Sunday, August 31, 2008


As always, that odd feeling washed over me whenever I sat in that conference room. On first glance, it's classy. Oval dark glass table, innocuous framed water colors, pastel wallpaper backing dark wood furniture and solid black window frames. It gave off an aura of power, of competence, of "lend-us-your-money-and-we-won't-let-you-down." The chairs were a pleasant-colored silky fabric, ergonomically efficient; kind on the eyes and kind on the rump.

But after you've sat there awhile, after you've met with your advisers and asked your questions and did your business, the room seemed sad. An empty feeling ... or, more likely, a desperate one. On closer examination, nothing fit in, really. It was all so planned, so machinated, so focus-grouped. I never liked being in the room long, even when I made money. Even the framed water colors didn't want to be there.

Then there were the windows. Two, actually, right next to each other. Little knobs in the center bottom frame, opening them inward and then upward, for cleaning purposes, it seemed. I never like them. Buildings never had windows that opened any more. Except this place. Just glancing out them down to the parking lot seven floors down made my stomach churn.

My financial advisor came in with a dossier under his arm. Tall, confident, wearing an easy smile, he seated himself across from me, asked about the wife and kids in a way that made me feel he almost truly cared, then fished out a couple of sheets of fresh laser-printed papers in need of my signature.

The name on his business card's Dan Micerelli, but I knew him well enough at this point to call him Knuckles.

"So, we just need your signature here ... and here." Knuckles slid the papers across to me. I felt somewhat emasculated at the sight of his silver Cross pen; my blue Bic was quite temperamental and I didn't want to ask him to use his. "With your heart condition, you're what's known as a 'Category D.' " He gave me a sympathetic look. "I know, I know, we've been through this before, but you need the coverage. The policy for half-a-mill is $424 a month - "

"Dan - uh, Knuckles - we can't afford that." I glanced to the manila folder I had at my side.

He nodded, and a dark cloud passed quickly over his face. "Okay. Let me go back and run some more numbers. I'll be five minutes, tops."

"My wife and I have talked this over. We just want some coverage. Something, anything. If anything happened to me, she'd take my daughter and go back to her parents. We just want something to help get her back on her feet, is all."

Knuckles smiled magnanimously. "All right. I'll run a 100-K and a 250-K. We'll see what the monthly deductions come out to. Be right back."

I nervously glanced at the window. At our last meeting, Knuckles and a trainee held me outside it upside down because I wasn't meeting our pre-defined savings goals.

He was back almost as soon as he left; he was always doing that, always surprising me. We decided a $250,000 life insurance policy for $126 a month would be the best fit. I'd have to submit to a medical exam, of course, as well as an examination of all my past medical records. Even though I was healthy there was still a big chance they'd deny me. Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

"Now let's see what's in your folder," Knuckles said, his fingers twisting that showy pinkie ring. A habit I came to regard very warily.

I showed him the documents. "They're raising my health insurance at work."

Knuckles whistled, then cursed under his breath. "Let me get this straight," he said as he tried to make sense of my company's emails and IRS documentation. "You're family plan's going from eighty bucks a week to two-hundred-thirty-two?" He raised an eyebrow and watched me squirm.

"Yeah," I agreed, speaking uneasily.

He leaned back in his chair, threw his arms behind his head. "Bastards."

"I agree," I uneasily spoke.

Knuckles came to a quick decision. He stood up and paced, usually in my field of vision but sometimes behind me, which made me quite nervous. "Here's what we do. First, you get your wife to call her company's HR department, and get them to put her and your daughters on her insurance. Do whatever it takes." He stopped and smiled at me, darkly. "If necessary, have your wife call me."

I swallowed. "Sure Knuckles. First thing tomorrow."

"First thing tomorrow morning," Knuckles affirmed. "Next, I want you to change your plan to a single. You can still do it?"

"Deadline's tomorrow."

"Good. Make sure that's done. That's second thing tomorrow morning. Now, third ..."


Knuckles sat down across from me, a faraway look in his eye as that silver Cross pen twirled in his fingers like a baton. "This was the decision of the company CFO?"

I nodded.

"Write his name down." A blank sheet of paper slid my way. I did as Knuckles asked, and slid it back to him without a word. The slip of paper disappeared quickly inside his inner suit jacket pocket.

A minute later the mood of the room shifted. I knew it was time to leave. I gathered up my things as Knuckles asked about my family's plans for the holiday weekend. Another minute or two of banter as we walked down the hall, and then I was at the glass security doors in front of the elevators.

Knuckles shook my hand warmly. It always felt weird whenever I gripped that pinkie ring. "Remember," he said, "my goal is to make sure you reach your financial goals - retirement, college funds, and cash reserves."

I nodded, all smiles.

"Whatever it takes," he winked.

"Whatever it takes," I agreed.

I pressed the button, awaiting the next available elevator.

Knuckles turned back. "Oh, one other thing."


"How's the brown-bagging going?"

Brown-bagging lunch to work was Knuckles suggestion to me to save $35-40 a week. If I did that alone for a year, my family would have almost two-grand in our cash reserve.

"It's going great, Knuckles," I said, hoping he wouldn't see through my lie. I could never quite tell for sure.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Election Thoughts

I know I promised not to comment again on politics (here's my only other political observation on this blog) until after the election, but allow me to indulge for a couple of paragraphs. For the first time I feel truly excited about this presidential race.

Up until yesterday I could not care less about our candidates. Obama is an empty suit, an ivory-tower liberal salivating to get his hand on my wallet, a speaker effective at obfuscation, dangerously inexperienced in this dangerous world of ours. Also, by some accounts, the most pro-abortion candidate ever offered up to lead this nation. So, if I had purpose in this election it would only be to keep Obama from winning.

So who do the Republicans counter with? McCain. Tired and old, up to now he's run a campaign similar in tone and tenor to Bob Dole's 1996 failed run. Dole '08 it's been called. Also, too liberal for conservatives, too conservative for liberals. Bland, with an air of entitlement. Yes, he has my respect for his service and suffering for our country in the Vietnam War, but that ended in 1975. Yes, I'd prefer him as Commander-in-Chief over the empty suit. But he's also a flip-flopper, especially on pro-life issues such as ESCR.

In November I was seriously considering, for the first time in my adult life, voting third party (this'll be my sixth vote for a president). A protest vote, perhaps. I am angry at the Republicans for their continual stupidity and ineptitude combating the moral evil festering in the Democratic Party. John McCain? That's the best they can do? Who else might have been their nominee? Romney? Giuliani? Again, those are the best?

Yes, I was weighing a third party vote on Election Day, but more so for the sake of my own conscience than as a protest vote. I'm sick and tired for voting for the lesser of two evils. However, I'm not knowledgeable or wise enough to know the ethical differences between a lesser evil vote and a non-vote. I was hoping for a few more weeks of reading and thinking, and probably wouldn't have come to a complete decision until inside that voting booth on November 4th.

Then there was the news yesterday that McCain had picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. The previous Saturday I heard Larry Kudlow speaking about her as a possible choice. I had heard of her once or twice in the news before, but Kudlow's analysis and summary of her positions and achievements made my ears perk up. Like Kudlow and his guests, though, I knew she'd be a long-shot. McCain was sure to pick an equally bland running mate, and would get slaughtered this fall, beginning four years of Purgatory for the United States unseen since the Carter years.

But that was not to be. Sarah Palin, to me, is the perfect choice for VP. Actually, I'm looking forward four years hoping she actually runs for President. Demonstrably pro-life. The simple fact that she chose not to abort her fifth child, diagnosed with Downs Syndrome, speaks more for her character than any testimony I could hear or read. Five children, with a working-class husband. Demonstrably principled, as her tenure in Alaskan politics, fighting corruption in her own party and garnering the highest approval ratings of all the fifty US governors. And she can speak! After eight years of Bushisms, I think America just wants a leader who can get a sentence out without popping a clutch. (In fact, I think that's almost half of Obama's appeal.) She even has more experience governing than her running mate's opponent. Also, who now is the Candidate of Change? McCain, with his pick of a pro-life female governor from Alaska, or Obama, with his pick of a 30-year career Beltway senator?

The bumper sticker goes on the car as soon as I get it. I'm still guarded and cynical, but at least I have a reason and choice in that voting booth in November.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Disch Notes

Came across some very apt and inspiring observations I jotted down from Thomas Disch’s opinionated history of science fiction, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. I read it quite a while ago, and judging from my notes, I have three-quarters of a mind to reread it.

The golden age of science fiction is twelve, when we begin to read SF and are wonderstruck.”

If the golden age of science fiction is twelve, it follows that SF writers will be sucessful in proportion as they can maintain the clarity and innocence of wise children.”

Authors with a permanent mind-set that is ‘forever young’ have an edge [such as] Ray Bradbury, Piers Anthony, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny.”

Survival, for genre writers, depends on productivity – at least a book a year.”

