Wednesday, March 27, 2002

sex and the single Chrfistian

Although we didn't go this route, we both know several couples who established for themselves a ground rule of "No physical affection at all, beyond holding hands, until marriage." Not even kissing.

The basis for this policy, at it was explained to me, lies in Paul's injunction for unmarried men to treat all older women as their mothers and all women of the same age as their sisters. It's tempting to laugh and call people prudes for practicing such standards, but I rather imagine they rarely got into the hot-and-heavy situations many other unwed Christian couples find themselves in when they don't observe such rules.

In truth, the church really has failed to provide much guidance in this area. Premarital sex, obviously, is proscribed for unmarried couples. But what about the other degrees -- not to put too blunt a point on it -- oral sex, heavy petting, necking and kissing? One major ministry some time ago attempted to delineate what forms of affection were appropriate for nonmarried couples, and what forms weren't -- I think they rated stroking someone's hair as more sensual than kissing -- but, unfortunately for their case, they provided no biblical basis for any of it.

There's also the adage that if a form of affection leads you into temptation to engage in premarital sex, you've gone too far. The problem is that it's very hard to retreat from a place you've already reached.

The standard advice for nonmarried couples seems good: Do multiple dates, meet at public places, and take the physical side of the relationship slowly.

My wife and I dated for 18 months before I asked her to marry me, and waited another 18 months before we tied the knot. That gave us plenty of time to focus on other aspects of our relationship and to run afoul of each other's shortcomings.

Monday, March 25, 2002

soul anchor

Several years ago, when I was interviewing Mike Card on his then-new album, "Unveiled Hope," he mentioned that there was only one album left to do to complete his musical tour of Scripture: an album on the book of Hebrews.

He mentioned that one of the reasons for the delay is the heavy theology in the book, and the difficulty he was finding putting it to music. It was at this time that I made a suggestion he might find helpful. He did find it interesting.

Imagine my profound disappointment to listen to his album "Soul Anchor," which deals with the book of Hebrews, and not once hear the lyrics "Oh what the heck / It's Melchizedek."

Thursday, March 21, 2002

orbital bombardment

I was out turning my compost pile this afternoon when I came across what I am now fairly certain is a colony (new, I believe) of termites living at the bottom of the pile, right next to one of the wooden pallets I use to contain the pile.

And of course, we have a yard surrounded by giant trees and fenced in on all sides, with wooden fences.

I recognize that termites fill an important ecological niche and aid the decomposition of woody material, but this really isn't what I hoped for when I started composting. I've requested advice at two different gardening forums, and I'm hoping someone has an idea I can tap. Given the way termite colonies burrow meters down into the ground, I don't think adding fresh material to the pile so it will heat up again will be enough to get rid of them.

A friend of mine suggests nuking them. Of course, I lack the authority to deploy nuclear weapons, but I figure that if I can reach orbit, all I'd have to do is fire a bowling ball at the site with enough speed, and it should obliterate at least the block I live on.

I'm sure it would be pretty explosive, assuming the bowling ball isn't torn apart by the forces of re-entry. (My understanding is that anything that large is going to remain pretty much intact, though; while it might break apart, the pieces are going to continue on the same trajectory.)

I'm not a rocket scientist, but for purposes of this exercise, I think we can assume that the guidance will be handled from orbit; i.e., a computer would take careful aim and then fire. True, it might not be pinpoint accuracy, but I'm not sure it would need to be. Hitting my back yard -- or even the neighbor's house -- probably would be close enough to eliminate the problem. If the trajectory turns out to be in error, we can always fire another bowling ball.

That's not to downplay the significance of the math involved in this. Obviously, the bowling ball is not going to drop "straight down." As it moves closer to the earth, its velocity relative to the surface of the earth is going to increase; that's something that would have to be considered when the bowling ball is released.

Figure the bowling ball has a mass of 5 kg, Let's suppose I fire it earthward from a distance of 140 kilometers (low orbit) at a velocity of 200 kilometers per second (200,000 meters per second). The gravitational attraction of the earth should be negligible, so it'll release the energy of ...

KE = 1/2(5 kg)* (200,000 ms-1)2
KE = 2.5 kg * 40,000,000,000 m2s-2
KE = 100,000,000,000 joules, assuming my estimates for the mass and velocity hold true.

