Soon and, Oh, So Very Soon

earthAccording to the World English Dictionary online, “soon” is an adverb that means “in or after a short time; in a little while; before long.”

If you are reading this, you already knew that, and soon you will stop reading because you will think I’m pointing out the obvious, and you will wonder (at least I would if I started reading this) why I bother to post this for the whole world (that is, about 100 people per day) to read.

According to the lyrics of a song that has been published, I’d guess, in every major church hymnal of the last 25 years,

Soon and very soon

We are going to see the King
Hallelujah, hallelujah,
We’re going to see the king
No more cryin there,
We are going to see the King

The lyricist-composer is six-time Emmy winner Andraé Crouch, popular gospel and rhythm and blues performer and composer.

‘‘Spirituality is the personal quest for understanding answers to ultimate questions about life, about meaning, and about relationships to the sacred or transcendent, which may or may not lead to or arise from the development of religious rituals and the formation of community’’ (p. 18). . . spirituality is a search for answers to ultimate questions that are related to a transcendent realm (1).

“. . . personal quest for understanding answers to ultimate questions.” I don’t like the word “spirituality” because people who don’t want to seem religious use it to mask the fact that, when they use it, they are in fact talking about religion. I don’t use words with unfailing precision, but I can see obvious dissimulation. You wanna be religious? be religious, don’t try to sound au courant by calling yourself “spiritual.”

“Soon” we are going to see the King.

For the person with a religious spirituality, the meaning of life involves the preparation for a destiny beyond the present life. . .  For most Christians, there is resurrection from the dead to join God in another life. . .   For the person with a nonreligious spirituality . . . Since there is no afterlife, the individual is motivated to build a ‘‘paradise’’ here on earth and to extend life for as long as possible to enjoy the fruits of his/her labors (2).

I recently read most of an article that posits a greater benefit from “religion” than from “spirituality” in relationship to longevity of life (3).

Our ability to prolong life  . . . adds urgency to the desire to find meaning in aging and dying. Questions such as what it means to age successfully and what is required to do so, and what it means to die well . . .  occupy an increasingly prominent place in both private conversations and those about health policy and medical care (4).

Isn't she loverly?

Isn’t she loverly?

What’s the difference between living to be 68 and living to be 98? If you’re thinking in terms of how you are going to feed yourself if you don’t have a $600,000 retirement fund stashed away in a 401K somewhere, it can seem like a long, long time. If you’re thinking in terms of the 4.54 billion years the earth has been spinning around the sun, it’s less than a nanosecond.

Perhaps I didn’t get started at it soon enough, but it seems a little late for me to be “. . . [involved in] the preparation for a destiny beyond the present life.”  I think perhaps I’ve also waited too long to get “. . . motivated to build a ‘‘paradise’’ here on earth and to extend life for as long as possible.” My desire to “.  . to age successfully and [discover] what is required to do so, and what it means to die well. . .” may be an exercise in futility at this point.

But I wonder.

The first requirement for dealing successfully with growing older is to acknowledge that it is inevitable and is in fact taking place every moment one is alive. And there is only one outcome of aging. Thus truly to accept one’s own aging, and the aging of others, is of necessity to acknowledge one’s mortality (5).

Since mortality is going to happen soon and very soon (in a nanosecond),

All I want is a room somewhere,
Far away from the cold night air.
With one enormous chair,
Aow, wouldn’t it be loverly?
Lots of choc’lates for me to eat,
Lots of coal makin’ lots of ‘eat.
Warm face, warm ‘ands, warm feet,
Aow, wouldn’t it be loverly?
Aow, so loverly sittin’ abso-bloomin’-lutely still.
I would never budge ’till spring
Crept over me windowsill.
Someone’s ‘ead restin’ on my knee,
Warm an’ tender as ‘e can be. ‘ho takes good care of me,
Aow, wouldn’t it be loverly

A not so enormous chair

A not so enormous chair

Don’t get all squirrely on me. I’m not obsessed with death. I’m not in a Bipolar depression. I’m just thinking about how one figures out what’s important for getting through the nanosecond. At this point, I have more than one enormous chair, and I think I’ll be warm. It’s choc’lates that are the problem. And a ‘ead restin’ on my knee. Can one ever be sure of those?
(1) Cicirelli, Victor G. “Religious And Nonreligious Spirituality In Relation To Death Acceptance Or Rejection.” Death Studies 35.2 (2011): 124-146. Quoting Koenig, H. G., McCullough, M., & Larson, D. B. Handbook of religion and health: A century of research reviewed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2000).
(2) idem.
(3) David B. Larson, et al. “Spirituality in Physical Health and Aging.” Journal of Adult Development 7.2 (2000): 73-86.
(4) Schenck, David, and Lori Roscoe. “In Search of a Good Death.” Journal of Medical Humanities 30.1 (2009): 61-72.
(5) Sapp, Stephen. “Mortality And Respect: Aging in the Abrahamic Traditions.” Generations 32.2 (2008): 20-24.
(6) Lerner, Alan J. “Wouldn’t it be loverly?” My Fair Lady. Broadway Musical. 1956.

