Oniontown Pastoral: Why I Kiss My Wife’s Hand

Oniontown Pastoral: Why I Kiss My Wife’s Hand

I know what you’re expecting: Here comes another edition of “Now, Pastor John Will Warm the Cockles of My Heart.” Well, sisters and brothers, think again.

This morning as I drove Kathy to work, I did, indeed, kiss her hand, but what were once pecks meant to say, “Sure do love you” have evolved into lips reluctant to pull away, lips that would say, “Sure do need you.” My gesture used to be mostly an offering, a reminder, but in this season of civilization, I’m drawing succor and forbearance from the woman who has tried to understand and abide me for 36 years.

So, to the kiss in question: at a red light, I held her hand to my lips, closed my eyes and breathed in and out. A woman driving by apparently saw and smiled. An hour ago Kathy sent me a message: “You made her day.”

Maybe so, but I’d like to explain to this stranger that I am romantic, a real sweetie pie, but what she witnessed was much less an amorous husband and more a man crouched on his roof during a flash flood, tree branches and neighborhood “disjecta membra” swept away by the current.

The water punishing my home’s foundation at present is not only the erosion of the societal expectations Americans have historically honored—imperfectly and inconsistently, to be sure—but also the delight some of my fellow citizens seem to take in dancing on the grave of noble behavior.

I’m not talking about high-minded philosophy or fervent religious belief, but about the simple words that rolled off the tongues of my elders:

  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • Mind your manners.
  • How would you feel if somebody did that to you?
  • People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
  • Say “please” and “thank you.”
  • You can run, but you can’t hide.
  • Don’t hit below the belt.
  • Don’t pee on my foot and tell me it’s raining.
  • Play by the rules.

You can add dozens of sayings to my list, and, of course, there are exceptions to any adage. For example, some situations demand an unvarnished truth that isn’t nice, maybe quite stern, but no provocation warrants cruelty.

I’ve long ago stopped harrumphing about folks chewing with their mouths open and yawning with noisy abandon in public, two trifles that drove my father to distraction. Why bother fishing a plastic straw out of a tsunami?

What I can’t stop mourning, however, are the standards of thought, speech and conduct that I grew up with being moment by moment trodden under foot. Worse, when I see one person rejoicing in the misfortune of another or insisting that a clearly documented fact is actually false or constantly and proudly acting out in ways that would put a preschooler in timeout, I’m both pained and drained.

If you think I’ve got one public figure in mind, you can relax—or clench up, as you please. My scolding finger is pointed at millions, and I’m done apologizing for it. When our mothers told us to behave ourselves, who among them would have overlooked sucker punching a friend on the playground or equivocating with one arm elbow-deep in the cookie jar? Not mine, God rest her, that’s for sure. In her generation, actions that now don’t even raise an eyebrow might send children to bed without dinner.

Much merriment is had these days at the expense of sensitive souls like myself who aren’t ashamed of tears shed because the beliefs we embrace are sailing into the horizon of this flat earth.

Last night’s news reported that binge drinking among senior citizens is on the rise. Why? Nestled in the list of feeble theories was “social change.” Yeah, no kidding. Millions of people over 65—and many considerably under—no longer recognize their native land. I’m not referring to hot button issues, but simply the scurvy, sinister way folks treat and address each other.

Forgive me. I realize not a single heart cockle has been warmed, but an amiable Oniontown pastor must on rare occasion be given leave to share thoughts that let a chilly draft into the bed chamber.

Most days, kissing Kathy’s hand provides all the solace I need. Her skin, so familiar and dear after nearly 40 years as a couple, reminds me of how much grace and blessing crowd around me in this life.

Once in a great while, though, I have to pull my lips away and speak. Today is thus.

The Trouble with Love

The Trouble with Love

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” (Thomas Merton in Disputed Questions).

Most often breathtaking is used figuratively, but in recent days I’ve said to myself, “John, you’re not breathing. Stop and breathe.” Mass murders, hatred, relentless falsehoods and absurdities arrive in torrents.

Saturday, October 27th: Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven dead. Tuesday, November 6th: The scorched earth of midterm elections. Wednesday, November 7th: Thirteen dead—most of them younger than my own children—in Thousand Oaks, California. To these news items add that state’s wildfires, which according to latest reports are 35% contained.

Credit: skeeze on Pixabay

But let’s set aside Mother Nature for the moment. Disasters of human agency take everyone’s breath away, and many Americans are further deflated by the likelihood that governmental leaders won’t lift a finger to prevent further loss of life.

Political motivations are legion, the bottom-line being that innocents’ safety ranks far below constituents’ hobbies and proclivities. Transparent lies, lame as a crumb-dusted child denying raiding the cookie jar, are piled so high that responsible citizens grow disoriented and exhausted.

Any spare energy may well be absorbed by hatred, which is eager to throw off its gloves and start swinging. Present circumstances are practically designed to bring out the fighters in everybody. Some of us struggle to hold rage against the ropes while others gleefully talk trash and punch below the belt.

Sad to say, you can sometimes find me in the ring, too. In my mind I heap insults and ridicule on my fellow citizens’ heads before remembering Thomas Merton’s instruction: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

As I pause over these words, anger rises in my chest. The exhortation to love is Pollyannaish. The task is difficult. Who can accept it? There’s a physiological response when you look at folks you really want to punch in the face and remember you’re supposed to love them.

My mother, God rest her, took her upset out on doors. As a teenager I once made her so mad that she slammed the basement door, took two steps away, then returned for seconds.

Mom could have used this room when I was growing up. (Credit: Arek Socha–“qimono”–on Pixabay)

Even in the closest of relationships, love is trying. It can be like digging a pointless ditch with a swizzle stick when all you want to do is put said ditch to good purpose by shoving the person you can’t stand into it and shoveling in wet dirt?

