Glenn Beck and his Preacher panel, what was missing?

This post is difficult and delicate. I don’t want to get into the usual back-and-forth on politics or religion. But I need to dive right into the middle of both as we race toward the Independence Day holiday.

I got a call a couple of days ago that a local pastor was on the Glenn Beck Program. I’ve never watched it before. Not  once. I’ve seen clips. But I turned it on because I wanted to see how the discussion went.

On this program, which aired July 2, Beck had invited nine religious leaders — pastors, writers, a professor. They came  from various Christian denominations. It was titled the “State of Religion in America,” and over the course of an hour Beck took this group through discussions of the role of religion in politics, the place of “social justice,” charity and taxation, the state of churches today, the stance of the U.S. toward Israel, whether religious expression in this country is being threatened and the role that preachers and religious leaders should play in the nation today.

It was an interesting discussion. It was, no surprise, full of plenty of assertions that would find agreement on the political right in this country, but that was to be expected.

What I didn’t expect was this:

In an hour-long discussion with nine of the most influential Christian leaders today, not one of them saw fit to quote the Bible in answer to any of Beck’s questions.

They quoted John Adams, but not John the apostle. They quoted Peter Marshall, but nothing from any of Peter’s Biblical books. They quoted Montesquieu and Frederick Tolles and George Washington.

But the closest any one of them got to a Biblical quotation was when Stephen Broden, senior pastor at Fair Park Bible Fellowship and a Republican Congressional candidate in Texas, said, “The Bible says that the Christians — that the gatekeepers, that the shepherds — have failed.”

It must be a version of the Bible that I do not have. I don’t doubt that some similar grouping of words might be found somewhere in its pages. But I know that the Bible does not include the term “Christian,” so I’m going to reject that as an actual Biblical quotation as applied.

Later, Princeton professor Robert George, a Roman Catholic, gave a twist to a famous utterance of Jesus when he claimed that those registering on a web site he was promoting would be serving to  “render ungrudgingly to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to never give to Caesar what is God’s.”

I came away disappointed. For all of the talk of getting “back to the Book,” none of them found the book relevant enough to quote in answer to these fundamental questions.

Of course, it can be difficult. There’s nothing resembling a Democracy in the Bible. There’s plenty of taxation. Jesus himself lived under the government of King Herod, whose taxes Jews of the day opposed bitterly. Yet Jesus was criticized for being a friend to tax collectors. And when asked directly about taxation, he took the coin, asked whose picture was on it, then advised those who asked to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s.”

And when Jesus advised those listening to what we have recorded as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:41, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles,” he was making a clear reference to the Roman practice of conscripting workmen. In that day, soldiers or officers of the king could simply force people to convey goods, carry gear, and sometimes even furnish horses or carriages or otherwise work to move their effort along — without compensation.  It is the worst kind of government job — unpaid and not by choice. But instead of denouncing the practice, Jesus told people if the government asked for one mile, they should give it two.

The host, however, declared this: “If Jesus tells you to go and take a shovel and build, you know, dig a ditch for somebody, go do it. If the government tells you that you need to dig it for somebody else on your own time, that isn’t — I have not found it in the Bible.”

Of course, as we’ve just seen, it is in the Bible. And Jesus is the one who said it. For a secular host not to have studied the Sermon on the Mount is no big deal. For a bunch of preachers who repeatedly talked about going “back to the Book,” and who no doubt have read this passage and understood its meaning to not be willing to educate the host and the many watching on television, was disappointing.

John Hagee — who has made many statements I disagree with, which I won’t go into — himself wrote about that passage something I can go along with:

Don’t confuse duty with love.  Duty goes the first mile; love goes the extra mile.  The old saying about going the extra mile (or the second mile) comes from the Bible.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain (two)” (Matthew 5:41).  The Romans occupied Palestine in the days of Christ.  Under their law, a Roman soldier could compel a Jewish man to carry his pack one mile.  The Jews developed the custom of placing a marker, or milestone, one mile from the edge of their property.  So if a Roman soldier came by and told him to carry his pack, the Jewish man would carry the pack as far as the milestone and then drop it promptly.  He had grudgingly done his duty to the last inch.  Jesus was telling His disciples, “Duty carries that pack the first mile; but love joyfully carries it the second mile.”

