Tuesday, December 30, 2003

science lesson

Schrodinger came up with the quantum theory that the state of particles could best be described in probability fields. Rather than saying with certainty where a particle is, we can only say with varying degrees of probability where it is; thus a particle potentially exists in many places at the same time.

Suppose that your computer is the range of all probability, and we're trying to track a quantum particle as it travels from the top middle of your screen to the bottom middle. From past experience, we know that 40 percent of the time, our chosen particle travels a route somewhere within the middle third of your screen. Next to that middle third are paths it has taken in the past with less frequency. Maybe the next strip on each side has been traveled 20 percent of the time, and the strip after that only 5 percent of the time, and so on, out to the edges where there is only an infinitessimal probability that our quantum particle will travel that route. (More or less your standard bell curve distribution.)

This quantum field is actually useful for some sort of mathematical/physics thing I dimly remember from some reading I did in high school.

Anyway, Shrodinger, whose umlauts I am too lazy to recreate at this point, illustrated his principle with this suggested mechanism: Take a cat and put it in a box. Elsewhere there is a radioactive isotope that is going to decay; at the point it decays, a poison gas will be released into the box where the cat is, and the cat will die. You have no way of knowing the state of the particle and therefore have no way of knowing if the cat is alive or dead.

Time elapses. At this point, there is a 10 percent chance the isotope has decayed. Is that cat alive? There's a 90 percent chance it is.

More time elapses. The isotope has a 25 percent chance of having decayed. Is that cat alive, or is it dead? There's a 75 percent chance it is alive, and a 25 percent chance we will need to explain to the university president why it was necessary to poison a cat during a physics lecture.

For purposes of the experiment, the cat as an entity does not exist. It exists in a state of probability; it may be a cat, or it may be that it wouldn't voom even if you put 80,000 volts of electricity through it. For this reason, the principle of probability in quantum mechanics became known as Schrodinger's Cat.

Fred Pohl (?) did a fairly decent -- or so it seemed at the time, to me -- sci-fi novel where he applied Schrodinger's ideas to spacetime, where we know the startpoint and endpoint of the universe, from Big Bang to Big Crunch. Which path does the universe take in-between? Well, we live upon one probability strand, but there are other timelines of other probabilities -- alternate timelines, where history worked out differently. On those, you will find Americas where 9-11 was prevented, or ones where Gore was president and it happened. On still others, Bill Bradley or John McCain was president at the time of 9-11. There is another timeline exactly like the one we are in now, but I used a different example of the timelime, or didn't fix my typo in the word "example," and so on. In Pohl's novel, and in later books too, I believe, people who travel across those probability lines, from one alternate history to another, are called Quantum Cats.

And this concludes today's lesson in quantum theory.

stages of faith

1. Awakening
The person awakens to spiritual things and to the presence and love of God. This can happen suddenly, in an instant conversion, or it can take place over months or years: The person becomes aware of God's love as never before, and the experience comes with feelings of joy and even exaltation.

2. Purgation.
Having experienced the love and holiness of God, the believer recognizes that she is out of sync with God. Thus begins a period of mortification, the killing off of desires, habits, and states of mind that get in the way of God. Often serious disciplines are taken up -- longer prayer, fasting, self-examination retreats, sexual chastity, relinquishing possessions -- to conquer spiritual sloth and pride. The period is characterized by moral effort and spiritual pain.

3. Illumination.
Now more morally and spiritually honed, the believer becomes joyfully aware of God at a new level. The knowing in the awakening phase is like enjoying the light of a full moon on a cloudless night; like basking in the noontime sun on a summer day. Many, if not most, people do not proceed beyond stage 3.

4. Dark night of the soul.
The most terrible experience is sometimes experienced at various points in each stage, and sometimes as an extended period of its own. Sometimes called "mystic death," it entails the final and complete purification of the self. It takes its name from a book by John of the Cross, who described the experience.

The chief characteristic is absolute loss of God, a sense that the sun has been completely obliterated. Desolation and despair are the usual emotions the seeker experiences. It isn't that God literally withdraws, but he does withdraw every emotional benefit the seeker has so far derived from faith. The seeker continues through the spiritual loneliness knowing that this "spiritual crucifixion" is necessary: One must learn to seek God for God's sake, not for the sake of the happiness God brings.

5. Union.
In this stage, the seeker enjoys God not as an illumination, in which God shines down upon her; here she becomes one with God. Again, this is not one in the sense that the seeker is destroyed, but one in the sense that husband and wife become one. This stage is often called "Mystical Marriage."

In my experience, this goes in cycles. In the sense of salvation, the Old Man dies once, but in the long haul, his death is a prolonged and painful thing. He appears to die, but he is only asleep, and when God appears to withdraw, the Old Man stirs and wakens again, and the flesh cries out in rebellion over the unfairness of God and his wanton cruelty.

Eventually we submit those areas to God again and find that completion comes in the Giver and not in the gifts, and we find that we can experience the Giver by walking in his ways and being like him to others around us. That's what the list refers to as unity, but it never lasts. God is very jealous; he does not share us with anyone, not even with ourselves, and he will not be content until we are wholly is. Each drink from Christ's cup is a deeper and more bitter draught, but it also fills us with more of his character and life.

I also have to say in all honesty that I think I've only been through that stage once, when my son returned to his birth parents. There have been bad times before, but none of them ever came close to the agony that I went through in the months leading up to and following Chris' departure.

I say that this period is something I would not exchange because, now that I feel I'm finally starting to see the sunlight and feel the breeze again, I've also getting a sense of what I've learned. It's hard to explain in a nutshell, and I don't feel like trying to reduce it to words again at this moment, but essentially it's been a time for depending upon Christ in greater amounts, for embracing the Cross to the bitter end, learning to love others endlessly and experiencing Christ's presence amid meaningless suffering. If I have suffered for doing what is right, and if my son has suffered for no reason at all, then so has Christ. He not only understands, but he shares in our suffering and we have shared in his. And though the experience still makes me cry, that's something I wouldn't trade for anything.

Rather than seeing the stages -- especially the last two -- as exclusive options, I'm thinking of them more of something that we reach by degrees. After the terrors of the dark night come new depths of understanding and closeness to God that bring us closer to what I would call "wholeness" but is labeled here as "unity." One never experiences the entire thing in this lifetime, but by degrees and by the grace of God we start to find our fulfillment in him and not in what he gives us. That's beyond the euphoria of Stage 3 -- what I call "infatuation with God" -- which is why I didn't check that option.

Grief and pain have a way of wakening us to a new understanding of Christ's love and mercy, and I would say anyone who has gone through the long dark night -- anyone who knows that spot where Despair sinks her hook into your heart; anyone who remembers being at that dark and lonely place where there was every sign that God had abandoned them but still said, "Not my will but yours be done"; anyone who has cried out into the void for an answer, for a reason, for hope and heard only the dispassionate response "Follow me," and done just that -- anyone who has survived God's violent love, at some level, through the grace of God, has found wholeness in him.

My own limited experience indicates that the roads to Calvary and Zion are one and the same, and that the more closely we follow Christ, the more it is going to hurt. In the end, the Cross will kill us, but by that time, we will be so full of the light of Christ that his grace will carry us through.

I've been through the Long Dark Night, and it ain't pretty. But I wouldn't trade that pain or grief for any other joy.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

key life lessons

"Everything I need to know about life I learned from Monty Python"

1. Never answer the door for an encyclopedia salesman unless he's a burglar
2. If you can't think of a name for your pet, call it Eric
3. Never be afraid of Scotsmen on Horses unless they play tennis
4. Lupines make excellent currency
5. When crossing the street, don't trust Keep Left signs
6. When buying a bed ask for the dog kennels
7. Never suppress a man's right to gestate a fetus in a box
8. Always keep your cat confused
9. To be named Bruce even if you're not Bruce is acceptable
10. Never underestimate the power of a bicycle repairman
11. It's not polite to stare at anyone even if they have two buttocks
12. White mice are very musical
13. Always read the ingredients before eating chocolate
14. Remember to always ask politely when you want more beans
15. If you become king, remember to brush up on your knowledge of swallows and gravity
16. Always check carefully before buying any parrots
17. Never trust strangers in suits of armor carrying chickens
18. Keep your eye out for 16 ton weights falling out of nowhere
19. Never expect the Spanish Inquisition
20. Always be careful of moose bites
21. When asking to leave the military before you get killed always say "please"
22. Never tell your waiter if you have a dirty fork
23. If you're a Colonel, you CAN stop the sketch and anything else you deem too silly indeed
24. When writing a formal complaint, always address it "Dear Sirs," even if it's to your mother
25. If you are ever on the game show Blackmail, get to a phone!
26. If your name is Carol, don't go into show business with a group of British crazies
27. Being a loony is not only a privilege but a good waste of time
28. The words "knickers","bum" and "semprini" are part of the naughty bits *
29. "Lord Reginal" is not a naughty bit
30. Albatrosses do not come with wafers
31. Now the penguin on top of your television set will explode
32. NEVER trust Hungarian phrasebooks
33. Be careful not to get squished by huge feet from the sky
34. Not everyone likes SPAM
35. Lumberjacks are okay
36. There is nothing quite so wonderful as money
37. When all else fails, have an argument
38. When you need to identify a bishop, look for the tattoo on the back of its neck
39. A witch will float, as will a duck, and you can build a bridge out of rocks, but wood burns and so do witches.
40. When learning to walk, make it silly
41. Never think twice about waking up the neighbor if you're a upperclass twit
42. Tinny words are not as nice as woody ones
43. It's important to know how not to be seen
44. Don't even ask about the Camembert; you know the cat's eaten it
45. Don't think that rabbits are nice, harmless animals
46. Pantomime horses make the best secret agents
47. Learning to fly means more than being suspended from the ceiling and flapping your arms
48. Never trust a show to end when the end credits start rolling
49. Always check your seat for hidden pigs
50. The most dangerous of animals is a clever sheep
51. The earth is banana-shaped
52. Fresh fruit can be dreadful weapons
53. When answering the phone, remember to check your shoe-size
54. Nine out of ten British housewives can't tell Whizzo butter from a dead crab
55. Policemen make wonderful friends (And boy, can they sing!)
56. When speaking on television, indicate pauses with appropriate gestures

... and most of all,
57. Always look on the bright side of life.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

'o holy night'

I've only ever sung "O Holy Night" once, but to this day it remains a Christmas hymn that makes me soar.

