The Name Sayer, Part II

Two years ago, I wrote a post about Marge’s job as the name reader at Portland High graduations. She’s retiring at the end of this school year, and her reputation as “the voice of graduation” has attracted some well-deserved local media attention.

This video comes from, the website of our local daily newspaper:

And this one comes from, the website of our local NBC affiliate:

Yeah, I’m bragging. Who wouldn’t brag with a wife like Marge?

The Constellation of Politics

I was about nine when my father pointed out the Big Dipper in the night sky. He had no particular interest in astronomy. He wanted me to know how I could use the Big Dipper to find Polaris, the North Star, in the night sky. He explained that the night sky appears to revolve around Polaris in such a way that Polaris will always show which way is north. This was one of his many, ultimately futile attempts to teach me to Alaska State Flaghave a sense of direction. I spent a lot of time looking at the Big Dipper anyway, and in time came to think of the rest of the stars in the sky as somehow less important.

There are thousands of stars visible to the naked eye, but whenever I heard the words “night sky,” I would think “Big Dipper.” In time, the two phrases became very nearly synonymous. Where once I had looked up into a dizzying field of unknowable points of light, I now had a pattern. The stars Alkaid, Alcor/Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Dubhe, Merak and Phecda told me about the sky.

Merak and Dubhe were the pointer stars that guided my eye toward Polaris, the North Star. I would know how to find Polaris on cloudless nights, if I ever happened to have any idea why I would want do do that. I felt that I had learned something valuable nevertheless, and I was quick to point out the Big Dipper at every opportunity. The stars I’ve named are precisely those that appear more or less to scale on the Alaska State Flag shown here.

I thought I had learned something impressive, and everyone I knew agreed with me. The sky, however, is large; and I had stopped seeing it, except for the Big Dipper. Still, I fancied myself quite the little astronomer with no appreciation for what I didn’t know. I didn’t, for example, know that the Big Dipper is, technically speaking, an asterism, a group of stars that make up part of a constellation, in this case Ursa Major. In its own right, the Big Dipper isn’t a constellation at all!

I’ve been reminded of this long ago stargazing in recent months as political discourse has become more and more polarized. I think of it particularly often when confronted with single-issue zealots. Apparently, for example when Second Amendment proponets hear the word “Constitution” they think “guns.” Now, after the tragedy in Tucson, the Second Amendment chatter is heating up again. The gun control issue, however, is complicated and important; and the Second Amendment is not the Constitution, any more than the Big Dipper is the sky.

Congress has a multitude of issues it ought to face, but we are suddenly hearing about almost nothing except “the deficit”—never mind that a great many of the people howling about “the deficit” don’t have any idea what it really is, what it really means, and what might help reduce it. Knowing that there is something called “the deficit” has become for too many Americans synonymous with understanding government. Whenever anyone mentions another issue, a certain kind of conservative says, “Yes, but we’ve got to rein in spending, and we can’t raise taxes to do it.” This is chapter and verse from the media constellation Limbaugh-Beck

The simple truth is that, just as there are many, many constellations in the sky, there are many, many important issues challenging our government and our society. Dismissing all questions but one, and allowing only one possible answer for that one question, is a lot like reducing the night sky and all of astronomy to the Big Dipper.

Mark Twain in Stores Today!

Volume I of the Autobiography of Mark Twain is in stores today, published 100 years after Twain’s death. He might find it especially hilarious that, while he specifically requested that this material not appear in book form until 100 years after his death, the the book is actually appearing now (more or less in accordance with his wishes) more as the result of coincidence than anything else.

I want to read this book—and the two volumes which will follow it over the next five years—because I have always felt a kinship with Twain. As far as I know, he was the first writer whose authorial voice sounds like people now living. Much of this, I think, arises from Twain’s existential sorrow. I tend to think of him as a temporal castaway, marooned in a world that was as alien to him as it would be to me.

By the time Twain died in 1910, nearly all of the people most dear to him in the world had died before him. As a castaway, however, he did not enjoy the comforts of conventional 19th century religion because he simply didn’t believe it. He was alone in his grief in ways that few of the people around him would have been able to understand.

I got the tiniest inkling of what Twain must have endured when my father died. I was told repeatedly that he had “gone to a better place” and that he was “with the Lord.” I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. In my world, however, unbelief can be spoken aloud. Unlike Twain, I wasn’t obligated to behave as if comforted by banal fictions that did not comfort me at all.

As I understand the Autobiography, it is Twain’s message in a bottle from his time to the future. He finished it just a few months before his own death. I wish he could have known how many people like me are waiting for it expectantly here in 2010.

Kind of, Sort of, Back in Business

So, I guess I’m writing a blog again, after something like eight months away from it. Highlights of those eight months were listed in my reply to a comment to the last post I wrote back in March. You get the year you get and rarely the year you want. I think I already knew that without need of its being demonstrated to me so forcefully.

In consequence, however, I have, like many bloggers, done precisely what I vowed not to do: I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing. And my intentions back in January were so pure and good.

But AIWS seems to be sputtering back to life. I can’t wait to find out whether I’m really back…

An Open Letter to Governor-Elect Paul LePage

The election is over, finally. Like most people I know, I found the campaign disappointing and profoundly upsetting, although “dirty campaigning” is relative. Here in Maine, we had five candidates for Governor. The winner, put forward by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, is Paul LePage, the darling of the state’s Tea Partiers. He won with 38% of the vote. His campaign strategy was to throw raw meat to angry extremists. And it worked.

I spent several days pondering a question I found posted on my Facebook home page: “Do we still have to set the clocks back on Sunday, since we set the whole country back on Tuesday?”

Sunday is here, and answer is yes. Out of my concern that we’ve set the State of Maine back as well, I’ve written an open letter to our new Governor:

Dear Governor-Elect LePage,

    Congratulations on your Election Day victory. Although I was not one of your supporters during the long campaign and did not vote for you, I do understand that all Mainers are better off if your administration is successful. For this reason, I wish you the best. With this in mind, however, I want to share a few thoughts with you.

    You won the election because our electoral system doesn’t require a majority vote. Victory goes to the candidate who got the most votes. This was a five-way race. You won because three out of every eight voters chose you. If it had been a ten-way race, you might have won with only one or two votes out of every eight. The point is that you have a victory but not a mandate. Sixty-two percent of voters chose someone else. Nevertheless, you are their Governor, too. Your desire to put the people first should include those people who did not support you. You should also be prepared to meet with skepticism from the majority of the electorate.

    You are a Governor, not a CEO. Although your position is one of considerable power, you will accomplish more through persuasion than by merely giving orders. In government, opposition is not insubordination. You cannot fire either the people of Maine or their elected representatives, some of whom, even in this year of seismic shifts, are still Democrats!

    Surely you know at some level that the state budget numbers you used during the campaign don’t really add up. Many of the hard choices you will have to make as Governor will burden even your most ardent supporters because every budget cut will hurt someone. Please remember that statesmanship requires that factors besides loyalty to you be taken into account in the decisions you will be asked to make.

    You must be available to the media. The days when you can storm out of a press conference because you don’t like the questions are over. Every aspect of your life—public, private and professional—is now fair game. The lives of the members of your immediate family are also now open to 24/7 media scrutiny. You cannot argue otherwise unless, for example, you happen to believe that college antics of George W. Bush’s daughters or the events leading to Bill Clinton’s impeachment were family business only and should have been kept out of national media.

    You must respect your own high office and the high offices held by others, including those whom you may not support. If you are going to call yourself Governor LePage, you must learn to say President Obama. When you speak as Governor of Maine, you speak for the entire State of Maine. You are now the public face of the State of Maine. I hope it goes without saying that telling President Obama or President Anybody Else to go to hell is not to be considered under any circumstances. That is one campaign promise I’m hoping you’re smart enough to abandon.

    As a resident of Maine, I am mindful that you have taken on responsibilities that most of us don’t want. I thank you for your willingness to serve. I also suspect that I’m like most of the 62% of voters I mentioned above when I say I would rather be happy than right. Nothing would make me happier than to find over the next four years that I was wrong about you.

Writing the letter has made me feel a little better, although I have no illusions about its chances of making a difference. I’ve really taken more comfort from something I saw in church just this morning. A Republican friend of mine was speaking about what the congregation has meant to him through the years. When he started talking about the support he and his wife had gotten while their son served two tours in Iraq, he became emotional and his voice broke.

After church, I spoke to our minister and said, “Any time I see a Republican moved to tears, I feel a surge of hope for our nation. Conservatives try so hard to be heartless, and I’m glad when I see them fail at it.”

The Fifth Commandment and the Bottom Line

Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

—Deuteronomy 5:16

In a better world, the CNN story would have a better headline. In a perfect world, the story wouldn’t even be news. Get your parents to stop spending your inheritance, says the page title. Stop Squandering My Inheritance says the headline. The story itself concerns elders’ tiresome habit of living on and on instead of buggering off to the cemetery so the next generation can get their hands on the money.

Something about this raises my blood pressure so much that I barely know where to begin in explaining why I find it so offensive. I have to begin somewhere, however, so I’ll start with the headline and its use of the term “my inheritance.”

Last Will and TestamentReaders of this CNN article are invited to believe that the terms “my inheritance” and “my parents’ money” are synonymous. They are not. I may hold a minority view here, but I believe the words “my inheritance” mean absolutely nothing until and unless someone decides to bequeath something to me.

Try to stay with me here, gentle readers of Your parents are under absolutely no obligation—legal, moral or financial—to leave you a dime. Their money is theirs. Period. Your inheritance doesn’t exist until and unless your parents decide otherwise. You have no claim against them and no inherent right to their money. Why would you ever doubt this?

At this point, readers may point out that parents generally have the children they deserve. But this changes nothing. Anyway, I know from personal experience that it isn’t always true.

One day about 20 years ago, a man brought his aged mother into my law office and said, “Mom wants to deed her house over to me.” His manner was brusque, and he was in a hurry.

I explained that I would have to talk to Mom privately. If I were to draft a deed for her to sign, she would be my client. I had a duty to her to ascertain her intentions before I advised her to do anything. The son looked unhappy about this and protested a bit, but he finally headed off to get a cup of coffee while I had a little chat with his mother.

“Who’s idea was this to begin with?” I asked.

She explained that her son had suggested it as a way to prevent her losing the house to pay medical bills in the event of catastrophic illness.

“OK,” I said, “so what about these bills like that? Would your son pay them if you couldn’t?”

She didn’t think so.

“Do you have other assets in addition to the house?” I asked.

She did not.

“So, the question comes down to this,” I said. “Are you willing to die bankrupt in order for your son to be able to have your house?”

She pursed her lips and was silent. She hadn’t thought about it that way. When she did think about it that way, however, she didn’t like it.

“I want to be able to pay my bills,” she said. “I’ve always paid my bills. I don’t want to end up as a welfare case.”

About this time Sonny Jim came back from the coffee shop. When I told him his mother in fact did not want to deed away her only asset, he was furious. He got Mom on her feet and practically pushed her out the door. I assume his next move was to take her to another lawyer to see if he could get a different result.

My hope has always been that Mom was able to fend off her son’s rapacious bullying. She seemed like a nice lady, and she clearly didn’t have the son she deserved.

The point here is that inheritances and other transfers of property from parents are things that must be earned. It seems obvious to me, but not everyone thinks so. A big chunk of the so-called Elder Law business consists of “asset preservation” strategies that work basically by impoverishing parents by placing their assets beyond the reach of their creditors. That typically means maneuvers like getting Mom to deed over her house, and it overlooks a couple of points that ought to be obvious:

  • People who have led responsible lives want to be able to meet their obligations right to the end
  • Parents want the love and attention of their children right to the end

In our time, however, the obvious sometimes isn’t even discernible unless an expert calls it to our attention. A great deal of effort has therefore been expended in some quarters in order to understand why aging parents don’t naturally welcome penury and isolation in order to enrich their children, no matter what. Among the helpful hints in the CNN story is this little gem: “…studies show that children who frequently call and visit their elderly parents tend to inherit larger amounts than those who don’t.”

No kidding. Hard as it may be for some folks to accept, parents can in fact tell the difference between when their children visit and when they don’t. Parents may not say anything about it, but they know. And it matters. Parents need and usually deserve the attention of their children.

This isn’t a new idea. It dates from ancient times and has been a central tenet of our culture from the beginning. Everything anybody needs to know about it is right there in the 5th commandment.

Now You See Us, Now You Don’t

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working my way through A.N. Wilson’s The Victorians. For a 21st century American, I find, reading about the Victorians is the act of staring into what is sometimes a window and sometimes a mirror.

Looking in the window, we see that on the whole, the Victorians were less troubled than we by the plight of the poor and more devoted to flights of public piety. We would not with an easy conscience turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the poor and their children starving to death in plain view in the streets of our cities. Neither, I think, would we refuse to seat a member of Congress solely on the basis of that member’s unwillingness to swear an oath on the Bible.

There is much talk about religion and devotion to God in our time, but piety just doesn’t inform our public life the way it did for the Victorians–Pat Robertson and his ilk notwithstanding. Congress doesn’t debate theological matters the way Victorian Parliaments did.

Charles DarwinI have to admit that an exception to this arises in the case of Darwin. The Kansas State Board of Education and the alleged “controversy” about evolution come to mind. In our time, however, opponents of evolutionary theory try to use scientific language to advance their point of view.

The Victorians were under no such constraint. Bishop Wilberforce, debating evolution with the biologist T.H. Huxley in 1860, is said to have asked whether “it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that [Huxley] claimed his descent from a monkey.” Not to be outdone in ad hominem argument, Huxley replied, “If…the question is put to me, would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.” Both parties earn an A+ for rhetoric but a D- for science.

Looking in the mirror that the Victorians hold up to us, we see a people so convinced of their own virtue and noble intent that in general they approve of everything they do on the world stage. For the Victorians this included the posturing and incompetence of the Crimean War as well as the oppression and opportunism of the Raj. For us, the same self-satisfaction and blundering tone-deafness are apparent in our military adventures and alliances over the last 50 years. Too often, as it was for the Victorians, the underlying principle seems to be that since we’re nice people, what we’re doing must be right.

For our lives as individuals, the Victorians also hold up a mirror. For us as for them, the most able and admirable are not always the most influential. Hard work and fair play are not always rewarded. The verities of the age may tell us one thing and our experience something else.

Like the Victorians grappling with the implications of Darwinism, many of us face a longing of the spirit that our attainments do not comfort or address. Thomas Hardy speaks for many of us as much as he did for his contemporaries when he wrote, “I have been looking for God for 50 years, and I think that if he had existed I should have discovered him.”

Would a Coyote Lie?


by Mark Jarman

Is this world truly fallen? They say no.
For there’s the new moon, there’s the Milky Way,
There’s the rattler with a wren’s egg in its mouth,
And there’s the panting rabbit they will eat.
They sing their wild hymn on the dark slope,
Reading the stars like notes of hilarious music.
Is this a fallen world? How could it be?


And yet we’re crying over the stars again,
And over the uncertainty of death,
Which we suspect will divide us all forever.
I’m tired of those who broadcast their certainties,
Constantly on their cell phones to their redeemer.
Is this a fallen world? For them it is.
But there’s that starlit burst of animal laughter.


The day has sent its fires scattering.
The night has risen from its burning bed.
Our tears are proof that love is meant for life
And for the living. And this chorus of praise,
Which the pet dogs of the neighborhood are answering
Nostalgically, invites our answer, too.
Is this a fallen world? How could it be?

I thought of this poem last night when a dog barked outside. It’s unusual in this neighborhood. The dogs here are well-cared for and well-trained. They seldom find much to bark about. Listening to the dog, I began to wonder if the coyote I saw in the street a few years ago was making his rounds again. Probably it was just wishful thinking. It is mid-winter, and much of the time I feel trapped indoors.

We live in a time of shrillness, and too many of the voices in what currently passes for public discourse have taken to howling and barking. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” wrote Yeats. The problem is not new, and we find it everywhere.

In the current issue of Newsweek, a reader from California pronounces that “The president is a socialist ideologue…” In response to the same article, a reader in Connecticut insists that the president “has done nothing but capitulate to the right and to Wall Street.” The howl and the bark. Mr. California and Ms. Connecticut cannot both be right, and in this instance actually manage both to be wrong. They howl and bark to make stupid sound smart and scared sound strong.

The coyote doesn’t howl for emphasis because the howl is the message: “I am a coyote, and right now I am in this exact spot.” The dog barks in reply, “I am a dog, and right now I am in this exact spot.” It’s all true, and they are both right.

As always, the time is right now. As always, politics and punditry don’t have much to do with actual living. Knowing this, couldn’t we as human beings just try a little harder not to be stupid and scared and not to take it out on each other? Couldn’t we leave the howling and barking to the coyotes and dogs?

They’re really good at it after all, and we aren’t.

A Few Thoughts for an Anonymous Progressive

I’d be happier if this could be an actual conversation, my anonymous progressive friend, but my experience has been that you do not listen. Even when you are willing to give your name, you only show up to talk–specifically to bestow upon those of us whom you see as sitting in darkness the superior wisdom of your orthodoxies. You are insufferable when you do this, but you don’t seem to know that. Perhaps you would if you were better at listening.

For most of my adult life I’ve done my best to maintain my equanimity in the face of patronizing insults, but now you seem to have crossed a line. Today, the day after President Obama’s first State of the Union Address, you left this anonymous comment on the Who is IOZ? blog: “I didn’t watch the Address. What did el presidente say? Wait. Nevermind (sic). It doesn’t matter what he said. At all.”

Really, Mr/Ms Anonymous? The remarks of the single most powerful and influential person on earth don’t matter? At all? Not to anybody, do you think, or just not to you?

But have I missed something crucial here? Perhaps you are the most powerful and influential person on the planet so what Obama said really doesn’t matter if you say it doesn’t.

If that’s the case, I wish you had taken the time to call him and let him know he didn’t need to go to all the trouble of writing and delivering that speech. Noblesse oblige and all. It would have been a nice gesture on your part. I mean, if it didn’t matter what he said, Obama could have stayed home last night with Michelle and the kids–maybe played fetch with Bo or something.

The truth, of course, is that you missed the speech last night because you and your ilk have written off Obama. You gave him about 90 days to remake the world in your image, and when that didn’t happen (how could it possibly have happened?) you wrote him off. That’s your prerogative under the Constitution you rely upon Obama to defend, but there are a few things you and those like you should consider:

  • When you write off the President unless he agrees with you 100%, you are doing your very best to hand the keys back to the GOP. If you are so amnesiac or willfully blind that you can’t tell the difference between Obama and Dubya, then you deserve Dubya and are helping to bring him or someone like him back to the White House.
  • When you only listen to people you already agree with, you get so you don’t even notice when you say things that are really, really stupid. The Who is IOZ? comment is just one tiny example of this.
  • When you indulge in supercilious brat attacks, you become profoundly unattractive. Perhaps you don’t care, but I would suggest that if you don’t admire Rush Limbaugh you should stop acting like him.

One More Post about New Orleans

Back in October I wrote a series of posts about the week I spent in New Orleans as a Katrina relief volunteer. Last week I put together a slide show of the trip for use during church yesterday. The slide show was a huge time sink, as such projects can so often be. The problem for me was that when I started I had no clear idea of what story I wanted to tell. There’s a bit of that indecision still visible (at least to me) in the final product.

Nevertheless, I’m linking the slide show here. If you’ve read this far, I hope you enjoy the show!

I think I made a resolution to post here at least three times a week. That thought obviously lasted about as long as the typical new year’s resolution. But who knows? Maybe I’ll start doing better by this blog. Truth be told, it has been an ongoing disappointment that the thing won’t write itself…