Yet we know that this isn’t the Christian way. Actually, millions across the belief spectrum would say that they are called by conscience to love of neighbor and rejection of hatred. The problem is, anyone who has walked the path of understanding and compassion for long knows that confusion dominates comfort, deprivation overwhelms fulfillment. Being steadfast takes stamina.

This is why my gait appears drunken. Every fork tempts me toward a destination that rolls out the red carpet for my worst impulses: “Nobody deserves your consideration. They’re not really your neighbors. Put yourself first, others can pound salt. Let your tongue be barbed wire.”

All that keeps me from staggering hopelessly far in the wrong direction is one crucial insight and a whisper of grace. Love is a roomy term. Contrary to popular thought, “love” and “affectionate regard” aren’t attached at the hip. The latter simply can’t be commanded, which is convenient, since the love humanity now starves for has nothing to do with cuddling or playing footsie.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton has a revelation about his earthly brothers and sisters while visiting Louisville, Kentucky: “At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

A plaque in Louisville to mark the spot of Merton’s revelation. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Merton recognized in the city’s shoppers “the secret beauty of their hearts.” He knew that they were children of the same Creator, beloved of the same God, and wanted to tell them that they were “all walking around shining like the sun.” They could also be monumental pains in the neck or far worse.

I occasionally want to give Thomas Merton’s hermitage door a few slams, but a quiet grace visits, filling me with belief: God calls me to love without reservation, especially when the effort seems foolish, even embarrassing—a little like supposing that some good might come from a man hanging on a cross.

Thomas Merton in his cinderblock hermitage. (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

Sowing What Our Children Will Reap

Sowing What Our Children Will Reap

(8 minute read)

As I sit safely in my living room a couple of blocks from Lake Erie, Florida’s panhandle is still trying to get its bearings after Hurricane Michael. The death count now stands at thirty-five. An old high school classmate of mine had his cars crushed and home severely damaged. There’s no way to ignore such massive, breathtaking destruction.

But some destruction is stealthy, gaining ferocity while nobody is paying much attention and ravaging one life at a time. Public awareness is slow to account for souls who suffer mostly under the radar—the bullied youth, haunted survivor, beaten wife or displaced worker—not to mention the homeless, addicted or mentally ill.

In his October 12, 2018, New York Times editorial, David Brooks shares a statistic that should trouble sane Americans: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2006 and 2016 youth suicide rates rose 70 percent for white adolescents ages 10 through 17, and 77 percent for black ones.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post gleaned additional bitter food for thought from the same CDC report: “Suicide rates [in America] rose in all but one state between 1999 and 2016, with increases seen across age, gender, race and ethnicity.”

Such statistics make an alarming statement: Americans of all stripes are lining up at the existential Customer Service Desk to return a gift—their life.

“Is there anything wrong with this item?” the clerk asks.

“This was supposed to be a gift,” the American says. “This is terrible. It hurts too much.”

Of course, most citizens are happy enough. Even folks down in the dumps generally plug along, playing the hands they’ve been dealt, praying for smoother roads and greener grass. Regarding suicides, experts rightly point out the usual suspects: poor economy, foreclosures, stressful jobs, broken relationships, etc.

But surely something else is bending backs and furrowing brows. The aforementioned CDC report indicates that around half of all suicides have no history of mental illness. It’s as if something snaps, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Seriously, then, what’s going on?

Two of my grandchildren. I have millions.

I have no credentials to respect, but from my armchair the case is clear. Contemporary vernacular includes an adage that surfaced recently: “What goes around comes around!” Wisdom from the Bible teaches, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7b). Then we have the vignette, so intentionally poignant as to verge on annoying, of the Cherokee (or Navajo) man who tells his grandson about two wolves at war within himself. The wide-eyed boy asks which wolf will win. After a dramatic pause, the grandfather says, “The one which I feed.”

The moral is obvious: your violent behavior will recoil upon you; if you plant poison ivy, raspberries won’t grow; if you rejoice in evil, count on evil to win both battle and war.

I turned fifty-seven recently, so I’m not worried about societal recoil for myself or wife Kathy or even my adult children, Elena and Micah. We can respond mindfully to the ebb and flow of today’s absurdity, aggression and cruelty.

But what about my grandsons, Cole and Killian? And because every other child in the world is inescapably my very own, what about the innocent and vulnerable everywhere?

Alan Kurdi was my grandson. May God rest him.

One of my boys named Jesse. Sweet face! Soul full of music.

Two young men, both named Jesse, both teenagers, both loved abundantly by families and friends, found this life too much to bear. Both were my sons. May God grant them endless comfort and joy.

The young woman I know who suffered a racial slur on a school bus recently is my daughter. May God strengthen her.

If by some miracle planet Earth has any sweetness and succor left for today’s children, I’m still left to wonder what seeds we grown ups are planting in humanity itself, the governments that will shape the lives of future adults, the communities that will cradle their days, the cultures that will make their spirits either sing or weep.

A recent USA Today article reveals that the rare instance of kids under eleven years old taking their own lives has doubled between 2008 and 2016. Life is exhausting and painful for millions, especially for children. From television screens to social media to classrooms to living rooms, hostility, deception and ignorance have been welcomed in and embraced as kin.

If you believe that kids are immune to what they see and hear day by day, please consider the bit of preaching I now do to a congregation of one, in the mirror. Am I speaking the truth?

  • When I allow hatred and frustration to overwhelm me, children absorb the toxicity in my voice and manner.
  • The greatest danger is the moment I feel justified in my rage and righteous in my anger. The problem with this situation is that a child observing me will experience the fury in my spirit without having the slightest idea what is animating me. My behavior, which may come from an upright impulse, nevertheless teaches the wrong lesson.
  • Careless name-calling among adults poisons children, as does rejoicing in falsehoods, wrongdoing and the suffering of others. Adults unwittingly teach kids the delicious, addictive art of injury and ridicule. I don’t want them to learn anything of the sort from me.
  • I can’t be perfect, but I can take into account the possibility that my words and actions are adding to the pollution of our American discourse and pressing thorns into our children’s tender spirits.

