Ricky Gervais Has a Good Point

The disaster in the Philippines has caused my prayers to go towards the people of those islands, but I am prompted to remember the words of Ricky Gervais in the wake of the Oklahoma tonadoes last year. He said, “Praying for something but not doing anything to make it happen has the same effect as writing to Santa & not letting mummy read the letter.” He’s right.

Jesus said pretty much the same thing, if you read your Bible carefully. And while Gervais may not be the prayin’ kind, there’s nothing wrong about his generosity. If I pray and lend my faith to help those in hard times, that’s nice. If I pray *and* offer aid, in abundance, then I’m the Good Samaritan that Jesus spoke of. Now I wonder how many prayers the men that passed by the waylaid traveler said. Maybe none, maybe a hundred. The point that Jesus and Gervais make is that they should have done something more than just pray.

They should have done something more.

There is a statue in Germany, damaged by the war. It is a statue of Christ and his hands are missing. Rather than replace the hands, the people there set a plaque nearby that told everyone, “You are the hands of Christ.” I take that to heart: *I* am the hands of Christ, and so is anyone else willing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and offer shelter to the homeless.

I’m resolved to do something more in this case. I’ll pray with those that pray, and I plan to donate with those that donate. Whether or not you’re in the first group, make sure you’re in the second, because that’s the one that sees to the prayers being answered.

Asalto Navideño

So let’s say you just put on Christmas music that you love, but some hipster doofus party-pooper has to say, “Ecch! Who listens to Christmas music?” For whatever reason, he’s wanting to mess up your holiday spirit. Don’t worry. Just let him know you’ll put on some classic Puerto Rican salsa from the 1970s. Drop Asalto Navideño into the mix and Señor de Party-Pooper will think you ditched the Xmas for some regular stuff. Joke’s on him, though.

Asalto Navideño is a true classic. Granted, it’s not one that is considered a classic in the English-speaking part of the USA, but English isn’t the only language for celebrating Christmas. And, frankly, it’s entirely possible to get just a little tired of hearing “White Christmas.” That’s why you need Asalto Navideño in your musical arsenal.

Willie Colon on trombone and as bandleader coupled with Hector Lavoe on vocals produced some of the best music of the Salsa explosion of the 70′s. How good? Hector Lavoe’s nickname is “The Voice.” When you hear him, you’ll get the picture. Willie Colon’s band is tight and smooth and the music is festive, perfect for dancing, and ought to shut down any Grinch trying to steal your Christmas. He’ll have no clue.

And if, for some reason, the hipster doofus party-pooper picks up that it’s a Christmas album and objects, merely respond with a question, “What, do you disapprove of the music of the Puerto Rican diaspora? What are you, some kind of hater?” No hipster doofus wants to be labeled as being “anti-diversity”, so he’ll get right with the parrandas and let the salsa play.

I love this set and you really owe it to yourself to seek it out and give it a whirl.

Lou Rawls: Merry Christmas, Baby

I start listening to my Christmas music starting the day after Halloween. I kicked things off this year with the Fania All-Stars “Asalto Navidad” (more on that in another post), but the next disc I hit was “Merry Christmas, Baby” by Lou Rawls. Even though the temperature outside was a sunny 79 degrees, Lou and the Crew put me in a holiday mood.

There’s no question: Lou Rawls has got a golden throat. He’s got some musicians that really cook backing him up, so it’s class all the way. I play this disc straight through, no questions asked (except for skipping “Little Drummer Boy”, the one Christmas standard I simply can’t stand). No complaints at all, so let me get to the outstanding tracks. “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” really swings, and I love the big finish on it. “Little Boy Dear” is tender and caring, a perfect song for tucking the kids into bed on Christmas Eve. I love Lou’s “Jingle Bells”, and the a capella “Auld Lang Syne” warms the heart beautifully.

But there’s one song that I put on repeat every time I get to it, and I can play it over and over 20 times or more. “Good Time Christmas” is that song. It’s an exuberant celebration of life and that one line, “Mother I know you been prayin’/ The Lord has seen me through” makes me so happy to hear every time because it’s true: one more year, one more time the Lord’s seen me through. Christmas is a time to celebrate, and this song is a song to play at that celebration.

