Friday, March 27, 2009

Suffering and Symphonies

I have not been posting much lately. Lots of reasons, mostly having to do with spending all my time scrambling to make a living or hangin’ with the family. Although I constantly have ideas and thoughts for the blog clogging my brain, I seldom make the choice to write them out these days. Several times I have started on an essay, only to say to myself, “what are you doing this now for? You need to go to bed.” So I do. It’s a matter of choosing my priorities in any given moment.

I’m not complaining, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

I love to quote Cosmo from Singing in the Rain. When told that he was fired, he said, “Great! Now I can start suffering and write my symphony.” Then when rehired moments later, he said, “Great! Now I can STOP suffering, and write my symphony.” I’m figuring my symphony will get written when the time is right, whether suffering or not.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Democracy of Neighbors

These last two Saturdays were taken up by the physical and personal practice of democratic governance in what be it’s most fundamental and direct form – the New England town meeting. Last week, my town, Barnstead NH, held it’s annual meeting. The list of warrant articles was much shorter than in past years. The biggest items put before the people were hiring another full time police officer ($70,000 added to the budget), $100,000 for a emergency expenses fund for dealing with natural emergencies, and the budget itself.  Smaller items included the approval of the transferal of deeds for certain properties purchased through a tax sale, requests for the town to assume the maintenance and upgrade of certain private roads, and so on. In the end the police officer was voted down, the emergency fund was amended to $25K and then to $80K, the roads will stay private and the budget was passed at $3 million and some change. Discussion was often lively and direct, but never out of line (although the line is a pretty fluid concept in some town meetings) and Robert’s rules were put to good work keeping things straight and in good order. We started at 9:00 and were done by 1:00 in the afternoon.

Today was the meeting for the School Board. The budget was the single biggest item, with a new teacher contract coming in close to that. Our teachers have worked without a contract for a year,  after the first negotiated contract was turned down at last year’s meeting as being to rich. This year’s contract was more modest and was accepted with a good margin. The budget discussion was also interesting, with an amendment from the floor proposing to strip $100,000 from the superintendents operating budget in order to force him to become a lobbyist to obtain money from the state and federal governments promised us to fund mandates placed upon our local school systems. Although the amendment would likely not have achieved it’s desired ends if passed, it was more of a political statement anyways. The good people of the town got the statement, and having heard the message voted it down soundly before passing the budget as proposed. 13 articles were disposed of by noon.

The school board meeting was noteworthy in that the school budget is easily 3-4 times the town budget, but usually gets a smaller attendance. Not this time. The school board meeting was packed.

I love these meetings for a few reasons. Our nation’s founders fought for, among other things, the right for representation before taxation. What I was privileged to take part in today was almost precisely the converse of having taxes levied by a king over the sea, or even a legislature boxed up in never never land. It was we, the people, discussing what we need to do in order to maintain a civil and effective society and voting to tax ourselves to create what we want. Or, in many cases, voting to NOT tax ourselves. And then we must live with our own decisions, for good or for ill. A theme you will come up against again and again in the essays of Wendell Berry is that local control is the only type of control that is really safe and healthy in the long run. The example that comes to mind is of the shift in ownership that has taken place in recent decades of the great north woods of Maine, NH, VT, and NY. Especially in Maine, the great lumber mills were once owned by local people. They were indeed wealthy and powerful owners of enormous tracts of land, but they lived in the same region as their holdings, and employed people who were essentially their neighbors. Now, most of those holding have been transferred to multinational conglomerates who have no care for the the people, no concern for the land, but know it only as numbers on a spreadsheet that must be made to add up a certain way. Because they do not have to LIVE WITH their decisions, they make decisions without much concern for the human implications of those decisions. This is, perhaps a transferable principle to government as well. It is easy to for someone in Washington DC, or in Concord for that matter, to pass a law mandating this or that. They may or may not fund the mandate, but it doesn't matter because then the mandate becomes the problem of the local people. On the other hand, every decision we make at town meeting carries the very clear awareness that it affects not only me, but my neighbors -- the people I see, and whose home I drive by every day. The people whose kids play with my kids. And when I say this awareness is clear, I mean it. It is a topic that is brought up in every discussion at the town meeting -- "this is going to be tough for the folks whose taxes are going to go up." We hear it over and over again. I suspect that even though we are amateurs, this sort of communal awareness causes us to make, on the whole, pretty reasonable decisions.

There are downsides to a local town based government run along these lines, and probably good reasons why you don’t find it anywhere BUT New England. But I gotta tell you, I really like it. I suspect that if more places ran themselves along these lines, we might be much better off as a nation. 

Friday, March 6, 2009

Work, Anagnoresis, and Parapeteia

I have a good friend who is a high school teacher. More specifically, he is a Tech Ed teacher. Those of you who are my age or older may wonder what it is that a Tech Ed teacher teaches. According to my friend, Tech Ed (for Technical Education) is the latest phase in the evolution of what we used to know as “Shop.” In my time, it was more formally knows as “Industrial Arts.” This was where kids who were not on a college track learned basic vocational skills usually relating to some kind of trade – metal working, engine repair, wood working and carpentry, machining or drafting, etc. Apparently, these sorts of things are no longer taught in High School. Apparently, schools now seem to want to prepare everyone to go to college. 

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I think not by much. My friend actually expressed his concern about this at one point. He said, “It used to be that you could graduate from High School and have a good part of the skills you would need to build a house. Not anymore. I’m not sure where someone goes now if he wants to learn to be a carpenter.” 