Caravaggio, Cervantes, Madeline Kahn, and my friend Sandy

Frankenstein or Frankensteen? Only Madeline Knows for sure

Frankenstein or Frankensteen? Only Madeline Knows for sure

The artist Caravaggio (born September 29, 1571) was fascinated by St. John the Baptist. He painted the beheaded New Testament “forerunner” of Christ many times, including once as a nude young man. I remember the name Caravaggio from my “History of Civilizations” class at the University of Redlands. My organ teacher for some reason taught the portion of the class on painting. Must have been because he was President of the American Society of Aestheticians at the time and had a Picasso in his dining room.

All I remember about Caravaggio is he was a precursor to Baroque painting (why else would a 19-year-old organ student who wanted nothing more than to play Bach brilliantly remember an artist?). Baroque. Paintings of the beheading of the saint. I’m pretty sure they didn’t show us the painting “St. John the Baptist, Youth with Ram.” I would have remembered that.

I read Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (born  September 29, 1547) in Spanish class in high school. Well, some of it. Miss Nichols thought it was more important to read sections of the original than to read the entire work in some sort of dumbed-down version for school kids. So we struggled. I remember a great deal more of Man of La Mancha (lyrics by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh, 1965) and the “Impossible Dream” than I do of the original (who doesn’t). I’m probably one of three people in the country whose favorite song from the show is not “The Impossible Dream,” but “I like him.” You can figure that out. 1965. Junior year in college. Whom did I like?

(A totally off-topic sidebar: One of the students in that Spanish class, the assistant principal’s daughter, read Atlas Shrugged the year we read Don Quixote and became an “objectivist.” She was one of the most thoroughly unpleasant people I ever counted as a friend. I wonder what Robyn thought when Rand began accepting Social Security and Medicare. Omigod, collectivism at its worst! Can we spell “hypocrite?” And what about all those pseudo-conservatives and pseudo-libertarians playing at “democracy” in Washington who spout her idiotic and hack ideas—which, when lung cancer from smoking caught up with her, she obviously did not believe. Oops! Sorry for the irrelevancy.)

Madeline Kahn (born September 29, 1942) became my favorite comedic actress when I saw her in Young Frankenstein at a midnight

Not the Caravaggio they showed us in college

Not the Caravaggio they showed us in college

preview showing in Iowa City, IA, in 1974. Why wouldn’t they preview it there—before a wild crowd of University of Iowa students (I was in graduate school)? I read Frankenstein after I saw the movie, and then saw the movie again when it came out for real (and I’ve seen the musical—unfortunately without Madeline Kahn). For three semesters I used the novel and the movie in my class “Writing about the grotesque.” Not because I think they are grotesque, but because they made the students think. Who’s grotesque, the monster or Frankenstein? Or Frankensteeen?

In 1995 (or 1996—who can remember such things?) I attended a retreat of the Via de Cristo movement in the Lutheran church. I went mainly to get the people of the parish where I was organist off my back. The lay “rector” of the retreat became a cherished friend. Sandy (born September 29) and I eventually participated together in the Lutheran group working for equality for LGBT persons (including ordination to the clergy) in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA now ordains openly LGBT persons.

The retreat was an important milestone in my life for two reasons. It was the first time I ever “came out” formally to a church group (I was “out” to friends, but had never said so publically in a church gathering) and explained to them some of the intellectual and emotional difficulties I had always had with the church in general. But, more important than that, quite by accident I had a private conversation with a pastor in which I tried for the first time in my life to explain my (atheist?) understanding of the futility (and terror?) of human existence. He heard me without judgment. And at a later point he was coincidentally instrumental in my getting medical assistance for a bout of severe depression. I cannot overstate my gratitude to Sandy and Richard.

The connections among all of these observations and personal recollections may not be obvious. But all of this is what I was thinking about when I remembered Sandy’s birthday this morning. I looked on one of the “Famous Birthdays in History” websites—which I often do on the birthday of a friend, hoping to discover the birthday of a famous person with which I can make a connection for a greeting for my friend. The connection(s) today are probably obvious only to me.