It was Christmas 1990 in Haiti, when I was teaching at Quisqueya Christian School. We had a staff Christmas party. This was in the tropics, mind you -- about as un-Christmasy as I can imagine. No snow. No evergreen trees. It was hot, dry and dusty as all get-out, and I was a bachelor living more than 1,500 miles from the family I had celebrated Christmas with 20 times previously.

Jim Muchmore was playing his guitar, the kerosense lamps were flickering -- I don't think the power had even been on that night -- and as we sang "O Holy Night," the worship was one of the most tremendous Christmasy experiences I've ever had. That scene is burned indelibly into my mind and I see it again whenever I hear this song.

old ghosts

Way back in 1988-89 when I was a college freshman, I had a fairly close friendship with a woman named Sharon. At the time she was going steady with a football player from another school -- and, you know, this is getting pretty hard to write. I have 15 years' distance from the situation now, so I think my perspective is a little clearer now. Let me tackle it another way, now that I've rewritten this paragraph 32 times.

We were pretty close. I characterized our relationship, to myself at least, as one where we were fairly transparent with one another. We talked about our goals, our struggles, our faith and our pasts with an openness that I had never known before. I don't know that anyone ever considered us a couple -- certainly she didn't -- but I wouldn't have minded. I even asked her to go out with me, knowing full well that she was dating somebody at another school.

Know something? This isn't getting easier to write about. I'm getting more confused the longer I write.

Essentially what it boils down to is I was in love with her. She was the first woman I ever had those feelings for, and even now 15 years later I'm stirring up something as I think about freshman year.

Sophomore year was completely different. Sharon distanced herself from me dramatically. Previously when I had visited her room, we could talk for hours. Now, she pretty much pretended I wasn't there. She was still friendly to me, but there was a very big and invisible wall. At the time I told myself that she had been bothered by how close we had become and had distanced herself from me. That probably is a bunch of post-adolescent hogwash, and the truth is that she didn't share my attraction and hoped that with distance I would eventually leave her alone.

I did, but oh how it hurt. It still hurts thinking about it, and I'm happily married to Natasha now and have been for five years. Throughout the rest of college, I felt like I had been ripped in two and kept waiting for her to come to her senses and "come back" to me. It wasn't until she got engaged to someone else that I realized that not only wasn't I in the game, I was playing the wrong sport. I must have held the candle out for Sharon for four years after my freshman year before I finally saw the light.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that men are essentially a bunch of losers. When we've been in a relationship with a woman and thought that she might be The One, it's damn near impossible for us ever to get her out of our mind and stop thinking that What If is really Should Be, and that given the right combination of events, things will work out the way we know they should. Am I making sense?

Probably this is why the Song of Solomon cautions us not to awaken love until the proper time arrives.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

My last wishes when I ring down the curtain and join the choir invisible

When I die, I want what's done with my body to be what makes a difference for the living.

This seems only appropriate, all things considered. What happens to my body won't make much difference to me since I'll be dead. Stuff me afterward with all the sawdust you want, cremate me and stick my ashes in an urn on the mantlepiece, or turn me into fertilizer. I really won't care. I'll already be dead.

That's why I want things to benefit the living. I want all my harvestable organs and blood removed. Give someone else a chance.

Cremate me if you want. Scattering the ashes makes a degree of sense since it symbolizes that I am being borne away to heaven, but only if my family wants it that way. My wife's dad was cremated after dying while she was a college sophomore. Not only didn't she get to see his body, she doesn't have a place to visit. Kind of a double-whammy.

My grandmother was cremated before her funeral in 1991, and it was hard for me to feel a sense of closure because I never saw her body. Cremation's fine, I just wish emotionally that I had been able to say goodbye.

Death is a long way off, I hope; and when it comes, I hope to greet it with as much sass and snark as I've greeted life. But when I say goodbye, I want to do it with a grace that befits the people around me. Give them what they need, and let me go my way in peace.

Copyright © 2003 by David Learn. Used with permission.

'the enemy within'

There's an episode from the first season of Classic Trek where a transporter malfunction splits Kirk into two halves. The first half contains all his nobler characteristics: gentle manner, restraint, compassionate, friendly and so on -- but as the sheep, it is incapable of command and making decisions. The second is his "dark" half: self-indulgent, brutal, violent and incapable of control. Call it the Wolf. The Wolf attacks a crew member and even tries to rape Yeoman Janice Rand.

The episode's quite interesting from a psychological perspective, and it's even been used to assist some psychiatrict patients by getting them to see that both sides of their personality are essential for them to be a fully functioning human being.

Now at the end of the episode, when they fixed the transporter and reintegrated the two halves of Kirk, he remarks to Spock, "I've seen a side of me no one should have to see." I think we're led to consider the Sheep to be the real Kirk since it's the one we see at the start of the episode, and so we understand that he's referring to the Wolf.

I'd argue that he's also referring to the Sheep -- that he holds the interal weakness in his much disdain as the internal predator.

Any takers?

Friday, December 19, 2003

'the undiscovered country'

"The Undiscovered Country" was decent, but it had a few flaws that I think knock it down in rank to probably the fourth-best Classic Trek film:

1) Valeris. Who the heck is she? She appears out of nowhere and yet her betrayal is supposed to catch us off-guard and to shock the other, established characters. Sorry, this completely failed to work for me. Earlier scripts called for having Kirstie Alley reprising her role of Saavik and having Saavik betray Kirk. If only "Cheers" had worked around the movie filming schedule -- Alley wanted to do the role -- it would have been tremendous. Saavik was deeply established in fans' minds because of the parts she played in TWoK and TSFS, plus her cameo is TVH. It would have shocked the bejesus out of us to see her betray the Federation, but it would have *fit*.

Thanks to the novelisations, it was generally accepted among fans that Saavik and David Marcus had been lovers, and it was the Klingons who had killed David. She would have wanted to avoid peace with the Klingons as much as anyone else. She also would have seen the logic to what she was doing; the movie as written continued her relationship with Spock and the others perfectly from where it had been; and so on. Honestly, either the "Cheers" crew should have adjusted, they should have got Robin Curtis to reprise the role; or they should have waited until there was a break in the "Cheers" filming.

2) Kirk should have died. Actually, in the earlier scripts -- I think as late as the penultimate draft -- he *did* die. It was perfect; he dives to save the Federation president and takes the phaser blast for him. It gives Kirk a hero's death, balances Gorkon's sacrifice with one from the Federation, completely exonerates Kirk of complicity in Gorkon's death, and it ties back into the words of the Klingon chancellor in Star Trek IV: "There will be no peace while Kirk lives!" Instead, he lives for no good reason.

3) Continuity errors. At the start of the movie, Sulu is commanding the USS Excelsior, which has been on a mission studying gaseous anomalies. Later on, Spock and McCoy rig up a photon torpedo with a sensor used to study gaseous anomalies so they can peg General Chang's ship. Absolutely smegging brilliant, but for one thing -- the Enterprise hasn't been studying gaseous anomalies. The Excelsior was. Again, I understand earlier drafts had Sulu's ship getting in this first critical shot -- a perfect way to pass the baton -- but that was changed so the Enterprise could get it in.

4) Too many stupid jokes and rehashed ideas. "I've been dead before," Spock quips. Kirk wrestles someone who looks just like him. (Saw that in "Whom Gods Destroy," "What are Little Girls Made of?" and "The Enemy Within," among others.) Valeris firing a phaser inside the galley just to illustrate something she could have explained very easily and without destroying a pot of mashed potatoes.

5) Mind rape. There is no way Spock would ever -- ever -- do that.

It was fun to watch the first time, but it doesn't really hold up so well to repeat viewing.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

die now

I wrote a column about Toys for Tots for the paper this week, and apparently caught everyone off-guard.

The column doesn't so much take issue with the notion of giving toys to underprivileged children as it does with the notion that this is enough, that the spirit of Christmas doesn't call us to somthing greater than merely handing out toys. Everyone at the office has known for some time that I'm not only a Christian but a former missionary, but unless I'm mistaken, interest in what I believe has just experienced an upsurge. I hope that's true among the community when the papers hit the stands tomorrow evening and Thursday.