This work, Hagee and Beck might argue, is in military service (though it also could be rendered in service to the king, or as a courier.) And Beck is arguing here that the government shouldn’t be asking you to do service for someone else. Yet many times, those conscripted to help Roman soldiers were, ultimately, performing work that would benefit others in the Empire and not themselves. It simply had to be. And Jesus’ words were clear. He could have spoken out against the Roman practice. Instead, he spoke to the responsibility of duty and love.

There wasn’t much of that talk among this panel of religious leaders.

In the one-hour show, do you know how many times the word “Love” was uttered? Zero.

And apparently for this group, prayer is not the answer, because it was not mentioned once during the entire show.

Now, I realize this was a secular program. And I realize this book, the Bible, is problematic for many of us. Certainly, for this group of religious leaders, all of its talk about healing the sick and feeding the hungry and care of the poor did not lend well to this particular discussion. Nor, frankly, did it quite fit the host’s financial views. Old Testament law, which comes, for those who follow the Bible, straight from the hand and mind of God, provides for all debts to be forgiven at the end of every seven years and even allows for more leniency when loans are made to the poor (Exodus 22:25): “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is poor and needy, do not be like a money-lender; charge him no interest.”

It fits no fiscal model in place on either side of the aisle today.

I understand that the Bible, like the Constitution, is open to interpretation.

But for a host to bring up all  these issues in a one-hour forum with that group, and for the Bible never to be used as a tool for answering questions, but only be held up as a symbol, leaves their calls to “get back to the book” ringing quite hollow.

A New Orleans appreciation

I wrote this after Katrina wrecked New Orleans, drawn on a trip I’d taken there some time ago. Has nothing to do with football or the Super Bowl, but a lot to do with affection for the place.

NEW ORLEANS, 2005

It has always made me happy
that the river by my banks
runs south to you,
toward good times and
one last fling before
heading out to sea.

I liked to come to you
and say “Tchoupitoulas Street,” and
“Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez.”
I recall the taste of warm beignets
in morning wrapping their arms around
the lingering burn of bourbon.

Once beneath your streetlights,
I stared for a long time
through a gallery window
at a painting of wildflowers
in a graveyard.
A girl came out
of the locked door
with short black hair
and gulf blue eyes
and kissed me,
leaving red azalea on my cheek.
Then she smiled and walked away.

I wondered, when I saw the water,
where she went.
I always remember her
when I think of you —
a kiss in the night
that fades to dream by morning.
I wonder if she
still can smile, or you,
and whether wildflowers
still grace the graveyards
in the sunrise.

America and teams

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, a day when most of the nation will gather in front of television sets and root for one of two teams.

Which actually makes today like any other day in America. The only thing that changes is the game.

It has been six months since deciding to use this blog to explore what the notion of being “American” means. Yet I still have not yet followed up on it. Yes, being the World’s Laziest Blogger is a part of that. But another part is that the more you try to come to the topic, the less prepared you feel. So I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

This entry is not a product of that reading.

Instead, it is the product of a professional life spent covering teams and fans. And of the growing realization that these phenomena are not relegated to sports alone.

I owe a debt to the great writer/minister Frederick Buechner, who points out that religious denominations are very much like teams. He writes:

“It is not so much differences . . . that keep the denominations apart as it is something more nearly approaching team spirit. Somebody from a long line of Congreagationalists would no more consider crossing over to the Methodists than a Red Sox fan would consider rooting for the Mets.”

Buechner, as always, is perceptive even beyond his immediate subject. He wrote those words in 1988, and life since then has become even more a spectator sport.

Listen to political pundits and notice the sports terminology of their debates. But more than that, note that increasingly people are less aligned with ideas or principles and more aligned with a side.

