Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas Spam and Forty Years

Christmas Spam and Forty Years There are two kinds of Spam in the world. One is annoying, the other edible, although there are many who think the edible version is also annoying, or worse. Diane, for one, hates Spam, the meat-like substance in a can. But I love the stuff. In fact, I found a kindred spirit in my nephew Erik, who also loves Spam. Whenever we get together, either here in Montana or there in the Netherlands, we always set aside one day for a Spam eggstravaganza. I discovered in the book Year Zero that I come by my love of Spam naturally, being one of the foods supplied to hungry Dutchmen after their liberation from Nazi rule in 1945. You might say I eat Spam to honor my country’s liberators as well as the Dutch spirit that did not buckle. Or not. This of course means that I have Spam once in a very great while, maybe every two years. I told my grandson Xander about Spam and how much Opa loves it. I even got him to try it – a piece smaller than half a kernel of corn. He spat it out, gagging. “I hate Spam, Opa!” he proclaimed. But then he lightened, telling me, “But I’ll like Spam when I am twenty.” He is six. Oma thinks he has discerning taste. Now I have a running joke with him, asking him if he would like Spam milkshakes or Spamcakes, to which he usually responds, half smiling, “Opa! I don’t like Spam.” “Try it.” I say, “Try it and you might.” But of course he already did try it. I even told him this Christmas that maybe Santa would put some Spam in my stocking. Xander told Papa Frank about my love of Spam. Papa Frank also likes Spam. In fact, he bought several case lots some time ago. So when Xander told him, Frank immediately led Xander to his stash and had him carry up a case for me. It’s a Costco case, with six large tins of original Spam – a veritable treasure trove worthy of the Dragon Smaug. Frank, who just underwent triple bypass surgery, explained that he didn’t think Spam was on his menu planner anymore. Besides, he still had two more cases in his larder. After we got home Diane noticed that the Spam in the case had an out date of December, 2013 – a year ago. I was shocked. I did not know that Spam had a shelf life; I mean, jars found in archaeological digs in Egypt containing Spam proved to be edible after millennia. So I am debating if the out date really matters. Tomorrow I will not eat Spam, and that is a promise. Tomorrow is the fortieth anniversary of the day Diane and I got married. We will celebrate with very little pomp and circumstance. We know that forty is a big deal – twice as long as Derek Jeter’s major league career. We had thoughts of celebrating in Europe before fiscal reality set in (as it always does – rudely). We now are shooting for the Big 4-2 for the big trip. It gives us time to save our stuivers, and 42 is a magical number that has followed me around my entire life. Besides, 40 is just a number, one of many passed and many to come. We have had our ups and downs, but mostly ups. We have been very fortunate in our lives together. Even our worst times were better than many people’s best times. Friends and family continue to be our inspiration and our joy. People salute us for our forty years. Diane likes to tell them dumb luck brought us together and a lack of imagination keeps us so. The truth is, our deep and ever deeper friendship is the key. That, and love. But she still hates Spam.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Onward Christian Soldiers: A Just War for Jesus

Onward Christian Soldiers: A Just War for Jesus I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me . . . I assure you, as often as you neglected to do it to one of those least ones, you neglected to do it to me. Matthew 25:40; 25:46. Here I go, reflecting on my writing for the past week and my direct opposition to war as a means of diplomacy. I have to admit that the definition of the word “war” can lead to several interpretations; of course, the meaning I referred to is that of a clash of armed forces with the intent of imposing the will of one side upon the other through violent and deadly means. We refer to a sporting event as a war between two sides. We have a card game that is called “War.” Other games, like chess, are thought of as strategy games bases on concepts of real war, but played, not waged. And we do speak of waging war when we go after a cause: you might say that I am waging war on war itself by what I say and how I try to act. So, as a Christmas wish or observation, I state the following: Christian, if you are not a hypocrite, look beyond your self interest to the truth: every three seconds, somewhere on this planet, a child dies. In the time it took me to get this far in my blog, 40 children have lost their lives. They died of disease and starvation, war and murder. Two more. I look into the eyes of my energetic grandchildren and try to imagine them sick or starving, with no hope of any end but Death, or living in an environment plagued by raiding maniacs or long distance bombs. I feel blessed that they are safe. But I ask myself: beheaded by ISIS, blown to pieces by a drone, expiring from lack of even simple food or clean water, killed by a disease like malaria that can be easily treated – what difference does it make? Dead is dead. Just because we do not see it, do not feel its impact directly, do not smell its stench, does not mean our responsibility to do something about it is less. The oil will play out. The stuivers and shekels and Euros and dollars and yuan will all remain behind when you leave this earth. So I propose to you all: if we must have a war to fight, wage your war on Poverty. It is a war that we can win; it is pragmatic to devote our resources it it; and the rewards go far beyond conquest. We all like to cite the evil of Adolph Hitler when supporting the concept of a just war. But we must recall the impoverished conditions of Germany in the 1920’s that allowed him to rise to power. He took power in 1933. He gave his people nearly full employment within five years. Prevention can be the cure. It is not enough to say: give a man a fish and he will be fed for a night; teach a man to fish and he will be fed to a lifetime. We must also stock the lakes with fish – continually. As for me: I do what I can when I can. I am fortunate in my own existence but the only power I have is a voice too few as yet are hearing. I am not as good as the widow who gave her last coin to Jesus, but I know my priorities. So did He.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Rebuttal: No One Read This!

