Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Summing Up

Eulogies are hard for me. Though I’d never done one before, I’ve been asked three times in the last year to speak at a funeral. To sum up a life is a daunting thing.

The first was for the man who became the other grandfather to one of my grandsons. I met him at my daughter’s wedding. We talked often at holiday gatherings and at our mutual grandson’s birthday parties. Doug Kimble was easy to like. He died suddenly of a heart attack and his two sons took it hard, as one might expect. I told his son - my son-in-law, Nate, that if there was anything I could do, please ask.
Grandson Alex, Nate, Doug Kimble at Crescent Lake, Maine

He and his brother knew they’d be too emotional to speak at the memorial service, so he asked me to say a few words. I said I hadn’t known him very well and he said that was okay. Doug Kimble was a private guy, a surveyor, who kept to himself most of the time. He was in very good shape for his age, except for his cholesterol. We had discussed this in one of our last conversations because it’s one of the things sixty-something guys talk about. He indicated that his was high and that he wasn’t intending to do anything about it. Mine had been high too, but I told him I was taking Lipitor which brought it way down. We discussed ways of dying - advantages and disadvantages. He said the advantage of heart attacks was that they were usually quick - and that’s how it was for him a year hence. His son, Mike, found him in bed at his lakeside cottage this time last year where he’d been reading. A bit early at 67, but not a bad way to go.
Doug Kimble Memorial Service, Bridgton, Maine

My sister, a nurse/practitioner who works with geriatric and chronically-ill people, told me only 10% of deaths are sudden like that, but 90% of us linger. I’d watched a lot of people die, having worked more than two years as an orderly in a geriatric/chronic-care hospital on the second shift when I was in college. People didn’t get better and go home from there. They went out horizontally, and one of my jobs was to attach toe tags and bring the bodies down to the morgue where undertakers picked them up. I’d gotten away from death for thirty-six years teaching young people, but now I’m involved with it again.

Didn’t think I’d be emotional speaking at Doug’s funeral, but I was. It came on all of a sudden. It was the solemnity, the finality, the love in the room. I told people how I remembered him and invited others to do the same.

Then my cousin called a few months ago and asked me to eulogize my Uncle Joe. Now Joe I’d known my whole life and I loved him. He was a great man and I was honored to be asked, but I didn’t feel I could do the job adequately. I hesitated, and my cousin told me I could say no, but I really couldn’t. I said yes and then decided make Joe’s eulogy my column for the week.
Uncle Joe, Mary McLaughlin (my mother) and me in the Aran Islands

Writing it wasn’t as difficult as I thought, but delivering it was harder. Again, I was in a room full of people who loved him, only this time I was one of them and his casket was beside me. He was ninety-three and had been mostly bed-ridden for the last several months, so death wasn’t unexpected. I thought I was okay with it, but I wasn’t. Fear won’t make me cry, but sadness can put me off center. When genuine love is expressed in my presence, however, I can get emotional and in this case sadness and love combined. I choked up as I delivered Joe’s eulogy and that’s very hard for me in public.
Uncle Joe's funeral in Marlborough, Massachusetts

My younger brother died shortly after that and my sister-in-law, Vicki, asked me to deliver his eulogy too. Again I hesitated because by then I knew how I was likely to get. She sensed it and said I didn’t have to, that she could get someone else, but again I agreed. Dan was my brother and I loved him. We were two of eight and all of us have several children. Four of us have grandchildren as well, including Dan, and he was the first to go on to the next life. Vicki sent me pictures of him at all stages of his life. His was the hardest eulogy to write, and to deliver.

After it was written, I recited it to my wife and I choked up. She suggested I recite it again and I was able to get through it okay the second time. I thought I’d be fine when the funeral mass came around, but I wasn’t. Dan’s eulogy was the hardest of all.My mother with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren at Dan's funeral in Fryeburg, Maine

Life goes on.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Archaeology and Victimhood

Even archaeology is political these days and it slows down research. Muslim Arabs discourage Israeli Jews from excavating ancient sites like the Temple Mount because findings might bolster Jewish claims to disputed territory. Christians and Jews tend to be more open to whatever may emerge from archaeological digs. They’re happier when the research bolsters Biblical writings, but they don’t try to re-bury evidence that would conflict with religious teachings. Radical Muslims, however, threaten to kill anyone whoever even suggests finding that would cast doubt on one or more of their teachings. For Palestinian Arabs, fostering the view that they’re victims of Israeli “oppression” is their most potent political weapon, so historical evidence of Israeli settlement predating Palestinians by millennia threatens them.Yours truly at the Temple Mount in 2007

That’s true for many Indian tribes here in America too, unfortunately. It seemed to begin with a remarkable find of a nearly-complete, 9000-year-old skeleton in the Columbia River in Washington state. The political controversy in this case is racial because features of the skull don’t comply with those of Indian or “Native American” skulls found previously. Instead, it appears Caucasian and that threatens the accepted narrative of American Indian tribes who claim to be the first people in America. So what is a European-looking, Caucasian man doing in Washington state 9000 years ago with a stone spearpoint embedded in his hip bone?

