literal application, see the Aggies who stand for the entire football game). And ultimately, as Americans, we are all on the same team.

Coincidences, Tender Mercies, and a Yellow Rosebud

This story is mine, mine alone, but hearing it might make you feel like you missed out on something. You did, but perhaps a similar experience will be yours. If it has already, I’m glad.

The set-up began in the afternoon with an episode of Property Brothers: Season 12 Episode 3, “Mad About Plaid.” This little family of four radiates niceness. The mom has a reputation for sarcasm, so she’s real. The little girl makes each of the brothers something special. Jonathan gets a toolbelt; Drew, a tie. Perhaps made of paper. She’s quite the little charmer, Bailey, with dimples and an immediate love for her new sliding ladder-equipped wall of bookshelves. What set this (at least second) viewing apart was the easy affection the family shared. Parents holding hands, children getting and giving quick hugs—it was sweet without being cloying. And it made me cry a little. In those fleeting seconds, I was a child again, missing my parents. Now don’t misunderstand—my childhood was not sweet. I don’t remember my parents ever holding hands. There were some good times but also lots of contention. Years, decades later, I was missing something I never really had. Yes, I teared up about a fiction, born of loneliness for people gone 20, 40 years. We are, I suppose, always children on the inside.

Now for coincidences. A book by David Hand called The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Occur Every Day explains why they are not a big deal. I agree. His goal, however, is also to debunk miracles. I disagree. A clothes coincidence occurred last week at church. I wore a coral and white outfit. Walking in, I was informed “You got the memo!” Two other women had on essentially the same outfit. It didn’t stop there. A total of seven women fit the pattern; two more had unknowingly come as close as they could. Fun, cool, interesting. Totally meaningless. Why? The converging of the circumstances meant nothing to anyone. So, simply a coincidence. Not a miracle. Not even close. (If you want, you can go to the YouTube page and see what else is there. I won’t pick for you, but some events are bizarre. The book has lots, too.)

Most people know the phrase “tender mercies” from the 1983 movie Tender Mercies which starred Robert Duvall and Tess Harper. Filmed nearby in Waxahachie, it didn’t receive much attention and opened in only three theaters. Almost inexplicably, it received five Oscar nominations, with a win for Best Actor going to Duvall. Unlike those movies I’ve panned before for limited audience, this one was rated PG and concerns an alcoholic country singer’s conversion and trials. And unlike last week’s “This too shall pass,” the phrase “tender mercies” appears throughout scripture. David A. Bednar, a member of my church’s leadership, gave a talk in 2005 in which he describes tender mercies as “the very personal and individualized blessings, strength, protection, assurances, guidance, loving-kindnesses, consolation, support, and spiritual gifts which we receive from and because of and through the Lord Jesus Christ.” He repeats that they are neither random nor coincidental.

The afternoon after seeing that episode of Property Brothers, I went to Aldi’s for eggs. Not chocolate, I promise. Anyway, when I pulled out the cart, something was lodged in the child’s seat. Thinking it was some paper, I pulled it free and found instead a yellow rosebud, a little worse for wear, but fresh and pretty all the same. I gasped. Yellow roses were our mother’s favorite, her signature flower. It was as if—and here you just have to believe me—I was receiving a message that my mother is fine, that she remembers me, that I am loved. Aldi’s didn’t even have yellow roses when I went in. The convergence of the universe, then, allowed a flower from earlier in the day to be in just the cart I would touch. A coincidence? Strictly speaking, yes. The difference is that this one meant something to me. Small tears, again. On I went, grateful.

Because there is always something to learn, when I looked up “coincidences,” which led to the word “apophenia,” a tendency to perceive connections between unconnected things, which led to the phrase “fusiform face area,” the place in the brain in which we recognize faces, which led to super recognizers. In England, CCTV often plays an important role in police procedurals, of which I’ve watched too many. Millions of cameras watch citizens, catching images dozens of times a day. Software helps identify those images, but apparently 1-2% of humans have an enhanced capacity to identify and remember faces, better than computers. Scotland Yard has a squad of 200 such people. This link talks about the work they’ve done on the Russian poisoning case; this link goes to the test for the ability. Perhaps you’re in that number. I’m not. Here’s the thing: I don’t know why I’m supposed to include this bit of data. Perhaps it will mean something to one of you. Perhaps one of you is headed for a new career in law enforcement. Just perhaps, it’s a tender mercy for someone. Let me know if it’s you, or if there’s another coincidence you’d rather report.

Mottoes

Some weeks ago we had the commencement speech. Now, with schools commencing, what next? The motto to live by, the phrase which will inspire the aspiring student to stick with it, to finish college, that last great hope before adulthood? Sure. Why not? I checked all previous blogs to see if I had done this already. In fact, I’ve used the word “motto” or “mottoes” five times. That seems rather high. So, now, let’s do it in earnest and see what shakes out.

