Monday, May 25, 2009

Who is Joe Chip?

I wanted to say a few words about the type of branding people willing participate with, in conclusion (probably. I'm exploding all over blogger today for some reason.) I'm not talking about the fetish, or at least not directly. I am talking about how one associates one's self with labels, brands, celebrities, causes, movements,ect.
First of all, like I have been saying about Twitter for a while now, it is not the thing itself which is good, bad, vapid, destructive, wasteful. It is what people do with it.
People are going to brand no matter what. It is a necessary form of shorthand and it is something that humans have done since the dawn of recorded civilization. I have some that I have come to that serve to clear up any confusion and to direct things ("married heterosexual" comes to mind). I have some that are very helpful but I keep more of an open end on ("Christian" comes to mind. Sometimes I put on my Reformed Baptist hat, sometimes my Lutheran hat, sometimes my Quaker hat. I really do own a Quaker hat, by the way, but Laurie never lets me literally wear it.) Some are brand holes that I have never filled. (I have a very difficult time explaining which political party I most sympathize with.) I think that this is good.
It surprises and kind of worries me when people have all of their brands in a row and are unwilling to accept the slightest variation. First that suggests to me the unwillingness to think further on a subject. Second, take, for example, age. In my late 20s I felt a strong pull, one that I expect a lot of other young men in modern America feel, to hold on to adolescent irresponsibility. The problem gets to be when you reach middle age and still hold on to that. Things get a bit Death in Venice at that point. So some brands will change on you whether you like it or not.
Another example of this might be Martin Luther. In fact, a good deal of history can be viewed through the filter of "people who looked at a feature of the brand and said `hang on a minute here...'" Of course we know from church history that when that happens the brand doesn't tend to mutate, rather a new brand must needs be formed. Sometimes this is with the best motivations (more accurate views of scripture) and sometimes with the worst.
We must be willing to mutate because a time is coming when we will need to mutate.
Another thing about branding is that one must remember that the map is not the territory. You can know all of the brands of a person and not know a whole lot about their character. It's a bit of a defense mechanism, a form of abstaining from accepting responsibility. You can know someone who holds all of the brands that you like and not know if they are nice, good, decent, or will come out at 3am to help you fix a flat tire. I learned this early on when I discovered that just because someone likes the music of Tom Waits does not mean I will like that person at all at all.
And I would suggest that the converse is also true. This is one that is a very fine and important lesson in modern life. Just because someone holds all of the opposite brands dear doesn't mean they are horrible. They may be some of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet.
In short and in light of that last post I wanted to take a moment and say that it is important to keep an eye on our brands. What do they say? What don't they say? And while other people's brands are helpful in some ways, in some ways they can be
decidedly unhelpful. We ought to be able to pick our brands, shift our brands, change our brands if we need to, not to hold so tight to our brands that we let them change us in unhelpful ways or without our even realizing it has changed us.


I was on Facebook looking at a quiz that my step-daughter Gina took on "How Well Do You Know Me." As I so often find myself doing I started to craft one for myself but quickly gave up. Partly because I really want to go on a hike and don't seem to have the focus to come up with brilliant questions. Partly because so many of the suggested questions illustrate my earlier point. So much of what we are is wrapped up in stuff. Here is a partial list from the Facebook quiz suggestions:

What is my favorite pizza topping?
Favorite childhood game is ________.
What body part would I like to get a tattoo on?
What color suits me best?
I secretly would like to be a ________ for a day?
What is my sexiest feature?
My favorite flavor of ice cream is ________.
What country would I like to live in?
What is my middle name?
What time am I usually in bed by?
What would I be willing to eat for 10,000 dollars?
Who would I most like to meet?
How many times have I traveled out of the country?
If I was running out of my burning house, what item would I grab?
What is my favorite store to shop at?
What am I scared of?
What would be the perfect present for me?
How many boy/girlfiends have I had?
What song would I choose to sing at a karaoke bar?
What is my favorite type of music?
My favorite sport to watch is ________.
What did I want to be when I was little?
What would I dress as for Halloween?
What is my favorite holiday?
My favorite drink is ________.
What is my dream car?
If I had to eat the same kind of food for a month, what type would it be?
What would I name my first child?
Who is my favorite Disney character?
Favorite fast food restaurant?
What cell phone network do I use?
My favorite show on TV?
What was my nickname growing up?
What is my favorite movie?
What city was I born in?

