Friday, September 30, 2011

Choo Choo Ch’Boogie – Me and Trains

I was looking at youtube videos of real trains and made a few discoveries which sent me into deep memories and internet research.

One of the momentous events when I was five in 1949 was that I rode the Silver Streak passenger train from Omaha to Kansas City. This was the famous Midwest Zephyr, streamlined stainless steel class transportation. We left Sioux City, Iowa, and changed trains in Omaha at the huge Union Pacific railroad station there. I am disappointed that I can’t find any photos of the great train station that once existed in Sioux City.

The Zephyr was a Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad train. In Kansas City we boarded a dirty old train pulled by a belching steam engine to visit my uncle Merle in Sedalia. He worked at the K-T or Burlington railroad yards there.

In Sedalia as we got off the train, I saw double water fountains, for White and Colored, which made a lasting impression on me. This photo is very much like what I remembered.

In the ‘50's my aunt Verrelle from DeWitt, Iowa would drive north to Maquokeda and catch the Milwaukee Midwest Hiawatha to Sioux City. These were classy yellow-orange and red trains with compartments, a fancy dining car and rounded lounge car at the rear. I begged for a ride, so my Mom and Aunt took me to Sioux Falls and back for a shopping trip.
When the railroads died, Sioux City displayed a Great Northern locomotive near the city auditorium. It has since been restored (for display only) and so has the loco house and roundtable next to the Sioux River and Hwy 12 just west and north of the city. I thought that was a cool place when I was a kid. (It is clearly visible on Google Maps; search for Sioux City Iowa roundtable.)

Carol and I rode a dinner train in Kentucky through the bourbon distillery countryside in the ‘90's. That was neat. And now there is a Saratoga and North Creek Railway ( that stops in Hadley across the Hudson from us. (Oddly, this railroad is owned and operated by Iowa Pacific Holdlings.) So it is now possible to travel by rail from Penn Station to Saratoga Springs and change trains to the Adirondacks. The photo here shows the bridge over the Sacandaga just before it joins the Hudson at Hadley. (The Sacandaga is controlled by a dam, and when the water is released it makes a great white water river over those rocks.)

But the real deal is the Iowa Interstate Railroad.  (Oddly, owned by a group in Delaware.) They haul a lot of freight around Iowa and Illinois on track that used to be silent. And they have added two gigantic Chinese QJ model locos, which haul freight and passengers. You can sit for several hours watching the videos.
These things somehow passed the EPA tests, but I don’t see how. The modern diesels behind the loco are not for power, but are pulled by the steam engine. They are there to provide electricity from their generators for the passenger cars. There were 1,800+ tickets sold for this trip. The whistle that let's you know something really big is coming is an American Illinois Central whistle (A Bb minor triad?).  Here is a video of the other engine with what I think was the original Chinese whistle.  Wonderful video from alongside on a road at its powerful loping speed.

The Chinese built more than 4,000 of these locos in the ‘50's to the ‘90's, based on a Soviet Russian design. This reminds me of the Strelnikov armoured train in Dr. Zhivago.  (No one seems to know if it was a real Soviet loco or one patched together for the film.)

These are all monsters, but not as large as the articulated locos used in the western US during WWII, such as the “Big Boy” 4-8-8-4.  This one is in Proctor, MN, and there is one in the Lake Superior Rail Museum in Duluth.  There are videos on YouTube.
I knew Mel Alderink, a wonderful, gracious man, an Elder at Glen Avon Presbyterian Church there, who was General Superintendent of the DM&IR Railroad during the '70's. Every year I think of another question I should have asked him before he left us.

“Take me right back to the track, Jack.”
 “Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
   Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?”

Friday, September 23, 2011

My Favorite Prayers

I keep finding old things I want to share.  I subscribe to where I get Doonesbury, Pearls Before Swine, and Rose Is Rose, my favorite strips.  Without newspapers, this is the way to get the old style cartoon laughs.

I want to promote Stephen Pastis and his strip, Pearls Before Swine.  He was a lawyer and has a peculiar sense of humor.  Crocidiles (called “Crocs”) live next door to Zeebra, whom they threaten daily.  The Crocs are not well educated or very bright, and speak with a reptilian accent with a bit of Chicago thrown in.  So for example, their fraternity is “Zeeba, Zeeba, Eata.”