When someone suggested a possibility, I said, “Oh no, that’s probably too Biblical.” I don’t mind being wrong; I do mind being ignorant. You probably knew that “This too shall pass” is not scripture at all. Pressed, I wasn’t able to say where it came from, so I looked and learned. Wisdom literature comes from the Middle East and involves sage sayings from sages. The Biblical books include Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and some of the Psalms. The beauty of the writing is part of the wisdom: “To every thing there is a season” isn’t just a song by Pete Seeger (made famous by The Byrds); it is poetry. Except for the title/refrain “Turn! Turn! Turn!” the lyrics are Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8.

Back to “This too shall pass”: We know it because of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of a Persian fable; he’s famous for “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” The latter we read in high school and remember because of the line “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou…” The fable involves a powerful king who asks his wise men to create a saying that will comfort him in difficult times, and they fashion a ring with the inscription, but the king realizes that it is also a curse, for the good times pass also. The story appears in Jewish folklore as well, with Solomon as either the king or the one giving the ring to another. Edward FitzGerald’s translation is called “Solomon’s Seal”; in the preface we learn that his motto was “Plain Living and High Thinking.” A rabbit hole—this comes from William Wordsworth’s poem “Written in London, September 1802.” Except Wordsworth laments the loss of plain living and high thinking to what he sees at the beginning of the Industrial Age. Ending link searches….now.

In those five previous motto sharings, I didn’t list the motto that I began with, yes, in high school: “So act that the principle of your action could safely be made law for the entire world.” It’s an adaption from Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. What he actually wrote was “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” And no, I didn’t read Kant with any understanding in high school. The CI motto was presented by a mentor, who presumably had. When I was outside of religion, it served as a moral compass. (Did you know that the word “mentor” comes from a character in the Odyssey named Mentor? Right. No more links.) The Golden Rule keeps many on the straight and narrow for perhaps the same reason. It’s easy to understand and to apply.

One friend with three mottoes once found himself in a jam, about to violate all three. We were on a train from Paris to Versailles when he realized he had miscalculated his plans. He’d told another friend he would meet him at a certain time, and if he stayed his course, he was going to be late. His mottoes: Always be on time. Keep your word. Do what you say you’re going to do. Off he went, violating only the timely dictum. This was before cell phones, obviously. We’ve lost touch, but I hope he is a success somewhere.

A few more of mine: Don’t cut corners (especially criminal checks: a best practice in a former career). Do a good turn daily (if only to smile at someone). Turn off the oven, then the timer (and when I don’t, as recently as last Saturday…). Never pay full price (I even frequent a discount grocer, Town Talk, which is an amazing place like nothing else in Texas. Sorry about the link, but you really need to know about this Fort Worth institution/treasure trove). And, hopefully, be on time, keep my word, and do what I say I will (life is too short not to). I’m sure there are more.

Other possibilities without naming those of the countries and the states and the cities. Some are short: Ansteigen (a German word from a teenager; she told me it means “to rise”). Some are long: Dance like no one is watching, love like you’ve never been hurt; sing like no one is listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth. There are also bad ones: What will it matter in a hundred years? That one could prove fatal, and has. I’ll save that story for another time.

So, college students (my original audience, remember?), think about what you believe, what guides you. I won’t “should” on you and say you should have a motto. Truth is, you probably already do. If not, look at those commencement speeches that want you to aim high, work hard, be good, be great. Last week I heard a simple prescription for happiness: learn and serve. I need that one, now as much as ever. It’s a world out there, after all. Make yours better.

On Moonflowers, Mint, and John McCain: A Tribute

On more than one occasion, people have said to me, “Oh, anyone can grow ___!” It always rather makes my heart sink. Moonflowers, for example, are easy. Dramatic night-bloomers with pure white flowers and deep green leaves, Better Homes and Gardens calls them the “most romantic flower in the garden.” I don’t even know what that means. What I do know is that mine may bloom for a year or so and then disappear. All you have to do is stick the seed pod in any soil and, voila! Moonflowers. Or not.

Mint is popular in my part of the country and grows under many a water faucet. When I was very young, I would be sent out to pick the mint for the iced tea. It took me many years and children of my own to realize that my task was more than it seemed: the adults needed a few minutes to discuss something I didn’t need to hear. (Larger blocks of time involved a salt shaker and a trip to a protected part of the driveway to put the salt on a bird’s tail so it couldn’t fly, but that’s not true; here is another story.) The ease of mint culture and its nature mean it can be invasive, taking over flower beds if allowed to do so. Yet I have never been able to get it to grow for more than a few weeks. Why? I have no idea.

So, the topic today is “easy.” In general, it’s probably best not to tell someone something is easy to do just because you found it easy. This leads me to John McCain’s story.

