Letters to Editor
To Contact the Editor
I cling to the remnants of a once-proud lexicon, asking myself, “WTF has happened to the English language in the 75 years since Rhett Butler didn’t give a damn? How did we get to The Wolf of Wall Street and its record 569 repetitions of the F word?
Imagine a modern dialogue for Gone With the Wind: “Do you mean to effing tell me, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, that effing Tara, that effing land doesn't mean effing anything to you?!”
It has been a gradual slide for film, music, television and standard usage in general since 1939. Deplore it, ignore it, or applaud it, some of the forbidden words George Carlin called the “heavy seven” that could never be used on television have infiltrated not only television but every other communication medium.
In the beginning, the ultimate Rhymes-With-Duck word landed embarrassingly in our midst as a “bomb,” dropped unintentionally (haha) when the speaker actually meant to say “freaking,” “frigging,” “flogging’”, “forking”, or “fricken,” all of which are at least minimally acceptable. Saturday Night Live, always in the vanguard of the cool, catalogued record-setting F bombs, reportedly influencing the decision to dump performer Charles Rocket in the early eighties for misreading the limits of network tolerance.
Little did Fruit of the Loom know in the old days of plain white t-shirts that we would one day use them to proclaim and exclaim the profane. Some of us not only wear our hearts on our sleeves but our opinions silkscreened on our chests.
Shirts available on a website that promises to make profanity fun declare, “F” the Police, the Force, the 1%, the government, and, of course, “You.” When our beloved Seahawks were about to win the Super Bowl, a popular shirt shouted in big green letters, “Seattle F-ing Seahawks!” The 12th Man purchased and wore it proudly.
It’s odd, isn’t it that a simple arrangement of letters has such power to shock us? If this essay spelled out the popular profanity of our times, you would be offended, yet it’s all right if I use euphemisms, abbreviations, and #%&*!*! exclamatory punctuation.
We have been trying to devise a workable definition for obscenity ever since we learned to talk, an impossible task so far. In some cases, bad language follows the Humpty Dumpty premise; words mean what I say they mean, no more, no less. This has no utility as a generalizable theory.
Consider Madonna, who got herself into trouble on Instagram a few months ago when she used the “N word.”
Frantically back-peddling, she protested, “I am sorry if I offended anyone with my use of the N word. It was not meant as a racial slur.. I am not a racist…It was all about intention. It was used as a term of endearment toward my son who is white.” Figure that out.
The N word in recent times has relegated the F word to penultimate status. The N word is king of the malign although it often shares air space with gender- and ethnicity-based invective that I am not even going to mention. (Google Lenny Bruce for details). Suffice it to say that the F word, unlike the N word is an equal opportunity expletive, although both operate in circumstances that are variously friendly and vicious.
Regarding the darker side of profane language, a recent news bulletin from the National Football League noted that the head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which monitors diversity in the NFL, expects the league to institute a rule where players would be penalized 15 yards for using the N word on the field.
In a similar effort to control objectionable language, a group of feminists are promoting a ban on the word, “bossy” for demeaning women and girls. Oh please. Let’s hear it for the First Amendment.
On the lighter side, selective indignation about swear words often fogs the reality that sufficient provocation can inspire most of us to turn the air blue with words “that would make a sailor blush.” (Professor Higgins sang those words in My Fair Lady). Even Francis, an exceptionally popular pope, let the F word loose in a recent papal speech.
Football coaches are famously profane during games, and politicians (Joe Biden and Dick Cheney for instance) publicly err on the side of vulgarity when the microphone is unexpectedly live. Jesse Jackson, a pillar of sanctimony, offered unprintable commentary about Barack Obama, not knowing then that the words would rival his Rainbow Coalition in memorable phrases.
Charles Krauthammer, a columnist whose luminous vocabulary must be the envy of admirers and detractors alike, wrote a piece in 2004 titled, “In Defense of the F-Word” in which he opined, “I am sure there is a special place in heaven reserved for those who have never used the F-word. I will never get near that place.”
