Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Absalom, Oh Absalom!!

Day 23 finds me in 2 Samuel where I am confronted once more with the sordid tale of Amnon, Tamar and Absalom. I will spare this audience the more graphic details of debauchery found in this narrative except to say that incest is involved. But, what I want to talk about is a verse that I have always missed in previous readings. First, let me set it up...

Ok, Amnon is Absalom’s brother, both are sons of King David. They have a sister, Tamar who is described as beautiful. Amnon commits premeditated rape against her. Absalom takes in his sister after the shameful assault. Then this from 2 Samuel 13:22...

...But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad, for Absalom hated Amnon because he had violated his sister.

The very next verse descibes a plot that Absalom launches to kill Amnon...a full two years later.

I had never noticed this particular detail of the story before. Here, Absalom goes along for two long years quietly enduring family dinners, and other casual encounters with his rapist/brother, all the while burning with hatred, plotting his revenge. Two years is a long time to carry around such a heavy weight. No wonder Absalom eventually goes off the rails. Hatred, especially private hatred, is a deadly thing. Hatred, so meticulously groomed and nursed, can become perhaps the most lethal force in the universe. In Absalom’s case, the trajectory of his life was altered by his hatred to the point where it costs him his life and provoked the famous cry from his anguished father, Absalom, Oh Absalom!!

Reading the story this morning made me examine my own life. Is there anything or anyone that I hate as much as Absalom hated his brother? Thankfully, the answer is no. I’ve never had cause to hate anyone with anything approaching this sort of passion and intensity. There have been plenty of people who I haven’t cared for, people who I would prefer not to be around, people who get on my nerves. There are famous people who I don’t know personally who I truly can’t abide...mostly politicians and entertainers, but even those people don’t arouse Absalom level hatred. But, honestly, when I read through my Facebook feed some mornings, I wonder about the hatred I encounter there. How much of it is real and how much is just bandwagon jumping or virtue signaling? I remember some of the vile things I used to read about George W. Bush. I remember the endless stream of invective poured out towards Barack and Michelle Obama. And now, it’s Trump’s turn. 

I understand. I get it...politics can be intensely personal. People can get worked up and carried away. Political beliefs run deep, along with the passionate assurance of our own righteousness, our own exclusive possession of the truth. But, the story of Absalom’s burning hatred and it’s deadly result should serve as a wake up call to all of us. This is especially true considering the fact that Absalom had every right to be angry, after all, his brother had raped his sister! But, even when we are right about something, that doesn’t grant us a license to hate. Hatred ultimately leads to bitterness and resentment, and these two burdens can turn us into the very people we claim to stand against.

Monday, January 22, 2018

It’s Not Fair

Sweat is starting to slide down between my eyes as my legs pump furiously on the new elliptical machine at the gym, this one designed to simulate the strides of a speed skater. My thighs and calves are burning and I’m only fifteen minutes in. It is my 4th such workout of the week, the 13th of the year, and most likely the 5000th of my life. Why do I so consistently volunteer myself for such torture? It is a complicated question which has many answers, none of them satisfactory. It is a stress relief. It does prevent me from ballooning to 300 pounds. It is, by all accounts, good for my heart. But mostly I do it because it gives me some sense that I am at least making an attempt to fight off the ravages of time, the slow, inexorable decline of physical and mental dexterity that comes with age. I mean, you can’t just shrug your shoulders and accept the inevitable, right? That would be entirely too logical and pragmatic. I much more prefer the illusion of control, the doomed notion that I, by sheer force of will and commitment, can keep the reaper at bay.

The television screen on the wall above me was broadcasting a football game. The New England Patriots were in trouble at the beginning of the 4th quarter of the AFC title game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. They had been outplayed the entire game by the younger, more athletic looking Jaguars. The closed caption script across the bottom of the screen is telling the viewer what a hard place that Tom Brady has found himself in, down 10 points to the league’s number one pass defense, having lost his best receiver to a concussion. Despite the growing pain in my legs from this brutal machine, I manage a smile. I think to myself...Where have these announcers been for the past 18 years?? Hard place, they say? 

The sweat stream that started as a trickle was a full blown river by the time the 40 year old Brady hit Danny Amendola with a dart in the back of the end zone to win the game for the Patriots. The screen is then filled with the ridiculously handsome Brady surrounded by a bevy of cameras and reporters, all eager for a word from the man who will be making his 10th appearance in the Super Bowl. We have just watched him throw for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the 4th quarter of a championship game, saving his heroics until his back was against the wall for what seemed like the 1,000th time. My workout was over so I headed to the shower. I didn’t need to see the interview. I knew what he would say before he did...all the right things.

