Monday, October 29, 2007
"Ah, yes." St. Peter sighed. "We've been expecting you, governor." With the shake of his head, he pressed a button and the politician disappeared in a flash of light and a puff of smoke. The scent of brimstone lingered in the air only a moment before a breeze from beyond the gates carried it away.
"A lawyer," St. Peter said sadly, and she too disappeared, even faster than the governor had.
To Serenity's great surprise, St. Peter opened the door to heaven and escorted her inside personally, turning only to ask one question.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Last year when Christmastime rolled around, I printed up a list of Christmas carols for us to sing during family devotions. The girls preferred "Do You Hear what I Hear," probably because it's so simple to learn, but I have high hopes that "O Holy Night" will catch on in years to come, even though our New Jersey winters are far colder than in Haiti.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
A friend, ever the skeptic of global warming and climate change, notes "Droughts, floods, earthquakes and natural disasters NEVER happened before the 20th century and therefore it must be our fault."
He is quite right that famines, droughts, floods and other natural disasters occurred before the onset of the Industrial Era, and if those who fear global warming were basing their concerns solely on incidents like Hurricane Katrina, the drought hitting the Southeast, and some above-average temperatures in October this year, they would deserve to be roundly driven from the table.
Unfortunately, the data go back quite a bit more than the last few years, and it's not just a few Chicken Littles screaming anymore. It is the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community that global climate change is happening, and that it almost certainly is due to or being accelerated by human activity. I'm aware that consensus doesn't make it absolute certainty, and that there are some quite intelligent scientists who disagree ... but as a matter of public policy, it makes sense to listen to the consensus when it's as strong as this consensus is. (There's always the argument that 30 years ago some scientists were ringing alarm bells about global cooling and a new ice age; if that invalidates conclusions that have been reached with more data and more sophisticated computer modeling, perhaps we should get back to the Flat Earth theory. There are some rather intelligent people who still hold to that too, after all.)
But for the sake of argument, let's set aside the question of global warming. For the discussion, I'll concede that there's nothing to it, that the very notion is absurd that human activities are causing the Earth to heat up, the Arctic to melt faster than normal in the summertime, the permafrost to thaw, and hurricanes to worsen. Let's say it's all poppycock. You know what that changes, in the final analysis? Nothing. Our lifestyle in America is still unsustainable, and it is disastrous for ourselves and the rest of the environment.
It used to be that most streams and waterways in the United States were good to fish from. Pioneers, settlers, and those who came after them would catch fish in the river and feed them to their families. Nowadays most of the waterways we used to fish from are polluted; the river downhill from my house actually has a sign warning people not to eat more than three fish from that river in a month. Nice, huh?
And while our ancestors lived the ultimate in sustainability -- they ate meat from animals they shot, turned worn-out clothes into quilts and rugs, grew their grains and vegetables themselves, and basically recycled or composted everything they used -- we as a nation throw out 22 million tons of garbage every year. If current trends continue, that's going to rise to 33 million to 35 million tons per year in just four years. And ironically, about 60 percent of that waste is organic and compostable. (I'm sure recyclable aluminum and plastics make up another sizeable chunk.)
The average meal in an American household also travels about 4,000 miles to reach the dinner table, if I recall the figure correctly.
Does anyone think it's a good idea to continue in a lifestyle that involves this much prolifigate waste? I don't. How infinite are our resources, anyway? From what I understand, hydrogeologists believe we already have consumed fifty percent of the world's oil supply. The rest is going to be increasingly more difficult to get, making it al the more expensive.
The situation in Georgia and the Southeast may not be due to global warming specifically, but I'm sure the American lifestyle hasn't helped much there either. We consume water recklessly, watering lawns that wouldn't naturally occur in the area during times when grass should be brown and dormant anyway, and we make little effort to recycle water after we use it, nor even to return it to the water table. Generally the goal is to get it to the streams and waterways as fast as we can, and never mind recharging the water tables.
So lately, environmentalists have been calling for things like improving fuel efficiency in our vehicles; developing alternate fuels and energy sources that don't involve producing pollution; finding natural heating and cooling systems; reducing our electricity consumption; transporting our goods across shorter distances instead of getting them from halfway across the planet; and so on. We have a family of four, and yet we produce only one garbage can full of trash every month or so.