My triple blog on pacifists garnered one written response. I quote: “I hope your home here in our country is never invaded by an enemy of any kind. And God forbid you defend yourself or your country. I wonder if Hitler, the Chinese, or any other government would accommodate the freedoms we take for granted here in America. I agree WAR is not answer, but for the attacked, it is a defense. Not to fight back may be Godly, but not very patriotic or manly.” This gentleman and I long ago agreed that our viewpoints differ drastically, and I welcome the fact that he took the time to both read my words and thoughtfully respond to them. I would remind him of three things: first, that a patriot who loves his country can and should strive to point out to that country when he or she feels it is traveling down the wrong path – it is our right and our duty just as it is his to disagree; second, that dissent IS the power of democracy; and that, three, to choose not to kill or participate in the killing aspect of War is a matter of conscience, not cowardice. More on the subject of invasion: When the United States was attacked in 1941, we had virtually no standing army at all. What we did have for a Pacific fleet was stationed at Pearl Harbor, the point of attack. It was not an attack on the US mainland nor an attempt to invade. The Japanese calculated that knocking out our fleet would buy them one year, during which they would consolidate their Pacific Empire and then hopefully sue for peace. But we responded mightily: in May in the Battle of the Coral Sea and June at Midway, we had already begun to turn the tide. Our ability to mobilize and militarize stunned the world. If we ever were invaded, we would rally so fast that any invader would be rendered dizzy. And in today’s world, the prospect of invading, occupying and controlling as vast a country as America would be daunting. It has been stated that an occupying force needs one soldier for every ten inhabitants just to maintain control. That would require an armed force of thirty million men. Even if China put together that huge an army, plus the logistics to support and supply it, the price tag would devastate their economy. It is not fiscally possible to occupy the US. China does have the second largest military budget in the world, roughly 30 percent of the largest, which of course is the United States. There might be a madman who would consider it, but even if he could bring it off, resistance among the populace would wear him down. Much better to wage economic battles and erode the current worldwide control of Corporate America by, for example, buying up our public debt. Hitler may have entertained plans to extend his dominance to the entire world, and reshape that world in his own image. But he wore his military thin, in the long run, by trying too much. Yes, we fought him, and yes, we were on the winning side, seventy years ago. The Greatest Generation deserves all due praise for meeting the challenges and enduring the sacrifices asked of them. And yes, the cause was just. But remember this: for all the righteousness of our side of WW2, Hitler tried to get us to go to bed with him against Stalin and Communism. We chose Stalin, and the post-war world was split among the victors with an iron curtain between the halves. Jim, I do not think you have to worry about us being invaded. I also do not think you have to worry, for the present, about pacifists taking over the world. I don’t even think you have to worry overly about my being able to pollute the minds of future generations, because pacifism is not in style today, war is, especially in America, and no one seems to be paying any attention to a liberal from Montana who sees the world as it should be, and the United States for what it is. Our leadership still believes that war is a viable means of diplomacy, of getting what you want. Mohandas Gandhi famously said, “In my humble opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” War is evil even when good men wage it. And innocents die, which is supposed to be contrary to the teachings of every moral code to which those good men pledge their faith.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Pacifists, Part Three of Three: The Future of War

PART THREE: “My subject is War, and the Pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity.” -----Wilfred Owen. Pacifism was not yet back in style in 1967. It became fashionable within a year: I was ahead of the curve. I believe to this day that you cannot stop killing by killing, that the death of one soldier never ended a war, and that war is no longer a viable means of diplomacy. And yet we continue, we arm, we fight, we kill, we die. Peace, it turns out, is much harder to wage than war, even though war comes with the Surgeon General’s explicit label on it: “Warning: War has been shown to be hazardous to your health; in fact, War causes death.” Stupidity lives. Ignorance is curable. Human beings enjoy the culture of war and violence. The culture of peace remains a lofty ideal most of us accept as unattainable. I do not want to believe that Mankind cannot change. If that makes me crazy, then so be it. Sanity is highly overrated, and I have seen what allegedly sane people do to each other. We know that non-violence works. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King stand as proof. That change is slow. But all social change is gradual – or gradually accepted. Violent change, such as via revolution, most often leads not to a true change in social structure but only a change in leadership. True social change comes not from the top down, but from within, spreading outward. Not one dead soldier ever brought about true social change. The cost, however, is dear even for the most patient: King was assassinated long before the change he envisioned began earnestly to be accepted; Gandhi saw change come about only to be assassinated at that very moment. Gandhi once said, “There are many causes I would die for. There is not one cause I would kill for.” To those who clamor that such and such would have happened if we did not join the fight, the comment begs the question, “And has the fighting stopped?” It is easy to recognize that pacifism is impractical given the nature of Man. This does not mean that pacifism is wrong; instead, it is the ideal toward which we all must strive. How many Wilfred Owens must we allow to die days before the Peace? Woodrow Wilson tried desperately to keep America out of World War One. When he no longer could, he seized the opportunity to promote his own ideals at the peace talks at Versailles, though less than welcome. His vision of the post-war world included establishing a League of Nations that would prevent further wars. The rest of the world, including his own countrymen, was not ready. The failure of the United States to ratify the treaty nearly killed him. Still, he left us these words: “I would rather fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed than succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.”

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Pacifists, Part Two: In and Out of Style

“I do wish people would not deceive themselves by talk of a just war. There is no such thing as a just war. What we are doing is casting out Satan by Satan.” -----Charles Hamilton Sorley Pacifism goes in and out of style. Memories are short, and most young people are too naive to realize that all wars are waged to the benefit of a select few at the expense of a great many. There are no exceptions, even if the cause is just. Just causes are a reaction to unjust ones, and justice is often defined – and later conveniently re-defined – by the victors. We stopped Hitler after six million Jews and five million non-Jews were murdered in concentration and work camps. We did not stop the Rape of Nanking, the Killing Fields, the destruction of Biafra, the ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, and on and on. Governments, our own included, examine the costs relative to the gain. Perhaps World War Two was the last justifiable war, from our point of view. We had to stop Hitler. We did not stop Stalin. Since World War Two, the United States has been embroiled in conflict after conflict, leading at least one social critic to call us “cops of the world.” He was a Canadian pacifist named Phil Oochs. For me, the tradition of pacifism is ingrained: my family lived through the occupation of Holland by the Germans. I was a teenager when the Vietnam War escalated into an American war, and faced the possibility of being drafted. I made my decision not to run away to Canada but to stand up for my beliefs and go to prison if necessary, modeling myself after a man who did just that, David Harris. Harris served three years of a five year prison sentence; to us he was imprisoned for refusing to kill. I was lucky. I won the draft lottery, and did not have to face that choice. I was off the hook but still vehemently and loudly opposed that war and our involvement in it, along with millions of others. Vietnam so polarized American opinion that I thought peace really did have a chance. But I was wrong: subsequent history continued America’s path down a warrior’s highway. Once again, an army of brutal extremists demands that we stop them. We created Saddam Hussein (as a buffer against Iran), then toppled him, creating a power vacuum and destabilizing the region. This in turn created ISIS, at least in part within the prison walls we guarded. We did not strangle ISIS in its infancy, and now it is growing into a threat large enough to warrant the return of US troops on Iraqi soil – and probably on Syrian soil as well. Why? Not for humanitarian reasons – we might have intervened w hen there were ten thousand ISIS warriors butchering women and children and beheading Iraqi soldiers. Instead, we have been watching the numbers grow. Our interests are served better by the need for our return. And, why? In a word: oil. It does not matter which billionaires’ politicians control Congress. If they want a war, they will find a way to have it. World War One proved that point a hundred years ago. Germany felt left out of the empire building that dominated Western European politics for the previous three centuries. They wanted their share. The balance of power in Europe, designed to prevent a major war, now aligned the two blocks that would duke it out – one side fighting to gain territory, the other to preserve territory already gained. Most of the nations involved were ruled by descendants of Queen Victoria, but this was no family feud. When Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was murdered in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, it formed the perfect pretext for war. What followed was a four year struggle that is best described as “redundant slaughter.” Incidentally, ethnic cleansing was a big part of the picture. Most of the nations of Europe, as well as the Ottoman Empire, actively sought ways to force “undesirables” to leave or face violent consequences. Large numbers escaped, mainly to America. Some were turned away even from there and sent back to Europe. Millions were slaughtered. The Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915 set a tone for the century to follow. In that century, 187 million human beings would die in war or by genocide. After World War One, pacifism became fashionable among the victors. So much was lost, and so brutally, that repeating the performance seemed out of the question. But the peace that was brokered at Versailles instead set the stage for another global conflict. That war began almost 25 years to the day from the beginning of the first. Pacifism once again slipped into disfavor and those who believed in it were considered cowards, even if they chose to serve in non-combative ways. War after war followed; the United States met its match in a faraway place called Vietnam.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Pacifists, Part One