Neither will I.
“If you shoot a bullet someone dies. If you drop a bomb many die. You hit a woman, love dies. But if you say the F-word... nothing actually happens.” -Richard Curtis
(Janice Peterson is a former college professor at Santa Barbara City College in the field of communication, with emphasis on public speaking, argumentation and debate. Janice tries to be a useful member of the community and a willing volunteer. )
The Grand Gamut of Gimme
“If this country is ever demoralized,
it will come from trying to live without work.”
- Abraham Lincoln
Let’s talk about that creeping, calamitous phenomenon that makes us lazy and turns our emotional musculature to flab. It has been called an American Ponzi scheme. Depending on who’s opining, it is a national disgrace or an undisguised blessing.
It is the Grand Gamut of Gimme that constitutes entitlement in the USA.
Entitlements are not just gifts; it is polite to thank someone for a gift, and choice is the rule. You don’t have to give me a present if you would rather not. Entitlements escape the usual bond between the giver and the receiver.
Entitlements can mean many things other than money but if we are talking about money - and it makes sense to start there - the heavily taxed wealthy have a certain unsavory taint no matter how much they share. The one-per-centers many believe, are oppressing the 49% of citizens who live on public assistance.
However, as Margaret Thatcher argued, entitlement spending gets into trouble when you run out of other peoples’ money. “People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations,” she offered. “There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."
The obligation of historical significance is work. The Silhouettes, exemplars of fifties song-writing brilliance advised, “Dip dip dip dip dip dip dip dip
Mum mum mum mum mum mum Get a job Sha na na na - sha na na na na”
According to recent figures from the Census Bureau, more people are on public assistance than work full time. These are complicated statistics but no one would deny that the number of citizens and non-citizens on welfare, some of them for generations, is huge and growing.
A surprising news item suggests that much of the effort we spend debating the minimum wage is unneeded because entitlement programs in many states offer a far higher “salary” than McDonalds could ever hope to provide.
The Cato Institute released research results in 2013 showing that welfare pays more than $15/hour in 13 states and bestows more than a minimum wage job in 33 states and Washington D.C. Highest on the list is Hawaii, where welfare recipients are paid $29.13/hour or $60,590 a year. Hawaii, Massachusetts, and D.C. pay more in welfare than the average person with a job earns there.
A broader interpretation of government entitlements extends beyond money to selected creatures of the land, air, and sea.
“All animals are equal, but some are
more equal than others.”
The principal commandment
of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Barred owls, for example, have been declared legal targets as a means of (maybe) saving the spotted owl. The spotted owl has the ultimate entitlement (life). The Fish and Wildlife Service is spending $3.5 million to kill 3,600 barred owls, although punitive regulations already in place have apparently failed.
Some Pacific salmon species have also earned a life entitlement according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, who plans to kill unentitled California sea lions to save the imperiled fish.
It has been reported that the Obama administration is allowing wind energy companies to be held faultless when the spinning blades of wind turbines kill bald and golden eagles. The irony is inescapable. Bald eagles must have lost their entitlement as an endangered species.
A last example concerns the famous delta smelt, a 3-inch fish on the Endangered Species list, who acquired entitlement in 2007 when more than 300 billion gallons of water were diverted away from California’s Central Valley farmland into San Francisco Bay, and from there to the ocean. The smelt’s survival is still up in the air and the man-made drought cost thousands of farm workers their jobs and inflicted 40% unemployment on some communities. You can drive by today and see the dead orchards.
The differences in human beings and animals as regards entitlements are, of course, vast and varied, but we are -all of us- affected by these rules imposed by those in power - these benefits, privileges, legally imposed “rights,” prerogatives, and permissions, awarded to some but not all, often with well-meaning motives, and more often than not, little or no success.
Government tends to be inefficient, expensive, politically driven, pathologically self-serving, and thoughtless. According to some studies, the numbers of citizens who trust elected and appointed officials are dwindling rapidly. Too many of those in power have forgotten that they derive their authority from the just consent of the governed.