Oh, pure unadulterated joy! This is truly something that makes me want to head up to the rooftops!

And another comment grabbed my eye:

Sameness is what marketers want us to want.”

Now, combine the four points above, mix freely with the exact antithesis of the last quote, put one of those silver thingies on top and shake real well. Pour out into your finest crystal (a pilsner would do well by me), and savor.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth

[Note: Spoilers galore]

What an amazing man Arne Saknussem was. Philosopher, physicist, geologist, historian – the man’s intellect knew no bounds. Nor did his courage, as well as his perseverance. Add to that an insatiable curiosity and you have a very special type of man. Immovable object, meet force.

But what was so special about Saknussem? Only that the true spirit of the pioneer was unleashed by him. You see, our master of natural history made a very special journey. They mocked, they scoffed, they harrumphed and they guffawed. But Arne ignored them all, and through shear power of will, aided by his well-honed wits, he became the first man to reach the center of the earth.

Was there a more fabled goal in the steamy mid-nineteenth renaissance? No. Perhaps the moon, but there were serious, profound doubts that the gravitational grip of the earth combined with the harsh vacuum of space could be conquered. All that was required to reach the center of the earth was, well, two functioning feet, a manservant or two, a pack mule, and ample supplies. And Saknussem did it.

Or did he? The incident with the flaming volcanic rock seems to convince Professor Oliver Lindenbrook. Yes, it was overheated by mistake in his library-laboratory in genteel Scotland, but when it cracked on the floor – There! The Runes. Saknussem’s Runes, and that was all the argument Oliver needed to begin his expedition.

With trustful youthful assistant Alec at his side they meet intrigue – and murder – in Iceland, preparing for the descent into the crater. The exact location of which can be determined only by the annual position of the sun through adjoined mountaintops. Fate and foul play conspire to bring the Professor and Alec into uneasy alliance with Madame Goetaborg, and the Lindenbrook Expedition begins with a killer on their trail.

Tumbling boulders, flooding caverns, echoing footsteps not quite in step with their own. These are the immediate concerns facing the Expedition, not to mention Madame’s chafing at Oliver’s somewhat misogynistic machinations to keep the party under his firm control. No Saknussem he, Oliver, but in the putting down of his heavy hand clues escape them, and they unwillingly enter the wrong tunnel, following forged markings of their renaissance predecessor.

Alec gets separated from the others – who also include faithful guide and all-around-strongman Hans and his duck, Gertrude. How easy it is to get lost in the bowels of the earth! While he does not find his compatriots, the young student does, indeed, find someone, someone armed with a gun.

Count Saknussem, Arne’s great-great-great grandson, coming to lay claim to the domain he believes rightly to be his!

Our brave young student takes a flesh wound in the arm from the evil Count, allowing Oliver and the others to zero in on his location via “the last echo”! A showdown ensues and thanks to the old handful-of-sand-in-the-eyes trick the Count is subdued. Professor Lindenbrook pronounces a sentence of death upon the toadlike Saknussem-spawn (who apparently killed Madame’s husband in Iceland), but none are willing to pull the pistol. With reluctance on all parties, the Count joins the expedition.

The electric crank lights fade, but just as they learn about phosphorescence! A mushroom forest – the ocean of the underworld – and, dinosaurs! A makeshift shiitake raft takes them to the movie’s namesake, only to be ruined – or was it only a dream of fetching young Jennie, Alec’s love thirty-five hundred miles straight up in Scotland?

Dream or not, our party washes ashore, exhausted yet exhilarated, seeking only the simple pleasure of sleep in the sand after their near-fateful sea voyage. A hungry Count, hearing Gertrude’s plaintive quacking, takes it upon himself for some on-the-spot foie gras. Hans discovers Gertrude’s absence too late, then soon discovers the feather leading up to a teeth-picking Saknussem, who in turn discovers an enraged Swedish strongman.

And the Count’s deserved death allows the Lindenbrook Expedition to discover …

Atlantis, the Sunken City!

Phenomenon of phenomena! Oliver walks about mouth agape, disbelieving the wonders before his eyes. True, no living survivors (make that, no living human survivors), but the archaeological find of all time. Alec with his youthful exuberance comes across some thousand-year-old bread and some nails. And then, he stumbles across –

Arne Saknussem, the original. Rather, his skeleton. With a broken leg, Professor Lindenbrook observes. He never made it out from the depths of the earth … but wait! Is that, his finger, the bones of his finger, are they … pointing somewhere?

Yes! There’s something of a volcanic chimney before them, blocked with massive rock, but a chamber leading up to the surface no doubt – the flaming match proved it! But how to get out? Arne Saknussem, genius: cradled in the skeleton’s arms is a burlap sack – of gunpowder. Hmmmmmm.

Hans and Alec rig explosives at the chimney blockage while Oliver and Madame – who by this point have been exchanging meaningful looks like a couple of school kids – seek some type of shelter. An overturned dome ought to do it. They light a fuse, they hop in the dome. But the flame goes out. Oliver rushes to relight it, and is rewarded with a giant worm-thing’s tongue lashed about his leg. Quick-thinking Alec pounds one of those thousand-year-old nails into the monster’s flesh and frees his friend. The rock blows, lava flows, Atlantis crumbles and is immolated.

The dome, somehow, is pushed right up to the chimney and sucked out. Sucked out and up, thousands of miles straight into the air and out of an erupting Mount Etna. Madame Goetaborg looks positively orgasmic during the elevator ride up. The party’s deposited into the Mediterranean where they’re picked up by pleasant peasant fisherman. All except Alec. He’s in a tree, naked, surrounded by Italian nuns trying to be helpful but remain true to their vows of chastity at the same time.

A few months go by, Oliver and Madame are married, Alec’s there with a cast on his leg and his girl Jenny on his arm. Hans is there, too, assuring the Professor through a translator that he would journey again with him back to the earth’s center. All the men cheer Oliver Lindenbrook in a rousing chorus, and one of my favorite movies, one of my most beloved movies, of my entire childhood, ends.

[Note: This review refers to the 1959 James Mason version of the Jules Verne classic story.]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"It Sees Me"

I still can’t shake the unseasonable late-August chill half-way into our first listen of the tape. We huddle together on the brown couch, straining to decipher the garbled words swimming with pre-digital static on the magnetic tape. Most of it’s unintelligible, but what we can make out scares the devil out of us. Though no one says so, I’m sure we’re all glad to be in the room together, all three of us.

The man whose voice we’re struggling to comprehend is a friend of a friend; still alive, retired, I think I remember someone saying, living out in Arizona with family. The voice is scratchy, hoarse, what a nervous breakdown must sound like. Every now and then the psychologist, the second voice on the tape, utters reassuring comments and brings our friend back to a certain relative level of peace.

There’s a star, the man says, a big one, bigger than Venus (that implies he knows his astronomy). He has the Chevy’s window rolled down, his arm straddling the door, cigarette burning between his knuckles. His wife lays in the backseat, sleeping. She had too much to drink at the party they had left forty-five minutes earlier.

Aha! you say – they were drinking. Yes, she was. But she wasn’t the one we’re listening to hypnotized on the tape. He’s a teetotaler, and had notarized affidavits to that effect somewhere.

He notices the star through the trees. Bright, like a searchlight. Then, after changing radio channels, finding nothing of interest, and shutting it off, he turns off of Route 32 East and drives north onto Allen Road.

The star follows him.

That’s odd, he explains to us, via the tape. Quite odd. Perhaps he was mistaken and it wasn’t a star. Probably a helicopter because if it was moving – and it had to be – it was moving too slow to be an airplane.

Wait! He has binoculars in the trunk.

Here the tape static overpowers any dialogue between the man and the psychologist. My friend lights up her third cigarette of the past half-hour, my other colleague takes advantage of the noisy interlude to refill his drink. I lean forward, fighting to make sense out of the uncomfortable hiss. Then, I am shocked to hear the the sound of a man crying.

The psychologist’s soothing voice comes back in, sharply, as the static inexplicably fades. “Now, now … you are safe here in my office. Safe. Nothing can hurt you. Nothing can hurt you.”

But though the man is physically in the psychologist’s office, for all purposes he’s still living on that New Hampshire Road. Panic fills his voice; pity swells up in me.

“No, no, no” the man keeps repeating. Occassionally he strings a short sentence or phrase together: “It sees me” “coming down now” “that’s strange – can’t move” “oh my God …”

This goes on for a full minute. The psychologist no longer sounds soothing; he sounds scared. Scared like we are now. No one of us can take his eyes off the spinning wheels of the tape player. The man’s voice fills our ears – desperation, fear, despair.

“No, no, no,” he screams … they see him, and they take him. He’s regressed now to a child, babbling for his mother. His screams warble, then, maintaining intensity, he tears his vocal chords to a grating whisper, yet the pleading and the panic keeps on going –

My friend switches off the tape player, then stubs out her cigarette with a trembling hand. “It’s legit,” she mumbles.