“Jesus was a pacifist.” -----Chris Hedges Mirriam-Webster defines pacifism as, “the belief that it is wrong to use war or violence to settle disputes.” The root word is “pax,” ancient Roman for peace. The word “pacifism” was coined by French peace activist Emile Arnoud (born in 1864, died in 1921). It was adopted by the tenth Universal Peace Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1901. But the tradition of pacifism reaches back millennia. In major Indian religions, the Sanskrit word “ahisma,” which means “to do no harm,” expresses this philosophy. Christ invoked us to “love thy neighbor,” and Moses might well ask, “What part of ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ do we not understand?” What I don’t know always amazes me. When I moved to Montana from California I knew I was leaving a deep blue state for one that I believed to be crimson red. But I discovered that Montana has a tradition of independent thought; I even have found a liberal scattering of liberals throughout the state. More, I learned of a woman who defined pacifism in her whole being, a Montana native. Discovering her has rekindled my personal desperation to write on the subject. Her name was Jeannette Rankin. Jeannette Rankin holds two unique distinctions in American politics. In 1916 she was the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. Nationally, women had not yet achieved the right to vote, but Montana was among a handful of western states that enjoyed full suffrage. Rankin, a Republican, soon thereafter was called to a special session of Congress, in April 1917, to vote on whether the United States should enter World War One. In all, 50 Senators and Representatives voted No – Rankin among them. She did not win re-election, but returned to the House in 1940, just in time to vote on America’s entry into World War Two. She cast the only No, making her the only human being to vote against entry into both world wars. She stated that she could not in good conscience vote to send another mother’s son to die in battle. Despite immense pressure to make the vote unanimous, Rankin stood her ground. After the First World War, dubbed by some as “The War to End all Wars,” eighteen million people lay dead, ten million soldiers and eight million civilians. The conflict was indeed global as distant outposts of various empires became contested property. But at war’s end, everyone, especially the victors, was weary and disgusted. Pacifism as a movement gained favor. In 1928, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, originally supposed to be a treaty between the United States and France, grew into a declaration that war was and is illegal. Although little more than a gesture without teeth to support it, nonetheless this law has never been repealed. Anti-war sentiments dominated the literature of the time. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, told from a German foot soldier’s point of view, so universally captured the plight of all warriors of that conflict that it became an emblem for pacifists. In 1930, Lewis Milestone directed an American production of the film, which stands today as a harrowing and frank account of war in general, not as an issue of strategy but one of slaughter. The film’s young star, Lew Ayres, was so moved by the film of which he was a crucial part, that he became a pacifist himself. When World War Two broke out, Ayres refused to fight. His initial request for conscientious objector status nearly destroyed his reputation. But he was no coward. He had requested status as a non-combatant medic, but military policy forbade servicemen from requesting assignments. Ayres then filed for conscientious objector status and was sent to a CO camp. The military changed his status in April, 1942, and soon he served as a medic in the Pacific Theater. Still, the shift in climate made it almost impossible to be a conscientious objector, or a pacifist.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Montana Blokker Family Christmas Newsletter

The Blokker Family Christmas Blog Hello to all and to all a Happy Holiday Greeting from the beautiful northwestern corner of Montana! 2014 has been a memorable year. Roy put together four collections of poetry and prose on Kindle, publishing one of them in paperback version: Banned in Boston. He also wrote Charles Sorley’s Ghost expressly to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War One both on Kindle and in paperback. He also has been published in eight different magazines and newspapers, and had a feature article written about him in the local paper. Retirement and the mountain air agree with him. Diane has been busy with her job at Glacier Perks, where she is, as she puts it, “the dough fairy.” It’s a great outlet for her need to bake and a way to display her wonderful skills. Those skills are also finding expression through her crochet, which is turning into a (small at this point) cottage industry. It gives her great pleasure to produce something beautiful and then have someone purchase it. We have great and calming fun together on our small double-recliner love seat, Roy with his laptop and Diane with her crochet. Coming into 2014, we had one grandson, the remarkable, charming and sometimes devilish Xander. Xander is now in First Grade and growing like a weed. In June, his sister CharleeRose was born, another beautiful child and joy to behold. In August our daughter