If I knew all of those answers, would I really know a person or would I know the brands they like to associate themselves with?

And now for something completely different

Some pictures from the past week. Here's Laurie's Mom with the presents we brought her for her birthday.

And Schubert was long overdue for a bath this week. I washed him in the sink.

The only part Schubert didn't like was when Ginger got too curious.

Puritanical Reactions

Yesterday was my final Puritan History class. I ended with a sum up of American Puritanism and the legacy of the Puritans in America, which largely seems to be that they are a group of people to say snide things about and distance one's self from as much as possible. I started by talking about something I saw in one of Tony's history textbooks. It was a column where they had a quote about resolutions on one side by Jonathan Edwards and on the other by Benjamin Franklin. Edwards' had a good deal to do with self-discipline, self-evaluation, self-control and the merits thereof. Franklin talked about how he would not wish to reach perfection because then he would become intolerable. I still remember Tony's reaction to Franklin's quote. He said "what a jerk."

I come not to slam Benjamin Franklin. Although I do suggest that his side won. There is a national church in America. It is the Church of Personal Freedom. Again, this is not a finger wagging session as I am well aware how deep I am in that particular Venn Diagram. Just cut in front of me in line and see.

I was talking about this to Laurie, and after I get this out I really promise to retire this story/allegory/metaphor from now on. But I was talking about the able bodied homeless guys in the beat-up camper a few months ago parked across the street, illegally camping, smoking crack right on the curb in broad daylight on lawn chairs they'd set up, and either cussing out or wolf whistling at anyone who came out of their houses. And then they were aggressively belligerent to the police when they inevitably showed up. I told Laurie that that is the logical end of the cult of personal freedom. To do whatever you feel like no matter who it harms with no regard for law, dignity, decency, kindness, or compassion (insert remark on modern American foreign policy here.)

Do not get me wrong. I have no desire to lose any personal freedoms. I love the freedoms we enjoy and I think I join the bulk of my fellow citizens when I say that I would hate to see any of them disappear. I love my country and, frankly, don't fear my government all that much. That is not what I am talking about.

What I am talking about is the culture of coveting. I am talking about how we are carefully trained by advertisers, schools, which prepare children for a life of consumption, and the entertainment industry to keep consuming. How much personal freedom does one really have when one is harnessed to the heavy yoke of one's immediate desires? Using myself as an example (because I don't pretend to suggest that I am anywhere near immune to such things) if I shun Megaplex theaters, the Eminem comeback, American Idol and so forth, but (in the land of make believe where I still have a disposable portion of my income) I would get a Kindle, the Glenn Gould boxed set, and Laurie and I would spend our evenings watching DVDs from the Criterion Collection. You see what I mean. And armed with the knowledge that this culture of coveting, which could never have supported itself more than a few decades, is collapsing upon its self... Knowing that this culture of coveting is what has, in fact, brought me to being laid off almost 2 months ago now, I still behave in the same way. Most of us will go on consuming in the same manner until 1) the whole world economic system utterly implodes upon its self with no hope of repair or 2) our hearts stop.

Let me also take a moment to say that I am not anti-capitalist. I am also not decidedly anti-any other economic system or most political systems up to and including peaceful anarchy -IN THEORY! But there is one main flaw in every economic, and governing, for that matter, system.

What about the Puritans? Why am I going on about economics and politics? Laurie posted a quote by John Adams a while back: "We have no government armed with powers capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." I think that the Puritans would wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I found this quote a rare instance of a founding father looking to what was good about the American past and looking to bring it to the American future. That has ended. Systems don't work because people are wicked. Systems don't work because this is a fallen and sinful world. People are, in essence, ungovernable.

Ah, I hear some of you taking in breath to ask if this is where I talk about the greatness and perfection of Christianity. Clearly, if you have that in mind to ask at this point, you have never had any interactions with the governing bodies of a church. This is why Christ reminds us to remove the board from our own eye before we try to pick the speck from someone else's eyes.

What do we do? Well, last week I talked about how we ought to look to the great cloud of witness to run the race that is set before us, and about how we may must needs content ourselves with being one voice crying out in the wilderness (and probably several other metaphors from scripture pulled wholesale out of context.) What we do is to live utterly consumed with love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance. Ah, that last one is what Laurie and I plan on naming our hypothetical daughter. Self-control brings up the rear of that list. Self-control is the opposite and antidote to the current economic crisis.

