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

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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!”

 

An Advent Descant

Starbucks, 6:27 p.m.: Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” keeps playing in my brain. His whistling descant during the second chorus always makes me think of Dad, God rest him, an All-American whistler with a spry warble. The only song more blue is “Christmas Time Is Here.”

In the 1954 film White Christmas, Crosby sings to soldiers far from home, and by the time he gets to “may your days be merry and bright,” their heads are sagging. About twenty years later in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “snowflakes [are] in the air” and “carols [are] everywhere.” As kids skate on a frozen pond, Linus tells a depressed Charlie Brown, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Brown-iest.”

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Opinion: Charlie Brown understands Advent. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Both of these Christmas favorites sing about a complicated season. The lyrics are glad and wistful, but the music is melancholy, maybe for good reason. Does your Christmas spirit ever reach your mountaintop of expectation? As December 25th approaches, do you find yourself waiting for the doors of your soul to fly open and unfettered joy to blow in with snowflakes and sleigh bells? Never happens that way, right? (If your Christmas bliss is unbridled, I’m happy for you—honest.)

My Advent and Christmas moods follow the Buddy System. No emotion goes even to the lavatory alone. I’ve worn Khalil Gibran’s words from The Prophet thin because they fit:

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. 

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When sorrow sits alone with me at my dining room table, remembering that joy sleeps on my sofa saves me.

Last night at church, kids sang and made popsicle-stick Christmas trees. Cookies were everywhere. In my imagination Grandma Coleman’s molasses cookies joined the abundance. I could smell them. As children had fun, the beloved dead stirred in my soul.

Trees in the distance, snowless this December 5th, are bloodshot-gray veins against the Lake Erie sky—tender, lovely. A few hundred miles to my east, citizens under the Hudson River sky protest a guy choked to death for selling loose cigarettes. I receive the nonchalant blessing of an in-breath and an out-breath. Still, a cry echoes, “I can’t breathe!”

I’m stubborn enough to believe that joy will have the last cosmic word, but, man, is sorrow injecting anabolic steroids this Advent of 2014. (Blogger’s note: If you already know that creation is groaning in labor pains and don’t want details, skip to #4, which is a benign kvetch.) To wit . . .

1.) “Don’t shoot.” “I can’t breathe.” What will the next mantra be? How many wrongs can be packed into one historical narrative? Let’s see.

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Birmingham high school students being hosed while on a peaceful walk, 1963. (Credit: Charles Moore on Wikipedia)

a.) No argument: throughout American history, blacks have been shat upon. Until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, abuses were not only unapologetic, but lusty. Since then, slow progress has been lacerated in ways obvious to blacks and unconvincing to some whites. Most blacks, I gather, have misgivings about the police. They have either experienced unfair treatment (e.g. profiling) or know somebody who has. Or maybe they have been regarded by a cop with unwarranted suspicion. Or maybe they have been on the wrong end of a fire hose in Birmingham. Whatever the case, blacks of all levels of education and income aren’t feeling the love. Their convictions, of course, aren’t based solely on encounters with law enforcement. I bet every black citizen has absorbed the unprovoked disdain of a white stranger at least once. Such experiences must freezer-burn one’s DNA permanently.

b.) The news coverage of Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland is muddy. The excerpt of George Stephanopoulos’ November 25, 2014, interview with Darren Wilson that ran on ABC Evening News was a slam-dunk for the Ferguson cop, at least to this viewer’s eyes. Some days later on PBS’s Democracy Now, which leans decidedly to the left, an interviewee noted that sixteen of eighteen eyewitnesses to Michael Brown’s shooting claimed the kid clearly had his hands up. In this case, a grand jury saw things Wilson’s way. But the treatment of Staten Island’s Eric Garner on July 17, 2014, is on YouTube for all to see, as is John Stewart’s rant about a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who administered what looks for all the world like a forbidden chokehold. (I’ll toss in that flattening Garner’s head into the sidewalk seems excessive, too.) So blacks who were pissed after Ferguson went berserk after Staten Island. Any white folks paying attention should start, well, paying attention.