Our teams even have colors now. There are red states, and blue states.

And for a great many, allegiance is as arbitrary as it is in sports. After a recent column I wrote exploring how my two sons could be fans of differing rival teams, I was flooded with email from people who either had experienced the same, or had avoided the same through strict indoctrination. One man proudly sent me a YouTube link of his 2-year-old son spelling “C-A-R-D-S,” followed by the words, “I hate UK.” And it worked both ways, even among older fans. One Louisville professor chastised me that he would never let a son attend UK, for its academic inferiority is well-known. If he’d been writing from Yale, I’d have given him some leeway. But is there truly a dollar’s worth of difference between Kentucky’s two largest state universities?

Regardless, a great many have views that are shaped en masse, by team identification, by friends at church or school, favorite media personalities, or by long history — “my parents were (your political bent here), and so am I.”

And the media, far too often, have allowed themselves to be identified with teams. The team concept sells. It is good television. You know you’re appealing to at least half of the audience. It creates natural drama. But it also creates inconsistency. One outlet will criticize something that the right is doing, but not criticize the same thing when the left does it. And vice versa.

Teams. Media critic John Katz, in a C-SPAN interview, contrasted the ideals of Thomas Paine with ours today:

“Today you don’t have journalists arguing a point of view. You have journalists who are paid to argue the same point of view every week and pretend to be passionate about it. That’s the opposite of reason. It’s like the cockfight every week where people get together and debate each other and score points on each other. “

Here is what Paine, our first political pundit, said: “When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”

I expect it of sports fans, to approve of actions by their own coaches and players that they would not tolerate from opponents.

But we should not be a nation of fans. Otherwise those who say they are for limited government can see their team preside over the greatest confiscation of personal liberties in a generation and approve of it. Or those who come to power protesting an unjust war can preside over the escalation of just as questionable a war somewhere else. (This on the heels of news that our nation is going to pay money we do not have to tribes we cannot control to prop up a government we do not trust in a nation we cannot subdue.)

As I have begun to organize thoughts over what “American” means, the starting point has always come back to freedom. Though it has not always been attainable for all people in this nation, it was the defining desire of its founding, and the motivating principle of its inhabitants.

That I can type these words and fear no knock at the door as the result of them is a thing not to be taken for granted.

Yet today, freedoms of Americans are assaulted from all sides, not just by government, but by corporations allowed to amass monolithic power and by the constant shout of what author George Saunders calls “the brain-dead megaphone” of media, which turns the attention of the public away from the essential issues of its day toward this back-and-forth battle of teams.

So, I suppose, this is the first task in getting to the root of what it means to be “American.” To get beyond the teams.

More Americans will watch the Super Bowl today than will watch any other event or program this year. They will fix their attention on two teams and await the outcome. It has become a mini-holiday for much of the nation, and American tradition.

But the team-spectator-fan mentality that attends it is not an American tradition, or at least, is not a tradition that supersedes the most important American traditions: Freedom and individual liberty.

In this, the cliche is presciently true: “There is no ‘I’ in team.”

The Four Chaplains, a remembrance

I’ve always been partial to the little guy in sports, probably because I was one. So today, I want to tell you about a little guy.

Clark Poling only weighed 135 pounds, but he loved football, and insisted on going out for the team at Oakwood Prep in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. And he did pretty well. He didn’t do it without some doubt. He’d survived an auto accident as a child, and still had the lingering effects of a broken hip from that.

But as a freshman his team went undefeated and he was a starting defensive back. He made a little bit of a name for himself as a halfback until he suffered a broken wrist and his football days were over.

It’s what he did after football, though, that needs to be remembered today.  Clark, like his father, went into the ministry, though not without some doubts. The day he was ordained, they asked him if he believed in the virgin birth. He paused, then said, “I do not disbelieve, but I am not convinced.” Then he quoted a passage of Paul’s about being ministers not of the letter, but of the spirit.

He graduated from Rutgers, and Yale Divinity School. He became a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, married, and settled with his wife Betty and son Corky in Schenectady, N.Y.