So I can share two old strips that illustrate the relativity of prayer.  How would Crocs pray?  What can you legitimately pray for?  Doesn’t it depend on your context?  People pray for what they want without seeing the self-interest reflected in their prayers.  So aren’t the Croc’s prayers really honest?

First, the common bedtime prayer that scares little kids (“Am I gonna die?”).  You need to know that Larry's son is not sure that he wants to be a predator like his Dad, but I suppose genes win:

Second, the famous “Serenity Prayer:”

Me loves da crocs.  And this will have to do since I missed “talk like a pirate day” last Monday.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Brush with the Death Penalty

The death penalty is all over the news.  I won’t comment on any case; I don’t know that much about them, BUT –

On CNN last night as a crowd awaited the execution Anderson Cooper commented on how a sizeable detachment of the Georgia State Police were ready to repel anyone who tried to cause any violence or try to get into the prison.   So it’s like “Let’s kill anyone who tries to stop this killing.”  And “Let’s keep everyone out of the prison.”  OK.

When I was Presbytery Exec in west central Illinois I was secretary to the Illinois Conference of Churches.  In ‘98 - ‘01 we were able to present a united front to the state for postponing all executions until the guilt or innocence of those sentenced to death was clearly established.  There had been several cases where newly applied DNA evidence clearly showed that the sentenced were innocent. We could not ask for more because we were divided on the basic issue of the legitimacy of the death penalty.  (Apparently, the death of Jesus by execution wasn’t offensive enough. Must have been that the Romans were justified in crucifying him.)
Finally, then Governor George Ryan halted all executions pending determination of guilt.  So we sought an appointment with him to thank him for this (sort of) courageous stand.  (Certainly was, compared to Gov. Rick Perry!)  So here is a picture of us because his staff insisted on a photo op with everyone who came in.  

I regret that I can not name very many of my then colleagues in the photo.  (I am to the right of the Governor, the two of us sons of Ireland.) This meeting had bizarre qualities.  We were all seated around a large conference table and then George entered.  He stopped and looked across the table to the Greek Orthodox priest, third from the right.  Apparently they had encountered each other before, cause George pointed at him and said forcefully:  “You!  Not one word out of you!”  We were stunned.  But our leader, David Anderson, second from left, ever the diplomat, announced that we thanked the governor for the appointment and that we were there to thank him profusely for his delay of the executions.

The Gov responded gruffly: “Don’t any of you get any idea that I am opposed to the death penalty.  I have not said that.”  David smoothed his feathers and even spoke about how we celebrated growth in our beliefs.  The picture was taken and we left.

Later, George did grow.  The number of challenges and innocents on death row had multiplied.  He granted clemency to all on death row in 2003.  Even later, George went to prison for being too much the politician, selling trucker permits for cash contributions to his campaign, as I remember. 

He needed Saul Goodman, the amoral attorney from “Breaking Bad”on AMC.  (Saul is Irish,too, but he says “Who wants an Irish lawyer.  People want a Jewish lawyer.”) Saul would understand Gov. Ryan.  Saul says “Not all crimes are committed by bad people.”  And “Not all evil people are bad.”  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  Gandhi gets the last word: “An eye for an eye makes the world blind.”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Not Blogging, Just Theorizing

I have taken some time off from blogging because school has started.  I am taking Music Theory III at SUNY Adirondack (aka Adirondack Community College).  The first day it seemed impossible that I could recover what I learned last year, but it is coming.  I still think that with two years of music theory I will begin to become dangerous -- musically.

Now I am working on scaler variant triads of melodic minor chords and Modal Borrowing (known to the cognicenti as M.B.) which are major key variants taken from parallel minor keys. Whew. Y’all got that, right?

I have to learn to use this Sibelius 6 that I scored cheap last term....  It would be fun to transcribe something for concert band that hasn’t been done before.  Hm.   Like a medley of peace and anti-war songs....   Or some Phillip Glass....  Or just some good big band jazz....

Where the Jobs Aren’t

I heard a man call in to a radio talk show about jobs this week.  He said “I am a job creator, with a small business of several employees.  No tax cut will affect my hiring.  I will hire someone only when there is more demand and I need more employees to handle that demand.”