It was too much for the local Umatilla Indians who insisted that it be turned over to them for re-burial. They claimed that if the skeleton was found on land they considered their ancestral territory, Kennewick Man (as the skeleton was named) must be their ancestor. That’s highly questionable given that American Indian tribes were constantly warring on one another and taking over each other’s territories for centuries prior to European conquests.

Nine thousand years is a long time in human history. It’s well into the prehistoric era, which means that no records - neither written nor traditional - exist to document anything from that time anywhere. So, for the Umatilla to claim that a skeleton over nine thousand years old would be Umatilla is ridiculous - something only “progressive” bureaucrats in the federal government would consider credible. Four or five other ancient skulls with Caucasian features found in other parts of the United States have been reexamined since Kennewick Man came to light, but local Indian tribes on those locations are trying to re-bury those as well. The “First People” myths are extremely important to modern Indian tribes.There’s big money in victimhood here in the early 21st century. Indians get billions in benefits from taxpayers, not to mention lucrative casino licenses, mostly because of treaties and the widespread perception that Indian tribes were peaceful and “green” until their lands were stolen by Europeans centuries ago. Uncovering archaeological data which questions that narrative is very threatening.

Evidence that Europeans might have been here almost 10,000 years ago is bad enough, but Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis Stanford published a book in February of this year theorizing that Europeans may have settled in North America thousands of years before the first “Native Americans” arrived. I’ve been reading Stanford’s “Across Atlantic Ice” and it’s quite fascinating. He and colleague Bruce Bradley make a convincing case that ancient Solutrean people from around the Pyrenees in southern France and northern Spain came to North America more than 20,000 years ago during the height of the last ice age.Altamira bison

Solutreans were among the people who produced the remarkable paintings found in the Cave of Altamira in northern Spain as well as those of Lascoux in southern France. It is Solutrean stonework, however, that provides the bulk of the evidence that they may have migrated to the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States. The way Solutreans shaped various lithic (stone) tools was quite similar to how early “Clovis” cultures made their tools in North America.Dennis Stanford with Clovis lithics

Stanford’s and Bradley’s hypothesis threatens many academics as well as Indians because they’ve written countless books and articles insisting there were no humans in North or South America before Clovis cultures 14,000 years ago - and that all Indian ancestors came across a land bridge from Asia where the Bering Strait is now. There’s also biological evidence in the form of mitochondrial DNA of a connection between Solutrean people and certain Indian groups in North America, but Stanford and Bradley didn’t choose to cover that in “Across Atlantic Ice.”The question of how people came to North America has fascinated me since I was a boy. Although political controversy interests me too, it’s impeding research in this area and I wish it would go away. It won’t, of course, so I’ve had to weave it into this column. The next time I visit the subject though, I’ll try to stick to the science, which is absolutely fascinating for history geeks like me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Circling The Drain

Ten years ago a young couple I know visited Greece, Italy and Spain on their honeymoon. The young husband told me he was amazed at what a leisurely life people in those countries led. “They don’t bust their butts working long hours like we do,” he said. “They spend most of their time sitting in cafes sipping wine, visiting and talking. Why can’t we do that? Why do we work so hard over here?” He talked about selling out his assets here and moving there, but I warned him that what he witnessed was not sustainable and wouldn’t go on too much longer.
It’s crunch time now in Europe and soon it will be here in the United States as well. Money to pay for cradle-to-grave entitlements liberal/socialist governments promised decades ago has run out. When leaders like France’s Sarkozy told voters that the gravy train will go off the rails unless entitlements are cut back, they voted him out. They put in a socialist who promises that he’ll keep it all going by taking more money from the rich. Sound familiar? The day after his election, the socialist Monsieur Hollande took a look at France’s books and discovered things were worse than Sarkozy said and his first action will be talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel about how to avoid collapse of the Eurozone.Meanwhile, our biggest state, California, is facing a $16 billion budget deficit. Even the reincarnated liberal Governor “Moonbeam” Brown warns that it must cut entitlements or raise taxes or both. Will it? Will enough wagon-riding California voters actually jump off and join the taxpaying workers who are pulling it? That’s the essential question for both Americans and for Europeans, because if they don’t, it’s all going to collapse and anarchy will reign. I don’t want to even imagine what that will look like. Unless the wagon-riders in Europe and in the United States grow up and realize the Nanny State cannot afford to keep taking care of them, things are going to get out of control.Greece is the canary in the coal mine of financial collapse because they’ve been living the longest on borrowed money and borrowed time. Leaders there who tried to cut entitlements saw riots in the streets and were soon voted out. Germany is getting tired of lending Greece money for their unsustainable lifestyle, much the same way China is leery of lending more to the United States. Germany wants to make Greece’s continued membership in the Eurozone difficult enough that they’ll decide pull out. Then the task will be preventing a domino effect of Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland falling down as well.Will Greece pull out of the Eurozone and go back to printing Greek drachmas? And printing, and printing . . .? How long can that continue? Alex Tsipras, leader of the radical leftist coalition Greek voters elected on May 6th wants to roll back the salary and pension cuts imposed by the European Union and wants to hire 100,000 new government employees to bring down unemployment. How many drachmas will that take? What happens when Greeks try to spend those drachmas and discover there’s nothing to back them up? One Greek political analyst sums it up thusly: “The gravity of the situation isn’t appreciated . . . The only thing that will focus minds is when the money to pay pensions and salaries just doesn’t arrive.”That’s what scares me. Most Europeans and most Americans refuse to face reality. Financial panic is contagious and the United States is not immune. If there’s another run on the banks here like there was in 1933, what will FDIC do for the lines of depositors demanding their money? Will our Federal Reserve print trillions more dollars on top of the trillions already printed?