Jesus doesn't ask merely the difficult of us; he asks us to do the impossible. The Cross is not a matter of inconvenience; it's about death. Jesus doesn't say, "Follow me and I'll give you everything you want," or even, "Make a couple sacrifices and follow me." What he says is, "Follow me and die."

I don't want that. You don't want that. None of us wants that. But that's what he calls us to. It's something that flies in the face of every ounce of who we are as people, our urge to matter, to have meaning in our lives, even to survive.

In exchange for dying now -- and he means death, real death to our selves -- he promises us not self-fulfillment or happiness, but grief, suffering, pain, and an eternity filled with a wilder, more unbelievable love than we've ever known before.

Everyone who knows me or who has read my blog, knows how I've wrestled with the grittiness of the faith. Paul and Jesus alike tell us that God is merciful and compassionate, sending rain upon the just and unjust alike.

And if we look at life that way, we do see incomparable mercy: Even men like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein have known the untrammeled joys of seeing their children born and watching them grow through infancy and into full-fledged childhood. Even miserly scrooges can be touched by the beauty of a sunset, and the worst employers have discovered loyal workers and true friends.

But if life is beautiful, it's also foul. Children are abducted, raped and murdered. Teens are tormented brutally for being too slow in gym class, for being too smart in math class, for enjoying reading in a TV world or for watching the wrong TV shows.

Men like Matthew Shepard are murdered for being gay, and teen parents who kill their newborn children are let off with probation while people who smoke marijuana pass years in a jail cell.

Power is on the side of the strong, the wicked sit in positions of authority, and the law is corrupt. It's been that way since the beginning. God appears to be either schizophrenic or indifferent, but he claims to be good.

The defining moment of history was the Cross, where Jesus took on our sins -- became our sins -- and died. At the Cross, we find expiation for our sin. At the Cross, what righteousness we have through faith comes alive and grows us into the likeness of Christ so that God sees us fully realized in his son as we never have been realized here.

At the Cross, the old man dies and the new man comes to life as everything is stripped painfully away, and at the Cross we find the full depths of God's wild and reckless love, and everything else -- including the senseless suffering of children -- finds its meaning.

What we're left with is a love that defies understanding; it's wild, it's reckless and it's destructive. It's a raging torrent that, if we let it, will sweep us away and never let us be the same again.

Every now and then, I hear strains of that music through the noise of life, and it makes me dance with reckless abandon.

Copyright © 2003 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

forget toys for tots, give a real gift

I've had about all I can take of Toys for Tots.

It's not that I think it's a bad organization, nor that I disagree with its mission of distributing toys to disadvantaged children at Christmastime. I'm just sick to death of hearing about it.

It seems like every time I turn around, someone else is collecting toys for Toys for Tots. My employer is collecting them. A real-estate office down the street is collecting them. Today I got a piece of mail from yet another organization that's collecting toys for them.

Is this the most pressing need before us as a society today? You would think from all the hype there is for Toys for Tots at Christmas, that everything is hunky-dory in America today except for some poor kids who aren't getting enough presents for Christmas.

Since this is ostensibly done as a forerunner of the Christmas spirit, let's forget about the fat guy in the red suit for a little bit. Let's look instead at the little boy whose birth Christmas originally was intended to celebrate.

It's easy to forget sometimes amid all the junk that has accumulated around Christmas that it's meant to be a religious holiday. And it's easy to forget amid all the junk that's accumulated around the religion what it is that Jesus Christ was really about.

Aside from a cryptic reference in the Roman historian Suetonis' "Twelve Caesars," and a few other remarks made by other ancient writers like Josephus, the four gospels in the New Testament are pretty much our only source of information about the life of Christ.

Those gospels record Christ as making a pretty radical call on his followers. Unlike the modern Jesus of the political and religious right, the Jesus shown in the gospels didn't push a particular moral philosophy, he didn't champion one economic system over another, and he didn't really back a political party or agenda.

One thing he did ask of his followers: Love one another.

The sort of love Jesus emulated and that his earliest followers strived to uphold wasn't some warm, fuzzy, goodwill-toward-men sort of thing. It was a no-holds-barred kind of love, one that called for putting others' needs ahead of your own. He told his followers to give everything they had for other people, to be involved in their lives, and to care for them in real and tangible ways.

He also called for giving generously to the poor. He actually told one rich young ruler "Go, sell everything you have, and then you can be my disciple," without even once cautioning him to make sure that the poor weren't welfare cheats playing the system.

His rule of love doesn't allow for discriminating between friends, enemies and strangers. Everyone deserves the same level of compassion if you want to be called a follower of Christ.

Worst of all, Jesus never promised people it would be easy. In fact, he said if you follow him closely enough, that it would kill you.

That's a powerful kind of love. It's the sort of love that reached out and took hold of me when I was a teenager on the brink of entering college. I didn't understand at the time what it was I was getting myself into when I committed myself to following Christ, but I've learned. It's been hard, but I've learned.

The lesson was burned deep into my soul last year when my wife and I, following Christ's lead, opened our home to a boy whose parents had failed him so badly that the state had put him into foster care.

I learned how bitter and painful that love can be when my foster son returned to his parents before they were ready, against his caseworker's judgement and against the judgment of social workers familiar with the case, simply because some bureaucrat at DYFS wanted to close the case.

If you ask me, that sort of agony is one hell of a better way to share the joys of the season than dropping off a bunch of toys at a business.

Where's the human connection with Toys for Tots? The most you've got is a tax-deductible purchase, a smile from some overworked employee who's been asked to handle Toys for Tots in addition to his regular duties and some vague, disembodied sense that you made some child somewhere happy for a few minutes on Christmas.


Presents are great, but you know what? They're candy. They may make children happy for a few minutes, but they're not going to do a thing to really help the child in the long run. What good is candy to a child who doesn’t have dinner? What good are toys to children who have no homes to play in? What use are presents to children with no parents to speak of?

I really don't want to hear another word about Toys for Tots, or some other toy drive to collect a bunch of gizmos and widgets that will be broken by New Year's Day.

If you want to really make Christmas a special day for somebody, become a foster parent or adopt a child. If that's too much for you, then at least go to a homeless or battered women’s shelter, and play with the kids.

No, the kids might not get the latest toys to play with, but they'll have something better.

They’ll have love.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

grammar and god

One of the things about English grammar is that it's so dynamic. Often there is not a single correct answer, but several answers that are defensible as long as you're familiar with the concepts.

Gaining a greater familiarity with language has made me feel like I understand Logos in a whole new way. Like language, you can discuss him until you're blue in the face, but he can only be understood once you experience him.

Monday, December 15, 2003

best star trek movie

  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
  • Star Trek Generations
  • Star Trek: First Contact
  • Star Trek Insurrection
  • Star Trek Nemesis

I enjoyed "The Voyage Home" the first few times I saw it, but after a few times, it reached the point that I found myself saying, "Oh, yeah. That joke again." While TVH had an important environmental message, I thought "The Wrath of Khan" was far better in terms of movie-making. Like all good sci-fi, it wasn't about the story or the neat special effects, but the characters. In this case, it was Kirk's midlife crisis and feeling that his best years were behind him; it was Khan's destructive obsession with revenge; and it was the very deep bonds of friendship among Kirk, Spock and McCoy.

It was, all things considered, first-rate science fiction, something Star Trek often has fallen short of, particularly in its more recent years.

Second places goes to ST3:TSfS.

"First Contact" had the potential to be a truly creepy monster movie with the Borg slowly assimilating the Enterprise crew, and it had the potential to be a psychological movie as it studied Picard's motivations. It made some solid moves in those diretions, but they really got too goofy when it came to Zefram Cochrane down on the planet. I could have done without a lot of that, and I could have done with a more respectable characterization of him. The way they did it was just ridiculous and made him into a buffoon rather than an inspirational person like Kirk and others saw him as.

They focused too much on the buffoonery and really failed to provide anything about him that would make him a role model or an inspiration, either to the future or to viewers.

Yeah, he came up with the warp bubble, which means he was smart. But even there, what was his reason? To get rich and buy a small island where he could be surrounded by half-naked women all the time. There are people who believe in discovery for its own sake and to improve the human condition. I don't think it would have been unreasonable to ask that Zephram Cochrane be one of those, especially since this is "Star Trek" we're talking about, which has always stressed human exploration and increasing our knowledge of ourselves and the universe.

Actually, if you read the novel "Enterprise," there is a rather compelling characterization of Cochrane there like what I'm describing. I really wish they had followed something like that instead. There are buffoons who accomplish things by accident, and many of our heroes had their weaknesses and things that made them small in ways both subtle and gross, but there are truly great men in history as well, and it demeans us all to forget that or pretend that it is not so.

As far as Star Trek V goes, I understand Shatner was under some pressure from the studio and ended up taking a bit of a fall for things he had no control over.

And it wasn't all that bad. Sybok was *completely* in character. (Interesting trivia point: Originally, the role of Sybok was meant for Sean Connery, but he opted for the role of Dr. Henry Jones in "The Last Crusade," which came out the same summer. Wtiters paid tribute to him by naming the Vulcan paradise after him: Sha Ka Ree.)