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Police Officer Ray Albers, who was captured on video pointing his weapon at peaceful protestors and cursing. Before he was identified, he was known on social media as “Officer Go Fuck Yourself.” He resigned soon thereafter. (Credit: Wikipedia)

c.) Speaking of understandabilities, looting businesses and torching real estate are perhaps predictable mob responses to injustice, but thievery and flames are self-mutilation taken to a community level. Innocents on the home team have lost much in what television news calls “protests.”

d.) I won’t parse the shooting of Cleveland twelve-year-old Tamir Rice other than to point out something I’ve not heard mentioned in the conversation. Why is it okay for manufacturers to make toy guns that look unmistakably like the real thing? All you have to do is cut the impotent little orange tip off and you’ve got a weapon. In the dark a squirt gun could look convincing, I suppose, but are realistic airsoft guns necessary? Don’t bother citing the First or Second Amendments. I’m tired of clever folks lining their pockets by exploiting the noble intentions of the Constitution.

e.) A-whole-nother side of wrong is the untenable situation police officers face each day. Nothing less than perfection is tolerable in the new millennium. Never mind that human beings are increasingly expected to maintain sparkling performance with dwindling resources. Punishment is an imposing presence. A teacher makes a knee-jerk, cruel remark to a student. A nurse administers the wrong medication. And, yes, a cop who has dealt on his shift with three noncompliant citizens pops his cork in subduing the fourth. I don’t mean to excuse any behavior, but to acknowledge what I see as a reality. In all professions, the margin for error is literally razor thin, and forgiveness is in short supply.

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Bill Cosby in 1969. (Credit: Wikipedia)

2.) Oh, Bill Cosby! Oh, Dr. Huxtable, who wore Christmas sweaters so well! If he drugged and raped women, then, in the words of Queen, “Another one bites the dust.” If Cosby harmed any woman in one of the most profound ways possible, then who was he channeling when he complained about blacks “with pants down around the crack”? But if twenty-six women are out to lynch an entirely innocent Cosby–how likely is that?–then we have another lousy statement about the human condition. Whatever the case, there are no winners; only ugliness all around.

3.) Here’s an odd thought for the list. In an April 12, 2012 Washington Post editorial, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein—left and right, respectively, and both well respected—claim that the current G.O.P. is “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; [and] unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science.” More and more I get the feeling that Mann and Ornstein have their fingers on our collective pulse. I would love to be corrected on this, but it seems to me that lots of us have our rancorous heels dug in. We mistake our fancies and hunches for certainties. Actual facts are greased pigs, but if you manage to secure one, expect to be dismissed with a sniff and a Bronx cheer. The point: our foundation for societal negotiation is cracked, our collection of shared assumptions depleted.

4.) Finally, on an irrelevant, purely selfish front, I’m filing a complaint against restroom hand dryers. How can machine blow hot air at a velocity that makes your skin ripple and still not dry your hands? When deprived of the paper towel option, I always exit feeling unkempt. Yes, a few extra seconds of vigorous hand rubbing would finish the drying job, but I reserve the right to be petty in this small matter. The head gets enough of my time as it is.

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If this were a decent photograph of a hand dryer, you could see that the little arrow at the bottom says, “FEEL THE POWER.” I want to get a Dymowriter and cover “POWER” with “FRUSTRATION.” (Crappy Credit: John Coleman)

My last grievance notwithstanding, sorrow has one advantage over joy: sorrow tends to arrive like a freight train blasting its horn, whereas joy springs like a chocolate lab puppy from a Christmas box and quietly sniffs and licks your face. Sorrow carries a big stick; joy walks softly.