And, at the end of it all, what does this say practically to me, Paul Mathers, in my daily life? What have I gleaned from this long study of the Puritans? I think what I take are two lessons. One is to cloak one's self in the truth constantly, daily, earnestly, and fight falsehood like a wounded,cornered badger. But temper that with the overlying lesson, the most important lesson, the superobjective as it were from the more successful of the Puritans. That lesson is grace. When Christ atoned for our sins, allowed us a restored relationship with God, imputed His perfect righteousness to us fallen men, the flood of grace that washes over us is beyond our comprehension. Believer, you are entirely the product of undeserved grace, and you continue to be in constant need of said grace. I think what I learned most from the Puritans, some by positive and some by negative example, is to be ever diligent to walk in grace.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Celebration of Information Participation

Yesterday I had my penultimate Puritan history class and very soon I shall write more on this. At the moment I really only want to direct you to an idea, a 350 year old quote from one I perhaps flatter myself in considering simpatico, but I assure you that it is born from the deepest levels of respect I contain. This week I wrapped up the legacy of Puritanism in the United Kingdom (next week the legacy of Puritanism in America.) My normal format for the class was to discuss one or two Puritans in particular and view the history of the movement through the lens of that person's life. The glaring exception was the week on the Salem Witch Trials.
It felt a little lonely this week. I had the sudden realization that the people I've been surrounding myself with for the past few months are long dead and largely forgotten. Also the legacy of the Puritans in the United Kingdom is not exactly a raging success story. It ends in compromise and about 300 years of soaking toast in milk. In the end I came to the conclusion that the Puritans had some major flaws and some very ugly sides, but they were not by any means the historical villains that a good portion of the modern West likes to paint them. There were many that I love dearly and feel privileged to have had the opportunity to know more about. Richard Sibbes and his loving graciousness. John Bunyan's longsuffering. Thomas Cartwright's revolutionary streak. Gentle old William Perkins. Brilliant Jonathan Edwards. Of course, there were also several I couldn't imagine even sharing a meal with civilly. Many of those were the American branch and, oddly enough, specifically the Mathers.
But I very much appreciated the opportunity to hear different ideas from the mouths of the ones who hold those ideas. I think that is always a profitable and noble endeavor. In fact, I found a wonderful quote by John Milton in my studies. I wanted to take a moment and share it with all of you.

In 1644, John Milton made an impassioned plea for toleration in England through a pamphlet. Milton wrote, "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for not without dust and heat." England was reputed abroad to be the home of liberty on Earth at the time. "I could recount what I have seen and heard in other countries... where I have sat among their learned men, for that honor I had, and been counted happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom as they supposed England was, while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning amongst them was brought; that this was it which had damped the glory of Italian wits, that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licencers thought. And though I knew that England then was groaning loudest under the prelatical yoke, nevertheless I took it as a pledge of future happiness that other nations were so persuaded of her liberty. Nor is it for nothing that the grave and frugal Transylvanian sends out yearly from as far as the mountain borders of Russia and beyond Hercynian wilderness, not their youth, but their staid men, to learn our language and our theologic arts."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Long, Long Ago

