Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Autumn's Blush

Autumn’s blush is upon us, urging us to gather wood for the hearth. Red Apple cider simmers on the stove, cinnamon sticks adding fragrance, spicing the sweet flavors. Caramel thickens upon the glossy green apples, sealing in the good, fresh taste of summer.

A nearby bluff exploding in Autumn's color as seen from our boat

Our labor calls to us, forcing us outside to sweep leaves into piles and when the wind is kind, burn them slowly, releasing signals upon the heavy air. The odor reminds us of the chimneys that will soon send smoky ribbons aloft.

Summer’s wear gives way to long sleeves, closed toed shoes, and pants that cover our ankles. We adjust to the weight of fleece and wool and flannel for these comfort and warm us. 

Yellow blooms give way to orange gourds, and blue skies grow rare, more often smothered and stirred into clouds heavy with late rains. Those red wheelbarrows and small red hollies revive us.

We add color to our lives with candles aglow, twinkling lights, soft lamps in dim corners. We stack books beside the bed where they will carry us into afternoon naps. We must store energy for the long cloistered days ahead.

The Boy Scout within makes sure we have snow-melt or sand or kitty litter on hand, some even sacked and stashed in the trunks of our cars. We also stock up for days when we may not be able to travel: bottled water, canned tuna, broth, tea, coffee, popcorn, marshmallows, a bit of chocolate, and pure vanilla extract. Even if we know better than to make snow ice cream, it’s irresistible so we need plenty of vanilla.

The freezer holds meat, proving our confidence in the power of power companies to restore light and heat. The pantry hides three-dozen candles. They prove that our optimism has been tempered by experience with the dark and cold.

We take walks hoping to catch a glimpse of deer and wild turkey. Above, the eagles return from other air to prepare their nests for the next generation. They remind us to use the Autumn to make ready for the Spring.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Khaled Hosseini's Lesson: ... "cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color" (from And the Mountains Echoed)

In his third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, Saboor, Hosseini’s protagonist for the inciting incident of the novel, tells his children a bedtime story in which an impoverished, desperate father, Baba Ayub, must sacrifice one of his five children to an all-powerful div. Like Sophie of Sophie’s Choice, Baba Ayub must choose which child will be the sacrificial child. 

Qais, the name chosen for the charmed and much loved three-year-old, is the name that the father withdraws from a bag of names so at dawn, Baba locks Qais outside where the father must listen to the child’s terrified shrieks and his small fists pounding on the door to his home, his known universe.  After Qais’ cries have faded, Baba Ayub cannot endure the memory of the last sounds from his child or familiarity with his own cowardice for he teaches himself to believe that he sacrificed Qais to save himself.  Baba becomes incapable of living and loving the family that remains until one day, with all the weight of a father’s duty upon him, Baba Ayub begins a quest to rescue Qais, kill the div, and return his child to the father who loves him beyond measure. Even though the life that Baba Ayub can offer is one of penury, he must try even if he dies in the attempt. He has nothing to lose, nothing for which to live.

When Baba Ayub finds Qais and threatens the div’s life, the div reveals the true fate of all the children it’s claimed over many years. The children thrive in a lush garden. They grow in play, not want and work. They face a future in which they may choose to stay or go for the div has benevolently granted them free will while teaching them perfect empathy.

"from the Garden," a photo by Al Griffin

The div also reveals that Baba Ayub’s choice was courageous, not cowardly. Had Baba not chosen one, the div would have killed all his children. Indeed, many other fathers refused to choose, unable to contemplate a life burdened by their consciences. This revelation is a balm to Baba Ayub’s open wound, but the div complicates Baba’s healing by requiring that Baba choose between taking his son and denying Qais readmission or leaving his son and never returning to see him.

Baba Ayub chooses not to let Qais know he is near and not to take him back to a life of labor and deprivation. The father displays perfect empathy, acting in a way some might describe as cruel to achieve a benevolent end. The father sacrifices his own selfish desires to allow the younger life to flourish. For such selflessness, the div provides Baba Ayub with an elixir of forgetfulness. Just as Qais no longer remembers the family from which he was taken, Baba Ayub will forget the child, the agony of having to choose, the cries and tiny fists begging for entry, and the arduous journey undertaken to bring Qais home again. The father will know peace of mind and heart.