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Joy happens by like this guy named Brownie. Yes, I, John Coleman, am trite! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Consider twelve-year-old Devonte Hart of Portland, Oregon. At a protest about the death of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, the boy held a sign that said, “Free hugs.” The photograph of Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum and Hart hugging went viral.

Of course, as many an Internet cynic has claimed, the hug may have been staged. (I fell for a YouTube video showing a bicyclist being chased by a bear, so I’m not the most astute viewer.) Even so, I object to Jonathan Jones, a Brit who, writing in The Guardian, takes Facebook subscribers to the woodshed for their over 400,000 shares of the hug photograph: “Each one of those shares is a choice of what to see and what not to see. In the context of the completely unresolved and immensely troubling situation, not just in Ferguson but across the United States, where Ferguson has opened wounds that go back centuries, this picture is a blatant lie.”

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Officer Bret Barnum and Devonte Hart in “the Hug” (Credit: Johnny Nguyen / AP Photograph in The Guardian)

One can’t help but envy Jones’ clairvoyance and nimble reasoning! As if he can see into my heart and mind and understand the meaning I assign to any photograph! As if sharing a photograph means that any Facebook viewer is in denial about what troubles America. As if—just one more—any roundhouse-throwing art critic gets to decide what muse speaks a helpful word to suffering citizens. I didn’t share the photograph on Facebook, but I’ll bet most of the 400,000 who did took the kid’s and the cop’s embrace not as a reflection of where American race relations now stand, but as a vision of where they ought to be. To me, the image doesn’t scream from atop a phony soapbox. It whispers hope into the patriotic dreamer’s ear. It’s the lab’s cold little nose brushed against America’s cheek. It’s a whistle over a familiar melody.

And consider Lori Burke. I mentioned a while back kids having cookies at church. The reason kids and adults showed up was to join in a sing-along led by Lori, which the latter enjoyed as much as the former. During snacks and crafts, she shared with me an idea in gestation. She already has a couple of CDs out as well as a popular parody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” on YouTube.

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Lori Burke . . . sing it, sister! (Credit: loriburke.com)

Now, Lori would love to start a movement of sorts. She has got a name—For the Love—and is now fussing with how best to communicate it. For the Love is Lori’s developing vision for helping us all to grow into the habit of showing kindness and generosity to strangers. She mentioned a couple of possible For the Love logos and at one point said “hashtag,” which means she has Twitter thoughts. I’ve never quite understood hashtags, but I’m rooting for this sacred sister.

This is how joy happens: two people kibitz and think out loud. “What can I do?” Lori wonders, then decides to trying something. Maybe. We’ll see. No matter what happens, the impulse to encourage sisters and brothers to love each other is just a crumb. A mustard seed. A widow’s mite. In other words, Lori’s impulse is everything—a fragile wish, a helpless mutt, the Indwelling hope of the world. Salvation depends on crumbs.

Endnote

In recent days “White Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here” have been replaced by Dean “Dino” Martin’s rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” in which he calls the hero “Rudy.” In the last stanza, all the reindeer “shouted out with glee, Rudy the Red-Beaked Reindeer, you’ll go down in history.” Oh, Dino, you casual fellow! Your song goes into the complaint file with those hand dryers.

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Don’t even think of calling me Rudy. And I can’t breathe out of my beak. What the hey? (Credit: aussiegall on Wikimedia Commons)

 

An Apology to President George W. Bush

Dear President Bush:

I write to apologize. Your presidency was an awfully long eight years for me, but I read a newspaper column today that made me stop, think, and admit something to myself: From 2001 to 2009, I seldom looked at you with compassionate eyes. Instead, I allowed myself to sink into the mud of political frustration and rancor that has only gotten worse since you left office.

