Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Grave Matters

Digging someone’s grave is an intimate thing, and I’ve done it twice now in just over a year. I’d buried pets like frogs and turtles when I was a boy, and a dog when I was an adult, but never a human being. I’d asked the caretaker at the small, private cemetery what rules or regulations there might be, which were very few. So, I loaded a couple of shovels into my truck and drove over the day before the funeral last spring.

My brother, Dan, died in Florida during March of 2012 of a chronic disease we both struggled with for years. He had lived a long time in North Fryeburg and, knowing death could come soon, told his wife of his wish to be buried there. He’d been cremated and she flew up with his ashes, so I didn’t have to dig a very big hole. She’d asked me to make a box for his urn and that, too, was a solitary, intimate experience.
Mark Woodbrey at Lovell Lumber

Once I had the urn’s dimensions, I went to Lovell Lumber and bought a ten-foot, one-by-twelve pine board. The mill owner, a fellow about my age, silently wrote out the slip for my meager, one-board purchase. “That’s all?” he asked, so I explained what I was making. He paused and looked up at me with a surprised expression and told me he had done the same thing for his brother.

“Hmm,” I said.
St. William's School Tewksbury, MA
Back in my garage, I thought about the carpentry projects I’d done for my brother because it wasn’t one of his skills, being in the plumbing and heating business. This would be the last. I wondered if he were observing me while I worked. He was my little brother and we shared a bedroom for many years. I protected him growing up in the neighborhood. As adults we perceived world quite differently in many ways and there were subjects I’d learned to avoid discussing while he was alive. That didn’t matter any more. “Ashes to ashes,” we were told by the nuns at St. William’s School, “dust to dust.” He had come to it sooner than I did.

My Uncle Joe's funeral last year

I’d been to professional funerals where artificial turf covered the excavated soil and edges of the hole, and with a stainless steel frame onto which the casket was placed and lowered by pulleys into a concrete vault. Backhoes dig those graves these days. I was doing it the old-fashioned way, alone with a shovel. Geese flew by in single-line flight, honking. Nature’s seasons mirror life’s seasons. Many poems, many songs compare them. My brother died in what should have been the autumn of his. His wife asked me to deliver his eulogy as well and I pondered that as I made the box and dug the grave. I knew that would be the hardest task because remembrances of my brother would not longer be my own private thoughts and feelings. I’d have to speak them in front of everyone.
This past spring, his son and my nephew, Danny Boy as we called him, died suddenly, also in Florida. The postmortem showed an enlarged heart. My wife and my sisters remembered how sensitive he was as a boy to the needs of his many younger cousins in our extended, Irish-Catholic family. Enlarged heart indeed. He was very gentle, and the world has a way of eating up those whose hearts are too big. The hundred-year-old Irish-American song “Danny Boy” is about a boy leaving his father in Ireland for America and how they may never see each other again. I thought about those lyrics as I dug still another grave uniting Dan and Danny Boy in death.
The area around the cemetery is familiar. I’d collected artifacts there over the years - remains of Indian occupation going back several millennia. If they buried their dead there too, evidence would have disappeared long before. That wasn’t likely though, given that the site was in the Saco flood plain and would have been under water in springtime, so their occupation was likely seasonal. All that’s been found were stone tools, hearths with charcoal, and calcine animal bone preserved by fire.
Cemetery on left, Old Saco on right

Conscious of that, I scrutinized each shovelful of soil but I found nothing in my brother’s grave last year. When I dug his son’s grave right next to it two weeks ago, however, I found chips of Mount Jasper Rhyolite from Berlin, NH just under the turf. That told me it was a toolmaking site many, many centuries ago. Both graves looked just like test pits we’d excavated four years previous within sight of where I was digging with a team of archaeologists and students.
Students in the test pits