It is very easy to hate someone like Tom Brady, he of the matinee idol good looks, the super model wife, all the money in the world and a strangle hold on the title, Greatest of All Time. There’s plenty of nits to pick if you care to look. But, he has had a bullseye on his back in a violent sport for over nearly two decades now...and nobody has even come close to laying a glove on him. The fact that he is doing this at age 40, is perhaps the very easiest reason to hate the guy. 

I sit in the steam room alone with my aching muscles. Every week these workouts get harder. With each passing year, their power to keep my weight under control weakens, my recovery time gets longer. Meanwhile, Tom Brady keeps on playing football at the highest level. Yes, he’s 40 and I’m getting ready for my 60th birthday. But, he plays football...while the most physically demanding part of my occupation involves putting paper in the copier.

I’m no longer a big pro football fan. I prefer college football and, of course, baseball. But, I watch when the playoffs come around. That means that when I’m watching, Tom Brady is most likely playing. I watch him engineer comeback after comeback with a mixture of resentment and admiration...resentment at his hoarding of unrivaled success, and admiration for his tenacious and so far victorious battle against time.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

What Does Non Essential Mean?

So, our elected representatives failed to come up with a workable compromise last night, mearning that the government has shut down. Consequently, a relatively small percentage of the federal workforce deemed non essential has been furloughed. My Facebook wall has been peppered with comments about my use of the term non essential, so I’ve decided to clear up any confusion and misunderstanding of this controversial term.

First of all, no one with an ounce of self respect wishes to be thought of as non essential. Everyone likes to think that what they do for a living is vitally important work.( My own occupation is not immune to this calculus.) The problem is, it isn’t true...and it never has been true. But, just because something isn’t essential doesn’t mean that it is worthless either. The guy who drives the school bus in the morning is essential to getting your kid to school. The guy who washes the bus and cleans the bus out every day, not so much. But let that school bus go unwashed for a couple of years and never cleaned out, and before long you’ll have a storm of angry parents screaming at the board of supervisors meeting. In the case of my son-in-law, who happens to be the hardest working, most enthusiastic and able park ranger east of the Mississippi, the classification of his job as non essential by the government bean counters is a source of great frustration. While the job of park ranger might not be as essential as someone making life or death decisions about our nuclear arsenal, try telling that family from Nebraska who scrimped and saved for five years to be able to take the family to the Grand Canyon next week only to discover the gates locked because of a government  shutdown...try telling them that a park ranger’s job isn’t essential. 

Here’s the thing...we all do work that is essential to someone. In addition, all work is noble and honorable. Having said that, when you live in a country with a federal work force of 2 million people and that government spends 4 trillion dollars a year, the notion that all 2 million of those employees and every dime of that 4 trillion is absolutely essential and absolutely none of them can be spared and not a nickel of that money can be done without is a laughable suggestion. Yes, it is true that the last time the government shutdown, for 16 Days, it cost us 24 billion dollars. But, to put that in perspective...24 billion dollars is .006% of 1 percent of what this government spends in a year. By any definition, that is a negligible number.

But, getting back to this essential vs. non essential thing...there is one thing I know, any organization, private businesses included, get more inefficient the larger they become. A friend of mine posted a comment to my last blog suggesting that government was worse in this regard than private enterprises are. He might be right in a broader sense, but not completely. I rather believe that even large, for profit companies, fall victim to bloated payrolls. The following photograph might help illustrate my point:

There is only one essential employee in this photograph...and it sure isn’t the Human Resources manager!

Let it be known that I consider the government shutdown a complete political failure. It is never a desirable outcome to furlough hardworking employees who are supporting families. While I have spent lots of time in this space criticizing government waste and malfeasance and will continue to do so, a shutdown should be an embarrassment to the citizens of this Republic. If any government employees should be furloughed, it should be the 535 members of Congress and the President of the United States. Let a few of them go weeks without a paycheck and see how they like it. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Government Shutdown?

Today, Friday, the 19th of January, 2018 holds the promise of a government shutdown. If it happens, it will be the 18th or 19th such shutdown since I graduated from high school in 1976, depending how you count such things. The short term impact will be negligible with only a handful of non essential government personnel getting their temporary pink slips. If the shutdown were to drag on for weeks or months, pestilence and devastation would surely sweep across the land. 

