Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Dunkirk



The evacuation of Dunkirk was perhaps at once the most precarious few days for western civilization, while at the same time one of her most inspiring triumphs. The world will never know just how close the Allies came to total defeat and capitulation to Adolph Hitler. The miracle at Dunkirk was a combination of inexplicable unforced errors by the German high command, the finest hour of the French army, and the indomitable spirit and will of ordinary British citizens. Last night I went to see Christopher Nolan's film adaptation of this great epic story. I was disappointed.

First of all, the film was not without merit. Nolan is very good at filming and directing intense scenes of agonizing warfare. He did a particularly outstanding job of depicting the violence and terror of a capsizing ship, the claustrophobic horror of being trapped in an oil fire on the open sea, the anguish of a man swimming toward a ship to save himself, only to see that ship destroyed by a Stuka dive bomber. But, that's about all that you get from Nolan in this film. If you know nothing about what actually happened at Dunkirk, Nolan's story amounts to a made for television minis-series in three acts. He focused, rather randomly, on three short stories, a dogged British fighter pilot, one private rescue vessel and its father and son crew, and a couple of beleaguered British soldiers trying to escape the carnage. He plops the viewer down in the middle of this maelstrom with absolutely zero explanation of how it came to be that almost the entire British Expeditionary Force, all 13 divisions of them, found themselves standing in long lines, hopelessly exposed on a French beach, the future of the world hanging in the balance.

When I complained about this bizarre lack of context, my son, who attended the show with me, asked..So, were you expecting some sort of history lesson? The tone of his question suggested very much that the term history lesson was a pejorative. Well, no...I didn't expect a history lesson, but some small attempt at staging the story might have been helpful, some explanation of the great-how did they get here-would have made for a more coherent film. My criticism of the film owes a lot to my being a history geek, I suppose. Despite its flaws, Dunkirk was worth seeing, if for no other reason than Hans Zimmer's sledgehammer score which literally never stopped in the background, pulsing and pounding away, assaulting the senses, adding brilliantly to the gut wrenching tension on screen.

I read a Twitter review this morning where some guy opined that Christopher Nolan did an outstanding job of depicting the  futility of war. I thought...what movie did this guy watch??? Futility of war? Are you kidding me? What, in God's name was futile about 300,000 British troops being rescued from an exposed beach and certain death by a flotilla of over 700 private vessels, saving Britain from having to surrender to Nazi Germany?? Horrible? Yes. Tragic? Yes. War is, after all, hell. But we don't live in heaven, just a little east of Eden. And this side of Utopia, sometimes very bad people and states have to be vanquished. To do so often requires superhuman valor, bravery and sacrifice. There's nothing futile about that.


Monday, July 24, 2017

The Visit

On a sweltering evening in the summer of 1955, my mother stood at the sink of her small kitchen in a tiny house at 414 Dick Ewell Avenue in Colonial Heights, Virginia, doing the dinner dishes. My older brother and older sister, Donnie and Linda, were involved in some sort of mischief in the cramped living room, getting on my mother's last nerve. It had been a long day, middle 90's and terribly humid with nothing but a couple of table fans to circulate the heavy air.  My Dad was struggling to make the rent payments working a series of sales jobs that required him to be on the road for long stretches. Now that school was out, she found it harder and harder to get anything done during the day with two kids under foot and newly pregnant with my sister Paula. I was still nearly three years away from entering the world, but my life was about to be dramatically changed by a faint knock on the screen door.

I have often wondered what might have happened to the Dunnevant story had what follows never happened. Suppose Mom had just stepped out to go for a walk. Suppose she had been at the grocery store. What if Nathan and Dora Radford had not bothered to go visiting that particular night?

Mom thought she heard a knock at the door but couldn't be sure because of all the racket Donnie and Linda were making, so she turned off the water and dried her hands on a dish towel and gave a closer listen. Three soft taps on the ill-fitting screen door with the hole in the bottom screen that let in every stinging fly in Chesterfield county. How many times had she asked my father to get that fixed? Mom went to the door in an ill temper, not in the mood for the Fuller Brush man or anyone else for that matter. Yes? Can I help you?