British colonists and we Americans who derived from them have been in this area only 250 years or so. Artifacts I’ve found on that side of the Old Saco River go back about eight hundred, probably left by ancestors the Abenaki. Others have been found across the river going back several thousand, and we know relatively little about the people who made them. All civilizations eventually fade away and ours will as well. We’re all going to die of something, sooner or later, and being mindful of that enriches each new day. How we live those days determines how we’ll spend eternity. Meanwhile, a bit of a respite from graves, funerals and eulogies would suit me.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Couldn't Decide What To Write About

There’s a lot going on and I only publish once a week. Each of the following deserves a column by itself, but a few short observations are in order.
SYRIA - It might have made sense to intervene six months ago before rebel leaders became dominated by al Qaeda. Now we have radical Shiite Muslims allied to Iran (the Bashar Assad regime) fighting radical Sunni Muslims allied to al Qaeda (the rebels). Our enemies are killing each other and that’s a good thing. It makes no sense to do anything now, unless it’s to give weapons to both sides.
CHICAGO - Thirty shot, seven killed over Father’s Day weekend by fatherless young black men. Remember how the late Senator Moynihan (D-NY) described what was happening in the black family in 1965? I do - fathers abandoning their children who are then condemned to poverty. President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” made it worse by subsidizing single mothers as I observed last week. Now it’s epidemic in whites as well. Thirty shot, seven killed in a city with some of the strongest gun control laws in the whole country. And Obama spent twenty years there as a community organizer? We know what doesn’t work for Chicago - Democrat rule for 83 years in a row. Maybe they’ll try something else, like pre-sixties values perhaps?
OBAMACARE - The “Affordable Care Act” is drastically raising insurance premiums in many states, including here in Maine by 40%. Forbes reported that Ohio’s will go up 55-85%. The president promised that rates would go down, remember? Medical schools report a severe shortage of primary care doctors, especially in rural areas like here in western Maine where I live. The good news is that more doctors are eschewing health insurance altogether and dealing in cash - and that’s driving down costs: $3 for a cholesterol test instead of $90 and $400 for an MRI instead of $2000. Prior to WWII almost all medical transactions were that way - no middle man. Time to go back?
POLITICAL CORRECTNESS - It’s way out of control. The federal government is snooping into virtually everything Americans do in the name of protecting us from terrorism. And from where does most terrorism come? Muslims, obviously, yet mosques in the US - where homegrown terrorists breed - have been off limits to FBI investigators thanks to a lawsuit by CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) and the ACLU. CAIR was an un-indicted co-conspirator in a Dallas , Texas terrorist-funding case. No wonder they missed the Tsarnaev brothers. What’s next? Exempt Muslims from searches at airports? Sometimes I wonder if we're too stupid to survive.
DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL - It’s been repealed for homosexuals in the military, but now it’s driving Christians and conservatives into the closet. Master Sgt. Nathan Sommers, a 25-year Army veteran and conservative Christian based at Fort Myer in Washington was ordered to remove Republican, anti-Obama bumper stickers like “Political Dissent is NOT Racism,” “NOBAMA,” and “NOPE2012” from his privately-owned car and disciplined for reading books by conservative authors like David Limbaugh and Mark Levine. “Tolerant” progressives are the most intolerant of all.
MAINSTREAM MEDIA - They’re back to “see no evil” mode. Last week neither CBS nor NBC had a single story on the Obama Administration’s IRS Scandal targeting conservatives. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was interviewing John Boehner and asked one question about it June 11th. That’s why I was so surprised when on last Sunday’s “Today Show” NBC’s ultra-liberal apologist Andrea Mitchell declared that the American people have lost confidence in their government. That really surprised me. It’s quite true, of course, but I almost fell over to hear her say it. CBS’s Scott Pelley declared: “what were offering at the evening news is, within 30 minutes we’re going to tell you about the 12 most important things that happened in the world.” I don’t think so Scott. Not after your network muzzled Sharyl Attkisson’s reporting on “Fast and Furious” and the Benghazi scandal.
PORTLAND PARADE - Channel 13, the local CBS News outlet in southern Maine, announced the 7th annual “Dyke March” on Congress Street to kick off the 27th annual “Southern Maine Pride Parade and Festival” weekend in downtown Portland. It being only ten minutes from our South Portland house, this country mouse from the woods of Oxford County drove over to take in some urban culture. Watching from the sidewalk, it was over in two minutes. In front of the large “Dyke March” banner were “Dykes on Bikes” revving their deafening Harleys. Following were lots of husky women, one topless, and a sign declaring “Homophobia is Patriarchy’s Crutch.” That was it; I was home before eight.
BUCKET LIST - I skipped the rest of the “Pride” weekend festivities, bicycled around Peaks Island with my wife the next day, and crossed it off our bucket list.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Shunning Independence