Today in the Washington Post Dana Milbank confesses that he is a “small businessman,” but has NO employees.  This is not unusual because 21 million of the 27 million small businesses are single individuals who have never hired anyone and never will.  So I don’t want to hear anymore from the GOP about taxing the job creators.  Most of the rich who should be paying more taxes don’t earn salaries or direct profits from business anyway; they earn from investments and speculation.

I continue to search for economists who understand what is happening.  On CNN Money online Jeff Colvin says that “Obama is looking for jobs in the wrong places.”  Leaving out the gratuitous swipes at Obama, he tells some good history:

“American manufacturing boomed during the expansion. The value of "what we build" increased every year. The problem for the President -- and it's a giant, central problem for him -- is that we did it with fewer workers every year.

“The great story of manufacturing in America and every place with a market economy is that we continually produce more stuff with fewer workers. The trend is not new. Manufacturing employees were 39% of total U.S. workers at the end of World War II, and that was the peak. The proportion has declined steadily ever since and is now 9%. Looking past percentages, the raw number of U.S. manufacturing workers topped out in 1979. Today it's 11.8 million, about half what it was then, though the country is far larger and richer and manufactures enormously more. For perspective, in 1941, before our entry into World War II, we had more manufacturing workers than we have today.

“None of this should be surprising, because we've seen this movie before. Well over 60% of U.S. jobs were in agriculture in the 19th century, and the proportion has been declining ever since. Today it's less than 2%. Back when it was 60%, hunger was a significant worry for much of the population. Today that tiny 2% of workers produce so much food so efficiently that obesity is our gravest national health problem.

“Fewer people relentlessly produce more and better stuff, whether it's corn, cars, or any other physical product. The trend isn't going to reverse....  Smarter, more sophisticated, higher-technology manufacturing is good for America. But one thing we know for sure is that the more advanced that manufacturing becomes, the fewer people it employs. At a time when the country desperately needs more jobs, manufacturing is obviously not the place to look for them.

I am still looking for a “unified theory” of economics, that takes into account the housing bubble.  What comes closer is an interview with a Japanese economist in Money magazine (not on line) that offers good advice, and suggests that Obama is on the right track.  No clues on where any new jobs might come from.  Other analysis of Japan’s lost decade in the Economist and on NPR suggest otherwise.  So is economics truly dismal and not a science?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why 9/11 Brought Such Grief and Response – The Broken Covenant

As I listened to friends and church members and the many comments on the media following 9/11, I heard people trying to frame very deep questions.  Behind or under the grief, and occasionally out loud, people were asking “How did God let this happen to us?”  The mainland US had not been attacked since Pearl Harbor in ‘41.  It didn’t matter that this was not a “military” attack by another nation.

 I think there had grown in the American mind the idea that God protected us. It didn’t matter that we were the biggest kid on the block.  God watched out for us because we were good and right and successful and powerful.  We were the chosen people.  How could anyone complain about us?  We do no wrong.  We are with God and God was with us.
All of this was blown apart by the events of 9/11.  God had not protected America.  Jerry Falwell and friends concluded that it must be punishment from God because of our growing acceptance of gays and abortion.  I think that a lot of people concluded something else: God doesn’t protect anyone.  We are all vulnerable to the most terrible fates.  Actually, many people believe in God as “fate,” as an unavoidable destiny that is predetermined by some distant force.  (No one is familiar with the Greek Fates: Clotho spun the thread of life. Lachesis measured the thread of life allotted to each person. Atropos cut that thread..)

It was easy enough to conclude something far more basic: There is no God who cares for us.  There is no Providence.  This is magical thinking.  No one is entitled to claim God’s blessing or that God saved them if they survived.  If we did, we would be claiming that God did not choose to save those who perished, or that those who die were targeted by God.

At the time a colleague of mine was much impressed with Carolyn Myss, whom we politely will call “a new age spirit person.”  She had a concept about “sacred contracts” that God makes with each person before we are born. (Sounds like a Fate.) I just liked the image of “sacred contract.”