Yesterday we wandered into stories of losing things through theft. I told Laurie about a time when I was in my late teens and my car was broken into in front of my parent's house. They stole a few things, including a coat in the pocket of which was a copy of The Portable Woollcott which was an anthology of the writings of Alexander Woollcott put out by Viking Press in the late 1940s. Out of the whole experience that was the most heart breaking for me. Besides the fact that I loved that book and that I had lent that particular copy once to the first girl I ever had a concrete crush on, there was also the knowledge that the person who stole the items, simply by virtue of their actions, I knew would have no use whatsoever for that wonderful little volume. I imagined through grinding teeth the small book being discarded within a one mile radius of my home and never seeing it again. About a decade later I found another copy of it in a used book store and cried.
When I was in junior high I discovered the works of Alexander Woollcott through Harpo Marx's autobiography. Woollcott's works can be a little dated, can be a bit too purple for some people's taste, but I found and still find him to be excruciatingly beautiful. I cannot stress enough that I cannot recommend him highly enough. He passes his eyes for you to borrow for a short time and you find that instead of vitreous humor they contain wonder.
He was a very well known war correspondent for Stars and Stripes in WWI. He came back to become a theater critic of great importance for the NY Times, the New Yorker when it started, and finally for CBS the radio station. He become even more important after the Schubert brothers (no relation to Franz or my dog) banned him from their theater for writing unfavorable reviews of some of their shows (because he cared deeply about the art and would not permit bad productions on his watch) and found themselves on the business end of a massive boycott. When they ended the ban on Woollcott, Woollcott received a standing ovation when he entered the theater and sat as a member of the audience! How often does that happen?
His fame increased with a radio show called The Town Crier. I have a few rickety old cassette tapes of those radio shows. They are delightful. The show was pretty much Woollcott talking about things that he felt like talking about, things he felt compelled to share with the world. He bought an island in Vermont where he would summer, inviting the world's best and brightest to join him. It is possible that Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney would not have reached the level of fame they reached without Woollcott (although those are just cubes on the tip of the iceberg of the luminaries with whom he shared intimate friendship.) It is also possible that we would not have come to the aid of England against Hitler's Blitz had Woollcott's voice not been broadcasting from London at the time. He was a rabid anti-fascist and a rabid supporter of Churchill and Roosevelt. He died of a heart attack while on the air in a radio panel discussion of Hitler in which he said "Germany was the cause of Hitler as much as Chicago is responsible for the Tribune." At one point in the show he stopped talking mid-sentence and scribbled on a chit of paper "I am sick." Noel Coward remarked at the funeral that a more healthy Woollcott would have written "I am ill." On the way down to the ambulance Woollcott pulled his hat over his eyes. Friends later remembered a favorite story of Woollcott's about a boxing match around the turn of the century where there were almost riots because the man who was supposedly K.O.ed pulled his bowler hat over his eyes to shield from the sun. The match was rigged.
By the time I finished high school I owned what I assume is probably the largest collection of Woollcott's writing in a private collection on the west coast. Again, not a lot of people read him anymore and his works are not in print although they were once in such an abundance of print that you can find him in most used bookstores. And having been in such wide print as well as losing popularity in the past half century since his death, his books tend to be cheap.
Last night I pulled out The Portable Woollcott and read to Laurie his review of Mourning Becomes Electra which, even if you don't know the play (I vaguely remember reading it in college), the review is a study of human nature, the modern world, the arts, and social dynamics. Along with that it is a hilarious review filled with bits like "I must add that I saw the play when it was being listlessly performed for the hundred and fifteenth time before an audience so bronchial that the infuriated players doubtless felt the only real sin the Mannons ever committed was in building that pillared mansion of theirs on the edge of a frog pond."
Of course, the whole book is not old play reviews although those alone are worth the price. It also has accounts of murders, war correspondence, travelogues (he travelled to at least two space-time nations we cannot: Stalinist Russia and pre-Mao China), remembrances, character sketches, history and acres of nostalgia.
At the end of it Laurie said "It's clear that you've read a lot of Woollcott." I assume because we both can read like we grind a few pages of the OED into our breakfast smoothies every morning.
If I were to point people toward an author, it would be Alexander Woollcott. Today he is rarely mentioned outside of people who have never read him parroting (or occasionally misparroting) a few of his bon mots. Doubtless your Tweet Homepage has brought to your eyes "All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral, or fattening." Or possibly "I'm tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn't work. Of course it doesn't work. We are supposed to work it." Or, if the person is feeling the motivational itch "There is no such thing in anyone's life as an unimportant day." I am here to tell you that Woollcott is far too rich of a feast to relegate into morsels. To reapply here what Woollcott says of over performed plays "but after all such folly is only one aspect of the witless jig we have all been dancing on the red-hot stove lid of American life." Please do go find and read some Alexander Woollcott.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Lonesome Highway

Yesterday morning I taught my class on Jonathan Edwards. It went extremely well, not to gloat, but more to draw attention to the subject.
But I was struck by the cognitive dissonance in studying for the class. Chico is becoming a rougher town, especially in the past two years and especially since the economic downturn. On Thursday we decided against going to Farmer's Market partly on account of the large fights that have or almost have broken out at Market lately. Two days ago, after studying, Laurie and I took a walk to talk about Jonathan Edwards. We walked past the dive bar 2 blocks from us and the one 3 blocks from us. We walked past the soup kitchen and the tattoo parlors (not to cast aspersions. Bear in mind that I am marked with ink for life thanks to past decisions with permanent consequences. Thank you very much, young and impetuous Paul!) Past the college children strutting like French aristocracy and the shiftless basking in the glow of cheap highs.
I am not meaning to wag fingers. Not at all. Mearly to point out that the once quaint and decent little college town is going the way of all flesh. It is a time of economic downturn, therefore crime is on the rise as is desperation and, needless to say, the television has been slowly undermining behavioral skills for about three generations now.
I look at Jonathan Edwards' time and the usual question of the moralist comes to mind: what happened? Of course, I am not too ignorant of history to know the many answers to that question, nor am I naive enough to think that people are somehow more depraved than ever (although as I heard John Dominic Crossan quip last night, people do seem to be far more efficient at their depravity than ever before.)
A few modest examples:

* Laurie pointed me at an article on the diaries kept by young girls. Around 100 years ago the bulk of their content was concerned with the quality of their character. Today the bulk of their content is concerned with the quality of their physical appearance. What do I mean to suggest by mentioning this? Well, I think I mean to suggest that young women have been carefully taught to preen above all. This is not an original observation. Let's move on.

* Likewise we know from history that Jonathan Edwards' self-disciplined style, especially in creating and sticking to resolutions, was continued on through the next generation. We see this sort of behavior in the founding fathers of our country. I do want to take a moment here to put a fine point on something. This self-discipline was practiced by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was not a Christian man at all at all. He was not a pillar of Christian virtue or Christian faith or certainly Christian behavior. I say this to say that you can perfect your self-discipline, you can be perfectly mannered, you can exude virtue and you can still be skipping merrily down the primrose path to perdition. In short, we are not saved by works. We do not get time off for good behavior. The Gospel is salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Adhering to right resolutions, good manners, and good behavior is like flossing as far as your spiritual life is concerned. Sure, it's a fine idea but it really doesn't indicate a whole lot one way or the other about the condition of your soul (and, at risk of speaking for the dead, I daresay Edwards would heartily agree with me on this point.)
Edwards was a bridge from the past, taking the best of Puritanism, and looking forward to what might be best for the future.
Which rather put me in the mind of a song I made Laurie listen to the other night. It was an Arlo Guthrie song about the Watergate scandal. I grew up listening to a Pete Seeger/Arlo Guthrie album (well, among other things. I wasn't part of some weird experiment. It was among the things I listened to as a child) on which this song appeared. It's called Presidential Rag and I cry almost every time I hear it (if you're going to seek it out, do not find the album version with the full rock band. That robs so much from the raw emotion of the solo piano live performance versions.)
And in that song there is this stanza:
"Mothers are still weeping for their boys who went to war
and fathers are still asking what the whole damned thing was for.
And people still are hungry and people still are poor.
An honest week of work these days don't feed the kids no more.
And schools are still like prisons 'cause you don't learn how to live.
and everybody wants to take nobody wants to give."

And I was reminded of an article we read about how the economy is bouncing back as I sat on the couch still laid off and unemployed with the future still ahead of me as though through a plume of smoke. And I thought the exact opposite. I thought "Nothing has changed."

* Which reminds me of an op-ed column (also to file under "Paul reads a lot of atheists") by Kurt Vonnegut several years ago which I always loved over the perennial kerfuffle over having the Ten Commandments in courtrooms. Vonnegut observed that this did not seem to be orthodox Jews arguing for this. It tended to be conservative Christians. He offered the suggestion that they might be more consistent with their beliefs if they put the Beatitudes up in courtrooms. Can you imagine coming into a courthouse and seeing this in big bold letters behind the judge?:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

* Laurie also pointed me at an article about the church. Specifically those who break off into not going to church at all because of the failings of the church and, instead, of a Sunday morning going on a hike with a Rob Bell book or perhaps calling it church when one hangs out with two buddies and talks about the spiritual implications of something written by the ancient Greeks. Of course anyone can understand that these groups were not who St. Paul was addressing when he wrote letters to "The Church."