Government shutdowns, since the bicentennial year, have occurred when there is a funding gap between what is required to run leviathan and how much actual money the Congress has authorized the government to spend. The government’s fiscal year starts on October 1st of each year. Prior to 1976, that’s when a Budget was passed. But since then lawmakers have instead relied on continuing resolutions, a short term fix that funds operations for shorter periods of time amidst great rancor and namecalling between politicians.

Here’s a fun chart. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 112 continuing resolutions over the last 20 years, 2001 being an especially dysfunctional year. The federal budget is made up of 12 individual appropriation bills. The last time all 12 were passed by October 1st was in 1998, so our federal government hasn’t functioned with a proper budget in over two decades. Not coincidentally, the federal debt has skyrocketed from 5.5 trillion in 1998 to over 20 trillion today. Many acts of treachery, malfeasance and perfidy have contributed to this mind-boggling amount of red ink, but none more than the continuing resolution, which is a code word for incompetence.

So, what’s the cause of this potential shutdown? Depends on which echo chamber you’re stuck in. It’s either the Republican refusal to grant amnesty to the dreamers, or Democratic refusal to fund the CHIP program for six years. Oh..also, somebody hates our troops and wants them to die for lack of funds. I can’t remember who though. The greatest debate among the political class has been, Who will get the Blame? I don’t know what the fuss is about. I’ve lived through 18 of these things, and I can say with complete confidence that the Republican Party will get the blame, not because they don’t deserve it, but because, the Democratic Party has never gotten the blame for a government shutdown in my lifetime and never will. That’s because the people who are charged with assigning blame in these matters are the Press, and with very few exceptions, the Press runs with Democratic Party talking points. This isn’t a scandal, it’s just the way things have always been. I don’t care who gets the blame. Actually, in this 2018 shutdown, it’s hard to argue with the blame landing squarely on the GOP since they control both houses of Congress  and the White House. If they can’t get this done, it’s on them.

Maybe they work something out today, cobble some ridiculous deal together and vote for it late this afternoon so they can all catch their flights home, since there is absolutely nothing that politicians hate worse than working on the weekend. Or maybe the government will shut down. Whichever way it goes, I have to go to work, since I don’t have a printing press in my basement and can’t rely on a continuing resolution to pay my mortgage.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Day Four

Snowing outside, temperatures falling, wind starting to gust a bit. A couple of inches on the ground with a couple more to come. It’s our third snowfall of the winter here in Short Pump, Virginia. Yesterday, my wife headed over to the new Publix mere hours before it was to begin and texted me: Publix is so quiet...either Richmonders have stopped freaking out about the snow, or this store is doomed...
I feel reasonably confident that my fellow Short Pumpians have not stopped freaking out about the snow.

Day Four at Shangri-La, Short Pump finds me getting more antsy by the minute. Our two bedroom, two bath suite seems to have shrunk considerably since Sunday. But, it’s the little things that are starting to annoy me. In case you’re wondering, we still have a blanket-covered stack of luggage in front of the vent to nowhere, having decided that our makeshift solution was preferable to having to pack up and move to a room with a more logical HVAC plan. I’ve moved on from the big things and started to obsess over the smaller annoyances...

- a coil top stove with burners that will not lay flat, leaving every pan deployed on them tilted manically 

- showers and sinks which feature dial turned spigots which go from arctic cold to scalding hot within a millimeter of each other

- trash cans so small, they are filled up halfway through the preparation of one meal

- a sofa which can’t decide if it’s a sofa, futon, or chaise lounge, but regardless of which it is, declares war on the spinal column of anyone sitting on it.

While all of these things are incredibly annoying to someone like me, I must admit that when you write them down and read back over what you’ve written, it practically screams back at you...First World Problems!!!  Here I am, four days into a stay in a hotel suite which is bigger, and more luxurious than the bedrooms of the world’s richest Kings two thousand years ago, and considerably more luxurious than the homes of over half of the world’s present population. I’m agitated about the scalding hot water while 2.5 billion people on this planet would give just about anything for clean running water at any temperature. So, yeah...I’m a spoiled American.

Something else has occurred to me during my stay at the Residence Inn...Network and cable television is doomed. Each night of our stay, we have had three televisions to choose from for the night’s entertainment. The standard cable package along with HBO is available, free of charge. Not once have we chosen to turn them on. Instead, we sit close together, huddled around my wife’s laptop to watch the latest episode of Black Mirror...on Netflix. We do so despite the tiny eleven inch screen and the inadequate speakers which require extreme concentration to hear. Sure, we watch Andrew Freiden in the morning, and we did watch the end of the Vikings / Saints game Sunday night, but that’s about it. I don’t think we’re alone. If I worked for one of the major networks or a cable television company, I would be looking to acquire a new skill set. Their days are numbered...