(That's 1 * 1011 joules, for those concerned with scientific notation.)

I'm not quite sure of how much energy a joule represents in layman's terms, but I think we can assume we're talking about quite a detonation. One hundred billion joules seems like quite a payload.

Of course, if it landed in one of the Great Lakes instead, I think we could expect major ecological impact as well, at least in that area.

I should note for those genuinely interested in termite control, one person said she understands ants and termites don't get along, so if I can plant flowers that attract ants, the ants should help to drive out the termites. I don't know how effective that would be at eliminating the colony, though. I have a call in to the county agricultural agent for advice. If they suggest firing a bowling ball from orbit, though, I'm giving up.

they're termites

Well, I've done a little research online, and I'm fairly certain I have a bona fide termite infestation in my compost pile. What threw me off is that they're a different species of termite from what I dealt with in Haiti.

Help is definitely needed. We have a wooden fence not far from the compost pile, and we were planning to replace it this summer with a new wooden fence. (Not to mention I really wanted to use this compost around the yard, and we have a number of trees, and yes, our yard is surrounded on all sides by wooden fences. Groan ...)

less grass

After doing some reading on the subject, I've decided to take action to phase out our grass from parts of our yard over the next year or two. I've been composting like crazy to improve some of the worst parts of the yard, where I'll be sowing seeds for wildflowers that require only one to three hours of sunlight.

I'll be planting a few auxiliary vegetable gardens since the main one is too small to grow all the vegetables I would like to, adding another flower bed or two, planting an apple tree, and continuing to spread some moss around in other areas where the grass doesn't grow.

My wife doesn't especially care for grass lawns, but I guess that's understandable, since she grew up in Tucson, Ariz. I don't mind them, if they look nice. Our lawn looks nothing even close to "nice." Our soil would be described more accurately as "dirt." It's low in nutrients, and packed hard as a rock. What grass we do have generally is choked with weeds, and the lawn is mottled with bare patches where nothing grows because of a combination of the poor soil quality and the heavy shade we get from our neighbors' tall trees.

The end result, I hope, will be a yard of breathtaking beauty that attracts various bees and beneficial insects, hummingbirds and other birds, a few bats for insect control, and generally improves the quality of the little piece of God's creation I've been given responsibility for.

the source of evil

did you ever notice that none of the gospel writers ever say that Brucker wasn't there? None of them deny that Brucker convinced Judas to betray Christ, that Bruckerordered swine run through the Holy of Holies during the Greek occupation of Judae, or that he fought the reconstruction of the cities of Jerusalem during the days of Nehemiah and Ezra. In fact, no one even suggests that Brucker wasn't one of Haman's advisers. Most compellingly, the author of Genesis never once says that the serpent in Eden is not Brucker.

After a while, certain conclusions become inevitable.


I always figured when I started a compost pile that I would see a few animals, but I figured they would be earthworms for the most part, with maybe a few grubs and flying insects. (And maybe a basilisk or two. One never knows.)

Today when I was turning my compost pile, I uncovered a colony of six-legged critters with antennae and segmented bodies. I think they're ants, though I don't know enough about insects to say for certain. I would worry that they are termite larvae, but I didn't think termite larvae have legs. Whatever they were, they were colorless, I imagine because of the lack of sunlight at the bottom of a compost pile.

My compost pile contains the usual items: kitchen fruit and vegetable waste, rinsed-off eggshells, the occasional all-natural Christmas wreath, dead garden plants, dryer lint, a few sticks that have fallen there, and leaves. Lots of leaves. No meat, no dairy or anything else that screams, "Pests come here!"

The compost pile is above-ground, framed by wooden pallets, and gets turned at this moment about once every two weeks. Given its current state of decay, I expect the compost to be finished in another six to eight weeks.

Does anyone have any idea what these critters are doing in my compost? Are they a problem? And if they are a problem, what's an effective organic way to get rid of them? (I suppose it's possible they'll simply get cooked as I continue to stir, but the pile's hottest days should be over.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

choosing barabbas

I first came across this essay way back in my college days, in 1990 or so. It's a nice piece to trot out as Easter approaches, to stop and reflect on what happened on Good Friday.

"Not this man, but Barabbas!"