I arch my eyebrows, glance over to our colleague. He nods without making eye contact with me.

Okay, I decide. We’re off to Arizona.

I can’t sleep that night.

“It sees me.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pluralistic Universe

I’ve been reading William James’ Pluralistic Universe off-and-on for about seven weeks now. But I’m going about it very differently than any other book I’ve read. I wanted to really get this book. Basically, Pluralistic Universe is eight hour-long lectures James gave in 1908, which is neat because you can read each chapter in an hour and imagine Professor James is addressing you sitting in the audience. Back in July, I read a chapter a night, and then re-read the same chapter the next day at lunchtime. In two weeks I read through the whole book. Then, I went back, and re-read each chapter a third time, in order, taking notes on whatever seemed to strike me as relevant and fascinating. I now have one final task before I post about the actual content of the book. I want to review my notes, then leisurely re-read the book, preferably over a long weekend.

How I will accomplish this, with all the craziness that I currently find myself foundering in, is anyone’s guess. I’m hoping my wife will give me a couple of days off as an early birthday gift, but with our basement being redone, our offices being moved here and there, and a baby room to be painted, all within the next three weeks, I ain’t countin’ on it. But I’ll get it done somehow. Because it goes against every grain of my body, as a hopper.

As a quick note, I really, really enjoyed James’ book. It’s more a lengthy attack against Idealism, as formulated by our friend Hegel and his late-eighteenth-century American disciples, than the Professor expounding his own theories, though the final chapter is sort of an endorsement of pluralism. But I hope to get into that in a week or two. Shooting for the first week in September.

I took Pluralistic Universe off the “Current Reads” section to the left, even though I still have to finish my fourth and last reading, and replaced it with Transformation in Christ, which I started yesterday and am very excited to delve into. More about that book later …

Monday, August 25, 2008

Card Exercise II

Yesterday I wrote about an interesting little card exercise I did while reading a forgotten book about the art of writing. Continuing, here is a list of unappealing qualities that particularly strike me in literary characters as well as the real people I meet, and the images such qualities provoke:

Greed / Money Fixation
An old man counting stacks of silver coins
A bunch of Wall Street brokers out to lunch
Someone who says "coin" a lot

Habitual Loss of Temper
Road rage
A man who beats his children with his belt
Pulling out one's hair in clumps

Turning on a laptop, sitting at a desk, and turning it off again
Couch potatoes
"I'll do it tomorrow."

Young drunk girls flirting in a bar
Tattoos, gold chains, gold teeth on young men
A man reaching for a cigarette after he's quit for a year

Low Self-Esteem
Shyness to the point of autism
Allowing a bully to walk all over you
"I'm so stupid - such an idiot!"

Arrogance / Misplaced Pride
I only talk to you when I need something from you
The factory owner who doesn't see his employees though he walks through his shop every day
The pampered actor belittling the makeup artists

Negativity / Pessimism
Constant sighing
A vulgar mouth
Someone who has nothing good to say about anyone

Lack of Conscience
A boy torturing a small animal
Real estate salesmen swindling the elderly
"You know I love you. Let's sleep together."

Effeminacy in Men / Masculinity in Women
Women action heroes in movies
Lisping men overly concerned with fashion
Anyone who believes in the Sixties' version of feminism

Overindulgence in Food
A fat couple in a fast-food restaurant
A ten-year old boy with boobs
Someone slurping down his food using his fingers

A man stumbling down a dark alley with a bottle in hand
Breaking open your kid's piggy bank to get enough change for a sixpack
Slurred singing, "I love you man"s, a pass at your friend's wife

Habitual Cheating
A man glancing at his opponent's cards
Using someone else's password to obtain incriminating information
A man in a hotel room with another's wife

Poor Hygiene
A kid with bad acne drinking Coke at eating chips
Someone who doesn't shower but sprays on cologne
A girl with a dead tooth

Intimidiation of the Weak and Helpless
A gang encircling a young boy coming home from school
Two mafia thugs collecting their "payment"
An orderly physically abusing an Alzheimer's patient

A fat man with rings on his fingers
People who live their lives through reality TV and gossip mags
A couple frolicking on a bed covered with $20 bills

A soldier fleeing the onrushing enemy
A politician justifying his bill to weaking Defense by pleading for "understanding"
"That's a job for someone else."

"Where's the damn remote?"
A fat middle-aged man in an electric wheelchair
"I'll write that chapter ending tomorrow."

Habitual Lying
"Baby, you know I love you."
Shifty eyes
Someone who just never seems to have his act together

Sexual Promiscuity
Teenage girls showing way too much skin
An unwed mother with several children from different fathers
The night club scene

A used car salesman who talks over you
A guy in a too-expensive suit with greasy hair
"Have I got a deal for you!"

Now, what's the purpose of this exercise? Well, in addition to teaching you to think with the internal editor off, you now have at your fingertips the building blocks of characters for your novels and short stories. Possibly, even, situations and plot points you can throw in. You can take a good quality and a bad quality card at random, and see what happens. For me, how about the first two from each set: Serenity / Peace of Mind and Greed / Money Fixation. What would a conversation between one person with the appealing quality and another with the unappealing quality sound like? What situation would even find two such people conversing? How about if one single character somehow had both sets of traits and images? What type of character would that be, and what type of situations would evolve?

While this is not the way I write my short stories, I can see the value of the card exercise. In fact, for Father's Day, my wife bought me a writing game based on similiar premises, and I do want to see what I can churn out the next time I have a free couple of hours. I think it would be either interesting or productive, and - who knows? - perhaps even both.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Card Exercise I

While going through my files in my writing folder on my laptop, I came across this writing exercise from May 14, 2006. Alas, I do not remember the book it came from nor did I enter it into the file anywhere. I wish I did; the book had some interesting tips to pass along.

One was called the Card Exercise. I don't recall the exact details, but it went something like this. To start, you need a stack of index cards, a trusty pen, and a watch or some sort of a timer. The Card Exercise then commences in two parts. First, think about the literary characters and real people you know or read about and admire. Set the timer for three minutes, and write down one such appealing quality on each index card. Then, when three minutes are up, you do the same thing, only this time you write unappealing qualities.

Interesting and well and good, but nothing more, really, than writing a positive and negative qualities list. Anyone can do that - how does that help me as a writer? Well, part two of the exercise was quite novel. In the same three minutes, write down three images or examples for each appealing and unappealing quality. Doing it under a time constraint eliminates the internal editor we all have, so my list is also a key to my personality and my experience. You always want to write from a point of realness, and be able to turn off that calculating, always-concerned-with-what-others-are-thinking voice in your head. At least during the initial draft. That internal editor becomes invaluable for the second and third drafts, though often he needs to be told to take it easy and relax.

So, today, here's my list of appealing qualities I admire in the people, real and imagined, that I've come across, and the images that such qualities inspire in my mind.

Serenity / Peace of Mind
Far-away gaze
Frequent meditation
Slow, deliberate speech

Good nature / self-deprecating humor
Easy smile
Always laughing at himself
Tendency to put others at ease

Concentration and focus, then decision
Straight and efficient in posture
Military background

Spiritual Discipline
Comfort in prayer
Fasting regularly
Praying the Rosary and reading the Bible

Mental Discipline
Ability to do math in his head
Fast-talking verbalization of thought processes
Hours of study in one sitting in ease

Physical Discipline
Consistent weightlifting
Able to run for miles at a stretch
Vegan diet

Heroism / Bravery / Courage
Purple star pinned on uniform
Taciturn about his exploits
Doesn't flinch when things get tough

A library in one's home
A lab in one's basement
Always taking notes and questioning

Ability to discuss any subject with anyone
A PhD (old-school)
Listens twice as much as he speaks

Supreme Confidence
Writes down a goal and singlemindedly attains it
Isn't afraid to try new things
Asks questions, no matter how silly they sound

Cleverness / Resourcefulness
No cage can hold him
Can size up his opponents and outthink them
Always knows where the exit is in any room

Willingness to Teach Others
In love with his subject
A young, idealistic teacher
He practices what he teaches

Jesus Christ on the Cross
A father working late hours at a job he hates for his family
A soldier giving his life so his buddies can escape

A man whistling a happy tune
A man with an easy smile gracing his face
A man with a good word for everyone he meets

Seeing the mile markers pass as you run your marathon
A writer piling up the word count
Taking out a sheet of goals and ticking off the sub-goals attained

Musical Knowledge / Talent
A solo musician in the studio playing for his own pleasure
Scanning the music racks for the latest, obscure releases
A conductor working with his eyes closed

A man mindstorming a topic
A general on horseback surveying new lands
The writer glancing upon the empty page

Faithfulness / Loyalty
A wedding band
A soldier at attention
A man kneeling at his master's feet

A quarterback driving his team down to the end zone
A band of guerrillas defeating a larger army
"This is what we're going to do now!"