It seems reasonable to me.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
1. What were you doing 10 years ago?
At this time in 2007, I was living in an efficiency apartment in Easton, Pa., and walking my black Lab three times a day around the city, sometimes for more than an hour at a time. I also was commuting to my job as a copy editor for a run-down chain of community weekly newspapers every weekday, and spending a fair amount of time visiting my then-fiancee, who had begun her first year of graduate school. I was doing anything I could to find a new job, looking for an apartment closer to work and to Natasha, and planning for our wedding in June.
2. What were you doing one year ago?
Pretty much the same thing as now. We were living here in Nova Bastille, and planning birthday parties for Rachel and Evangeline. Their birthdays are only a day apart, so we decided to have their birthdays on adjacent days the same weekend. This year we've decided to put the two of them together into consecutive parties, since they have several friends in common and have other friends whose siblings are friends with the other one.
3. What are five snacks you enjoy?
Cookies, naturally; along with Tostitos, especially though not always with queso; ice cream, in various flavors, but nothing too exotic or unusual. I love homemade pretzels, so when we've set aside the time to make them, I've been known to eat them. The girls and I also make Cheerio squares from time to time, a variation on Rice Krispie squares that uses Cheerios instead. I also like the occasional 3 Musketeers bar.
4. What are five songs you know the lyrics to?
Oh, good grief. You must be kidding. I have a knack for memorizing lyrics to songs I like, and I love music, so you might as well ask five albums or Broadway soundtracks that I know the lyrics to. Most recently you can hear me singing with the girls songs such as "Ode to a Hero," by Weird Al; the Hebrew portion of "When You Believe," from "The Prince of Egypt" soundtrack; "Turn, Turn, Turn," by Pete Seeger; the folk song "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder"; and "Hard to Get," by Rich Mullins.
5. Five Things You Would Do If You Were A Millionaire
1. Pay off our mortgage, Natasha's college loans, the car loan, and our home equity loan. Instead of paying off our mortgage, I also could see my way to buying a slightly bigger house in cash. Debt is bad, and we have way too much of it in the United States.
2. Set aside at least six months' liquid assets. Savings is good, and we have far too little of it in the United States.
3. Invest wisely for our eventual retirement. We've been doing that for a while, but more would help. It's not like we can count on Social Security to be there for us when we retire in another 30 years.
4. Figure out how I can use the money to make the world a better place, not by backing politicians or movements, but using my financial influence to support worthy causes and to set a good example.
5. Probably start a business, with some good (and ethical) advisers so I don't drive it under and end up dirt-poor within a year.
6. Five Things Your Kids Have Taught You
1. Art. Before she turned 2, I noticed that a progression in the way Evangeline scribbled with her crayons. I watched her progress from back-and-forth movements, to ups-and-downs, and so on, through what was plainly a natural evolution of her own artistic style. I started drawing with her, encouraging her to push her boundaries further.
As one might expect, this has had an effect on my artistic ability as well. When Evangeline reached the point that she was drawing people, I was doing little better than advanced stick figures; six years of steady artistic expression has got me to the point that I recently doodled freehand a picture of Lilo and Stitch chasing Cinderella down the stairs of the palace.
I’ve also come to appreciate other art more. I’ve gained an appreciation for the work of the masters particularly ― we have prints of the Mona Lisa, the Virgin on the Rocks and the Vitruvian Man all hanging up in the girls’ bedroom, for example ― but also for art in general. I find I’m actually capable of analyzing art similar to the way I analyze books or stories, if not to the same degree; and what’s more, I enjoy visting art galleries and museums more than I ever would have thought possible.
2. Laughter. Hang around children long enough, and you’re going to hear some outrageous stuff. Some times it’s unintentional, like when they misunderstand song lyrics in an utterly nonsensical way. But sometimes it’s deliberately witty, like the birthday poem Evangeline wrote me back in August: “Roses are red / Violets are blue. / My dad is crazy / Happy birthday to you.” I’ve never laughed as well or as hard as I have with my children.