Lou Rawls puts his distinctive interpretation on the old standards and I love what he does with them. It’s a great mix that balances fun and reverence, and I guarantee it’ll get your Christmas mood up and running strong from here to December 25th.

Heisenberg and Me

I dressed up as Walter White/Heisenberg from the show “Breaking Bad” for Halloween. Although I have nothing to do with the meth trade, I do have a number of factors in common with him. And while our common situations make only anecdotal commentary on education in the USA today, they nevertheless make an informed commentary.

When I was a teacher, I dressed like Walt. Dockers, button-up shirt from a cheap store, and, above all, comfortable footwear. Teachers are on their feet a great deal, so they need as much comfort and support in that area as is possible. You want to make a teacher’s day? Give that teacher a gift card for a shoe store. The clothing is superficial, though. Let us get deeper into things.

In the first episode, Walt is slinging knowledge to a disinterested mass of faces. I’ve had that classroom, too. He’s obviously got a passion for his subject and a belief in its intrinsic value and that of knowledge itself, but the kids in that room don’t share that vision. While there’s a lot to be said for a broad education that offers a wide range of subjects to everyone in school, there’s also the counter: what is the point in learning all that stuff? Really?

If it’s worth knowing, it’s on the state-mandated standardized test, right? And if it’s on the state-mandated standardized test, it’s easy enough for people at or above one standard deviation below average intelligence to pass. While those students right around that one standard deviation below average are struggling with the content, those that are average or better are left adrift. They get asked to tutor those that aren’t as bright, do review after review, and then chastised when, out of boredom, they do something disruptive. Thanks to cell phones, disruptions tend to be quieter these days. Also thanks to cell phones, disruptions tend to be more widespread these days. But those are the options for our hapless average-and-better students in a mainstream classroom.

The next step up is a doozy: the AP track. College Board makes no secret of its pass rates. It posts them for all to see, and quite a few tests hover around the 50% mark. Even so, school boards and administrators think that hard work and gumption are the perfect tonic for getting kids to ace those tests. College Board differs, and has the data to back up its position from the outset. It offers a tool for recruiting potential AP students called “AP Potential.” I love straightforward names like that. AP Potential will look at PSAT scores to determine a child’s potential for passing a particular AP exam. Recruiters can select a pass rate for their classes. If one desires a 100% pass rate, AP Potential will offer up the names of students that scored very highly on the PSAT. If one desires a 50% pass rate, AP Potential will offer up the same high-fliers and then, working its way down the list of scores, will offer up an equal number of students that didn’t score as highly on the PSAT. Those guys are the ones College Board is essentially saying are going to fail to pass the AP exam. It’s not a matter of hard work and gumption: they simply don’t have the aptitude at that time.

No matter! Schools are ranked by the number of kids that take the AP test, regardless of outcome, so into those classes they must go! Although I haven’t yet seen an AP Chemistry section in Breaking Bad, I’ve taught enough AP sections to know right from wrong in setting up those courses. Too often, the AP class has the opposite of the regular class, with the students at or above two standard deviations above average intelligence doing fairly well and everyone else left in the dust. AP courses used to be offered as enrichment to students already familiar with the basic material. Now they are frequently the introduction to that material, which means that the less-apt students in those courses lack the fundamentals needed to flourish in that course. They go on to take the same course in college and typically do very well in the course, but it’s only after getting raked over the coals in an AP course and being part of the 50% of American kids that don’t pass the exam.

So there’s a huge chunk of kids in between the range from special education on up to above-average intelligence that aren’t really being served by the school system. I saw Walt trying to reach them, and I tried to reach them. It’s not really working all that well. I remember, once upon a time when I was in high school, that there were five different tracks for students, allowing for a spectrum of class offerings where students in the class were homogeneous with each other. Now, instead of showing the students that they’re individually important, we tell them they’re as unique as snowflakes and then warehouse them like commodities.