Inspiring Charisma
"This, boys, is how we get it done!"
Jesus calling His disciples: "Follow Me!"
A man who sets the room abuzz

Tomorrow, the bad ...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Neat Little Math Trick

Here's a bizarre math trick I got in an email a while ago, deleted, and then found again on the website Try it out; it's really freaky.

1) pick a number from 1-9

2) subtract 5

3) multiply by 3

4) square the number (multiply by the same number -- not square root; and yes, you can square 0. It equals 0)

5) add the digits until you get only one digit (i.e. 64=6+4=10= 1+0=1)

6) if the number is less than 5, add five. Otherwise subtract 4.

7) multiply by 2

8) subtract 6

9) map the digit to a letter in the alphabet 1=A, 2=B, 3=C, etc...

10) pick a name of a European country that begins with that letter

11) take the second letter in the country name and think of a mammal that begins with that letter

12) think of the color of that mammal (keep scrolling)


You have a gray elephant from Denmark.

Right??? I know I did. If you want to know the reasoning behind it, or why you ought to have that answer, check out the website above and scroll down to the February 11, 2003 entry.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Park Custodian

Work’s been pretty rough the past three weeks. I won’t go into details, but one thing that happened is that my overtime has been stopped. Normally, after dropping my daughter off at her daycare, I get to work around 7:40 or 7:45, so I’d punch in, get to my desk, and start working. Well, no more. I’m not to punch in until 8. That leaves me with fifteen or twenty minutes free every morning. I started reading for a little bit in my car in the parking lot, but since it’s been absolutely gorgeous out – September cool with that tiny bite in the air – I’ve taken to driving to a park a few blocks from the office to pray and meditate.

The park is beautiful. It overlooks the Hudson River with a spectacular view of New York City in the distance. There are meandering paths, benches, and plenty of privacy. I’ve come here six times in the past two weeks. It’s wonderful. My prayer and meditation puts me in a calm frame of mind (at least until 10 or 10:30 or so, heh-heh), I get some fresh air, I get to walk, and I’m absolutely alone, physically as well as with my innermost thoughts.

Yesterday I was sitting on a bench, eyes closed, feeling quite at peace, when suddenly I heard an approaching noise. Glancing up, I spotted the park custodian walking up the gentle grade towards me. He had one of those poles with a spike on the end, picking up random bits of trash. He saw me, waved, and said, “Good morning!” I thought: Oh, damn.

I’ve seen him before when I’ve taken lunches at the park. Usually he keeps very busy, carrying wheelbarrow-loads of branches or dirt here and there, emptying trashcans, cutting hedges, cleaning the rest rooms. He’s special in some way. I’ve said hello when he passed by me a few times, but never having a handicapped person in my acquaintance, I always felt a little uncomfortable around him.

So, as he stopped in front of me, I agreed. “It is a beautiful morning.” Uncertain whether he would nod and walk on or continue the dance of meaningless pleasantries, I fidgeted. He looked at the ground and then at me, and said, in one breath,

“My name is John. In 1970, just before my eleventh birthday, which is July 26, I was riding my bicycle down Hillside Avenue. I was with my friends. I was going down a hill and a car ran right through a stop sign. My bike had those brakes where you push back on the pedals, and that’s what I did, but my bike didn’t stop. The driver didn’t stop either. He ran over me. Because my brakes didn’t stop my bicycle, and the driver of the car ran through the stop sign. I was in a coma for six weeks. They never found the driver, because he didn’t stop. So I was in a coma. For six weeks. Later on, when I was older, they got me a job working in the park. At first they said they weren’t going to leave me alone. That’s what they said. Then they left me alone. I like it, though. I like taking care of the park. It’s my job.”

What do I say to this? The only thing that came to my mind was, “Well, you do an excellent job. The park is always clean and beautiful.”

He nodded, then looked out at the Hudson, squinting as the morning sun was shining fiercely off the water. “I like taking care of the park. It’s my job.”

There was an awkward silence for a moment, then he reached into his shirt pocket. “Oh! I forgot!” He pulled out a sheet of paper and showed me. It was a form. I couldn’t make out the writing at first. “Would you like to contribute to a walk-a-thon to find cures for people with brain damage? It’s in October.” He held this list out to me. One person had signed her name and address on it. The rest of the page was blank.

My family gives what we can through our Church. That’s my policy. We’re strapped financially, and I try to give as generously as possible to support my Church and the charities the Catholic Church supports. I never give over the phone or when solicited in person. It’s just policy. But …

I admit, I squirmed. What should I do? Am I a coward for not doing anything? Why was this man sent to me during my prayer session at the park? Stuttering, the first thought I had stumbled out: “Uh, I don’t have a pen or any money on me right now. But I’m always here. Next time I see you I’ll give you something.”

He was nonchalant, unconcerned. “Okay. Well, have a great day!” And he walked off, spearing some gum wrappers just off the path. In a minute he rounded a bend and was gone.

I have no money and my family is about to grow. My job and the economy are squeezing me. I feel like I’m in a financial vice. I can’t help thinking: Why was this man sent to me? There is something here beyond my ability to grasp, but I admit sometimes I need to be hit over the head hard to get the message. Why? There’s something more than the ability to give money to a worthy cause.

But I will send a few dollars to a good charity that deals with brain damaged people.

And think. And visit the park again.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Year Free and Clear

I know I’m in need of some serious R&R when my biggest fantasy, currently, involves sleep. I wake up in a humongous bed, by myself, in a castle setting reminiscent of how I envisioned Tolkien’s Rivendell. The room I wake in is spacious, shuttered windows opened, allowing the cool, crisp autumn breeze sweep gently though. There’s absolute silence save for the whispering of the distant trees. The sun is rising, and the sky is pure azure. I sit up, stretch, fully refreshed, feeling clean, healthy, hydrated, and full, after having slept possibly sixty or seventy hours straight.

Yesterday another fantasy crept into my mind. Imagine this scenario: you’re driving down a deserted highway at night, and see some headlights up ahead. Slowing down, a little nervous, you come upon a car that’s run off the road – it’s flipped upside down and there’s smoke coming from the engine compartment. Pulling over, you leap out, cautiously but quickly approach the overturned vehicle and spot a body inside. An old man, unconscious but breathing, seemingly unhurt. You pull him out, call 9-1-1 on your cell. A half-hour later emergency vehicles arrive at the scene, though not before the gas tank explodes in a curling orange ball of flame.

Turns out the old man is a millionaire, many times over, making his fortune in the 1970s on Wall Street, investing in and getting out of the dot com boom before it burst, and is now living out here away from civilization in blessed retirement. He’s diabetic, and passed out while driving, and inadvertently drove off the road. Anyway, to thank you, even though you protest you don’t want any reward, he offers you this proposition:

He will pay you your current salary for twelve months, one weekly check at a time. Maybe a ten percent Good Samaritan raise thrown in (heh-heh). After that, no more. That’s it. So, in effect, you get paid for your current job but you don’t have to show up to do anything.

Now, what would you do with your one year, free and clear?

Bills will still have to be paid timely. The wife will still have to work; the kids will still have to go to daycare or school and whatnot. But you – YOU! – have total freedom in this little fantasy.

You know what I would do?

1. I’d quit my job via a phone call. Maybe I’d work a day or two if they want me to train a replacement. Paid, of course. But only a day or two.

2. Then, I’d do absolutely nothing for a week. Sleep, rest, remain horizontal. Yes, I’d continue with my chores and duties at home and with the house, mow the lawn, drop my daughter off at day care, grocery shopping, etc. But from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, I’d devote exclusively to eliminating my massive sleep debt.

3. I would decide to read two hours a day – one in the morning, one in the afternoon. The morning sessions, since I’d be more refreshed to concentrate, I would devour my stack of philosophy and theology. Maybe interspersing a physics book here and there. In the afternoon, when I’d be somewhat drowsy, I’d cull my way through the twenty-five or thirty science fiction paperbacks I have on deck. This way, I’d get my reading done, feed my literary addiction, and have plenty of time in the evening for my wife and child(ren).

4. I’d start feeling real guilty if I didn’t produce anything of value. I’d take two or three weeks and branch out from this blog. Create two or three others, with the intention of making some money off it (at least to cover expenses). This blog was created to get me back into the habit of daily writing, and it’s been successful at that. So, I’d want to expand my skills and experience in the online arena, and tackle other challenges.

5. During those same two or three weeks I’d work on a larger writing plan. I have two novels on deck, each about a third fleshed out and neither with a loose outline. I’d finish that part of the work, then decide which novel to focus on writing during the year. And then I’d write it. Probably’ll do the blogs in the morning and the novel in the afternoon. Or reverse. I’d have to experiment.

6. Oh, forgot. I would still have two or three hours free a day this year. So I would get myself back in the habit of daily exercise. I think I’d start with weights on Monday and Thursday, then a half-hour of cardio Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. But I would vary the routine periodically to keep it interesting.