There was the cheerful woman who would become my mother's best friend, Dora Radford, with her plump face and bright eyes and a smile that exploded out from her like it had supernatural powers.  Her handsome husband Nathan just stood there looking like a movie star. She introduced herself and explained that they were in the neighborhood inviting people with kids to come to something called Vacation Bible School . . . Do you have kids, Mrs. Dunnevant?

Despite the heat and her foul mood, my mother found herself inviting the couple in to hear more. The prospect of having somewhere to take the kids every morning for a week sounded potentially heavenly. The Radford's church was in southside Richmond, nearly ten miles away. What in the world were they doing down in a poor neighborhood in Colonial Heights drumming up business? Not to worry, they could send a church van to pick up the kids. My parents didn't go to church. They had been a few times growing up in Buckingham County when they were kids, but back then...everyone did. They weren't hostile or antagonistic to church, just apathetic and exhausted by the time Sunday rolled around. But this Bible School thing sounded like just the thing to get the kids out of the house for a week during that dreadfully hot summer and maybe give my mother a break. She agreed to let them go, on the condition that she be allowed to come along the first day just to make sure that this Kingsland Baptist Church wasn't some sort of cult.

And that was it. It was as simple as that. That was the day that changed the trajectory of the Dunnevant family in ways great and small. Even though I wasn't even alive at the time, my life story was altered and consequently the lives of my children. It is a mind-numbing exercise to contemplate the vicissitudes of life. Sitting around pondering the random collision of people and events in life is a recipe for madness. Some believe in fate, others call it chance. I have come to believe in the divine appointment.

Because of a seemingly random visit that humid night 62 years ago, literally everything changed for one small, poor, insignificant family in a run-down neighborhood in Colonial Heights. My mother would wind up being captivated by what she saw that first day of Bible School. She would attend every day. Both of my parents would attend the family night service at the end of the week, their first time in church together in years. They started attending regular services, and an adult Bible study class together. Within months, both of my parents became Christians and soon couldn't get enough of the church. They went to every class that would take them. They met new people their own age who welcomed them into the fellowship of a dynamic church. They immersed themselves in the place and soaked up the words and teachings of Jesus Christ. It transformed their thinking and the direction of their lives. After several years of discipleship and personal and spiritual growth, my father (for the first and only time) heard the audible voice of God calling him into the ministry while driving his beat-up Plymouth down Jeff-Davis highway.

This calling was ridiculous on its face. Back in those days, becoming a Baptist minister required not only a college education but also a seminary degree. Needless to say, my Dad had neither, and the prospect of getting either with little money and 4 children seemed like a pipe dream. Nobody in my dad's family had ever attended college. Heck, my dad's father had been a sharecropper at one point. The whole idea seemed impossible, and many questioned his calling. You're sure it was the voice of God, Emmett? Maybe it was the fan belt!

But against all odds, my dad persevered. He enrolled at the University of Richmond, becoming a 38 year old freshman. He had to quit the best job he had ever had at Allied Chemical (confirming his madness in the eyes of some) and take a job at Reynolds Metals working the graveyard shift at night (11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.) and going to school full time during the day . . . with four hungry mouths to feed. He graduated on time and with honors. Then it was time to pack up his family of six in a Chevrolet Impala station wagon for the twenty hour drive to Louisiana to attend the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for three years. All of us lived in a two bedroom campus apartment with a barely working window air conditioner. Within two weeks of our arrival, we were welcomed to our new city by a raging hurricane (Betsy) which flooded the place and filled the streets on campus with poisonous snakes and alligators. We weren't in Virginia anymore. 

My Dad became a Teamster, loading trucks on the docks where the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico meet. Three more years of graveyard shifts in tropical heat and humidity, which made the summers in Richmond seem like the Garden of Eden by comparison. I don't remember ever seeing Dad during the week in all the time we lived in New Orleans. But again, he graduated . . . on time and with honors. Soon he would receive his first church job as senior pastor of Winns Baptist Church in Elmont, bringing the family back to Virginia.

Before the visit, the Dunnevant family was part of an uninspired demographic in America . . . poor, rural, lower class, with no education and thin prospects for advancement. Some did advance, and spectacularly so, but most didn't. But on a steamy night in 1955, everything changed for one such family. My parents went on to have four kids, nine grandkids, and four great grandkids before they passed away. In total, eleven college graduates, four with Masters degrees, all long ago having escaped poverty and the other pathologies that poverty breeds. In his 45 years as a minister of the Gospel, at least a thousand others were introduced to the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, transforming their family stories, the ripples produced by a single stone on the water seeming never to end.