Here, wagon-riders and those Americans whose idea of “Hope and Change” means accelerating our march to socialism together comprised a majority in 2008. Will that coalition stay together and keep socialist Democrats in power after November? It’s almost six months until the election - an eternity in politics. A lot of wild cards can be thrown down between now and then. And what if leftist Democrats lose the White House and Congress? Would they allow a peaceful transition of power between November and January?

I hope so, but I don’t take that for granted anymore.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Ideas in Conflict

The 20th century witnessed the ascendancy of two powerful ideas. How people approach these ideas largely determines which side of the political spectrum they're on. The first is that God had nothing to do with the creation of our universe or of ourselves. The other is related. It holds that sex should be unrelated to procreation - among humans at least. It is just for pleasure. Some historians believe there were more changes in day-to-day life for the average person in the 20th century than in all prior centuries combined, and it seems that these ideas have had more effect on how the average person feels about his or her place in our world and what it all means.

I saw two bumper stickers on the same car last week. The left one said: “Neitzsche: God is dead.” The right one said: “God: Neitzsche is dead.” That one was on the left and the other on the right seemed appropriate. Whether God is dead or not has been hotly debated since Neitzsche first claimed it in the late 19th century. Neitzsche’s death, however, is accepted fact. He died in 1900, the beginning of the 20th century, but his ideas have had enormous effect on thinking ever since.

Neitzsche was influenced by Darwin’s research into evolution - the idea that humans just happened by chance - a significant departure from the widespread belief that humans were created for a purpose by a Creator-God. If we just sort of happened, what’s the point? Neitzsche claimed there was no point - that life was meaningless. God was dead, he claimed, and so was meaning. Evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive ideas, but they are in the minds of atheists, and thus began the rise of “Nihilism” - the concept that nothing matters. That’s the essence of today’s political and ideological conflicts. Those who see meaning and those who don’t.

The idea that God created the universe also went out of fashion during the 20th century with the rise of the “Big Bang Theory” which proposes that fifteen billion years ago or so, a dense chunk of matter exploded and is still exploding. No explanation for where the chunk of matter came from. No matter for atheists. No meaning either. Galaxies, stars, planets formed incidentally, and so, ultimately, did we. Such thinking was fertile ground for Karl Marx’s teachings. Religion, he said, was the “opiate of the masses,” a drug capitalists used to keep people quiescent during their short lives so they wouldn’t rebel against the nasty rich capitalists who exploited them.

“War, comrades, is a great locomotive of history,” said Leon Trotsky, paraphrasing his intellectual mentor, Karl Marx, who said, “revolution is the driving force of history.” Ideas are catalysts for revolutions whether they be violent conflicts or transformational social movements. Both were ubiquitous in the 20th century. Born in 1951 at the beginning of the century’s second half, I was inculcated with the values and conflicting world views of people who came of age in the first half. Conflict escalated during my lifetime and rages still.

Rendering down the reasons for those conflicting views, we come to a few basic ways of perceiving our world and our existence within it. Some of us still believe God created it and created us afterward. Our Founding Fathers believed it too, and in the late 18th century they started a revolution with words like: “All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .” Some Americans still believe those words, but others don’t. They tend to believe our rights are endowed by government and our current president is one of them. He chokes on the three of the words “by their Creator” and habitually omits them when reciting that line from our Declaration of Independence.The sexual revolution of the 1960s furthered the notion that sex and procreation should be dissociated, just as meaning and human existence were. Sex isn’t necessary for pregnancy anymore. Pregnancy is a negative side-effect of sexual activity and detrimental to “women’s health.” The misnomer “Planned Parenthood” has become a sacred institution for the secular left which believes parenthood is something to be avoided. Its mission is to disseminate contraception and do abortions when it fails - all in the name of “women’s health.” Sex is good. Babies are bad. Pregnancy is a disease to be “cured” in their “women’s health” clinics. Sex is for pleasure, not for babies.