The best advice I ever had on "The Final Frontier" was to watch it like it's a very long episode. The feel of the movie actually is a lot like the original series.

best captain of the starship enterprise

Pick one:
  • Jonathan Archer
  • Robert April
  • Christopher Pike
  • James Kirk
  • Will Decker
  • Spock
  • John Harriman
  • Rachel Garret
  • Jean-Luc Picard
  • William Riker

For those who don't know but may care:
1) Jonathan Archer: Captain of the Enterprise in "Enterprise," the latest gallon of skim milk from the cash cow.
2) Robert April: First captain of NCC-1701, appeared in Star Trek: The Animated Series.
3) Christopher Pike: Succeeded April, preceded Kirk. Appeared in "The Cage" and in "The Menagerie."
4) James Kirk: Captain of the Enterprise, NCC-1701, during its five-year mission that was canceled after three years.
5) Willard Decker: Was supposed to captain a refitted Enterprise at the start of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," but Kirk, now an admiral, pulled rank to take the Enterprise out to meet Vejur.
6) Spock: Captain of the Enterprise during its tour of duty as a training vessel, in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."
7) John Harriman: Captain of the Alaska class starship Enterprise, NCC-1701-B. He appears in "Star Trek Generations" and is notable mainly for totaling his starship on its maiden voyage. The actor had a similar role in "Ferris Bueler's Day Off."
8) Rachel Garret: Captain of the Enterprise-class (?) starship Enterprise, NCC-1701-C. Her ship was destroyed and she died repelling a Romulan attack on the Klingons. She appears, due to a temporal anomaly, in "Yesterday's Enterprise."
9) Jean-Luc Picard: Captain of the Galaxy-class starship Enterprise NCC-1701-D and its successor, NCC-1701-E.
10) William Riker: Given field promotion to captain during "The Best of Both Worlds," while Picard was assimilated by the Borg.

Due to space constraints, I was unable to include Captain Jellison, who took command of the Enterprise-D for a two-episode story in the sixth season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," or Montgomery Scott, who was promoted to the rank of captain at the beginning of "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock."

Sisko and Janeway don't count for purposes of this poll, since he was captain of a space station and she was captain of Voyager.

I don't really know much about Sisko. I saw the episode with Q, and I saw "Trials and Tribble-ations," but aside from those and one or two other shows, I never really saw that much DS9. It seemed like a nice and welcome change of pace for Star Trek when I first heard about it, setting a show on the backside of Star Fleet rather than on its flagship. I never got into the show later on because it became too invovled with the war plot and the Dominion and all.

Pike, like April, might be an interesting captain, but we really don't know much about him. What appears in "The Menagerie" is almost all from "The Cage," and I'm only aware of one Star Trek novel that deals with him further. (That would be "Vulcan's Glory," by D.C. Fontana, for those keeping track.)

My personal preference is Kirk. Unlike Picard, he didn't surrender every time he faced a hostile; he demonstrated moral restraint when he had the advantage over a fallen enemy; and also unlike Picard, he actually led the Enterprise into the unknown and explored space. True, he had more casualties, but he also was an explorer, where the potential for casualties was much greater. Kirk also wasn't a self-righteous moralist like Picard.

Friday, December 12, 2003

internet taglines

Best tagline:

  • Jesus saves, but Gretzky gets it on the rebound. He shoots! He scores!
  • Jesus loves you. (Everyone else thinks you're a jerk.)
  • Jesus saves. Everyone else takes 3d6 damage.
  • Jesus saves sinners and redeems them for valuable cash prizes.
  • Jesus saves. ShopRite saves you more.
  • Honk if you are Jesus.
  • In case of Rapture, driver will be rethinking his doctrine.


Wednesday, December 10, 2003

'outlaws of sherwood'

I read "Outlaws of Sherwood," and was highly disappointed by it. It failed to be much of a feminist retelling of Robin Hood, and really, it failed to be much of a retelling of Robin Hood at all, when you get down to it.

Yeah, Marian was the better archer, and it was her performance at the archery contest that made the legend come alive, but it's really not much of a feminist retelling simply to give the women the men's jobs and have them do a better job at it, is it? That's saying we're interchangeable and pretends that women are men with a few differences in terms of structure, and utterly fails to praise the womanly qualities that really put men to shame.

Granted, it was better than Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Mists of Avalon," which had as its two main theses that men are scum and Christianity is the worst thing to happen to civilization because it's a horrid, hateful religion. It had a few moments of strength, but a lot of its potential was squandered by what I assume was Bradley's smallness.

more electric company

And here's the latest: I have a tape of the first episode of "The Electric Company," courtesy of the Sesame Workshop.

It was a blast watching this, and not just for me. Evangeline sat and watched the whole thing, utterly enraptured. A friend of Natasha's was coming by to go some place with her, and Tracey got stuck in the living room with me, watching it and wanting to know how I got my hands on it.

The episode in question was built around the letter G and was aimed at teaching kids to recognize words where it made each of its two sounds. SOme pretty silly humor, but still enjoyable. The outfits are outrageous -- particularly Morgan Freeman's Easy Reader get-up -- but the show is quite good. Great skits I recognized were the "It's the plumber. I've come to fix the sink" routine, and the monolith on the moon. Very nice memories.

Anyway, what this all boils down to is, we need you to call Sesame Workshop at (212) 595-3456 and tell them you want to get "The Electric Company" on DVD next Christmas

elmo, schmelmo

It's not Elmo as much as it is the massive marketing push behind him. I can handle Elmo as a Muppet on Sesame Street when he is one of many Muppets. He's nice on "Bert and Ernie's Word Play" and he's fine on the 25th anniversary video, and probably in some of the other videos too.

But by the time we've had "Cinderelmo," "Elmocize, "Elmo Presents Kid's Favorite Songs" (volumes one and two) and GOK how many other Elmo tapes, plus the never-ending barrage of Elmo toys, I've had enough of the little red monster to wish that Barney would choke to death while eating him.

There are many other Muppets on Sesame Street besides Elmo, but if you ever go to Sesame Street Live or Sesame Place, you wouldn't know it by the souvenirs.

I think I would get annoyed by even Cookie Monster if he were pushed that heavily.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

stories for girls

My wife and I have tried to steer clear of beauty=good, ugly=bad thing, but Evangeline has gravitated toward stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty with a vengeance. To what extent are girls wired to value their appearance? That can manifest itself in many different ways of course; I've never felt that makeup does a lot to make women look more attractive, and usually it just looks gaudy. Obviously I'm at odds with a lot of society on that point.

And to an extent, aren't our images of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty determined by the Walt Disney movies? Those are visual media, where you have to rely on visual cues to convey a character's good or evil intentions. That's why Shere Khan has such an evil-looking grin, and Baloo looks like such a loveable oaf.

How is an artist supposed to capture a person's inner beauty anyway? That's what it's about, isn't it? Glamor is one thing, but Beauty with a capital B comes from within and makes a person glow regardless of how plain someone might consider them.

I love "The Paper Bag Princess" and pretty much anything else that Robert Munsch has written. Evangeline enjoys his stories too, although she's off on a marketing-inspired Princess kick right now.

I thought it interesting that some people think that Beauty and the Beast has a good message because Belle falls in love with the Beast because of his character. It's funny, because the movie ends with the Beast becoming a handsome prince, thereby underscoring the message that looks really are everything.

Another good book is "Rumplestiltskin's Daughter," which gives a pretty novel twist to the old fairy tale. The miller's daughter runs off with Rumplestiltskin instead of marrying the king since Rumplestiltskin obviously likes her, really wants a kid, and would be an excellent provider. (Plus she has a weakness for short men.) The story follows their daughter, who gets arrested by the king and given the same ultimatum that her mother once faced. Very clever book, nice messages about keeping your wits and about the foolishness of greed.

the electric company redux

Here's the deal: I spoke to the executive vice president of content. She was impressed that I remembered so much about "The Electric Company," and seemed surprised when I said that pretty much every thirtysomething I've mentioned it too wants to know why it's not out on DVD yet.

Being that Sesame Workshop has now turned 35, they're looking at "The Electric Company" with an eye toward redoing it. Her belief is that the developmental approach is dead on, and the concepts are key, but the implementation will need to be changed for the current crop of viewers. I suppose there's probably some truth to that, although I'm sure there are a number of 6- to 8-year-olds who would love the original series. I know Eowyn would. She loves "Rocky and Bullwinkle," for example, a children's show that was in repeats when I was her age.

To pave the way for "The Electric Company" redux, they're probably going to start selling related merchandise (of course) like T-shirts and what have you. They recognize of course that nostalgia is their biggest ally, so there is some consideration being given to a re-release of the original series.

Gruenberg told me they have to do market research. Phooey, I say. Do the research for them. Give them a call at (212) 595-3456, and say you want the original Electric Company on DVD. Be pushy enough that that they can't just blow you off with the pat "We're thinking about it" answer.

On an interesting note, she asked me if I feel as passionately about "Sesame Street" as I do about "The Electric Company," and wouldn't you know, it somehow slipped out that I can't stand Elmo. She was surprised by that -- even as she was impressed that I knew why Snuffaluffagus had gone from being Big Bird's imaginary friend to being a real person (sex abuse in the 1980s, they were concerned kids would think parents won't believe them about serious issues). Her impression was that most people love Elmo. What I tried to share was that while many children love Elmo, he's been marketed to death, so I'm leery of him because he wasn't around when I was a kid, and I'm leery of him because I don't want to be stuck with Chicken Dance Elmo or some other annoying Elmo present each year.