7. Just for kicks I’d surf the web for an hour a day (the old man’ll pay for an upgrade in my connection, of course). Keep myself in tune and up to date in search of weirdities and such.

8. Maybe I’d institute a rule that if it rains, I get to take the afternoon off and watch a classic SF movie, or some oldie but goodie like what you’d find on TCM.

9. How to keep this going past a year? For starters, I’d send out my two completed novels and see if I can get any nibbles from publishers. Maybe I’d use the short stories as bait, too. Probably around nine or ten months I’d have to fish around for something to do to earn some real dough, though this, I will promise myself, will be unlike anything I’ve done in the past. For one thing, it will be work I will love.

10. What else? Yes! I’d get to see my daughter’s plays and recitals without nagging and disapproving looks from my masters at work. I’d be able to help my wife and take a turn bringing sick children to the doctors. Perhaps, if I was feeling really ambitious, I’d learn to cook, and have delicious meals hot-n-ready at 6 pm when everyone got home!

I could go on, but hey – you know what? I think I just described my Ideal Life! Wow! Now, to find an unconscious old millionaire to rescue …

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

AD or CE

One thing that used to bother me is the increasing proliferation of the abbrevations CE and BCE in reference to historical dates. If you aren’t aware, CE is supposed to stand for “Common Era” and BCE for “Before the Common Era.” They were created and pushed to replaced the Christian terms AD (“Anno Domini” – “Year of Our Lord”) and BC (“Before Christ”). To me, this is just another of the frequent examples of the hatred this modern society of ours has towards one of its very own foundations, Christianity. AD and BC have been in widespread use for almost sixteen centuries; CE and BCE for only a couple of decades.

I reject this secular notation, this attempt to tear down yet another pillar of what had made our western civilization great. It used to bug me, but it doesn’t anymore.

Why not? Well, I read CE instead as the “Christian Era” and BCE as “Before the Christian Era.” Oh, and it’s always fun to ask the enthusiastic secular user of CE and BCE just what event started the “common era” and see him struggle as he decides how to answer, or, more likely, not answer, that question.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Life is ...

My daughter is soon going to turn 4, I’m going to turn 41, and my second child is due to be born (in exactly four weeks). All these events within the span of twelve days. And something hit me really, really hard. Life goes by awful fast. Not to mention, we’re going to spend an awful lot of money at the bakery every September.

I never understood the fact that the older you get, the faster life goes by, until I read this analogy. Think of a four-year-old child. She’s waiting for Christmas, and it seems like it will never, ever come. For her, she’s only experienced, say, four Christmases, though in reality she probably remembers just the last two. Two Christmases in her whole life! Thinking proportionally, for someone like me, that’s like a Christmas every two decades! No wonder children can’t understand patience the way an adult does. Or, perhaps, we don’t understand it the way they do.

So, life goes by too fast. Tell me something new. Okay. How ’bout this?

Because it speeds by so quickly, life is short. The older I get, certainly, the more this shortness seems to weigh heavily on my shoulders. Why?

Here’s why.

Life is too short to not live.
Life is too short to do a job you hate.
Life is too short to worry about paying the bills on time.
Life is too short to hide from the world.
Life is too short to hide from your family.
Life is too short to waste in front of a television.
Life is too short to tolerate anything that doesn’t fulfill, give joy, excite, interest.


Who’s going to care that you worked sixty hours a week at XYZ company for twenty years? Who’s going to care that you always paid the MasterCard bill a week before its due, juggling finances to do so? Who?

Life is about relationships – to God, to your friends, family, and acquaintances, and strangers, and to yourself. It’s about being creative, instead of reactive.

And there’s always less time than we think ...

Monday, August 18, 2008

One Year Ago

Puerto Rico ... it was hot, it was humid, there was a hurricane ... but what a great time!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Lethargy, Weakness, and Coldness

"Of what use would it be to study the ways of God and of the spirit, if in practice one were to choose the way of perdition and to submit supinely to the god of the flesh? ... The root of modern evils and of their baneful consequences is not, as in pre-Christian times or in regions yet pagan, invincible ignorance of the eternal destiny of man and of the principal means of attaining it; rather it is lethargy of the spirit, weakness of the will, and coldness of heart."

- Pope Pius XII, February 10, 1952

Even up to the minutes as I post this, despite the steelness of my firm desire, I fall short of even reaching my small hand out to the great one extending down to lift me up. Am I helpless, condemned to be lethargic, weak, and cold? I know now that there is nothing I can do to pull myself out of this venus flytrap mindset. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is a cruel myth. There is nothing I can do - there is nothing any of us can do. Perhaps but one thing, and one thing only: Continue to reach up ...

Saturday, August 16, 2008


"What’s that?" Bobby asks.

Tom just shrugs. "Don’t know. Footprints. Of what kind, I couldn’t say."

"How many nights - "

"Almost a month now."

Dusk was coming soon. "Should I hold that gun?" Bobby says too loud, a tad bit afraid. Shuffling in waist-high brush, army training still couldn’t fight off his anxious thoughts.

Tom stands up, shaking dirt off his coat. "Damn sasquatch. Ruining all our crops."

"How do you know it was him?"

Sighing: "I just do. Tracks don’t fib."

"Call Captain Parks."


An odd cry floats down from Black Mountain. "That’s why," Bobby says in a low murmur.

Now Tom aims his shotgun. Looking at his pal, Bobby points south.

I watch all this without a sound. Nary a word, as us journalists fondly say. I saw Tom’s boy run down to a brook, grab his pack, and trot back up toward us. I also saw Tom scan about, looking for any sign of … why is it that saying "sasquatch" sounds so silly?

"Quick, son," Tom shouts. Turning to Bob: "Anybody spot a UFO last night?"

Conspiracy nuts, I think. Townfolk downright crazy.

Without a doubt.

Dang! It’s lots and lots of fun to think up stuff without having to throw in that annoying E!

Friday, August 15, 2008


Heinrich Pesch was a Jesuit and a Roman Catholic priest; thus, his economics, based on his ethics, sprouts from his acceptance of the truths of the Catholic Church. So right from the start, he acknowledges God in his economic theories.

That’s something you don’t hear much of on the nightly news.

Modern economics, in its quest for mechanical, mathematical predictability, doesn’t really care about the nature of man, family, or society.

This is wrong. It needs to be changed.

As stated in yesterday’s post, ethics has to be the starting point of all economic theory. What is the starting point for ethics? For Pesch, it is the will of God, found in the eternal law, or, more explicitly, in Jesus’ Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34), the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), and manifested in man by the virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, charity). All this leads, on this earthly sphere of our existence, to the need and desire for cooperation of all with each other for the common good. In solidarism, our own good is inextricably linked to the good of the family, the community, and the state.

Okay, I don’t think many would argue with that on paper. Man is a social being, and healthy social lives are needed for our perfection. But man is also a fallen being. One could use that as an argument for the economic conditions we now find ourselves in, all over the globe. Pesch offers an alternative.

The three pillars of society, to Pesch, are the family, the state, and private property. Let’s start with the family, probably his most radical contribution to the study of economics as seen from our postmodern world.

Regarding man’s social life, the first elementary unit of this is the family. Family is the central focus of solidarism. The partnership of man and woman, marriage, results in the procreation of children, and the creation of family. This is according to the will of God. After the family, the next social unit is the community, and the next one beyond that is the state.

Because of the importance of the family, the middle and working classes must be maintained and strengthened. Pesch argues for the following:

* Social policy that would allow the woman to return to the home
* An end to Sunday labor
* A shorter workweek so the father could spend more time with the family
* A just wage to enable the father to be the sole source of economic support

In solidarism, the proper end of the economy is to provide for the material welfare of people. Not power. Not even profit. Material wealth as an end is, of course, rejected. Because ultimately, life on earth is but a brief preparatory step for eternity. Thus, the material (profit and perhaps power) must be subordinate to the immaterial.

What are some concrete aspects of solidarism?

An important concept is the just wage. Too great a discrepancy of income is an evil. A country can’t function ethically divided into two halves: one a half with too much, the other with too little. I think most can see the wisdom in this, yet many today see this as something impossible to implement. Pesch didn’t think so. The key is the development of occupational organizations, known as guilds in his day, the more the better. These community-level organizations would get together, where everyone’s interests, from owners to producers to workers to consumers, are validly and completely expressed, and set not only the just wage but the just price. (Pesch does not believe there is a natural law of supply and demand and, therefore, no mechanism for price determination.) Too idealistic? Perhaps taken by itself. But it fits in with the interlocking interrelationships that are central to solidarism.

Look at a modern extreme: China. Many products we import from China are dirt cheap, undercutting domestic producers, for the simple reason that the Chinese often pay their workers little more than a slave wage. How is that desirable for the well-being of society? To avoid such evils a living wage must be paid to the worker so that he is be able to support his family at a decent affordable level. Wages are much, much more than simply another cost. They are a prime factor in the justifiability of a business venture. If one truly appreciates the inherent dignity of man then one can understand that labor is not just another commodity one buys.

