Friday, February 24, 2017

Another Big Chill Weekend

“In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.” 
    – The Big Chill

Last November, just a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, a group of our oldest and dearest friends gathered for a “Big Chill Weekend” at a rustic cabin in Blackwater Falls State Park, near Davis, West Virginia.  In years past we would gather regularly at one of the state parks in West Virginia, but as we have grown older, with mounting family and professional responsibilities, these have become less frequent.  We have missed them and decided it was time to gather around the fires more often.

This past weekend we convened once again, this time at Cacapon State Park near Berkeley Springs, in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle.  It was a beautiful, late winter weekend with the temperatures creeping through the 60s into the low 70s, both at home in the environs of Washington, DC, and along the eastern Allegheny ridge lines at the northern terminus of the Shenandoah Valley.  Having endured the first surreal month of the new regime in Washington (I find it difficult to call it an administration or government since no perceptible administering or governing has taken place), all of us were more than happy to find an excuse to get the hell out of Dodge for the long Presidents Day holiday weekend.  The beautiful weather was just icing on the cake. 

Over the years we have escaped to the rural hinterlands within a reasonable day’s drive from our homes.  Sometimes it was just an escape for a long weekend.  Other times the gatherings, although happy and festive on the surface, have been tinged with anger and disappointment.  Once we gathered in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware - a Blue State - to escape DC during Dubya’s second inauguration, in January 2005.  Our gathering in West Virginia - a Red State - last November came just days after the conclusion of the most vicious national election in my memory, marked by the electoral “victory” for DJT and his minions despite the fact he lost the popular election by a few million votes (a fact which he still denies without reason or support).  We all said we would not talk about the election, yet but how was this possible?  We had all just observed a fundamental shift in the political, if not the cultural, fabric of our nation, not to mention its quick slippage into corporate fascism at the highest levels of government.   How could we ignore the fact that the President-Elect was endorsed and applauded by the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi National Policy Institute, along with other white supremacist and nativist cliques.  This alone was sobering, if not frightening in the extreme.  So we enjoyed our fires, our hikes, our books and puzzles, and our communal food and drink, as best we could.  Still, it was hard to ignore an enervating penumbra settling upon the American grain not to mention our own personal lives.

I hate to report that what we feared last November has been visited on us multi-fold since that most outlandish inaugural event just a month ago.  I won’t even begin to tick off the litany of bizarre statements and events that have been the benchmark of the last four, long weeks.  So once again we set off to distance ourselves from the craziness that is Washington these days.  What better time for another “Big Chill Weekend?”   

You may recall Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film The Big Chill starting Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, William Hurt, JoBeth Williams, Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, and Mary Kay Place.  Gary Susman, writing in 2013 to mark the 30th anniversary of the film’s release, claimed that it “touched a huge raw nerve in the culture and became an enormous mainstream hit as a result”.  They cast is a group of seven former college friends, now in their 30s, who attended the University of Michigan during the heyday of the radical student protests against the Vietnam War.  Some have become pillars of the establishment they once railed against.  They have gathered at the vacation home of one of their number in the South Carolina’s Low Country to attend the funeral of another who had committed suicide.  Add to their ranks Meg Tilly, the young girlfriend of their deceased friend played by Kevin Costner . . . cut from the film and uncredited; we see only his sutured wrists as the undertaker dresses him for burial.  “Amazing tradition,” the Jeff Goldblum character offers.  “They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can't come.”

Since their days as young student revolutionaries, some have married and grown into responsible adulthood.  Others have not.  They are a unmarried real estate lawyer who desperately wants a baby; a physician married to a wealthy business man and former classmate; a sex obsessed novelist writing for People magazine; a Hollywood television actor who cannot deal with celebrity; a maimed and bitter Vietnam veteran turned drug dealer; and an unfulfilled housewife and mother who has designs on the actor, an old college crush.  Their dead friend was a scientific prodigy and progressive firebrand who abandoned academe for social work and manual labor. . . and eventually suicide.  They talk about their former lives and their current disillusionment at what they have become, pointing out how each has sold out their old convictions and values for what seems a steady, mainstream life In Ronald Reagan’s America  . . . except for their dead friend.  “I feel I was at my best when I was with you people,” the physician played by Glenn Close admits.  They eat, drink, smoke dope, and listen to the great rock and R&B music that served as a readily recognizable benchmark of their heady student days.  There is lots of finger pointing and censuring, yet they rediscover their common bond and they all manage to kiss and hug when the weekend visit ends.  They return to their separate lives promising not to wait until the next funeral to renew their friendships.  It is a story of old friends searching for something they have lost only to discover that all they needed was each other.  “Wise up folks,” say the William Hurt character.  “We are all alone out there.