Readers are left with the div’s wisdom, acquired over the many, many years of a long life, and it is this: cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color (Hosseini).  Baba Ayub is cruel in order to be benevolent for his other children, and ironically, Baba’s cruelty results in unimagined benevolence for Qais. The div grants Qais a blessed life on fertile soil to promote empathy and service and goodness in him without plaguing him with desperation and regret, without memories of the family he lost, of being severed from his family. The div also graces Baba Ayub with forgetfulness so that his original act of cruelty becomes lost to him. He can sleep peacefully with no memory of that fifth, charmed child.

The div also gives the children a carefree life, one in which the darker motives in the human heart need not emerge. They have no opportunity to learn about envy or injustice or unbearable losses, and because they do not, they will, according to the div, live their adult lives trying to make all others as content and happy as they are.

Would that our own children could grow in such an ideal garden, one wherein some do not envy others, where none are bullied, where fair play and equal opportunity are daily occurrences, and where all children win by competing with their own personal bests rather than defeat and failures. We could insure that such a garden come to pass. We could insure that children never go hungry, that their sicknesses will not burden them, that their talents and passions are never denied, that they are safe from guns and gunmen, ignorance and fear.

We can believe that providing a strong social net for them is our highest calling and in such belief, we will forget our own sacrifice to bring about such a garden. We will sleep peacefully because we have striven to make all others content and happy as is their due for no other reason than that they live.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Ducking for Cover in Order to Win the 2014 Primary is an Excuse! Do Your Duty Even If You're Not Re-Elected!!

Several films that follow the rise and fall of political figures include a scene like this one:

Candidate: I can’t say that!

Campaign Advisor: You must.

Candidate: That runs counter to everything I stand for.

Campaign Advisor: No, that runs counter to everything you STOOD for.

Candidate stares, truth making the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He says nothing.

Campaign Advisor: Look, I know those words are not part of you, part of your reasons for running for office, but you can’t accomplish anything if you can’t be elected and to be elected, you need to court this constituency and to court this constituency, you need to say “that.” When you say that, you’ll have more funds to continue your campaign and win a chance to say what you want to say when you want to say it.

Candidate yields. Cut to Candidate behind a podium, speaking into a microphone the words he never wanted to speak.

The first time I saw such a scene, I acknowledged a certain level of cynicism in the hearts of the producers, script-writers, and director. I knew the film-makers merely held a mirror to the political process to explain why first-time candidates begin with noble goals and aspirations to serve the greater good, but soon, abandon those goals and aspirations in favor of time spent with wealthy donors and lobbyists, listening to marketing designed to achieve ends that serve the donor or lobby group without regard to the costs that others must pay.

I now look upon those scenes with disgust and disdain. To speak words and enact legislation not in the best interest of most people is simply malfeasance. Shape-shifting to be elected and to retain office has led us to this dysfunctional place. Politicians pander. Politicians promise. But they don’t deliver for the majority, only the minority, and they must stop. They must be willing not to win an election. They must be willing to perform according to their duty as enumerated in the Constitution. They must care more about the safety, health, and welfare of the nation and its residents than they care about their own paychecks or continued employment as an elected leader.

Moreover, the guy who sells his soul and his words to the highest bidder never manages to become what he hoped to become. He never accomplishes the ends to which he ran when he decided to run for elected office. He becomes a shill, more concerned about continued employment than life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for the people.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Home-Grown Anarchists

Senator Harry Reid is a soft-spoken man. Even when speaking into a microphone, he doesn’t manage to raise his voice enough to sound convicted or convincing. His counterparts in the House--Speaker John Boehner or the real G.O. Tea leaders, Representatives Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor--speak forcefully, their passion apparent though restrained in the true spirit of self-righteous zeal.