It is often said that Christianity is at its roots anti-Jewish, that it encourages hatred for Jews by teaching that they are responsible for the death of Jesus. Moreover, it is said, this is not just a distortion of the Christian faith by a few misguided fanatics -- it is the teaching of the New Testament itself. In this essay, I should like to examine in what sense, if any, this is so.

Before examining the question of how the Christian scriptures interpret the events, where they lay the blame for the events connected with the death of Jesus, let us consider how they report the events themselves, their account of what happened, and the role of the Jews in it.

It seems to me that some aspects of the trial of Jesus are often misunderstood, and that it is important to clear up the misunderstandings, both because they cause ill will between Jews and Christians, and because they keep us as Christians from understanding clearly what the Scriptures have to teach us.

In the gospels, we read that Pilate was willing to release Jesus, but that the crowd shouted, "Crucify him!" and that Pilate gave in rather than risk a riot. From this, many readers infer that the overwhelming majority of Jews hated Jesus because he rebuked them for their sins, and were determined to see him dead.

Occasionally, the moral is drawn that the crowd was not so much consistently malicious as hopelessly fickle, so that the same tongues that shouted, "Hosannah, Son of David! Welcome in the name of the Lord!" on Palm Sunday were ready to shout "Crucify him!" only five days later.

Now the first thing to be noted is that the gospels plainly declare that Caiaphas and his associates were determined to kill Jesus, not because he was unpopular, but precisely because he was popular. They were afraid that the people would hail him as the messiah, and start an uprising against Rome, which the Romans would crush without mercy, as they had similar uprisings in the past (John 11:47-50).

And so they decided to have him arrested, but not when there were people about, because of the danger of a riot in his favor (Matthew 26:5); hence the usefulness of Judas, who could lead them to him at a time and place where he was alone and could be seized quietly.

It is highly probable that they made arrangements with Pilate ahead of time, explaining the situation to him and receiving his assurance that when they brought him the prisoner at the crack of dawn, he would ratify the judgment of the Jewish tribunal immediately and automatically, without re-examining the case, so that the prisoner could be sentenced at daybreak and nailed up within the hour, before the people knew what was happening. The following points favor this theory:

  1. If Pilate had received an advance visit, he might well have told his wife what it was about, and so it would have been natural for her to dream of Jesus and her husband on Thursday night, and to wake in the morning knowing that he had gone to sign an execution order.
  2. The accusers could not enter the courtroom, lest they become ceremonially unclean and unable to celebrate the Passover. This required Pilate to be continually going outside to hear what they had to say, and back in again to confront the prisoner. This is a ridiculous way to conduct court, and presumably court would not ordinarily have met that day at all. That Pilate consented to hear the case under the circumstances suggests prearrangement.
  3. Pilate, having got a note from his wife, changed his mind and decided to re-examine the case after all, instead of simply glancing at the warrant and signing it. When he says to the chief priests, "What is the charge against this man?" They answer, "If he were not a criminal, we would not have brought him here." In other words, "Never mind the details, just sign."
This is an incredible piece of insolence, explicable only if they were relying on an explicit promise that this case would go through without a snag. Caiaphas presumably had explained that Jesus was a dangerous man, and unless he were dealt with swiftly and without giving his followers a chance to react, there was danger of a major uprising.

So here they were, delivering the prisoner at the crack of dawn as arranged, to be sentenced and nailed up before most of the city was stirring. And now Pilate was, for no apparent reason, having second thoughts. No wonder that his accusers feel double-crossed, and that their response betrays their indignation.

Pilate delays, sending the prisoner to Herod in the hope of not having to make a decision himself. And by the time that Herod sends him back, there is a crowd. They have come to demand the release of the Passover prisoner.

Now few if any have come to demand the release of Jesus. Except for the disciples, who have fled in disarray, and the arresting party, almost no one in Jerusalem knows that Jesus has been arrested. Nor is someone likely to show up who has no particular prisoner in mind that he wants released, but who plans to vote for someone or other when he gets there. In fact, most of the crowd consists of partisans of Barabbas, and have come for the express purpose of getting him released.

Years ago I heard a sermon in which the preacher spoke of how the crowd chose Barabbas over Jesus, and reminded us that Barabbas was a murderer, and that it was as if the crowd had a choice between Jesus and George Sidney Sitts (a then-famous multiple murderer -- today he would have said Ted Bundy).