Much like the gathering in The Big Chill, almost all of us in our group came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.  We remember Vietnam although none of us were called to serve.   We were all in Washington on September 11; some of us watching the smoke rise from the Pentagon.  We understand the world in which we live.  We are a lawyer, a computer specialist, a historian and research consultant, an artist, two archivists, and a librarian.  All of us have lived and worked in the Washington milieu for decades.  Some of us have grown children; some have never been parents.  Some of us are now retired and some still get up and trudge into the crowded and traffic-choked city each morning to earn coins of the realm.  So an escape, even for just a couple days, is worth the effort.  Thankfully our weekend gatherings have never centered on a funeral or some other sad or tragic occasion although we have certainly gathered at these, as well.  And one of these days the end of one of us may bring us together much like the cast in the film.  Yet, for the most part, our gathering have been mostly happy occasions when we have managed to escape the Washington humdrum for a long weekend in the woods.  We have lounged in front of cabin fire places and outside fire rings.  We have hiked, shot trap, worked on puzzles, read, listen to and played music, and shared kitchen duties as we prepared communal meals accompanied with good drink.

The film comes with an admonition: “In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.”  We realize we are going to have to rely on each other more and more in the days, months and years ahead.   There will certainly be a need for more of these Big Chill escapes . . . opportunities to reset our compasses in search of a way out of this dark storm.  Hopefully this recent election, despite its insane and fearful aftermath, will result in a self-correction of this bizarre anomaly that has beset our nation.

We must remain confident that we will awaken from this bad dream.  In the film the former college radicals grew silent as they matured into comfortable live.  Rocking the Ship of State was no longer necessary, even desirable.  We should take a lesson in this.  Perhaps it is time for all of us, comfortable in our lives up until now, to stand up and start to rock the boat anew.   It worked before.  It can work again.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

An Executive Order Does Not a King Make - A Return to the Imperial Presidency?

                        Your king is SUPPOSED to explode?  What
                        kind of government system is that?”

                                 – Jefferson Smith, Strange Places (2014)

We have been hearing and reading quite a bit lately about the freshet of executive orders issued by DJT since January 20 (“a date that will live in infamy”).   He seems to think that all he has to do is express his will, show everyone his signature on each order he signs, and it suddenly becomes the law of the land.  Not so fast buddy! 

David Schulz, a professor of political science at Hamline University, in St. Paul, Minnesota, who is a noted authority on public policy and administration and the author of American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Research (2013), tells us that there is a Constitutional foundation coupled with legal precedents governing the issuance of executive orders.  Article II, Section I, Clause 1, of the Constitution vests executive power in the president, while Article II, Section 3, requires that the chief executive insure that all laws “be faithfully executed.”  An executive directive – now known as an executive order – is issued by the president to an executive branch department or governmental agency and has the full force of law, just as if it had been passed by the Congress of the United States.  However, an executive order has the force of law ONLY when it comports with the responsibilities and duties of the president granted to him or her by the Constitution of the United States, by federal statute, or by the US Congress.  Add to this the important fact that each executive order can be revoked or stayed by the Supreme Court or a lower federal court, if it violates the Constitution, federally mandated statutes, or any other discretionary powers granted by Congress to the Chief Executive.   There does not appear to be much wiggle room when it comes to the constitutionality of an executive order.

These orders date back to the beginning of our republic.  George Washington issued the first one in 1789 to clarify the duties of the executive branch.  Thomas Jefferson ordered the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, and James Knox Polk ordered the annexation of the Republic of Texas in 1845.  Perhaps the most famous executive directive, as it was known at the time, is Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Issued on January 1, 1863 under the war powers act, it changed the legal status of slaves in the confederated states in rebellion against the United States since 1860.  Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order in 1917 in order to prepare this country for entry into World War I.  FDR issued numerous executive orders during World War II.  During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1961-1969), these two presidents issued executive orders to facilitate racial integration and to end segregation throughout the South, and to enforce civil rights across the country.   