It’s torture for the kids and it’s a beat-down for the teachers. Teachers teach because they want to reach out to kids and show them a bigger world. They want to guide and inform. They don’t share the vision of the state that mandates their primary duty is to provide custodial supervision of minors during campus hours. They are insulted by a system that tells them to either offer up a minimum of information and then drill it until everyone has memorized it or to turn on a firehose of facts and analysis without regard of a student’s ability to receive that much information that quickly. Increasingly, school districts are reaching for canned information so that teachers have less and less discretion in the classroom. Why? It’s so that the district can absolve itself of responsibility in the event a student fails to pass a test. If the teacher didn’t present all the canned material on time, then, obviously, it’s the teacher’s fault for the student’s failure: certainly not the district’s.

And, yes, I see that in Walt’s face. Maybe the actor just copied other teachers he saw without knowing everything that went into the outward appearance but, like the clothes, it’s a dead-on portrayal.

It’s also one of the reasons I left teaching.

I suppose I should write more about that subject, now that I’m able to look back on my decision with some time intervening. I had a number of reasons for leaving the profession, and many of them stem from administrative and legislative decisions that have an adverse impact on the entire educational system.

Q. and A.

Q.: Is there a God?

A.: Yes. I believe there is a God.

Q.: Do you have proof?

A.: I have my own personal experiences, unverifiable via experimentation.

Q.: So how do you know your proof is valid?

A.: The same way I know anything, such as how blue is blue.

Q.: But shouldn’t your belief in God derive from actual, provable evidence?

A.: Why is that? Isn’t all proof subject to the personal bias of the one that views the proof?

Q.: It is, but, surely there is a consensus view that blue is blue based upon the wavelength of light that constitutes what we call “blue.”

A.: I agree. But aren’t there other things that have the same proofs, but have subjective interpretations based upon culture or historical period?

Q.: Give an example.

A.: There’s the debate on marijuana. We have evidence before us of its potential for medicinal uses, but the US Government continues to keep it classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which is to say the USG holds the view that there are no medicinal uses for it. We all have access to the same proofs, but our conclusions are our own. Forming a consensus doesn’t make it more right, either. If a large group believes a lie, does that make it true?

Q.: No, and, hold on there… you’re asking questions. That should be my job.

A.: Why is that?

Q.: I’m Q. Q. goes with “question.” You’re A. A. is for “answer.”

A.: Not necessarily. In biblical studies, “Q.” refers to a yet-undiscovered source for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. “Q.” is the abbreviation for the German word “quelle,” their word for “source.” You could be a source, not a questioner.

Q.: And what would that make you?

A.: I could be Alpha, for all I know. If an Omega shows up in our conversation, that would certainly perpetuate the religious nature of the discussion.

Q.: So you don’t really know who you are?

A.: I could be a fictional character in a very well-imagined story, for all I know.

Q.: That would make the author a God-figure.

A.: Indeed. And perhaps some of my experiences have made me aware of that author’s narrative. His will, so to speak.

Q.: Could you relate those experiences to me?

A.: No. There is something of the sacred about them, and sacred things are personal truths. Sacred things lose some of their value if they are shared too openly or too freely.

Q.: Shouldn’t all truth be open and free? Isn’t keeping things obscure a brute-force way of avoiding scrutiny?

A.: No, not all truth should be open and free. Do you tell an old woman in poor health that her husband has died before you give her a chance to sit down and brace herself for hard news? Not if you’re a thoughtful person. You keep a secret for a while. Other things, you keep secret always, such as in the case of physician’s privilege.

Q.: So you have no proof there’s a God.

A.: You have no proof that this isn’t some massive fictional construct we’re in, where we think we’re human with free will, but we’re really just two guys, named Q. and A., whose very existence sprang into being the moment our conversation started and will end as soon as the conversation ends.

Q.: I find such a thing to be very hard to believe.

A.: And very hard to prove, as well. Yet, it may very well be true.

Q.: So, then, what are the most important questions to ask about God?

A.: You complained earlier about my asking questions. Now you ask me to answer with questions. I love the irony.

Q.: I get the irony, as well.

A.: OK, the most important questions… Is there a God? Does he want me to have a relationship with him based upon evidence or out of trust and love? I guess after those, everything falls into place.

Q.: What do you mean? There are so many other questions to ask. What does God want me to do? Where does he want me to go? Who does he want me to help? Millions of questions.

A.: Yes, but if there is a God, and he wants us to follow him in faith, without proof, then everything else falls into place after that. Instead of looking for proof, one looks instead for love.