Picasso and my kerfuffle

Picasso and my kerfuffle

But they come down to this. Ernst Bloch, the neo-Marxist philosopher wrote in his Atheism and Christianity (sorry, my copy is at home and I’m not, so I can’t give an exact reference), “Only an atheist can be a good Christian.” Jurgen Moltmann, the Reformed Christian theologian replied, “Only a Christian can be a good atheist.”

Sandy and Richard are two friends who can most nearly understand why the juxtaposition of those two statements is so important to me. They will also understand why Caravaggio, Cervantes, Madeline Kahn (and even the ridiculous Ayn Rand) are part of the kerfuffle in my mind that is still looking for some kind of resolution of the contradiction. Knowing full well there is none.

Alice (Walton, that is) and I have more in common than (I assume) she thinks we do

autoWell, now, that’s a pretty judgmental way to start a post. I don’t mean any disrespect or judgment. She’s my favorite billionaire because I’ve seen her wonderful art museum, and I’m one communication link from her–I know someone who’s had conversations with her.

Before you start berating me for having a “favorite” robber baron(ness) or speaking well of the devil, and before you demand I say any of those other (probably justifiably) nasty things you all think I should say about her, give me a break. She’s my favorite billionaire in the same way you are my favorite struggling middle-class proletarian.  “(In Marxist theory) the class of workers, especially industrial wage earners, who do not possess capital or property and must sell their labor to survive” (

I know all about you. It’s not true that you do not possess capital or property. It’s almost certain that, if you’re reading this, you have a 401K or some other retirement plan or the almost certain hope that you will someday soon. And my guess is that most of you are much better off than I am. One of the retirement counselors at SMU told me that I need at least $250,000 in my portfolio ONLY for medical expenses in retirement–then I can think about how I’m going to eat and pay my rent. I don’t have that much total in my “assets.”

And if you truly do not possess capital, tell me which of the “day laborer” lines you’ll be in this morning, and I’ll come and get you and hire you to dust my entire apartment and shampoo the carpets.

Alice is my favorite billionaire because I’ve read quite a bit of stuff about her and pay attention to what she, her siblings, and Wal-Mart do–peripherally, that is. I have much better things to do than keep track of Alice. You know, things like surf the net trying to get ready to teach my classes about Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” and watch “Project Runway”–or “The Big Bang Theory,” whichever I come to first as I play with my remote. And try to get him to walk over to the Fluellen shop on Elm street and get a cupcake. Important things.

Crystal Bridges Museum

Crystal Bridges Museum

When you hear on PBS that this foundation and that are sponsoring a certain program, and the announcer says, “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who ‘believe every person deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life,'” do you ever imagine Bill Gates in some African refugee camp standing beside a kid who’s so hungry his belly is distended and his ribs stick out from his emaciated chest? Or beside a Palestinian Bedouin kid watching as Israeli tanks destroy her family’s home as they level the land to make a “settler road” to the nearest town of illegal Israeli squatters? How in hell does Bill Gates think those kids are ever going to live healthy and productive lives?

Or think about yourself, running over to Walmart and buying your copy of the new version of “Grand Theft Auto” for $59.96 so you can be up to date in your participation in the $67 billion industry next year
So you’re going to cast aspersions on Alice Walton? Take your copy of “Grand Theft Auto” and YOU stand beside the Palestinian Bedouin kid and tell her what’s important in life and how she’s going to be OK even though her house is gone and her family’s means of providing her next meal has disappeared in a cloud of dust made by American-produced-and-profited-from Caterpillar machinery in the hands of Israeli demolition teams breaking all of the conventions of occupation and warfare–the kind of flouting of international propriety we’ve all but destroyed Iraq over.

Nope. Here’s the deal. You have a whole lot more in common with Alice Walton than you think you do. Me too.

We’re all just alike, those of us who have evolved beyond the need to think about what is real and what is not. Your $600,000 401K is no different from Alice’s $6 billion (it’s actually quite a bit more than that). And my addiction to this iPad and my brand-new paid-for car (it’s actually 9 months old) and my $200,000 in retirement assets is the same as both Alice’s “stuff” and your “stuff.”

We all think it’s important. We all want more. We all don’t really give a rat’s ass about that starving kid in Somalia or that little Bedouin girl watching her house destroyed.  But the sad thing, the grievously, unbearably sad thing about all of this is that we all think this “stuff” is real. That it’s somehow going to keep us alive forever–just me, not anyone else. I, of all the billions of people now and ever on this poor bedraggled planet, will be the one who–if I get enough money and enough stuff–beats the odds, and I, out of all the rest of you, will be the one who wins, who doesn’t die.