These executive orders were designed to give the president the ability to deal with domestic or international emergencies, to clarify stated policies, to streamline existing law, or to address inadequacies in governmental operations.  Unfortunately, there are those, including DJT and many in his administration, who view these orders as a means of circumventing the legislative branch and the strict interpretation of the separation of powers.  And oddly enough, Congress does not seem to have a problem with this.  Well, the federal courts do.  The American people do.  And it’s high time DJT and his minions and Congressional cronies understand this.    

The intended purpose of executive orders, however, is not to unilaterally gut or dismantle programs and policies of a previous administrations.  That is not governing.  That is partisan retribution with no consideration as to how these changes impact the people being governed.  We have seen quite a bit of this over the past three weeks.  It makes one hark back to the imperial presidency of Richard Nixon (someone every president hopes ro emulate?) who used executive orders in his attempt to defund or dismantle federal agencies.  Thankfully the federal courts stymied these attempts. 

Since the inauguration of DJT almost a month ago I am certainly not the first to remind him that he is a president and not a king.  And as president-elect, he stood in front of the Capitol with his hand placed upon two Bibles and took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.   He seem to be somewhat confused as to what that actually means.  The dozens of executive orders DJT has signed to date appear, in almost all instances, to address matters and issues he does not fully comprehend; perhaps because he was not paying attention during all those important transition briefings, most of which he either ditched or apparently doodled and Twittered his way through.  He needs to show some due diligence before he acts and speaks.  So far this has not been the case.

Plain and simple . . . DJT does not have inherent power to issue executive orders to satisfy his personal foibles and caprice.  Their authority must come from the Constitution or laws, subject to their limitations.  I hate to rain on his parade, but hell, let it pour.

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Communities of the Just - There is No Place in America for Intolerance Against Muslims

Photograph by SallyAnn Rogers
                    Give me your tired, your poor,
                    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
                    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
                    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me . . .
                        – Emma Lazarus (1849-1885)
                           “The New Colossus”

Last week at church my pastor spoke about nourishing each other regardless of who we are or where we come from.  I thought about this over the past week, a week filled with media reports about the current administration’s banning of refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries.  The Statue of Liberty, where the Lazarus sonnet appears on a bronze plaque, does not apply to only certain huddled masses, but to all refugees to these shores regardless of where they came from or what god they chose to worship. 

In its self-professed infinite wisdom, the administration believes this travel ban would prevent “Islamic terrorists” from entering the country and doing harm to Americans.  Strange that Saudi Arabia, the homeland of 15 of the 19 September 11 terrorists, is not on this list.  It seems to me that the president is not so much interested in protecting Americans and those who reside in this country, since many affected by the ban are legal residents of the United States, and have been for year.  He is more interested in protecting Christians, both here and abroad.

After ordering the ban, and during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network on January 27, the president stated that persecuted Christians would be given priority over other refugees seeking to enter this country, adding that they have been "horribly treated."   He freely admitted that others (I am assuming he means Muslims) are being persecuted in these countries covered by the ban – “they were chopping off the heads of everybody” - before he began offering up his alternative facts - “but more so the Christians.   And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them."   Where is the evidence for this?  When has this country ever given priority to Muslim refugees over Christians?   Please show me.  And how can we equate legitimate refugees fleeing terrorism with those wishing to come to this country to perpetrate terrorism?   Please, please show me!  Where are the facts?  Not the alterative facts, but the real facts?

So I thought back to last week’s lesson at church.  Nourish others.  OK, let me offer some food for thought.  True Christians – and I like to think of myself as one – live their lives in the words of Christ.  So consider what the Bible says about intolerance of others who do not necessarily share one’s beliefs.  In the Gospel According to Luke, there is the story of Jesus visiting a Samaritan village on his way to Jerusalem. “But the people would not receive him.  And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?  But he turned and rebuked them.  And they went to another village."  (Luke 9: 53-56]
Jesus had to remind his disciples that he came not to destroy the lives of others, but to give them comfort and salvation.  It was up to them whether they chose to listen.

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, in which he commented on the dietary habits of Christians, cautioned them not to offend the followers of other religions.  "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God.  Give no offence to the Jews or to the Greeks [Gentiles] or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do . . . ." [1 Corinthians 10:31-33]  Can a just society do anything but this?