Now What?!

Now What

Since I’m doing a long haul every day in to work, I needed to get some new tunes for the trip. I am thrilled that I treated myself to Deep Purple’s latest studio disc, “Now What?!”. I loved “Purpendicular”, enjoyed “Abandon”, but was disappointed by “Bananas.” “Rapture of the Deep” let me know that “Bananas” was a slight mis-step, but I still wasn’t 100% satisfied with it as a put it on and leave it on disc, the way I felt about the best DP offerings. Happily, “Now What?!” returns to that set-it-and-forget-it level of quality. I can put it on and relax, knowing full well that every track hits on all cylinders.

There were times listening to it when I thought it sounded like a Yes album or a Pink Floyd set. It’s Deep Purple through and through, but they band has chosen 2013 as the year to really open up on their progressive side. I’m not complaining: I think the result is marvelous. But if you’re looking for the straight-no-chaser rock and roll of “Machine Head” or the MkIII lineup, this is not the album you’re looking for. If you enjoyed the more introspective and moody tracks from “Fireball” and “Who Do We Think We Are!”, then this is the one for you.

Lyrically, the disc has many dark moments – comments on current financial practices providing the fuel for those statements. “Blood From a Stone” pulls no punches and “Uncommon Man” is filled with acid. “Hell to Pay” is a chorus rocker from 1983 that manages to fit in well with the progressive mix on the rest of the album. How did they do that? And “Vincent Price” is straight out of The Damned’s goth playbook, but, again, it fits masterfully. These gramps with amps certainly remember how to craft a great hard rock album with richness of content that keeps a listener coming back for more. I may still pick and choose from the last two of their studio offerings, but I really think I got this lineup’s best efforts since “Purpendicular” on these tracks.

If you like classic rock, but are tired of the same thing over and over on the radio, then get this disc and get into some great tracks that should be all over the airwaves. That they are not has more to do with robot-generated playlists and MTV not showing videos than the merit of the songs themselves. I don’t know how many more albums Deep Purple has left in them, but I’m glad they got this one out. 10 out of 10 on this one, because I like DP with prog flourishes.

Old Friends

Old Friends they shine like diamonds
Old Friends you can always call
Old Friends Lord you can’t buy ‘em
You know it’s Old Friends after all

- “Old Friends”, Guy Clark

This isn’t an easy one to write, because it involves a long goodbye. So I’ll just say it simply. Joe Stuart has been a good friend and neighbor for 21 years. He’s 90, nearly 91, and if his time hasn’t already come by the time I write this, well, that train’s almost pulled into the station. I took his family to the hospital the other night, late, right around midnight, and it was one of those hard rides that follows a hard phone call from someone you know, but at the wrong time to be social. Those calls are never easy, and they often involve a goodbye that you never want to say.

I’ll remember the words he said when I gave him a blessing. “Thank you. I feel so peaceful now.” Just a few hours later, we were driving to the hospital. Sometimes a blessing of health is a miracle cure that relieves suffering and gives a person joy in his life… and sometimes, that relief from suffering makes that life in the past tense.

I’m just glad that Joe, his family, and I all know who we are, where we want to go, and how to get there. There’s a place where there aren’t any goodbyes. With God’s love and Jesus’ grace, we all can get there, all of us, every one. We just have to find that blessing in our lives that makes us peaceful, and we’re there.

Goodbye, Joe Stuart. You’ve always been a person I wanted to share a bench with so you could tell me about old times and the wisdom you learned. I’ll have to say goodbye to you one day, so it might as well be today, here and now.

I’ll see you again, though. Of that I’m certain.

The Consequences of Not Compromising

The Tea Party is engaging in the politics of division, not compromise. They refuse to let others have anything they want if they are not able to have their way without compromise. The last time the USA had a round of that sort of thing on a national level, it was the pro-slavery faction that dragged the nation into civil war.

When our leadership is so full of pride and self-importance that it cannot think of statesmanship and focuses solely on selfish ends such as party fundraising and re-election for re-election’s sake, we have a situation that, in history, produced one of four outcomes. I’ve described these before, but the concept bears repetition. The outcomes from this current immobilizing rift will be either constitutional convention, civil war, national dissolution, or authoritarian regime.

