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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Can't Judge Judy Handle These Cases?

I used to think that waiting several years to try hate-filled, murderous thugs bent on destroying Western civilization was evidence that we haven't the courage to confront Islamofacism, but now I see it has all been a sophisticated plan to deny the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed his 70 virgins. How very clever and devious of us.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

When They Call

I was afraid of losing our first child, even when she was healthy and near, even before we lost her. I suppose it's natural to fear for them the way we do. It's why we grit our teeth and force a smile when they wave to us from slippery stones in the middle of the creek, or when they get on their bellies and launch themselves as high as they can on the swing, because we know they have to risk themselves if they are ever to be happy, yet we are afraid.

I do a lot of teeth-gritting and smiling. A long while back my dentist made a mouth guard for me, because I was grinding my teeth away in my sleep. I suppose I'm gnawing on all kinds of things in my dreams. The worst dream is the one that bleeds into wakefulness, the one where you hear them calling, only you are inside and they are somewhere out there, and then you wake with your heart pounding in your throat so you can't breathe, and you listen past the sound of its beating in your ears, because maybe they really are calling you, maybe they really have slipped outside into the darkness.

My wife found Isaac down by the creek one morning this week. I was already gone to work, and the sun was just working its way into the sky. He was tromping about in the tall grass on his short white legs, searching for me. It never occurred to me that maybe they fear for us, too. It makes me feel loved and heartbroken all at once, because I think, when I watch them sleep: The fear will settle over you soon enough, little ones.

But I suppose there is no loving, in this world, without fear — at least not for busted-up people like me, and maybe for some of you, too. So we hold them close, and they squeeze us back, and we are thankful for these days and nights when we can keep the darkness safely at bay. We listen for their voices all the same, and we pray they know we'll always be there, that we'll always come running to their cries, as far as our legs will carry us.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

On Graduation and All The Rest of It

This time of year always brings to mind my own graduation experiences, which are paltry. I was valedictorian of my high-school class, but several teachers, administrators, and other denizens of public-school officialdom felt it best that I not speak. My Latin-conscious friends pointed out that this made me a "valetorian." They thought it was funny to declare out loud which syllable I was missing. I did not find this funny.

Not raised to think much of ceremony, I skipped my undergraduate commencement at the University of North Carolina. To this day I don't know who delivered the address. I skipped my University of Michigan graduation too. I can only imagine what sort of nut they let talk.

I have attended other people's graduations, however. They are usually stuffy, tiresome affairs, which is exactly the sort of thing we need more of in civic life. If you think about it, if you consider that greater attention to ceremony might spare us all the spectacle of perfectly normal schoolchildren dressing like fools and whores and mumbling when they speak to their elders, then you might agree about the importance of ceremony. A few more stuffy, dressy social occasions would be a small price to pay if in return every boy in America would pull up his pants and start wearing his baseball cap straight.

So I have attended graduations, but until recently I had never spoken at one. A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to speak at a graduation of sorts, a final lecture in a program for super-sharp young people in which I have played a small teaching role for the past year. When I sat down to compose my notes, it hit me how little wisdom I have to share, and further, how little any of us retains from a speech. I nearly gave up the task altogether. Let's face it: most commencement speeches could be profitably replaced with a dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss's I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew.

I was close to packing Eli's big Dr. Seuss book for my trip and calling it good, but I dug a little deeper and dredged up a speech. All of the foregoing, you now realize, perhaps regretfully, is simply a lead-in to this excerpt from my first-ever (and likely last) commencement (sort of) address (if you can call it that):

So here we are: you wondering what I'm going to say next, and me wondering what I can possibly say that you'll remember as far as the bathroom, let alone next week or next month or on the day that you might actually need it. This whole enterprise of talking, when you consider it from that perspective — not what we can say, but what they will remember — seems so hopeless that I wonder why we bother at all.

And I think the truth is that when someone writes a letter, or a novel, or composes a speech, he is really talking to himself as much as to you, and you in turn are listening because you are hoping, beneath the well-turned phrase and the dramatic pause, that he will mutter something at himself that is a surprise to the both of you.

In that spirit, I'll start with something that should be no surprise, and see if I can't creep up sideways to some kind of truth, which is the only way, I think, we can ever let ourselves see the truths we are probably most in need of seeing.

And that something is this: each of us is going to die. . .

We know we are going to die, but we are afraid to look it full in the face. At this point you can be forgiven for thinking that I am going to give you an insipid little piece of advice, like: "Live as if there is no tomorrow."

I want you to slap me if I ever start talking like that. In this case the advice is particularly bad, I think, because the problem isn't that we live like there is an endless supply of tomorrows. Yes, we do tend to live like there are plenty of tomorrows, but the problem with not contemplating our mortality is that we end up making our tomorrows stingy, and small. We get so wedded to life, so fearful that something might disturb it, that we rob ourselves — and the people we love, and the people who need us — of living.

After a bit more blabbing I read to them from Frederick Buechner's "The Calling of Voices," which has this beautiful admonition: "...the voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness." A bit later, Buechner writes: "In a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain, our gladness in our work is as much needed as we ourselves need to be glad."