Most of all, I guess, I can hold fast to love for God, neighbor and self, even when doing so feels for all the world like defeat.

Dear Lord, Let all children feel this safe and peaceful in my presence. Amen

Johnny, We Don’t Say Things Like That

Johnny, We Don’t Say Things Like That

Over forty years ago the Erie Thunderbirds Drum and Bugle Corps was working on a routine when the music abruptly stopped. After a murmur from within the ranks, the drum major called out, “Would you kiss your mother with those lips?” Obviously somebody had fouled up and let slip some colorful language. Marchers and spectators alike laughed long and loud, and I tucked that jocular question into my mental chest of superb comebacks.

As Mom has been on my mind lately—and Dad, too—the drum major’s words have emerged from mothballs and nagged me. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about manners. I don’t remember first learning them, but the four Coleman kids knew the drill. Some rules were about appearance, like not holding your spoon like a shovel, but most focused on how we treated other people. Only recently have I begun to appreciate “mind your manners” and what that expression implied at 2225 Wagner Avenue. People matter. Their feelings matter. Their well-being matters. Their time matters.

Nerdy Museum Cardigan (Credit: Wikipedia)

My mother was a curriculum of care and tenderness unto herself. I fell asleep with my head in her lap. She tucked my 1970s hair behind my ear, which annoyed me back then. I miss that now. My father was also loving, but with a no-nonsense edge. If you wanted to see him scowl, boo from the bleachers. Not even a lousy performance deserved that. At one Thunderbirds practice, the soloist who played “Brian’s Song” was absent, so another horn stumbled through the piece. As Dad and I walked to the car afterwards, I said too loudly for his taste, “Boy, they sound like crap without Ronnie.” I can’t recall the verbiage, but his message was clear: My remark was not only impolite, but hurtful.

People matter. So when they ask how you’re doing, you ask about them, too. Please and thank you. Hold the door. Leave things better than you found them.

Awkward Museum Sneakers (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Name-calling was unacceptable. Once while shooting hoops in a neighbor’s driveway, my buddies and I spotted old Louie walking to the bus stop. He was grieving the passing of his partner of many years, but we hid in some bushes and roared a slur that begins with “f” and ends with “aggot.” Mr. Snell was out his back door before the echo died: “Johnny, we don’t say things like that.” In my fifty-seventh year, the shame still sits heavy in my throat.

Such schooling was bruising, but the diploma has been a blessing. When kindness reigns, peace like a river attendeth my way. It follows, then, that rancor and distain dam up my soul. This reality visited me a couple weeks ago as I watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a profile of Mister Rogers on public television. He is my hero, which may suggest to you my definition of wisdom and bravery.

The man’s voice alone sent me into a crying jag. Wondering what Fred Rogers would say about how folks treat each other in 2018 got me teary. Picturing him bent low, comforting an immigrant child who had been separated from her family brought me to my knees. I was undone.

Images of terrified toddlers are more than sob-worthy, but my upset runs deeper still. With each passing day, with each cackling, growling news cycle, the land I love becomes more a hostile stranger and less a trusted friend.

What’s gotten into us? Have those of us fortunate enough to grow up in healthy homes forgotten where we came from? Is it acceptable to treat our fellow citizens with disdain and shout vulgarities at each other as I did at Louie, hiding like a punk behind shrubbery? What about the trash babbled within the cowardly foliage of social media? And is shabby behavior, no matter the provocation, respectable as long as our parents have gone on to glory or aren’t watching?

Extinct Bronze Hero? (Credit: Wikipedia)

Finally, should we feast on fearful and scurvy impulses just because our elected officials routinely do so, turning their backs on values they ought to champion? Of course not! It’s easy to dismiss the drum major’s question as silly, but half-truths are often spoken in jest. The point, after all, isn’t about kissing our parents, but conducting ourselves in ways that would break their hearts.

Or maybe our upbringing is best seen in a rearview mirror. Maybe dear Mister Rogers is not only dead, but extinct. Or maybe the manners we’ve left behind and the love once shown us are exactly what the world needs, as my father used to say, “immediately if not sooner.”

What the World Needs

Election Eve: Standing with My Gay Sisters

unnamedThis evening before the dreaded presidential election, wife Kathy and I are heading back to Pennsylvania after visiting my sisters in North Carolina. Our objective was simple: relax!

Yesterday we awoke in the joyful home of sister Cindy and her spouse Linda. We didn’t get out of bed right away, but breathed and gave thanks for the view out the guest room window: clear sky, hanging plants and American flag rising and falling with an occasional breeze.

We also gave thanks for other loved ones who stayed the night: eldest sister Cathy and her spouse Betsy Ann; and Linda’s daughter Tina, her spouse Rebecca, their toddler son Liam and infant daughter Renley. Four affectionate and slightly spastic dogs and a mellow cat named Hermione added diversity and commotion to the gathering.

As we talked off and on about what is consuming millions of Americans at the moment, I learned that one voter’s presidential election can be another’s painfully personal referendum.

Thus far my anxiety about our country’s future has been generalized. The women I listened to over breakfast yesterday share my concern about the economy, foreign relations, immigration and the planet, but they also fear the threat a Trump administration might pose to who they are as human beings.

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Cathy and Betsy Ann

With a Supreme Court fortified by judges favored by the Republican Party, will their marriages be under assault? Will the acceptance they’ve found recently as citizens be repealed? And what about the health insurance one married partner often provides for the other? Is there any way that same-sex couples could be denied that benefit all over again? After all, if Roe vs. Wade might be up for debate after forty-three years, why not the legality of gay marriage?

Kathy and I celebrated our thirty-third anniversary this year, and we’ve never had to contemplate our vows being cancelled by the Supreme Court.