He was 30 years old at the outbreak of World War II, and he decided to enlist.  In the same way he threw himself into football, he wanted to throw himself into the middle of the action. His father had been a military chaplain in World War I, but Clark told him he didn’t want to “hide behind the church.” He wanted to fight.

When his father told him that chaplains suffered the highest mortality rate of any servicemen in World War I, Clark Poling reconsidered. At Chaplain’s School at Harvard University, he completed his military training and met three other chaplains, with whom he became close friends.

There was George Fox, a 42-year-old Methodist minister whose 18-year-old son was in the marines. Fox had run away as a 17-year-old to serve as a medic in World War I, winning the Silver Cross and Purple Heart.

There was Alexander Goode, who had become a rabbi after graduating from the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College, and had earned a doctorate from John’s Hopkins.

And there was John P. Washington, a Catholic priest from New Jersey who signed up as soon as Pearl Harbor was bombed.

The four became inseparable, and could be found having animated discussions often at Chaplain’s school, and later on the ship USAT Dorchester, an Army transport.

One soldier described watching them as, “Just like a football huddle.”

On Feb. 3, 1943, the Dorchester was sailing in the North Atlantic when it was hit by a torpedo from the German submarine U-223.

In the chaos that followed, the four chaplains helped to calm the men. They talked frantic and frightened soldiers onto lifeboats. They handed out life jackets.

And when the life preservers ran out, each of the four took off his own, and handed it to a soldier.

And they prayed. Each his own prayers, some Latin, some Hebrew, some English.

I don’t know what goes through a man’s mind when he makes the decision to remove that life vest, to literally remove his life like a piece of clothing and lay it over another man’s shoulders.

It certainly was a day that Clark Poling, one of the little guys who was born in Canton, Ohio, where now resides the Football Hall of Fame, earned an honor as high as any man can earn. (His daughter, Susan, was born three months after his death.)

Grady Clark, a survivor of that day, described the scene.

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

Others described the Four Chaplains as praying arm in arm as the ship went down.

A postcard with the pictures of The Four Chaplains, issued in 1948. (Click picture to enlarge).

All four were posthumously honored with the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. The Four Chaplains Medal was was established by an act of Congress in 1960 and presented to their families in 1961.  They appeared on a postage stamp, and Feb. 3 was declared “Four Chaplains Day” in 1948.

A chapel in their honor was dedicated by President Harry Truman in Philadelphia in 1951.

You can read more about them at fourchaplains.org. Thanks to Don Roth of Louisville for his hard work in keeping their memory alive. He was faithful in contacting my dad every year about this time to remind him of the Four Chaplains, and got in touch with me this year.

The background information for this entry came from Dan Kurzman’s No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War IIBuy the book here.

Remembering the Four Chaplains

I’ve always been partial to the little guy in sports, probably because I was one. So today, I want to tell you about a little guy.

Clark Poling only weighed 135 pounds, but he loved football, and insisted on going out for the team at Oakwood Prep in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. And he did pretty well. He didn’t do it without some doubt. He’d survived an auto accident as a child, and still had the lingering effects of a broken hip from that.

But as a freshman his team went undefeated and he was a starting defensive back. He made a little bit of a name for himself as a halfback until he suffered a broken wrist and his football days were over.

It’s what he did after football, though, that needs to be remembered today.  Clark, like his father, went into the ministry, though not without some doubts. The day he was ordained, they asked him if he believed in the virgin birth. He paused, then said, “I do not disbelieve, but I am not convinced.” Then he quoted a passage of Paul’s about being ministers not of the letter, but of the spirit.

He graduated from Rutgers, and Yale Divinity School. He became a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, married, and settled with his wife Betty and son Corky in Schenectady, N.Y.

He was 30 years old at the outbreak of World War II, and he decided to enlist.  In the same way he threw himself into football, he wanted to throw himself into the middle of the action. His father had been a military chaplain in World War I, but Clark told him he didn’t want to “hide behind the church.” He wanted to fight.