Perhaps this difference between Senate and House leadership is the root of media's attention. Boehner, Ryan, and Cantor’s scripted rhetoric gets lots of air time while Reid’s does not. He just doesn’t seem to command attention. Right now, he should because he characterized the current architects of an impasse as anarchists, and I agree, something I can’t often say about Senator Reid. His attempts to read a murky crystal ball for answers about the future of filibusters is just one of his many mistakes, but he has read the Tea leaves better: The G.O. Tea is a party of anarchy.

First, let's review the meaning of anarchy: a state of confusion and disorder. It may manifest as insubordination and disobedience. It follows then that an anarchist is a person who promotes disorder or excites revolt against any established rule, law, or custom by being insubordinate and disobedient

These days in these United States may be accurately described as days of confusion and disorder. Printed evidence exists proving that the G.O. Tea Party intended to disobey its duties in spite of having sworn to uphold those Constitutional duties upon taking office. In fact, Republicans met and vowed to undermine President Obama and his agenda on the night he was elected. Disingenuous declarations to the American people by the GOP is additional evidence that they wish to promote disorder and excite revolt against President Obama, the Affordable Care Act, and many other departments and programs enacted as law. They use the paint of propaganda to persuade people that health care should be the privilege of those able to afford it while those poor souls who cannot work or lack work sufficient to support basic needs must sicken and die. But the duty of Congressmen is not to propagandize, divide, and demonize, not to defy, deny, and demonstrate their willingness to let people suffer. Their duty is to submit legislation for examination, defend it with facts, and accept the judgment of voting constituencies.

These are not only days of confusion and disorder, they are days when insubordination and disobedience are held in high regard. G. O. Tea Party members and sympathizers declare that their freedoms are in jeopardy, but they are free to travel to and from the nation’s capitol city, free to spout truth and lies, free to meet and plan, free to make and give money, free to pursue happiness and avoid suffering, free to provide for their families, free to wear placards and tees that depict duly elected officials as Batman’s Joker or history’s villains.

[Thanks for the image.]

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer felt sufficiently free and empowered by her Right-wing constituency that she pointed a finger in the face of the nation’s president, a gesture that would not be abided by most parents of willful children, but one she defended by claiming to be animated by nature and accusing the President of being “thin-skinned.” G.O. Tea Party members and sympathizers cheered her show of disrespect. South Carolina’s House Representative Joe Wilson enjoyed similar acclaim after he jeered, “You lie!” during the President’s State of the Union address in 2009. His bodacious critique defies all custom of decorum and may become a paradigm for this era of incivility.  I expect better from leaders of both parties, any state, and any national office.

I expect them to live up to and exceed a basic standard of professionalism, including and especially by doing their duty not to engage in razzle, dazzle, insult or injury, but G.O.Tea Party members refuse, as others have pointed out, to accept a law duly passed and litigated. This is perhaps the most telling proof of Congress’s dereliction of duty, of its anarchic leanings. Congress has an enumerated Constitutional duty to raise revenue and fund laws duly passed. Instead, amendments to the first budget bill to the budget proposal specifically removed a key Affordable Care Act funding provision, a tax on medical equipment in full knowledge that doing so would increase the deficit and cripple a law. Their professed determination to save us from drowning in federal deficits was subsumed in their opposition to a law they cannot and will not debate or amend.

Furthermore, GO-Tea Party members seem confused or disingenuous about the function of a debt ceiling. Their rhetoric suggests that raising the debt limit would give President Obama license to spend, spend, spend us into becoming a broken, bankrupt nation. But facts do not support them. Here are just a few:

President Obama is not solely responsible for the national debt.
President Obama is not the architect of the federal budget.
The Constitution gives check-writing responsibilities to Congress, not the Executive branch.

[Thanks for the pointing finger!]

Thus, whoever sits in the Oval Office may legitimately point a finger of blame at Congress for any deficits and remedies are within their purview. If doing so fell within my purview, I would charge every House Republican and each of the seventeen Democrats who voted to shut the government down in order to defeat Obamacare and crush the government with two counts: 1) hypocrisy that strains belief and 2) treason. They are engaged in a campaign to confuse and disobey. They do not cherish this nation or the documents upon which it was founded.