But surely this misses the point. Barabbas was condemned for murder and insurrection. In the eyes of those who favored armed resistance to Rome, he was a freedom fighter -- less a Ted Bundy than a Nelson Mandela, or, if you like, a Joe Hill.

The English writer Dorothy L. Sayers, in her radio play The Man Born to be King, suggests an Irish parallel. Suppose that in the days before Irish home rule, during "the troubles," you are an Irishman in Dublin, and it is St. Patrick's Day. Suppose for the sake of illustration that it is the custom that every year on that day, the English governor general must release a prisoner selected by the Dublin crowd.

This year, good old Paddy Murphy is in jail, sentenced to be hanged because he blew up a bridge that a British troop train was crossing. So we are all going down to Government House this morning to shout, "Free Paddy Murphy! Free Paddy Murphy!"

Here we are now, at the back of the crowd, almost a block away from the balcony on which the governor general (may his bones rot!) has just made his appearance. A great roar has gone up from the crowd. "Free Paddy Murphy!" On the balcony, the governor general (may his bones rot!) is waving his arms and trying to get the crowd to quiet down so that he can speak. People are quieting down a little, expecting him to announce the freeing of Paddy Murphy. But no, he is saying something to the effect that he has another prisoner in mind that he would rather free instead.

Now the crowd is really roaring, and we are shouting along with everyone else. The nerve of the fellow! The rule is that he has to free the man that we pick, and does he think that he can take the choice away from us and set someone else free instead? If he can get away with that, we might as well not have the St. Patrick's Day Amnesty at all. But in fact he is not going to get away with it. If he tries, we'll see to it that he has a riot on his hands. Altogether now, boys. "Free Paddy Murphy! Free Paddy Murphy!"

Fine. The governor general has backed down. I knew he would. He doesn't want a riot on his record. So Paddy Murphy is free and the other fellow is to be hanged. Who was the other fellow? I didn't quite catch his name, and it really doesn't matter. I suppose it is a shame that he's got to hang, but it was him or Paddy, and what counts is that Paddy got off, and that we showed the governor general (may his bones rot!) that we know our rights and that he can't bluff us out of them.

All this, of course, takes Pilate completely off-balance. He has managed the whole thing badly. When the case first came to him, he could have ordered the prisoner released on the spot. Instead, he has the brain-wave about passing the buck to Herod. When Herod simply sends the prisoner back, the crowd has assembled by this time. Knowing (if he was in Jerusalem the previous Sunday he could not help knowing) that Jesus was extremely popular with the people, he assumes that he can talk the crowd into choosing Jesus for the Passover Amnesty.

When this blows up in his face, he has effectively tied his own hands. By offering the crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, he has said, "We have here two prisoners, both condemned to death." Having said that, he cannot turn around and say, "I was just kidding about Jesus of Nazareth. Of course he is innocent and I never intended to sentence him to anything."

To do that would be to acknowledge to the crowd that he had tried to cheat them, had tried to get them to waste their vote on a man who did not need it. Pilate has already convicted the prisoner and passed sentence without noticing it, and there is no way out.


What is the practical application of these considerations? What do they do for our practice, as opposed to our historical curiosity?

First, they guide us in making statements about the Crucifixion and the role of the Jews therein that meet the tests of truthfulness, fairness, and goodwill. Christian statements on the subject have not always done so, and it is important that they should.

Second, they guide us in our own thinking about the Passion of Our Lord. It is easy to think of history and conflict in terms of good guys and bad guys. Why did Nero persecute the Christians? Because he was one of the bad guys. Period. Why did Caiaphas want Jesus dead? Because Caiaphas was a wicked man. And of course this means that we would never behave like Nero, or Caiaphas, or Pilate, or Herod (either Herod Antipas or his father Herod the Great at Bethlehem a generation earlier). We may cut a few corners every now and then, but sheer wickedness for its own sake is not our style.

In fact it is not as simple as that. Let us look at the record:
So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, "What are we to do? For his man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation should not perish." (John 11:47-50)
There you have Caiaphas' motives plainly set forth, and they are defensible and in some respects praiseworthy. Many times in Caiaphas' lifetime men had risen up and incited the Jewish people to strike a blow for national independence. Some of them had claimed to be the messiah. Some had performed, or were believed by many to have performed, miracles. All had ended in disaster, with severe repressions from the Romans.