Beth gave birth to Chase Hendrix Kissell. Both babies are precious and precocious,, and even though Chase is far away in Los Osos, California, he is in our hearts and thoughts every minute. When we moved to Montana four years ago, in large part to be closer to our then only grandchild, Diane said, “Watch: we’ll leave California and then Beth will have a baby.” It took a few years, but now it’s happened, and we know we are missing out on Chase’s growing. But Beth and Brian are great at keeping us posted, and Chase is already chirping into the phone. It took Chase being born to bring us back to California. It was a whirlwind two week trip during mid-August. We got to see many of our friends and family – all too briefly – and spend four wondrous days with Chase, Beth and Brian. It also gave us a chance to fly, possibly our favorite travel activity in the world. We do apologize to all we missed while there, and all we spent far less time with than we wished. Our daughter-in-law Holli’s father, and our close friend, Frank suffered a heart attack in late September, and had to have triple bypass surgery on December 11. He came through the surgery with those favorite words, “no complications.” He was released from the hospital yesterday. His recovery will be long, painful, and demanding – but Frank is strong and has a powerful desire to hang around and make us laugh. For a while, we have to avoid returning the favor. His presence this Christmas will make the whole family feel very blessed! Another blessing in our lives has been our friend Joop, the elder statesman of our group. A fellow Dutchman with a fascinating history of his own, Joop ranks among the handful of liberals we have met, though the number is growing. He also has introduced us to the Glacier Symphony and Chorale, that remarkable orchestra about whom I have blogged a few times and written an article for the local paper. This past December 6, Saint Nicholas Day, we managed to pass out gifts to an extended family of children here, in Boise, and in California, 24 in all to whom we are Oma and Opa. The gifts were small, but reports back told us that the children loved them. On December 28 Diane and I will be celebrating our Fortieth wedding anniversary, although modestly. We had entertained hopes of celebrating in Holland, but that trip cannot happen this year, so we are setting our sites on Anniversary Number 42 because 42 is my magic number, one that seems to follow me wherever I go, plus, it is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. Life in Montana is sweet – cold, at the moment, but sweet. The only bittersweet part is thinking of all the people we love who are so far away. It is hard for us to get out of the Rockies, as much as we like to travel. But our door is always open and a guest room – with its own bath – awaits anyone who would like to come our way! You can ask our Dutch nephews and nieces – Erik and Annemieke, Olaf and Anneke – just how magnificent our back yard is. And on that note, I’ve prattled on long enough. So Merry Christmas and good fortune in the upcoming year!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fear of Monkeys Issue 20 - Mt Brag Blog

This one will be brief. I have a plan in mind for a lengthier, three part blog that I hope will be illuminating and season-appropriate, so please watch for it. But today is a brag blog. The Fear of Monkeys online magazine has again published one of my poems in their newest issue, Number 20, “The Banded Leaf Monkey,” out today. The poem is entitled “The Murderers Among Us.” Fear of Monkeys likes to publish politically relevant poetry, and this is the third time one of my poems has graced its pages. So check out the website, and find me there! By the way, Kevin is still doing well. But please send your positive energies to my daughter-in-law Holli’s dad and my good friend Frank, who will have open heart surgery tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The What's Right and What's Wrong with America Blog

I have been putting off publishing this blog for some time. I realize that most of the reading public does not want to discuss things political., not really. We all would rather enjoy lovely stories of happy things and not deal with things about which we have no real input or over which we have no real control. I get that. But I still need to vent from time to time. And you, Dear Reader, can choose not to read me, but I hope you will. The thing is, there is so much self-delusion in the world that a reality check has to happen every once in a while. It is always easy to be critical. When we look at our great nation, we see its flaws. And blind spots: Americans, by and large, slip into the comfort zone of their own personal desires and needs despite the needs of those around them. That’s not an American thing, it’s just a thing. What’s great about America is that we can stare at those flaws without impunity. I am proud that in America we can fight for what we believe. I am disappointed that we still have to. America has the highest Gross Domestic Product in the world. In average per capita income we rank sixth. We have the number one military budget by far. But in other crucial areas we have slipped and are continuing to slip below the rest of the industrialized world. Our generous nature is partially belied by the fact that, although our nation provides the largest physical amount of foreign aid to the world, based on gross national income twenty nations are more generous than we. The World Health Organization ranks the US health care system 37th in the world just behind Costa Rica. I think it fair to say that, in America, the Hippocratic Oath goes only goes as far as the money to pay for it. The Affordable Care Act has done nothing to change this. The Program for International Student