The Tea Party-Libertarian incarnation of the Grand Old (Republican) Party is traitorous. Its avowed purpose is to overthrow the government as we know it. People must vigorously oppose the G.O. Tea and its rhetoric by switching their political party affiliation, becoming well-informed about gerrymandering, and by voting for candidates who believe in the Constitution and government. It can and often has served us well.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We Can Rely upon the Kindness of Strangers

My husband and I followed our Garmin to a gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free bakery advertised in the St. Charles (Missouri) Summer 2013 Visitor’s Guide, available at hotels and the Visitor’s Center on historic Main Street. Our last stop before leaving for home, we planned to carry out a few sweet treats to enjoy for breakfast the next day, but alas, the storefront was empty. A neighboring business owner reported the bakery had closed its doors 90 days before, long after the guide was laid out, published and distributed.

We weren’t at all unhappy. The storefront was on one of just a few commercial blocks in a planned community within the purview of St. Charles. New Town of St. Charles, MO came to be about a decade ago and its online presence suggests it may be complete in twelve to fifteen years. 

What we saw was an extensive community where residents ride bicycles to those commercial blocks or farms where locally grown plants and foods are available. Many of the homes resemble fine, old farm houses, some are in the gingerbread Victorian vein, and several are town homes. Few had much land front or back, and many had no attached or unattached garage, leaving cars parked curbside. Nevertheless, the community charms. I can imagine residents inviting me inside for a glass of lemonade and freshly baked cookies. 

As we left New Town, we tried to find a farm we’d seen by the highway, but the roads didn’t run neatly north, south, east and west. There were short runs at a 45-degree angle followed by curves cutting through hybrid corn fields that blocked our view. Soon we were lost, about to reprogram the GPS when the engine died. Having just experienced a complete loss of power in our van, we tried not to panic and soon realized we’d forgotten to buy fuel when the electronic warning told us to do so.

"Sunshine on a Stem," Al Griffin Photography

We groaned, then prepared to wait for AAA, a great gift to ourselves, one that has always paid off handsomely for us. AAA plucked my husband from the dark on a busy interstate and towed the van to a reputable repair garage--at least according to the tow truck driver and Google. We lowered the electric windows to enjoy an absolutely perfect day when billowy bright clouds float high in a clear, blue sky. The temperature held in the high 70s, and a fine breeze rustled through the corn and into the windows of our car.

But we had no time to summon AAA. Several cars stopped to help my husband push the car as far off the road as reasonable, passengers in those cars offered help, and one knew exactly where the nearest Coop set, the closest place to buy fuel.

“They’re so nice,” she said. “They’ll let you borrow a gas can. I can run you up there and bring you back.”

We didn’t hesitate. She had a friendly dog with her and an even friendlier manner. She left with my husband in the shotgun seat.

While alone in the car, several more cars and lots of pickup trucks paused to ask if I needed help. One woman offered to give me her name and phone number in case someone frightened me or tried to harm me. I declined, telling her I could call 9-1-1 but stressing how much I appreciated her thoughtfulness and concern.

And that’s the lesson here. Sometimes when we lose our way in strange lands, we find we’re not alone at all. People step forward to give what they can according to their talents.

"Waning Days of Summer" Al Griffin Photography

Several pickups did not stop, but every one of those was driven by a single male and a few had company logos on the door. I believe those drivers realized that a woman alone may not appreciate an offer of help from a lone guy and those employees probably recognized that their employers might object if they stopped to help me. I didn’t resent their choices; they seem good ones to me.

Having read Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” I know that older gals can come to harm when they meet strangers on side roads so I waited, safe in the knowledge that most people look out for each other, that we’d only made a wrong turn, nothing more sinister. The kind-hearted woman brought my husband back with gasoline and told us how to get back to that farm where we bought delicious homegrown tomatoes and apples. We’ve enjoyed them all week, and with each bite, I smile.