Saturday, October 9, 2010

When Both Roads Lead Home

Steve Bruce, the facilitator of our St. John's Episcopal Church men's retreat this weekend, began by explaining the difference between decision and discernment. Do we want Chevy or Ford, blue or red, steak or fish? Decision. Move your parents into your house or assisted living? Move your family to another state to be closer to loved ones? Accept a promotion when you really love the job you have? These are choices ripe for discernment -- a process of finding the outcome that moves us closer to God and our neighbor, the choice that matches our estimation of what God wants for us.

The right answer can end up being different from what we thought we wanted, at least at first. As Steve described it to us 15 seekers gathered in a circle at a golf resort in suburban San Diego, discernment is different from making a moral choice because we're usually choosing not between right or wrong but between two goods. It's also different from the classic lone-wolf model of American male decision-making, because by definition we can't do discernment by ourselves. God's part of the conversation, of course, but so's the community. Discernment entails putting as much stock in how others see us and our dilemmas as we do ourselves.

AAs (who often are the most spiritually sophisticated among us, since a mature relationship with God has become a requisite of survival) understand this as a willingness to submit themselves to a higher power as well as to regular accountability in a group setting where questions and observations can be severe (if also, usually, loving). Asking for and accepting others' judgment and insights can be scary. It can also be freeing, once we release ourselves to the belief that God and the Holy Spirit have us and all things (even our anxieties, fears, illnesses, broken relationships, joblessness, bankruptcies) well in hand.

We had teaching and discussion sessions Friday night and Saturday morning and evening, and we'll share Holy Eucharist together Sunday morning before heading home. From this summary you may have discerned that Saturday afternoon was set aside for what used to appear on the schedule of overachieving secret napper Richard Nixon as "staff time." I asked a buddy in his 40s when he'd last had a weekend afternoon off. "You mean, just for me?" he said. "I think it was when I was in graduate school."

Meeting up again before dinner, we enjoyed comparing notes on our sabbath time. Four played golf. Others hiked, worked out, played guitar, read, watched football. Several mentioned naps. I bought a bottle of water and followed the magic blue dot on my phone up Penasquitos, through wafts of afternoon BBQing and past houses already ready for Halloween, to a dead-end street called Avenida Maria (guide me, Holy Mother!), where I found a gate leading into the Black Mountain Open Space Park. The hike up a steep, rocky trail through chaparral and fragrant sage liked to kill me. I hoped for an ocean view, but not quite. But I could smell the sea, as you almost always can in San Diego. On the ridge line, I captured this image of discernment -- a fork in the trail, lying before a man with time to kill. Two good choices, surely.

I took the path that led back down to Albertson's, where I bought a loaf of sourdough bread which, standing for the last time in our sacred circle tomorrow morning, we'll consecrate as Jesus Christ's body. Thinking of ourselves as having that authority, freedom, and unity, and resisting the prevailing worldly illusions of scarcity and constraint, may be the most daring discernment of all.

The Angry Player

The New York Times describes how angry self-proclaimed outsider Carl Paladino, the GOP gubernatorial candidate in New York who pretends to be a regular guy, has gotten rich by feeding at the public trough and buying influence with politicians. By his own definition, he's why authentic regular guys should be angry about politics as usual. He also displayed the practiced politician's ability to bury the hatchet when it serves his interests by showing up at party chairman Ed Cox's birthday party. Paladino was Cox's third Republican choice for governor this year.

O.K. To Hate?

In the wake of suicides by gay young people, some ask whether the church is tacitly sanctioning bullying. The New York Times:
The Rev. Cody J. Sanders, a Baptist minister in Fort Worth, framed antigay bullying as a theological issue. “With dualistic conceptions of good and evil and hierarchical notions of values and worth,” Mr. Sanders wrote in an essay for the Web site Religion Dispatches, “it becomes easy to know who it is O.K. to hate or bully, or, seemingly more benignly, to ignore. And no institutions have done more to create and perpetuate the public disapproval of gay and lesbian people than churches.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

Where's God In That?

After a couple of Grandparents Day chapels this morning at St. John's School, I'm heading to San Diego with 15 buddies from St. John's Church for our men's retreat -- fellowship, food, golf (for some), guitars (for others), worship (but not too much, guys; don't worry), and, while we're at it, learning better how to discern God's will.

