The word “mettle” has fallen out of favor in many circles. A good working definition of the word is: “A person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or to face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way.” Courage, spirit, resolution and tenacity are excellent synonyms for “mettle.”

You won’t have to look far to find examples of people proving their mettle. If you’ve had an appointment with your doctor or been to a hospital recently, it was because someone proved their mettle. If you’ve had a delivery from your Fedex driver who’s been working 7 days a week, if you’ve picked up a dozen eggs delivered to the grocery store by an exhausted truck driver, or if you’ve been served by a police officer, an EMT or a firefighter who was trying to continue serving the public while protecting their health and the health of their families, you’ve seen people proving their mettle.

If you haven’t seen it, or acknowledged it, you have benefited from it nonetheless. It’s every place where people have squared their shoulders and stepped forward to fill the breach. All across the nation people are sacrificing, working longer hours and confronting dangerous situations to keep life as we know it as close to normal as possible. People are worried. They’re scared. They’re emotionally distraught. (After being confined at home with your kids what criticisms do you have for their teachers now?)

It is not given for everyone to be able to demonstrate mettle in as visible or as public a way as our medical professionals, civil servants and tradesmen who keep things running. Society is held together by countless beneficial individual choices that will never see the light of day. It may be that your opportunity to show your mettle is in your choice to shelter in place, to comply with the considered recommendations of the medical community through various levels of government, and to use common sense in public.

Many of us are doing that, and we will be the deciding factor between hardship and disaster.

Too many of us are not doing that. We are failing the mettle test, and if enough of us continue to fail, then disaster is inevitable.

Of course we are human and fallible, and history has demonstrated that when it comes to mettle, not everyone makes the cut, but the outcome of difficult times always depends on how many do. Humans, even at their best, are subject to rationalizing their fears and choosing accordingly. We’ve already seen the hoarding and the outbreaks of violence in those areas hardest hit by the pandemic. We’re also seeing another fear based behavior that threatens the vitality and the civility of small towns and rural areas like ours.

You see, small mountain towns like ours are at the end of the supply lines. That’s why our grocery prices are higher than larger towns that are better supplied. We are also last in line when it comes to getting resupplied. That’s why the meat section in our local grocery stores has been empty so often lately.

But that’s not the only reason. Small towns in out of the way places, with abundant hotel rooms, cabins and campgrounds, have seen an influx of “virus refugees” who have left the city thinking to somehow escape the pandemic. In some cases they have brought it with them. In many cases they have helped strip the shelves of needed food and supplies. In many cases they have abandoned a place with hospital beds and ventilators for a place with few or none, and they are a life flight away from the nearest facility that might help them.

Let’s digress for a moment so we can bring this problem into better focus. From where I stand, the problem is to a certain degree a generational problem, at least in our area, and my own generation bears a large part of the responsibility. I’m between what is commonly known as Gen X and Boomer, and my comments now are directed to the people who are also in that age range. If that makes you mad, take a moment and allow some blood to circulate to your brain.

I’m speaking now to people who are a bit older, perhaps more affluent, retired or financially able to pack up and relocate to another town for an extended stay. I’m sure there are plenty of 60 year old truck drivers, doctors, and civil servants who still have their shoulders to the wheel, but by and large the ongoing burden of this crisis is being borne by younger generations.

Disregard the popular videos of kids partying on Spring Break in defiance of caution and common sense. They are children, and doing stupid things is what children do. Children are not hoarding toilet paper. Millennials are still at work, doing double shifts at the hospital, driving delivery trucks, walking a beat. The elderly are sheltering in place or trapped in a nursing home and isolated from the love and support they need the most. It is the “mature” generations who are refusing to stay at home, who are taking virus vacations to small towns and buying up the groceries.

I’m sorry Gen Xers and Boomers, and I’m ashamed. I know this doesn’t apply to all of us, but it does apply to many. Art is long and time is fleeting…and this was probably our last chance as a generation to prove our mettle. It’s not too late…

Here We Are

“Today the flu season is an inconvenience for most of us. It will be a death sentence for some. Some day the stakes may be higher when a pandemic stalks the public spaces.”

We wrote that in December of last year, and we’ve had similar discussions here several times over the years. It was an easy prediction, like saying the stock market will crash. Eventually you’re going to be right. But here we are, not only stalked by a virus we don’t fully understand, but by fear and human nature that we understand all too well.

This isn’t the first pandemic we’ve faced. HIV is an ongoing problem. The Hong Kong Flu killed one million people in 1968. The Asian Flu killed 2 million in 1956 through 1958. The Spanish Flu killed between 20 and 50 million in 1918. History offers us a perspective that can have a sobering influence.

However, we are breaking new ground with Covid 19. It isn’t flu. It’s a brand new bug and we don’t have centuries of herd immunity built into our immune systems to help us fight it. We don’t fully understand how the virus spreads. We know it can stay airborne for up to 3 hours, like the flu. We know it can survive on stainless steel and plastic for days. There is no vaccine or cure, and we can only guess how this situation will unfold.

We’re not here to go over the same ground that has been well traveled over the last few weeks. There has been little else in the news or on social media. What we’re here to talk about is the lessons we can take away from all this, and if the crisis ended tomorrow, there would already be important ones.