When his father told him that chaplains suffered the highest mortality rate of any servicemen in World War I, Clark Poling reconsidered. At Chaplain’s School at Harvard University, he completed his military training and met three other chaplains, with whom he became close friends.

There was George Fox, a 42-year-old Methodist minister whose 18-year-old son was in the marines. Fox had run away as a 17-year-old to serve as a medic in World War I, winning the Silver Cross and Purple Heart.

There was Alexander Goode, who had become a rabbi after graduating from the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College, and had earned a doctorate from John’s Hopkins.

And there was John P. Washington, a Catholic priest from New Jersey who signed up as soon as Pearl Harbor was bombed.

The four became inseparable, and could be found having animated discussions often at Chaplain’s school, and later on the ship USAT Dorchester, an Army transport.

One soldier described watching them as, “Just like a football huddle.”

On Feb. 3, 1943, the Dorchester was sailing in the North Atlantic when it was hit by a torpedo from the German submarine U-223.

In the chaos that followed, the four chaplains helped to calm the men. They talked frantic and frightened soldiers onto lifeboats. They handed out life jackets.

And when the life preservers ran out, each of the four took off his own, and handed it to a soldier.

And they prayed. Each his own prayers, some Latin, some Hebrew, some English.

I don’t know what goes through a man’s mind when he makes the decision to remove that life vest, to literally remove his life like a piece of clothing and lay it over another man’s shoulders.

It certainly was a day that Clark Poling, one of the little guys who was born in Canton, Ohio, where now resides the Football Hall of Fame, earned an honor as high as any man can earn. (His daughter, Susan, was born three months after his death.)

Grady Clark, a survivor of that day, described the scene.

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

Others described the Four Chaplains as praying arm in arm as the ship went down.

A postcard with the pictures of The Four Chaplains, issued in 1948. (Click picture to enlarge).

All four were posthumously honored with the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. The Four Chaplains Medal was was established by an act of Congress in 1960 and presented to their families in 1961.  They appeared on a postage stamp, and Feb. 3 was declared “Four Chaplains Day” in 1948.

A chapel in their honor was dedicated by President Harry Truman in Philadelphia in 1951.

You can read more about them at fourchaplains.org. Thanks to Don Roth of Louisville for his hard work in keeping their memory alive. He was faithful in contacting my dad every year about this time to remind him of the Four Chaplains, and got in touch with me this year.

The background information for this entry came from Dan Kurzman’s No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War IIBuy the book here.

All right, who threw that?

Photo by Linda Davidson, The Washington Post

A meteorite crashed into a doctor’s office in Lorton, Va., a couple of weeks ago. And what’s surprising about it isn’t the incredibly rare occurrence of a meteorite hitting a building. What’s surprising is that it took more than a week for people to start fighting over it.

The 4 billion-year-old space rock smashed  right into Examining Room No. 2 of a family practice, which was fortunate. If it had landed in the waiting room, it wouldn’t have been seen for at least 45 minutes.

The story’s legs grew slowly. A local paper was on it, then The Washington Post. And then everybody. NPR’s rock-solid “Science Friday” was on the case this past week. (Who knew that the U.S. spends $4 million annually tracking “near earth objects,” and that it’s not nearly enough, according to experts? We spend more than that on pocket money for Afghan warlords. But that’s another entry.)

The upshot of a meteorite actually crashing into a building, below the beltway, if you will, in a suburb of a Washington, D.C., with plenty of witnesses to its descent as a ball of fire, means that this meteorite has become, in our earthly terms, a star.

And like other such objects — the Barry Bonds’ home run balls come to mind — this one has an ownership controversy. The doctors whose office the meteorite crashed into donated it to the Smithsonian and pledged to give the money the museum paid for it, $5,000, to earthquake victims in Haiti.

Since, however, the building’s landlords have stepped in, and are claiming ownership, and have demanded that the rock be returned to them from the Smithsonian, which isn’t budging.

Word is these landlords want to sit it on the front porch and hide the spare key under it, but nobody is confirming anything.