(I didn't mention my own two proposed Elmo toys -- Syphillis Elmo, whose fur turns yellow, and Beat Me With a Stick Elmo -- if for no other reason than the conversation had gone well to that point.)

Anyway, call Sesame Workshop. Their number again is (212) 595-3456. Give them a call and tell them you want to get "The Electric Company" on DVD next Christmas. And tell them you think another great Christmas present would be Push Me Down the Elevator Shaft Elmo.

Monday, December 08, 2003

wonder twins

When I got older and caught the Wonder Twins in reruns, I started to wonder what would happen to Zan if he were subjected to a phase change. Suppose he's in the form of ice, and he gets caught in Superman's heat-ray vision and melts? Worse, suppose he evaporates?

That curiosity I suppose is fueled at least in part -- how's that for qualifiers? -- by an issue of "The Avengers," where Crusher Creel escapes capture by assuming the qualities of the Hudson Bay, and disappearing into the water. He later turned out to be alive (of course), but it struck me when I first read it as an odd and terrible way for a superhuman to go.

Then there's the question of whether Jayna might ever forget herself and mentally become the animal she is impersonating, as the wizards risked in Ursula LeGuinn's "Earthsea" books.

And lastly, did anyone catch Marvin's cameo in "Kingdom Come?" I missed it until it was pointed out to me, and then I couldn't stop laughing.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

'antwone fischer'

Some months ago, a co-worker lent me his copy of "Antwone Fischer." It's based on the true story of a Navy seaman who joined the Navy in part to escape the rather abusive foster home he grew up in. As the movie works its way toward a conclusion, Fischer's psychiatrist convinces him that if he's ever going to overcome his demons, he has to go home -- not to his foster parents, but to the birth family he never knew but has always dreamed about.

Not surprisingly, I cried during that segment of the movie as well, as he searches for his family and then finds his mother and tells her about the sort of man he's grown up to be and how he used to always dream about the day she would come and rescue him from his foster family.

I cried, but I was able to sit through the entire movie, for one simple reason. In my mind, I'm not the abusive foster parent Isaac is trying to escape, but the loving parent he wants to track down in order to be complete.

Not surprisingly, I have a few drafts of stories that deal with this. I have one where Orpheus descends into hell to rescue not his wife but his child; in another story, it's a grown man searching for the shadow who remains just out of reach, just beyond the edges of his perception.

My hope is that one day I'll answer the door and Isaac will be on the other side, looking for the source of his bizarre idea of what "daddy" looks like. (After all, his father's black. I'm not.)

Here or in heaven.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

thoughts on foster parenting

Was it worth it to take care of someone else's child for nine months? Well let's see:

1) It took a heavy, bitter toll on our marriage. (A friend had asked me to do a story for the web site, and even promised me payment for it, but things were so bad I couldn't find anything to say that was remotely insightful or witty.)

2) Evangeline was unable to sleep for weeks, out of grief.

3) She also was convinced she was next to go, especially when we had to leave her with friends when her sister was born.

4) It's plagued me with bad nights like this one where I can't sleep because I keep thinking about him and feeling sorry for myself.

5) Other things I don't want to share.

6) Isaac learned how to talk, how to love, how to be loved, and started to develop properly.

7) This entire time has been a period of learning to lean ever more heavily on Christ and to reach a deeper understanding of his grace and what it means when he says, "Pick up your cross and follow me."

In light of 6 and 7, I would have to say it was worth it, and we've had our reward already. I also wouldn't mind doing it again, as long as Natasha is willing. In light of 1 to 5, I'd have to say someone would have to be nuts even to consider it.

the lord's prayer

I've been teaching Evangeline the Lord's prayer with some interesting results. Last Wednesday, after I picked her up at preschool, she and some of the other children were having fun playing with sticks in the yard before we left. Her stick was particularly large, and she grew rather upset when I wouldn't let her take it home. That night, the Lord's prayer went like this:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as in heaven.
Daddy took the stick away from me,
And I said, "Daddy, that was a bad choice.
You're in time out."
In Jesus' name,

twenty-five cents' worth of trickle-down

Speaking personally, I think the only trickle-down benefit I've received in the 17 years I've been in the work force was the quarter I found in the parking lot back in '96.

The aggregation of wealth to an increasingly small minority is not a good thing, and it is not something we should cheer. True, the gospel isn't about money and it's foolish to argue that Christ's sole or even primary concern is that the poor become wealthier. That's Marxism, not Christianity.

Money is a spiritual force, not merely an economic one, and it is one that has twisted American society into unbelievable knots. There's nothing wrong with having money, but judging by our preoccupation with accumulating and retaining wealth, I'd say we don't have money. It has us.

Laissez faire is as destructive to a society as democracy. The one leads to a cutthroat mentality as robber barons rise to the top and crush whomever they want; the other leads to popular but ultimately ineffective officials who win on the merits of personality rather than actual ability. And try as we might, no regulation or amendments or legislative efforts will ever correct those problems. They'll just give us new opportunities to make things worse.

I don't know which is worse: Democrats who use the "class warfare" notion to advance their cause politically, or Republicans who just don't care, as long as their power base and interests are served.

'finding nemo'

So we got "Finding Nemo" on DVD when it first came out, I guess last week. Natasha's watching it with the girls in the living room, I come in and sit down next to them. It's a little odd, but pretty funny. I kept thinking of a fellow from Australia who I know, for some reason.

Then comes the clincher: The movie is about a clownfish named Marlin who is searching for his son, Nemo, who was taken by a tropical fish enthusiast to put into his tank. Marlin is swimming up and down the Great Barrier Reef, facing sharks and braving a water vortex -- risking everything, really -- just to get Nemo back.

Suddenly I start crying and can't stop. I have to leave the room.

And you know something? I don't think I'll ever be able to watch that movie with my girls, as much as I'd like to.

Thank God my wife understands.

Life is not beautiful at all; it's grotesque. I side with Flannery O'Connor: People who have never suffered have missed one of God's greatest blessings.

Friday, November 28, 2003

the electric company

Well, I've gone and done it. I have an interview at 2 p.m. Tuesday with an executive vice president at the Sesame Workshop about "The Electric Company."

"The Electric Company" was a tremendous show produced by the Children's Television Workshop for six seasons, from 1971-1977. It had features like "The Adventures of Letterman"; starred performers like Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno; and was aimed at boosting reading skills among children who had aged out of "Sesame Street." My brothers and I watched it religiously when we were little.

My kids are younger than the intended audience of "The Electric Company," and haven't even started reading yet; but I know the older one will love it in a year or two. Every adult I've mentioned the show to remembers it excitedly, and asks the same question I had a month ago, "Is that out on DVD? Where can I get it?"

When I first called the Sesame Workshop several weeks ago, I was told there were no plans at the moment to release the series on DVD. I started asking some questions for the column and was told someone higher up would have to get back to me.

Now I'm told the executive vice president is very keen on the idea of having it re-released. I have hopes that we've started something.

If not, well, my column about Toys for Tots went out to about 100,000 homes in Union and Essex counties. I'm hoping my anticipated column on "The Electric Company" will as well.

Copyright © 2003 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

why i do what i do

Every now and then, people ask me how much longer I'm going to be at the newspaper where I work.

I don't think they're asking from a wait-til-the-carcass-drops frame of mind, though perhaps I'm kidding myself in that regard. Usually the question comes with a follow-up about where my next destination will be, with an unstated assumption that I'd like to work for a bigger publication like The Star-Ledger.

No, thanks. Been there, done that, hated every last minute of it. Before I started at WCN Newspapers, I worked for eight painful months at The Times. What was missing? The chance to make a difference.

It's that sort of wide-eyed idealism is exactly what propelled me into community journalism back in 1996, and it's what has kept me in the business through years of being called a Democratic toady and a Republican stooge, through being demonized as a muck-raker and a trouble-maker, and through reams of vitriol poured out by people who have disagreed with editorial stands my newspapers have taken. (One of my most treasured journalistic possessions is a 1,500-word tirade to the editor from the Republican former mayor of Hillsborough after we endorsed his opponent and he lost re-election by a landslide.)

Recently in Quakertown, I was given a reminder of the way community journalists can affect the communities we cover if we stay faithful to our mission of reporting the news in a thorough, unbiased and professional manner.

I'm referring to a new computers-on-a-cart program that's coming to Frank K. Hehnly School, thanks to my coverage of the school district.

On Oct. 28, the Quakertown Board of Education was asked to decide whether to lease 24 laptop computers for Hehnly School at a cost of $6,912 a year for five years.

Only five of the 10 board members voted in favor of the program. Four voted against it, and one -- Garwood representative James Mattheson -- abstained, since Garwood sends students only to Arthur L. Johnson High School, and not to the district's elementary schools.

It was past midnight and I was back at the newspaper offices writing my story about the decision when it hit me. A majority of the Quakertown representatives had voted for the proposal. Even though his abstention was meant to keep him from influencing board decisions, Mattheson's mere presence on the board had raised the ante, effectively altering the outcome of the vote.