He described himself as a discipline problem at the Academy. His father and grandfather both attained the rank of admiral in the US Navy. Although he didn’t feel entitled, he was rather full of himself. And then he crashed a plane in North Vietnam and was held prisoner for five years. His parentage didn’t help. In fact, once his captors found out who he was, things became worse. Later, he was offered an early release. This is how he described his decision in his 2008 acceptance speech: “I was in solitary confinement when my captors offered to release me. I knew why. If I went home, they would use it as propaganda to demoralize my fellow prisoners. Our code said we could only go home in the order of our capture, and there were men who had been shot down long before me. I thought about it, though. I wasn’t in great shape, and I missed everything about America, but I turned it down.”

This pivotal moment suggests he came to understand the word “easy.” Both arms and a leg had been broken and not reset properly. He couldn’t feed himself at first, so others saved his life and fed him. It would have been easy to accept the release, return to a life of comfort, and work toward the release of the others. But that’s not how heroes come to be. He refused. The maltreatment he received increased in intensity. He said that his captors broke him, and he was ashamed. His fellow prisoners understood that. He had done his best. The words of his friend saved him this time. Through taps on the wall, Bob Craner told him to get up and fight again.

McCain urged his listeners to work as well: “My friends, if you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. Enlist in our Armed Forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed. Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier, because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.”

A young friend of mine just joined the Army. Getting there wasn’t at all easy. She failed the entrance process twice. She reported today. We can all be proud of her, and wish her well, because it will never be easy.

A brief complaint: The flag at the White House was at half-mast for only the minimal time. That’s wrong, and petty. An easy way to show control perhaps? Veterans complained, and now it’s back down. Good. Recently  the governor of New York said we can’t make America great, because it was never that great. That’s worse than just wrong or petty. It suggests a willingness to use words to manipulate, an easy way to rile. Oh, for a higher road.

John McCain was not my senator, so I probably don’t know as much about him as I should. I was proud of him for choosing a woman to run as his vice-presidential candidate in 2008. It didn’t help him and might have hurt. I do know he was a hero of my generation, a man who hadn’t planned on being one, a man who learned about suffering, and a man who learned to love his country in ways few of us will.

Doing the right thing isn’t always—or even usually—the easy thing. It doesn’t matter that I can’t grow mint or moonflowers or many other plants, really. Some things matter much more. It seems a path to happiness as well.

 

 

Worry, with Bridge Game and Sound Effects

Worry. Lots of us do it. My history with other worriers goes back decades. It can paralyze, psychically, if allowed. The sketch below takes a typical card came, with light if confused banter, and reveals a woman who is a worrier and a fact-checker. She knows what to worry about. I try to keep as my mantra, “Don’t tell me worry doesn’t work. Nothing I worry about ever happens.” If only. Most likely, life goes on with its ups and downs. Things do happen. I tell my children, “Have fun. Be careful.” Then I tell them it means, “I love you.”

The snare drum adds to this a bit of rhythm and interest. During the rant, a drum roll would be appropriate. Have fun. Be careful.

(Four players, most likely older couples. SOUTH a woman who seems daft through most of the bidding. A snare drum for effect would be good, not essential.)

WEST: One heart. Did I tell you the kids are driving cross country?

NORTH:  Yes, twice. Pass.

EAST: Is your son a good driver? One spade.

SOUTH: Whose son is a good driver? Pass

WEST: Neither of mine is, honey. Two diamonds.

NORTH: Should have had daughters. Pass.

EAST: I don’t think we had the tech back then even to know what we were having until they popped out. Three clubs.

SOUTH: Tex? I thought his name was Richard? Pass.

WEST:    TechNOLOGY, not Tex. And they’re Kenneth and Rayburn, dear.  Three diamonds.

NORTH: Regardless, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. Pass.

(WEST, out of turn, snorts.)

EAST:   Hush, you’re out of turn. I mean, yes, sure, probably, most likely. Three spades.

SOUTH: Pass. So it’s Kevin who’s driving to Maine?

WEST: Kenneth is driving to California. From Austin. Four hearts.

NORTH: There is probably some Kenneth driving to Maine. It’s a rather common name. Pass.

EAST: Four spades. Very funny.

SOUTH: (In a fevered departure, she rants.) But just think of all that could happen: They could run out of gas before El Paso. There’s plague near Albuquerque, if they decide to camp. THE PLAGUE, for heaven’s sake. And then they might run out of gas in the desert. The Grand Canyon! Can you imagine the horror? A dozen people die there, yearly, mostly accidents. Tell him to hold on to his hat. He wouldn’t commit suicide there, would he? Surely not. Then they’ll probably want to go to Zion. Falls there, too. Angel’s Landing? Ha. People falling. Next is Death Valley. A woman named it, did you know? People forget to take water. Highest temperature recorded there? 134. Can’t live through that. And that’s the AIR. Ground can get to 201. Hottest place on earth. Tell them…And then they get to Los Angeles! 230 people killed in car accidents last year. A 43 percent increase. In the papers! I think they should’ve stayed home. Pass.

WEST: (Stunned) Pass.

NORTH: Pass. Was all that really…?

EAST: Pass. Wait. Necessary? No. It’s not my bid. Right? I won the…?

SOUTH: Yes. My lead. Tell ‘em to stay home.