Our facilitator will be entrepreneur, spiritual director, and episcopal spouse Stephen Bruce, who genially busted my chops as a member of my discernment committee during an internship at the Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana lo! these many years ago. Man kept asking me, "So where's God in that?"

Great question, it turns it. Here's our prayer for the weekend:
Holy Father, we understand that our lives entail one decision after another, decisions that affect our family and work lives, decisions while driving and while at rest, decisions that can come out right or wrong. Our faith teaches that you are listening, cautioning, and counseling whenever we turn to you. Sometimes, we forget to listen. Other times, your voice seems hard to hear. During this weekend of fellowship, inquiry, worship, and rest, help us learn to quiet our busy minds so that we can hear your voice loud and clear. We pray in the name of our LORD Jesus Christ, Amen.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ecclesiastes 1:6-7

And so the chill, just winds of politics blow. Last week, Jerry Brown supporter Gloria Allred manufactured a crisis for Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman to try to weaken her standing with Latino voters. Today, misogynist-sounding talk by Brown and his aides could weaken his standing with women.

Republicans should note well, however, that the gist of the inadvertently taped conversation among Brown and his boys is that he may be tougher on public employee unions that Whitman.


I remember going to Tower Records in San Diego in the spring of 1978 and buying "Darkness On The Edge Of Town." I remember speeding home to Clairemont Mesa in my Chevy Vega, taking the album out of the yellow bag, unwrapping it, putting it on my roommate Daniel Shawler's turntable, and listening to it all the way through twice. I remember not liking the lean, angry, even threatening music as much as 1975's towering "Born To Run" and deciding that it didn't matter, because it was Bruce Springsteen's new album, and I'd make it my business to love it, which I did.

Tonight HBO aired a wonderful documentary about the year Springsteen and his colleagues spent in the studio grasping after a sound characterized by what he calls "apocalyptic grandeur." iTunes has just released one of a score or more of previously unreleased songs from the session, "Save My Love," with lots more to come on Nov. 16 (including a song called "The Promise," which sounds amazing, based on the snippets we heard tonight). Springsteen's a canny businessman who's extruded old material in time for Christmas before, and I'm glad, because when there's new music from the greatest rock and roller ever, even when it's old, life is good.

Peace And Work

Why are Arab Christians fleeing the Holy Land? Because political instability and violence are enemies of opportunity, according to this Reuters report:

Decades of conflict, shifting borders and occupation are the root causes of the poor economic situation that is forcing Christians to seek better lives abroad, [PNA official Hanna] Eissa said.

Rising Muslim fundamentalism, a trend across the Middle East, concerns some. But most cite Israeli occupation as the prime cause of emigration and the decline of their community.

"If there was no political problem, the economic situation would be good, so the problems are linked," Eissa said.

Stop The Olive Presses

Matthew Yglesias is amazed to discover that large numbers of Christian pilgrims visit Jerusalem.

When Christmas Was A "Popish Superstition"

Maybe we Protestants are the problem! Foreshadowing the controversy over Cordoba House (charges of nefarious foreign influence, demands that it move uptown), angry Protestants were outraged when St. Peter's Catholic Church was built in lower Manhattan beginning in 1785. On Christmas Eve in 1806, they started a riot (they were doctrinally against Christmas) in which a policeman died. Read about it here.

Not Walking And Not Blinking At The Same Time

Creative paralysis in Middle East peace efforts.

Trojan Sources

There's irony or aptness, depending on your perspective, as Dwight Chapin returns to his alma mater, the University of Southern California, to participate in a Nixon foundation co-sponsored panel discussion about President Nixon's China initiative. A 1963 USC graduate, Chapin hired classmate Donald Segretti to run dirty tricks during Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign. It was often said that they first stocked their bags of political tricks as undergraduates.

Chapin was jailed for perjury in Watergate's wake. He's making news at the Nixon library by charging that Nixon was present when chief of staff H. R. "Bob" Haldeman gave the order to create the dirty tricks unit. Until now, Nixon was never directly implicated.

Nixon's foundation is currently enjoying a Haldeman renaissance. Joining Chapin at the USC event will be Haldeman's aide Larry Higby, who also features in the library's proposed new Watergate exhibit.

I Swear I Hope It Works

If Bibi gets his way, new citizens will have to declare allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state." The oath now in force requires allegiance to the state of Israel. The new one, which has to be approved by the Knesset, embodies one of Israel's dilemmas. Arabs and other non-Jews can vote, and someday there could be enough of them to vote to change the oath back again.