That’s what it’s all about. That’s what Alice’s billions, and your “Grand Theft Auto,” and the pipe organ in my living room are all about. Our sad, painful, pitiful unrelenting belief that this “stuff” is going to let us live forever. That we don’t need to give another thought to what any of it means in the long run (well, 90 or so years is NOT the long run, and we know it).

JER05_waAnd so we have no thought of giving any of it to that poor starving kid in Somalia–or even the one over there in West Dallas. It’s none of our business if the Israeli army destroys a Bedouin village–they’re just trying to insure their own immortality. The Bedouin girl is going to die someday in any event, so what difference does it make?

Makes no difference to me. I’ve got my own stuff-guaranteed immortality to worry about. Those kids will just get in the way of my beating the odds. And so will that homeless schizophrenic down in the park. Alice and you and I have everything in common–we’re deluded, selfish beyond belief and almost totally out of touch with reality.

Do you have a designer disease?

My designer drug of choice.

My designer drug of choice.




Researching on the Internet is ubiquitous. When I was a kid a million years ago, researchers were people who lived in places the rest of us thought were quaint if not boring, and we felt sorry for eggheads. Those of us who loved The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature didn’t confide our little secret to many people. Now, however. . .

I’ve heard the phrase “designer disease” over the years and I’ve been thinking and writing about DD’s the last couple of days [if you ask me why, I won’t tell you]. My first step in writing was naturally to Google “designer disease” –not to go to a scholarly database because that would spoil the fun.

The first promising website I found was The Doctor Within. Promising.

Designer jeans, designer shirts, designer handbag s . . .  Take an ordinary item, put a name on it, a couple million in marketing and promotion, and voilà – its value is raised . . . How? By skillfully creating an illusion of worth in the malleable, fickle, public “consciousness” . . . Everyone gets mildly depressed from time to time. . . A new disease. . . [and we] have the most advanced marketing machine in human history already in place. We can create a disease out of almost nothing. . . It will be A Designer Disease (1).

As I instruct my students to do, I searched for Dr. O’Shea’s credentials. He has none available on the Internet except he’s a Dallas Chiropractor who rails against standard medicine (vaccinations and ADD) and (probably) makes a lot of money selling his designer ideas to gullible fundamentalist Christian home-schoolers.

But I do like his description of designer diseases. I have one of those. It is not, in itself, a laughing matter. However, any bizarre or macabre subject can be treated with humor—even if the reader doesn’t “get it.” Two of my four classes studying Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Body Snatcher” “get” the humor of an academic article about the history of grave robbing for medical school anatomization of corpses. The primary example of the article is Ruth Sprague who was snatched from her grave in London in 1846.

Her body stolen by fiendish men,
Her bones anatomized,
Her soul, we trust, has risen to God,
Where few physicians rise

Academic articles are not intended to put a twinkle in your eye. But Nuland’s is. And, while my writing is decidedly not academic, can you see my tongue thrust resolutely against my cheek?

Sometime between 1956 and 1958. I’m standing on my bed screaming. It’s 9 PM and I’m supposed to be asleep, but my folks are having a

Millwood, the designer hospital of choice?

Millwood, the designer hospital of choice?

church meeting upstairs and keeping me awake. My heart is pounding, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why I’m standing on my bed screaming.

Perhaps 1962. My (secret) heartthrob Steve isn’t picking me up for school. It’s snowing and Mom is driving us because our collective parents don’t trust Steve. No time alone with Steve and no smoking. I’m in front of the bathroom mirror shaving, and in a rage I cannot understand, I purposefully cut my ear lobe with my razor and bleed all over. But they make me go to school.

May, 1964. I have to go home for the summer and leave the graduate student I’m in love with behind at the university. I have packaging tape for the boxes to send home. In the middle of the night I tape shut all the doors of the music school. Pretty funny, huh? In case you think that’s just a college-boy prank, you can ponder why I was crying uncontrollably the whole time.

This isn’t funny, is it? I’ll stop with the stories.

One more.

November, 2008. I want to kill myself. I can’t stand the depression any more. I call my therapist (I didn’t really want to die), and I end up in Millwood Mental Hospital for two weeks. That WAS funny. All of the doors had signs over them, “Warning! Elopement Danger!” They didn’t mean a couple of us were going to run off and get married.

We watched hour after hour of “Cash Cab” on TV. And “Jeopardy.”  I can hardly stand the sight of Alex Trebek even now. But I’d elope with Ben Bailey any day.

Some things are pretty hard to make silly.

Patients with Bipolar II disorders have typically experienced one or more major depressive episodes with at least one hypomanic episode. . . a period of at least 4 days with an abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood (3).