I mentioned to Laurie my experience with the homeless people smoking crack on the curb across the street from our house and hurling swears at me last month. I commented that this never happened to Jonathan Edwards. Upon reflection, if I'm not wrong about that specifically I think I was at the very least misguided in the spirit of my comment. The Golden Age did not exist. People have been doing wicked things from the Eden tree on. They just, with apologies to Mr. Wilde, didn't used to do it in the town square and scare the horses.
I talked a bit about form, formalism and the loss thereof although I really don't think that figures in largely. Or rather if the loss of form and formalism is part of this conversation it is purely symptomatic.
Anyway, at the end of it this is where I found myself. We are exhorted to look to the great cloud of witness that came before us. While we may never get to be a Jonathan Edwards (he studied for 13 hours every day) we can certainly seek to emulate him. In fact I highly encourage people to look to the church fathers for encouragement and models of godly men who earnestly sought out the truth of scripture, the advancement of the Gospel, and the glory of God.
But I don't think we can count on influencing anyone. If the Lord pulls His hand away no amount of formalism is going to cure a depraved society. If the Lord pulls His hand away nothing we do is going to cure a depraved society.
And then that morning, after my class, Pat taught on Matthew 7:13 "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."
I guess all of this may be once again flaunting both my Calvinism and my Quakerism. I think we all ought to love one another and show grace as much as humanly possible. I think that we ought to seek to have the best of all possible worlds through love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance (and never through legislating morality and certainly never by hating sinners. The concept of "Hate the sin, not the sinner" is extra-scriptural. If anything it would be "love the sinner. I am a sinner too. Let me tell you about what Christ did for us." People who sin are fountains from which sin flows. It's like saying "I love sin fountains, but I sure hate that stuff that comes out of them all the time. It is very hard to disassociate the sin from the sinner. In case you hadn't noticed, to "the sinner" that sentiment almost always comes across as "I hate you." Christ says that He "came not to call the righteous, but sinners." I know I ruffle feathers when I say things like that because of course sin is an attack on God and to be hated. We are in the business of loving and spreading the good news of Christ's atonement. Ask yourself two questions: "Is my neighbor a sinner?" And "do I deserve one lick of the grace that's been shown me?") But remember that truth is about the hardest sell there is. As I read Edwards' remarkable "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" I was struck by how much love went into that sermon. So often it is painted as "hellfire and brimstone" and the model of fearmongering sermons. It is not! It is a sermon with heartbroken love for anyone who would listen.
There is a part of me that thinks about, before the money runs out, going down to the hardware store, buying some wood, then going to the sign printing shop and printing up a huge sign that reads "The End Is Nigh!" and going each morning down to City Plaza and marching around downtown with the sign. Although, really, I think I am probably more useful and properly focused in spending my days looking for work which will support my family and, as Schweitzer said, living my example. Although there is probably a book in the experiences that carrying that sign would bring.
You may find yourself the only voice crying out in the wilderness.
But what of it. Play on.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Everything I Need To Know About Economics I Learned From Ira Glass

For your general amusement, I am posting the "explanation of bank crisis" I wrote to help Tony with his econ homework. I don't know if I quite got all of it right. Mainly I learned what I know from listening to This American Life and the Planet Money podcasts. I am no economist. So, please bear that in mind.