Netanyahu is thought to be proposing the change because the Israeli side is pressuring the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish homeland. Maybe he's giving himself domestic political cover for a concession to the Palestinians on settlements, which would keep the peace talks alive at least for another two months.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The End Of The World At Coney Island

Folksinger and blogger Tom Russell won $60 at Del Mar (he bet on a horse named Modern Song) and went CD shopping. He bought Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs," Jimmy Webb's duets album, and the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." He writes:
My God. Have not listened to this in 20 years. I assumed it would sound like a dated psychedelic artifact. Naw. This is a record about loneliness, depression, age, death, suicide…masked in a circus-musico format. The end of the world at Coney Island, with raunch guitars, superb vocal arrangements, and gut wrenching singing. It’s the Beatles, of course. Unfair to compare them with anyone else. This was like finding a forgotten Van Gogh in the closet. The record was recorded on a four track tape machine 33 years ago. Where has our technology taken us? I would borrow from William S. Burroughs in inferring that modern digital technology may be leading us toward boredom and oblivion....

Needler And Thread

Is Glenn Beck using his TV pulpit to freight, um, weird LDS stuff?

The Miracle Of An Open Mind

Seth Stern, co-author of a new biography of the late William J. Brennan, an associate justice of the Supreme Court:
He has discomfort with women in his workplace, yet he’s a champion of women’s rights in his decisions. He’s uncomfortable about abortion, but his privacy decisions make Roe possible. The press infuriates him at a personal level, and yet he’s a champion of the press.

The Illogical Twins

An LA Times editorial lets California's GOP gubernatorial candidate, Meg Whitman, off the hook for employing an undocumented worker but chides her for her illogical immigration position.

And yet as Cathleen Decker's recent Times analysis demonstrated, almost nobody's immigration position is logical, especially Republicans'. The party's whipsawed between those who want to militarize the borders and a Main St. cohort whose members depend on undocumented workers. The former seem to predominate among party elites, which is why it's a miracle Whitman got nominated after coming out against Arizona's relatively draconian law. That move may prove to the smartest of the year, since Whitman still seems to be doing far better among Latinos than Sheriff Fiorina in her U.S. Senate race against Barbara Boxer.

As for Whitman's opponent, Democrat Jerry Brown's policy on the budget is just as illogical as Whitman's on immigration. He says he wouldn't raise taxes without voter approval. Gov. Schwarzenegger tried that and got schooled. What magic formula does Brown have in mind for fixing the state's structural deficit, except breaking his promise?

We're Going Socialist? How About Maoist!

According to this "Economist" chart comparing how much 81 countries take in taxes out of $100,000 in annual income, the U.S. ranks at #52 (the bigger the ranking number, the more we get to keep). Weirdly, communist China's almost the same, at #48.

Any Bells Tolling In Your Town?

I pay a fair amount of attention to politics, but I usually have no idea what's going on in my home town except what I learn every two years from the campaign signs on street corners when I go for a walk or drive to work.

For instance, next month in Yorba Linda, there's something up for a vote called Measure Z, which, depending on the sign, is supposed to be about either ethics or local control. Another sign says that a City Council candidate who is seeking reelection is against this "ethics measure." Does that mean she's unethical? Coming to that conclusion requires, among other things, an assumption that Measure Z is really about ethics. Often enough, proponents and opponents of state and local ballot initiatives unethically claim that they're about something they're really not.

Yes, I do know how to figure it all out. I could pour over the materials that come in the mail from the Registrar of Voters and scour the local weekly for the occasional reference to municipal policy debates. I could watch City Council meetings on cable TV, and if there were a pressing issue that affected me or my family, I could dig even deeper.

Perhaps I should be ashamed to say this, but I really don't have the time. And there's shame in numbers. In many if not most smaller southern California communities, elections for city councils and especially school and water boards are dominated by those who habitually and sometimes obsessively take an ongoing interest or are motivated by passion or ambition related to single issues. In some local elections, no more than 20-30% of the jurisdiction's eligible voters will turn out.

If the group of those who are active is small enough, can it be construed as a special interest? Perhaps. It would be better if more people paid attention, but saying so and its coming to pass are wildly different things.