This from The Washington Post:

“The Lorton meteorite is worth $50,000, easy,” said Robert A. Haag, a colorful Arizona dealer in space stuff for 32 years. “A meteorite goes through a roof, or hits a car, something like that, about once a year, somewhere in the world. This one landed in a doctors’ office, while they were there. People saw the fireball in the sky. It was right outside of Washington. The stone itself is pretty common but all the circumstances make it a real collectible.” The entire Lorton meteorite weighs about a half-pound, but it fragmented into three main pieces and four or five bits the size of a dime. The largest piece is a 2-by-3-inch chunk.

Certainly, this meteorite stands to boost the visibility of Lorton, Va. How can they not change the name of their sports teams to meteorites? As I type this, journalists are investigating to see whether Lorton is currently, or has at any time, entered a contract with the devil.

About my only experience with such things falling from the sky is standing under a walnut tree after they’d grown ripe. It’s harrowing. I can only imagine what it was like in that doctor’s office.

To be fair, the Smithsonian does have more than 14,000 meteorites in its collection, by some estimates roughly half that exist on earth. But this is a really nice one, museum officials say, and would really tie the (space junk) room together, would it not?

So I don’t suppose I care who winds up with the rock. I’ll just go with the standard, “I’m glad nobody was hurt.” If only because the insurance would be such a mess. Can you imagine that claim? “Let me ask you, sir, was this meteorite in network or out?”

Dictionary gets the last word

They banned the dictionary for a few days last week in Riverside, Calif.

When a parent complained that the definition for “oral sex” was “sexually graphic” and not fit for young readers, the Menifee Union School District pulled its copies of Merriam-Webster’s 10th edition from school shelves.

The event got a smattering of notice around the country and in certain censorship circles. Though it should be said, some pundits were more shocked that kids still look up words in dictionaries than they were about the content of the oral sex definition: “n. oral stimulation of the genitals.”

In the media coverage, I keep waiting for the smartass man-on-the-street quote from some guy: “What is this oral sex thing of which you speak?” It never came. Guess we’ll have to wait for The Onion’s report.

Clearly the offended parent wants his or her child to learn about sex the old-fashioned way. On the school bus. If they think the dictionary definition is graphic, let them enter “oral sex” on a Google search and see what turns up.

I’m reminded of Frank McCourt’s recollection of the day he was thrown out of the library, for good, in Limerick, for looking up the word “turgid,” after seeing it in a sexually suggestive passage he’d happened upon in a book by Lin Yutang.

Merriam-Webster’s is the official dictionary of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, and of Scrabble. But it spent six days locked in the closets in this California school district until school officials relented. A review by school administrators and the board — amid mounting pressure from first-amendment groups — led officials to reinstate the dictionaries.

A compromise was reached. A less explicit dictionary will also be made available in the district’s fourth-and fifth-grade classrooms (the ones in question), and parents will have to sign a letter stating which they want their children to use.

So now you need a permission slip to look up something in the dictionary. But not to watch cable TV.

I was in high school when Huckleberry Finn was under attack in our school district. While literary types are still mourning the death of the great J.D. Salinger, it’s worth noting that his The Catcher in the Rye was one of the most banned books of the past 50 years in this country.

The hot title under attack now is a children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who bond over the experience of caring for an egg together. Religious groups complain that the book promotes homosexuality by showing two males caring for an egg. It’s not natural, they say. Except in this case, it is. Male penguins do, in fact, exhibit such behavior, and the ones in this book are based on two actual penguins from the Central Park Zoo in New York.

Sometimes, I’m surprised that some religious types don’t ban their own Good Book. Certainly, there are a great many parts of that book that would earn their own R-rating, or worse. (Of course, it’s a book that has endured more than its share of banning, too, over the ages).

So the dictionary lives on in Riverside. And Anne Frank, too, will stay on the shelves in Culpepper, Va., schools, after The Diary of Anne Frank was removed last week because of a parent complaint.