Caiaphas had every reason to fear that with the next uprising all traces of Jewish liberty would be stamped out. Certainly he had grounds for arguing that it was better to kill one potential leader of a rebellion than let him survive to lead thousands to their deaths. A general who will not sacrifice one man to save a battalion has no business in uniform.

Do we ever reason like this, concentrating so on the big picture that we neglect the immediate issues of right and wrong that are before us? Perhaps not. Most of us are not in a position to be faced with policy decisions on a large scale.

Very well then, let us look at the crowd. If they had assembled that morning out of sheer malice and wickedness, because they had heard that a completely innocent man was on trial and they wanted to make sure that he was convicted, then their actions would have no lesson for us. But in fact they were there for the perfectly legitimate purpose of getting a freedom fighter out of the clutches of the occupation troops.

Intent on their purpose, they did not stop to think when Pilate put forward an alternative. They simply thrust it aside and demanded what they had come to demand, seeing in Pilate's suggestion only a distraction from the business at hand.

Are we ever like that? Do we ever pursue a goal with a single-mindedness that keeps us from stopping to consider who might get hurt in the process? If so, then let us remember Our Lord's words: "What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me."


We have seen how the Holy Scriptures narrate the events leading up to the Crucifixion. Now, what do they say about blame for the events?

On two occasions, Peter, addressing Jewish audiences, speaks of them as involved in the killing of Jesus:
"Men of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works which God did through him in your midst, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." (Acts 2:22-23)

"Men of Israel, the God of our fathers glorified his child Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him."
(Acts 3:12-13)
However, when Paul is addressing a synagogue audience in Pisidian Antioch, he says:
"Brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you that fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him or understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning him. Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed." (Acts 13:26-28)
The distinction is clear. Peter is addressing crowds in Jerusalem, the first address less than two months after the Crucifixion, and the second shortly thereafter. It is probable that both audiences included persons who had been present when Jesus was condemned. But Paul, addressing Jews outside Jerusalem, says, not "You killed him," but "They of Jerusalem killed him."

There is no suggestion in the New Testament that "the Jews" as a body were responsible for the Crucifixion. The most that can be argued is that the writers think that "they of Jerusalem" were responsible.

Now Christians have been accustomed to view the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second temple in A.D. 70 as a punishment for the Crucifixion. And in support of this, we have Christ's own words as he wept over the city (Luke 19:41-44 and Matthew 23:37-39). What are we to make of this?

I reply that a historian who refused to put any religious interpretation at all on his data nevertheless would have good grounds for connecting the crowd's choice of Barabbas over Jesus with the fall of the city a generation later.

The people were offered a choice between two leaders, one offering spiritual renewal and the other political and military action aiming at national independence. They chose the latter. Given the strength of Rome, and Rome's willingness to use that strength, the choice was suicidal. A purely secular historian might have listened to the crowd that day and said, "Now I know that the sack of this city by the Romans is inevitable."

A Jewish friend to whom I made this point asked, "But why do you blame the Jews of that day for aspiring to political freedom and national independence? In what other people would such a goal be considered anything but admirable?"

I said: "One answer would be that the Jews had a calling not to be like the other nations, and that therefore what is allowed to other peoples might not be allowed to them" (1 Samuel 8:7,19-20).

It is not that political aspirations are wrong in themselves, but that they cannot take first place with those called to serve God. But in fact, I remind you that our hypothetical historian is carefully steering clear of religious and moral judgments. He is not saying that it is wrong for the Jews to fight Rome for their independence. He is only saying that if they do, they are bound to lose -- which they did.


So, when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but that a riot was about to begin, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children." (Matthew 27:24-25)

Here we have the people solemnly cursing themselves. But one thing is missing -- a voice thundering from heaven, "So be it!" It is written: "How can I curse whom God has not cursed?" (Numbers 23:8). A curse, even on oneself, is powerless if God does not ratify it. Jesus, as He was being crucified, said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Does anyone suppose that his words carried less weight with the Father than theirs did?

I regret to say that I have heard one person argue that this prayer was spoken only on behalf of the Roman soldiers, not on behalf of the Jewish rulers, since they knew what they were doing. This contradicts the words of Peter: "Brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers" (Acts 3:17).