My wife shares roughly the same profile as the Democratic Presidential nominee. If she wins, I imagine Kathy and other women will feel a burden lifted and an inexcusably overdue affirmation bestowed.

What will I feel? I’m a white, heterosexual male. My validation has been grandfathered in for centuries. I can’t remember ever being denied anything because of my packaging. Nobody has ever suggested that the person I understand myself to be is uniquely lacking, broken or abhorrent. Where social stability is concerned, I’m close to the top of the food chain.

But Cindy, Linda, Cathy, Betsy Ann, Tina and Rebecca face tomorrow with a fear I recognize but can never really know.

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A safe place

I can name beauty when I see it, though, and these women are among the kindest, smartest, most upright and beautiful people in my life. The warm North Carolina air was refreshing, but Kathy and I don’t drive ten hours for the southern climate. We take time to visit our unorthodox family because we find overflowing goodness and safety with them.

If you think that gay marriage is sinful and should be illegal, I wish you could meet my gay sisters and witness their tenderness and compassion. I wish you could hear how they struggled to find peace within themselves and how falling in love turned their landscapes into rich expanses of grace.

Their troubled sleep this night is difficult to bear for love’s sake. Of course, millions may lie awake in the small hours of this morning, wondering how many of the votes cast will say, “America is not your home. You have to leave. Your language is an annoyance. Your skin is ugly and so is your soul. You’re being checked out, and this we can tell you, we’re not impressed.”

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View from Guest Room Window . . . Gay Household.

When I vote tomorrow, I’ll be thinking of my family in North Carolina and every other sister and brother who want nothing more than to run into the open arms of a compassionate country.

Now, checked into a hotel in Summersville, West Virginia, I sip privileged wine. Kathy tells me the pizza just delivered is really good. And I make this promise: “Whatever happens tomorrow, the years ahead are sure to hurt, but you’re not alone. Plenty of Americans like me–especially those who don’t pretend to know what all you’ve gone through–love you and stand with you. When you were born, the cosmos rejoiced.”

Grandma Kathy Home

Grandma Kathy Home

So the Cleveland Indians hold a 3-2 edge over the Chicago Cubs as the World Series moves back to Cleveland for at least another game. One particularly sweet spot here is my sentiment that if the Tribe loses, I can be glad for the Cubbies. Both teams are long overdue for a championship.

Alas, the Fall Classic holds diminished interest for me this year. I’m in a space that is best described by a phrase my childhood friend Vince used a lot: tons of bummage.

Joy isn’t in short supply these days; in fact, I have a surplus, more than anybody deserves. The problem is my reaction to our present American season of bummage.

“Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever,” Saint Francis de Sales said, “even if your whole world seems upset.”

Sorry, Francis, but my peace comes and goes. It goes when I assume my fears about the future are predestined. It comes when I forget myself long enough to be touched by grace.

“I want to go home,” grandson Cole said.

“But, Cole,” my daughter Elena answered, “you are home.”

“No, I want to go to Grandma Kathy home.”

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At Grandma Kathy Home. Cole checks Pop. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Grandma Kathy and Pop have bored our friends slack-jawed with Cole’s words, but it’s hard to keep quiet. Sometimes a moment kisses your soul and brings hope within reach again.

Cole thinks of Grandma Kathy’s house as home. Do I care that he doesn’t include Pop on the deed? Actually, I like his name better. Kathy drops everything for Cole. They play in her garden and go to the basement and make repairs at her workbench. If she cooks dinner, he stands on a chair at the sink and does a few dishes with a whole bottle of soap.

He calls our den “my room,” and he and Grandma Kathy bunk there when he stays the night, as he did last Saturday. On church mornings, she sits beside him in the backseat for the hour drive to Oniontown.

Yesterday my sluggish sermon knocked the kid out, so he crawled under the pew and nodded off at her feet. After worship she let him sleep on, and friends stopped by to chat.

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Got insomnia? Come listen to one of my sermons. Bring a pillow, join Cole. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Cole was safe. Grandma Kathy was there.

He didn’t say, “Grandma Kathy’s home.” He said, “Grandma Kathy home.” My wife is home to him. The dwelling and garden are incidental.

Kathy helps Cole sew. He leans against her, watches a movie and eats pretzels and dip. She hustles him off to use the potty like a big boy.

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Hope

Watching them together, I’m positive of at least one thing that’s right with the world.

Fifteen years ago I copied a Bible verse on strips of paper and during a sermon suggested that parishioners put them on their refrigerators.

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The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)

The light is love. I bet my life that it will win in the end. That doesn’t mean, of course, that my Indians will whip the Cubs. And it especially doesn’t mean that my candidate will prevail.

I don’t for a moment believe that God gives us clean sheets when we’ve messed the bed.

What I do believe is this: love is the only way out of human bummage.

In 1968, during another ugly season, Thomas Merton asked, “Is the Christian message of love a pitiful delusion? Or must one ‘love’ in an impossible situation?”

When I watch a woman and a boy not yet three together, peace fills my lungs. The only way I know to abide in impossible situations is to love.

It seems like hour-by-hour I get hopeless and angry, then hear Saint Francis speaking and try to find my way back to love again. All signs are that I’m delusional.

I want to go to Grandma Kathy home, too, Cole. Let’s live there together.

In Defense of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

In Defense of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Blogger’s Note: The scope of the opinion piece that follows is narrow. I have views about nearly every tangential topic imaginable, but I’m speaking here only to The New York Times‘ recent editorial board opinion about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s statements about Donald Trump.

If you’re looking for the normal fare served by A Napper’s Companion, please feel free to order another entree. 

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Credit: Wikipedia)

Spirits of the coffee drinkers at Brew Ha Ha are merry this noontide, but I’m negotiating with a troubled heart. Former teaching colleagues Alice and Mary and I reacquainted and dissected one of our national obsessions, November’s presidential election. Since they left an hour ago, I’ve been palpating available Internet information and opinions in hopes of easing my suspicion of a terrible prognosis. The possibilities paralyze my brain and sour my gut.