One of my chores lately is dressing my granddaughters while their mother tends the three-month-old twin boys. Three-year-old Claire puts on most of her clothes herself now. Two-year-old Lila, always trying to keep up with her big sister, will stubbornly tell me “I can do it myself!” even if she really can’t yet, so I summon the patience to wait while she tries to put on her pants and shirt. Both strive to be self-sufficient and I like to foster that, even when it takes three times longer than if they were to let me do it all for them. They also help prepare supper. Claire can peel carrots and Lila can put plates out the table. This takes longer too but they’re proud to do their parts.
Lila and Claire

Two of their great-grandfathers were World War II veterans. My father was born poor in January, 1922 during a time when there was no government assistance. My father-in-law was also born poor a month earlier in December, 1921. Theirs was the generation that witnessed the beginning of federal government intervention in day-to-day lives of millions of Americans. They were teenagers when President Roosevelt took office in 1933. My father and his brothers participated in programs like the CCCs and WPA to earn money for their families. Both great-grandfathers grew up to join the navy and fight the Japanese, one receiving a Purple Heart and the honor of being buried at Arlington National Cemetery last December. Both supported Roosevelt.

Although many Americans received the first forms of federal government assistance during the Great Depression, they didn’t become addicted to government and they were expected to work for their money. When President Johnson took office in 1963, however, the feds started giving money directly to people with no work requirement. Johnson’s “Great Society” declared a “War on Poverty” that, although well-intentioned, hasn’t come close to achieving its lofty goal of eliminating poverty in America after almost fifty years and $15 trillion. Indeed, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last week found a plurality of Americans (24%) who believe it was a huge boondoggle that, rather than eliminate poverty, has extended it.

Part of the War on Poverty was AFDC - Aid To Families with Dependent Children - which gave money to mothers without husbands. Many claim that, because mothers got more money the more children they had, it subsidized an increase in illegitimate births and breakdown of families. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed 13% believing that family breakdown “is most responsible for the continuing problem of poverty” and 10% saying it was “a lack of work ethic” - another result of giving money to people who don’t have to work for it. Those percentages add up to nearly half of all Americans who believe “War on Poverty” programs not only failed to eliminate poverty, but extended it.
As we’re burying the last of our World War II veterans, eight hundred per day lately, the contrast between their generation and the one they parented - baby boomers - couldn’t be more stark. They defeated dictators in Europe and Asia, then defended the free world from communism until the first of the boomer president was inaugurated in 1992 - President Clinton. He was followed by boomer Presidents Bush and Obama. All of them continued to expand government intervention into ordinary Americans’ lives with cradle-to-grave entitlement programs to the point where, in Maine, welfare recipients outnumber taxpayers.
Maine Governor Paul LePage

Making things worse, it’s not just Americans: millions of illegal immigrants are collecting benefits - even terrorists like the Tsarnaev brothers who kill us. The US Department of Agriculture actually helps the Mexican government recruit illegal aliens to collect food stamps. In the 19th and 20th centuries, people longed to come to America because they would be free to work toward their dreams and raise their families. We used to attract immigrants “yearning to breathe free.” Now we’re attracting immigrants who want to live for free - at taxpayer expense. According to the Center For Immigration Studies: “In 2009 (based on data collected in 2010), 57 percent of households headed by an immigrant (legal and illegal) with children (under 18) used at least one welfare program, compared to 39 percent for native households with children.”
It’s increasingly evident that Americans today can be divided into two categories: those who want to take care of themselves, and those who expect government to do it for them - those proud to be independent like my granddaughters are becoming, and those who not only fear liberty, but crave dependency. It’s the former who built this country and defended it for two centuries. It’s the latter who are running it into the ground.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Drowning In Government