“Dream Big. Stay humble. Work hard.”
“Why not you?” Russell Wilson’s dad
Going…Going…Gone 2013 is History
This is the time of year to look at our watersheds and milestones - what and who is gone - not just going, but utterly and absolutely gone - exactly like the wicked Witch of the West when the Mayor of Munchkin City pronounced her not merely dead but sincerely dead. Not coming back.
Experience of recent years suggests that a great deal is (often regrettably) in transition from living to dead and back again, less gruesome than the zombies lurching around our tv screens but just as resistant to a clean goodbye.
Bob Dylan wrote a strange sad song titled “Going, Going, Gone” in 1974 and Lee Greenwood sang a country ballad with the same title about lost love. (Most country music seems to be about lost love).
Here are the opening lines of a new rendition of “Going, Going, Gone” by Janice Peterson:
“Just when we forgot them and hoped they were gone,
They crawled out of their holes and a new game was on.
What does it take to get rid of the shutdowns, the cold wars, the Wieners?
The Zombies, the Spitzers, the streets that get meaner?!”
Starting with a slightly unorthodox sampling of things that appear to be going but haven’t yet fallen into oblivion, the items below are sometimes interrelated, sometimes not, sometimes a cause for celebration, and sometimes a source of collective sorrow and/or anger.
The moving finger having writ, moves on: The incremental disappearance of handwritten letters, hard copy correspondence in general, the teaching of cursive in schools, newspapers, magazines, professional desktop publishers, and just about everything that arises from traditional alphabetic literacy is already changing our lives, both personally and professionally. John and Abigail Adams will have no 21st century counterparts to endow the future with a legacy of intimate communication (unless their email messages are retrieved and their conversations recorded for posterity - and they probably will be).
The U.S. Postal Service is in trouble that can only get worse unless radical innovation occurs.
Horologists (Those who build and repair wrist watches) are disappearing. Why have your watch repaired when it is cheaper to buy a new one? Or, better yet, forget watches and use your phone to get the time. A similar decline is in progress with cameras and photographic equipment and small appliances.
The textile industry: Some estimates predict a 50% decline within 4 years in the number of jobs available in sewing, cutting, and operating machines that process cloth. The jobs are going overseas or being replaced by computer-assisted machinery. Fabric stores themselves seem to be going away. Sewing the family clothes is almost as expensive as buying them, and who has the time?
Traditional funerals: Jessica Mitford, author of a scathing attack on the funeral industry written decades ago, would likely approve of the changes we are seeing. The American Way of Death used to be a sepulchral affair with organ music and tears, often with the guest of honor present for all to see. I haven’t attended a funeral in years. Now we have celebrations of life, with music, open-hearted speeches, and as much merriment as all the heartbroken attendees can muster.
Smoking and its paraphernalia: Every year brings more restrictions and higher prices. It does seem paradoxical, however, that at the moment in our state’s history when we could hardly be more rancorous about cigarettes, we have just legalized recreational marijuana. I wonder if this could produce a comeback for ashtrays. If you are old enough, you may remember making kiln-fired ashtrays for your parents as Christmas presents.
Video Stores like Blockbuster and formats like BETA and VHS, already just about gone. If we can stream the video with downloading, we don’t need DVDs. This is personally disappointing to me because I like the tangibility of a beloved movie on a shelf in my book case,
Free airline transport for luggage and carry-on items. Don’t get me started.
Privacy: If it isn’t yet a remembrance of things past, it appears to be on the fast track to its finale.
Civility: Obviously we have had periods of much greater internal strife (the Civil War comes to mind) but we are certainly a contentious lot these days.
Military service among members of Congress: Whether this is a good thing, a worrisome circumstance, or of no significance at all, it may be worth remarking that only 86 of 435 members of the present House of Representatives and 17 of the 100 U.S. Senators have served In the military.
Carbon paper. Probably mimeograph and Gestetner machines too. Typewriters are still manufactured and you can pick up a nice one for a little over $100.
Apple products: Dozens and dozens of Apple products have been discontinued but, of course, more are designed every year to take their places.
Incandescent light bulbs: Well, actually not completely gone but they will not continue in manufacture much longer.
The San Juan County Charter adopted by the voters in 2005
The “Winter Council”
Sleazy politicians: Many remain but many others have finally been kicked out by an outraged public.
James Gandolfini, Esther Williams, Paul Walker, Corey Monteith, Peter O’Toole, Nelson Mandela, Doris Lessing, Tom Clancy, David Frost, Karen Black, Eileen Brennan, Margaret Thatcher, Lou Reed, Ken Norton, Jonathan Winters, Elmore Leonard, Frederick Pohl, and Jiroemon Kimura are just a few of the celebrities who died in 2013. (Mr. Kimura, in case you wonder, was 116 years old).
We lost San Juan Island friends in 2013 too. It feels presumptuous to mention them by name and leave someone out who will be long-remembered. But we will remember them; their lives now reside in our memories where they will live as long as we do.
2014 begins now. Happy New Year!
When those now young are old… Remembering John Fitzgerald Kennedy
50 years ago, the president of the National Geographic Society wrote, “When men now boys are old, in distant time beyond the year 2000, they will say, ‘I remember. I remember when they brought him home, the murdered President, from Dallas…’”
And now it is 2013. About 20% of the population is over 55, old enough to say, “I remember” -and most of us do. We recall the exact moment when normalcy unhinged itself from the mundane predictability of our ordinary lives and never quite righted itself. The time since has been slightly skewed as if certainty has fled and lunacy hovers at the edges of a perfect day, waiting to pounce.
Medgar Evers was killed the same year, and In 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy also died at the hands of homicidal freaks. The sixties brought us the commencement of war in Vietnam and the foundations of redemption with the Civil Rights movement; It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, it was a decade of magic and mayhem. The mayhem began in earnest on November 22, 1963.
I was standing in our front yard in Santa Barbara with my baby son on my shoulder when the Danish widow who lived next door ran to the fence and cried, “Oh Janice, they’ve shot the President.” Her accent made the word “pwesident,” and of course that sticks in my memory too.
For many days afterward millions of Americans hardly left their living rooms. From the minute Walter Cronkhite announced the grim news, we began our melancholic vigil, staring at television screens, hearing the same words over and over; “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2:00 Eastern Standard Time.”
Jacqueline Kennedy stood mute and glassy-eyed next to Lyndon Johnson on Air Force 1 as he took the oath of office. Returning to the White House she began arranging a funeral to duplicate Abraham Lincoln’s in the essential respects. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested and Jack Ruby shot him dead, thus removing almost every vestige of confession or denial potentially available to a public obsessed with conspiracy. 50 years later it has abated some but still abides in the hearts of persistent skeptics. Oswald said he was innocent, that he was only a patsy. That was about it.
The images of those sad days still reside in your memory if you witnessed the end of America’s Camelot (a comparison, incidentally, that the Kennedys were reported to have scorned or welcomed, depending on who was doing the reporting).
JFK’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, helped with the funeral arrangements and supervised the removal of personal effects from the family’s quarters and the Oval Office - the books, the paintings, the ship models, and the files. The last items removed were President Kennedy’s two rocking chairs.
And then it was all over. The eternal flame was lit at Arlington National Cemetery and the 35th President of the United States was consigned to history. Like Lincoln, he belongs to the ages. He was 46 years old, his life shorter by a decade than Lincoln’s. If he had lived and avoided illness and assassins as well as surviving the debilitating Addison’s disease he carried to his grave, John Kennedy would have been 96 in May. Jacqueline died at 64 as did Lyndon Johnson.
From the day the President was killed until the present, more than 40,000 books have been written about him. Not surprisingly, JFK’s assassination is a major focus that makes it nearly if not completely impossible to develop a rational assessment of his presidency.
Since he was only able to serve for 1063 days, his incomplete tenure also makes it difficult to judge Kennedy’s leadership according to major issues of his time such as Civil Rights, the Cold War, and what he might have done to advance or retreat from our involvement in Vietnam. How much credit should he earn for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and how harshly should he be judged for the Bay of Pigs? How should history evaluate programs such as the Peace Corps and the inspiration Kennedy provided for the space program? How much does the retrospective view of his personal life matter in the overall portrait of a President?
We have had 50 years to think about the life and death of the youngest president we have ever elected. John Kennedy’s stature will never be equal to that of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt -the top three on just about everyone’s list- but I believe he will be well-treated by posterity for qualities vital to leadership and often In short supply. He was smart without being an intellectual snob, he could laugh at himself, he took responsibility for his own mistakes, he abandoned safe positions when the risks were worthwhile, and he was admired by people around the world.
Two things stand out in my memory. One is specific -the President’s unflinching courage during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The other is ubiquitous- his mastery over language and the presentation of his ideas. He was an incredible speaker.
We who were young in 1963 remember John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
The Good Die Young... But The Rest Of Us Can Fake It
A note to readers: This article was written in mid-summer when the days were warm and we all walked on the sunny side of the street. When a series of tragic deaths stunned the island, we entered a period of sadness and reflection on unanswerable questions. Those we have lost will live in the memories of all who loved them but this has been very hard and wounds will not heal quickly.**
If the timing is still off for this column, I hope you will forgive any offense because none is intended
A local paper offered a thought-provoking question from a reader. Why is it that families and the recently deceased (if they make their preferences known in advance), choose photographs decades old that barely resemble the current model? What shall we make of obituary pictures of a ninety year-old who looks like he just got out of high school or joined the army, or a gorgeous bride who turns out to have lived a hundred years.
Research of a sort actually exists on this question. Most of the answers boil down to: practicality, ego, and love. I like the last one best so I’ll save it for then,
Photographs of a person born when Kodak was still a thriving industry were not a dime a dozen. When I was growing up we had a picture box that took care of two or three generations of glossy black and white snapshots with deckle edges.
That was it. No online photo sites or Facebook, no hard drives, cameras, phones, and IPads preserving mega-pixeled digital masterpieces. Few of the photographs from long ago involved professional photographers, editing, or sophisticated cameras.
The best pictures were taken at the graduation or the wedding, to formalize military service, or record some other monumental life event. Many noted a coming of age. They memorialized endings and beginnings. These fragile prints were golden.
As other keepsakes gradually disappear from our lives, the family photos outlast the moves, the flooded basement, and the mice in the attic. If people have to evacuate their homes when a fire breaks out, they invariably grab the kids, the dog, and the photo albums.
Then one day a beloved aunt passes away and we resurrect evidence of a stunning girl from long long ago. Let’s put that picture in the paper. A very practical solution.
Some are motivated by vanity in selecting the final photo. Much is made of mature beauty with the years etched in our faces, but in truth most of us were born looking a little like Winston Churchill and start to resemble him again as the final curtain begins to fall.
Someone once described Peter O’Toole’s face as a “magnificent ruin.” For many, the accent is more on ruin than magnificence. The way we look today is not how we would like to be remembered.
Today’s miracles in refurbishing bodies to look younger can only go so far in holding back the press of time. The skin tucks, face lifts, eye work, and botox injections have palliative effect but too much expensive renovation begins to stretch skin like an over-inflated balloon, make eyes angle unnaturally upward, and distort the mouth oddly. People begin to make nasty comments about duck lips and having too much work done. This is not an image for the ages.
Shall we move on?
Aging may make us better people, it may endow us with wisdom still an undiscovered country to callow youth, and it seems often to bring a deeper sense of what is important in life, but it seldom makes us prettier. Who wouldn’t find the Robert Redford of yesteryear nicer to look at than his 76 year-old self?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, beauty is only skin deep. But vanity is not without its attraction.
