Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Health Care Addiction

Akafred notes that however much we protest not liking more government involvement in health care, we are likely to quickly grow addicted to any little thing it provides for us - even if the whole deal is a net loss.

Supply-Side Religion

It seems every time I go over to First Things I kick myself for not going more regularly. The sociology of religion is profoundly annoying to many believers, because by design it leaves out all the invisible and unmeasurable actions of God - in some sense the whole ball of wax of what church is about - to focus on the behavior of the religious according to purely secular factors. I find that quite useful myself. Determining what part of our individual and collective behavior is entirely of this world, and not different than what one would find in secular groups, allows us to cease kidding ourselves about things spiritual. If members of political parties, service organizations, and nonprofits treat belonging to those groups in similar manner to how churchgoers treat theirs, it is possible - even likely - that we are viewing human nature, not God's nature, in the behavior.

The current issue has an article The Prophet Motive by John Lamont. He lays out the traditional theories of religious adherence - the secularization thesis of Durkheim and Weber, then the newer rational choice (free market) model of Finke and Stark - and shows brisk contrary evidence to both. However useful each might be, they clearly don't explain everything. Lamont finds the supply-side explanation of Reginald Bibby much more powerful.
Because of the long-term exchange relations that religious organizations require, people are forever paying the costs in the here and now while most of the rewards are to be realized elsewhere and later. As a result, humans are prone to backslide, to get behind on their payments. . . . Thus, other things being equal, people will always be in favor of a modest reduction in their costs. In this fashion, humans begin to bargain with their churches for lower tension and fewer sacrifices. They usually succeed, both because it is those with the most influence—the clergy and the leading laity—who most desire to lower the level of sacrifice and because each reduction seems so small and engenders widespread approval.

This process leads churches to lower the standards required for membership. This pleases people in the short run, but in the long run, after the effects of lowered standards make themselves felt, it drives them away.
A good read, with much to think about, particularly in terms of the American and Western European histories of churches.

Funeral Reading

Justin Wilson's funeral is Wednesday. Chris is in Florida with the family.

He will be reading something for the ceremony, a short piece by another Marine which he found appropriate. Those who know Chris know that speaking before a group is already pretty amazing. He has always been extremely reticent about such things. Well, that's one of the changes the Corps has brought out in him. He spoke at church after getting back from basic training, thanking everyone for their prayers - I was pretty stunned.

He posted he piece he is reading on his Facebook page. It includes the phrase "to kill for those who cannot kill" - that jumped out at me. My civilian, ex-liberal, evasive self reacted badly to that in the first instant. You're supposed to say defend those who cannot defend themselves, it sounds...well, nobler. My second thought was of course you have to think that way if you're a serviceman. They have to be artificially blunt, outside of the rules of usual discourse, to do their job. But reading Chesterton recently allowed me to think it through farther. It's not just artificially blunt for a soldier's purpose. It's the reality. When we think honestly about justice, we see that there are people who must be stopped from committing injustice. And if they won't stop, they have to be killed. Soldiers take on not only that risk, but that burden. They act on behalf of those who cannot, or dare not.

As I don't imagine people go back and keep up with comments sections here that often, I mention that Terri from Wheat Among Tares heard about Justin's death on the radio while she was down at her father's house in Florida. It gave her an eerie feeling to connect that radio story with the son of a blogger she follows in NH. It is eerie. The threads which connect us to each other in this life are surprising and odd.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Christian Witness

A friend sent me a youtube clip of Gabe Lyons being interviewed about his book Unchristian. I think I'd like the lad. His premise is that nonChristians in his generation have negative images of Christians that interferes with their even consider the claims of Christ.

Favorite topic of mine. The immediate conclusion everyone draws, without it going through their logical processes, is that the kids are right, and Christians should stop doing all this dumb stuff and start acting like Christians, and more people would believe in Jesus.

I haven't seen any evidence for that in my Christian lifetime. I have been in places where the Christians are annoying, rigid, and hypocritical, and in places where they are meek, winsome, and sincere - and of course the wide variety of in-betweens and combinations. I have known Christians who were giants of generosity and kindness who had no visible effect on those around them. I don't say it never has any effect, for conversion stories are full of descriptions of inspiring figures who maintained their faith under pressure and caused others to think. We should certainly guard our behavior as if it all depended on our character.

But it doesn't. It's 90% sales job against us, and the young are particularly susceptible to adopting attitudes around them. We swim against a great tide, and all we can hope is to rescue a few.

Politically liberal Christians like to believe this myth because they want more space for their politics in the national conversation. Evangelical die-hards like the myth because it tells them if everyone just behaved better all would go right. Nonbelievers like to have someone else to blame for their unbelief. Mainstreamers, groups raising money, fundamentalists, church drop-outs, cultists, preachers inspiring the faithful, church planters - absolutely everyone has a reason why this myth tickles their ears. We want it to be true.

Doesn't make it true.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

President's Bracket

There can't be many brackets in good shape at this point. ESPN tells us that Obama's is in the top 12% - which means, BTW, that he's at exactly the 88th percentile or they would have reported it differently - and good on him for that.

I don't recall sports journalists being interested in Nixon's opinion, and he knew a lot of baseball and football. Or Gerald Ford's, who played football for Michigan. Or Dutch Reagan, who had been a baseball announcer. Or Bush 41, who played 3B for Yale, or Bush 43 who had owned a baseball team (and whose believing Sosa was on the downside of his career looks less laughable now that the steroid info has come out).

In 2009, they even went back and asked ex-President Clinton for a bracket. He didn't do too badly, as I remember.


Chef Boiardi

I hadn't known he wasn't a paid actor


Akafred mentioned seeing Jose Feliciano in concert and hearing him do a lightedhearted number about Chicano versions of commercials. Sounded like fun, but I couldn't find that one. It did give me a chance to listen to a lot of his numbers, though

And good clean guitar work always puts me in mind of this tune

Yeah, better than the original. Who woulda thought?

Danube Morning, Danube Night

A Note Of Interrogation

Such passages have no purpose except to insinuate a chill of doubt - a chill which the writer himself has caught he knows not where. They will generally be found to end with a note of interrogation. It does not say "We cannot win," but "Can we win?" The note of interrogation is more dangerous than any dogmatic pacifism or decisive treason, because it is closer to humanity, yet none the less close to hell. For it was in this fashion of false inquiry that human nature itself was betrayed; and I could fancy that men drew the Tempter with the curves of a serpent because they can be twisted into the shape of a question mark.
GK Chesterton "Milk and Water Pacifism," 1917
I recognised the question-mark technique the moment GKC mentioned it, for it has been standard on the covers of Time and Newsweek as long as I can remember. The insinuation under the pretense of opening discussion is standard journalist fare titling editorials or "special reports" on the TV news. Can Bush Recover? Can We Still Win in Iraq? Are Americans Too Fat? Like Iago, they make all accusations by making none.
OTHELLO. Indeed? ay, indeed. Discern'st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?
IAGO. Honest, my lord?
OTHELLO. Honest? Ay, honest.
IAGO. My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO. What dost thou think?
IAGO. Think, my lord?
OTHELLO. Think, my lord? By heaven, he echoes me
As if there were some monster in his thought
Too hideous to be shown. Thou dost mean something.
Or, as Chesterton notes, it is the techiques of the earliest tempter.
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" Genesis 3:1
The discussion is immediately framed in a manner calculated to elicit doubt, without providing any reason for doubt.

The answerer, of course, has the heady conceit of believing he has doubted and asked questions all on his own.

Should I add this one to my Cultural Tribes series?


Friday, March 26, 2010

Chesterton On Chivalry in War

Chesterton had read an essay in The Nation (yes, the same one), "On Chivalry In War," and wrote an answer to it. The article included the sentences "In the eighteenth century Swift and Voltaire were singular in thinking that war is fundamentally criminal. To-day we all thinks so." Chesterton replied,
In that case it would be truer to say that to-day we all flatly refuse to think. War, like weather, cannot in itself be either criminal or saintly;
He goes straight at this idea, even more popular in our day.