Governments grant rights to all kinds of sexual activity, and to abortion if those activities lead to pregnancy. For the secular left, there are too many humans on earth already. The more abortions, the better. Fewer humans means fewer carbon emissions and more habitat for other species. Habitat for animals trumps habitat for humanity. Those still believing in God tend to object to abortions and also consider some forms of sexual activity depraved. Government, however, is steadily outlawing references to God in schools and other public places. Many Biblical quotes are being considered “hate speech.” The secular left believes those clinging to belief in God will die out eventually as the brave new world of hope and change emerges. Religion and capitalism are yesterday’s ideas and we can eliminate them forever.

Yes we can.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Bishops Buck Up

America’s Catholic bishops have drawn a line in the sand. They aren’t going obsequiously to Kathleen Sebelius’ Department of Health and Human Services trying negotiate a broader definition of Obamacare’s conscience clause. Instead, they’re calling for open defiance - civil disobedience. They're refusing to pay for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. They’re invoking the legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King and encouraging American Catholics to disobey their government in this matter. As their letter says: “It cannot be obeyed and therefore one does not seek relief from it, but rather its repeal.”

This will damage for President Obama’s reelection chances, but I don’t think he understands yet how bad it is going to be for him. Did his reelection campaign pick this fight? Did they tell George Stephanopoulos to ask Mitt Romney that contraception question out of the blue during the presidential debates to begin orchestrating the alleged Republican “war on women”? Was this a calculated threat meant to solidify the female vote in November? If so, it’s going to backfire, bigtime.

Warning the president two months ago that he had the gauntlet in hand and was about to throw it down, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York invoked another Democrat president: “President Johnson said, as an American, I look to the church — I look to religion as a beehive. If you leave them alone, they’re going to give you tons of their honey. But if you stick your head in there, you’re going to get stung bad.”

“I didn’t leave the Democrat Party. The Democrat Party left me,” said Ronald Reagan and the same applies to this writer. I left shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president, but Reagan left back in the fifties. When meeting new people and exchanging information, I sometimes say I’m a “Boston-Irish-Catholic-former Democrat.” Usually there’s a slight pause, then maybe a small chuckle, and sometimes a turning away. Some say, “Ah. A former Democrat,” and grin comprehendingly. They know I’ve separated myself from the party of my forebears and that helps them begin to understand my world view and my spiritual view.

My ancestors going back three generations were all Boston-Irish-Catholic-Democrats, members of the clan. In order of priority, the men were Irish-Catholic-Democrats from Boston. The women were Catholic-Irish-Democrats from Boston. Catholicism was first for the women, but not usually the men. The women were not as interested in politics as the men, but politicians were interested in them. Ward bosses pressed them to vote Democrat in every election and they did. Their husbands’ and sons’ jobs often depended on them turning out every vote in their family, even some who may have died already. As the quintessential Boston-Irish-Catholic-Democrat politician’s slogan went: “Vote early and often for Curley.” That would be himself: James Michael Curley - former mayor, congressman, and governor of Massachusetts. Once, he was reelected as a “guest of the state” in his jail cell.

My education was in Catholic schools in Greater Boston from the second grade through high school. I was thoroughly trained in the conservative Roman Catholicism of the age. My local diocese was headed by Richard Cardinal Cushing, great friend of the Kennedy family whose scion, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected congressman, then senator, then president in 1960. Those were exciting times for a member of the clan growing up. My ilk didn’t just run Boston; they ran the whole state. Democrats were pro-union, pro-life, and anti-communist. They believed homosexuality was a perversion and that government at all levels should help the poor. They didn’t change, but the Democrat Party did, not on the issues of unions and welfare - not at first - but on all the rest they just flipped.

They became the party of abortion. No Democrat president will appoint a justice to any federal court who isn’t dedicated to Roe V Wade. While not overtly pro-communist, they’re so consistently socialist in their wealth-redistribution and regulatory bureaucracies, that there are virtually no more conservatives in the party. They’re coming to resembling Sweden and Greece more than the Democrat party of my youth.

Many conservatives abandoned the Democrat Party in the 1980s and became “Reagan Democrats.” Hardcore union types, however, didn’t. They stayed on, but how many will continue now that the USCCB has thrown down that gauntlet?

Less than three years ago, Obamacare was rammed through Congress with the open support of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Now, however, the USCCB is preaches open defiance of Obama’s contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drug mandate that is part of the bill. The veil of political naivete has fallen away from the bishops’ eyes. How is this going to play out for the president?

We’ll know late into the evening of the first Tuesday in November.