Before the Clinton Administration, this is how someone would get a mortgage. They would go to the mortgage company with proof of their income, savings, all of the money that had at their disposal. They would have to have a large sum for the down payment on the house and the mortgage, ideally, would cover the rest of the price of the house. The bank/mortgage company would determine how big of a mortgage they could afford to pay back monthly. This would determine the size/price of the house they could buy. If they didn't make enough money to pay enough back each month, they wouldn't get enough money to buy the house.
The Clinton Administration deregulated the mortgate industry which allowed more risky loans. This seemed like a good idea at the time because more money would flow, it would be freer enterprise and so on.
There was a huge boom in the housing market. People were buying houses left and right and the price of houses kept going through the roof. So mortgage companies, in hopes of making more money, kept giving out riskier and riskier loans. More loans means more money in the pockets of the mortgages companies. They started giving out loans to people without making the people prove how much money they have and make. In short, people who did not have the money to pay for their loans could get loans. If they paid their mortgage, Yatzhee. If they couldn't pay their mortgages, we get the mess we're all in.
Let's say I am going to start a bank. I have $10 of my own. Laurie has $100 to deposit in a savings account. This is the capital. Now Gina comes along and wants to buy a house for $100 (a very small house.) I loan her the $100, she will pay me back with interest and anything over and above what is Laurie's money I get to keep. That is how banks make money (in essence. It's a little more complicated than this, but this is the basic idea.) Now, time comes for Gina to pay me back and she says "Oh, sorry, I don't have the money." You see the trouble that puts me in. So I take the house from her and try to sell it to make up Laurie's money.
Problem being, if people all over the place did this, the price of houses would drop dramatically and I would not be able to sell the house for enough to give Laurie her money.
Here's where the government comes in. So, these banks are failing in this manner and the government proposes a bailout. They just had a bailout of some of the largest money lenders in the country and it did not go well. They took the bailout money and did whatever the hell they wanted with it. There was public outrage. It was a debacle. So, this time the government is going to take the tax payer's money, the money that we all pay in taxes, and they are going to buy into the banks. An analogy would be that the first time it was like they gave someone the money to pay their rent and the person spent it on booze or something. The second time, the bank bailout, is more like they are paying someone's rent and, in return, they not only get to move in, but they can kick out the tenant if they want to. The government owns part of the banks now. This keeps the banks afloat but there are ramifications for the future that some people don't like. For example, the banks are not free, independant businesses, they are accountable to the government and the bank owners don't like it because the government can kick them out.
So, anyway, along with this, the banks are not giving out any loans. It has become far too risky. This is a problem because a good portion of American businesses run off of loans. It is how they rent commercial spaces, how they often get their supplies, and so on. Businesses fail. Then other businesses start to fail that held them up. For example, say there are a dozen restaurants in town who need to take out some kind of loan to get something that will keep them in business. Suddenly the banks aren't giving them loans. Add to that the fact that everyone in America is terrified. They've watched their investments lose a huge amount of money. They've watched their retirement funds almost disappear. People don't feel like going out to eat anymore. The restaurants fail. Suddenly produce distributors aren't getting the kind of business they used to get. They aren't making enough money to pay all of their employees so they lay some of them off to try to stay in business. This is why I am here writing this right now and not on a forklift in Durham.
So, there is a group, a branch of the government called the FDIC. That stands for Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Suppose a bank is failing, it no longer has the money that people have put into the bank. The FDIC insures the people that they will take care of it should the bank fail. Usually what this means is the FDIC will come into a bank that is failing, very secretly because you don't want the public to know that the bank is failing (if they find out they might all run on the bank, trying to get their money out, and you'll have a huge economic disaster. This is one of the things that happened during the Great Depression.) They will take over the bank, say on a Friday, call another bank to get them to take over this bank, and that is why downtown the old Washington Mutual now has a sign that says Chase. The FDIC is there to insure that banks do not fail and that there is not a run on the banks. It insures people's deposits up to $250,000. This was started in the Great Depression and backs our savings (those of us who still have any savings left after this mess) with the full security of the US Government.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

quick check in

I thought I ought to check in over here on my blogger. I don't nearly often enough whereas I seem to post incessantly to my twitter:
and to my livejournal:
This is supposed to be my protein journal. I am the first to admit to my sweet tooth.

So, tomorrow we hit the 3 week mark from my lay off. I have been far from idle. I have covered and recovered Chico with resumes daily and constantly. I have had one interview and I have many leads. I find positions I am qualified for and apply for them daily (even today when I spent the bulk of the day helping Laurie at her job.) In short, while the belt is tightening a notch or two for the moment (I try not to dwell on it) it seems to me that it is only a small matter of time before I find something.

I have started work on my book. Laurie and I received equipment today for our new secret project (and we cannot thank Christov enough.) More on that soon. Not to mention the baked goods I've made.

So, life is decent and blessings rain upon us like white lotus petals. We still have food on the table and a roof over head. Laurie has been so good and encouraging to me through this. I am blessed.

Monday, May 4, 2009


We just finished Mozart's Idomeneo on DVD. This was the 2006 Salzburg Festival production with the fantastic Ramon Vargas in the title role. It was phenomenal. I cannot encourage you enough to seek out a copy of this production and enjoy it.

The set design was stunning as were the costumes. The negative space pulled attention to the action (especially in the scenes where the four leads all sang the same lament, each having separate meaning for their lament) while the catwalk around the orchestra, the use of flowing fabric suggesting the sea and the removable screen/abstract seashore behind kept the set from being stark. I loved loved loved having Neptune as a silent, invisible, menacing figure lurking around the action throughout. While all of the cast were beyond the pale, Ramon Vargas (Idomeneo) and Anja Harteros (Electra) were quite simply marvelous.

Laurie and I agree that this was by far the best opera production we have seen and for me that includes those I saw before ever knowing Laurie. Which is high praise from a confirmed Wagnerite.
Do yourself a favor. Find this production.