Which one should I pick when the time comes?
And we come to the third answer to the question.
When someone close to the deceased chooses a photograph for the obituary, as likely as not the decision will come from love. “She looked just like this when I fell in love with her,” “He was the handsomest man I ever saw.” That image is indelible.
Love also guides the choice of a recent photo. Someone once said that there is nothing more beautiful than the love an old man has for his old wife. As we age, those of us who are lucky enough to know love that feels like it has lasted forever would not want our husband or wife or lifetime partner to be remembered as a 20 year-old but rather as someone who earned every line and wrinkle in a long and rich life.
These are photographs that will be seen by the small society of an Island or the larger audience of a big city newspaper. They matter. They signify something about life and death beyond the words of the obituary, They might say, “This is when she was happiest,” or “This is how he looked at the height of success,” or “This is exactly how she looked the day she died.” A few days ago I sent a photo I’d taken some years ago of a friend who recently died, to his wife. She sent a note back to say how much she liked seeing his laughing face.
Bill Cosby reads the death notices. “Like everyone else who makes the mistake of getting older, I begin each day with coffee and obituaries,” he once said. Death is usually hard to believe. How can someone we have known for so many yesterdays not be here with us tomorrow? The photograph in the paper removes doubt and denial. I read obituaries too.
Whether the pictures are from another time or very recent, the expressions are largely the same -" smiling. It’s good to have one last happy picture.
Somebody Throw That Train Wreck Under The Bus
Take a listen. Which approach to this column is right for me? Due diligence suggests that I have something to bring to the table but at the end of the day it could just be bells and whistles instead of a real paradigm shift.
We can talk (and write) about this endlessly because there is always a fresh supply of words and phrases that have outlived their usefulness but not their synergistic ambitions. Pile enough of them on top of each other and maybe something new and interesting will pop out of the linguistic sludge.
But I doubt it. The low hanging fruit of unimaginative cliché has been picked. It lies fetid and fermenting atop the garbage pile of terms we would like to forget but keep mindlessly resurrecting when better words fail us.
Would enhanced input make the idea more robust? Has that video gone viral? Do we have enough signage? Are we focused on sustainability and being green? Are we reaching out? Has he been drinking the Kool-Aid? (Be real careful of that one; it will mark you as a mush wit and a ditto head). Does she have your back? Is the council being transparent? What was it like back in the day? Does it impact you that I keep turning nouns into verbs? OMG is that toddler multi-tasking already? That is Awesome! Check it out. Are we having fun yet? Am I empowered? Are we on the same page?
This entire discussion is not brain surgery (there you go; a popular cliche!) but don’t you sometimes wonder if your mind is going? I do. Why do we keep using the same expressions over and over again when we know that if we took a little time to think, we might come up with something smarter?
I suspect we choose the hackneyed over the inventive for many reasons. It makes us part of the group (find me a teen-ager who can get through a paragraph without “awesome” and “like” and I will show you an adolescent who grew up on Pluto). It’s also easier to use a worn-out word than a new one. Then too, many of the most prevalent language choices say quite a lot in a few words. That’s why they infiltrated the lexicon. “New normal” expresses an intriguing social/cultural phenomenon, don’t you think?
There is probably little hope for improving our language habits because we are lazy and we can get away with it. I may complain out loud about a jargon spewing television news-person but I would never say to a friend, “You know, you really are a lot brighter than your cliché-driven language would suggest.”
Here’s something we could do: Try to introduce some new words into your own language and add a little spice to the conversation. I swear I was the first long-suffering whiner to compare the malignant growth of eco-maniacal organizations to a whack-a-mole game, but of course this can’t be true because that metaphor has thoroughly penetrated contemporary discussion and not that many people pay that much attention to me (more’s the pity).
Here are some not yet tattered words and phrases from the youth culture to enlarge and enrich your vocabulary. These expressions may impress your friends although you will appear pathetic if you use them around anyone under 21.