By this time it was much too late to call anyone, and I knew the explanation I would get -- five out of 10 is not a majority -- so I did what any responsible journalist would do: I filed my story, made a note to do a follow-up and went home to get some sleep.

On Thursday I reached out to Mike Yaple of the Iowa School Boards Association.

"There's nothing in the statute or code, but there have been commissioner's decisions that typically say the representative would be a nonvote," Yaple told me. "It's not an abstention; it's essentially a shifting quorum."

Yaple referred me to an Aug. 5, 1997, decision by then-Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz about school districts with a relationship like the one shared by Garwood and Quakertown.

The decision is small -- barely five pages -- but it was an earthquake where the board's vote was concerned. Klagholz essentially wrote that if the issue doesn't affect the sending district, then their representatives don't vote.

Exclude Mattheson, and the vote is 5-4. Motion passes.

I called Paul Ortenzio, the Quakertown superintendent of schools, to tell him about my discovery. Since he had been given different legal advice from a qualified attorney, he was skeptical.

"The way I understand it, it has to be a majority of the whole board -- and the whole board is 10," he said.

Karen Amalfe, a school board member who had been lobbying for the laptops since the start of the summer, also was surprised by what I had to say, but she welcomed the news.

"That seems to be contradicting what the attorney told me," she said. Then she added: "If I could get that overturned, that would be wonderful."

That's pretty much what happened. Michael Gross, the board attorney, had been unaware of Klagholz's decision, but he agreed with my interpretation and said he had let the administration know that he was amending his legal advice about counting votes. The official record is going to reflect that the board voted to buy the computers.

The irony to all this is that I'm not personally convinced about the need for a laptop computer program myself. A former teacher, I regard parental involvement and teacher commitment to engaging the students as far more essential than the bells and whistles that make us so enamored with technology.

That's not important, though; what does matter is that the Quakertown Board of Education voted a certain way, and the way that vote was interpreted didn't square with how it was supposed to be counted. I had a question, I knew where to look for an answer, I found it, and I reported what I found.

In another month or so, a few hundred elementary school students are going to have access to computers they wouldn't have had otherwise, due in some small part to me.

That's what it's about. That's why I've stayed in community newspapers while co-workers of mine have landed jobs covering professional sports teams for the Associated Press, reporting for The Los Angeles Times, and chronicling the daily shenanigans at the New Jersey State House for one news bureau or another.

A colleague at The Princeton Packet once told me she hopes to ride on Air Force One some day as a member of the White House Press Corps. Jennifer's good at what she does; I won't be at all surprised if she someday works for The New York Times or the Washington Post doing just that.

As for me, although I grumble sometimes about the hours I work and about the difficulty of feeding my family on what I earn, I couldn't be happier with my choice of careers. I make a real and identifiable difference for the people whose towns I cover. What more can you ask for?

I'm a community journalist. That's what I do.

Slogging on in Iraq

"Everywhere I've traveled recently in Germany I've run into Americans, ranging from generals down to privates, who ask perplexedly, 'What are we Americans supposed to be doing here? Are we going to take over this place and stay here forever?' "
— Demaree Bess, "How We Botched The German Occupation," in the Jan. 26, 1946, Saturday Evening Post

A friend of mine shared that with me in reference to the ongoing war in Iraq. The message? Sure, the occupation looks bad right now, but they always look bad. Look ahead forty years, and you'll see a much rosier picture.

The comparison, while it sounds good to those favoring the war in Iraq and hoping to downplay the situation in Iraq, is flawed. The difference is that in Germany and Japan, it was over. We had bombed them so hard their spirit was broken and they were ready to do whatever we said -- a fairly normal course of events after a war. There probably was some resistance after the war ended -- I don't know enough about WWII in Europe to say for certain -- but I rather doubt it was as organized and structured as the stuff in Iraq is becoming.

In more recent times, we've tried to sensitize war, with the result that the occupation is going to be more difficult. Additionally, I suspect we're not finding nationalist resistance in Iraq as much as we are ideological resistance, drawn from a broad range of states and held together by a religious hatred of America and what we've done there.

Gen. Eisenhower's intent with Germany was to return it to an agrarian state. The point of dropping the A-bomb on Hiroshima and then on Nagasake was to break Japan so badly that its people would never want to go to war again.

Given the last 50-odd years of history in Europe and East Asia, I'd say both Eisenhower and President Truman succeeded in their respective goals. They beat the other nations down so hard that no one wanted to go through it again.

Was that moral? I don't think so. Some of our POW camps in Europe were as bad as or worse than Andersonville, and not much better than what the Nazis themselves dished out. The thousands upon thousands who perished in atomic fire were civilians, and they died in some large part because Truman didn't want the conditional surrender Hirohito was about to offer. War is hell, and I doubt very much that God likes it, even if he regards it as a necessity sometimes.

The morality of war has shifted. Nations that target civilians are viewed as international criminals, and when we have killed civilians during bombing in the last few wars, we've almost invariably apologized. As a result, we're not engaged in the total war that marked WWII, and resistance is likely to continue, and new insurgence is likely to rise.

About a year ago I said that I was against the war in Iraq. I felt -- and still feel -- that we lacked the moral authority to invade Iraq based on incidents 10 years ago and on a U.N. Security Council resolution that the U.N. did not want to enforce.

The news reports about what Saddam did to children and dissenters has me convinced more than ever that he needed to go -- but they haven't changed my view that this was the wrong way to do it.

Now, of course, there are those, such as our president, with a "Bring it on" attitude, that if the insurgents and their allies are spoiling for a fight, we'll take it. As I think others have said, I find that line of thinking disturbing.

First, that they are spending their energy killing American troops with increasing frequency and in steadily increasing numbers does not greatly comfort me. Parents are still losing their sons and daughters; husbands and wives are still being separated, often by the grave; and children are still becoming orphans.

The longer this goes on, the more emboldened America's enemies will be and the greater the odds are of the popular Iraqi sentiment shifting toward them. At the moment, the guerilla and terror tactics have been centered around Baghdad, but it's not hard to imagine that will spread as the militants see other opportunities to work their poison.

Secondly, that it has come to this -- people killing people -- is a cause for mourning and prayer, not moral posturing or an arrogant "Bring them on, we can take them" attitude. Somalia and Vietnam are two places where our superior military might failed to contain the situation and we essentially were defeated by a weaker foe (though I daresay the spin forces of the military will categorize it as something other than that).

I also could point to other places throughout history -- the Spanish Aramada against England, Napoleon against England, Edward I against William Wallace, Sennecharib against Judah -- where the strong have fallen to the weak. Some have claimed that God is on our side; from what I understand of the Almighty, that's just wrong. The best we can hope is that we are on his side, and in this case, that's more than I know.

Our best goal at this point is to win and win decisively, or it's just going to get worse. We have seen some successes in this war -- fighting is confied mostly to Baghdad and probably is mostly from extranationals not Iraqis themselves, and our victory there is almost certainly what led to the elections taking place in Saudi Arabia, the first time elections ever have been held in the Kingdom of Saud's history.

On the other hand, I'm not optimistic on our chances of winning a victory against religious extremists. The more victories we have, the more we're going to fuel hatred of us, which will lead to further attacks. It's a vicious cycle that no amount of politics or military might will break.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

A ghost and his dog once haunted Clark railroad tracks

It's been years since anyone has seen Henry Shieve walking his dog along the railroad tracks.

Shieve, a land owner with property on Westfield Avenue, and his dog were a regular sight on tracks between Terminal and Central avenues from the 1930s up through the 1950s. That's unusual if for no other reason than Shieve died in 1905.

Clark was a radically different place at the turn of the 20th century. Incorporated in 1864 at the height of the Civil War, local law enforcement in Clark was handled by a horse-mounted constable. The township itself was filled with wide, open spaces and a population that could be measured in the hundreds instead of the thousands.

In the Clark of 1905, there were no indications that in 40 short years the Garden State Parkway would be dumping cars into the streets. The township was a rural farming community visited daily by a train that brought its load of passengers, goods and news from beyond Clark's borders. For Shieve, a retiree in his late 70s, visiting the train when it stopped near Picton Street, was the perfect way to idle away the afternoon.

And so, on Oct. 5, 1905, Shieve bid his wife adieu and took his dog for a walk to the train station. He was never seen alive again.

"He and the dog disappeared," said Municipal Historian Brian Toal.

No one at the railroad station saw him that day, and for two weeks, Shieve's wife and others searched the area for some sign of what had happened.

"They eventually found his body in the woods, down near the railroad tracks," said Toal. Although there was some speculation that Shieve might have been hit by the train, authorities finally decided he had died of natural causes, probably heart failure.

The story includes a touching note about the depth of loyalty a dog has for its master. Unable to rouse Shieve, the dog stayed by his side, barking and baying for help that never came. When the train arrived, it hit the dog and killed it, throwing its body into the woods some distance away.

If that were all, the story would be a sad incident of too little note to warrant even a footnote in Clark's history. One of his daughters, Sue Shieve, had married Benjamin King, the son of former Mayor Benjamin King, but that was as close as Shieve comes to prominence in local history. His death does not even serve as a warning about walking along the railroad tracks, since he died of natural causes.

About 30 years after Shieve's death, people started seeing him again.