To sum up, my first and only ever commencement address was me doing my best to channel Buechner. A job is often done best, after all, by not doing it yourself. At the end, I wanted to give them a benediction, which felt foolish, because I'm not a preacher, and that place certainly isn't a church, and I don't think most of them cared to hear a sermon. But a benediction is the good word, the speaker's blessing on the listener, offered if only in thanks for the arduous task of listening. So this was my blessing for them, and, now that I think about it, for you as well:

My hope for each of you is that you find your place in the world, because it is waiting for you to find it. May you discover your place, and do what is good and honorable and just, and be battered but not broken. May you know and be known. May you find grace when you need it most, and reject bitterness when it is most tempting. Most of all, at the end of your journey, may you find peace.

It's no Dr. Seuss, but maybe some of them will remember it all the same.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Since We All Have Our Exceptions to Commandment Six...

The more I drive, the more I am convinced that the road ragers have a good point. I don't mean those grip-the-wheel-a-little-tighter-and-complain-to-my-therapist-about-it road ragers; I'm talking about the ones who mow down ten or twelve of their fellow citizens with a machine gun. I'm pretty sure that each of their deserving victims, furthermore, is sitting in the passing lane when he meets his maker, going five miles per hour below the speed limit and text-messaging someone.

posted by Woodlief | link | (7) comments

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Brief Primer on the Perniciousness of Government

Yesterday my local NPR station (government-funded, I know, and thank goodness they exist) ran a brief piece on how my local energy company has been muscled into investing in windmills (those who've read Cervantes understand how fitting this is), in return for the hope that our state will eventually let them build something that actually generates power, like a coal-fired generator. The catch is that the energy company announced it will be seeking permission from the state to increase rates 15 percent, to pay for — can you see it coming? — the windmill farm.

This put me in mind of how many states require that health insurers who want to serve customers within their borders provide not just basic health coverage, but funding for things like hairpieces for cancer patients, and podiatry services. Now hairpieces for cancer patients are a good thing, and so are healthy feet, but the effect of such mandates is much the same as if your state forbids you from buying an old pickup with no AC or stereo. Yes, an old stinky truck without an AC is crummy in the summer, but it beats walking, which is what you'll be doing if you're only allowed to buy a Lexus.

We don't think about it that way, however, we simply think about how everyone ought to have everything they need, immediately. And then we drive up the price of health care, or energy, and when people can't afford it, we declare a "market failure." Then some officious Ivy Leaguer conveniently emerges with a blueprint for rational government provision of the service.

And then the next thing you know, we're France. And that, my friends, is just plain un-American.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Writing the Kennedys

I'm not sure why Kennedys are on my mind today. I recently read an excerpt from Thurston Clarke's new book on Robert Kennedy in Vanity Fair. I'm not sure which is worse, Clarke's prose, or the fact that the cynicism, fecklessness, and opportunism that characterized this particular Kennedy's political life shines through despite Clarke's best efforts. Perhaps the most revealing part of this article is in the contributor's notes (in the print magazine), where Clarke explains:

"Almost everyone I interviewed, including press and aides, choked up — even people who had only met him for a few hours."

I'm no historian, but it seems to me that if everyone you interview is that enthralled with your subject, then perhaps you don't have a wide enough sample. But perhaps Clarke is more "historian" than historian, in the Sorensen and Schlesinger sense. It seems that most everyone who writes about the Kennedys is either in thrall to a remembered (and reconstructed) sense of what they represented, or in the grip of irrational hatred toward them. Can anyone recommend some evenhanded books on the Kennedy clan?

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Ted Kennedy, Beneficiary of Markets

Turns out I'm not the only one, upon learning of Senator Kennedy's dreadful brain tumor, who found it revealing that he didn't go to Canada for treatment, despite his long advocacy of socialized medicine. Instead, he went to a special center at Duke University for surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation at Massachusetts General Hospital.

But then that's standard procedure for the privileged Kennedy, who routinely voted against allowing poor children stuck in Washington, D.C.'s miserable government school system to benefit from vouchers, even though he and most of his clan would never dream of using said schools. I've always thought that every politician opposed to vouchers ought to be forced to send his own children to government schools, and perhaps the same standard could be applied to advocates of government-run health care, though in this case it would be a death sentence, and hence inhumane.

So thank goodness, for his sake and ours, that Senator Kennedy never got a firm grip on the throat of the U.S. health care system. Above all, we can pray that his suffering and fear will be assuaged, and that he has a return to health, and perhaps with it a dose of wisdom.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Monday, June 2, 2008

Traveling Blues

So me and the boys are flying down the highway in my truck.

[Editorial aside: there is little better, men, than being able to type that sentence and have it be true.]

Like I said, we're flying down the highway in my truck. My full-sized pickup truck, to be more precise. Me. And my boys. The sun is low over the trees on the distant Kansas horizon, and we're sweaty and tired after a long day of man stuff. I turn up Blues Traveler's "Crash Burn." This is good, driving-with-the-boys-in-a-truck-like-real-men-do music.

So then Caleb says to me: "Dad, this sounds like old-timey music. Like from the 1990's."

Got that, everyone? Richard Marx, Celine Dion, and Melissa Etheridge are old-timey. Caleb may actually be more right than wrong, now that I think about it.

Still, I prefer to think of some music as timeless. Which is why we were listening to Blues Traveler, and why Caleb has an Oscar Peterson CD in his bedroom, and why I'm hoping all those violin (read: fiddle) and piano lessons naturally turn into a folk/jazz/blues ensemble when the boys are older. But until that day, here's some old-timey music for your Monday:

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Song that made me glad to be alive on a Sunday afternoon

"Sweet Thing," from Van Morrison's Astral Weeks album.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments