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…

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.

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…

Time to Undeck the Hall

Big Hand Santa

I’m packing up Christmas decorations today. This is a task I’ve sometimes grumbled about and often found melancholy, but this year I’m feeling at peace. That may be because I’m not working against a deadline, but I doubt it.

The fact is last year’s holidays were more difficult than anything we had ever experienced or imagined. Marge was just heading into her chemotherapy. We did not utter our darkest thoughts, such as that we might be having our last Christmas together, and we propelled ourselves forward fueled by one part will to two parts desperation.

By contrast, this year’s holidays were serene. In our better moments, we have come to accept that life is fragile and finite as well as precious. Putting away the ornaments is giving me the chance to remember our Christmases together. There have been 42 since we got married in 1968. The last 30  have included Elizabeth. We have never been separated on Christmas, not once in all those years, so there are lots of memories.

The ornaments themselves tell part of the story. There are those we purchased, those we inherited, those that were given to us and those we made ourselves. The one shown here was made by Elizabeth in 1985 and cut from a sheet of loose leaf notebook paper. Every year since then Elizabeth has endured the same joke: “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give Santa a big hand…” Every year since then Big Hand Santa has hung on the tree.

Every year since then I have been amazed to discover how much joy can be found in one sheet of notebook paper.

Is Healthcare Like a Highway?

highwayA day or two ago, I found myself launching into a discussion of healthcare reform via the comment capabilities of Facebook. Taking the Facebook approach is, to be charitable, a fool’s errand. Healthcare reform is complex, and opinions on all sides are passionately held. Yet I think I learned something by trying to take the discussion to the land where BFFs LOL.

The difficulty lies in the divergence of our fundamental beliefs about healthcare; and it has proved insurmountable, in Congress as much as on Facebook.  The current debate should tell everyone that it’s finally time for us to decide where healthcare belongs in our view of the world. We’ve long since made such decisions about many other things. The military, for example, protects everyone at taxpayer expense, including people who don’t pay any taxes. In the same way, public highways, libraries and schools are available to everyone, whether they contribute a lot or a little in taxes.

Highway usage is admittedly constrained by tolls and vehicle registration and use fees, but pedestrians and bicyclists generally use public ways for free. People paying to register their cars usually don’t fret about paying taxes to provide roads for cyclists. Taxpayers don’t ask public libraries to limit patrons’ use of their materials and facilities to a “fair” share. Public schools don’t tell families with lots of kids that they can’t all come to school. This is because over the course of our history, we’ve decided that the nation as a whole benefits from establishing and maintaining roads, libraries and schools as public institutions. Availability is based upon universal need rather than the ability to pay.

So, does healthcare belong on the same list as highways, libraries, schools and the military? People who think the way I do say yes. From that premise, of course, it is impossible to imagine healthcare reform without the so-called “public option.” The nation as a whole will benefit from a healthier citizenry. Government therefore must be involved. How else are we going to to take care of everyone’s health needs?

On the other side of the debate are people who believe that doctors and hospitals provide a personal service, like accountants, mechanics, maids and dog-walkers. From this premise, it follows that healthcare should be available based on the ability to pay rather than actual need. But everyone needs healthcare. Against this backdrop, therefore private insurers currently earn billions of dollars, through ever-increasing premiums, by making healthcare available to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Given that government is already in the business of providing and paying for healthcare, through Medicare, the Veterans Administration, the military and the health plans members of Congress currently enjoy, I maintain that it isn’t much of a leap to take healthcare public. The military wants its people as healthy as possible, because healthy people do their best work. The military therefore provides healthcare for service people and their families. That seems to me like a direct, simple and smart approach as well as a worthy goal for society as a whole.

Happy Birthday, Dear Internet

I know it looks and acts younger, but the Internet is 40 today. It was on October 29, 1969, that the first message was sent from one computer (the Internet’s first node) to another computer (the Internet’s second node).

By today’s standards, the computers of 1969 were real clunkers. That first message was only two letters long, after all, with confirmatory phone calls between letters. I like to point out that a typical cellphone these days has more processing power than NASA’s Apollo control room at the time of the first moon landing. Most of the power in today’s computers, of course, goes toward making the computer seem less like a machine and more like a companion.

Even so, I often wish I had been an Internet pioneer. On that momentous day in 1969 when a bunch of geeks at Stanford were creating the Internet, I was in my ninth month of military service. I didn’t really appreciate that computers had already seriously affected my life. Thanks to a tip I got from a colonel on the day I signed in at Pease Air Force Base, the Air Force’s primitive personnel database was working to keep me from being sent to Vietnam.

Here’s the back story on that. The database was totally unprepared for “irrational” input, in my case a signed and dated but otherwise blank volunteer statement. I was proud to volunteer for…nothing and nowhere. That mattered because of the way the database worked.

Say, for example, that the Air Force needed a 922 specialist (like me) with a rank of E-5 (like me) to go to Vietnam. The computer would look for 922 E-5’s who had volunteered for Vietnam. I hadn’t volunteered for Vietnam (or anywhere else) so my name wouldn’t pop up.  If nobody’s name popped up, the computer would switch to the list of non-volunteers, the people who had not signed volunteer statements. My name, however, wasn’t on that list because I had signed the volunteer statement. The result was that the computer couldn’t find me either as a volunteer or as a non-volunteer.

Leonard Kleinrock, the computer scientist interviewed in the article linked above, speaks of the openness and trust among computer scientists and Internet users in those early days. That sort of innocence about implications probably carried over into the programming of that Air Force personnel database. From that point of view, my blank volunteer statement probably counts as an early computer “hack.”

So, maybe I really was a pioneer!

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Postscript

I went to New Orleans with a group of volunteers. We worked on one house that belonged to one family. Others involved in rebuilding the city, however, have serious money behind them and seek to implement Big Ideas about architecture, energy conservation and the nature of community.

We heard a lot about Brad Pitt while were in New Orleans, but I didn’t actually see any of projects bearing his name. Back in Maine, however, I read this article in the November issue of The Atlantic.

The article is intriguing, and it certainly contains ideas that are new to me. Even so, I’m left wondering what all of it actually has to do with the people I met in New Orleans. I can’t escape the feeling that these are the ideas of conquerors and missionaries, not helpers.

New Orleans certainly needs help and its people are generally grateful for the contributions that have been made. I’m not convinced, however, that it’s in anyone’s best interest to take this time of crisis in New Orleans as an opportunity to paper over the place with sensibilities that have more to do with San Francisco and Cambridge than the Crescent City.