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“A second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack.” Still, you read The Pet Goat to the children so they wouldn’t be alarmed. Thank you. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The column that prompts my letter is by Cokie and Steve Roberts, “What Clinton, Bush can teach us about leadership.” You and President Clinton, the Roberts report, are starting the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program, and “part of [your] mission is to demonstrate that Washington does not have to be a cesspool of toxic partisanship.” I get the impression that you and President Clinton are comparing the political climate of your presidencies with that of President Obama and trying to push us out of the muddy cesspool that is only getting more toxic. And, the Roberts note, the libraries of Lyndon Johnson and your father are joining with you in this effort.

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What would our country look like if your faces in this photograph reflected Washington’s modus operandi: good spirits and mutual kind regard and respect? Please help us to get there. (Credit: Wikipedia)

A photograph from the program’s launch shows you and President Clinton sharing a hearty laugh. More from the column: “By [Bush’s and Clinton’s] presence and performance, they embodied a key dimension of effective leadership. They showed that political rivals do not have to be personal enemies. In fact, they can actually like each other, trust each other, cooperate with each other. And they can do so while disagreeing on basic issues.” Oh, my Lord, may it be so. Please know that I’m sending prayers and every good wish your way for success.

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You look like a man giving a genuine hug–to hurricane victims in Biloxi on September 2, 2005. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’m pretty sure this spirit of collegiality and cooperation was alive and well in you during your presidency, and occasionally it would occur to me that your job was daunting, your challenges staggering. The trouble is, that sympathetic sentiment never made the southward journey from my head to my heart. Of course, now I watch the guy I voted for trying to get anything at all done, and sadness rests in my chest. I get it. For some time now, governing has been exceedingly difficult and often impossible. We’re stuck in mud. So I feel sad for you retroactively. Forgive me for being late.

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Lots of us didn’t care much for what we considered too much grin and swagger. I’ll speak only for myself: I was being petty. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I should mention that during your years in office my next-door-neighbor and I agreed you would be a great guy to have a beer with. It’s strange, even with my passionate opinions about all that occurred on your watch, I would rather talk to you about incidentals. For example, your gaffs are legendary. My favorite is from 2002: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee that says, fool me once, shame on shame on you. Fool me you can’t get fooled again.” As I read this, I laugh, but honestly, there’s no edge to it. My old frustration has softened. George W. Bush was President, but he was also a guy with a microphone in his face for hours each day. So I probably should cut him a break.

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Express yourself, Mr. President. Why not? (Credit: LyleLanley99 on reddit.com)

I also recently saw one of your paintings, the one with your feet—those are your feet, correct?—sticking out of bathwater. Again, I’m laughing, but if you were here with me this morning, you would understand at once that it comes from a loving place. You’re a fellow human being, and when you were in the Oval Office, I routinely forgot that.

The Roberts mentioned something about you in their report that I wish I had known years ago. “And during Bush’s tenure, Clinton revealed, the president would call his predecessor on a regular basis and ask for his advice.” I can see now your humanity more clearly. A man who would paint his feet in the bathtub would have no qualms about calling the guy who worked the previous shift for help.

So, Mr. President, please accept my apology. It’s not fair to bemoan the intolerance and anger in Washington when I’m a willing participant. This letter may never reach you. If by chance it does, receive my good wishes for your Presidential Leadership Scholars Program and my thanks for what I now believe to be your sincere efforts to do what you thought best for our country.

Peace and blessings,

John Coleman

Dear America: A Response to Our Mass Violence Du Jour

Dear America:

Jeff Weise. Nidal Malik Hasan. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Aaron Alexis. Ivan Lopez. Adam Lanza. Seung-Hui Cho. Mark Robert James Essex. James Holmes. Jiverly Wong. Michael McClendon. Scott Evans Dekraai. Omar Thornton. Robert Hawkins.

Could you pass a test matching these guys with the places and dates of their shooting sprees? Me neither. I’ve limited the list to cases after 2000 in the United States, and even at that I’ve missed some massacres. (For answers, check here.)