Miley Cyrus did not invent “twerking” but she has definitely jazzed it up.
“Fetch” has become a synonym for “cool,” as in, “That’s so fetch.”
According to New York Magazine, “ratchet” can be something nasty or something good, e.g. “Have a ratchet weekend.”
My own contribution to the transformation of an old word into a new meaning is “algorithm” which I define as a step-by-step procedure (ideally conducted in three-quarter time) for tracking the crackpot global warming conclusions drawn by the former vice president.
A final word I commend to you is “pareidolia.” When you look at clouds and see puppies and elephants, when you stare at the ceiling in the dentist’s office and imagine the outline of Lincoln’s face, that’s pareidolia. People who see the Virgin Mary in a potato chip and sell it on ebay are profiting from pareidolia.
I feel a large and pointless digression coming on, so concluding with William Saffire sounds good.
“Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”
Fly Like an Eagle - (Finally)
Although Ben Franklin argued against the bald eagle (and in favor of the turkey) as our national symbol, most people who have seen a kettle of soaring eagles would agree that the bald eagle is nothing short of awesome. With 7,000 aerodynamically perfect feathers, a healthy bird may reach a height of 10,000 feet and fly at 35 miles an hour.
That is if it can get off the ground. On July 5th, one of the fledgling eagles in the nest next to our house fell, jumped, or was pushed from his eyrie. We had been watching the family with binoculars from the ground and on the water for weeks so the launch was no surprise but we were astounded to see how big the bird was up close, and how menacing. The beak, talons, and size clearly communicate the character of a true predator.
To our surprise, however, the unexpected guest displayed few or none of these traits. He hung around practicing take-offs and landings from our pier, deck chairs, and a wading pool for five days before joining his parents and a sibling in flight. The adults screeched at him for the duration and brought appetizing morsels to eat. We had plenty of time to assess the peril behind those eagle eyes and there wasn’t much of it. Certainly, he would have easily defended himself against the neighborhood dogs if they had approached (none did) but the overall mood he expressed was nearly alarming friendliness. More about that in a minute.
For the first day or so, we tiptoed and whispered and rhapsodized. How many people have been lucky enough to see a bald eagle at close quarters in a wild state for almost a week? We named him (“Popcorn”) which had no impact on the eagle but served to anthropomorphize him even more for us.
A bald eagle in flight is breathtaking, but the same bird walking around on the ground is comical. Popcorn’s forward movement was accompanied by a sashaying lateral much like the gait of a very fat old lady. When he stood still or perched he commanded respect but not when he strolled around our yard.
After a few days, the eagle was comfortable with us and moved closer to the house. The wading pool on the patio was a casualty of his sharp talons and we began closing the guest room door because he showed every indication of wanting to come in. Our walking back and forth bothered him little but when he tired of us he would fly back to the spot under the nest where we first discovered him grounded and just sit there looking regal.
Wolf Hollow wasn’t as worried as we were about the eagle’s extended stay and we were assured that his reluctance to take to the air was not uncommon.
Still when the fledgling bald eagle finally left us, we were relieved. Sad to see him go, but glad for the future we imagined for him, released from the bonds of gravity and approaching a long life in the San Juans.
The temptation to idealize and romanticize nature is strong even at the distance wild creatures usually keep from us. But when something as magnificent as a bald eagle enters human space for a time, the impulse is even stronger. We will pick him out among other birds soaring above our house and know that he remembers us - which he will not - and misses us - which he will not - and wishes we would have made him more welcome with something tastier than the ripe carrion he finds on the beach or fresh meat from his own kills - which he will not. And that’s how it goes. Eagles are eagles and people are people, but sometimes, to the rare privilege of the humans, the twain do meet.
Just Do Good
Here’s a joke about evolution. You don’t run into things like this every day: One day a zoo-keeper noticed that the orangutan was reading two books, the Bible and Darwin’s Origin of Species. Surprised, he asked the ape, “Why are you reading both those books?”