All because a bright eyed couple went to the trouble of making a visit in a run-down neighborhood on a hot summer night 62 years ago.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Full Weekend

Every once in a while I have one of those weeks at the office that reminds me of what every week at the office was like twenty years ago. Tons of appointments, incessant telephone calls, mountains of paperwork, way too much interaction with customer service phone trees. It makes me wonder how I ever survived it all back then. It also makes me extraordinarily thankful that I did. This enterprise I have built over the past thirty five years has been rewarding, but today it looks very different than I thought it would look by this time thirty years ago. I thought that I would have a larger payroll and perhaps a few more pieces of beach/lakefront property. But, fourteen years ago, after surprise open heart surgery, my career ark was dramatically altered. Maybe it was an overreaction, perhaps I made a mistake, but that experience  kicked me out of the grow, grow, more, more club permanently. When suddenly, some strange man cuts you open and starts tinkering with your heart, priorities tend to become less oriented around the pursuit of wealth, and more towards the pursuit of life.

So, I dialed it back. I started taking fewer new clients. I centered my goals around taking more time off each year. The payoff has been a smaller portfolio, but a vastly larger amount of freedom. My business is not the all consuming machine that many private businesses become, so much so that when something like this week happens, it's the startling exception. Whenever I begin to complain about something work related, my wife reminds me of how fortunate I am. She's right.

Speaking of good fortune, my son and his girlfriend are headed to Short Pump from Nashville as I write these words. Patrick will be staying with us all of next week, working remotely, while Sarah will continue on to Princeton, New Jersey to attend a vocal pedagogy conference at Westminster Choir College. It will be the first time Patrick will have slept in his old room for an entire week since the summer of his sophomore year at Belmont! Finally, the kid's wing of the house will get some use. Lucy will be thrilled.

This coming Sunday we will be hosting a farewell party for two of our oldest and dearest friends, Rick and Linda Stroup. They have retired, and are relocating to the beautiful college town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. It will be difficult watching them leave. They have been a part of our family for 28 years now. Their daughter, Jessica, felt like one of my own children back in the day, and my kids considered her their sister. Friends are great, but every so often you make a lifetime friend. Those, you never replace. The fact that they will no longer live around the corner will feel like a loss. But, it's not like they are moving to Burma or anything...Wake Forest is just a couple of hours down the road. Still, we will miss them. So, they must be sent off properly. I am so thankful that Patrick will be here for the party. They have always loved my boy very well.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Thursday, July 20, 2017

What Do Republicans and MJ's Glove Have in Common?




The Republican Party of 2017 reminds me of Michael Jackson's infamous single glove. Neither of them serve any useful purpose. As a political party they are a disgrace and have managed the nearly impossible task of making the Democrats look more attractive. Let me explain...

After Obamacare was passed, the Republican Party made a big show of their determination to repeal the odious legislation. In fact, in Janurary of 2016 the Republican House sent a repeal bill to the President's desk for his signature. Obama's signature. In other words, they sent a repeal bill to the White House in Janurary of 2016 secure in the knowledge that Obama would veto it and they would never have to face the wrath of voters. Now that many of them ran for reelection promising to repeal and replace Obamacare, and now that they have a President, ostensibly of their own party, who is ready and willing to do it, suddenly they can't get anything done. This, despite the fact that their party controls the White House and both houses of congress. Worthless.

Here's the thing. What few convictions the Republicans may have, they lack the courage those convictions require. Contrast their performance with that of the Democrats. Granted, as a liberal party, their life is made infinitely easier by the nature of their beliefs about the role of government. How hard is it to always propose the expansion of government? How difficult can it be to always be proposing programs that create entitlements for voters? How fun must it be to always be coming up with new schemes to confiscate money from a smaller, more productive class and distribute it to a much larger class of voters?  Don't get me wrong, I don't think that Democrats do this out of spite or rancor. I think they firmly believe in wealth redistribution and that their plans are best for the country...but come on, talk about your low hanging fruit...Vote for me and I'll take money from your rich neighbor and give it to you!! Not exactly a hard sell since there will always be fewer rich people, and there will always be human beings eager to spend other people's money. But, at least Democrats can be counted on to act on their principles. They are a dependable party. They exist to grow government and in doing so, advance the interests of the marginalized members of society...allegedly.