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Fresh-faced high schoolers, minding their own business. (Credit: Odilon Dimier / PhotoAlto / Corbis)

On Wednesday, April 9th, sixteen-year-old Alex Hribal took a more primal approach to mass wagon-fixing by “stabbing wildly with two kitchen knives” at twenty-one teens and one security guard (cnn.com). The location was Franklin Regional Senior High School in Murrysville, Pennsylvania—just in case you want to make a flash card to study for any exams on violence in the future.

Don’t mistake my irreverence for a flippant attitude toward tragedy; I’m not dismissing the agony of the fallen, their loved ones, or the murderers and their families. My fellow Americans, I’ve had about enough of us! Good sense at its most basic level has left the national building, and our willingness to compromise for the sake of public safety has taken a nap from which it refuses to awaken.

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“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” White House portrait of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I voiced my frustration with US in a lengthy post last year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre—first graders and adults riddled with a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, if you’ll recall. A few days ago it was a lone kid slicing away. The Associated Press reports that Hribal “doesn’t appear to have a history of misbehavior or any known mental problems.” My frustration this time isn’t with the Murrysville “enigma,” who will be prosecuted as an adult. In the weeks ahead the media will accompany shrinks into the young man’s psyche until the guessing game grows tiresome. Then, we’ll all move on to Justin Bieber’s next tantrum or Miley Cyrus’ next twerk. In a month or two, someone will lash out, killing or injuring another dozen or two, and we’ll do what we always do: scratch our heads, look for behaviors foretelling violence, and ask what can be done to prevent such a horror from happening again.

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All right, no running on school property, and nobody gets hurt! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I can’t take it anymore! We—you and me—are insufferably, embarrassingly full of crap. We mean well. Our hearts are in the right place. The trouble is, our brains have slumped into a stupor of denial. Example: WSEE television news (CBS) in Erie, Pennsylvania, hit me with the following viewers’ poll the evening after the Murrysville stabbings: “Which of these is the best approach for keeping kids safe in our schools?

  • metal detectors at entrances
  • cops in the hallways
  • training to identify problem kids
  • homeschooling”

Homeschooling? Really? If this isn’t waving the white flag, I don’t know what is. Sure, the poll here is sincere, but come on. Every time a bunch of innocents bleed, we engage in flaccid Monday-morning quarterbacking and half-assed introspection. We wring our hands, look at the ground, sigh, and worry the change in our pockets. Why are we at such a loss? Because serious, effective steps to reduce explosive, indiscriminate violence require more heroic honesty and moxie than we Americans possess. The truth is, we’ve surrendered to the worst angels of our nature and followed them down dark, destructive paths so far that we’ve forgotten what the gentle light of sanity looks like. Consider:

  • Video game sales in the United States for 2013 totaled $15.39 billion (joystiq.com). In the top ten of sales are Grand Theft Auto V; Call of Duty: Ghosts; Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag; and The Last of Us (thefiscaltimes.com). We’re talking about killions of games being played by teenagers, with the activity being essentially this: sneak around and blow people (or zombies) away. So, let’s review: countless young people spend relaxing evenings rehearsing mass murder via convincing media—from a first-person point of view.
  • When those little ones and brave adults got cut down at Sandy Hook Elementary in Advent of 2012, Americans of good sense figured that at long, sad last, something definitive would be done about crazy weapons falling into the hands of troubled souls. Sure, ramping up gun control measures after weapons already populated millions of homes would have amounted to closing the barn door after the horses had galloped off, but at least we could have tried to limit the scourge. Even then we Americans, at least as represented by our elected officials, lacked resolve and stamina. Twenty of our children were taken away in minutes, along with six adults trying to protect them, and still our collective will was trodden under foot by thuggish lobbying and political cowardice. God forbid a congressman or senator should piss off Wayne LaPierre.
  • As if real and mimicked slaughter aren’t terrible enough, two films in recent years raise the bar on gore. James Wan’s 2004 film Saw includes a delicious scene in which a young guy has sixty seconds to dig a key out from behind his eyeball or a mask of nails called a Venus Fly Trap will snap shut on his face. I won’t ruin it for you. Meanwhile, Tom Six’s 2009 tour de force, The Human Centipede, has three young adults sewn together, arse-hole to pie-hole. What message can be found in such leisurely matinees? Rob Zombie, who remade Halloween in 2007, was candid when he said in a vanityfair.com interview, “I don’t think my movies have a lesson. Or if they do, I guess it’s that it’s a f—ed up world and you’re probably f—ed too.” Edifying, huh?
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Theatrical release poster. I suppose Zombie has a point. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Can there be any doubt that the Constitution has become a document to exploit rather than a treasure entrusted to us for the sake of freedom-loving people everywhere? Sadly, our stewardship of the Founding Fathers’ labor and risk often deteriorates into spats over freedom of speech and the right to bear arms.