"The legend is that there was always a man and a dog walking by the tracks down near the Central Avenue bridge," said Toal, who also serves as 4th Ward councilman. "The people on the trolley, when they were going over the trestle, would always say, 'There's a man and a dog down there.'"

The first eyewitness accounts of Shieve that we know about today are from the 1930s. Those reports continued for the next two decades, and finally dried up sometime in the 1940s, during World War II.

Paige Deacy, a paranormal investigator who lives in Clark, considers the ghost story to be credible, given that Shieve died without, warning in the middle of something he loved to do.

"It could be it was such a sudden death that he didn't realize he had died," said Deacy. "He's walking his dog, doing his routine, and has a heart attack and dies. Maybe he enjoyed walking his dog so much that he 'stayed behind.'"

Sightings of Shieve's ghost stopped around the same time the Garden State Parkway connected Clark with its neighbors to the north and south.

Perhaps the increase in traffic along Central Avenue and Raritan Road has made Shieve feel out of place in a Clark he no longer knows, or perhaps with the demolition of the Picton Street train station, his destination is lost and he has gone to a final resting place.

Or maybe, some October evening, Shieve and his dog will walk the tracks, someone will spot them, and the legend will begin again

Sunday, October 26, 2003

choosing masters

Check out this transcript of Bill Moyers' conversation last night with theologian Joe Hugh.

I think he's (mostly) dead-on, and his message in this case is a (mostly) prophetic one. The Bible is full of invective against those who make themselves wealthy at the expense of others, and I think here in America we've got a culture of runaway greed and materialism.

My own work place is a good example. I'll go with it because I'm more familiar with it than I am with others. I have to work between 40 and 50 hours a week to make $35,000 a year, before taxes. That's with a college education and eight years of experience in this field, plus two years' experience as a teacher, and a second language. I'm a managing editor, but to save money, I'm also required to do the work of a reporter and produce enough news copy to fill at least the front page. I take this money and use it to pay my mortgage, buy our groceries, and perform the other necessities of life. We live fairly simply, we don't carry credit card debt over from one month to the next, and so on. It's still tight, and we really don't have any money to put away for retirement or even for much of savings. I have two children, and they're growing.

The sad thing is, I'm actually one of the better-paid employees. Most managing editors -- that's my title -- at Worrall Newspapers make about $26,000 before taxes. Reporters make $20,000. This is more or less what those positions paid 10 years ago. A co-worker of mine who has more job responsibilities, a higher rank and more experience with the company makes only $28,000. He's 40 years old, has two kids who are older than mine, and has been losing weight because he can't afford to feed both himself and his kids.

The production department is in the process of being phased out because we've finally switched to computerized layout instead of paste-up, and pagination duties are being given to the editors, who will not receive any extra pay for this. Additionally, two of the branch offices were consolidated recently, as another cost-savings measure.

There are no raises in this company, not even cost-of-living adjustments, and even though the company is doing better this year than last, they recently eliminated two positions to reduce expenses. I recently was denied a promotion I had been told I likely would be getting because I had the gall to say that I would like more money for more responsibilities. The guy they gave it to will make only $28,000 (as compared to the $35,000 I make), and he will be replaced with someone else they can pay $26,000.

In the meantime, the owners are amazingly well off. They drive expensive cars, take off for trips to posh vacation spots and, while they might not be multimillionaires, don't seem to be hurting nearly as much as their employees.

Do I think they'll have to answer for this to God? Yeah, I do. I also pray that they'll get a little less penny-pinching and start showing more compassion to the people who are making them their money, and if the opportunity arises, I'm probably going to say something about why morale is so low and everyone is itching to leave.

The scene in the corporate world is even worse. Corporate executives get paid millions, receive millions more in stock options, and as recent history has shown, seem to feel little guilt over plundering the business, even if it destroys the company. Shareholders often are concerned more with stock dividends and earnings reports than they are with the quality or affordability of the product, which is one of the reasons health care has become so expensive.

Increasingly, it's virtually impossible to graduate from college without crippling college loans, and even as those loans are increasing, the amount of high-paying jobs in the U.S. is declining as more and more technical jobs move overseas to cut costs. That's good for those other countries, but it's a bad combination here.

Jesus said that we can't serve both God and Mammon. If you look around at America today, it's pretty obvious which of the two we as a culture have chosen to serve.

We don't hear this much in church, which is alarming, because it doesn't seem like James is mincing his words in a letter to Christians: "Now listen, you rich people. weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you."

Where I disagree with Joe Hough (surprise, surprise) is that I don't think the answer to our solution is a political one. (I do have to admit that it drives me crazy to hear Christians defending tax cuts that favor the wealthy and powerful, though.) In the final analysis, what we need in America is a change of heart, not of administrations. That change needs to begin in the church, and it needs to begin in me.

Practically speaking, it means:

* Never mind making sandwiches for the homeless. Church groups need to go out to the soup kitchens, meet the homeless and become personally involved with them. Let their needs become our needs, and meet them.

* Christians in business need to run those businesses not on a profit-driven basis, but on a basis that serves Christ and that leads them to a deeper relationship and understanding of his character. A developer can still make a good amount of money but sell properties at a much lower profit, making housing more affordable. Other business owners can find ways to reduce not costs but profits, and still live comfortably. As Marley told Scrooge, mankind, not moneymaking, is meant to be our business. When we do that, we're keeping what Christ called the two greatest commandments.

* Give more. I don't believe Christ calls us to a 10 percent tithe. What he calls us to is to give generously. That enables us to help those who are in need, and it drives us to greater dependence on God to meet our own needs.

* Get engaged with people around you. I mentioned a co-worker who outranks me but makes less than I do. Yesterday, on the way home from work, I stopped by his house and gave him several bags of groceries with the admonition that he needs to feed himself as well as kids, or he'll do them a disservice. I don't say this to boast; I say this because it's the only way I've been able to help him with this problem, and it's the only way we'll really start to change the direction of our country, our church or ourselves. The Kingdom of God is about people, and it grows like a mustard seed until it becoems a tree that provides shelter for birds, animals and people alike.

* Churches need to start doing more. Many churches are retreats for the righteous. There are Sunday morning and Sunday evening services, Wednesday night Bible studies, and maybe even Christian schools. Great stuff for the Christian community. Lousy service for the world around. We're not meant to be a retreat for the saved; we're supposed to be a haven for the lost. The Trinity Foundation in Dallas, Texas, some time ago instituted the Dallas Project. Their goal is to get churches and synagogues to take the homeless problem seriously, by having members of the church "adopt" the homeless and help them to get back on their feet. That won't help those with mental illness, but many homeless people are homeless for reasons that have nothing to do with mental illness, especially these days. I'd argue the same approach to crisis pregnancies will do more to end abortion than all the lobbying and screeching we can muster, ever will accomplish.

Not that I'm opinionated or something. It's just that the more I read the gospels, the more I realize that the disenfranchised of society are the people on God's heart the most.

"Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

You know what pisses me off? I can't find any churches that actually believe this anymore.

Friday, October 24, 2003

politics and faith

What concerns me about the American church's efforts in politics is that we've essentially got it all ass-backward. We're trying to get people to be righteous by telling them where their sin is, where they fail to measure up to God's standards and so on. We're trying through political might to make America a Christian nation.

It's something I've given a lot of thought to lately, as I've struggled to understand what the Cross means to me personally, and what it should mean to the church as a whole.

Might is the opposite of the approach Christ took. He could have been born to Caesar, or he could have reclaimed the throne of David, but instead he took the route of a morally questionable birth in the podunk town of Nazreth, and made his ministry out of giving selflessly to other people. When Satan offered him the crown of Caesar, Jesus refused. He didn't seek power, or glory, or anything of the sort. What he sought was our hearts, and by seeking those, he made a revolution more profound than anything else I can think of.

That's no exaggeration either. The gospel literally has found its way to cultures so utterly removed from first-century Israel that there would appear to be no points of commonality, and yet it has found those points, established itself as a native religion, and transformed those cultures toward the likeness of Christ.

I've said before and I'll say again that there is nothing wrong with Christians being politically active. But the gospel is not political, and when political or legal changes become the thrust of our ministries and start taking priority in our attention and energies, we've stopped serving God and started serving ourselves. The power to transform society, to renew the mind and to reconcile men to God is just not found in a political program. Those things are found ONLY in Christ.

I suppose that's one of the reasons I find it annoying when the Religious Right acts as though God is on the side of the Republican Party, or tries to take ownership of Christ as a conservative based on the values we believe he had. The truth is that God is not on our side, he is on his own side, and we need to be with him. As for Christ, I'm convinced more and more that he isn't conservative or liberal. He's a social radical who worked outside the system more often than not.

spirituality and public morality

"America is not a Christian nation -- but I would argue that it's our job as Christians to encourage it to accept Biblical principles and values as true, because it'll be happier that way. Live closer to the way the Author prescribed, live happy; the more we diverge from that, the more miserable we're going to be."

Isn't that missing the point of what we're called to do? We're not called to teach people the Rules for Right Living, and we're certainly not called upon to present some works-based initiative where if we behave in accordance to the designs of God, our lives will be better.

That reasoning essentially is works-driven, and it's what Paul rejects in Romans and Galatians as incapable of bringing us life. His thesis is that if any Law or prescribed behavior could bring us life and righteousness, then the Torah was the Law that could do it. But that's a false offer, because it's impossible for us to follow the Law even in part, because any violation of a part of the Law is a violation of its entirety.