On the other hand, the fact remains that Matthew has preserved for us the words of the crowd. Since he clearly did not preserve every word spoken that day, it appears that he thought these words significant. What then is their meaning?

There are no grounds for applying them to the Jewish people as such. The application must be narrower, to the then inhabitants of Jerusalem and their immediate offspring, the next generation; or broader, to all the peoples of the earth.

As we have already noted, they are applicable to the sack of Jerusalem, and it is largely the crowd front of Pilate's hall, and their children, who would bear the brunt of that sack when it came a generation later.

On the other hand, they are applicable to the whole human race. In the Law of Moses, we find that blood is taken as a symbol of guilt. To say that A's blood is on B is to say that B bears the responsibility and the guilt for the death of A. But blood is also taken as a sign of purification. When a leper is declared to be well again, and clean of his former disease, he is smeared and sprinkled with blood (Leviticus 14:6,7,17). When the covenant is ratified at Sinai between God and the people of Israel, they are sprinkled with blood (Exodus 24:8). When a priest is consecrated to the service of the Lord, he is smeared and sprinkled with blood (Exodus 29:20; Leviticus 8:23,30) In like manner the blood of Christ is on every member of the human race, either for guilt and condemnation, or for cleansing, incorporation into the covenant, and consecration.

May God grant it to each of us to receive it for the latter.

Monday, March 18, 2002

elmo the outlaw

Today I read my daughter and foster son a Sesame Street book featuring You Know Who giving safety tips. A dull book, despite the writers' halfhearted attempts to make it humorous with silly safety tips and illustrations.

The story became a lot more interesting when I started making up my own story, one only loosely connected with the pictures. It appears Elmo is in the middle of an attempt to destroy the world, and only the concerted efforts of the other Muppets thwart him, although he he still sends rampaging pachyderms down Sesame Street, launches an all-out assault on the planet from orbit and sics a pack of wolves on Bert at the zoo. (Best part is when I do Elmo's voice and say, "Now Elmo will launch his suborbital bombs! Hee hee hee hee hee!")

My daughter loved it, and asked me to read it to her three times.

sesame street in heaven

PBS will still have Sesame Street in heaven, but the Count will be gone to remove his occultic influence on the show, and Elmo will be digitally removed as well (and digitally cast into the Abyss). Less annoying Muppets will be inserted in his place.

Monday, March 11, 2002

notice any differences?

The terrorists struck six months ago, Sept. 11, 2001. In one horrifying day they destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, and killed thousands of people.

Some pundits are saying the shock of what we witnessed was short-lived, and that within six weeks it was business as usual in America and around the world.

How has your life changed since Sept. 11?

Saturday, March 09, 2002

Once you understand ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ it’s not so bad

For some reason — I suspect it's because of the overly saccharin flavor of the 1939 MGM Studios movie — "The Wizard of Oz" has become almost as popular on the children's stage as it has for TV.

Watching the movie with my 4- year-old daughter recently, I think I made it as far the Munchkins before 1 became hyperglycemic and collapsed on the floor.

My wife found me about an hour later, deep in a coma, when she came to investigate the fruity smell that had begun to permeate the house. She had to play "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Brazil" for seven days straight before she could revive me.

As it was, some smart aleck had switched the DVD for "Brazil" with "It's a Wonderful Life," and she nearly lost me.

The truth is, watching "The Wizard of Oz" doesn't have to be a nearly fatal experience for anyone.

The first thing to consider is the nature of villainy. It's easy to peg the Wicked Witch of the West for the villain because we've been brought up on a steady diet of antagonists who look evil.

Today's children are used to deformed dark lords like Voldemort and giant flaming catseyes like Sauron. The Wicked Witch of the West not only is green, she has a pointy hat and a broomstick, and she has a wicked cackle. Cruelest of all, in Baum's book, she threatens to make Dorothy do housework.

Pish-posh, I tell you. We should be so lucky to live in a world where evil has bad breath and can be identified so easily, or where the bad guy always has horns on his head. The world isn't that simple. Even the Devil himself, when he can't appear as an angel of light, usually can manage at least to look like a newspaper editor or the secretary of education.

If you look at the witch's motivation, she's actually very harmless. All she wants is the ruby slippers that belonged to her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East, the poor woman who had the misfortune of standing where Dorothy's house landed.