Let’s be clear—and brief: Roadstar Games wasn’t motivated by free speech in 2011 when its Modern Warfare 3 grossed $775,000,000 in its first five days on the market. Rob Zombie admits that the First Amendment isn’t on his mind. And anybody who argues that Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson would condone the ownership and abuse of the weapons on steroids available today is engaged in somnambulistic thinking. There’s a difference between words and actions protected by the Constitution and words and actions hiding behind the Constitution.

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A document that brings us together or divides us? (Credit: Wikipedia)

Those who use the Constitution as a cover for extravagant profit have played a part in creating a world where massacres are commonplace. I can hear the objection already: Okay, Coleman, prove it. It’s clear at this point that no evidence I could present would satisfy the Entertainment Software Association, for example, which offers this assurance: “The truth is, there is no scientific research that validates a link between computer and video games and violence. Instead, a host of respected researchers has concluded that there is no link between media violence and violent crime.” No link? None?

Today, filmmakers, video game manufacturers, gun zealots, and Washington suits are either unwittingly caught in the gravitational pull of personal rights over collective responsibilities or gleefully scamming a Constitution that depends on the best intentions of the people. In any case, the situation is a wretched shame. A controller and screen invite us to simulate savagery, and we’re all one DVD away from witnessing the most perverted tortures imaginable. One result among many: the killing or maiming of innocent folks in public places is officially on the menu of possible, though extreme, responses to private despair and rage. The world is now thus.

But enough of this line of complaint. My letter to America is directed to those of us who aren’t consumed by the daily cluster of governance or who produce mad visions of media violence. Let’s wake up from our collective nap of denial and feigned shock. Are any of us actually surprised at the mass killing du jour? And do we as individual citizens think long and hard about how we can keep kids safe in school? Be honest, now.

© Copyright 2013 CorbisCorporation

Not all napping is cute. Come on, let’s wake up. (Credit: Hal Beral / Corbis)

Shooting imaginary people (or enemies or zombies or whatever) until they’re a scattering of juicy, red mush is not a benign pastime. Automatic weapons with well-endowed magazines are readily available to those lost souls who decide to live out the marksmanship they’ve practiced over and over. Films that display nothing but sadistic cruelty plant toxic seeds. Add these realities up, and we have a distressing American truth: our commitment to individual rights is massacring our sense of responsibility to each other.

And this truth is costly. Remember December 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza cut loose in Newtown, Connecticut? Between that date and December 31, 2013, Slate.com estimates that 12,042 or more people have died at the wrong end of a gun. Slate has now stopped counting, but you can bet folks minding their own business will keep getting shot or stabbed, alone or in klatches.

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White House meetings are great, like this one after Sandy Hook, but no number of politicians can make us change our hearts. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like you, I’m grieved and angry. But surprised? Please. Enough already! Armed guards, metal detectors, and psychologist can’t save us from ourselves. (Neither can legislation: point taken.) I pray that we can change, stop strangling the Constitution, and love our country and neighbor as much as we love our freedom.

Love,

John Coleman