I connected it with Robert Bellah’s Broken Covenant.  (See also the more recent Habits of the Heart, The Good Society, and a new one I want to read, Religion in Human Evolution.) A more serious scholar, Bellah described how America has a “myth of origin” that made us a “chosen people.”  We have all heard certain politicians make much of this “American exceptionalism.”  However, slavery and our treatment of Native Americans had broken the original covenant we had with God and with each other. And Bellah’s big concern was with how American had traded a sense of common purpose for individual greed and self-interest.  Something about all of this made me think that these ideas had crashed for many Americans after 9/11.

Not to worry.  Bush and the media saved us with something we call the myth of redemptive violence.  (Walter Wink helps us with this.) This is the theory that salvation can be achieved by waging war and sacrificing lives in pursuit of the right.  I don’t have to explain this.  Our super heroes make it quite clear.
Christians will note that this is in direct opposition to the traditional teachings of the Churches. But it is the true Gospel of the USA. But it isn’t true.  More about the uncaring cosmos, later. As Douglas Adams taught us, "Don't Panic."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

9/11 Is Over (No Pictures for This)

I’m sorry.  We wrecked all possible good outcomes in our responses to 9/11.  It was a terrible event and we have mourned, but we do need to move on.  So much of our response was about revenge.  Very satisfying, I suppose, until you hear from returning service people who went to Iraq and Afghanistan with such “patriotic” feelings.  They have second thoughts.  Some have PTSD or thoughts of murder or suicide.  Too many were severely wounded.  All of the money spent, more than 6,000 lives lost (twice that of 9/11), and the fear and hate.

I canvassed in Waukesha WI for Kerry in 2004.  I talked with many people who leaned toward democratic proposals, but who told me flat out “I’m afraid.  I don’t want to change horses in the middle of the stream.”  Rove’s campaign for Bush that year, if you have forgotten, was all about fear.  Several times a week in September and October of that year there were warnings of terrorist attempts to destroy us (What if they go after random shopping malls?) and increased reminders of alert warnings.

So all in all, the terrorists won.  We lived a decade in terror.  We were and are still fearful.  We spent our wealth to get the terrorists and to prevent terrorism rather than on building a good and better society.  Immediately after 9/11 there were special deals on cars and trucks and wow did they sell.  This made many people very happy and unquestioning of what would happen next.

We adopted the methods of terrorists and became advocates and practitioners of torture.  We became our enemies.  We passed the Patriot Act and dismantled our freedoms.  We are less free today than at 9/11.  We still have Guantanamo, a symbol of our fear that our legal system isn’t good enough to do its job.

Freedom Tower I is the most expensive skyscraper ever built. The WTT subway station cost more than many subway systems. Towns around me argue about where to place 9/11 memorials, some of which are truly ugly. They will take their places with other ugly memorials to the Spanish-American War and WWI, etc. There just aren’t many good ways to memorialize the carnage of war.

That’s a big problem: 9/11 wasn’t a war, but we made it one – or two.  What would have happened if we had treated it as a “crime?”  First responses of police, FBI, our intelligence agencies, and European police and intelligence groups were very successful in rounding up suspects and finding guilty parties.  This is where the money should have gone instead of wars.  Get the bad guys and ask good questions.

The questions were not allowed to be asked.  Several good writers and television commentators asked “Why did these individuals commit these acts?”  “What is bin Laden’s motivation?”  “Why is there an al queda and why do they hate us?”  All who asked these questions were told to “shut up.”  Comedians and commentators like Bill Maher (no relation) were squelched.    Yeah, those 19 guys were courageous for their cause, and we continue to do things around the world that elicit hatred.

Many Muslims and people thought to be Muslims (like Sikhs) were threatened and even killed.  This week there are threats in Tennessee against the building of a mosque.  Understanding, tolerance, and better yet acceptance is further from us.  At least we don’t hear about “freedom fries” anymore.  BTW, immediately after Colin Powell made his infamous UN speech, the French objected because their intelligence agency KNEW that the claims he made (I think we can call them “his”) about wmd’s were false.  I’m glad that’s over.  But we are still at war in many countries, and still spending billions on weapons and becoming a surveillance state with increasingly limited civil rights.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Big Bible Disconnect

I commented on a post about a new book Born Again on my friend’s blog, (John) Shuck and Jive.  I guess I was in a fightin’ mood so when Princeton Seminary was defined as “liberal” I wrote:   “Princeton isn't liberal. It and other mainline seminaries are confused. On the one hand they teach critical thinking and analytical study of scripture. On the other hand they promote belief in the supernatural. Someday maybe they will figure out that you can't have it both ways.