In many cases, such as in Yorba Linda, the electorate's disinterest is justifiably blissful, a consequence of the city being well run. On the other hand, there's the scandal in the nearby city of Bell, where elected and staff officials were allegedly looting the treasury with the broad impunity that can only be granted through a tacit agreement between oblivious voters and negligent journalists (though it was the LA Times, while looking pretty slim and haunted these days, that finally broke the story). The Bell rang as a warning for most of us in suburban southern California whose passion about municipal government usually extends no further than complaining when candidates don't collect their multicolored litter soon enough after election day.

* * *
Thanks to the local paper, some internet research, and more careful examination of the political signs sprouting up around town, I've learned that the so-called ethics initiative on Yorba Linda's Nov. 2 ballot is measure Y, which indeed proposes a revision of the city's ethics ordinance. Measure Z has to do with higher-density, or so-called work force, housing in a part of our city called Savi Ranch.

I've also learned from local columnist Jim Drummond that campaign signs aren't supposed to be posted within 15 feet of an intersection, which means that some of our candidates are technically scofflaws.

Under The Shelter of TARP

As Tea Party activists target Republicans who supported the 2008-09 federal bailout which rescued the U.S. financial system (and would be in the black as of today if it weren't for losses related to mortgages), Rich Straton reflects on the story of a friend in Newport Beach who had spent nearly 20 years building up a fund specializing in municipal bonds that had served its investors well until Lehman Bros. failed in September 2008:
Lehman was one of the leading providers of the bond funds that Bob leveraged against each other. As Lehman went under, calls against all of its investments drew down the values of all of their funds to fire sale levels. For Bob, all the investments were down in his hedge fund and the fund was bankrupt.

Almost 20 years of work and the reputation that goes with it was almost all gone. Bob took the remnants of the fund and started over. And the point is that Bob did nothing wrong. He was the prudent investor and advisor. The problems with Lehman cascaded into his business. They also cascaded into other small investment businesses that went bankrupt that season.

Had TARP or something like it been in place when Lehman went under then the cascade would have been prevented and Bob’s fund would have been saved.

The conclusion is that TARP was intended to provide a firewall around some of the innocent investors who, like Bob, did nothing wrong. These are the people who responsibly managed the retirements of lots of small investors whose retirements are now either gone or severely impaired. The impact could have been disastrous for so many.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

We've Got A Sap For That

Be careful where you take your iPhone -- for instance, Canada.

Bibi Needs To Go To China

The ball is totally in Israel's court.

Time For Another Beer Summit?

"Palestinian" isn't the same as "Muslim" -- almost, but not quite. About 50,000 people in the West Bank and Gaza, or 2% of the population, are Christian, and last weekend in the all-Christian West Bank town of Taybeh, a good number of them were hoisting one of the finest lagers in the world at the town's sixth annual Oktoberfest. Founded by the Khoury family in the heady early 1990s, when the Oslo accords seemed to presage a Palestinian renaissance, the Taybeh Brewing Co., which makes about 160,000 Pale-stein gallons a year using German and Polish hops, was the subject of a tasty LA Times article today.

You won't find Taybeh beer at Trader Joe's. Two strikes and it's out: It ships without preservatives and with a label reading "Made in Palestine." Israeli checkpoints make it hard (but not impossible) for the brewery to get its beer into Jerusalem. It's controversial on the home front as well, according to the Times:
Subtle Muslim-Christian tensions were apparent Saturday during the festival's opening ceremony. The mayor spoke of the need for a "moderate Palestine." Later, the regional governor, a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf, invited Oktoberfest attendees to enjoy the locally made products, such as olive oil and spices. But she couldn't bring herself to mention the beer.
If you visit the brewery, as I did during pilgrimages in 2007 and 2009, you get a tour and free samples. That's my elder daughter, Valerie (left), on last year's trip with Madees Khoury, daughter of one of the brewery's co-founders. The Khourys make a non-alcoholic beer (with a label in Hamas green) for abstemious Muslims. Maybe they should send a few cases to help loosen up the Israeli and Palestinian peace delegations. As for us St. John's pilgrims, keep some in the fridge for us, because, in January, Taybeh, here we come.