The New York Times normally steadies me, but, oh, my precious, the editorial board has just poked at my gag reflex with this opinion: “Donald Trump Is Right About Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Whew! Pause. Breathe.

In a recent interview with Adam Liptak of the very newspaper that smacked her knuckles, Ginsburg had the impudence to say, “I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president.” A couple of other remarks added color to her opinions and probably set off editors’ subjectivity detectors.

Asked if she also thought that the Senate should act on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Court, Ginsburg practically got hysterical: “That’s their job.” Please, somebody get this woman into a straightjacket.

The board’s assessment is terse: “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg needs to drop the political punditry and the name-calling.”

Okay, she did call Trump a faker. Bad Justice. Bad Justice. But punditry? Rising from my nausea are a litany of questions, summarized by one: “Where does punditry end and truth begin?”

Other words pose essentially the same question. “At what point does objective neutrality deny the obvious?” “When is bullshit given the full weight of fact?” And “When is denigration mistaken for discussion?”

Yes, these are dangerous questions. Whoever successfully lays claim to facts and truths has hold of power and moral high ground.

But these are perilous times. At least in politics, the historically accepted rules of engagement have been trodden under wingtips. I’m hardly the first to observe that even the pretense of civility and fair play in governmental chambers and circles is gone. And reality, fluid in the best of social climates, is now nothing but fog. Where are the brakes?

Americans who share Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion about Donald Trump aren’t so much despondent about the candidate himself, but about the destination of “I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear that I will execute the Office of President of the United States.”

Trump will, indeed, execute the Office, and felled in the firing squad’s aim will be the languishing assumptions about how we Americans communicate with each other and come to agreements and define the world we live in. This is my dread, at least.

Adding insult to injury, the just, charitable identity we have struggled to embody—the “lamp [lifted] beside the golden door”—may give way to the hateful, fearful “angels of our nature.”

Our society has already taken many steps down a rancorous, violent path. Do we honestly suppose that we’ll find remedies to what ails America if we crown a man who delights in riling followers into stampede?

Pause. Breathe.

Am I being alarmist? Hyperbolic? Gosh, I hope so. But I don’t think so.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg knows that “the exception proves the rule.” Supreme Court Justices should keep their noses out of political controversies. Good rule. Good good rule.

But what Donald Trump says he would do as Commander in Chief—bluster though his every word may be—requires the assassination of what is most honorable in the people and the deportation of the Constitution Justice Ginsburg is sworn to interpret and uphold.

She was obliged to break a generally wise rule. She gets a pass.

A Matter of Conscience: An Open Letter to Moderate Republicans

Blogger’s Note: This post is not only long, but upsetting. As the title suggests, I’m writing about politics. If you visit A Napper’s Companion for a lift, you may want to skip what follows. Please know that I feel compelled to share this letter.

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Mr. Trump, tear down this statue. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

February 26, 2016

Dear Moderate Republicans:

“If I were to remain silent,” Albert Einstein said, “I’d be guilty of complicity.” I’m neither a public figure nor a genius, but I borrow the iconic physicist’s words to make clear the reason for this letter. I don’t write as a Lutheran pastor, which I happen to be, but as a regular guy who feels not only sick, but under a moral obligation to speak.

I’m sick that half of the voting Republicans in Nevada believe that Donald Trump is the best available pick for President of the United States—49.6%. Half!

Sick that Trump appears poised to mop up delegates on Super Tuesday, now four days away.

Sick that the two youthful candidates seriously challenging Trump have ironic qualifications. One tried in 2013 to shut down the government he aspires to lead and is by all accounts reviled by his colleagues. The other has essentially given up on his elected responsibilities before his first term of service is finished. Why is he missing about 1/3 of votes? “Because I am leaving the Senate,” he replied, “I am not running for re-election.” If he thinks Senate duty is an insufferable slog, how well suited is he for the Oval Office, really?

Before going on—and you can stop reading any time—I want to qualify the word sick. I’m heartsick. The optimist in me says that most conservatives are troubled with how the Republican primaries are unfolding and embarrassed by the current candidates’ behavior. For what it’s worth, I write in the spirit of loving intervention. What I am compelled to point out pains me, as I have many dear friends who are Republicans, but the matter is urgent.

In less than a year, the next President will take office. What exactly is at stake?

Donald Trump promises to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, one foot taller than the Great Wall of China. “I want it to be so beautiful,” he says, “because maybe someday they’re going to call it the Trump wall.”

If Trump fails to get Mexico to pay for this project, he might fund it by selling the copper lady lifting her torch over New York Harbor. A nation that solves problems with walls won’t have much use for the words on her pedestal:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me.

Of course, a wall by any name may prevent wretched refuse from entering the United States, but it won’t get rid of those already here illegally. Trump remains steadfast in his intention to muster a deportation force, which will track down 11 million undocumented immigrants—a term he rejects as politically correct—and return them to Mexico. That figure is under dispute, but it does notably include the immigrants’ children, who are by law U.S. citizens. Through “good management,” the exodus will be accomplished in a year and a half, maybe two.

Could any compassionate American bear to witness the spectacle from round up to drop off. Picture those flippantly called anchor babies, hundreds of thousands of little kids, herded onto busses with their families and dumped, my God, who knows where. We’re talking about millions of people. What sane adult can’t foresee a humanitarian crisis?

Mark Krikorian, Director for the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, says what some Republicans must be hoping, that Trump’s deportation statements are a “gimmick’: “He’s just making it up as he goes along. Whatever goes into his mind comes out of his mouth. There’s no way to deport 11 or 12 million people in a short period of time.”