That seems like a harmless enough request. If a house landed on my brother, I think the least someone could do would be to give me the shoes he was wearing at the time, as a keepsake.

(I might not be too keen on wearing them myself if they were ruby red, or even silver like the shoes in the book, but it doesn't seem likely the witches were called wicked because they had impeccable fashion sense.)

Be that as it may, the witch wants her sister's slippers. But for reasons not readily apparent, Glinda, who has been introduced as the Good Witch of the North, decides to put the slippers on Dorothy's feet.

It's important to note that there's no discussion here. Glinda doesn't ask Dorothy if she wants to wear the slippers. She doesn't even check to see if the colors will go well with what Dorothy is wearing. She just twinkles her magic wand, and voila! Dorothy is now wearing the ruby slippers of a dead woman.

In the process, she also receives the enmity of the Wicked Witch of the West, who is prepared to make Dorothy fold the laundry to get them back, if it comes to that.

Now you might think that since all Dorothy wants is to go home and that since Glinda is a good witch, she might be willing to give her a hand. But no, Glinda insists that the only person who can help Dorothy is the Wizard of Oz, the ruler of a far-off city.

So Dorothy has to trek all the way to Oz, picking up help as she goes from such unlikely sources as the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and Elton John. In the movie, she has the added travail of hair that can't decide how it's supposed to be done, with pigtails that change their length at regular intervals and frequently don't match.

When Dorothy finally does reach Oz, with the bad hair days and terrible songs now just painful memories, the wizard reveals that he has a longstanding grudge with the wicked witch himself and sends Dorothy to get the witch's broomstick.

It's during this point of the story that Dorothy is captured, and her friends muster the courage, compassion and musical talent no one ever knew they had to rescue her. They not only rescue her, they get the broom and kill the Wicked Witch of the West in the process.

By now, it should become increasingly clear why Glinda gave Dorothy the slippers. When she landed in Oz, Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch of the East. Now she and her friends have killed the Wicked Witch of the West Once they return to Oz, Toto the annoying yipyip dog reveals to everyone that "Great and Powerful Oz" is a con man who has been using his razzle-dazzle and flair for the theatrical to lord it over the superstitious residents of Oz. Disgraced, he leaves Oz in a balloon and is never seen again.

At this point, with two wicked witches dead and the wizard exposed as a charlatan, Dorothy unknowingly has created a tremendous power vacuum in the political and magical structure of Oz.

Who is left to fill that vacuum? Glinda, obviously. The Good Witch of the South is mentioned but never appears. One can only imagine how Glinda dispatched her other rival before dropping a house on the Wicked Witch of the East.

Dorothy, dupe that she is, laments that she has no way to go home. But the truth is that she could have gone home any time, as every fan of the story knows, by clicking her heels. That is exactly what she does, and she remains blissfully unaware of the horrors she has unleashed upon Oz.

With Dorothy now gone, we can only imagine how Glinda has enslaved the Munchkins, melted the Tin Man for spare parts, and sicced flying monkeys on any who dare to oppose her iron-fisted rule.

I've shared my vision for "The Wizard of Oz" with several friends and co-workers, and none of them has been able to find any holes in my thinking. Several have remarked that they never will be able to see the movie the same way again.

I hope you have a similar experience the next time a small child convinces you to pop the movie into the DVD player. If not, make sure you have a copy of "Brazil" handy

Friday, March 08, 2002


Got the kiddies to sleep again today, after my wife tried unsuccessfully for close to an hour to get Evangeline to take a nap.

This is coming with increased frequency of late, which has me concerned ...

When did I stop being a dad and become a mom?

reporting the news

There are several ways I've seen reporters gather news, some of which I think are more credible and more responsible than others, at least used as a primary news source.

The first is to gather news that comes to you. When you work at a newspaper -- and, I imagine, at any other news outlet as well -- you are bombarded by news releases, announcements, reports and sniping, all clamoring for your attention and all claiming to be the most important thing in the history of Western civilization. Lazy reporters rely on these for their news stories, which gets really bad at the upper levels, since releases are so doctored ahead of time and so manufactured that the truthfulness of the claims is questionable at best.

Second is to cover news conferences and government meetings in general. News conferences usually are manufactured events with used for cheesy photo ops and -- in my opinion -- short on actual news content. The only news conferences I ever gave a flying patootie about were the ones held by the prosecutor's office or the police. Of course I'm referring to the local level, which is where I've worked.