And just as true Christians live their lives in the word of Christ, true Muslims honor the word of God/Allah through the message of the prophet Mohammed.  Muslims are taught to treat Jews and Christians, described in the Qur’an as “the People of the Book,” with equal justice, and with love and compassion.  In the 60th Surah - Surat al-Mumtahana - Verse 8, God speaks through Mohammed: “God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in the religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just.”
In the 5th Surah - Surat al-Ma’ida - Verse 48, God speaks again through Mohammed:
“We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.”

The values and teaching of the Qur’an hold a true Muslim responsible for treating all people, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, kindly and justly.  They are called upon to protect the innocent and those in need and live a just life "nor forget your portion in this world: but you do good, as God has been good to you, and do not seek mischief in the land.  For God does not love those who do mischief." [28th Surah - Surat al-Qasas - Verse 77)

It turns out all of us - Christians and Muslims –  have been taught the same lessons, and we want the same things in life.  There is no reason to fear Muslims, or to be intolerant of their beliefs, simply because they have chosen a different path to God/Allah.  I am happy to see Americans . . . Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists . . . it really doesn’t matter . . . standing up and marching here in Washington, and across America and the globe, speaking out as communities of the just against the myopic and xenophobic intolerance and fear-mongering of the new administration.   While it tries to seal America away from the rest of the world, it is the duty of each of us to echo the final verse of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet.  “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”  Let the light of truth shine through the darkness of hate and intolerance, and let the communities of the just have the final word.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

I Hate February . . . The Cruelest Month

OK, let's get it over with. I hate February. I always have and I always will. True, it is a short month, but not short enough. Not in my book.  It lasts only 28 days (and sometimes 29 although thankfully not this year).  Only 28 days and yet they always seem to be the longest days of the year.  I hate February.  My wife tells me to “get over it,” but it’s not an easy thing to do.  Here’s why.  It’s not a pretty picture.

February is not quite winter, and nowhere close to being spring.  A dreary month indeed.  Tomorrow we observe Ground Hog Day when the critter interrupts its hibernation to emerge from his hole to see his shadow or not, and to decide how much winter remains before returning to his slumber.  Is it possible he looks out and realizes “Holy shit, it’s February,” and sees no reason to stay awake?   I know the feeling well.  “Hey,” says Lewis Black looking down at his wrists in February.  “Maybe I should slit 'em to see color!”

There is nothing to looks forward to forward to in February.  But what about Ground Hog’s Day?  It’s just a reason to remind you how much February sucks.  But what about Valentine’s Day.  Originally a Christian liturgical feast day, it has morphed into a highly commercialized franchise (run by a big eastern syndicate, you know).  Cards, candy, expensive dinners, and rose petal strewn sheets on a heart-shaped bed in some bungalow in the Poconos (too much information?) . . . it has become my Scrooge “holiday.”  A “bogus holiday at best” to once again quote Mr. Black [].  I love my wife of 42 years for 365 (and sometimes 366) days a year, and I don’t need a special day . . . least of all one in February (you will see Mr. Black put it more succinctly if you click on the link) . . . to demonstrate that fact.  Does that make me a Scrooge?  If so, so be it.  Bah, humbug! 

When I was a kid we celebrated both Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) and George Washington’s (February 22) as public holidays, although today only a few states recognize Lincoln’s birthday as a separate holiday.  Washington’s birthday is a federally recognized holiday, but now it is celebrated on the third Monday of February (this year on 20th) and is more popularly known as Presidents Day.  Now we are obliged to celebrate all presidents, whether they were born in February or not (besides Washington and Lincoln, only Ronald Reagan and William Henry Harrison were born in February).  So now we are called upon to celebrate the likes of Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S Grants . . . . oh, the list goes on right up until today.  I don’t want to celebrate these guys, and I certainly don’t want to do it in February when everything already seems grim and hopeless.  Sanctuary now!

Come to think of it. why are the prettiest young ladies on the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar always consigned to the February???  It’s just not right.  So my apologies to any of my readers, friends, or family who were born in February.  I know it is not your fault.  You can’t help when you were born.  Still, couldn’t you have been early or late.  Babies are always early or late.  So, in some small way, it's really your own damned fault.  Even I, whose timing is not always the greatest, managed to hold off until March.

I told you it was not a pretty picture.  So yes, I hate February.  I always have and I always will.

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