“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.


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.