Assessment ranks American students 36th out of 65 countries, with below average ratings in mathematics. Educational reforms do not appear to be working. Fifteen percent t of Americans live below the national poverty line; that’s over 48,000,000 people, in the richest nation in the history of the world. Obviously, there is room for improvement – but first we have to admit that we have a problem. A report released on November 17, 2014, stated that one in every thirty children in America is homeless. Homeless. In America. That is 2.5 million (2,500,000) homeless children. They probably don’t have computers, either. Just guessing. It seems that everyone in this country already assumes that everyone in this country has a computer and knows how to use it, or at least a cellular phone of some sort with plenty of apps loaded and ready. I don’t think that’s true, and I think it is a very egotistic, perhaps even hubristic, assumption on the part of American commerce. Maybe if you don’t have apps and wireless you don’t matter. Obviously, there is room for improvement – and I don’t necessarily mean “a chicken in every pot, a computer in every room.” Profit remains king in America. This by itself is not a bad thing, it has driven the economic engine that produced the wealthiest country ever. But profit without responsible distribution – sharing – leads to what we are seeing here. The distance between the “classes” is growing, while the number of classes is shrinking down to two, and in the bargain American soon will no longer be, if it still is, Number One where it counts. We have lots of guns, but our bridges are falling down. We have a high stock market but children who go to bed hungry at night through no fault of their own. We have equal opportunity employers and a glass ceiling. Obviously, there is room for improvement. We have a press that loves sensationalism and calls it journalism, at least on the mass market scale (the Third Estate still exists but newspapers and magazines are slowly shrinking and dying in the face of social media and America’s need for instant gratification). That press seems to enjoy reporting and re-reporting on the things that scare us, and even underlying how frightened we should be: today’s Ebola Crisis so far has involved three “real,” i.e., uncontrolled, cases and grabs the headlines at the beginning of nearly every news program, fueled by the deadly nature of this hard-to-contract disease; meanwhile, a new strain of enterovirus (D68) infected, at last report, 825 people, mostly children, with cases reported in 46 states. This disease has killed or crippled small children, is more easily spread (air borne), and yet reporting on it was casual to non-existent. But the attitude seems to have been: “Let it run its course, and parents be careful.” Obviously, there is room for concern. We also have a President who is all but ineffectual with a Congress that is stonewalling him at every turn. I will say it plainly: the White-dominated Republicans are delighting in making the first Black President look like a failure even if it means stagnation for the country. And I won’t even get on my usual high horse about the ISIS Crisis and the developing ten year plan for dealing with a small band of renegade terrorists, while the Crimean Crisis is no longer mentioned and Al Qaeda and the Taliban seem to be off the radar. This is a good country. It once was a great one and it still projects itself as such. It could be great again, but self-delusion has to stop first. My parents immigrated to the United States in part to find the American Dream. In large part, they succeeded, and my life in this country has been great, and I am grateful. I have been given a voice, even if its reach is small. I use my voice to cry against those things that we can change. I’ve seen great progress made in my lifetime but I also have seen reverse steps willfully taken. We have the resources, we have the manpower. But we no longer have the intellect, and I am beginning to think we lack the will.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Kevin in Print

Tomorrow I may get political again, but today I just want to share a brief blog of self-congratulations and an encouragement to all of you. You all saw my blog a few days ago about a Saint, a Shovel, a Train and a Cat. Dianne Kochenburg of Clever Magazine liked the bit about Kevin the Cat enough to refit her Winter Issue after it “went to bed” and published it, plus a photo of Kevin with our grandson Xander that I took when both were considerably younger. As an added bonus, alphabetically I am at the top of her contributor list. As Dianne so kindly put it, this is a wonderful Christmas story. Ah, the wonder of digital publishing! So please check out the issue and support Dianne’s wonderful work in general, by going to And by the way, Kevin is his old self again. Right now he has managed to position himself on my lap under my laptop, enjoying being close to me and warmed by the heat coming off the laptop. Our house is at peace.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Christmas Spirit, American Politics, and the Sub-Arctic Heatwave