I must be a prude where campaign gimmicks are concerned. Blustering about the deportation of what would amount roughly to the populations of New York City and Chicago combined isn’t strategic, it’s obscene.

Maybe other campaign promises are primarily attention getters, too.

Ted Cruz says he’ll carpet bomb ISIS, which sounds hawkishly sexy until you reckon the term’s meaning. Having been corrected, the Texas Senator now knows that he is calling for what Business Insider defines as “large-scale, unguided bombing,” which military experts insist would be a horrible strategy. You don’t remove warts with bulldozers.

Cruz also claims that Trump is actually weaker on immigration than he is. What does that say? “I’ll see your gimmick and raise it by a million . . . people!”

And Rubio, poor Rubio, seems like he is trying to stay out of trouble until voters come to their senses. The Republican Party establishment is hastily huddling around him. If Rubio can find within himself what he lacks, grace under pressure, he offers perhaps the best shot at derailing Trump. In last evening’s debate in Houston, the part-time Florida Senator seemed unscripted, even nimble, in his engagement with the front-runner, so there may be hope.

But time grows short, not only for Republicans, but for all Americans. Sick with the urgency of Super Tuesday, I state directly what is a matter of conscience: setting aside for a moment the criticisms Democrats richly deserve, moderate Republicans need to reclaim their party’s integrity and live up to its claim to be the Party of Lincoln.

I wish these harsh words applied only to the primaries in the months ahead, but the mere conceivability of a Trump or Cruz presidency is the result of Republican conduct in recent years. (Again, I admit that my party’s transgressions are abundant, but Democrats aren’t lustily casting ballots for a candidate who routinely uses vulgar language on the stump and threatens his opposition with frivolous lawsuits.)

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Name that country. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2012 Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, one Republican and the other Democrat, published an article in the Washington Post with a provocative title: “Let’s Just Say It: Republicans Are the Problem.” An excerpt summarizes their argument:

“We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Examples of Mann and Ornstein’s charges are legion, but for brevity’s sake I’ll limit myself to two.

It’s no secret that Republicans are hell-bent on repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act. All Republican candidates for President are locked and loaded. Gone are the days of accepting congressional votes as laws of the land and moving on—long gone. Since the ACA became law on March 23, 2010, “The House GOP has voted over 50 times to repeal all or parts of the health bill. Almost all of the bills died in the Senate” (AP report). Any bill reaching the President’s desk would get a swift veto. In other words, the House has held over four dozen symbolic votes, which seem little more than a silly waste of time until you consider what a House vote costs taxpayers. CBS News estimated in 2013, when the symbols stood at 33, that each vote cost about $1.45 million. So today, $1,450,000 x 50 = $72,500,000. Contemplate this. We’re talking about $75 million-worth of chest puffing and foot stomping, and we funded it. What’s more, we all know the definition of insanity (never mind understanding and accepting mathematical facts).

The other example I’ll mention of toxic Republican conduct is fresh, not yet played out. Antonin Scalia’s body was still warm—only a slight exaggeration—when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said a replacement shouldn’t be named until after a new President takes office. A couple days ago Senate Republican leaders announced that shouldn’t has solidified into won’t. The New York Times reports McConnell’s edict: “This nomination will be determined by whoever wins the presidency in the polls. I agree with the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation that we not have hearings. In short, there will not be action taken.”

Why not? When I sort through the answers, what I hear is Bartleby the Scrivener’s response: “I would prefer not to.” Or “you can’t make me.”

So this is where we stand. The constitutional and traditional duties of governance can be simply waved off. Given the strategy of obstruction employed by Republicans since President Barack Hussein Obama took office in 2009, should anyone be surprised that the party establishment is betting its farm on a Senator who shirked his responsibilities before the paint in his Capital Hill office was dry?

In fact, the thus-far successful candidacy of Donald Trump is built upon the Republican Party’s recent performance reduced to a sophomoric gesture. Conservative columnist Michael Gerson calls the front-runner’s way “the political philosophy of the middle finger.” These are words, not mine:

This philosophy “assumes that practices we know are wrong in our private lives—contempt, mockery, cruelty, prejudice—are somehow justified in our political lives. It requires us to embrace views and tactics that we would never teach our children—but do, in fact, teach them through ethically degraded politics. Imagine your teenage son (or daughter, for that matter) calling a woman a ‘fat pig,’ ‘dog,’ ‘disgusting animal’ or ‘bimbo.’ Imagine your child labeling someone he or she knows as a ‘loser,’ ‘moron’ or ‘dummy.’

This is the evidence of poor character, in any context. For Christians, the price of entry to the Trump movement is to abandon their commitments to kindness and love of neighbor. Which would mean their faith has no public consequence at all.

I can imagine how maddening it must be to feel lectured about something as massive and abstract as one’s political party, but I risk being a scold for the sake of conscience. Hardly ever do I hear Republicans admitting that their party’s actions in recent years have done great damage and their leading candidate for the highest office in the land is unacceptable. (And, now, endorsed by Chris Christie. I’m stunned.)

Any effective intervention begins with accepting responsibility. As a private citizen and a Democrat—and out of love for you and country—I call upon moderate Republicans for the moment to resist attacking me and accept their party’s role in our current national situation.

And I promise to take seriously any appropriately-worded, well-substantiated criticism of the Democratic Party. My party may well need an intervention, which I’ll endure with a light heart, on one condition: given present circumstances, you go first, please.

Respectfully yours,

John Coleman

Erie, Pennsylvania

I Want to Be “Decisive” When I Grow Up

I guess decisive is the word. Maybe it’s convinced. Or certain. But since I’m fifty-something, the question of what I’ll be when I grow up is academic.

I am what I am, which is discerning. Discernment’s pace toward decisions is stately. It’s focused, but patient. That’s me. I’m comfortable with interesting and hmm. No need to stampede toward conclusions.