It is an irony, perhaps, that for all it’s talk about equality of opportunity and diversity, it seems to me that today’s educational establishment is actually becoming much narrower, and trying much harder to fit a wider rang of people into a much tighter channel. I suspect this the case because of a certain prejudice that is overlooked – a prejudice against manual labor. It has become an accepted perspective to view manual labor as almost the equivalent of slavery. It is assumed that if someone digs ditches, paves roads, frames houses, fixes cars, cuts trees, or any number of other forms of actual physical work, that they are most unfortunate, and that the only way to improve their lot is to leave behind their work and become a part of the new information economy. Hence the term “Tech Ed.” It basically means training in the use of computers. 

This misguided philosophy is essentially the pervasive problem of Gnosticism. It’s a tough weed that almost derailed the early church, and is so hardy that it still finds ways to sprout in the bare ground left behind by modern materialism. Somehow the material physical world has become distasteful to the educated people who hold the knowledge of power. The soiling of the hands with real matter is left to ignorant and unfortunate who either don’t know better, or are unable to rise up out of that condition. 

Beyond that, it raises a more concrete problem. It leaves us asking how, if everyone is busy writing computer programs or assembling or managing banks of servers, who will manufacture the circuit boards, build the buildings that house them, or mine the coal and burn it to power those electronic machines?

Mike Rowe, co-creator and host of the Discovery Channel program, Dirty Jobs, addresses this whole question with eloquence and wit. Anybody that can actually talk about how they personally experienced a clear anagnoresis and parapeteia while castrating sheep is worth listening to.


Yeast Burps and Sweat

Peter Reinhart talks about the 4 levels of understanding anything: Literal, Metaphorical, Political (ethical), and Mystical (anagogical). He illustrates this with bread.

My wife and I once considered becoming bakers. We did not have the capital to start the business but it always held a certain fascination for me. The nature of creating and consuming a "transformative" food, as Reinhart presents it here, resonates deeply with me. I love good bread. I love the idea of making something that nourishes people in a very fundamental and literal way. I also love the idea of helping people to understand other way that bread can nourish them. It is no accident that our eucharist is bread and wine, both of them transformed and transformative. He doesn't get explicit about it here, but he is treading sacramental ground and just opening the door a crack to let us begin to see how God uses mundane and ordinary things to make invisible Grace visible and tangible.

All the world, every part of creation is a sacrament of God's grace. Bread is a good place to start seeing that. 

Listen to Reinharts talk here. It's about 15 minutes.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bad Bank

Here is the next installment on economics from the radio program This American Life by NPR. This episode is titled Bad Bank. You may want to take a sedative before listening to this, but by all means, listen. It will clarify much. You can click here to go to the website. Click on the icon for the "Full Episode" to stream it for free. It is about an hour long, so get some tea or coffee, maybe a little snack and plan to settle in for a while.

The most important part comes toward the end where they discuss who is REALLY to blame for this whole fiasco. Their conclusion is consonant with my thinking all along.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Giant Pool of Money

I don’t listen to This American Life – the very hip, slightly cynical, often ironic radio program on NPR – very often. Mostly because I never know what’s coming next. It might be profanity, references to various sexual practices or values, or just stories that are hard for even adults to swallow. The days the program is on I am commonly listening along with my children, but I can’t always see what’s coming to turn it down. What's more, the program tends to have kind of a nasal, slightly whiny tone. It's as if the timbre of the Ira Glass's voice bleeds over into the very spirit and ethos of the program. The world of TAL is just too defined by the odd, abnormal, bleeding, perverse and twisted. Admittedly, it's often delivered with sardonic humor, or even heartfelt pathos, often at the same time. It's fine in small doses. Even interesting and entertaining. Yet there is something about it that makes me feel kind of slimy when the program is over. It needs washing out with some plain wholesome outdoor activity or some act of simple naive faith. I would love to just have Ira over for an afternoon of splitting wood, stone wall building, or even a long walk in the mountains. Something where whining is not accepted and good hard physical work is a wholesome cure for many ills.

So, after Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me are over, I usually just turn the radio off for most of the afternoon. That's because my kids listen. Then they think. Then they ask questions about stuff they have heard on the radio. On balance this has been very good. It has stimulated some really interesting conversations. But…there are some topics that I’d just as soon wait awhile before having to address them. Among those topics I would include homosexuality, adultery, fornication, divorce, abortion, child abuse, and other forms of domestic violence, to name a few.

Last May, however, they broadcast one of the finest programs I have ever heard. It was called “The Giant Pool of Money. The topic was the national mortgage meltdown. One might argue that this is certainly a topic too spicy and fraught with moral ambiguity to allow small children anywhere near it. I would disagree because while sex is obviously way too hard a topic to discuss with children, uncontrolled avarice, and government toppling corruption are just fine, along with graphic violence (I’m kidding folks!).

I strongly recommend clicking on the link and taking 59 minutes or so to listen to the program. If you click on the icon for “full episode” you can hear the program streamed for free. If you wish to save it you can download it for a small fee.

In a few days, I will be posting a link to TAL’s latest attempt to explain the practical economics of our time with a program on the current Banking Crisis. I have a few thoughts on both of these subjects that I will post shortly. I don’t think my thoughts are anything particularly new or startling. They are just what I have been thinking about as we all watch things progressively unravel around us.

These are, indeed, interesting times.