3. Shared joy through shared experience. When I was a child, I used to love Saturday mornings, because the CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh would run Bugs Bunny cartoons for about two hours. And not the cheesy ones Warner Brothers has been trying to foist upon unsuspecting children on the Cartoon Network lately, either. No, these were the classic Chuck Jones/Friz Freleng cartoons where Bugs would outsmart Yosemite Sam, or trick Elmer Fudd into shooting Daffy in the face. Now that I’m a father, one thing I’m proud to have done is to share those classic cartoons with my girls. It was one of the best moments of the Christmas we got them, when the four of us sat down with my mother, and three generations of us watched and laughed to classic Looney Tunes together.
It’s been like that with many things. The older they get, the more things there are I want to share with them. The girls already have learned some select Monty Python sketches, including “Dead Parrot” and “Buying a Mattress”; and I’ve loved reading “Idylls of the King” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” with Evangeline.
It’s a tremendous gift to share with our children the things that we also have loved.
4. Faith. A couple years ago, I wrote an essay about what a marvel it was to witness Rachel’s daily interaction with God through the medium of an unassuming toy she liked to take with her everywhere. Children have such a wonderful faith in God, uncomplicated by fretting over doctrine and theology, and it segues so naturally into action. Once Evangeline understood that Jesus wants her to love people who don’t love her back, she very unsensibly made an effort to do just that. I still stand in awe of a 7-year-old who tries to stop her best friend from needling one of the class bullies, because she knows it’s the right thing to do, and I pray that I may one day have faith like hers.
5. Full-bodied enjoyment of music. When most adults sing, it’s a rote activity. If you listened to us singing “Amazing Grace,” you would think our mothers had died; if you listen to us singing “Happy Birthday,” you would think we were sick with the stomach flu.
Kids are different. When Evangeline and Rachel sing, the whole world knows. Evangeline dances in church during the worship service, and when we sing during family devotions after dinner, they both belt out “Awesome God” like they mean it, flopping around the room like fish who have just jumped back into the water. Even a tender song like “Tell Me Why” is deeply heartfelt.
If I can sing just half as enthusiastically as they do, I’ll be doing pretty well.
7. Five Things You Like To Do
1. Reading. My mom used to tell everyone that I would read the comics section before I used the pages to line the guinea pigs’ tray. It’s true. I don’t read the great works as often as I used to ― these days it seems like it’s graphic novels more often than it’s Germanic revenge epics ― but reading remains one of my favorite activities. I love when I get to do it with my children.
2. Baking. I find tremendous satisfaction not just in making the meals myself, but in doing it from scratch as much as possible. Thus it is that I make our own pizza, dough included; as well as bread, bagels, pancakes, cookies, pretzels, hamburgers, buns, and plenty else, all from scratch.
3. Doodling. My older daughter especially has taught me about art, whether directly or in-,but I love taking the opportunity after reading a Brothers Grinn fairy tale with Rachel for us to draw a picture of it together. Evangeline tells me regularly that I’m doing it wrong ― no use of basic shapes, for instance ― but I have a good time anyway. I think I’m even getting decent at it, too.
4. Discovery. Bah. I may be 37, but it’s still fun to learn new things.
5. Music. The self-appointed Guardians of Pettiness think it somehow within their rights to disparage me for singing, learning to play piano, or otherwise indulging my musical interests, but I say, tough Turtlewax. I score quite high for rhythm and music as one of my learning styles, I’ve always enjoyed it, and to hell with people who think it’s polite to tell me I have no business doing so.
8. Five Things You Would Never Wear
Plain white button-down dress shirts
A military uniform
9. Five Favorite Toys
Count von Count Beanie Baby
Cookie Monster Beanie Baby
Storm Happy Meal action figure
10. Five Things You Hate To Do
Bury myself up to the neck in sand and then smear honey all over my face
Roll around naked on a bunch of tacks, then rub myself down with alcohol
Clean my ear with a meat thermometer, then pound it all the way through to the other ear
Throw multimegaton warheads over the fence because my neighbors won’t turn down the stereo
Shove miniature replicas of the Statue of Liberty up my nose, so that the base gets jammed in my
Monday, October 15, 2007
The article does an incredible job in exploring the financial pressures many middle class families are under, and surprisingly discovers that the average American family spends less on frivolous expenditures than a generation ago.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
The Republican Party is paying a fearful price for its loyalty to George W. Bush, something he rarely, if ever, has reciprocated.