"She Had To Go"

Luisa Lopez

Hat tip to the good people at "No Depression"

Monday, October 4, 2010

Good Paranoia

From Glenn Garvin at the Miami Herald (my mother's paper for a few months in 1965, during one of Detroit's periodic newspaper strikes, many of which were called by my genial journalistic Joe Hill of a godfather), a balanced take on Vietnam-era antagonists Richard Nixon and Daniel Ellsberg, subjects of a new public television documentary:
The fundamental problem with The Most Dangerous Man is that it's not really a documentary at all. Narrated by Ellsberg and based largely on his 2002 autobiography, it's more of an illustrated memoir. Though it includes interviews with reporters, Ellsberg colleagues and other figures in the case, virtually all of them treat him as an unalloyed hero.

The exceptions are Richard Nixon and a few henchmen who can be heard on White House tapes cursing Ellsberg and plotting vengeance. ``We've got to get this son of a bitch,'' snarls Nixon in one of the milder excerpts. They tried, filing criminal charges and even burglarizing the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in search of dirty laundry -- an act of over-enthusiasm that would help topple Nixon's presidency.

Nixon and his minions make easy (and, in many ways, appropriate) villains. But The Most Dangerous Man makes no attempt to put the government's side of the story in perspective. Ellsberg had just leaked 7,000 pages of classified documents and not just to reporters: A Russian double agent told the FBI a set had been delivered to the Soviet embassy in Washington.

Nobody knew what else Ellsberg had lifted from Pentagon files or what he might be planning to do with it. His ex-wife, though an anti-war activist, told the FBI she thought he was having a mental breakdown. Some of his accomplices were not merely anti war but pro communist, openly supporting North Vietnam's Stalinist government. If Nixon was paranoid about Ellsberg, he had good reason.

The Most Dangerous Man
goes beyond omission to outright falsification in its implication that Nixon was trying to suppress the Pentagon Papers because they showed he was thinking of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. In fact, the papers contained not a single word about his presidency; their account of the war ended in 1969, before Nixon took office. Nor was he escalating the war, as The Most Dangerous Man implies. When Ellsberg leaked the papers, Nixon had reduced the number of troops from the 536,000 deployed by Lyndon Johnson to 157,000.

More Nixon Records

My conversation with historian and former National Archives tapes specialist Maarja Krusten about the tussles over Richard Nixon's records and library, posted on the message board of the Society of American Archivists.

Missile Gaps And Freedom Fighters

Reacting to Ted Sorensen's recent paean to 1960 debater John F. Kennedy, anti-Castro writer Humberto Fontova criticizes the Democratic nominee's use of inside information to get to the right of Richard Nixon on foreign policy:
Take Kennedy’s claim that President Eisenhower had fallen asleep (or gone golfing) during his command and allowed a perilous “missile gap” to grow between the U.S. and the Soviets. In fact a huge gap had grown (roughly six thousand for us, three hundred for the Soviets)

Might this qualify as an “outrageous claim” by Kennedy? Not if your source is Ted Sorensen and the New York Times. In fact, prior to the debates, CIA director Allen Dulles had briefed Kennedy on the genuine missile numbers. But rather than respond to this genuinely outrageous claim, Nixon bit his tongue. Disclosing the real number (that JFK knew perfectly well) in public would alert the Soviets to how we got their number, and jeopardize U.S. national security. Which is to say, to blindside his Republican opponent Kennedy relied on that opponent's patriotism. ...

"The Republicans have allowed a communist dictatorship to flourish eight jet minutes from our borders!” Kennedy charged during the second debate. “We must support anti-Castro fighters. So far these freedom fighters have received no help from our government."...

Short weeks before the debates Allen Dulles (on Ike's orders) had also briefed Kennedy about Cuban invasion plans (what became the Bay of Pigs invasion). So the “Real Story” (as you well know Mr Ted Sorensen) is that Kennedy was again lying through his teeth. He knew [very] well the Republican administration was training Cuban freedom fighters. And since the plans were secret, he knew [very] well Nixon couldn't rebut. So Nixon bit his tongue again. He could easily have stomped Kennedy on it. But to some candidates national security trumps debating points.
Hat tip to Mick Gilford

Sunday, October 3, 2010

More Oxygen On The Fiorina

Did the GOP wildfire crest too early? The New York Times:
Democrats pointed to positive signs in recent weeks, including that Senator Barbara Boxer, a third-term Democrat, appears to be running ahead of her Republican challenger, Carly Fiorina, in California. Mrs. Boxer’s seat is among those Republicans have been working to capture.