We’ll start with the crisis of trust that has been so evident during the last several weeks. While schools, nursing homes and public venues close all around us, as people are infected and quarantined and the death toll mounts, there are still those who scoff and say that this is some kind of hoax or conspiracy.

One can almost…almost understand the mistrust. It’s the boy who cried wolf. It’s a government, a cadre of corporate media, a capital full of corrupt and immature politicians who have lied so often and for so long that when they do tell us the truth, we still doubt it.

Worse still, we’re losing the ability to discern truth, to sift the facts and weigh differing opinions and with logic and reasoning, discover the truth for ourselves.

I don’t know the solution, but education must be part of it, and I don’t mean education in terms of testing or grades, but a philosophy of education that teaches reasoning and discernment and imparts tools for a lifetime of continued learning.

The problem is that education is paralyzed by politics. Science is paralyzed by politics. Everything from climate to health is measured, not by facts, but by political affiliation. Politics has infected everything it touches, and the disease vectors are corporate and social media.

The second takeaway in this crisis so far is the crisis in citizenship. Have you tried to buy toilet paper lately? Bottled water? Canned tomatoes? These and other items have disappeared from shelves across the country. “I got mine,” and the next person is on their own. Unfortunately the next person can’t afford to hoard. The next person is on a fixed income or lives paycheck to paycheck, and when that check comes in on Friday, there’s no bread on the shelves because you and your neighbor bought a dozen loaves “just in case.”

The next few weeks are going to be difficult for some of us. Not for everyone. Some of us have been “social distancing” for a long time. We prefer small groups of family and friends and long walks outdoors, on the mountain or by the lake. We enjoy the stillness of the morning and the last song of the birds as the sun goes behind the mountain. That’s why we moved here in the first place.

But we have become the exceptions. Americans are not programmed to be comfortable in their own head space. We are conditioned for perpetual stimulus and distraction and consumption. We have to keep moving. We have to be entertained. We have to shop. With the stunning natural beauty of this land all around us, how many will make an unneeded trip to the grocery store and have a meal out because “there’s nothing else to do?” This is the person who goes to the movies when they’re sneezing with a cold because being home is “driving me crazy.”

The next few weeks holds an opportunity for that person, because selfish behavior now can risk someone’s life like few times in our history. This is an opportunity to quiet that incessantly programmed internal dialogue, the hallmark of our addiction to distraction and consumption. This is an opportunity to develop some spiritual muscle. We are well trained in how to do, but we have forgotten how to be.

Is it not telling of our current state that when faced with a crisis, instead of turning to our faith, to God, to our neighbors and our community, we put our faith in toilet paper and bottled water?

This crisis will pass. There is already evidence that hot weather and humidity can slow or halt the spread of the virus. If that’s true, we here in the South have got it licked. But in the meantime, let’s take advantage of this opportunity to disconnect from the normal distractions, to spend some quality time with our families, and though we can’t visit them right now, don’t forget to call that family member confined to the nursing home. Social distancing is hardest on them.

There is a pathway through this time of trouble. To scoff and to panic are both equally wrong. The way through is to exercise due caution and to stay informed without becoming infected by the marketing of panic that always accompanies breaking news. Stay safe out there, and take advantage of this opportunity for self reflection.

What Have We Lost?

This week we’re fortunate to hear from our friend, Marty Levine, a native of Gainesville, GA who lives in Texas and enjoys writing about the issues of the day. Marty brings a wide variety of experience to the table as a world traveler in the corporate world and a loving husband and father who enjoys spending time at home with his diverse hobbies.

What Have We Lost ?

In going through some of my Father’s belongings I ran across a little book in which his mother, my Grandmother, Ethel Levine wrote a brief autobiography of her life. My grandparents were born of first-generation Swedish immigrants with my grandfather Irving from Minnesota and my grandmother Ethel from Chicago. Their parents came to America with nothing but what they were wearing in the late 1800’s, and through hard work on farms and in trades such as bricklaying were able to provide for their large families. My grandparents met in Chicago in the early 1920’s and married in 1925. My father Erland was born in 1926 in Chicago where my grandfather worked in cabinetry.

The three paragraphs below are direct excerpts from my grandmother’s little autobiography. I have added a few parenthetical points for clarity. The scene starts in 1933 Chicago, in the depths of the Great Depression when my grandparents where 30 and my father a boy of 7.

“Irving was out of work for a year or more and did odd jobs for Pete Jacobson from Reliance Company. Pete’s sister was our neighbor. Pete and some friends decided to perfect a process to that would take the fine gold out of the hills of Auraria, Georgia (near Dahlonega) and they needed someone to build pump houses, a home and a machine shop and hired Irving and sent him to Georgia in February 1933.

“Erland and I stayed with Pete’s sister Louise Reinhoffer and I helped her with housework. I also had a job at a factory making penlights. I gave her some of my money to help pay for Erland and my board. Irving was supposed to get room and board and seven weeks spending money for us when he went to Georgia. In August 1933 Pete Jacobson gave Erland and I fare to get to Georgia. We stayed at the camp until 1936. The last year or so we were alone. Groceries were paid for by Reliance – a small check once in a while. We were supposed to get $20 per month for looking after the place.

“A tornado hit Gainesville (Georgia) on April 6, 1936 and Irving went to Gainesville and asked for work at Chambers Lumber Company. He drove there every day (over an hour drive) until June or July when we found an apartment at 736 West Washington. Then Irving wrote to Jacobson and asked them to get someone else in his place (at the mine). They sent us a check for $100 after months of no money. We saved the $100 to pay down a little on some furniture.”

As I read through this account it occurred to me how much we have lost as Americans in the last 80 years. We have piled on wealth, and unfortunately debt as well. We labor hard to obtain little luxuries and then lose ourselves in distraction with media, sports and the like. Would any of us have the pluck to do what may Grandfather did in 1933 ? At a young age he had developed – with only an 8th grade education – the skills to build a gold mining operation in the middle-of -nowhere Georgia. He left the comfort of the Scandinavian neighborhood of Chicago to live and work amongst the mountain folk of North Georgia. He left his young family for a time and then when he had shelter in place, moved them down to join him. His good character and skills encouraged those of more means to provide him – albeit often meager – support. He relied upon no government support, no unearned handouts. There were no concerns about more than basic health care, college tuition and the like – these were not only in short supply, they were simply out of reach. And yet, my grandparents and then my parents prospered by applying the abilities God gave them to build a life their ancestors could only dream of.

Yet as I read today’s headlines I am jarred out of nostalgia by the realization that millions of Americans are keen to give socialism a chance. I am hopeful that those so inclined are simply ignorant of history and economics and will in time come to their senses. Sure, our nation has unequal distributions of wealth – this condition has existed through all history and will continue. History has also proven to us that socialism does not solve this at all. The pie gets smaller for everyone, except for the elite few who run the show. Using socialism to solve societal ills is a bit like shooting yourself in the head to cure a headache. It is an economic system that so goes against our basic drive for individual prosperity and thus when perfected, creates a state of collective ennui.

What has happened that so many of us have become so weak, so hopeless, so helpless, so incapable of caring for ourselves and those in their care ? For me, at least, supporting such schemes goes against every life lesson instilled by my ancestors. I will resist to my dying breath those who demand I cash in my freedom to fund schemes to build a better society for others, many of whom are just looking for free stuff. Our American society was built by people like my grandparents, who did not set out to build a better society at all – yet they did. They only sought to responsibly build a better life for those in their care. Thus, their contribution to creating a better society was not having need of a society to contribute to their betterment. The greatest societies, as it turns out, are built upon the character of those who simply take care of their little corner of the world. They know the cost and can revel in any success they have authored.

A final irony is that a key premise of socialism is that Darwinian evolution must be true, and with this survival of the fittest, a rather capitalist sounding notion. An assent to socialism thus requires one to admit they would be extinct without the support of a colony. This model being best displayed in social creatures like ants and termites, who spend their meager lives piling on largess for a few elite drones and a queen, which is, of course, the very picture of socialism. And for humans, endowed with free will, that is never the recipe for a great society.

Stories That Grow Faith

There are ancient stories which are as pertinent today as they were when they were first spoken; stories that inspire, stories that grow faith, that inform us, caution and amuse us. These stories survive the passage of time because they speak truth about human nature, and that nature doesn’t change, no matter how society or technology does.

Other stories are just as relevant but better understood within the context of their times. In my family we have several stories like that. A lifelong resident of our area or anyone who grew up in a rural community would need no further explanation, but for our younger friends and our friends from the city, let me take you back in time.

If you moved here from the urban cliff dwellings or from any place where traffic and congestion are commonplace, you might, even today, feel isolated and far from the beaten path when you look at the mountains around us. You might find it hard to understand when those of us with a living memory of unbroken ridgelines and clear running steams look at the same mountains with more than a little sadness.

There are some few still among us, however, with a living memory that stretches even further, back to a time before electricity came to this area, a time when there were more dirt roads than paved ones. Among that precious few are people who had a parent or a grandparent with a living memory of a time when some of our mountain valleys were little changed from the days of the first non- native settlers to our area. This is a story from that time.

It’s hard for us to conceive of the hardships that were commonplace to the early residents of the Southern Appalachians. Entire communities lived days away from hospitals or medical help, even if they could have afforded such. Many farms were almost entirely self reliant for food, clothing and shelter. Cash was always in short supply, and carefully reserved for things that could not be produced at home, like nails, salt, sugar and the occasional visit from the itinerant doctor. The biggest need for cash every year was likely to be for taxes. Indeed, some things never change.

I think my grandfather had something in common with Daniel Boone, who once said that when he could see the smoke from his neighbor’s chimney, it was time to move. When my grandparents were newlyweds, he chose a beautiful and isolated cove to build their first home. The cove was at the end of a box canyon, protected from the wind on all sides by ridge-lines, but with a southern exposure for maximum sunlight. The house was built on a small knoll with a gentle slope. The knoll was bordered on three sides by creeks and a bold spring where he built a springhouse for water and natural refrigeration.

There was not a neighbor within sight or sound, and a single lane tunneling through a quarter mile of mountain laurel led to a one lane dirt road and then about 12 more miles of dirt road into Hiawassee. To this day, that cove is still hidden by mountain laurel and as quiet as a whisper of wind.

Being isolated didn’t mean that our ancestors were not social. They depended on their neighbors and friends and their community churches and they achieved a level of interdependence and trust rarely seen in our society today.