It is the early morning, pre-dawn, here in Lakeside, Montana. Di is at work and I came along for the ride and the excellent WiFi connection. I also have a fear of winter road conditions and would not be able to rest knowing that Di was on those roads alone in the middle of the night. Some would call me over-protective; others would call me sweet. Di calls me most helpful, though she feels a little guilty for my getting up at 2:30 am. It is no bother. We’re on the same schedule. This morning began at a balmy 37 degrees. The snow is melting, then re-freezing, then melting in a schizophrenic water world that leaves the walkways treacherous and the roadways a combination of slushy and possibly icy. I’m glad I drove Di to work. Saint Nicholas Day was a great success for us. Feedback began almost immediately that the kids were all excited that Santa came to give them cadotjes. I think they realize this is a good omen for their Christmas treasures to come, and they feel particularly lucky that Santa comes to their house twice. It pays to know a Dutchman, let me tell you. You may have noticed that I have studiously avoided politics in my last few blogs. That is mainly because I don’t see much happening in that world since the last election, or for the foreseeable future. I must comment: the Republican Party will claim this election as a mandate from the people, a mandate for change. In reality, it is a mandate for the status quo given largely by not showing up. Only 36.4% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the midterm election, the lowest percentage since World War Two (when some voters were slightly distracted). The fact that the Republicans won both houses only shows that they remain better able to get their core out on election day. The rest of us are either lazy or disillusioned, ignorant or apathetic. I don’t know, and I don’t care. The people have spoken and the Silent Majority is back, if it ever left. And if the Republicans think their victory shows how poorly the President is doing, I would remind them that he has an approval rating of 43%. That is not good. But Congress has an approval rating of only 15%, roughly a third of his. I would act cautiously if I were them, and seek cooperation. If you’re climbing the mountain of public opinion, it is better to do so with a lifeline firmly attached to all members of the climbing party and a pretty good idea of the correct footholds on the mountain face. Democracy itself hangs in the balance, and the world is watching. As for me, I’ll be watching a plethora of Christmas movies in the days ahead. Not even American politics can dampen my Christmas Spirit as I await Santa’s second visit – Ho Ho Ho!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Saint, a Shovel, a Train and a Cat

HAPPY SAINT NICHOLAS DAY! It is the Feast Day for Saint Nicholas of Myra, the noble human being who became the inspiration for the jolly old elf we call Santa Claus. Nicholas was the epitome of kindness, particularly toward children. He is the patron saint of children, and of the Netherlands. That makes him particularly dear to me – as a Nederlander and as a perpetual child. Legend has it that Saint Nicholas – Sinterclaas – Santa Claus – goes from house to house on the night of December 5, putting treats into the shoes of good children and sticks or coal into those of the not so good. Diane and I have adopted this tradition and expanded upon it. We used to give our children an ornament and some candy in the night, to be discovered in the morning of the 6th. The kids liked this tradition so much that we do it still, even though they all are well into adulthood. But now there is another generation of children around us, an extended family of little people we know and care about. We now give these little ones small prezzies – the Dutch call them cadotjes – along with their modest portion of candy and an ornament. This leaves Christmas Day for family gatherings (okay, maybe a few extra gifts under the tree and in the stockings for the grandchildren). Saint Nicholas Day is our “Giving Day,” and I think Nicholas would be pleased. Of course, there is a trick to getting the gifts to their respective homes, via mail or via Blokker’s Delivery Service. Snow gets in the way. We had a bit of the white stuff over the past week and a half, no blizzards or anything like that, but enough for me to start my winter routine of clearing the decks and the driveway with my trusty snow shovel. On a good day it takes 45 minutes to remove enough snow for easy navigation. Despite the outside temperature (one day it was 12 degrees F), I come back inside sweating. I want to say I’m getting too old for this s$@&!t – but, thank fully, I’m not. Which, naturally, brings me to trains. Di and I are about to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary at the end of the month. In all that time, and all the years growing up B. D. (before Diane), I have always wanted to have a large train to circle the Christmas tree. It did not have to be fancy or expensive, but I kept putting it off and putting it off. Too many kids, too many cats, not enough money for such a frivolous thing, too many trips departing on December 26 – I always had good reasons, and it felt kind of silly. But now I have my train, a battery operated plastic engine and four car whistle-blower on a perfect round track. It chugs around our very lovely Scotch pine tree happily, even joyfully. And the little kid in me is so very thankful. Oddly enough, the dog and cats couldn’t care less about the train. We almost lost Kevin on Thursday. Kevin is our fourteen year old cat, one of only two left from our old cat raising and rescue days. Jane, the other, is fifteen. She is a young fifteen, though, and Kevin has been aging rapidly. But there is no more affectionate or obnoxious cat in the world. He meets me more like a dog than a cat, waiting at the door for my entry and very vocal in greeting. He sits on laps purring, often rubbing his head against you, casting his loving eyes in your direction and giving out a silent meow. He grooms the dog. He sleeps with us every night. He goes out of his way to make sure you notice him. But over the past couple of weeks Kevin seemed slower, older, a bit unstable and well off his feed. Then Wednesday night he did not come to bed, and Thursday morning he did not greet me upon my return from work. He did not come out for breakfast. I had to find him, and when I did he hissed at