The passage, in which Frank writes a brief paragraph mentioning her vagina, is included in an updated version of her diary, considered an unedited version.

School officials, after initially pulling the unedited version, say they’ll leave it on the shelves after all, and review after the school year.

The life of a Jewish teenage girl who was killed by the Nazis in early March of 1945 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp reminds me of a final thought I’ll share, one of the more touching library stories I have heard.

Of all places to find a library, Block 31 of the “Family Camp” in Birkenau concentration camp might be the most unlikely you’ll hear of. The Nazis created this rather small camp to show to the Red Cross as “proof” that they were not killing their prisoners. In reality, they were keeping these families together for just six months, 5,000 or so Jews, before gassing them en masse.

But within this camp, as recounted by Alberto Manguel in his wonderful book, The Library at Night, was an underground library for the children, consisting of only eight books. Included in them were H.G. Wells, A Short History of the World, banned in Germany, a Russian school textbook, a geometry textbook.

“It is almost impossible to imagine,” Manguel writes, “that under the unbearable conditions imposed by the Nazis, intellectual life should still continue.”

In Bergen-Belsen, a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was passed among the prisoners. Manguel quotes a man: “The book was my best friend; it never betrayed me, it comforted me in my despair, it told me that I was not alone.”

Shame on us when we treat the gift of books and words too cavalierly. As even the holy books tell us, with their own scenes that are difficult to look upon, there is grace to be found in expression, and blessing in understanding.

Philosophically inspired

A couple of poems, take them or leave them. The first is part of a series inspired by reading great books (or writers) in common places. Hence some rather unusual titles (“Shakespeare at the Waffle House,” “Neitzche at the Mall,” etc.) And this one.

ARISTOTLE AT THE Y

The greatest thing,
I read,
is to be master
of metaphor,
pumping my
elliptical machine.
Looking up
I see
a woman,
thighs bulging,
struggling on a
stairclimber.

The following is not of the same series, but is what I imagine it might have looked like had Rene Descartes scribbled down a love poem. Haphazardly. In English. In the present day.

DESCARTES IN LOVE

You weren’t here.
You never tugged at my shirt
when it was time to go to bed.
There was no smell of coffee
at night when I liked to arrange
my doubts while watching you
turn the pages of a magazine.
I could have sworn I used to wake
in the night and look for
your shoulder in the dark bed,
confirming it with a kiss.
I must have been mistaken.

Text messages from the future

“Are you writing today?”

The text message came from an editor recently, but there was a problem. The date on it was Jan. 22, 2016.

I’ve seen TV shows like this. A guy gets a newspaper with a headline from the future, and is faced with a dilemma. Does he use his knowledge for good? Of course, nobody today could believe a show like that. Everybody knows they’re not going to have newspapers in the future.

But text messages, I can believe. They’re going to be around forever, like the wheel, certain diet beverages and The Simpsons. So obviously, in the future, I will still be expected to write. But what? And for whom?

Then I took a closer look at my other texts. Since New Year’s Day, it appears that ALL of my texts have been from the future.

Apparently, I still am forgetting to buy toilet paper in the future. And the usage “LOL,” sadly, still has not run its vexatious course.

I started firing texts back at the future, like some SMS supplicant at the feet of Pythia, petitioning a 3-G Oracle, or one networking with Bluetooth’s ghost.

“Who is president?” I asked.

“Barack Obama,” came the answer.

Remarkable. No doubt, given his current struggles he would be relieved to know that he somehow won reelection, perhaps because many of his opponents died when insurance companies dropped them from the rolls. I was about to ask more about this, but decided to keep it brief.

“Who won the World Series?” I continued.

“The New York Yankees,” came back the reply. Not surprising. Buying pennants never goes out of style.

But before I could get to the really good stuff, CNN rolled in with this story explaining the phenomenon: Microsoft glitch sends texts from the ‘future.’

And it didn’t end there. Turns out, the same glitch affected software at some banks, pushing the date ahead to 2016 and rendering debit and credit cards with expiration dates before then useless.