A designer disease. (See a few statements below about DD’s I’ve found in my “research.”) 

The older I get the more complicated things seem. Or, conversely, perhaps I see more clearly every day.  A diagnosis of Bipolar II Disorder would explain a lot. The “episodes” I’ve described above are a few I’ve pulled out of my memory hat. They continue (ask my friends about my broken cane in the cathedral at Rauma, Finland, this summer).

Dr. Bennett, a designer doctor of choice?

Dr. Bennett, a designer doctor of choice?

I know Bipolar II was the designer disorder of the decade in 2008, but I trust the doctors who cared for me at Millwood. I saw an internist and a psychiatrist every day for two weeks. I think they had a pretty good picture of my “disorder(s).”

I don’t give a hoot what the diagnosis is. I know that I’m sometimes not a very nice guy, and that I have anger issues and depression. So does everyone else. Some of us just have a stronger dose of them. So as I plunge through this senescence stuff, I just want you to know that most of the time when I’m raging or crying it has nothing to do with you.

Most of the time.
(1) O’Shea, Dr. Tim. “ADD: A Designer Disease.” The Doctor Within. MMXIII. Web. 27 Sep. 2013.
(2) Quoted in: Nuland, Sherman. “The Uncertain Art.” American Scholar , 70.2 (July 2001), 125.
(3) A standard description, this from:  Mynatt, Sarah, Patricia Cunningham, and J. Sloan Manning. “Identify Bipolar Spectrum Disorders.” Nurse Practitioner 27.6 (2002): 15.

Baer, Katie. “Still Puzzling After All These Years. (Cover Story).” Harvard Health Letter 18.11 (1993): 1.
Although CFS [Chronic Fatigue Syndrome] has yet to earn its own heading in medical textbooks, it is now recognized as an established syndrome (a specific collection of associated symptoms and signs). In the mid-1980s CFS was often dismissed as “yuppie flu,” the designer disease of the decade.

Driedger, Sharon Doyle. “Overcoming Depression. (Cover Story).” Maclean’s 114.46 (2001): 34.My family doctor prescribed Prozac to help me ride out the slump. It made me feel weird, spacey. Besides, I don’t like being lumped in with the pill-popping crowd who can’t cope without a designer drug. So I stopped. Really, I should be able to get over it myself. I tell my kids: “You can do anything you put your mind to.” Why couldn’t I think my way out of depression?

Miller, Toby, and Marie Claire Leger. “A Very Childish Moral Panic: Ritalin.” Journal Of Medical Humanities 24.1/2 (2003): 9-33.
We find new ways to explain the panic, if not to adjudicate on it, and conclude that Ritalin is, as per the wider designer drug phenomenon, the latest path to the United States upward-mobility fantasy of transcendence, a combination of the pleasure and self-development sides of United States popular culture.

Rosellini, Lynn. “Sexual Desire. (Cover Story).” U.S. News & World Report 113.1 (1992): 60.
And while no one can properly distinguish why some people channel childhood anxieties into food or booze while others fasten on sex, it may be that what eating disorders were to the ’80s, desire disorders will be in the ’90s: the designer disease of the decade, the newest symptom of American loneliness and alienation.

“I Go For Joe” or Adlai or anyone else who speaks truth to power

Adlai and Estes "going for Joe"

Adlai and Estes “going for Joe”

Growing up in a small city hundreds of miles from the nearest large cities (Denver, 208 miles southwest, and Omaha, 474 miles due east) we were not exactly cut off from the world, but our connection was somewhat tenuous.

TV reception came to Scottsbluff in 1955 in the form of a “booster” station broadcasting one channel from Cheyenne, WY, about 80 miles west. (My parents purchased our first TV set in 1957.)

TV reception came to Scottsbluff just in time for citizens of our city to follow the Presidential campaign of 1956. At the Republican convention that year (back when political conventions were actually political and not simply giant media advertising events), our State Senator Terry Carpenter made history (rather, provided a tiny footnote to political history) when he nominated Joe Smith for Vice President from the floor of the convention. (You really ought to click the link and watch the video. It’s more entertaining than any political event since then.) Joe Smith, if he existed at all, was a resident of the planned community Carpenter owned nestled between Scottsbluff and its neighbor across the North Platte. Terrytown.

Carpenter was, or so we gathered from all the adults in our lives, a perfectly objectionable character. Rich, powerful, beholden to no one, and a “loose cannon.” His purpose in nominating Joe Smith was to make sure the re-nomination of Eisenhower and Nixon was not unchallenged or unanimous. Even unbending Republicans like my father were aghast at Carpenter’s antics. I wish he were active in politics today. He was, in fact—see the link at his name above—champion of the kinds of causes progressives espouse today.