Being isolated also did not spare them from the ravages of poorly understood diseases which occasionally plagued our mountain communities. My grandmother in her 96 years had seen influenza or “the grip,” as they called it, typhoid, cholera, scarlet fever, diphtheria and dysentery. The graveyards of our older mountain cemeteries are dotted with the infant graves of many who succumbed to those diseases.

Soon after my grandparents had settled into their new cabin, and before they had their first child, typhoid fever came to Upper Hightower. This would have been about 1914/1915. Several of the neighbors came down with the fever, and even the doctor was sick.

My grandparents got the fever in the fall, and over time they became progressively weaker. With sick neighbors and the doctor out of commission, the system of interdependence the community depended on was severely threatened.

Normally at that time of year my grandparents would have been busy putting away stores for the winter, cutting firewood, butchering a hog and hunting game. They would have had some canned goods they could have eaten while they were sick and too weak to do anything else, but as my grandfather told the story, after several days growing weaker without any protein, he was beginning to wonder whether they would survive.

Typhoid fever puts you flat on your back with migraine-level headaches and severe cramps. Grandpa said they slept as much as they could, and as they grew progressively weaker, they would pass out in bed until they woke up again and tried to get a little water to drink. After sleeping for most of one day, he said he woke up and prayed that if the Good Lord willed it, he was ready to go home, but if not, they sure could use a little help.

Just then he said he heard the sound of squirrels barking in a big black walnut tree across the clearing from the cabin. He forced himself up out of bed and staggered over to get his shotgun down off the rack. His head swam with the effort and he fell down, but when he came to, he could still hear those squirrels barking.

Grandpa said it felt like it took an hour to stagger across that clearing, using his shotgun as a support. When he got to the base of the walnut tree, he collapsed with his back against the tree and passed out again. The sun was starting to go down behind the mountain, and with his head swimming he was having a hard time seeing the squirrels in the tree.

When he realized that he had with him only the two shells in chamber of the double barreled shotgun, Grandpa said he prayed again and said, “Lord, I can’t do this by myself.” He raised the gun, his head swam and he closed his eyes and pulled both triggers.

Two squirrels fell dead out of the tree.

Hope is a tonic, and Grandpa said the trip back to the cabin was a lot shorter. He was able to skin the squirrels and help Grandma cook them up, and he said it was the best meal they ever ate. It gave them the needed strength to keep going, and helped grow the faith that sustained both of them into their late nineties.

The Good Samaritans

Americans are generous people. We give to our causes, our churches and our charities. We’re kind to strangers and helpful to our friends. When disaster strikes, we are first in line to help. Helping our neighbor is deeply ingrained in our culture.

In the age of information it’s usually easy to find a survey or a study that supports something we already know, or think we know. About 10 years ago the World Giving Index started tracking charitable contributions by country. For the last 10 years the US has ranked as the most generous nation in the world, according to the Index.

Now the Index doesn’t take into account foreign aid. It only tracks the likelihood that a nation’s citizens will perform acts of generosity. As we all know, foreign aid, which does have its benefits and is funded by our tax dollars, is sometimes wielded to accomplish goals that have little or nothing to do with helping the citizens of the recipient nation. Still, the US ranks number one in foreign aid by amount, and number two per capita.

Though corporate media through what they present as pop culture would have us divest ourselves as quickly as possible from our Judeo-Christian heritage, this does not change the facts of our history one iota, and one of the stories that has informed our generosity for generations is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

We all know the story, and if we have forgotten it, even the most secular minded among us is familiar with the phrase. The “Good Samaritan” was originally a story to remind us not only to help our neighbor, but to remember who our neighbor is. It encourages us to show compassion to the people we encounter in life, regardless of their race or religion.

We could write many pages just on the preceding paragraph, but this week we’ll limit the discussion to the more generic use of “Samaritan” and the concept of generosity in general.

It’s been my observation that the good Samaritan is not always the smart Samaritan. While we would never discourage a generous impulse or the desire to help a neighbor, in a complex world it behooves us to focus our generosity with a consideration of its consequences.

Here’s a small example. You’re sitting in traffic within sight of the traffic light. A few cars ahead of you, a driver decides to let someone from a side street go ahead of them, and then someone else. They get a brief ego stroke from their public display of neighborliness. You miss the light and are late for work.

We’ve all been that “generous” person, but we don’t always consider traffic flow and the possibility that our “generous” act can further impede it. It isn’t really generosity. We haven’t given anything. We’ve simply stolen time from the people behind us and reallocated it to someone else.

A more serious example happens when the good Samaritan waves someone in from a side road for a left turn. The driver can’t see the oncoming traffic and causes an accident, or they become stuck perpendicular to the flow of traffic, blocking both lanes and further impeding the flow.

During the recent snow storm I saw another example of a Samaritan gone wrong. For as long as I can remember, during every snow storm we’ve had a small group of good fellows who enjoy cranking up their 4 wheel drives and riding the roads. Sometimes they will throw a chain and a shovel in the back of the truck and help out stranded motorists they might come across.

I’ve been one of those people, and it was probably never a good idea, even “back in the day” when there weren’t nearly as many people on the roads, when there were, on average, younger drivers on the road, and when there weren’t as many people in 2wd vehicles thinking they can get up an icy hill in a passenger car. The roads are more hazardous now they they were back then.

In any event, on a steep hill in a blind curve, a woman in a passenger car slid into a ditch. An unfortunate occurrence, but she was unhurt and relatively safe out of the road. A good Samaritan came along and pulled her out of the ditch and straight across the road, perpendicular to the flow of traffic and blocking one and a half lanes. Unable to move the car any further on the ice, he left her sitting there, on a steep hill, in a blind curve, while they waited for the professionals to arrive. A generous and helpful act, and a stupid one.

Many of us prefer to focus our generosity by giving to charities. This is an outstanding way to help our neighbors, but it can be further refined by a bit of research. All charities are not created equal. Some are not actually nonprofit companies. Some pay their CEO’s nearly as much as the benefits that finally reach the intended recipients.

Some people believe that charity begins at home, and we focus our generosity on family and friends. This is laudable, but it also carries a burden of responsibility. Every parent knows the narrow pathway between giving their kids a leg up and creating dependency. Everyone who has a family member addicted to alcohol or drugs knows the fine line between helping and enabling. Again, we give, but we consider the consequences.

We are quick to criticize the government for “throwing money” at a problem, but when our generosity is not focused by wisdom, we can do exactly the same. When our generous acts are not focused, we can create more problems than we attempt to solve.

Still, we encourage generosity because that’s who we are, and because it’s more blessed to give than to receive. There is, however, a quick self test we can conduct to make sure that our generous impulse is properly focused: If we expect to be thanked for our act, or complimented or gratified in any way, that is a sure sign that we need to slow down and consider the consequences of what we are about to do.

Finally, we can think of generosity as a seed. If we plant it in barren ground, it will not grow. If we water it too much, it will develop shallow roots and fall over in a storm.

Sticks and Stones

A few weeks ago I was critical of the Obama Administration’s record breaking sales of weapons and one of our readers accused me of being a conservative. Last week, after describing the Bush (and Obama) Administration culpability in 19 years of war in the middle east, I was accused of being a liberal. Sticks and stones.

I found myself missing my friend, Alva Barrett. If you’ve lived in this area long enough, you may remember Alva. She was a formidable and highly intelligent woman, born and raised in Towns County. She brought up her family in the state of Washington, but she never lost her love for our mountains, and she continued to correspond with the home folks here and subscribed to our newspaper to the end of her days.

Alva did not suffer fools, and she wrote some of the most insightful and amusing letters to the editor, well into her eighties. I remember one letter in particular that she wrote after being accused of being a “liberal.”

The label wasn’t meant as a compliment, rather, it was hurled as a projectile. But Alva grasped the intended weapon and wore it as a medal. She reminded her accuser of some of the names from our history who were similarly accused, including all of our Founders and even Jesus Christ Himself, though she made no claim to any moral equivalence.

Hannah Arendt said, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.” The meaning of a word changes over time, and still falls short of providing understanding. One hundred sixty years ago the republican party was working to abolish slavery. Today, some launchers of verbal projectiles would have us believe that “republican” is synonymous with “racist.”

All of this, my friends, sits squarely in the middle of why we write. There will always be those who call names like we did in the fourth grade, and sadly we see that kind of behavior modeled by our leadership and parroted in all forms of media. But for the rest of us, it only serves to divide, to provoke anger and to prevent understanding.

Have you stopped kicking your dog, yes or no? So, you got a new vehicle! Is it a Ford or a Chevy? Projectile labels are symptoms of a false dilemma or other logical fallacies. So you’re a republican? Why do you hate purple people? You’re a liberal? You must be a vegetarian, and why do you want to destroy the country?

When did being a republican or a democrat, or a conservative or a liberal, become mandatory? A majority of Americans identify as independent, but the national narrative is jealously guarded by two organizations which fall far short of representing the array of choices Americans actually have. After 166 years of opportunities to work together, they have lost the ability to govern effectively.

Most Americans agree that, at the very least, after generations of gaming the system, there is room for improvement in our form of government as it is currently administered. Sadly, as voters we are not ideally situated for making improvements. Our choices in the national realm are few and highly manipulated. We’re conditioned for blind allegiance to one party or another, and if we question any part of our party’s platform or disagree with its leadership, past or present (after the primaries are over, of course) then we are attacked or ostracized.

The process of making choices for the country is mired in corruption and partisanship, although the revolving door system of legislator to lobbyist is not considered to be “corrupt” by those who practice it. Legislation is bundled like something offered by a cable company, and the question of what is just or effective or urgent takes a back seat to what is political.

The most worrisome aspect of our once and future government, however, is frequently overlooked by those of us perpetually distracted by partisanship. Regardless of the sound and fury of politics, the posturing, the histrionics and the virtue signalling, certain things are always accomplished.

Despite the steady stream of accusations, recriminations and lies, and the shocking sounds of two cats “fighting” at midnight prior to kittens being born, there are certain things that every Congress and every president seem able to agree upon: We will continue to sell weapons all over the world. We will maintain as many military bases as we can borrow money to pay for, and we will continue to use lethal force in parts of the world that a majority of Americans (and about half of DoD employees) can’t find on a map. Nancy Pelosi created great political theater by ripping up the President’s State of the Union address, but a few weeks prior to that, she voted for his defense budget. Get it?

Our emotions often dictate that we listen, not to understand, but to reply. This shortens the distance between communication and name calling considerably. It’s a challenge as old as humanity, but in the end, the only thing that matters is the labels we give ourselves.

Therefore, for what it’s worth, I’m not a liberal, or a conservative, thank you. I’m a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment, but I’d rather stupid people (a label that’s hard to get around sometimes) were unable to own weapons. I believe in Jesus Christ, but I’m not prepared to judge how other people live their lives. With my wife and family I’ve worked very hard to preserve and protect the environment, but I support the American energy companies that make our standard of living possible while we undergo the long process of finding and implementing better alternatives.

To me, these opinions seem logical, based on the best information I have now. It does not matter where they fall under the movable tents of the two party duopoly.

As I get older, I also find that I’m less interested in the opinions of people with no “skin in the game.” Everyone has a right to an opinion, but not everyone is entitled to one, so if we’re talking about war, which has been the context of the discussion for several weeks now, if you have served, if you are willing to serve, if you have a son or daughter or parent or friend who has been or will be in harm’s way, I’ll take your opinion under advisement, whether we agree or disagree. If not, well, you have a right to your opinion.

The Puppies

Eleven years ago we stopped by an animal shelter in Rabun county. We weren’t planning on meeting a herd of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed puppies, or bringing home a bouncing brother and sister, half husky and half golden retriever. From that day on, and to this very day, they were known as “The Puppies.”

Babu looked very much like a wolf, and Bonnie was as yellow as a wheat field on a sunny day. No one would take them for litter mates but for their webbed feet and waterproof undercoats. With their siblings they were the liveliest bunch of puppies we had ever seen.

There is a good chance that the majority of these beautiful creatures didn’t live very long. The head of that shelter was arrested soon afterwards and convicted on 60 counts of theft by taking, computer theft, theft by deception and racketeering because she had solicited donations promising no kill adoptions, and many animals guaranteed to be saved were subsequently destroyed.

What an extraordinary loss of life and capacity to love! But our Puppies were destined to have many adventures between the mountains and the sea, and like all furry friends everywhere who are properly loved, they became part of our family. Last June we told you about Babu’s hip dysplasia and our decision to keep him with us as long as possible. We lost him two weeks ago.

There are quite a few memories buried in our pet cemetery on the farm. We expect as we get older to become more adept at saying goodbye, if only because time dictates that we become more familiar with loss the longer we stick around. Losing that first faithful friend as a child is hard enough. The second one represents the years we were growing up. The third was the adventures of young adulthood, and the fourth, and the fifth…? It does not get easier.

Babu’s life encompassed the last years of my dad’s life. The gentle giant who would crash through a small tree chasing a ball would slow down for my father and defer to him with extraordinary patience and gentleness, as if he sensed the delicate constitution of an old man. One of dad’s last purely joyful activities was playing catch with The Puppies.

I could fill up many chapters with Babu’s adventures and stories of loyalty and unconditional love, but so could you all from your own experience, from the Pomeranian hiding in the purse of the widow, whose constant companionship fills up some of the emptiness, to the horse who taught a young man about trust and bravery.

This, however, is a story about determination, perseverance, and the art of living in the moment; qualities that seem to be much needed in a time when every identity comes with a victim story, and entire populations are given to asking, “Why me?”

When Babu lost the use of his hind legs, he did not lose the determination to get where he wanted to go. He never gave up. He learned to pull himself forward with his powerful front legs, and the force of his will was so great that we had to work to devise various methods to protect his feet and legs from friction.

Babu had a great love for making his rounds in defense of the realm, and he liked to cool himself in the creek that runs about 40 yards below our house. On several occasions when he was nowhere to be seen, I found him on his way back from that creek, covered in mud and looking triumphant, having drug himself hundreds of feet by his front legs, down a steep embankment and up again.

Humans pride ourselves on our superior brain capacity, but we’re subject to depression and a whole host of emotional difficulties when we’re faced with adversity and loss. The “inferior” capacity of the canine clan, however, holds that “play” is the highest and best use of time. For Babu, playing ball was the pinnacle of play. When he lost the ability to chase the ball, he was even more determined to catch it, and in his final year with us, we played catch for hours. His love of “tug of war” never diminished either, and we played at something every single day for the rest of his life. Apparently the diminished capacity of a dog’s brain does not include the ability to feel sorry for oneself.

Over time our friend began to lose strength in his front legs, and nerve damage in his hips meant that he began to lose the ability to control his bodily functions. This was hard for a noble canine who prided himself on his personal hygiene, and the only time I ever heard pain in his voice was when he didn’t gain our attention in time to get him outside before an accident occurred.

I’ll always remember one of Babu’s last noble acts. I had caught the “forever cold” that has plagued our mountain counties this winter, and one night I was feeling weak and blue and sitting in the den having a coughing fit. Babu was so concerned about me that he dragged himself from the other side of the room and raised himself up on his front legs so that he could attend to me. He stuck his nose under my arm and stayed there until I noticed his legs were shaking from the effort. I sat down with him on the floor, and I’m pretty sure that we both cried.

I’m happy to report that Babu’s sister, Bonnie, is doing quite well. When he didn’t come back from his last ride, she was puzzled. The next night, she was gone for quite a long time. We believe she was looking for him, and perhaps grieving in her own way.

But she’s still here to remind us that unconditional love still exists, that the best time to play is right now, and, in fact, the only time there ever is, is now.

For our patient and long suffering readers…

We haven’t spent much time here in the last few weeks. Like you, we have families and distractions, good days and bad days, business and pleasure to balance.

That doesn’t mean we haven’t thought about you.

Lately it seems as if someone has cranked up the knobs on fear and confusion, and we wonder how you’re doing with all that.

There’s nothing new about fear and confusion, but the peddlers of pixel drama have never been more persistent in attempting to carve out permanent niches in our collective consciousness.

We enjoyed a brief respite from the left right drama during the holidays, and then the impeachment show. Now the threat of pandemic, and we still have an election to endure.

And it’s all recycled and repackaged in an endless torrent of broken news and ceaseless talking.

We try to host a gathering here where we can take a deep breath and reflect in relative peace and quiet. And sometimes that means that we have to disconnect, from the world, even from our own thoughts.

Some of you don’t have the luxury of the ability to disregard the world for any period of time. We’ve been there and done that too. We all have to learn to make our own peace and carry it with us, or else to endure the lack of it.

For many of us it is a winter of discontent, and the weather here could not be more reflective of that. Things are budding and sprouting, and then they freeze. The sun peeks out and then it rains for days. We go out wearing an overcoat and come home in a t shirt, and are never quite sufficiently warm or cool in between.

It may be a sign of the times. Let’s reflect on that and discuss it later. Your thoughts are welcome here, and if we’re not here for you every week, we’re not far away.

The View From The Recliner

I’m always pleased when a reader makes an effort to respond. We always hope that those who do take time to write have actually read, and ideally, have understood the article that piqued their interest. Unfortunately this doesn’t always happen.

Last week a reader objected to the assertion that the root causes of war are fundamentally economic. We don’t have the space here, or the desire, to present a detailed rebuttal. Suffice it to say that the horrors wrought by Hitler are often mentioned as an example of a war fought in a just cause, and I agree that US involvement was both just and inevitable for that generation. But Hitler was a mutation, an outgrowth of the economic devastation and punishment of Germany after WWI.

As for Japan, in the 1930’s the Japanese desperately needed to acquire resources they lacked to supply a population consuming far more than they produced at home. This expansion threatened American and European economic interests ( i.e. colonies and protectorates).

To suggest that the US spent the better part of the decade before WWII trying to contain Japan because of atrocities committed in China ignores the prevailing racism towards Asians at that time. The average American in 1937 had little concern for the fate of Nanking, but American industrialists were very concerned that the US could lose the Philippines to Japanese expansion. The Philippines, lest we forget, were “acquired” from Spain after the Spanish American War.

Fast forward to today when we are confronted by “madmen of extreme religious intolerance.” I agree, and those who wish do do us harm must be dealt with. But any attempt to frame this conflict in “justice and morality” requires a very narrow read of history.

We’re 19 years out from the attacks on September 11th, attacks which certainly justified a response. But we didn’t respond by officially investigating and prosecuting the Saudi connection, although 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. Instead, we destroyed Afghanistan. Then we destroyed Iraq and justified it with Bush Administration lies about weapons of mass destruction.

In 2011, President Obama and Secretary Clinton spearheaded UN Resolution 1973 to save the lives of “peaceful pro-democracy protesters.” That sounds very much like a just and moral cause, and the intervention ended in abject failure, the destruction of another nation and another Pandora’s Box of warring factions, refugees and jihadists. We’ll mention Syria in passing, because that Obama legacy is still unfolding on President Trump’s watch.

A few weeks ago I suggested an abundance of caution in choosing to sacrifice American blood and treasure confronting Iran. It would be difficult to find a more extreme theocracy or more intense hatred of the US and Israel than that which is found among the leadership of Iran. How do you suppose these “monsters” were created?

The story picks up near the end of WWII when the British approached President Truman for help in recovering the “British” oil recently nationalized by the democratically elected government of Iran at that time. Truman refused, but Eisenhower later authorized the covert activities which led to the overthrow of that government and the installation of Mohammad Reza, the “Shah of Iran.” Americans have forgotten this history. The Ayatollahs have not.

The building of empires, colonies and protectorates; the destruction of economies and infrastructures in the pursuit of just and moral “nation building;” the orchestration of coups and the application of military power to protect corporate interests, have always created and will always create enemies: “mad men,” religious fundamentalism, rebels, revolutionaries and martyrs. Welcome to the history of the world.

Justice and morality will always be found in people of good character, no matter what cause they champion, but the genesis of war happens in back rooms and board rooms. The origins of war are messy and ugly and immoral, and they usually involve people in a position to privatize the benefits of war while socializing the costs.

In order to socialize the costs in blood and treasure of war, people like us must be convinced that we are paying for a cause that is just and moral. To make our sacrifice palatable, governments must control the narrative around war, and this often means that true origins and motivations are concealed or misunderstood. A sure sign that the narrative is working is when those who question it are themselves called into question. Not their arguments, but their integrity.

This is where we cry foul. A reluctance for war and a skeptical attitude toward the need for sacrifice should be a uniting concern, an apolitical concern, not a “gotcha” moment for sticking a tired old label on someone of a different political persuasion.

How many irreplaceable young men and women will be sacrificed by our permanent political class of the corrupt and the corpulent before we object? Are we really that self absorbed, that safe, in the comfort of our recliners?

It’s difficult to express how weary I am of the dramas of the left right divide that are blinding us to the workings of the world. If you believe the climate is changing you must be a liberal. Wrong. If you support the Second Amendment, you have to be a conservative. Wrong. Are we so thoroughly manipulated that the left wants a powerful government to force adherence to a social agenda, and the right wants a powerful government to bomb evil regimes into rubble, but neither side notices that the one thing they agree on is more powerful government?

Today let’s again lay claim to that middle ground where there are many people I know who agree: Liberals and Conservatives, and veterans of both perspectives who agree that war is a great evil, and if it becomes a necessary evil, it must always be a last resort.

I agree with the reader that wearing a wool sweater won’t do much to stop the wheels of history from turning, just like a single gas rationing ticket or metal drive during WWII had much of an effect, but the cumulative effect was significant. Most of the “wool” I’ve worn was found in the scratchy and uncomfortable Service A’s issued by the Marine Corps, and that minimal contribution is negligible compared to those who sacrificed their health or their life, or a son or a daughter or friend’s life for whatever was in their heart when it stopped beating. And be advised, if left unchecked, the sacrifices made on the battlefield do eventually reach the recliner.

We’ll leave you now with a tribute to war which was apparently lacking in our previous discussion. In war, there is much honor to be found at a personal level, in a family who sends a son or daughter to fight, in a team or a squad or a platoon. These are all places where honor can be highly concentrated. But in Washington, DC and in every other capital of the world where war is hatched, honor is often so highly diluted as to be impossible to detect.

A Holiday Message For Another Political Year

We have a holiday message for you this year. It’s not quite Christmas yet, but we’re getting into the spirit of things. For many of us, this is the time of year when our better angels prevail. Hopefully by now our hearts have softened a bit in anticipation, and open hearts sometimes lead to open ears.

The message was first brought to us by Buckminster Fuller who said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” 

We’ll need this message again very soon. Next year the political circus will reach the heights of frenzy and the depths of depravity. Some of us may need to repeat this wisdom like a mantra.

If you spend any time at all on social media platforms, or if you scan the headlines of the most popular “news” sources, you’ll see the opposite of building. Instead you’ll see attacks, insults, derision, propaganda and spin.

Some of the memes we post and share are undoubtedly funny. The friends who agree with us, laugh with us. The ones who don’t may not comment, but eventually they stop following us. They no longer hear what we have to say, even when we speak the truth.

Meanwhile, outside our bubble of awareness the people who have stopped listening to us are posting their own jokes and insults. We don’t know because we’ve stopped listening to them.

Let’s say, for example, that the people who laugh with us get a lot of their “news” from the Pepsi network. The people who laugh at us get their information from Coke. Those of us who laugh at both Coke and Pepsi see two separate “realities” being described. “Did you see the Pepsi article on the impeachment hearings today? Things are looking bad for Trump!” “Did you see the Coke article today? Trumps lawyer made a fool of that witness!”

Lets take a moment and list the innovative and consensus building ideas that the Democrats have produced in their campaigns this year. That didn’t take long. Now let’s list the new solutions the Republicans have offered. We’ll wait.

You get the point. It’s not that both sides don’t have any solutions, but betcha most of us couldn’t name one to save our lives.

There is nothing mysterious about this lack of understanding and communication. Let’s think back over our own lives for a moment. Now make a list of the lessons, the breakthroughs and the epiphanies we’ve experienced from being insulted, disparaged, mocked and ridiculed.

We’re all quite capable of recognizing truth, but we recoil from accepting it as an injection or in suppository form.

While we’re busy laughing with the people who agree with us and insulting the ones who don’t, a lot of bad things can happen outside our bubble of awareness. The government is $23 trillion in debt and adding another trillion every year. Did you see the excellent and well documented report recently released by the Washington Post about the war in Afghanistan?

For 18 years now the government has deceived, obscured and blatantly lied about the situation there. Everyone’s favorite president was complicit. Bush, Obama, and so far, Trump, all complicit in the deception. Secretaries of State and cabinets, members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, all complicit. And the cost… 2,372 American military deaths; 1,720 contractor deaths; 20,320 wounded. $1 trillion spent, and at least 100 thousand enemy combatants and 40 thousand civilians, dead.

Who is responsible? It’s not our neighbor. It’s not the Democrat or the Republican voter we like to insult. There has been so much outrage among our people. Much of it has been engineered outrage, but we have been complicit in perpetuating that anger. Stop and look at what has happened while we were busy insulting and attacking each other.

Now let the outrage and the responsibility rest where it belongs: On the “military industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned us about; on the permanent political class that survives every election; on the ever growing and increasingly coercive bureaucracy, and on the corporate media which encourages anger and drama because it is profitable.

When we begin to think in terms of accountability, it makes the process of choosing candidates next year much easier: Not one vote for anyone who was complicit in the crimes of the last 18 years, and that includes a large percentage of the incumbents now living in Washington. Doesn’t that save a lot of wasted time and effort? You’re welcome.