“Well,” said the orangutan, “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”
With summer arriving and islanders clambering out of the winter funk, I am hoping for a friendly reaction to a topic that rivals politics in its relational train wreck potential. I cannot shut up about politics but rarely get on my high horse about religion so the subject may be workable for an unorthodox column. Could be trouble too so I will tread lightly and apologize in advance for unintentional offense.
Almost everyone can talk with some authority about religion. Its principal players, various doctrines, symbolism, and rituals bespeak a country steeped in the traditions and dogma of theology. (“Dogma” excludes the Unitarians whom I’ve never known to be dogmatic about anything. I am not criticizing). Faith is both comfortable and comforting to many; to others it is a source of wrenching discord.
The attraction to a belief system is profound. A universe without a higher power to lean on, a holy book to study, hymns of prayer and thanksgiving to sing with like-minded others, would be intolerable to some. (Did you know that that “hymnody” is a word, by the way? It is a specific musical genre).
Who can listen dispassionately to Holy Holy Holy? Who can ignore Ave Maria? Who can be unmoved by the strains of Amazing Grace? (Actually, I admit to being one of the very few people on the planet who does not care for the bagpipe version of that refrain although yesterday’s Memorial Day presentation may have turned me around).
Before my mother died she asked for two things at her funeral, prayers and Amazing Grace, preferably sung by her granddaughter if she was up to it. I wrote and delivered the prayers and my daughter sang like an angel -all seven verses.
Theological hypocrisy comes easily to me. If religious faith eases the way for the burdened and afflicted, that’s fine. I don’t believe in it anymore but like Yossarian, the protagonist in Catch 22, “the God I don’t believe in is a just and merciful God.”
There is so much to like about religion. Everybody is expected to play by the same rules and the arrangement disallows moral flabbiness. Sure, people commit sins all the time but they usually feel bad about it.
In a not too distant past guilt was a major motivator, and an effective one for keeping pious little children on the straight and narrow. The proverbial “guilt trips” for which parents of my generation were made to feel…well, guilty, worked nicely for a long time, especially at Christmas when Santa Claus teamed up with the Supreme Being to put teeth in the standard threats against the naughty.
My only complaint growing up with the First Christian Church was not being Catholic. The Catholics had it all over us in ritual with their rosary beads, holy water, genuflecting, meatless Fridays, services in Latin, and so on.
We, however, had full immersion baptism, Daily Vacation Bible School, gold perfect attendance pins (I had 13 years worth), a big choir, and a life-size painting of a beckoning Christ with eyes as blue as the ones on Jesus at the Knott’s Berry Farm Chapel that shine in the dark.
In modern times a number of groups who do not seem fond of Christianity in particular have grown prickly about religious influences. Christmas crèches draw criticism, anything with a cross on it is challenged in court, we are urged to say Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas, etc. etc. You’ve read the same news stories I have.
In the early years of trendy godlessness unattractive images of non-believers ruled. Who could identify with an in-your-face role model like Madelyn Murray O’Hair? But David Dawkins? Christopher Hitchens? The author of God is Not Great, Hitchens constructed a persuasive case for atheism, at least I think so. “Human decency is not derived from religion,” he wrote. I agree.
And the new Pope agrees. “Atheists should be seen as good people if they do good,” Pope Francis said the other day, arguing that people of all religions, and no religion, should work together.
“Just do good, and we'll find a meeting point.” When you think about it, that simple sentiment covers a lot of territory and could save us a lot of grief.
There are good people in the ranks of all religions and bad ones too. I think it’s a big stretch to suspect divine intervention in football games but if it makes fans feel good, that’s ok with me.
As long as your faith is not imposed on me and my faithlessness stays out of your way we should be OK. We just finished a long road trip and, as always, I looked forward to the billboard near Sacramento that proclaims in huge text, “GOD LOVES YOU!”
As soon as we were in the door, I heard from one of my best friends. I have a horrible cold and I know she prays for me, That’s all right. My backsliding is a work in progress,
Just do good.