My father, the staunch Republican, and Emily Wilks, one of my  parents’ closest friends, a member of the local school board and active in Democratic politics, were part of the forces united against Carpenter in the only local political fight I remember from childhood. The school board had placed a bond issue on the ballot, and Terry Carpenter opposed it with all of his wealth and political influence. Carpenter lost. If I’m not mistaken (which I very well might be), that bond issue eventually resulted in the construction of the city’s new high school building (still in use today).

I remember the bumper sticker

I remember the bumper sticker

Mrs. Wilks owned a Lincoln Continental which was, according to legend among junior and senior high school students, the first car in Scottsbluff that cost more than $5,000. Mr. Wilks was a sheep-feeder and, while they lived modestly, we knew they had plenty of money.  Her car is important only as a point of reference for my memory of the 1956 presidential campaign. I don’t know if her car sported bumper stickers, but I remember bumper stickers from 1956. The Democratic stickers said, “I go for Joe,” and “Adlai, Estes, and Joe Smith.” Carpenter provided campaign material for Adlai Stevenson and his running mate, Estes Kefauver. Along the lines of “anyone but Eisenhower and Nixon.”

Mrs. Wilks had a lasting influence on my political thinking although it didn’t really take hold in my mind for several years. When John F. Kennedy was running in 1960, she and I had a conversation that changed my attitude toward politics. She noticed the Nixon button I was wearing. Funny, I even remember where we were. Our church had finished building a new parsonage where my family, of course, lived, but the new church building was not yet finished, so Sunday School classes were held in the parsonage basement (it was built with an outside entrance for that very eventuality). Mrs. Wilks and I were readying a room for a class, and she asked me why I was in favor of Nixon (brave woman to take on the Republican preacher’s kid).

One of the reasons (perhaps the only one I could think of) was that Kennedy was a Catholic. I had not heard my father judge Kennedy directly for that—but it was in the background of the campaign. Kennedy was so liberal, my father would have voted against him if he had been a Baptist (he voted against Truman in 1948).

With no judgment or attempt to change my mind, Mrs. Wilks asked simply, “Is a person’s religion any reason to vote against him or for him?” She planted the seed of an idea that, when it grew in my mind, changed my attitude toward politics and to this day guides the best of my thinking. Superficialities do not matter in politics. Speaking of the President derisively by his last name is not politics. It is simple personal, bigoted, ad hominem attack. Period.

Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent in 1956 (as he had been in 1952)—my father must have been almost as put off by his Unitarianism as by Kennedy’s Catholicism—would be, for some of us, a welcome voice in today’s acrimonious political polemics:

Looking north toward Scottsbluff from the Wildcat Hills, courtesy Mary Kalen Romjue-who also knew Mrs. Wilks

Looking north toward Scottsbluff from the Wildcat Hills, courtesy Mary Kalen Romjue-who also knew Mrs. Wilks

I think one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there’s nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way. . .  in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of self-criticism.
——Quoted in John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church, A Chosen Faith, Boston: Beacon Press (1998) 81.

The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the bill of rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak, of anti-communism. [Perhaps he’d reference Islamophobia or anti-terrorism today].
——Speech to the American Legion convention, New York City (27 August 1952); quoted in William Safire, “Democratic Candidate Adlai Stevenson Defines the Nature of Patriotism.” Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (2004) 81.

Many of the world’s troubles are not due just to Russia or communism. They would be with us in any event because we live in an era of revolution—the revolution of rising expectations. In Asia, the masses now count for something. Tomorrow, they will count for more. And, for better or for worse, the future belongs to those who understand the hopes and fears of masses in ferment. The new nations want independence, including the inalienable able right to make their own mistakes. The people want respect—and something to eat every day. And they want something better for their children.
——Look (22 September 1953) 46.

America’s first satellite (and my first mass murder memory)

What American fun! My first mass murder!

What American fun! My first mass murder!

Terrorized excitement gripped the kids of Scottsbluff, NE, on January 31, 1958.

Charlie Starkweather, the first real-life mass murderer we had ever heard of was IN OUR TOWN!

But the story is more important to me for many reasons other than our childhood reaction to the presence of a real-life mass-murderer in our town.

Ask anyone who lived in Scottsbluff in 1958 (I was 13) if they remember Starkweather. Of course they do. And they probably remember the picture I’ve posted here. It’s not quite clear to me even today why the media made such a feeding frenzy of the mere fact that Starkweather was in town (well, no, he was across the river at the country jail in Gering) on his way to the state penitentiary in Lincoln. But it was better entertainment than anything on TV.