The underground economy operates smoothly because government isn’t involved. How many of you have hired the kid next door to mow your lawn? You need a baby sitter? That works the same way and we don’t need government to regulate it, right? Most of us have friends and relatives who work “under the table” and, increasingly, small businesses that remain “on the books” struggle to compete with them.
Government would control and tax the smallest transactions if it could, and it’s trying to. It’s regulating yard sales and lemonade stands in several places. It will regulate every penny we earn and spend if it doesn’t collapse first - and its collapse is inevitable if we stay on the path we’re on. feds tried last year to prohibit children from using power equipment on private land for compensation, so it could conceivably prohibit the kid next door from using your lawn mower. Government licenses day care centers in many places and would control all baby sitters if we let it. Government has been too big for too long and growth is accelerating.

The more government tries to micromanage, the more legitimate business shrinks and the underground economy grows. It’s estimated to account for $2 trillion per year in the United States and $10 trillion worldwide. Democrats in power continue to grow government, but it’s not just them: it grew more under George W. Bush’s administration than it did under President Clinton’s. President Obama, however, has made them both look like pikers. He’s taken over 20% of the economy and bragged that he’ll bring down the level of the oceans even if it means regulating emissions from your lawn mower. His carbon-regulating “Cap And Trade” bill didn’t make it through the Congress, but he’s issuing executive fiats to implement provisions of it anyway. Will he stop the ocean from rising? Of course not, but he’s wreaking havoc on our economy with his ever-increasing regulations. That’s what socialists do.
Big-government efforts to control water levels historically have been hugely expensive and disastrously ineffective. Consider the Mississippi River: The federal government has been building levees and dikes to control flooding for more than a century, but observers point out that those efforts are making things worse. A 2011 article by Richard Maybury called “The River Is Socialist” states:

I’ll never forget the first time I drove along the river’s banks. I had to look up at the passing ships because in some places, the bed of the river is so high, it’s above the surrounding land. It can be kept confined to its channel only by dikes. If the dikes were not there, the river would flow out across the surrounding land and destroy everything. Year after year, decade after decade, the bed of the river rises, and the government responds by raising the dikes. What causes the bed to rise? The dikes. . . . when a river is confined to its channel, it has no place to dump its silt except in the channel. This raises the bottom of the river, until the river overtops the dikes. Did the politicians admit that building dikes was a bonehead idea? Absolutely not. They said, these worsening floods are a huge problem, but give us more money and power… and we will build the dikes even higher. And so it has gone for more than a century. The dikes are raised, which lifts the bed of the river, causing more flooding, plus more demands for higher dikes. All the while, the cities on the floodplains grow larger.

Some geologists believe the great Mississippi floods of 1927 and 1993 wouldn’t have been nearly so bad had government not been “fixing” things. More and more development goes on behind the dikes because the feds subsidize flood insurance. No private insurer would write those policies because they’d lose money and no one would build on floodplain if the feds didn’t provide insurance. Private banks wouldn’t give mortgages either, and who pays for the dikes and the insurance? All American taxpayers, including those of us who live on high ground.
Now consider all the big-government “fixing” of the subprime mortgage market by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over the past few decades. It has resulted in millions being underwater on their mortgages. Private banks would never lend to these sub-prime borrowers, but government insures their mortgages. It’s the root of our economic mess and President Obama is still at it - guaranteeing sub-prime mortgages - even those already under water, and printing money to do it. In the Mississippi floodplain, people have been underwater both literally and figuratively  because of “help” from government. As government continues to “fix” everything large and small, America drowns in debt.

We’d all be better off if government stopped helping us so much.