Practically speaking, I’m how rich and what poor. I know, for example, how to sit with people and listen, but am nearly clueless when it comes to what they should do. I can figure out how to string sentences together, but readers these days pay to be told what to do, and I suck at that. After “secure that smartphone and pay attention to your kid, wife, husband, and ferret Rafael,” my prescriptions run out.

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Raphael (Credit: Wikipedia)

My life-management skills are sketchy. Walking with you? That I can do. Giving you a plan or grid or diet? Don’t look at me. This is a suspect orientation for a Lutheran pastor and writer. Men who get paid to wag their chins on Sunday mornings and volunteer their personal essays for Internet consumption should clarify more often than mystify.

Here’s a brief study in what I’m bleating about. If I were a decisive grown up, you would be reading a compelling case for one of the characters currently plotting to be President of the United States of America. What a rush it would be to write with the conviction of, say, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who can tell you exactly whom to vote for and why.

I wish. Like hundreds of thoughtful citizens, I’ve been grazing in the unkempt fields of campaign coverage and punditry. Two states into the meal, I’ve strayed into gray pastures, nauseous with uncertainty. What I’ve got to say may feel good, but mostly as a purgative.

  • Does the news media manufacture—or at least feed—nerved up realities? Why the breathless, urgent reactions to voting in two Wonder Bread states—no insult intended (Iowa: 92.1% white; New Hampshire: 94% white)? Talk about racism! The suggestion that any candidate is already washed up comes from a malnourished perspective. Would Harry Carry have declared the game over if the Cubs gave up a couple of runs in the first inning? Do cancer patients call off chemotherapy when hair starts to fall out? Come on.
  • What is the most important consideration in voting for President of the United States? Platform? Experience? Promises? Charisma? The older I get, the more I care about intelligence and integrity. Maybe this concern grows out of my cynical hunch that some candidates don’t believe in much of anything—a whoredom that trumps all other prostitutions. I remember decades ago elders saying that they would vote for somebody from the other party; they rooted for the best person for the job. The sentiment is worth revisiting. How much stock should we place in a candidate’s humanity? You can study up on economics. But can you acquire character?
  • Is a revolution really the best corrective to our current governmental dysfunction? I acknowledge the appeal of a righteous battle, the blood rush and passion, the idealism and purity, the triumph of justice and common sense. There’s no shortage of revolts being proposed as we all pant for the results in South Carolina and Nevada. Bernie Sanders has employed the r-word itself. Other candidates vary the diction but stump in the same genre. Although I’m not without sympathy for Sanders’ uprising and even saw merit in Ron Paul’s long-shot crusade, revolutions have drawbacks. The Tea Party has been throwing everything not bolted down into the Potomac for a few years now, which has done nothing but dam up the government. How likely is it, then, that another revolution would yield better results? Nothing beats the language of war for whipping voters into a bloody foam, but if brawling remains our go-to legislative strategy, we’ll have to name Mathew Brady our Capital Hill Photographer. And 2.) losers in a revolution—and there can’t not be losers—go home pissed off and start plotting their revenge.

I could happily go on, speculating about the place of objective truth (what little there is) and manners in politics, but who really wants to follow me further into what started as a dreary example of one Lutheran pastor’s turn of mind?

The point, for anybody still awake, is me—by which I mean, maybe you, too. I’ll put myself in your shoes. Let’s see if I’m warm.

  • Every day is a litany of fast judgments and flawless answers. Television knows the best seat for surviving a plane crash and how to weave to escape a shooter. Family-friends-whoever cure timeless worldly ills with one flippant sentence. The lovely can transform the normal for three easy payments. You say, “I wish I were so sure.” Or “How can anybody be so impossibly full of crap?”
  • You’re overwhelmed, weary with information, each expert shaking you by the lapels. Even as you purchase another plan, your own wisdom speaks: “Tend first to your troubled heart, beloved.” “Hush up,” you respond, for the hundredth time, and swipe your credit card.
  • Part of you hangs onto the belief that you’ll feel settled eventually, at peace and complete. You’ll be grown up, a finished human being.
  • Then, sweet then: questions and doubts will fall silent. You won’t be vulnerable anymore. You won’t have to be humble either, but you will.
  • Long before the polls open, your choice will be set.

If your shoes don’t fit me, please forgive my presumption. But if they do, I’m guessing you have balm for humanity in your soul. If only somebody would listen, you would say, “Let’s pay attention to how we treat each other. Then what we should do to fix the world would be clear.”

As for me, I’m not decisive enough to speak up–afraid of sounding frivilous. Until I grow up, I’ll just say that I’m discerning.

Ciao to Convention

I can’t hear mention of the good old days without grimacing. Golden days for some folks were hell for others. At the same time, some good-old-days conventions and assumptions come in handy. The unspoken agreement, say, to prevent blacks from moving into white neighborhoods, is/was crappy. The old boy system that has women earning 78% of what men make is intolerable (AAUW statistic). But what I think we’re seeing in 2015 America is the disappearance of useful conventions.

It’s hard to imagine people “somewhere ages and ages hence” telling their grandchildren about these days “with a sigh.” Maybe Americans are as happy as ever in their homes and relationships, but societal life is often a vexing pain in the ass. Why? Our conventions—shared beliefs about how the world works and how people ought to behave—are being put out to pasture one by one.

Schmoes like me watch the news and say, “Hey wait, I thought we had a deal!” Our pacts sometimes find words: “Don’t hit below the belt.” “Don’t stab a man in the back.” “Don’t run up the score.” LeBron James shouldn’t (and wouldn’t, of course) cream a teenager in one-on-one. That’s not how we operate. Have some class. We’re all in this together. Show a little mercy. Give the kid a break.