The problem I see with chasing meetings and news conferences for stories is that before long you end up thinking like a politician and not like the people you're supposed to represent; i.e., the public, your readers. While I'm sure many politcians in New Jersey -- and many of the commentators as well -- thought Bob Franks had a nifty-neato idea in the gubernatorial primary in bringing back the state auditor, it wasn't an issue that mattered much to Joe and Jane New Jersey, nor did it really support his claims to be a political outsider.

The thing I found gave me some of my best news stories, and what I always urged my reporters to do, was to get out of the stinking office, away from the phones, and meet the people. I talked with residents at least as much at a municipal or school board meeting as I did with their elected officials.

After all, what it really boils down to is "Who gives a flying patootie?" Let the planning board members get worked up over zoning issues, lot size and minimum lot frontage. That doesn't fly the patootie of my readers, and it doesn't fly mine. What does fly them is "If you make this change, I can't sell my land for as much money" and "The car dealership is too close to the road."

I also got a lot of my story ideas by getting to know the residents. That's how I found out about the lady who was trying to save an old cemetery, another lady who was working for preserving the township's history, some of the conflicts within the police department, a good bit of information on a teachers strike, and so on.

Of course, a lot of news judgment comes in the form of "Does it interest me?" and "Can I convince my editor it's a good story?" I once read a fascinating story about personalized license plates. Most writers couldn't have found the story there.

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

eric clapton

A friend of mine asks, "Is there anything Eric Clapton can't do on guitar?"

Puh-lease. As if he's so special. I can think of plenty things Clapton can't do on guitar:
Sound like a tuba.
Summon a herd of elephants from deepest Africa.
Direct traffic.
The backstroke.
Come on and impress me.

Tuesday, March 05, 2002

unhealthy speech

The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.

Contrarily, the French have lots of fat in their diets and also suffer fewer heart attacks than either the British or Americans.

Conclusion: Eat what ever the heck you want. It's speaking English that kills you.

Friday, March 01, 2002

faith and reason

I just took an interesting if slanted quiz intended to measure the internal consistency of a person's belief system, particularly where it pertains to the existence or nonexistence of God. I got to bite the bullet on the evolutionary question, but I do have to disagree with two of the tenets of this quiz (where it claims I took a hit):

1) I do not believe that it is a choice of God either arbitrarily defines good and evil OR God follows a moral code greater than himself. My understanding is that God himself is the basis for our delineations of good and evil; therefore, it is not logical to say that he could turn the standards of good and evil on their head.

The question as it was posed in the survey reminded me of the Aristotlean question about whether deeds were good because God declares them so or whether God declares actions good because they are. The latter suggests that there is a moral standard higher than God to which he can be held accountable; the former, that God is essentially capricious in his declarations.

The answer, I believe, is neither: God himself is the standard from which we derive our notions of morality. Since God is not a capricious being, I cannot picture him creating a world that does not follow his character.

Of course, it's probably a false dichotomy to say the moral laws are derived from God's character but the physical laws are not. The Bible even suggests that the two are intertwined, when God declares of the pagan peoples inhabiting Canaan before the Israelites arrive that "The land will vomit them out before you."

2) Some things, by their very definitions, are impossible. Saying that God is omnipotent and can do whatever he wants does not mean that he can make square circles or make 1+1=72, at least not without rewriting the entire universe and thereby rendering the current sense of the question moot. Thus the authors of the quiz are engaging in a bit of sophistry rather than logic.

things my daughter has said

One day last week, I took Evangeline and her foster brother, Isaac, out on a few errands. As I took off her sweatshirt after we had returned, I inadvertently pulled her shirt sleeve off her arm as well.

Evangeline looked down at her arm, which was now sticking out from under her shirt, and at her sleeve, which was now hanging loose from her shoulder and called out, "Daddy, help! My arm fell off."

On Friday, we were in the car again when I was checking on the kids through the rear-view mirror. Evangeline had made eye contact with me, so when I flipped the rear-view mirror back up so I could watch the vehicle behind me, she said, "Uh-oh! Daddy's turned off. Turn Daddy back on!"

Then there's the time she called 9-1-1 while I was in the bathroom ...