The relationship between capital and labor, between owners and workers, also needs to be readdressed. Business enterprise is a noble calling, despite Pesch’s critique of capitalism. However, while profitability is obviously essential, it is wrong and evil if it is the only concern of a business.

Capital and labor are mutually dependent on each other. Really. So, in theory there shouldn’t be any fundamental conflict between them. When the interests of both advance, the interests of society as a whole advances. One’s gains benefit the other. Therefore, employees must honestly be considered as associates in a business venture. Co-partners. Remember, solidarism is all about relationships. The worker and the owner must have a true one-to-one relationship.

To those owners fearful of the masses, recognize that in solidarism work is both a duty and a gift. It is both God’s gift to us as well as our obligation. Everyone must work in some capacity. Everyone must work as best he can in the work that he does. In a one-to-one relationship, we give the other our best, freely and fairly. In this way we participate in the creative process, the creation of value for our employers and the consumers of our products.

Private property is one of the three pillars of society. It is a fundamental, guaranteed right. However, it does not trump all other rights. Pesch, in line with Catholic teaching, holds two other fundamental rights higher: the right to life and the right to the necessary means of subsistence.

To those capitalists fearful of a state takeover of your property, Pesch developed what he calls the principle of subsidiarity: the integrity of each community (be it family, civic grouping or occupational organization) must not be interfered with, even to the extent that a higher unit should not do anything that the lower one can and should do for itself.

Examining this at the smallest end of the scale, the principle of subsidiarity points to welfare as being, and only as being, a “hand-up” and not a “hand-out.” From a larger perspective, this limits the state to the functions of protection and a very limited capability for assistance. The state must only do what the smaller entities cannot do for themselves. The state does not exist for its own sake but to protect its members from private interests. This legal protective aspect and nothing more. If a family or an occupational organization can do it, the state has no business doing it. This runs quite counter to the concept of state currently espoused by all spectrums of political thought today.

Nature is regarded, rightly so, as God’s masterpiece. But man has dominion over it; a dominion with responsibilities and obligations. The virtue of prudence is foremost in man’s dealing with nature in his economic life.

Solidarism is the alternative to capitalism and socialism. I have never lived under the socialist yoke, nor would I ever want to, but I do see and experience firsthand the shortcomings of our capitalist system. There is a symbiotic relationship inherent in solidarism; the individual exists and functions for the benefit of society as a whole, and vice versa. The common good is not opposed to any one’s good, and vice versa. Is this a better way?

I am very intrigued …

[Background reading for this post and for further information can be found here, here, and here.]

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Heinrich Pesch

What do you think about when you hear the word “economics”? A cold, deductive science in which we’re mechanically labeled as consumers and producers and our lives are determined by dense mathematical formulae similar to something you’d find in an advanced physics class? Do you think of Adam Smith and his influential 1776 book Wealth of Nations? The invisible hand of the marketplace and all that? A philosophy ultimately based on hedonism (satisfying wants)? Or do you think of Karl Marx and all the soul-killing varieties of socialism and communism? Or Malthus, the gloomy prophet who predicted starvation from economic collapse two centuries ago?

Have you ever heard of Heinrich Pesch? Probably not, but you’re probably aware of some of his ideas.

Heinrich Pesch was a German Jesuit priest and economist who lived from 1854 to 1926. At the age of 47 he turned his scholarly mind towards the study of economics. Seventeen years later he published his masterpiece, which in English is translated as the Teaching Guide to Economics – in ten volumes, over 4,000 pages of writing.

How influential was this work?

Well, ever hear of the word, Solidarity?

His thought was extremely influential, especially on Pope Pius XI and particularly Pope John Paul II. Know as “solidarism,” or “solidarity,” Pesch can basically be understood as an economist who developed an economic theory that is in complete harmony with the social teaching of the Catholic Church. The German Jesuit’s ideas found their way into the thought and writing of Pope John Paul II, particularly the encyclicals Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) and Centesimus Annus (1991).

Moved by the bitter struggle of the working and middle classes in the grinder of laissez-faire capitalism, the greatest social issue of his time, he devoted nearly two decades to the formulation of solidarism. Though he was a capable mathematician and statistician, he relegated mathematical formulae to a secondary position in his theory. Prime place is reserved for one thing, and one thing only: man, as the social and relational being he is.

Pesch was no lover of capitalism. And not just because of a knee-jerk reaction to its abuses. He rejects the “invisible hand” that somehow sets prices. He sees “values-free” economics as an oxymoron. The economy is not some wild field to be plundered. Free-market economics distorts the interrelationships between men, women, families, communities, and the state. To the Jesuit, true economics must sprout from the soil of ethics; any other way results in a system that will eventually yield evil. Ethics comes first, and is greater, than any economic theory.

Because of the primacy of ethics (rooted in the teachings of the Catholic Church), Pesch also condemns all forms of socialism and collectivism, as well as, of course, totalitarianism. Interestingly, in his writings, he foresaw the reactionary emergence of these political and economic systems spawned from the writings of Marx and his followers. But just because he rejects the ideas advocated by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, does not mean that everything is cast away out of hand. Like Aquinas, another great Catholic system-builder, Pesch takes what works, what fits in ethically with his theories, and intertwines it into his solidarism, much like the saint took works from the pagan Greek philosophers, the Arabs, and the Jews, and fleshed out the philosophical underpinnings of the Catholic Church. Pesch’s 10-volume work has been called, accurately enough, the “Summa Economica.”

What are the ideas behind Solidarism?

That will be the subject of tomorrow’s post. I guarantee one thing, though. No matter what tribe of political, economic, or politico-economic philosophy you belong to, you’ll be offended by something in the thought of Heinrich Pesch. I’m still trying to wrap my pre-conditioned and auto-conditioned beliefs around some of his ideas. You will, too.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Economic Problem

Nothing in this post will be backed up with hard statistics, so take everything here with that caveat in mind. I really think there’s something to all the media hyping of a recession that goes beyond the fact that a Republican has been in office.

First off, anecdotal evidence exhibit A. I’m middle-aged, married, a couple years into a mortgage, one small child, another on the way. In my family and in our circle of friends are six other couples, all around the same general age and family size and economic bracket. Between us all there’s thirteen-and-one-half kids (the half is our mini-baby, not quite fully cooked yet). All but one couple are having difficulties making ends meet. Living paycheck to paycheck, running up credit cards, borrowing money from relatives, always on the make for a higher-paying job. The one couple that seems to be doing fine may be doing so because both sets of grandparents are retired and can watch their children and allow both husband and wife to work. Daycare for any of us in this group runs anywhere from $15,000 annually on up.

Anecdotal evidence exhibit B. In 1972 my parents bought their first house, in the same county where I now live, for $36,000. My father was a schoolteacher, my mother didn’t work. Money was tight, but it was affordable. When we got to school, my mother started working. We only had one car until that second salary came in.

Thirty-some years later I buy my first house, comparable in size if not a little smaller, for ten times that amount! And though I make more than your average middle-school math teacher, I ain’t making anywhere near ten times that figure. Plus, my wife works – and with her yearly bonus she makes more than I do! Still, money is so tight that, according to Quicken, we should be in the red every month. Somehow, we’re not, but I lack the energy or enthusiasm to research why. I’m just thankful, I suppose.

Exhibit C of anecdotal evidence. Jobs. Companies. Is it just me and my immediate circle of family and friends, or are companies responding as desperately as if Son of the Great Depression was looming just over the horizon? Cost-cutting, yeah, I’m fine with that, but when it comes to employee salaries and positions being coldly regarded as such costs to be cut – something bad’s going on. All this business-school talk of being “forward-thinking” and “employees are our greatest asset” is chucked out the window and replaced by “produce or perish!”

Gas prices are killing us; despite cutting back on trips and traveling more strategically, we’re still gonna spend almost $1,000 more this year than last on fuel. Yes, I know this affects everyone across the board, but it seems to hit us struggling, growing families (should having two children be prohibitively economically expensive?) a little harder than single twenty-somethings and retiring boomers.

So, I’m thinking to myself, what went wrong here? What’s happened to the American dream? Surely that didn’t include maxed-out credit cards and sleepless nights over paying the mortgage. What happened? When did it happen? Why did it happen?

What are the fixes? I know I should focus on the most direct fixes, the things I can do to plug the leaks in the floundering U. S. S. Recovering Hopper, but I’m by nature a dreamer, so I’m curious about the system as a whole. And that led me to wonder, is there a better way?

I think there is. More tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Every Sunday for the past four years and three months, my family sits in the same corner in the same church. Slightly claustrophobic, I prefer the aisle seat. Also, in case my young daughter has a meltdown, I can swiftly scoop her up and head for the door before the congregation takes too much of an interest in her (though in fairness to her, this has only ever happened two or three times). Well, every Sunday, at 10:20, when we get there, my girls scoot in first, I grab the aisle, and I glance to my immediate left at a stained glass window depicting St. John Vianney and nod.