Except for the whistling-past-the-graveyard propaganda put out by the Republican National Committee and its camp followers on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, Republicans in Washington and around the country are beginning to believe Bush is their very own national nightmare. The Associated Press even quoted one unnamed GOP lawmaker saying "there's talk of us going the way of the Whigs."
C'mon, now, it's hardly that bad. It's just your ordinary garden-variety looming election disaster.
Farmer's essential thesis is that Bush has become a human wrecking ball where the GOP is concerned. Four senators and nine Representatives have chosen not to seek re-election this year, even though they are in districts or states that are, by and large, solidly Republican. He mentions John Sununu by name, noting that his association with Bush has him trailing badly in the polls, with dedicated conservatives crossing party lines to support his opponent.
Bush has insisted on a stay-the-course attitude pertaining to the Iraq war, despite the overwhelming unpopularity of that approach with the public. There's a place for being stalwart, and perhaps this is such a place, but it's also costing the GOP big time in political fund-raising. House Republicans have only $1.6 million so far; Democrats have more than 12 times that amount.
And Republicans are abandoning the principles of free trade, one of the hallmarks of conservatism. Farmer cites a WSJ poll that found that Republicans believe by a 2-1 margin that free trade is bad for America, costing too many jobs and bringing in shoddy products from overseas. (True, it's not like Bush has personally tainted toys with lead paint, but the measure of a president isn't how things that happen aren't his fault, but how he responds to them. Bush hasn't inspired the confidence he often seems to think he has.)
Agree or disagree with him, President Bush knows what he thinks is the right thing to do and will push as hard as he can in that direction without worrying about whether everyone's going to still like him by the time he leaves office. He reminds me of two people in this regard: The first is a bus driver who takes the bus through the guard rail and down the hill, crashing through bushes, smashing a fence, frightening livestock, and recklessly trying to ford a river. The passengers complain, and all he can say is, "Stop complaining. If you didn't want to go somewhere, why did you get on the bus?"
The other is his father, who also seemed unable to grasp that not everyone could see the superiority of his position and immediately follow it. The elder Bush was astounded when Clinton beat him; the younger seems unable to grasp why people disagree with his ideas, positions, and nominations when he's made no great effort to convince people that his judgment is sound. His "Trust me" around the Harriet Miers nomination was the most famous example.
Perhaps if he gave greater evidence that he was listening to advisers who weren't simply agreeing with him or (rather) giving him ways to advance his own ideas, but instead offered him contrary views that he could listen to and learn from, then perhaps his tenacity might be seen as an asset and less of as a liability.
The bill, which Bush rejected on the grounds that it would cost the government too much and potentially would extend health benefits to people who already can afford them, was one with broad bipartisan support. From reports I've read, it had the support of some 44 state governors, many of them Republican; and also had the support of well-known conservatives Sen. Orinn Hatch (R-Utah). Hatch said Bush's decision was based on wrong numbers about the cost and relied on bad advice.
I'm disappointed. About 12 percent of families nationally can't afford health care for their children, and thanks to this veto, they still won't be able to get it, except for trips to the emergency room.
Just a quick and easy example, close to home: Evangeline requires weekly allergy shots that (thankfully) are covered by our policy through Natasha's employer. Because the shots are administered by a nurse and not by a doctor, there is no co-payment. (A doctor's visit costs us a $15 co-payment.) Insurance also covers the cost of the shots themselves, so these weekly visits cost us nothing more than gas and time.
Take insurance out of the question, and the picture changes drastically. Nurse's visits cost $21 a week, the allergy shots themselves cost a few hundred dollars per bottle -- she needs three different sorts of shots -- and the specialist we saw to get her allergies diagnosed correctly cost a couple hundred dollars as well.