He had been arrested, it’s interesting to me to remember and note, in the town where I was born, Douglas, WY.

Starkweather’s murder spree was over 50 years ago and is now a footnote to Nebraska and Wyoming history. Even in 1958 it did not thoroughly dominate the news. In his “Recollections” (linked above), Rick Myers observes that even though the transfer of the mass murderer was taking place in our little city, the headline of the local newspaper the next morning was about another—more important—story.

On Saturday, Feb. 1, 1958, the Star-Herald reported on the transfer of the prisoners to Lincoln as they left the jail before a crowd of “200 curious onlookers.”
But the story was not the lead.
Something else happened on Jan. 31, 1958. The headline “America’s First Satellite in Orbit Around the Earth” as the launch of “Explorer” marked the country’s entry into the space age
(Myers, Rick. “A reporter’s recollections.” Saturday, January 26, 2008.)

I remember that Explorer was launched—about three or four months after the USSR launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. I remember the sense of pride in our nation’s accomplishment even though we lost the race to be first to launch a satellite to the Russians.  I would never, however, have remembered that vastly more important event took place the day we were being aghast, thrilled, frightened, and excited by the presence of the monster in our county jail.

I’m not even sure how we knew Starkweather was in our midst. No FB, Twitter,, or any other instant news source—except KOLT and KNEB radio stations. And I do not remember that in the local newspaper “the story was not the lead.”

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and say my guess is that Charles Starkweather bought the guns with which he killed eleven people legally. We had never heard of such a thing as gun-control-legislation. Have you ever been to Western Nebraska? In some minor respects it’s not much different from West Texas, both in geography and in population. You know, “I’ll let go of my gun when they pry my cold dead fingers off of it,” and all of that.

When we lived in Douglas, WY, my father’s friends were Wyoming ranchers. They had vast acreages next to even vaster public lands—wild, undeveloped lands—where they hunted antelope and deer. My dad learned to hunt, and he bought guns. When we moved to Worland, WY, he hunted with new friends, hunted deer and elk. Somewhere in the family pictures are photos of him standing with his rifle beside a deer he killed which was hanging head-down ready for butchering.

When we moved to Kearney, NE, my father learned to hunt pheasants. I knew where his guns were in the house, but I also knew I could not get to them. When my sister was born (my brother was 7 and I was 5), my father sold his guns.

He told me later he did not want us to grow up in a house where guns were kept. He did not want us to believe that owning guns was a way of life.

You have to know what a weak and lily-livered liberal my father was (if you believe that, I have a penthouse on the 19th floor of the Merc

George Pierre Hennard was here.

George Pierre Hennard was here.

on Main in Dallas to sell you). He was certainly a contradiction. Baptist minister and a lifelong (real, not faux) conservative Republican whose hero was Dr. Edwin T. Dahlberg, President of that Communist-front organization (according to J. Edgar Hoover), the National Council of Churches. Dr. Dahlberg had also been a conscientious objector during WWII, and my father told me on several occasions he hoped he would have had the courage to do the same if he had not had a medical deferment.

I obviously come by my hatred of guns honestly. I am perplexed, mystified—no, I am grieved—by the obsession with Weapons of Solitary Destruction that afflicts so many Americans. You can tell me all you want that guns don’t kill people, people do. Or you can throw into any discussion of murder and the Second Amendment or any other related subject the idiotic claim that as many knives are used for murder in this country as are guns.

And I simply remember my father who knew that little boys don’t kill other little boys, but hunting rifles might.

Charlie Starkweather (11), Aaron Alexis (12), Michael Kenneth McLendon (10), James Eagan Holmes (12), Jiverly Antares Wong (13), and George Pierre Hennard (23)—to name a few—would not have been able to kill 81 of their fellow Americans among them with knives.

Collateral damage

Collateral damage

We can no longer afford to fund the space explorations of NASA, but we have enough money to keep alive an $11,000,000,000 annual firearms industry in this country. Something is grievously sick.

N.C. Wyeth and I cry at TV commercials (and Youtubes of cats or marriage proposals)

wyeth_1886_1936_cokeIt’s amazing to me that, in an age when critics and intellectuals who pontificate about art** seem to say that our post-post-modern society can’t comprise sentimentality much less empathy, we are bombarded with images on our electronic devices that are designed to elicit sentiment, or sympathy, if not empathy.  [**See truncated list below of articles I’ve read recently.] 