My seminary was McCormick in Chicago.  Among Presbyterians it used to have the reputation of “liberal” as opposed to Princeton, which was considered “conservative.”  McCormick did encourage a free search for knowledge and truth.  Later I lived near Princeton for eight years and quoted Bultmann to a New Testament professor from Princeton Seminary.  He said “We have to be careful whom we read and quote.”  I was aghast.  (I allow that Lefferts Loetscher and Ed Dowey at Princeton WERE liberal and good guys.)

Another reader of Shuck and Jive asked about my comment.  He said “The Presbyterian denomination (PCUSA) well knows that the Bible is multi-author, multi-agenda, and yet their curriculum says ‘It’s one unified book.’  So I am fairly confused why they don’t proceed with the implications of what they know....maybe you have insight on this disconnect.”

I will try.  When I was in seminary in 1971, I bought and read a book new then by James D. Smart, a Bible professor at Union Seminary in New York.  The title was The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church.  My copy has underlining on nearly every page.  The blurb on the back cover says it all:

“The general growth of knowledge and of man’s understanding of himself and his history has created a gap between the language and concepts of the Bible and those of modern man. [This was a few years before feminism changed our language!] Yet the wealth of knowledge gained by Biblical scholars which would enable one to read the Bible intelligently, has been withheld from the membership of the church....  What is most urgently needed is for preacher and people together to face honestly what is in the Scriptures – and Dr. Smart tells how to do it.”

At the end he argues for pastors to have both faith and good scholarship and to teach the newer scholarship unapologetically to the congregation. A pastor can still be cast out for doing this in 2011 because generations of pastors didn't tell the truth!  Smart wanted us to read the Bible to learn about ourselves and the world, existentially and not literally.  I never found this possible in most congregations.  I don’t think he really challenges the supernatural foundation of the faith.  Demythologizing a la Bultmann is only a first step.

I went to work with Bob Funk and the Jesus Seminar in 2001 because Bob acted out of this same complaint about the church.  When I showed him the Smart book he was moderately surprised that he had not known this book.  Bob often said “Seminary graduates don’t use what we teach them when they go out into the churches.  So everyone remains a child in Sunday School.”  (Bob taught at Drew and left for Vanderbilt out of this frustration.)  This problem is described in detail in his much overlooked book, Honest to Jesus (1996).  Bob said there “I weep to think that I spent 35 years in the classroom, in concert with thousands of colleagues, to have so little lasting impact on students, ministerial candidates, and the American mind. In our time, religious literacy has reached a new low....” (p.5)

Bob and the fellows of the Jesus Seminar published The Five Gospels (which color coded what Jesus said, may have said, and didn’t say) in 1993 and hit the covers of Time, Newsweek, and US News.  (Dominic Crossan, one of the fellows, had the luck to hit the media hard with his book The Historical Jesus in 1992.)  Bob and Dom had acted when the culture was ready for a bit more truth.  For the past decade I have seen churches use The Five Gospels and the many books by Crossan, Marcus Borg, and John Shelby Spong (and others).  Now many churches use a curriculum called Living the Questions where many scholars freely share with congregations what they are doing and what they have found.  So there is more openness to Biblical scholarship than there was, but not everywhere.

I think that the Presbyterian Church USA is breaking up over these issues.  They have argued about homosexuality and avoided the more basic Biblical and theological issues.  Leadership wants to show how traditional/ conservative they are and still talk about Jesus as divine man in pre-modern ways.  “Spirituality” has become the balm for all pain so that one need not think or speak theologically.  More and more people don’t care.  That is what concerned Bob Funk: “Will the younger generations even care about Jesus or what he taught?”  I have a thought about this that I will reveal later.

Presbyterians should realize that the Reformation unleashed a high value on free scholarship that turned around and bit them in the butt.  When that happens you should leap forward, not sit there and howl.  More leaping forward to follow.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Shameless Family Promotion

My older daughter is a fine artist.  That has two meanings.  Sort of like my being a poor preacher.  Anyway, Jennifer is an artist who used to have a real art job, but when the economy crashed in 2008, so did her employer.