Follow the Law, and encourage others to follow the Law, and you might see the results you're describing. But everyone will be further from God as a result. What God desires is that we live by the spirit, not seeking ways to experience his blessings (including a more righteous-seeming nation) but seeking new ways to experience *him.* That's done by interacting with other people and discovering God's image as it is stamped upon them, meeting their needs and loving them as Christ desires us to.

I don't see homosexuality as an issue worth even a fraction of the attention it's received from the church. Again, assuming for the sake of argument that what you say is true, consider that the places Paul condemns homosexuality in Romans and 1 Corinthians are actually rather lengthy and all-encompassing lists of human behavior, including greed, fits of rage, gossip, slander and boasting. His point is that sin is universal and none of us has hope on our own merits, not that any particular group is guilty of an especially horrible sin. The language in the Torah is harsh -- toe'bah is only used to describe two sexual practices in the Torah, although the death penalty also is prescribed for adultery -- but even there, the injunctions against homosexual behavior are contained in a list of many other sins. The point, again, is that apart from Christ, none of us possesses righteousness.

Going a step further, when Paul addresses the issue of incest in the church -- a practice he calls so hideous that even unbelievers are disgusted by it -- he says, point-blank, "You know, if this were going on outside the church, I would say it's none of our business." So if a man sleeping with his father's wife is none of our business when they're not Christians, why would we have the right to dictate the sexual morality of the world at large?

Jesus wasn't a moralist. He didn't campaign against prostitution, against homosexuality, or fornication, or other such behaviors. What he did was react with compassion to everyone. He ate with Pharisees when he was asked, and with low-lifes when they asked. He treated everyone with respect, and in the gospels at least, the sins he really went off on dealt with the legalists who made pleasing God a works-related business, religious hypocrisy, and denying justice. The lifestyle he had was one of inclusion and warm welcome to everyone who needed him.

So I agree with your statement that Christ calls us to encourage others to follow him and act as he would -- but I believe that's done by the example of selfless living, dying to ourselves daily, and an in a thoroughly personal way, not a political one.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

In the shadow of death: Questions linger for bereft family of slain man

There are a number of questions Leslie Kiray has about his son's death, but the one that looms largest is, "Is that it?"

Kiray's son, James, 38, was killed Sept. 3 in a motor-vehicle accident at the Garden State Parkway Exit 135 traffic circle. Since his son's death, Kiray, who has lived on Blake Drive for 45 years, has been at a loss to understand why the other driver was charged only with careless driving.

And every time he drives through the traffic circle, he's forced to watch his son's death play out in his mind, again and again.

"Every time I go around that circle, my heart stops," said Kiray, 73. "Every time 1 go to that place where my son was killed, I see everything."

State Police accident reports indicate that the Corvette James Kiray was driving that night had stopped at the stop sign on the left side of the exit ramp. Joseph Ruggirello, driving a Cadillac, started down the right side of the exit ramp, toward Brant Avenue, but struck the concrete island between the two exit lanes and became airborne.

Ruggirello's Cadillac struck the right rear panel of James Kiray's Corvette. From there it continued its forward momentum, shearing the roof off the Corvette and killing James Kiray before striking the one-way sign on the far side of the road, about 3 feet from the ground. Propelled by the force of the impact, James Kiray's Corvette rolled forward about 40 feet, into the circle.

Ruggirello's Cadillac meanwhile landed on the grassy infield of the circle. Its left rear wheel, torn away by the impact, the car continued to slide along the grass. A little further than halfway across, the car began to overturn and again became airborne, losing its left front wheel in the process.

The Cadillac finally came to a complete stop on the far side of the traffic circle from where the initial collision took place, near the Valley Road exit.

A Westfield motorist listed as a witness to the accident said the Cadillac landed perpendicular to the road.

In a letter to State Police dated Oct. 17, Union County Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow declined to file charges against Ruggirelio, citing a lack of evidence of speeding, substance abuse or recklessness.

Robert O'Leary, executive assistant prosecutor and public information officer for the County Prosecutor's Office, said such decisions are based on the reports of witnesses, police reports and forensic evidence gathered at the scene of the accident.

"Every time there's a fatal accident, they review the facts that are verifiable and determine what's appropriate," O'Leary said.

Accident reports by neither Clark nor State Police indicate how fast Ruggirelio had been going. The posted speed limit for the ramp is 25 mph.

Kiray said he was told the police believed Ruggirelio had been driving around 70 to 80 mph. That seems more likely to him than the possibility Ruggirelio was going the posted limit.

"The man flipped three times. If you're going 20 to 25 mph, you're not going to flip," he said.

Ruggirelio pleaded guilty to careless driving. A careless driving charge nets a fine of less than $100.

"That then was my son's worth," said Kiray. "I just want the truth. Why? Why is somebody who killed somebody else getting off with nothing?"

James Kiray's death devastated his family. His widow, Laura Kiray, unable to live in the home she had shared with her husband, sold it and took their children with her to Livingston, where her parents live.

And at the funeral the elder Kiray had to comfort his. grandsons, who were trying to understand what had happened to their father.

One grandson decided his father had just gone on a business trip. Another, only 5 years old, had an even harder time understanding.

"This was the saddest in my opinion. Because of the nature of the accident, the casket was not open," said Kiray. "1 knelt down with him and said a prayer, and he reached and touched the casket, and said, 'Grandad, can we open it to see if Daddy's stiil in there?'

"I almost fell apart," Kiray said, his voice choking up as he spoke. "Thank God the 5-year-olds don't understand it."

On Monday, Kiray and his second wife, Anna Kiray, sold the Blake Drive house where James Kiray and his brothers grew up. It was only last year that the elder Kiray — who spends about half of each year in Europe — had told his son that he was planning to sell the house because its upkeep was getting'to be too difficult.

"He said, 'Dad, don't sell the house. I want to keep the heritage. I want to buy it from you,' " Kiray recalled.

Instead of buying the house, James Kiray was laid to rest in a burial spot beside his mother's grave. It was where the elder Kiray had expected to be buried himself, but it has become one final gift from father to son.

"God is close to him and his mother is close to him," said Kiray.

With the house closing behind them, Kiray and his wife headed to Florida, where one of his other sons lives.

He hopes to move on, but he has his doubts whether healing will ever come.

"To me it's not closed," he said, "because in my heart I know it's not ever going to be closed."

Saturday, October 11, 2003


I recently made a shocking discovery: It is now possible for me to eat an entire meal without the phone ringing even once.

It doesn't matter if I eat dinner at 5, 6 or 7 p.m. The phone stays blissfully silent, and when it does ring, I know I can pick it up without running into the living room and checking our caller ID to see who's calling. And to think I owe it all to the Federal Trade Commission and its do-not-call list.

Mixed with my immense relief is a twinge of sadness. Now that I have the FTC's muscle backing up my wish to be left alone, I've lost the opportunity to practice one of my favorite sports. It's called "Bait the Telemarketer."

This is a game where you do your best to throw the telemarketer off stride. AT&
T asks you to switch long-distance carriers, you tell them you don't have a phone. A contractor tries to convince you to renovate your home, explain that you have a deep-seated phobia of straight lines and flat surfaces, and ask if they can redo the house so it doesn't have them any more.

For a while I told telemarketers that I bill my time at $200 an hour, and if they wanted to continue the discussion under those terms, I would be happy to talk for as long as they wanted. Oddly, not one ever took me up on it.

My piece-de-resistance came a few months ago, when I received a call from a woman I'll call Sharon. I was at the point where I normally would just hang up, but for some reason I was feeling whimsical and decided to have fun.

"Doesn't this job get to you?" I asked after she had introduced herself and only just started her pitch. "I'm guessing that a lot of people hang up on you or just get really rude, don't they?"

"Well, yeah," Sharon admitted. Her voice had been lively and animated when she had started her pitch, but now it was more plaintive, what you would find from co-workers commiserating about an awful workplace.

"And I'm willing to bet you don't even like what you do," I added. "Most people can't stand to get telemarketing calls, and I'm willing to bet you don't either."

"Well," she admitted. "Not really."

"Do they pay you enough?"

The silence told me everything, even before she said, "No, they don't."

"So what you're telling me," I said, "is that you have a job where you're unhappy, you're doing something you don't like, and you get grief all the time from the people you call, and they don't pay you well enough to put up with it." I paused, and went for the throat. "Sharon, I think you and your co-workers should form a union and fight for better working conditions."

Sharon thanked me for listening to her problems, said she would have to consider it, and hung up.

I never did find out what she was selling.

Despite great moments like that one, I don't miss telemarketing calls enough to ask that my name be returned to the roster. Given its misuse of the First Amendment to annoy me at home four, five and six times a day, I doubt I'll shed a tear if I never hear from a telemarketer again, even if the product they're promoting really is as revolutionary as they say.

What troubles me is that a number of companies apparently are using telemarketing agencies from outside the United States. Labor is cheaper, and the FTC regulations apparently don't affect calls from abroad, even on behalf of a domestic company.

If that happens again, I already have the perfect solution. My 4-year-old daughter is at an age where she loves to talk on the phone.

I can only imagine the conversations she'll have.

Copyright © 2003 by David Learn. Used with permission.