Say you see a lost dog who needs some TLC. Take a picture with your iPhone and put it on Facebook with a caption about loving animals. Want to make a spectacle of your proposal of marriage to your partner? Get your friends to learn a dance and show up at Home Depot and pop the question as the finale of a musical production. Then put it on Youtube.

And then there are the TV commercials that go right for the ventricles. Some of them are so emotional (sympathetic, empathetic) that I can’t figure out what their message is. You know, ads like these:

I’m mystified that when everything is frenetic and images on screens move as fast as possible, with overwhelming color and fantastical shapes, and with background music so pulsating and loud as to be basically noise pollution, some companies still use commercials that attempt to draw people in, to invite emotional reactions, to induce (or seduce) one to pay attention.

I’ve always cried at commercials, that is, at those designed to pull at our heartstrings and arouse so much empathy that we don’t even notice we’ve succumbed to an ad for Pantene (see the link above).

Remember the phone company commercials several years ago with dad and mom or granddad and grandmom talking to the family scion off at college somewhere and everyone misty-eyed with the pleasure of hearing each other’s voices? Well, they were clumsy experiments at inducing sentiment alongside the tear-jerker Extra Gum has recently produced!

I have become more susceptible to such emotionalism as I have aged. I think, however, it is not simply emotions that get to me. I think—I hope—I have become more empathetic as the years wear on. My capacity for empathy grows as I become more and more aware of the reality of the end of my life. And this awareness allows me to be aware of the realities of others’ lives. (That, of course, may be self-delusion because I may simply be a sentimental old fool.)

OK. I’m not trying to be scholarly here (I don’t know how). I just think this is interesting.

Do you "feel with" Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

Do you “feel with” Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

“Empathy” is an English 1909 translation of the German word Einfühlung by the psychologist , Edward Titchener. It’s interesting because he translated the German syllable for “one” [ein] as if it were the Greek “em” that means “with.” In other words, “empathy” is “feeling with.”  Carolyn Burdett details this history as well as the use of the word by the British writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935) who

explains this awareness [of feeling “with” someone] as “the essential nature of all sympathetic movement because it grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. That liveliness is founded on the fact that the states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing “are our own states” (1).

We are able to feel “with” someone only as we are aware of our own feelings.

I repeat Lee’s assertion that empathy

grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. . . [because]  states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing ‘are our own states. . . that is to say, the attribution of our [feelings to another] is accompanied by satisfaction or dissatisfaction because it takes place in ourselves.

We are pleased or displeased by feeling “with” someone else because we intuit that the feelings are the same as are our own. And we respond to art (TV commercials?) because it somehow embodies our feelings “with.”

That may seem obvious. But it isn’t.

Art critics and historians are (at any rate they used to be) disdainful of paintings by such people as N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) because, it was said, they were mere illustrations of sentimentality. Illustrations made for profit. So Wyeth paints a picture of an old man with his granddaughter sharing a Coke. We respond to it because we have the “feeling” ourselves of the warmth, security, love—whatever it is—of that kind of sharing. Does the fact that Wyeth painted it for money, to advertise Coke, diminish our empathy?

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those "feel with" artists.

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those “feel with” artists.


Everything else in our society is for sale, so why not our feelings.

Oh, harsh. No it’s not. Let’s be real.

If Johann Sebastian Bach had not been employed to make music that advertised Lutheran theology every Sunday, the history of Western music would be far different than it is. If Franz Josef Haydn had not needed to make a living, our symphony orchestras would have 106 fewer works to play. It seems to me it doesn’t matter what the purpose of a work of art was at its inception (of course I know there are exceptions). What matters is that it captures something of our “feeling with” someone else.

The “feeling with” is what’s important. Empathy may be the most important of human experiences. When you get as old as I am, perhaps you’ll understand. And cry at even more commercials.
(1) Burdett, Carolyn. “Is Empathy the End of Sentimentality?” Journal of Victorian Culture 16.2 (August 2011), 259-24.

THE TRUNCATED LIST OF ARTICLES I’VE READ RECENTLY. (You don’t have to have empathy with me about them.)

Kaufmann, David. “Archie Rand’s ‘The Eighteen and Postmodern (Mis)Recognition’.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 21.2 (2003): 120.
Mason, Julia. “Light for Light’s Sake: Thomas Kinkade and the Meaning of Style.” Journal of Popular Culture 45.4 (2012): 807-827.
Roberts, John. “Art and Its Negations.” Third Text 24.3 (2010): 289-303.
Robinson, Emily. “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible.” Rethinking History 14.4 (2010): 503-520.
Townsend, Christopher. “The Future of Futurism.” Art Monthly 329 (2009): 5-8