Artists must be entrepreneurs, so Jennifer became "Custom Toy Portrait" and then "Your Toy Portrait."

 The concept is that every child has a favorite toy, usually a stuffed animal.

Sometimes the toys are plastic.

Jennifer will paint it, in 5x7" or 8x10" size.
 Sometimes they are metal. 

 Mostly they are soft.

Buy one.  You were a child so what was your favorite toy?  Or your child's?  Or your grandchild's?  They make good Christmas presents.  Or Birthday presents.  Jennifer does these from photos or from "live" sittings of the toys.

Visit the website for pics of dozens of these paintings:

Monday, September 5, 2011

Radical Thinking about Jobs and Debt

Our problem this Labor Day is not unemployment as we have thought of it before.  It is not merely that there is not enough consumption that would create more jobs.  We are undergoing a major, huge transformation of our economy and society akin to the “industrial revolution” which disrupted and moved millions of people.  Such changes create new wealth and destroy people’s lives.

First, we need more radical thinking:  The housing bubble still drives the economy: Too many houses are “under water” and too many houses (especially high end houses) were built in the past decade.  I have wondered if there isn’t a solution such as wiping out a trillion or so dollars of housing debt, and letting Bank of America and Chase fail that would re-create a functioning financial system?  (There may be better choices.)  Obviously, the side effects of such an approach would likely bring down the economy, so what can be done?  The Republicans were willing to sacrifice General Motors and Chrysler.  Why not sacrifice some banks?  Or force them to take actions that would hurt them but help others?

Enter David Graeber, author of Debt: The First Five Thousand Years.  I have somehow missed this anthropologist who was on Charlie Rose back in 2006.  I heard him this morning on a re-broadcast of a Brian Lehrer show on WNYC.  Be warned: He is called an anarchist and a communist.  (He has said “We are all communists.”) He observes that there was debt before there was cash, that religions use the same word for “sin” and “debt,” and that every society has used forgiveness of debt to solve the kinds of problems we are in today.  Remember the Hebrew “jubilee?”  See David on YouTube.  Let's learn from him.  And who are the other new, big thinkers?

Let’s figure out a good way to forgive the most onerous debts, eliminate the housing crisis, and start over.  Also, let’s invest big time in education (but let’s re-invent education) and alternative energy to provide a foundation for a new future.  How we do this in the current political climate is a big question, but it must be done.

About education: a few schools are getting rid of all books and paper and giving laptops to first graders.  If your school isn’t thinking about this, you’re children are probably part of history, not the future.  The times, they are a'changing.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Labor Day Gift – from my Dad - a Printer's Hat

During the 1930's my Dad and Mom met while working at a print shop.  They printed “tickets,” which were some sort of quasi-legal lottery or numbers scheme.  I never understood this.  When I was 6-8 years old when my Dad worked for a large bakery, my Mom still worked “tickets” at home.  She would open the card table, sit, and “fold tickets” for a few hours a day.  A furtive man in a fedora would come by and pick them up.  Were they “break opens” or “pull tabs”?  I don’t know.  Why did they need to be folded?  I don’t know.  When I asked about them my Mother would imply that we shouldn’t talk about them.  After I was 8 or so they disappeared.  My Dad did buy “break opens” at a bar on the way home from work sometimes.

Anyway, my Dad taught me how to make a “printer’s hat” from newspaper pages.  I forgot how, but with the miracle of YouTube, here it is:
Newsprint isn’t what it used to be.  The size of newsprint page used to be as much as 15" but now they are closer to 11".  So it may not be possible to make the large adult size hat that we used to make.  The man in the video places a small hat on his head at the end.

My Dad also made stalks of corn from newpaper.  He would roll it, cut it, and pull the center out so that it was about 5' tall.  That one isn’t on YouTube.  Lots of people used to work for newspapers and in smaller printshops.  Those jobs are mostly gone.  We don't read papers like we used to and everyone has a printer/scanner/ copier connected to their computer.  Actually, mine is wireless.  And I haven’t scanned family pics into my computer, so I can’t post a picture of Dad.