me, something he had never done. It seemed to both of us that he was telling us he was done with this life. He was suffering, and we did not want him to suffer. We called the vet and intended to have him humanely put to sleep. When we put Kevin in the crate, he didn’t even fight us. Tearfully, we knew it was time. Like the noise in a car that disappears when you reach the mechanic, as soon as we opened the crate Kevin came out, plopped over onto his back, began to purr and bat at both me and the vet with his paw playfully. Obviously, he had changed his mind about being ready to depart this earth. Maybe it was the fresh air – I may never know. So he got a reprieve and we took him home. We know it is only a matter of time, but the time was not Thursday. It may be weeks, or months away. This morning Kevin was his usual self – head rubs, purrs and grabbing my pen as I tried to write these words. Kevin has the second loudest purr in the history of catdom. When he purrs, the earth rumbles; in fact, seismologists rush to Yellowstone to check if the super volcano is getting ready to blow. I will miss that purr, but not today. So, HAPPY SANTA CLAWS DAY from Kevin the Cat, and to all a good night.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Tomorrow is Saint Nicholas Day/Santa's Day

How Santa Got His Name Almost four hundred years ago, in 1625, the Dutch built a trading settlement on the tip of the island of Manhattan. Because of where it sat, it became a major export center from the New World to the Old. Trappers along the Hudson River and places north sold or traded their goods to Dutch merchants, who in turn sent the goods across the Atlantic by ship for resale. Beaver pelts, in particular, were a favorite back in the Netherlands. Their under fur was perfect for making the felt used in the hats popular throughout Europe at the time. The settlement quickly grew into a town. The Dutch called the town New Amsterdam. More settlements followed, as well as farms, places with names like Breukelen, Jonas Broncks’ plantation, and Van der Donck’s plantation, familiar to us now as Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Yonkers. Although New Amsterdam belonged to the Dutch, everyone was welcome. Due to the variety of people coming in to trade and sell, the town had an international flair. Among those who settled were Swedes, Brits, a few Frenchmen, some Native Americans and even an occasional former slave. The Dutch settlers brought their own traditions along with them. Among these was the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was Bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey. He is the patron saint of children and of the Netherlands. Celebrating his feast day on December 6 became an important tradition among the Dutch. One feature of the celebration asks all children to put one of their shoes outside the door on the night of December 5. According to Dutch legend, Saint Nicholas and Old Black Pete, a Moor whom Nicholas met in Spain and who traveled with the Saint, would go from house to house. On the morning of the 6th, if a child was good, he or she would get candy and small gifts in their shoe. If bad, they would find twigs or lumps of coal. One version of the story has Nicholas and Pete flying over the rooftops on their horses. The Dutch would leave something for the horses to eat, since they were doing all the hard work. During the Seventeenth Century the Dutch and the British fought several wars. By the year 1674 the British took control of New Amsterdam and renamed it New York, after the Duke of York, the English King‘s brother. The Dutch who lived there were allowed to stay. Many of them chose to do so. They already thought they were separate from native Holland, but they kept their traditions active, including the feast day of Saint Nicholas and the good child-bad child ritual. During the Revolutionary War citizens of New York adopted Saint Nicholas as their battle standard, in opposition to England’s Saint George. After Independence New Yorkers began to look back at their Dutch roots. Some tried to make Saint Nicholas the patron saint of their city and of the New York Historical Society. Along the way the image of Saint Nicholas changed into someone more closely resembling a Dutch burgher, or merchant, who was round and jolly and smoked a clay pipe. This was how Washington Irving portrayed him in the fictional book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York. The poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” thought to be written by Clement Clark Moore, made this new image of Saint Nicholas a part of American tradition. Instead of shoes, we use stockings “hung by the chimney with care.” Instead of putting them out on December 5, we put them out on the 24th. On Christmas morning we rush to find what was left for us. We hope to find that the cookies and milk we set out for the nighttime visitor were consumed, like the hay the Dutch left for Sinterklass’s horses. For us, exchanging gifts on Christmas honors the birthday of Jesus, but the gifts and treats in our stockings remain the magical work of Saint Nicholas. The Dutch call Saint Nicholas “Sint Nikolaas,“ which became “Sinterklass.” By the time the American New Yorkers rediscovered their Dutch heritage, Sinterklass became “Santa Claus.” And that’s why we call him Santa Claus to this day, and sometimes Jolly Old Saint Nick. My son Nikolas adds this tidbit: the original Nicholas of Myra was a very generous man who tried to help anyone and everyone in need. One particular family was too proud to take charity, so Nicholas pit some coins in a bag and snuck by their house. He threw the bag of coins over the wall. The bag landed in the shoe of one of the members of the family. And that is why children put shoes out on December 5.