I’m a little unclear. If that’s my money from the future, doesn’t somebody owe me some interest?

Now, I’ve heard of sending yourself an email in the future. In fact, the web site, www.futureme.org is devoted to just that. Fill in a message and the date you want it delivered, and you can send yourself an email 30 years down the road.

I forwarded myself this investment opportunity involving some funds trapped in Nigeria.  No offense, but I prefer to keep my talking to myself in the present.

I have to confess that I was a little disappointed to see the CNN report. Who doesn’t want to receive messages from the future?

Just to be safe, I hedged my bets in response. On the remote chance that I really did have a sports column for Jan. 22, 2016 due right then, I played it safe.

“Yes I’m writing,” I replied. “I’ll just do something on why Brett Favre should finally retire — but why he won’t.”

The world's laziest blogger

So that you will hear me
my words
sometimes grow thin
as the tracks of gulls

on the beaches

— Pablo Neruda

I am the world’s laziest blogger. It’s verifiable. Blogging, through a subtle evolutionary process, has become part of my job. I was, as far as anyone can tell, the first newspaper reporter in Kentucky to establish a regular blog. At the very least, I was one of the first, and certainly the first at The Courier-Journal. It was an experimental thing at the time.

I sounded unsure of its purpose or execution even then. Read for yourself by clicking here, my first-ever blog post, from August 31, 2005.

The other day, when someone asked why I didn’t spend more time on my newspaper sports blog, before I could stop myself, I answered: “Well, nobody really pays me to do it. And nobody is paying to read it. So I don’t see where it’s serving much of a purpose.”

That’s not a satisfactory answer, of course. And not altogether accurate. It’s true, newspaper writers, while asked to churn out as much copy as ever, for the most part have not seen a salary increase despite the increased demands of adding a blog to the job description. And it’s also true that most web-based publications struggle to turn any kind of meaningful profit.

I’m thinking of the great Samuel Johnson, who said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

I suppose the very blog you’re reading, then, should be titled, “Musings of a blockhead.” Unless anyone wants to send me a few bucks on PayPal.

I only bring all this up because I got a note from a well-meaning adviser the other day suggesting that I should break my thoughts up into shorter segments on the sports blog, in order to bring people back to the site more often. Instead of a series of long thoughts, to offer short, quick-hit thoughts and move on.

They copied this information:

F for fast. That’s how users read your precious content. In a few seconds, their eyes move at amazing speeds across your website’s words in a pattern that’s very different from what you learned in school.

In our new eyetracking study, we recorded how 232 users looked at thousands of Web pages. We found that users’ main reading behavior was fairly consistent across many different sites and tasks. This dominant reading pattern looks somewhat like an F and has the following three components:

  • Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F’s top bar.
  • Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F’s lower bar.
  • Finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F’s stem.

The handout went on to state that users (not “readers,” mind you) won’t read your post in a word-by-word manner. I liked this piece of advice: “The first two paragraphs must state the most important information. There’s some hope that users will actually read this material, though they’ll probably read more of the first paragraph than the second.”

By the third paragraph, forget it. Which means that you’ve probably long since stopped reading this. One study suggests that users spend 4.4 seconds per every 100 words on a web page. I suppose, then, that my time is up.

Which is fine, but brings me back to my original point. If nobody is going to read it, why waste time writing it? Why not write something that someone will read, in whatever format it will be read?

Last summer, several of us sat down with the interns at our newspaper and learned that not one subscribed to an actual newspaper, and really, none even got their news from newspaper web sites. They read it on their phones.

I called up one of my columns on my phone the other day, and even I grew weary of trying to read it on such a small screen, in the midst of whatever else I was doing.

And it occurred to me that maybe, where an economy of words with a concentration of meaning is concerned, poetry may be just the answer. Who knows?

We’re in the midst of a kind of reorganization of news writing, in which both consumers and publishers have to decide just what exactly the words are worth.

If it’s all the same to everybody, I think I’ll wait until that decision is made before I start limiting myself to 100-word thoughts and bullet-point brainstorms.