A constitutional convention requires a desire to work things through: I don’t see that here. Election politics involve dividing people. American politicians are in a permanent re-election mode, so they are constantly dividing, not reaching out. No constitutional convention, or if we have one, it will fail with the same gridlock that we see now in Congress.

Civil war involves regional splits. We don’t have that here. National dissolution? In a looser federation of states, perhaps, but there is still enough will at the center to assert itself on any would-be breakaway state or region. That will at the center points the way to authoritarian regime.

It need not be an ideological authoritarianism: it could, in fact, arise out of a state of emergency declared in the face of a massive government and economic crisis. With the budget going nowhere and the debt ceiling about to be reached without extension, we are well on our way to that big crisis. But it need not be this time: the Congress may yet blink in the face of that showdown and one side or another budge to the demands of the other.

But the situation continues. If not now, then some point in the future will produce the situation in which, finally, neither side compromises and the crisis occurs. We will then see, piece by piece, authoritarianism solidify and dominate the nation.

The worst thing from the Tea Party is that they accuse Obama of being a tyrant. In their idiotic refusal to cooperate with him, they may very well have sealed their own fate and that of the nation in causing a tyrant to emerge as a consequence of their uncompromising tantrums.

Understanding Russia and Syria

Robert S. McNamara once said that a salient cause behind the failure of American policies in Vietnam was our inability to understand the motivations of our opponents there. We understood our opponents in the Cuban Missile Crisis, so nuclear war was averted there. We did not understand Vietnam, so we failed in our goal of securing a friendly, democratic government there. We now find ourselves in a new struggle with Russia, this time involving Syria. Proper understanding of the situation there is going to be vital if we want any hope of a peaceful resolution that all parties find acceptable.

Understanding Russia is simple in this case: they need to sell gas to Western Europe to survive. A pipeline from Qatar to Turkey through an Assad-less Syria is a cut across Russia’s throat. Who does Russia sell its gas to if not Europe? How does Russia survive if it does not get money from the sale of gas?

With survival on the line, Russia will risk even war to keep that pipeline from happening. Do we in the USA understand that? Are we in the USA willing to risk even war so that Qatar can sell gas to Europe and al-Qaeda can add Syria to the list of nations it has a free hand to operate in?

Is It Necessary?

While I was in Russia, I learned that the Russians do what is necessary. Resources are limited there, so they must prioritize carefully in order to ensure survival. When they fought off millions of invading German troops, for example, was it necessary that they develop strategic bombers? No, it was not. They focused on fighters to attain air superiority and ground attack aircraft to destroy tanks. They made two of the best planes of the war that way. Was it necessary that they have nearly countless models of tanks for every occasion, like the Germans? No, it was not. The Russians made the T-34 tank, perfected it in the T-34/85, and added the JS2 and Su-122 to complete the lineup. The primary role for tanks was destroying enemy tanks. Next role was mobile artillery for ground troops. Those tanks did the job, and are considered some of the best tanks ever made, certainly the best of their day. It was necessary to make those, not others.

Is it necessary for Russian food to taste amazing? No, it is not. There is dessert, and their desserts are what tastes best. Is it necessary to mow everything? No, it is not. The grass in medians and shoulders will grow tall. Is it necessary to move large numbers of people efficiently in a major city? Yes. Moscow has one of the best subway systems in the world.

Now, Vladimir Putin is asking the USA, “Is it necessary to have a war in Syria?” It is clear that the Russians would prefer not to have one, given how they recently declared they would secure Assad’s chemical weapons. They want the USA to answer “No” to that question.

If the USA does answer “Yes”, however, what will be the Russian reaction? Well, one can see that the Russians saw it as necessary to put their fleet and some soldiers in the area before asking the question. If the USA answers “Yes”, then the Russians seem to believe that it is necessary to be involved in that Syrian war, should it happen.

And now Putin’s question is bigger: “Is it necessary to have a war with Russia?” And when a Russian asks about what is necessary, do not doubt his resolve to do what he must to in order to survive. Do not doubt that resolve, or they will drag pieces of your capitol back to Moscow and build a museum around those pieces, because in Russia, they consider that to be a necessary way to learn history. It’s quite effective.