Sadly, such deals are collapsing, especially in politics. Each time a convention is smacked on the rump and told to start grazing, folks with manners and a sense of fair play slap their foreheads. When forty-six Senate Republicans signed Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) open letter to Iran about Obama’s nuclear talks, another Clydesdale clopped off with head hung low: “We Americans are all on one team, and in some matters we don’t undermine the Commander-in-chief.” Conservative columnist Michael Gerson puts a fine point on it: “Congress simply has no business conducting foreign policy with a foreign government, especially an adversarial one.”

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The United States Capitol: a setting that should inspire honor, or at least passable manners. (Credit: Wikipedia)

It’s no big deal that one greenhorn senator penned a letter meant to interfere with delicate negotiations. The problem is, forty-six of Cotton’s colleagues signed the letter and are now taking turns tussling his hair, if indeed they can reach that high. In other words, about half of the United States Senate thinks it’s not only okay, but laudatory, to reject a long-standing assumption about constructive and honorable political behavior.

The Republican objection, summarized by Rand Paul (R-KY), is that President Obama is undertaking negotiations with Iran without congressional participation. Well now gosh, I wonder why the President would do such a thing—which leads me to another convention standing out in a rainy field: bipartisan cooperation.

When former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) died in June of 2014, both Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Harry Reid (D-NV) practically wet themselves on the Senate floor paying tribute to the “Great Conciliator.” Current Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), also praised Baker: “His service was marked by a courtly, civil, and respectful style that won him friends and admirers on both sides of the aisle. His example — his ability to fight for principle, and disagree without being disagreeable — will continue to inspire us as we honor his life and memory.”

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The Great Conciliator in 1984 (Credit: Wikipedia)

Yeah, right. This from the Speaker who took the uncivil, disrespectful liberty of inviting a foreign head of state to address a joint session of Congress behind the President’s back. Has this ever happened before? No. And so, ciao to another understanding among the branches of government. Add to this Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eagerness to accept such a shabby invitation, and convention takes another blow: of course Bibi knew that his speech would break with tradition. He just didn’t care. Let’s face it: all that Howard Baker stood for is now scorn fodder. Imagine the “Great Conciliator” and young Turk Tom Cotton brokering a deal in a present day cloakroom. The beloved Tennessean would be scorched earth.

Not because Baker would be outmatched, but because the rules he played by no longer apply. In a Washington Post essayThomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein blame Republicans: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Let’s pause for a little contrast. Consider the words about compromise from Senator John McCain (R-AZ): “The way you have bipartisan negotiations, you sit down across the table, as we did with Ted Kennedy, as I’ve done with many other members, and you say, ‘OK, here’s what I want, here’s what you want. We’ll adhere to your principles, but we’ll make concessions.'” Now let’s hear from John Boehner as he summarizes his goals for leading the House of Representatives (it refers to Obama’s agenda for a second term): “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”

For Boehner, “everything we can do” includes holding multiple votes on the Affordable Care Act, a recent one merely for the benefit of freshman Republicans who haven’t had the chance to record their ire at Obamacare. How many is multiple? TheAtlantic.com reports fifty-six. My head spins at the wasteful stupidity. According to MiamiCBSLocal.comthe estimated cost to taxpayers for each of these votes is $1.45 million.

I wish to God I could track down which politician said something like, “When I lost a vote, I walked across the aisle, shook hands, and said, ‘I hope I can count of your vote on the next bill.'” Was it Howard Baker? Bob Dole? Richard Lugar? (I really looked hard. If you know, please pull me aside!)

Oh for the days of debating, voting, and moving on. But this is yet another demoralized horse. “Go munch bramble, you mangy thing!” Votes, it seems, are meaningless anymore. Which returns me to a question I asked earlier: “Why would the President undertake nuclear negotiations with Iran without congressional participation?” Why bother? Colleagues who would spend $81.2 million on symbolic votes and have repeatedly made their subversive intentions clear aren’t looking to provide input. Their goal is to impede and frustrate. The evidence of this is indisputable. By any measure of productivity, argues Chris Cillizza, the 113th Congress is the worst in history.

This is what happens when a democracy is deprived of its long-standing working agreements. It’s also what happens when, as Mann and Ornstein suggest, facts and scientific evidence don’t matter. Example: according to Climate.NASA.gov, “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” I would call this a consensus, but not Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who said in 2012, “Just so you’ll know, global warming is a total fraud and it’s being designed because what you’ve got is you’ve got liberals who get elected at the local level want state government to do the work and let them make the decisions. Then, at the state level, they want the federal government to do it. And at the federal government, they want to create global government to control all of our lives.”

Believe it or not, my intention here isn’t to take Cotton, Boehner, et. al. to the woodshed, but to make observations that help keep me sane. Taking in the world, politics in particular, sometimes steals my peace, so I lay out my case as a way of regaining equilibrium. For the record, I’m a Democrat, but plan to forgo participation in future primaries by becoming an Independent. Why? Republicans are responsible for most of the demise of conventions, but I don’t despair about the possibility of them taking over America because, as I often say, “They eat their own young.” By disposition, theirs is a house divided. On the other hand, Democrats violate shared understandings when it suits them; they just don’t do it as often and with such glee as Republicans. When a politician of one party is indignant over the effrontery of a colleague from the other party, prepare to hear some hypocritical bull crap. They take turns being aghast. Awww, shaddup!

Which is probably what I should do. To the litany of conventional behaviors sent to the glue factory I’ll add two quick others from outside the beltway. Consider these me waving so long on a lighter note.

  • My son Micah watches Mixed Martial Arts matches, where the “don’t hit a man when he’s down” deal is off. When somebody gets knocked out, the victor keeps hammering the guy’s unconscious head until the referee steps in. I’m not a fan.
  • I’m all for earthy, sophomoric humor, but wasn’t sure what to do with a bumper sticker I saw yesterday. Irreverent, yes, but it seems like a minor violation of bumper sticker etiquette.
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Congratulations?

The next time I see a convention trotting into the sunset–an overshare or a politician being ill-mannered–I’ll say, “Nope, you’re not stealing my peace. Not today!”