In this matter, as in many others, I am on the side of the vulgar majority. But I realise that there is an aristocracy of intellectuals who are quite spontaneous and sincere in the disgust which I describe; and who, while they are too intelligent to be content with merely praising peace, are infuriated by anyone praising war.
Heck, that attitude is now so firmly embedded in the culture of the west that even I have some of it.

Do not wonder when people cannot seem to make the elemenary distinctions between our actions and those of our enemies, such as Kennedy suggesting that Abu Ghraib was the same under Saddam and the US. Its first motive is not so much treason or an oversensitive conscience as a refusal to admit there can be anything redeeming or just about any war. All wars must be regarded as essentially evil because they are essentially terrible; thus all justifications for a war must be undermined, and any claim that we have acted with general restraint and nobility must be squelched.

This is one of the ways that people who are against war prove that they are more moral than thee. "Courage" must mean the mild inconveniences they face being disliked and hounded by those they have disliked and hounded for years; not courage in pain and danger in the Middle East.

Black Swan?

There are occasional commenters on righty blogs who suggest that revolution, including possible violence, may be in store for us. I have little patience with this, not because I find it horrible, but because I find it silly. Yet it occurs to me that my reasons for thinking it silly are no better supported than the reasons other find it likely. A Man from Mars would likely say "I don't see that either of you are offering very convincing reasons for your premise." So the likelihood revolution, in the sense of "dramatic change in how we live" rather than "guys firing out of windows," seems worth considering. The guys shooting out of windows part seems too incredible to me to consider, and so I will pretend for the moment that it is so incredible as not to be discussed. There is a nagging thought at the back of my brain that says "it seemed incredible to many who had it come upon them nonetheless," but I bury that. This is not that sort of country, where presidents get assassinated or enemies blow up our buildings.

As usual, I will clear up some debris first. Violence tends to come off the left instead of the right in this country, and in most western nations. The usual pattern is that people who believe themselves gentle make excuses while thugs get violent. Then the incidents go down the memory hole. It is not always even true lefties who commit the violence, but any member of the grievance lobby who believes The Right is responsible for their unhappiness in some way. And as progressives certainly believe that is true, at any rate, they give encouragement to such, even folks with very illiberal values. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that.

Nonetheless, there is a strong defensive posture of violence on the right, touchy and suspicious, saying "We'll be ready." This is felt by those on the left as similar to peasants with pitchforks, or storming the Bastille, but that is almost a complete misunderstanding by them. It is likely a projection, in fact - a supposing that their anger must be like my anger, and my anger goes on offense.

Yet other revolutions, less than stormings but more than realignments, may be more possible than I would have thought. In NNT's The Black Swan, Taleb relates that Lebanon was thought to be a balanced and stable place despite the conflicts around it. When political upheaval came, many Lebanese tooked up temporary residence in hotels in Cyprus to wait it out, expecting a return to the normalcy that had prevailed for centuries. They are still there in hotels, decades later. (Excerpt)

So. Inertia is powerful, and Washington tends to run on as it always has, suggesting that this is all just a lot of noise and things won't change much. That's first-class proof, isn't it? Second, people have been predicting imminent cataclysmic changes as long as I can remember - likely race wars, class wars, Christian apocalypse, environmental destruction, population explosion, currency meltdown, oil crises, you name it, someone has looked at it and announced that doom is nigh. So that proves... okay, no it doesn't, but it suggests... well, even that's a little strong. What it suggests is no one wants to look stupid by predicting disasters that don't happen, so it's socially safer to predict no disaster is coming.

Third, we've had politicians who lie before, so we can live through that. And we've had economic crises, so we'll get through that. And we've had enemies and gotten through that, and we've been divided and gotten through that, so, so... I mean, this is nothing new. Americans argue about things and sometimes we have wars and depressions and stuff, but...

Fourth, America is destined to be around for a long time, right? And so far it has been. It was here yesterday, it's here today. Won't God just make sure that whatever we do, He'll keep us going, because He really needs America in order to... do...something. And fifth, a lot of those people predicting disaster are clearly weird, so we don't have to believe them.

History does not, in fact, repeat itself. Some actions tend to produce certain results, and it is wise to know that, but this precise combination of events has never occurred. Not in ancient Greece, not in Medieval Venice, not in the USSR, not in any of the American decades. Each day is new, and uncharted.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Budapest Tourist

It's a hedgehog. Really.

Impolite Sympathy

Here’s where it’s infuriating working with progressives (not all of them). I am very careful at work to whom I mention Chris’s sad news about Wilson’s death in Afghanistan. Most folks, liberal or conservative, express proper sorrow or sympathy. All conservatives and more than 75% of the liberals get this. But I have already had a few people immediately inject their political view into it. Why don’t we just spend all this money on the war on health care? It’s a terrible war, we never should’ve gone there (that one was lying, BTW. She specifically mentioned how she had supported going into Afghanistan when she was telling me how pointless Iraq was about four years ago). They are not trying to lecture, they don’t think. They say this with appropriate sorrowful affect, as if they are expressing some sort of reasonable sympathy. However, one did get angry and haranguing at me, glaring meaningfully about Republicans – he spit the word out – who were always getting us into wars where people die uselessly. And this is out of the population of progressives I thought it might be safe to mention this news to.

I have often maintained that liberals do not so much disagree with others as absolutely not understand them. This is a great example. If you don’t just intuitively get why these are not actual expressions of sympathy – if you don’t feel deeply in your bones how inappropriate this is, then I submit that there is a basic level of human interaction that either never developed in you, or has died under the weight of some more artificial morality. It is your lack. It is your inadequacy. And you should STFU and ponder that.

Chagall Windows - Zurich

Just because I like them.

Health Care

I have not weighed in much on the health care debate, though I have followed it closely. I consider some important aspects neglected by most people in the debate, and haven’t really known where to fit them in.

It’s good to have someone to set you back a bit, reminding you to go at first questions, rather than the ephemeral political debate. Loyal Achates, who can be found here, had the following comment on one of the posts about health insurance reform over at neo’s
Loyal Achates Says:
You know what? I’m one of the evil young people you’ve been talking about, and a leftist, and a supporter of health care reform. I do think it didn’t go far enough in extending universal coverage but I am willing to accept it as a step forward.
You know what else? I was born with a pre-existing condition - specifically, Tetralogy of Fallot. no insurance company in America will cover me, and my cardiologist tells me I’m going to need regular surgeries just to stay alive.
Would I be ‘free’ in a country where I was simply left to die because I couldn’t, at the age of 24, scrape together the $100,000 needed for the operation and subsequent hospital stay? You tell me.
It’s a very fair question. Even with the disclaimers that people can pretend anything on the internet and leave out important information, it remains true that there are people in situations much like this in our country. In fact, everywhere in the world. (And besides, I tend to think LA is truthful on this anyway.)

Here’s my worry: Loyal Achates isn’t so much unusual as he is a canary in the mine. Health care costs are rising, not because of inefficiency or heartless business practices or stunning malpractice claims – though these all deserve significant attention – but because the products and services provided simply are very expensive. And they are going to get more expensive - much, much more expensive – for the foreseeable future. We can do magical things we were never able to do. We can keep people alive (such as a family friend with CF) far longer than we could. We can save people who simply died not very long ago. And it costs a fortune.

A little background on the American way of dealing with this. I was going to call this an interpolated palimpsest, but that's not quite accurate, and just pretend. (An example of the use of of interpolated palimpsest in context, from one of my favorite books. Scroll down to Test Paper I.)

The real division occurs because this post is too long, and I wanted to create a break somewhere. Here is good. Go get coffee or something.

The old method, still the norm in poor countries, is that you purchase the medical care, get some person or persons to purchase it for you, or you go without, with full consequences: blindness, incapacity, death. Who was expected to help you with this varied from place to place, but it was a much more restricted group than now. Your immediate family might be expected to impoverish themselves if necessary. Extended family, church, or neighborhood might have some expected moral (though not legal) obligation, which they might fulfill with contributions, organizing benefits, or providing care. The larger community had little expected responsibility. This was only a century ago. All those children’s books, plays, and movies about little Elizabeth who needed “an operation,” or “a specialist in New York,” and was languishing in misery as the family strained to be able to afford such a thing, was not so long ago.

The somewhat new method is that we spread the cost out over a large number of people, either through private health insurance or government provision. As rare conditions are by definition rare, it was thought to be fairer to be a society where everyone chips in to provide for the few who were in dire situations through no observable fault of their own.

Somewhere between these two methods was the foundation of hospitals, often by religious groups, which provided some free or reduced-fee care. Hospitals tend to be part of large health-care industry groups or attached to colleges (themselves often religiously founded) now, but we can still detect that solution through their names: Beth Israel, St. Mary’s, Baptist Hospital. No one was legally required to be generous, but it was a social expectation that all would be as generous as they could. Americans, especially religious Americans, considered it part of their self-definition to be open-handed.

For many reasons, some good, some bad, this has gradually shaded into government provision of many helps that were once voluntary charity. The lines are not sharp here. American colonial communities recognised some obligation to the poor in their midst, and towns, not churches even when the two were virtually interchangeable, would vote public funds for poor farms, doctors, hospitals. Through long eras when the great majority of citizens belonged to a formal religious group with might provide a conduit for giving, they allocated some of their giving via taxation, insisting on the generosity rather than leaving it to generous feeling. But in the end, it was the same amount of money for the community as a whole.

Did the Catholic voters fear the Methodist churchgoers wouldn’t pony up? I jest. The idea has grown in America that the government is the primary expression of the community’s values. This sense has increased rapidly as people stopped going to church, which is why secularists are far more likely to regard government help as the defining item in whether a community is generous or not. Those who regard the government as an impersonal hired entity don’t see it that way.

Despite the political rhetoric, most Americans have some of both values operating, and we are fighting over How much is enough/how much is too much? We have always had a mixed socialist/free market system. Until comparatively recently, almost no Americans thought that the common weal - in our current narrow sense of equalisation - was the dominant reason for government. But neither has "rugged individualism" been so central as we imagine. The frontier peoples banded together as soon as they could. The phrase does not seem to occur until the early 20th C. The conflict of values also brings in other, messier questions: If the government expresses the will of the people in charity, isn’t it just as fair that it express the will of the people in definition of marriage or beginning of life? An interesting philosophical question – and part of why we have a Constitution.

End of Interpolated Palimpsest. Back to our regularly-scheduled programming.

So the newest method, much present in America but more pronounced in other industrialised nations, is that the cost of everything is spread out over everyone. In theory, anyway. To the government-as-expression people, this seems the only fair way. There are half-a-dozen enormous questions in the health care debate, including what “everything” is and who “everyone” is; who is allowed to make money and how much; does gifting improve the general morals and/or does it promote the deterioration of responsibility.

But all these questions are going to be swamped under the practical consideration that will force re-examination. Health care costs are rising, and will rise no matter what we do or who is in charge. We can be efficient, preventative, empirically-driven, and wise to slow this, but we will not prevent it. We are moving into a time when every family has a Loyal Achates at some point, and then into a time when a majority of us come up against the need for a medical treatment beyond the means of any but the wealthiest to afford. Whether we’re paying for that out-of-pocket or just tossing in a co-pay while we all share the burden, as medical care improves, half of the citizenry (er, residents) will require something that costs two years’ salary to effect. The cost will not go away just because people deserve the care.

I very much hope to be wrong on this. Perhaps some truly magical medical advances will turn out to be cheap. Perhaps we will culturally decide that most of us don’t want to live beyond 100 anyway, and palliative care become the norm beyond 80. But more likely, a lot of us are going to want to live to 120 if we can, and if an expensive procedure is needed at 75 we will insist it be performed. And then get a few others at 90 and 110.

If you want to see a hockey-stick graph that’s real, don’t go to environmental sites, go to the health-cost info. It’s not just machinery and medicines, but skilled people putting in time. Obama’s opponents have complained “where is the money going to come from?” It’s a fair question, but it is going to come anyway, Obamacare or no. Unless our robot doctors and nurses become really good, really fast.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Budapest Tourist - Two

Inside St. Matthias Church

For Fans of "Lost"

Ben tells me he has picked out one of the clues from season one that has just showed up again, and thinks he can project a lot of its meaning. I'm trying to force his hand by writing this, so you'll go over to his Ten-Four Films blog (top of my sidebar) and pester him. It has to do with Watership Down, but I'm not going to repeat his comments beyond that.

Justin Wilson, USMC

Chris called this morning to say that his best friend "Wilson" had been killed in Afghanistan. We had heard about Wilson over the last year - never with a first name, but clearly someone Chris liked and spent time with. He had visited Justin's family in FL last year, and met his fiancee.

Fiancee. It just kills me to hear that word associated with one who died. Her name is Hannah. Prayers, please.

And his parents, of course. We immediately thought of them and how brutal it must be to have one's fears realized. We don't know more details. We are presuming an IED, because that is the most common cause of fatalities for drivers in Afghanistan.

Budapest Tourist - One

Related to the adoption series, pictures I took in Budapest in 2001. Most of these were taken a stone's throw from our hotel. Really. The Hotel Berg, up on the Castle Mount, is about 50 feet from St. Matthias Church. And it is (was?) inexpensive.

Monday, March 22, 2010


I ran across a marvelous quote today while trekking through the swamps of Paul De Man writing tor the Nazis, Jacques Lacan's impregnating his friend's wife, the general obscurantism and puffiness of Derrida, Foucault...a plague on all their houses. Jeffrey Mehlman, quoted in Alan Spitzer's Historical Truth and the Lies About The Past.
...are grounds for viewing the whole of deconstruction as a vast amnesty project for the politics of collaboration during WWII.


...to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man. Polonius, in William Shakespeare's Hamlet Act I
The standard take on this bad Dad's advice is that this lying gasbag mouths platitudes that he himself does not follow. We usually regard "to thine own self be true" as one of those man-in-the-mirror, listen-to-your-conscience schemes.

More recently, there has been a more narcissistic interpretation, along the lines of Follow Your Bliss, Do As You Please, Hold On To Your Dreams, Who Gives A F*** What Anyone Else Thinks. We should be grateful for the change, because the exaggeration points up the flaws in the original idea. Our "selfs" are formed in the context of others. We really have no self except in a social context. As we mature and gain control of the something that is us, we internalise the others, choosing among them, and orienting our behavior to the best of them, even when they are not present. This is, I suppose, a self of a sort, which is able to choose what others will be its context: who we will live up to.

Being true to one's "self," then, is to ignore the context of the impact we have on others. It is ultimately a selfishness. The truth is closer to "To others be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, that thou will be true to thine own best self."

We Angry White Guys Again

Obama's popularity is consistently down - way down -among women, hispanics, moderates, independents, college graduates. But according to the LATimes, it's those angry white males acting up again.

I'm not angry, just perpetually irritated. I expect Obama will get a bump because the leftists who were growing more disenchanted are pleased with the passage of health insurance reform. "Disapproval" always means from any direction, remember.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Celtics-Lakers in the 80's as a Cultural Marker

My brother and one of my sons have both enjoyed reading Chuck Klosterman. I might well like him myself, but as often happens, my first exposure to his writing put me off and I have never made the effort to get beyond that. Predictably, it was a section my brother read out loud to me while I was trying to do something else – strike one – and made a point he thought it would be good for me to hear – strike two. He was not at all consciously preaching to me, merely, from his perspective, commenting on a subject in which I have a known interest, from a POV he found novel and wished to share with me to help me see the issue in a more expansive light.

People who don’t go to church are not aware how much they preach. Those of us who listen to sermons and Sunday School lessons, who go to conferences or read books whose express intent is to improve us, have a more sensitive nose for such things. I don’t mind being preached to by a person who is aware he is preaching. (There are qualifiers I’m going to add to that in another post.)

I have an ambivalent attitude toward Massachusetts, and Boston in specific. It is part of NH culture to disapprove of anything MA and find fault with its citizens. Yet my personal dislike is mostly for effect. Okay, half for effect. Hmm. You get the idea. They don’t ruin all our children who go down there, just a percentage. But the Boston teams are, by and large, the New England teams. And even I like going to a city occasionally, and I certainly don’t have any other cities that interest me.

Boston is regularly accused of being one of the most racist cities in the country. Southie’s opposition to forced busing – which was 35 years ago – is regularly cited as evidence. Yet perhaps it’s true. The Red Sox under the Yawkeys were anti-black (that was 45 years ago) and current residents insist it’s still a prejudiced place. From this, the concentration of white players on the Celtics starting with the Bird era in 1979 was treated as an obvious sign of the continuance or racism. No amount of counterevidence would convince the accusers that Boston was stocking up on white players – grudgingly admitted to be very good white players – to please its fan base in Boston, plus racists all over the country.

Klosterman’s essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs jumps off at this point. He is clearly a bright guy, has wonderful sardonic phrasing, and is quite insightful in reading the culture. He expands the idea beyond racism to a fuller concept of old-fashioned attitudes versus modern ones. The reportage of the Celtics as hard-working, gritty, overachieving players compared to the naturally talented but less-disciplined LA players he treats as not just code words for racism, but for an entire array of values. It was certainly played that way in the media at the time, and that is still the received wisdom today. Klosterman packs the entire clash of cultures into these symbols. A fascinating idea.

I wondered at first if this was more symbol-creation by white people than anything black attitudes were driving. One could no longer be a hippie, but you could get the next generation’s equivalent by being on the “side” of African-Americans. But my research was pretty clear that the resentment of Bird in black communities was real. Adding in McHale and Ainge just “proved” it to them. I had forgotten Isiah Thomas’s comments about Bird, for example. But remembering Scoop Jackson’s comments at ESPN sealed it for me. When the Celtics were driving for their first title in a long time with the addition of Kevin Garnett, Jackson assured black fans that it was finally time to forgive the Celtics, and okay to root for them now. Gee, Scoop, that’s awfully white of you to say that.

So it wasn’t just PC-whites inventing this; they jumped on to a real “cause” in the black community, to show how hip they were. Rooting for the Lakers showed what sort of person you were. More importantly, you got to make assumptions about people who rooted for the Celtics and think of yourself as a better sort of person.

It is tempting to reject the whole idea because the symbols don’t work out as nicely as advertised. LA had a white coach holding the implied whip hand over black players, while Boston had a black coach with his implied whip hand over white players. Boston was the first team to start five black players, and one of the first to have any at all. Magic really was a more naturally talented person than the fanatic, overachieving Bird. Kareem more than Parish. The Celtics brought in Bill Walton, the modern-hippie archetype.

Plus there is something more than slightly insane about believing that Red Auerbach cared about anything more that winning basketball games.

But symbols don’t have to be perfect to get elevated to icon status, they just have to be close approximations and in the right place at the right time. That the symbol isn’t fair doesn’t mean it isn’t what people believe. Contradictory details are ignored, only confirming evidence is kept. So I think Klosterman is right that the LA fans – the national fans; I don’t hold anything against anyone rooting for their home team. You have to, man – adopted the Lakers as saying something about themselves.

Yet that is only one side of the equation. The ready assumption is that the other half must also be correct, and Boston fans were making a racial, even cultural statement themselves. Well, maybe. I certainly never heard or read anyone saying how relieved they were that there was a half-white team doing well in the NBA, but you wouldn’t expect people to. The three people I do know who don’t follow basketball like they did in the old days because they don’t like “how they play” now are all liberals. Three is a small number, but if I’m going to get up to the 80% estimate of Scoop’s about racist fans from my own personal experience, I’m going to have to encounter 12 conservatives in a row who talk in racist code about why they don’t like basketball now.

The modern, hipper fans of Lakers Showtime get half their theory proved. Just not the half they wanted.


My father-in-law, a Roosevelt Democrat, turns 90 this year. We were down in Scituate yesterday, and he unloaded back copies of magazines on me, as he always does. Some good, like Smithsonian. But also Time and Newsweek, which he supplements by reading the Boston Globe. I haven't asked which TV station he gets news and commentary from, but I can pretty much guarantee it's not Fox.

He tells me his opinions. He's an educated, intelligent man, and he says things very thoughtfully. He very thoughtfully tells me the opinions he has formed after paying careful attention to the events of the day. These are his own judgments, not anything some journalist has predigested for him and packaged in a way to get him to agree with the standard liberal journalist narrative.

By sheer coincidence, his opinions, even his original ones, line up exactly with the prevailing beliefs of his sources. What are the odds, eh? He liked the earlier George Bush, who he thought was a decent man, but thinks the son was rather common, and not very smart. (He forgets that I was his also his son-in-law in '88 and '92, when he didn't think Bush 41 was decent.) Clinton had flaws, of course, but he can't understand why people expect their leaders to be perfect in everything. Which is not what he said in '98. And for the record, I don't expect leaders to be perfect in everything, not even sex, campaign promises, or favoritism. I draw the line at lying to grand juries, though. That Palin woman, McCain made a big mistake, because she was obviously just a gimmick, and doesn't seem very smart. And why is everyone expecting Obama to just get everything done without any trouble? That Biden has more of the common touch, which is why what he says gets him in trouble.

Let me stop rolling my eyes for a moment and get serious here. This is the world the media was used to, where people believed they were thinking for themselves because journalists left a few of the dots unconnected. Half the country does not want to entertain that notion, unwilling to even consider the possibility that their thoughts are only partly their own. They have a great deal invested in not seeing the obvious, because it would be painful. TV hosts. Academics. Writers. Movie-makers. And just regular folks in town who want to seem like they know something about the world when talking with their friends and neighbors. How can such admit to themselves that they have been influenced without noticing?

The escape from liberalism is not only a series of intellectual propositions. It involves an expensive self-honesty.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Well-Meaning Opposition

On another site (which I may add to my sidebar) I have had several discussions, not always cheery, with a well-meaning person. We have not always disagreed, but her assumptions are church liberal. I have little doubt from her personal information, thinking, and style of presentation that I would like her in person very much. She is clearly the sort of person I would want in my class for adult Sunday School, or even teaching it.

I draw a distinction between people who think they mean well and those who actually do. None of us means as well as we think we do of course, but in some folks the divide is very great. Their moral certainty makes them dangerous, and we can sense almost by feel or by smell that there is a self-righteousness that bears watching. This person seems well into the other side of the spectrum. She does generally mean well, and statements she makes which are weighted with self-righteousness turn out to be ideas not fully thought through, rather than the conservative fantasy of those who primly think they know what is best for the rest of us.

Though I believe the one inevitably turns into the other, there is no use regarding everyone on that road as far advanced on it. Most decent liberals we know fall into this category, and these are frankly amazed that anyone would suspect them of ill-will simply because their ideas taken to extremes (in their thinking; In mine it would be followed to it's natural conclusion, and we're halfway there already) can cause problems.

But it's good to have them, because they cause me to ask why nice people say such awful things.

The tone of moral earnestness stems from their belief that their goals are unquestionably good things (see Peace; Universal coverage; Recycling) requiring only that we summon the moral will to do them. Their first response is to employ the many tactics of moral persuasion to get others to come along. They try to inspire us to be better, to reassure us that it won't be so painful, to draw on our sympathy by means of anecdote. More sternly, they might try and guilt us or shame us into going along. They don't necessarily want to go around making people do the right thing. They would prefer not to. But then they look at those suffering under injustice and don't want relief to them delayed, so they ease over into government nudging, bribing, cajoling, and arm-twisting.

When they see us they see people who just haven't gotten the moral imperative that these things must be done, be it government health provision, carbon reduction, civil unions, or extending unemployment benefits. At its worst, this attitude is that of the anointed, of those who have attained, or become enlightened. But most of these folks aren't there - yet. They rather generously see others as much like themselves, needing inspiration and encouragement to do the right thing. Just dig a little deeper. It's better for everyone. We'll all be happier.

The owner of that site, BTW, is very much like this. He is a sweet and generous person, humble in mien. He is a minister, and comfortable with the role of moral persuasion in spiritual matters, which he just naturally takes over into social and political discourse. He would disagree with many of the specifics of John Lennon's "Imagine," but the final lines would move him.
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
Perhaps someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one.
Here's the sticking point: there seems an inability to back all the way down the road and re-look at the question Is this the right thing to do? Failing that, they are locked endlessly in the impression that ours is a moral failing, that must be addressed on moral grounds. They assume we must not like universal coverage only because it is too expensive; that we are reluctant to extend citizen's rights to detainees only by failure of generosity and justice. They can't think of other reasons. When we say something else they think we are just rationalizing, and are really just fearful and morally flawed.

Thus the things they say are horribly insulting and accusing. They are not generally horrible and accusing people, and are hurt when they are called on it. We must have misunderstood their intent or meaning. Longtime followers of this site know that this is where village idiots come in, and why I aspire to be one. When you are accusing others of evil motives, that is in itself reason to backtrack as far as need be to make sure you have understood.

It is fair to ask whether this unwillingness to backtrack is not a sort of intellectual sin, or a moral cowardice of its own. Often it is, and I have been strident over the years that any progressive's refusal to consider that such a thing is even possible tells me when I am onto something. Once the door is opened to the possibility that these supposedly moral stances are suffused with more primitive tribal values, or class values, or mere fashionableness, there is going to be pain in store for any of us who walk through. But when they hear "fashionable" they think that's not me, I'm anti-fshionable; "tribal," they think no that's ethnic, racial or sexual - I don't have those prejudices. That there might be a deeper tribalism, a deeper fashionableness, does not enter their minds. They can easily reject the superficial meaning, and so are well-defended against the deeper one.

So we all pretend there is no door. I have walked through the door a few times, which is why I am postliberal. But I have little doubt there are still further doors I refuse to see as well. It's human nature. There are always more doors, that both our faults and our virtues are influenced by factors we did not suspect.

To conclude, I give the reasons that non-liberals believe motivate them. All we neocons and neoliberals, libertarians and postliberals, think these are our real reasons. We may delude ourselves in this, and we may turn out to be nothing more than the shallow, selfish, prejudiced boors we are accused of being. But it would be wise to at least consider that we might actually believe these things.

1. These schemes seldom actually fix very much, they just make us all feel that we have done something about it.

2. Progressive plans have obvious benefits, but non-obvious consequences which are dire. The simple benefit to individuals is in the open; the complex cost to society is disguised.

3. "Cost" doesn't mean just money. Loss of values, culture, and character are important costs.

4. Governments making people do things has enormous negative consequences in itself.

5. When things are good for The Community, or All of Us, who the community actually is, or who "we" really are always turns out to be something less than everyone. It is always some subset that gets defined as the community, and that subset gets the entire benefit. The fluidity of these definitions hides a great deal of mischief. Always, always, play out in your mind (rigorously, ruthlessly, even with paranoia) who exactly "all of us" is.

6. These schemes always end up costing more in dollars, often orders of magnitude more over time. If the country's resources do indeed belong at some level to all of us (which I dispute, but grant arguendo), then shouldn't we all decide where it's spent?

7. Receiving material things for free is bad for our characters. The good that someone derives from our gift may be so overwhelming or necessary that we give it without further thought (and giving is good for our characters), but ignoring the downside of the equation often - often - turns out to be cruel in the long run. We know this not because we believe that recipients are morally weak, but because we know they are just like us.

Local Boy Slides Down

Matt Bonner will continue to play in the NBA for a few more years, but I think we will see the last of his serious contribution this year.

He plays for an old team, the Spurs, that has to move in a youth direction. Their newer players are respectable rotation players, which is Bonner's niche. DuJuan Blair, who is 20, will take more minutes from him next year. Plus, whoever San Antonio drafts in the first round will take more minutes from someone as well. Bonner turns 30 in a few weeks, and so is on the gradual downside of his career. He is smart and has made a decent career out of giving you a bit of everything: shoots the three, plays defense, rebounds. The archetypal red-headed player.

This is the end of an era for poor deprived NH basketball fans. Matt is the best player to come from here. Ben never played against him (4 years difference), but the upperclassmen on his teams played against Bonner, and the Y was right across from Ben's school. We watched him some in high school and followed his development at Florida. I hope he hangs on. I hope he is one of those guys who finds a way to stay on somebody's roster well into his 30's through guile, intelligence, and effort. But his brief fling as occasional starter for a championship-caliber team seems to be over.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Akafred sent this link around to our Bible study. It is an opinion column about who is leaving churches and where they are going. I commented at the site as follows.
Here's the challenge. There seems to be an inability to look at what I see as a central question: What if what we define as The Problem with our church is actually The Point? It is a commonplace for those thinking and writing about the church to engage in amateur sociology and try to discern "what has gone wrong?" Their answers are all too often the same theories they came in with: the prosperity gospel, the increased materialism of the culture, the decreased attention span, too much social justice, not enough social justice, insisting on strict doctrine, not insisting on strict doctrine. It all grows very tiring listening to people conclude their assumptions. In all this supposedly intense soul-searching and hard looks at the church, the obvious is neglected.

1Cor 7:6-28. Where we are set is where we are to be found, with exceptions. This is not a command, but general advice.

Eat what God has put in front of you. Learn the lesson of this hour. Receive the daily bread.

Church growth tends strongly to reflect population increase in an area - not all the clever ideas we have about what a church should be. As long as we are bringing in all the people who showed tremendous church growth in an area where the population was growing and treating them as if they know something, we are running in circles.

This fault comes from a misunderstanding of early church history. We believe that the early church grew at phenomenal rates. After the first few years of explosive growth, it grew at about 1% a year for centuries. But we think spectacular growth should be the norm, and follow those leaders whose number came up on the roulette wheel, ignoring the invisible evidence of those churches which applied exactly the same principles and foundered.

We think only those plants which grow six feet in a season are obeying God. But most things that grow six feet in a season are weeds. (Okay, corn excepted).

Giving Each Other Haircuts

My uncle closed an email discussion about long-term economic prospects about two months ago with the line “We can’t all get by just giving each other haircuts.” Quite true, of course, and reminiscent of my observation that entire towns in NH seem to survive by sharpening each other’s saws – but not survive very well.

Yet in another sense we can, and that’s what we do now. If our ancestors from 200 – heck, from 100 years ago observed us at work, they’d see a lot of us doing jobs that didn’t exist then, not actively engaged in making anything they could relate to. Few of us supply the home with more than a hobbyist’s amount of food, fuel, or clothing. We are not much engaged in primary provision. There have always been inns, services, and entertainment, but nothing of the magnitude we now enjoy. The percentage of Americans involved in this would seem to great-grampa that we were all just giving each other haircuts.

There have been magical energy sources on the far horizon as long as I can remember. More recently, the expectation of these proving out has moved from the decades measurement to the years measurement, at least for prototype and small-scale. So, push that out 20 years, and one of these science-fiction ideas turns out to work. What we would now view as unlimited electricity, very cheap. So we can build things we can’t afford now, like desalination plants or pipelines from Great Slave Lake, because the heavy building equipment can all be electric. Electric transportation – if we’ll even need that, if virtual realities improve enough (No one wants to go to Fake Vienna now, but if an evening in Fake Vienna, darn close to the real experience, can be bought for $200, will anyone shell out $2000 for the honor of the real thing, which is only marginally better? Some, but that would be a specialty item.) – with electricity costing pennies, would be easier. Growing food, making clothes, and certainly all our entertainments, could be had on the cheap.

Even if it’s 40 years out, it’s still a world-changer. Their lives would look to us as our lives would look to our ancestors. We would be making our livings by providing extra value in service, attention, entertainment, design – that is, by giving each other haircuts.

I expect that unlimited energy would create unexpected problems, perhaps even ones that are unimaginable now. That’s what’s happened with every other technical advance – general improvement, but at a cost. We might not even like that life very much compared to the one we have now. Comparative wealth might go completely kablooie, with incomes as stratified as in the Middle Ages. But even the poorest would be rich by current standards. As we are now by older standards.

We might find that comparative wealth is more important to human happiness than absolute wealth – that the feelings, both noble and ignoble, of having to determine your own status and importance turn out to be 90% of the wealth equation beyond subsistence and safety. Perception of wealth or poverty might be the basic driver. If that turned out to be true, all of our current economic systems might produce comfortable, even wealthy, but dissatisfied people.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

ABBA to the R&R Hall of Fame

Despite the controversy, they appear to have made it. When we tried to visit the hall on our way through Cleveland, BTW, we found it closes very early. How can the Rock and Roll HOF not be open until 2am every night?

Mt. Washington

It's the time of year when I can see Mt. Washington every clear morning on the way to work, even though it's 60-70 miles away. Oddly exhilarating. I suppose in Dunbarton, most things look exhilarating by comparison.

Not long before the trees leaf out and block that view

Monday, March 15, 2010

Return To Romania

In the summer of 2005 we all went to Romania. Chris and John-Adrian went back; Tracy and I went again; Ben, Jonathan, and Heidi went for the first time. This was just before I started this blog, so I haven't written about it much.

We didn't go as a pack. Ben was there all summer, working at the orphanage. It was all younger children by then, mostly girls, and he was temporary Daddy to some outrageous number of children. Some of the girls were quite forceful about calling him Daddy. Or Mommy. Or Sir Mommy. Chris and John-Adrian also spent some of their time volunteering at the orphanage they came from, though they were there a shorter time. Not as much work as they were expected to do, but some.

The other four of us did very little at Casa Iosef, though we helped out some. We were doing the tourist bit in Romania and Hungary.

I had hinted that the boys had kept in touch with their younger sister left behind. They did, and located an older brother they had lost contact with for years as well. Cata had left the family home at 14 because of the abuse. I don't know what miseries he endured in the interim, but I am sure it wasn't good. But he has weathered the storm: a gentle young man who was then engaged to Crina, now his wife. They work in Tromso, Norway most of the year. The boys skype and facebook them.

So here's the full batch in Oradea that summer, plus a few Romanian friends. This is scanned instead of downloaded for annoying computer reasons. Good enough.
Cata in front; Tracy, Ben, Heidi, Jonathan, Ina, John-Adrian, friend, friend, Crina, Chris. The boys with all siblings, including sisters-in-law.

We did a few days of touristy stuff in Budapest first, Ben having saved up time off at the orphanage to be with us. The touristy pictures I posted in April 2006 seem to be no longer stored on this site. Ben has some. I'll do some soon. But here's one of Jonathan and Heidi, anyway. See how fresh and relaxed they looked before they had children? Hungarians do dessert very well, BTW. The communists may have ruined the architecture, but the desserts remained intact.

Ben has posts from that summer on his site, including many pictures of the children at Casa Iosef. His humor and sensitivity both show out. Also, you get his actual side of things, not what I tell you his side is. Okay, that's lots of cute pictures of kids, but Ben's gotten enough space in this post already.

We took the boys to Derna, the village the boys had grown up in before going to the orphanage. It is near both Sarbi and Spinus that I visited in 2001 (Part Five), but is where the families have their strongest roots. Semi-distant relatives still occupy the house they lived in. On the way there John-Adrian, the one who has never talked about those years after that first day we talked, was a sudden library of information: That fountain has water that heals people, they come from everywhere. That is where we found the dog that had been hung for killing chickens one morning. My grandmother used to live there. We were viewed suspiciously as we arrived in the village, as Tracy and I, at least, clearly did not belong there. The boys showed us around. This is where we went to school. There is an overgrown cemetery behind there. They were a bit shy about talking to the people gathering to look as we came to the house they had lived in. Ridiculously, I had to break the ice with my poor Romanian. "Cauta Familia Parcalab?" (I seek the Parcalab family). Then the boys launched into discussion with the gathered women. Several remembered them, though one though J-A must be Cata.

Here is the barn where Chris would hide when his father was drunk.

This is J-A in the field where they were shepherds when they were 6-8 years old (to keep their father in palinka and cigars). The sticks are the well to water the goats or sheep. They boys wandered in the field, separately. They might stay together now.

We drove out before sundown, neither boy saying much. Nor have they since, though they don't avoid it when we bring it up.

Remember how I mentioned that house colors are brighter now that the Revolution and freedom have begun to sink in? I mean...bright.

GK Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense

According to Todd Zywicki over at Volokh, there has been a TV series on Chesterton the last five years, now in reruns. Not having a TV, I hadn't heard a whisper of it. Have any of you run across it? ELC, is seems to be your sort of thing.

Have You Noticed?

We aren't hearing about homeless people anymore. Just before the holidays, caregiving groups would not be denied and put out the information about food pantry shortages, and homelessness got mentioned along with that occasionally. But other than that, it seems that the poor aren't having any recent crises. This strikes me as unlikely. With jobs in shorter supply, you would think that even more people would have food and housing problems. For those who would suspect some conspiracy of silence I would remind them that when you hire a cat, you don't need to confer with it to catch mice.

And why aren't we hearing about our bitterly divided country anymore? Instead, we seem to be hearing about one group of people obstructing the other. Were the people who bemoaned our great divide the ones perpetuating it all along?

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Kansas is the best team in the country. Kentucky and Syracuse can beat anyone. Teams 4-7 are solid, and maybe even 8-12 are all capable of picking off a better team and holding on versus an upstart.

Someone below that will catch lightning in a bottle for two games. Others will get their one surprise. But there's a real dropoff after #12 and I don't see any of those teams able to beat top teams consistently.

I don't know who I'm rooting for. I have positive regard for all 12 of those except Michigan State. And now that I think of it, Syracuse. Never liked them. I may have most fondness for Kentucky.

One method I heard recently is to compare team's 4th-best players. If there is a big talent gap, particularly if they play the same position, that can be exploited in tournament play, even more than the advantage the best player has.

Kansas' 4th best player is Marcus Morris, who is just much better than Kentucky's Eric Bledsoe (turnovers), and a little better than Syracuse's Rick Jackson (fouls). Syracuse does have that very deep rotation, however, with 4-7 about equal. Duke's Brian Zoubek, O-State's Jon Diebler, Purdue's Chris Kramer, and WVU's Wellington Smith are all a cut below even Bledsoe.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Adoption Photos

From the first trip to Romania, in 1998. The woman is 94, living alone. We were bringing her some medicine. Tough lady.

Roma, or gypsies. 1998

One of my team members with two of the abandoned babies. The one on the left, Madelin, has been adopted to France. I mentioned him in Part Three. I don't know about the other.

Tracy in 1999 with Ioanna, her favorite of the babies.

Chris and John-Adrian in 1999, before we had any idea of adopting anyone.

The older children from the orphanage being taken out to dinner in early 2001. John-Adrian is front right, Chris's head is popping up behind. They knew someone was trying to adopt them, but not who. Though John-Adrian insists he had guessed.

Everyone in the photo is now adopted to America, though the girl with her hand to her mouth did not get out until the brief window a few years later. She is the one who is now cousin in Michigan to her best friend from Romania.

Remetea, a Hungarian village in Romania where the boys brought me when I went to see them as their father for the first time. There was a family who had been good to them they wanted to introduce me to.

Touristy photo from Budapest from that trip. Notice what the Hungarians have done with all that Soviet art they had hanging around: instead of destroying it they just set it up outside the city, basically in somebody's yard. A very cool statement. To get size perspective, notice that I am clutching the ankle.

Saying goodbye to their sister Ina when we came to pick them up. She'll show up in a later post.

Hanging out with a lion at Castle Peles. Keith Sykes is on the left, Luke Sykes, who got affectionately grabbed about five seconds later, is on the right.

All of us back home a few days after bringing them to America. Tracy took the picture and is not visible. From left my stepfather; then Ben a high-school junior; Jonathan and Heidi - he had just graduated from Asbury, she had a year to go; Chris, finishing sixth grade; me; John-Adrian, end of eighth grade.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Adoption- Part Six

There will be a separate post of photos from all six parts.

The final adoption approval in Romania was scheduled for Friday, May 11. Three days after John-Adrian's 16th birthday. Somehow our agency in-country got that moved up, just to make sure. There was something about some relative(s) signing off, perhaps their aunt and uncle. Which in both cases, may imply bribery of someone, somewhere.

We thought we were flying TAROM from Bucharest to Oradea when we arrived in mid-May, but were immediately stuffed on the overnight train mentioned in Part One. It is part of the Orient Express, though clearly not the most elegant cars on that historic route.

Beius and picking up the boys is rather a blur. We took their friends out for dinner, we talked with the English tutors we had paid for, we walked around with them and took pictures. We wooshed up to Oradea, where they said goodbye to their aunt, uncle, and younger sister, Ina (they have kept contact with her). Then we popped on an early morning plane at a tiny airport and went to Bucharest to pass all the final government papers before leaving. We did some local touring, including a trip to Castle Peles, where a lioness played with one of their friends. Yes, really. A guy had a lioness on a leash and charged about a quarter for you to have your picture taken. Missionary kids who the boys had known were along with us and gave it a try. As the lioness affectionately wrapped her paws around the 12-year-old, who blanched at the feeling of her strength, I wondered "How do you tell parents that you let their kid get captured by a lion?" Pictures later.

There were hitches, sudden worries that everything might fall apart. Having to quickly arrange X-rays to prove J-A didn't have TB was likely the biggest panic - less than two hours to spare on that deadline. We made plans for Tracy to go on with Chris and me to stay behind with John-Adrian if anything went wrong. The final person at the embassy to approve our papers seemed to toy with us. We later found out this was not our fevered imaginations when we described him to those familiar with the embassy. But it happened. We got on a plane at Otopeni Airport and flew to Switzerland. We had a six-hour layover and used it to go into the city. In Zurich, the boys learned that western Europeans do not like Americans anywhere near as much as Romanians do, and Chris got to enter a wonderland of expensive automobiles to look at. For a boy who had seen mostly aged Dacias and Aros, with an occasional VW or old Mercedes, Zurich was frankly unbelievable.

Back in America, Jonathan and Heidi were picking Ben up from school to head down to Logan to pick us up. They still argue about that. Something about where the car was and who had told who what. Ben later wrote a remarkable reminiscence of that late afternoon, describing Heidi and Jon holding hands while he stood alone, waiting for brothers he had never met.

One last hitch with the papers at customs, and we were through the doors to international arrivals, and the boys just exploded in welcome, picking Chris up, comparing height with J-A, talking excitedly, and even sparing a moment to welcome us back. I think Heidi, good future daughter-in-law that she was, was the first to speak with Tracy and I. Jonathan announced, pointing to Heidi, "We are getting married, one year from today." "I know, I know," shrugged John-Adrian, an immediate display of how he pretends nothing surprises him and he is never wrong. It must have looked puzzling to bystanders if they stopped to notice. If you put the scene in a movie it would be sappy, but it was reality.

Then the five of them gave us the luggage and took the the keys to the better car and headed out. They honked as they passed us on Rte 93 exiting Boston. Tracy complained "They're having a party in there, and we're not at it," but it was really all relief. The next morning the two American sons started right in. "How do you say 'good brother?'" Frate bine. "Frate bine, said Jonathan, pointing to himself. "How do you say 'bad brother?'" Frate rau. "Frate rau," pointing to Ben. "How do you say 'fat father?'" Tata gras. "Yeah, tata gras, that sounds right." There was immediate instruction from Tracy about how boys in America always kiss their mother before they go out, which the older two demonstrated with a minimum of eye-rolling.

And then we were six.


Retriever has a post on the importance of weakness, especially in the priesthood. A very good counterpoint to our automatic tendency to equate worldly and spiritual success.

She quotes from where she has learned along the way,
The tendency is to transfer this method of evaluation to the priesthood, to estimate a man by his gifts and talents, to line up his positive achievements and his capacity for more, to understand his promise for the future in terms of his accomplishments in the past, and to make the call within his life contingent on the attainments of personality or grace. Because a man is religiously serious, prayerful, socially adept, intellectually perceptive; possesses interior integrity, sound common sense, and habits of hard work—therefore he will make a fine priest.

I think that transfer is disastrous...

Academy-Award Winning Movie

Ben ran this and I had to have it. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be changed forever...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Adoption - Part Five

This isn’t the last installment after all.

I love to travel alone. I also like traveling with one other person (two is starting to push it). I have also liked traveling in larger groups when someone else is in charge, at least if I can get away a fair bit.

So flying to Budapest, renting a car, and going to see the boys as their father for the first time was a great adventure. People at work asked if I was nervous about seeing the boys, which seemed a bizarre question to me. I was worried that they would be nervous, apprehensive, suspicious, uncertain, or any number of uncomfortable feelings along with the positive excitement. But I was fine. Couldn’t be better.

No real story for awhile, no connected narrative. Just incidents.

I think I changed at Frankfurt. Lufthansa to Hungary was almost empty. I drove an Opel, and couldn’t figure out how to get into reverse because the directions were in Hungarian. The index did me no good, and I finally sat in a market parking lot in Vecses and flipped pages until I found it. The Tisza River was in flood stage. Easiest border crossing ever, though I had to drive through a trough with white liquid because of Mad Cow Disease. The boys’ Certificat de nastere from the Republica Socialista Romania said that their father had been born in Sarbi, their mother in Spinus, not too far out of my way. You won’t find those on Mapquest or Googlemaps, BTW, but I had acquired excellent maps on my last trip. Maps were gradually becoming accurate at this point – under the communists, many map roads were fictitious, or greatly overestimated, on the ground.

The cemeteries were both out on deeply mudded roads. That made me nervous. No Parcalabs or Pârcalabs in either place on hurried inspection. I rehearsed what I might say in my broken Romanian if approached and belatedly realised I might not be a welcome figure. Hey then! On to Beius, arriving at sundown, took supper and went over to the orphanage.

I don’t know what I had planned to say to the boys, but I hadn’t expected the gate to be locked, hadn’t expected one of the little ones to be out alone in the courtyard, and I certainly didn’t expect John-Adrian to be the one she went and got. So J-A and I got excited, we hugged, and all I could think of to say was “You look good. You look very good to me.” I followed him along to the playroom, where Chris was watching TV, and he said something to him in Romanian. A little impatiently, I noted. Yeah, this was the older-brother/younger-brother dyad I was used to. Hey you! Don’t you know this is an important moment? Pay attention! I hugged Chris and told him he looked good as well. I don’t remember anything else about the evening. Little kids probably tried to interrupt and get my attention a lot.

We had prepared a book for them, with pictures of our house, their rooms, a floor plan. We got yearbook photos from the classes they would be in at school, photos of relatives and friends – an introduction to our family in simple English and bad Romanian. All the adults who saw it thought it was one of the most brilliant, sensitive ideas they had come across. But I don’t think the boys read much of it. They started calling me Dad the first day, which surprised me. I did things with them together and separately. They both still had school, and I think they were expecting to get out while I was there, but I just blithely insisted they keep going, as if not going were unthinkable. I wanted to get that value implanted immediately. I eventually went to their schools and spoke with their teachers, which provided me with no useful information at all. They spent all our talking about what a good system of schools they had, and because my boys were in that system and were not notably awful, they must be good students who would have no trouble with American schools.

By the end of the day I was pretty clear that they had no real knowledge about my children in particular. Orphans are considered unimportant, and I don’t think they had noticed them much. I got a copy of their report cards and their testing. That made me even more suspicious. The tests said John-Adrian had an IQ of 87, which I was already pretty sure was an underestimate. As he is 3.5 years through college in a language which is neither his first nor his second, I think my suspicions were justified. Chris tested at IQ 85, and has also since proven that this is about 10 points too low. I have never told them this, as I feared loss of confidence – and now it doesn’t matter. But this great school system had him finishing 6th grade with decent math grades, but unable to do his tables of 3 accurately. It was an intense summer of home-schooling getting those two up to speed.