The man mesmerizes me. I don’t know exactly why. To be honest, and I hope I’m not being too disrespectful, he looks a little crazy. There’s a mad glint in his eyes. I see passion, devotion, single-mindedness. And his hair, pure white, is kind of wild, hanging down to his shoulders. Lines cut deep into his face, no doubt from the rigorous fasting he did. I am fascinated by him. Though I know a little bit about the saint, I don’t know enough to do full justice in a post. Perhaps later. But I read a quote allegedly from him that I can’t get out of my head.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about economics. Normally, the subject bores me to tears. But there’s so much financial hardship I see and hear about lately, from relatives to close friends to coworkers, that I need to investigate that nagging little feeling that’s telling me there’s got to be a better way. And I think there is.

So I’ve been reading this and reading that, trying to let what I sense is important stuff sink into this noggin of mine, and I came across a quote by St. John Vianney – hey, he’s my man at church! I read it, and read it again, and it’s resonating with me.

St. John Vianney said, "God commands you to pray, but He forbids you to worry."

Have you ever heard anything like that voiced in the church? In a sermon? I never did. Yes, I know the section in the Sermon of the Mount where Jesus admonishes us about worry (Mt 6:25-34, believe me, I know it). But somehow John’s short statement, eleven words, succinct and authoritative, makes complete and total sense to me. It’s a command I can obey.

Over the next couple of days I want to write about this economic situation many of us find ourselves stuck in, and alternatives to it. I may say some things that go against conventional wisdom, that uproot deeply held beliefs. But grant me some leniency; I am in the process of questioning, seeking alternatives, and firstly, aligning myself toward a higher allegiance. I hope.

Monday, August 11, 2008

My War of the Worlds

What a frightening and vivid dream I had last night! So much terror and panic, yet tinged with a little bit of hope, the dream followed the typical scheme of my recurring nightmares, which I haven’t had in about two months, I’d guess. Yes, it’s a movie – or is it? – and I’m acting in it, and there’s no guarantee I won’t live to see the end credits, as a character or as a real human being.

Oh, dear.

This time it was the movie War of the Worlds, Spielberg version. Though nothing was the same as that movie. For one, it took place mostly at night, in a rural location. The tripods were dark, and to watch their massive black shapes against the night sky as they thunderously crashed through the forest was absolutely terrifying. And once they were atop you, as you crouched in the bush – do they see me or don’t they??? – silent save for the electronic whirr of those clawed tendrils, one thought and one thought only crosses your mind: do I run or do I stay hidden? Which way leads to certain death?

Instead of Tom Cruise, I was working with Tommy Lee Jones. Already, I felt much better. I realized we had a chance to make it out alive. There was a bunch of us, small-town locals, led by default by a flannel-shirted Tommy Lee, running from log cabins to shelled-out buildings on Main Street, such as the General Store and the church. There’d be a respite, we’d scratch our brains to form a plan, then scramble and hide as the tripods would appear out of the mist on the horizon, a few miles off, relentlessly thudding towards us to kill as many earthmen as possible.

The scariest part? We were meeting in that General Store. We thought we were safe; it was quiet, and the ground wasn’t vibrating from the heavy death machines. In the dark, ’cause no one dared light a candle (there was no power). Tommy Lee had us in a circle, he had a plan, or something, but like a typical protagonist he wasn’t revealing it to us in its fullness, keeping us and the audience from guessing. He came to me, about to explain my part, when – that hydraulic whine, at the window! Two bright lights, eyes somehow, flooded the store, exposing us all. It crashed through the windows, and all of us froze (do they see me or don’t they???)

The light device was connected to a tendril, and it snaked heavily into the room, zeroing in on the faces of each and every one there. It came up to me, inches away, right up to my eyes, and I saw something click in the light, and I knew my retinal pattern had been examined. It passed me by, passed Tommy Lee by, one by one all of us – and then it stopped at the old hippie character. And then I knew – he was caught. He was wanted. They knew about his rebel activities, somehow, and now the aliens had him dead to rights.

Would we all be killed, or spared? What would happen to the old hippie? It was all very tense. I am surprised I slept through the whole thing in real life. My heart must’ve been racing as if I was running the last quarter-mile of a 5K.

Old Hippie looked us all in the eye, one after the other, and I knew he was weighing a decision: Do I run and risk getting us all killed, or do I surrender quietly, to a sure death.

He surrendered, scared though dignified, walked slowly outside the store and allowed the tripod to seize him. We're spared as the tripod crashes away out into the darkness of the woods.

A day or two later, Tommy Lee’s had it. He has a plan, and I’m a part of it, though he doesn’t really tell me what’s happening. [By the way, before the Old Hippie scene and before this last one there’ve been many chases through the night, dodging fifty-foot tripods and razor-sharp tendrils, hiding under bushes as the monsters lumber by …]

It’s dusk now, darkness maybe a half-hour away. A chick we have as a spotter sees them first – three or four tower-high tripods materializing out of the haze. They’re shockingly near, and Tommy Lee, though he never panics, is moving us on sharply. The rest of the team gathers into their cars – they still run for some reason – and make off to “the old airport.” Tommy Lee tells me to do so, too, but I stay behind, watching, knowing I have a further role to play. Perhaps to save Tommy? What can he be up to? I see him rigging something up on the roof. He’s got ropes, winches, and whatnot, and inside the burnt-out log cabin below are a bunch of those 55-gallon drums. Gasoline? Kerosene? Something explosive? It’d better be. The tripods are closer – surely they see Tommy Lee on the roof. Is he goading them on, taunting them? What’s his plan? They’re closing in, and I’m out in the open, car idling, do I drive off or do I stay, and if I stay what do I do –

It’s 6:20 am, and my alarm goes off. Mozart’s clarinet concerto – one of the gentlest pieces of music to awaken to – jars me out of the dream, and I’m laying on the bed, heart still pounding, wondering whether Tommy Lee Jones made it out alive, and if not, how many of those damn monsters he took with him.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mass Pet Peeves

For the longest time I sat on the fence about the subject of this post. My family goes to church every Sunday, usually the same 10:30 mass, but this time we were slow out of the gate and had to attend the mass at noon. While the preaching at my Church is excellent and fairly orthodox, there are other elements that I find to be of varying degrees of annoyance. So, week after week, I tell my wife, "I'm going to blog about this!" and come Monday, feeling charitable and more than a little guilty, I have a change of heart and don't write what I intended to the day before.

Well, the noon mass I went to is ... while not quite a "youth" mass, let's say it takes some liberties that I feel are detrimental to the spirit of the mass. What is this spirit, you ask? I know that the mass honors the sacrifice Christ made for us, giving His life in our stead so that we may be saved and have eternal life. I ask only for a modicum of respect and reverence by my fellow churchgoers and those in charge of conducting and participating in the mass.

Here's a short list of the liturgical areas of improvement at my church. I write without bitterness or anger, probably more of a feeling approaching sadness. None of these "abuses", which may be too strong a word, "ruins" the mass for me. However, I feel they are quite damaging to the spirit as a whole that we should collectively have when we participate in what is, for most, their only regular communion with the transcendent.

In no real particular order, this is what I experience week in and week out -

* Jeans and sneakers. Do not wear jeans to mass. Do not wear sneakers. We go to weddings and interviews and even, for most of us, our daily jobs dressed better than what some wear to church. Business casual minimum; don't go there dressed as a slob.

* Flesh, flesh, flesh, especially on your teen-aged daughters. Ladies, cover up. And make sure your daughters cover up, too. They are not going to the beach, no matter how hot it may be outside. Nor should they dress like a typical school day, either.

* Chatting before and during mass. We have a young daughter, so talking is inevitable. But it should be done in a hushed tone and not drawn out. Clusters of people guffawing together in the minutes before the opening procession is just plain rude.

* Late-comers. Yes, I know, the church welcomes us with open arms, even those of us chronically late. Again, having a child, I can understand the reasons you may be late. But I have to shake my head as I watch the streams of people filing up the aisles as late into the mass as the readings. Would you be late to a friend's wedding? Or a job interview? Make the same provisions to be on time to mass.

* "Why don't we stand and say hello to our neighbors." I can appreciate the effort to be hospitable. Call me grumpy but I don't want to be told to be so. There's just something weird about it that makes me want to rebel.

* Drums and tambourines - there should never be drums up on the altar. Guitars shouldn't be there, either. Didn't the Sixties teach us anything? My noon mass also features a bass guitar, too. Cool man, it's like a concert!

* The same bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad songs, week after week, that neither inspire nor prepare for the transcendent. After all, that's the spirit we're aiming for, right?