Monday, January 15, 2018

Day One in the Wilderness

Day one of our week in the wilderness has started well enough. Our suite here at the Residence Inn is at the lower end of the acceptable scale, but acceptable nonetheless. I have found nothing especially complimentary about the complimentary breakfast, except for the fact that it is, um...complimentary. Our quarters are a reasonable attempt to be like Homewood Suites. Of course, the attempt failed last night as we had finally settled in and noticed a cold draft pouring into our living room as if someone had left a door opened. Upon closer inspection we discovered the source of the freezing air...

To the untrained eye, this would appear to be a garden variety intake vent for heating and air. But when we felt frigid air rushing through the vent, we were perplexed. It was only when we removed the filter that we noticed...

...that it wasn’t attached to anything, sorta like a bridge to nowhere! That’s right, some genius decided that they would slap a vent opening on some random door, attach it to nothing, then allow the unheated crawl space to pass along freezing air directly from the great outdoors into our room. This is American mechanical expertise at its finest. Of course, both of us were too exhausted to call the front desk to report this outrage, since the prospect of having to haul all of our stuff to yet another room after so long a day seemed ridiculous. So, my wife brought another example of American expertise to bear...the jack-legged, jerryrigged solution...

Meanwhile, Lucy is adjusting quite well to her new surroundings. There have been a few low growls directed at other patrons walking past our door, an occasional bark that seems to startle her when the sound bounces off the walls, which is enough to make her stop. Having said this, I have to admit that the old girl is sleeping with one eye open...

Yesterday, someone made the observation that these next couple of weeks might give us a better understanding of what it must have been like for the Children of Israel when they were kicking around for forty years in the wilderness. Well, except for all the actual details of the story, this might be true on some warped scale. Yes, the Residence Inn is not our home, and yes, the promised land is so close we can taste it, but after that, everything falls apart. The complimentary breakfast is much tastier than manna, water comes out of the faucet, not a rock, and no animals will be sacrificed during our stay here if I have anything to say about it.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Hawaiian Nightmare

Yesterday, the fine people of Hawaii heard the wail of first alert sirens and for fifteen horrifying minutes, prepared for incoming ballistic missiles from North Korea. It was a false alarm, brought on by a series of inexcusable mistakes that boiled down to some idiot somewhere actually pushing the wrong button. Unfortunately, this hamfisted blunder had the citizens of Hawaii thinking that they had fifteen minutes to live before the fiery death of a nuclear attack. Their responses are/were fascinating.

Stories have filtered out of mothers huddled in closets with their children, of fathers trying to shield their children with their own bodies from the impending flash, of frantic calls and text messages speaking of deep love and affection...along with stories of copious consumption of whiskey, all very human reactions. As I have read these accounts the thought occurs to me...If I suddenly had fifteen minutes left, what would I do? What would you do?

Nobody can say with certainty what they would do under such circumstances. Our reactions are merely hypothetical approximations...what we think or hope we would do in a crisis is often at odds with what we actually would do. All of us would like to think that we would be calm, steadfast and heroic. No one wants to imagine themselves gulping Jack Daniels and cowering in a corner like a child. But, here is what I would probably do...

- Text or call my children to tell them that I love them.
- Hold on tight to Pam while awaiting the end.
- Confess my sins before Almighty God.

Then, if I had any time left....

- Lament the fact that I didn’t take the family on a month long European vacation, since I could have stiffed Capital One with the bill.
- Since it turned out that I shouldn’t have bothered, I would kick myself for putting so much money in my SEP.
- Enjoy a nice laugh realizing that all of those insufferable Bitcoin know-it-alls won’t be able to spend any of their new money.
- Take comfort in the fact that the coming nuclear apocalypse will also destroy Twitter.
- Delight in the realization that despite being, at best, an infrequent flosser, I will die with a full set of teeth.
- I would probably ask Alexa to play something by Sinatra.
- I might consider cooking up the last of the bacon, assuring that my last smell would be the very best smell.

Anyway, my heart goes out to the citizens of Hawaii. What a nightmare to have to endure because of a false alarm. I’m hoping that when they find the guy(or girl) responsible, he or she is punished to the fullest extent of the law.