What about the Republicans? A very charitable reading of their charter would suggest that they stand for fiscal prudence. It is the job of Republicans to stand athwart a profligate, spendthrift government yelling stop!!! It is the job of Republicans to promote freedom, to take up the cause of the individual getting crushed by the demands and edicts of his out of control government. It is the job of Republicans to champion the free market and the notion that decisions about how to allocate resources will always be made more efficiently by a functioning free market than they ever will by a government committee. But, whenever the Republicans get their chance to actually govern, the American people get none of these things. What they get is the promotion of crony capitalism, tax cuts for people who don't really need them, and...squirrel!!!....Hey, let's go fight a war in the Middle East!

I have gotten to the point where I truly despise politics, every single thing about it. Each day brings fresh evidence of the cluelessness of the American ruling class. Politicians in Washington from both parties act as if we don't know that part of the reason they aren't in any hurry to fix our health care mess is because they have all exempted themselves from the mess. Their health plan is perfectly fine. Their tax burden made less burdensome by their well paid accountants taking advantage of escape hatches for the well connected. They don't have to fret about saving for retirement, their retirement plan is pretty sweet. They don't have to worry about illegal immigrants taking their jobs, or moving in next door...they live in gated enclaves. They don't have to worry about the crumbling public schools...their kids go to private academies.

So, going forward, here are our choices. If you want a government to provide more and more subsidies and welfare programs to make your life easier, vote Democrat. You know why? Because they will deliver. If you want a government that is less intrusive and does only the things clearly mandated to it by our Constitution, and does so without wracking up unfathomable debt, don't vote Republican because they won't.

Welcome to our Democratic future.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

My Wife's Birthday

Last year we were in Maine for Pam's birthday. Most years we are at the beach when the big day comes. This year, its after returning from the beach, on a Wednesday, and its yoga night. She's busy with a thousand things, and since it's the first week back after vacation, so am I. It won't be a big party night, but that's not to say that I don't have plans. I've got a few things up my sleeve.

Five years ago, I wrote a post about my wife on the occasion of her 50th birthday...here. All of it is still true. If anything, it's all more true now than it was then. With each passing year she becomes a better person, if that is even possible. I don't think it is with most people, especially me. As I get older I find myself becoming less patient, less compassionate, less kind. It's something I have to fight against, this hardening of my spirit. But with Pam it seems she has turned aging on its head. She has somehow found a way to become more patient, more compassionate, and kinder with the passage of time. I don't know anyone who loves new things more than her. While some of us resist trying new things, she thrives on it. It's one of the things that keep her young. That, and the ridiculous genes she was born with that make her look thirty years younger than everybody else her age. 









I fell in love with this woman 35 years ago. I'm still in love with her. Who wouldn't be?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Back...

Back to work.

Back to responsibility. Back to the daily disciplines. Back to accountability. Back to the rigor of a routine.

These are the things you return to after a vacation, the things that you largely abandoned while away, but must pick back up as soon as you get back.

There are hundreds of people counting on me to get back. There will be messages waiting for me, the flashing red light on my credenza.  There will be mail to sort through. There will be a stack of bills to pay. I'll have to quickly find my place, find the exact spot I was when I left, remember what was happening the moment I walked out of the building. Then, I will climb back into the saddle and carry on.

I will ask everyone at the office about any new developments on the DOL front. I will get five or six different stories, none of them definitive, several of them contradictory. 

I will be disoriented for an hour or so. It is always this way after time away. But it's always surprising how quickly everything comes back into focus. Even last year, after a month in Maine, I was up to speed in a couple of days. It was as if I had never left.

There is something oddly comforting about work. Having a place to go and something to do is the great leveler. No matter the weight of responsibility, the thought of not having a profession is a frightening prospect. As much as I worry over the damage done to my mental state by the unrelenting stress of it all, the fact is...part of me needs that stress. I need to be driven out of bed in the morning. I need  people in my life to whom I am answerable. Without them, I could easily go off the rails. I could easily become a self-centered narcissist. 

So, today I'm back...and it's ok.

This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.