* Singing the "Our Father." It's bad enough that they sing everything they can possibly think of to sing; must they ruin this centerpiece of our faith? There's a version of "Alleluia Sing to Jesus!" straight out of Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar that only elicits stone-faced silence and looks of embarrassment from most of the men in the pews.

* Gender-neutral language at any cost. Whoever's in charge of the music at my parish hates the words "His" and "Him." Everything and anything that's sung about God, they remove "His" and "Him" and substitute "God." I never understood this - do they think women are so uncomprehending that they will find either offense or see themselves as second-class citizens by referring to God as "He" and "Him" as Jesus did?

* Lectors that speak at a glacial pace. Someone must tell them to do this, 'cause they all do. Now I don't expect nor need them to get all fire-an-brimstone like a prowling Baptist preacher, but let's try to keep the congregants awake and engaged.

* People who are so spatially tone-deaf that they lean back into you as you're leaning forward against their pew in prayer. Be courteous and aware of your surroundings!

* Hand-holding during the "Our Father." No, no, no, no, no. Absolutely not, especially with strangers. And just because I don't want to hold their hands does not mean I have no charity to them. I'm just germ-phobic, that's all.

There's a couple more of questionable taste I could go into, but I won't. So, let me leave with one last image that I wish I never saw again inside the blessed walls of a Catholic Church. You'll know what I'm talking about. You may have the misfortune of seeing it in your weekly bulletins, but I see it every week on the hymnals and missals my church uses. Ready ...

* Hippie Picasso Jesus. Nooooooo! There's hundreds of respectful, reverent works of art from medieval times right up to the modern era. Please, use something that depicts Christ with beauty and awe. Just say no to the Hippie Picasso Jesus!

Saturday, August 9, 2008


I've written a couple of posts here about poetry, specifically, my love of certain works of certain poets. And in my very first post on poetry (in which I concluded with the final dozen or so lines of Tennyson's Ulysses - the apex of English poetry in my estimation) I made sure to emphasize that I am no poet.

I am no poet because I think poetry scares me. Much more than writing fiction, be it science fiction or fantasy or whatever, does. Because poetry bares your soul quicker and greater than any other form of writing. You're exposed, immediately, plain and simple. So, I've shied away from that literary form, despite being an avid reader of it, precisely because of the fear that it causes in me.

But I have written some poetry. Nothing great, mind you, but okay by my standards. I've written four poems, exactly. An epic children's poem entitled Pumpy the Kin (inspired by characters created by my wife), a Latin-ish science fiction poem in heroic meter, a poem about a gladiator about to enter an arena, and the following poem, Gorgon.

Gorgon's okay. I like it, but not the way I like some of my better short stories or my two novels. It's written in what is called cinquain form. What's a cinquain? Well, there's haiku, as everyone knows and probably has given the old college try, which is a three-line poem of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and 5 syllables. Another type of poem is called the tanka, which is a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable-line poem. The cinquain is a poem with 5-line stanzas, with a syllable-per-line pattern of 2-4-6-8-2, and when I wrote this poem, sometime in 2002, that type of pattern appealed to me.


Cold dread
The viper’s lair
He treads stone steps softly
Sword glint pierces the unholy
Snake hair –

She hears
Stirring from dream
His gaze in polished shield
Backwards thrust slices and flesh yields
It screams –

And dies
Blood flesh and bone
Sizzling reptile face burns
Eyes wander down too late he turns
To stone –

Friday, August 8, 2008

Winning the Culture War

Peter Kreeft is a contemporary Catholic philosopher who should be more widely known than he is. I myself own his excellent Handbook of Christian Apologetics (co-authored with Ronald Tacelli) and consult it on an almost weekly basis. I was pondering what to post about today and recalled an excellent article I read by him entitled “How to Win the Culture War.” I strongly recommend you read it.

The best part for me, I discovered with not a little bit of surprise, came near the ending of the article, which I’ll post a section of here as a teaser. Think about the phrase “Culture War.” Now think about this: in every “war”, there’s an enemy, right? Right. So … who’s the enemy in the Culture War? I could probably name a half-dozen candidates (which I won’t, because, as you’ll see, I’d only be slandering them). Here’s how Mr. Kreeft defines “the enemy” –

Who is our enemy?

Not Protestants. For almost half a millennium, many of us thought our enemies were Protestant heretics, and addressed that problem by consigning their bodies to battlefields and their souls to Hell. (Echoes of this strategy can still be heard in Northern Ireland.) Gradually, the light dawned: Protestants are not our enemies, they are our "separated brethren." They will fight with us.

Not Jews. For almost two millennia many of us thought that, and did such Christless things to our "fathers in the faith" that we made it almost impossible for the Jews to see their God—the true God—in us.

Not Muslims, who are often more loyal to their half-Christ than we are to our whole Christ, who often live more godly lives following their fallible scriptures and their fallible prophet than we do following our infallible scriptures and our infallible prophet.

The same is true of the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Quakers.

Our enemies are not "the liberals." For one thing, the term is almost meaninglessly flexible. For another, it's a political term, not a religious one. Whatever is good or bad about political liberalism, it's neither the cause nor the cure of our present spiritual decay. Spiritual wars are not decided by whether welfare checks increase or decrease.

Our enemies are not anti-Catholic bigots who want to crucify us. They are the ones we're trying to save. They are our patients, not our disease. Our word for them is Christ's: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." We say this of the Chinese communist totalitarians who imprison and persecute Catholics, and to the Sudanese Muslim terrorists who enslave and murder Catholics. They are not our enemies, they are our patients. We are Christ's nurses. The patients think the nurses are their enemies, but the nurses know better.

Our enemies are not even the media of the culture of death, not even Ted Turner or Larry Flynt or Howard Stern or Disney or Time-Warner. They too are victims, patients, though on a rampage against the hospital, poisoning other patients. But the poisoners are our patients too. So are homosexual activists, feminist witches, and abortionists. We go into gutters and pick up the spiritually dying and kiss those who spit at us, if we are cells in our Lord's Body. If we do not physically go into gutters, we go into spiritual gutters, for we go where the need is.

Our enemies are not heretics within the Church, "cafeteria Catholics," "Kennedy Catholics," "I Did It My Way" Catholics. They are also our patients, though they are Quislings. They are the victims of our enemy, not our enemy.

Our enemies are not theologians in so-called Catholic theology departments who have sold their souls for thirty pieces of scholarship and prefer the plaudits of their peers to the praise of God. They are also our patients.

Our enemy is not even the few really bad priests and bishops, candidates for Christ's Millstone of the Month Award, the modern Pharisees. They too are victims, in need of healing.

Who, then, is our enemy?

There are two answers. All the saints and popes throughout the Church's history have given the same two answers, for these answers come from the Word of God on paper in the New Testament and the Word of God in flesh in Jesus Christ.

Yet they are not well known. In fact, the first answer is almost never mentioned today. Not once in my life have I ever heard a homily on it, or a lecture by a Catholic theologian.

Our enemies are demons. Fallen angels. Evil spirits.

So says Jesus Christ: "Do not fear those who can kill the body and then has no more power over you. I will tell you whom to fear. Fear him who has power to destroy both body and soul in Hell."

So says St. Peter, the first pope: "The Devil, like a roaring lion, is going through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Resist him, steadfast in the faith."

So says St. Paul: "We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers of wickedness in high places."

So said Pope Leo the XIII, who received a vision of the 20th century that history has proved terrifyingly true. He saw Satan, at the beginning of time, allowed one century in which to do his worst work, and he chose the 20th. This pope with the name and heart of a lion was so overcome by the terror of this vision that he fell into a trance. When he awoke, he composed a prayer for the whole Church to use to get it through the 20th century. The prayer was widely known and prayed after every Mass—until the '60s: exactly when the Church was struck with that incomparably swift disaster that we have not yet named (but which future historians will), the disaster that has destroyed a third of our priests, two-thirds of our nuns, and nine-tenths of our children's theological knowledge; the disaster that has turned the faith of our fathers into the doubts of our dissenters, the wine of the Gospel into the water of psychobabble.

The restoration of the Church, and thus the world, might well begin with the restoration of the Lion's prayer and the Lion's vision, because this is the vision of all the popes and all the saints and our Lord himself: the vision of a real Hell, a real Satan, and real spiritual warfare.

I said there were two enemies. The second is even more terrifying than the first. There is one nightmare even more terrible than being chased and caught and tortured by the Devil. That is the nightmare of becoming a devil. The horror outside your soul is terrible enough; how can you bear to face the horror inside your soul?

What is the horror inside your soul?

Sin. All sin is the Devil's work, though he usually uses the flesh and the world as his instruments. Sin means inviting the Devil in. And we do it. That's the only reason why he can do his awful work; God won't let him do it without our free consent. And that's why the Church is weak and the world is dying: because we are not saints.

If this article intrigued you, as it did me when I first read it two or three years ago, you can investigate its ideas expanded out in book length in Kreeft's How to Win the Culture War.