I can't afford to pay that out of pocket. So what do I do? I listen to Evangeline coughing desperately late at night, watch her suffering through the day at school, and pray to God she doesn't get really sick, because then the only option before me is to take her to the emergency room, the sort of health care President Bush used to justify not expanding SCHIP.
It gets even worse if she's sick. Back in January, it seemed like I had taken Evangeline to the doctor's office at least six times for a nasty, persistent cough. At $100 a visit, that's $600, plus more out-of-pocket for antibiotics and heavy-duty cough medicine, all because it never occurred to the doctor until January to send her for a chest X-ray, where we learned that she had undiagnosed pneumonia.
Try paying for all that out of pocket.
Of course you wouldn't; you'd avoid taking your child to the doctor's until you were desperate for something to help, with the result that your child would be even sicker, infecting more children, missing more schooltime, and keeping you or your wife home from work, thereby exacerbating your financial situation.
That's not what I call a health care solution.
I suppose I could buy insurance privately, right? For a family in our state, with two children and an annual income of $41,300 -- that's about what we make -- the cost of a policy just to insure the children is about $5,000. That provides no coverage for prescriptions, and it only allows visits to a very small group of doctors. If the child has a pre-existing condition, like Eowyn's allergies, the insurance won't cover it for 12 months. So I'm still burning money on something other people take for granted.
By the way, that $5,000 figure is for two boys. Apparently, if I have two girls -- which I do -- that policy would cost $5,400. (These figures are courtesy of a column in the Star Ledger.) For the whole family, insurance could cost more than $12,000 a year in Iowa. I'd love to know how you feed a family, pay the rent, and take care of other utilities on the remaining $29,000.
Keep in mind that these costs are going up as insurance providers seek ways to boost their bottom line to impress the shareholders; health insurance premiums are up 78 percent since 2001. A number of small businesses are dropping health benefits, and even large employers are requiring greater employee contributions to their health plans. It's just getting too expensive to provide health benefits.
I can't find the exact figures right now; my understanding is that the Bush veto means that a number of families in New Jersey that have been eligible for NJ FamilyCare (our state's version of SCHIP) will not be eligible now because of projected cost increases. In other words, the veto isn't just keeping the program from expanding, it's forcing the program to drop people from the rolls.
As to the torture issue, I'll note that one doesn't generally seek legal advice or counsel out of idle curiosity. It's used to set policy. And given this administration's inclination to setting aside rules it disagrees with -- something it has been chastised for, not just in the public arena but in the legal system as well -- I am disappointed in the existence of these memos. It does not bode well for our nation that a sitting attorney general would opine in his official capacity that we have the right to engage in waterboarding or the other behaviors described in the NY Times article.
If Sen. Clinton (or Sen. Obama, my choice) becomes president and extends the domestic spying programs, I say shame on her too. I don't see the Vulcan logic in giving up my freedoms to protect my freedoms from people who want to take them away, and I find it disappointing that the administration has engaged in this behavior.
"Those who surrender their freedom to gain security will have and deserve neither." -- Ben Franklin
For a man who set out seven years ago to forge a path for "compassionate conservativism," Bush has beat down a different trail entirely. The legacy he's going to leave is not a compassionate one, nor even a very conservative one, from what I can tell.
If I had to guess at his motivations, I'd say he's probably trying to reduce federal expenses on the one hand, and probably believes he's bolstering our security efforts on the other.
For the first matter, I think the priorities are wrong; on the issue of torture -- and I can't see that simulated drowning is anything but torture, as with the other practices described -- I hold that it's morally unconscionable for a government to practice such acts, no matter what its motivation, and I also cite the arguments of Sen. John McCain, R.-Arizona, who has pointed out repeatedly that any "intelligence" gained from such actions is useless.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
This particular quote resonated with me:
"I know from the military that if you tell someone they can do a little of this for the country's good, some people will do a lot of it for the country’s better," said John D. Hutson, who served as the Navy's top lawyer from 1997 to 2000.
Back around Easter, I passed around a column I had read, to several friends about torture and how every assault on a prisoner is an assault on the person of Christ. I was horrified when one friend, whom I generally respect despite our differences of opinion, said that he disagreed, and felt that God has given governments the authority to torture prisoners for matters of security.