The key item from the week was walking with J-A on the second day, when he bitterly said “I have no good memories of my parents. Both of them.” He spent about 30 minutes explaining to me what life had been like with them. He never mentioned them again for years. It was hard to get Chris to say anything, good or bad, but he seemed to like just going around with me. He turned out to be the one to talk about his parents and siblings the most over the first few years.

There were other events of interest, watching John-Adrian play soccer on cement, going to 2.5 hour church with them, meeting their friends – but nothing of especial significance. Leaving was rather an anticlimax, enough so that I worried they might disbelieve I was coming back in a month. I toured Budapest on my own for a day and a half in the rain. I remember nothing about the trip home.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Sing Along

With vigor.

Progressive Virtues

Reflecting on Chesterton's view of the Prussians, I conclude that this is precisely what worries me about progressives. Their faults are endurable. Corruption, hypocrisy, deceitfulness - these make for bad government, but conservatives and moderates do many if not all of the same things. I can insist till I am blue in the face that we do it far less often, but really, this is a matter of degree.

What worries me about liberals are their virtues, the things they believe are good about themselves and want remake society around. The danger's of John Lennon's "Imagine" are far greater than the dangers of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again."

Monday, March 08, 2010

German Nationalism

Michael Perry: Chesterton uses paradox to suggest that Germany's problem wasn't an excess of nationalism, as many were saying, but a nationalism so new and immature it had yet to recognise that a nation can only exist within a "community of nations." He equates trans-national cosmopolitanism - considered (then and now) as the height of modern, fashionable thinking - with a barbarism in which all barriers have been broken down, moral and territorial. Chesterton believed that humans lived best within boundaries such as nations, communities, and families.

It has certainly been the received wisdom all my life that Germany was dangerously nationalistic during WWII, thus discrediting nationalism per se in the minds of many. Reading Chesterton's description of German attitudes and philosophy during WWI provides powerful evidence for the theory that the two wars were a single war, won incompletely by the Allies by their own fault in 1919, and thus fought again in 1939.
The suggestion under discussion is broadly this: that Germany suffers from an overdose and debauch of national feeling, and that therefore Nationalism, which has destroyed our enemies, must be watched with a wary eye even in our friends and in ourselves, as if it were a highly dubious explosive.
The obvious had not occurred to me, meaning that my apprenticeship will have to continue. England has a nationalism extending back centuries, as does France, Russia, Italy, Poland, Spain, Switzerland...

There have been border changes and dominant provinces, certainly - Castille, Anjou - but a sense of greater nationality extending far into the past. Only Germany was a late-comer, and like a young athlete or entertainer newly rich, became drunk with sudden wealth. Its nationalism was never about its boundaries or inhabitants anyway, but about Teutonism, Das Volk, the race. It seeped across borders to include Germanish people in Austria and Czechoslovakia. It sought to include the English and Scandinavians as lesser partners. But it excluded many people actually in Germany itself: Jews, Gypsies, Poles.

I suspect that nationalism became unfashionable not because of Germany, but because it interfered with the spread of communism.

W&M Gone

Well, David Schneider didn't go 1-8 on 3-pointers, as I predicted he wouldn't. He went 2-12. Game over.


Michael Totten does the best summary of the last thirty years of Romania that I have seen at less than book length. Very fitting timing with my adoption series.

I should send him money - I read his stuff enough and he needs it to keep doing this work.

Via neo

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Adoption - Part Four

The more emotional parts are here, but unfortunately, I don't think they describe very easily. Not by me, anyway.

So. In February 2000 I am in Romania a second time. A psychiatrist friend had come - late 30's and experiencing infertility problems. She didn't mention it to anyone else on the team, but asked me when we were alone with the abandoned babies once "What would happen if I just took one of these and headed for the border?" If she had asked the week before back in the states I would have been appalled, and told her that the whole mission organization was going to get blown up if she did that. (A brilliant woman, but reminiscent of Janice on the Muppets in both appearance and personality.) I did talk her out of it, but understood entirely by this time. From the day of our arrival, there was another team there, from Jackson Hole - including two who were adopting older children. I quickly learned there were others in the wings, enough to provide parents for about a third of the children if all went well.

I never got a clear explanation what had changed. This is Romania, where not all questions have clear answers. But visiting Casa Iosef was different now. I looked at the group. Huh. These kids need parents. You know how to do that. Huh. I called Tracy, still a dollar a minute in those days, and talked for half an hour. This team traveled more widely for our village medical clinics, and I had lots of time to think while bouncing in battered Dacias or the old Vanagon. I was sick for two days and stayed away from others. The second week I kept looking at the kids and thinking Could you be my child? Are you supposed to come home with me? I tried each of them on, so to speak.

In September 2000 we started spending money - hemorrhaging money, actually - to qualify for adoption and adopt our two in specific. We came to hate the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Boston office is (was?) reportedly among the worst, and their entire bureaucracy seems to be filled with petty empire-builders. Odd rules, whose purpose I could not divine, admitted of no exceptions. When the person assigned to our case went on vacation, no one was assigned in coverage. No one would touch what was on the vacationer's desk. It just wasn't done.

We had an excellent adoption agency which steered through the morass as well as could be expected. We expected an answer in November, starting on "any day now." Every morning we would go up and think today might be the day. But no day in November was the day, nor was any day in December. Living on the edge of expectation gets wearing. If you have ever climbed a mountain with false peaks, searched for restaurants or hotels and found them all closed, or waited for any expected pleasure (a bathroom, a cigarette, a drink, a nap) and been repeatedly put off you can get some idea of it.

We were under two time pressures: the June 30 deadline for the whole country I mentioned earlier, but also John-Adrian's 16th birthday. Adoption after age 16 was not allowed. We were told it would likely be no problem, as he was coming as a package with a younger sibling, and because he was two grades behind (both boys had spent ages 6-8 being shepherds instead of going to school, to support their father's cigar and palinka habits), but no one would assure us of that. No one would promise. This is Romania, where bribes, influence, connections, and whim prevail too often. So the final papers would have to go before the judge in Bihor County before May 8.

Sometimes desperation opens up witness, BTW. By January I could quite comfortably ask the most nominal of Christian, or even non-believers, to pray for us. I didn't care what they thought. If my reputation was the price to pay, then cheap at the cost. By late January we had had many more today-could-be's. I resolved to fast and pray for a week. I had fasted before, but never anything this extreme. Anything that would help God hear me, help me hear God, break some obstacle to getting my sons home - we were already starting to use those words - seemed reasonable. I don't know if fasting "works" in the sense of making things happen, but it certainly works in terms of praying. By the third day, praying for hours, praying while I drove the car or filled out forms, praying while I dressed or went to meetings, was no problem.

We learned later that the boys had been told that someone was hoping to adopt them, but they couldn't be told who. John-Adrian assured me he had guessed, but that's his personality. He would say that anyway. John-Adrian knew everything and was never wrong in those days. Though we learned in April that he had cried for hours with the mother who was adopting Florentin, his best friend. I want a family.*

We have never seen J-A cry, or anything close to it, in nine years. He has never mentioned it or expressed anything but blithe confidence that he knew it would work out. Yeah. Either way, we certainly didn't know it would work out, and we were well into February with the clock ticking. We knew that if we went past March 20 or so without hearing, the necessary pieces couldn't be put in place by May 8. We were frantic. No, I was frantic. Tracy was depressed. Our children were going to be stuck in Romania forever.

Somewhere in there Ben became an adult comforter of his mother. It was not a role he had previously refused, it just never occurred to him, and no one had asked him. Then he was just there, most natural thing in the world.

The INS gave its approval in early March. We celebrated at the ridiculously expensive Bedford Village Inn, and I made immediate reservations to go to Romania and see the boys for for ten days beginning late March in preparation for the adoption in May. That April trip, bringing them home May 25, and our return in 2005 will be the last post of the series.

*Notice that this is what orphaned children say, not "I want a mother," or "I want parents." The difference is significant.