I have to admit, I lost some respect for him on that one.
One thing that I find striking about Bush right now is how much he has changed in the eight years he has been in office. When he first came on, I was willing to give him a chance, because he had some goals that were worth exploring, such as his faith-based initiatives to help the needy. He even met with liberal groups and activists like Jim Wallis of Sojourners to discuss where the need was greatest and what he as president could do.
And now ... well, now he's vetoed a bill to bring health care to the nation's neediest children (after all, they already have emergency rooms), his administration has justified the nation's first-ever domestic spying program, they've insisted on the right to torture prisoners and to deny them third-party oversight; it's issued more signing statements than the previous 42 administrations combined, and (let's not forget) it misled the country into war while refusing to provide safe harbor for the refugees that war has created.
The stresses of being president are going to be hard on any one -- especially one who is president at as nerve-wracking a time as 9/11 -- but I can't say he has help up well under the stress.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
I have to say that I've been rather struck by how seminal the Cthulhu mythos have proved to be, especially when you consider how poor Lovecraft was at the actual mechanics of writing. Movies like "Event Horizon" rely on the basic conceit of Lovecraft's work, Cthulhu was a fairly major character (under a different name) in Larry Niven's "World of Ptavvs," and the Old Ones even get mentioned in an episode of Star Trek.
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Hey, fellow Christian, I have a suggestion: Don’t ask people for money if you haven’t spoken to them more than once in the past five years.
If you had just written me a letter to say that you and your 12-year-old son were going to
Instead, I get a letter ― and not even a letter that was addressed to me personally, but an e-mail you sent to a couple dozen other people as well, all at the same time ― full of spiritual words about the Word of God, and how many millions of people are starving for that Word, and what an exciting opportunity it is for us to be involved in the work of the Lord by helping you get to Colombia.
May God forgive me for the times I have done this very thing.
You’re absolutely right: The fields are ripe unto harvest. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few, and I don’t begrudge you the opportunity to go work in the fields for a few weeks and see how far before these overtended fields in
But if you want people to be a part of your “ministry” ― and don’t kid yourself, in a two-week trip God’s doing to do more to transform your life than he’s going to do to transform Colombia ― you’ll need to relearn a fundamental truth about the Kingdom of God that we’ve lost, not just here in Iowa but in all America, and probably throughout the West: It’s the people who count.
If you can’t make the effort to reach out to individual people, one on one, and share with them why you’re making this trip; if you can’t make a personal connection and pass the time with people, giving them a little of yourself before you ask them for financial support; if you can’t remember that the only convincing evidence for the gospel is that way people’s lives are set on fire by love for one another … then you don’t need money.
You need a new awakening yourself.
Rachel has reached her ignition point.
For the last few weeks in particular, since we started this year of homeschooling, I’ve been working with her to instill actual reading skills. She’s found the consonant-consonant sounds frustrating, and at times has groaned over having to do reading class, and asked to do something less difficult, like writing class.
Well, a few weeks of Hooked on Phonics have been paying off. Last week I pulled out a set of books that stick to monosyllabic words and short vowels, and that break in the combination sounds one or two per book. As an incentive, the books come with little stickers that I’ve been letting her place in the front of the book once she’s proved she can read the entire book without help from a parent. Early last week she was still getting frustrated by cl- and st-, but by Friday she was eager for the next volume.
Monday put her over the top. She was excited to read a story that uses the short O sound to Natasha and then to Evangeline, and at evening’s end, she had decided on her own initiative to tackle the book with the short U sound. Virtually flawless.
And then, the big one: I took out our copy of Dr. Seuss’ “Hop on Pop,” about 60 pages of rhymes, simple words, unfamiliar sight word like they, and words that follow no pronunciation rules she’s acquainted with, like night. She needed help with those words, but because of the rhyming nature of the book ― sentences like “FIGHT NIGHT / We fight all night” ― she very quickly got the hang even of them, and could remember them from one page to the next with minimal prompting.
She’s reached the ignition point, and she’s about to take off.