Making memories beyond confinement

One can safely say the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated coronavirus confinement have created a wealth of stories for billions of individuals around the world. Some will choose to remember these times while others will choose to forget.  

My family is no different. In fact, the confinement comes as my wife and I stand at the threshold of our forty-sixth wedding anniversary. Lots of memories—good and bad, happy and sad—create an amazing mosaic that chronicles our lives so far.  

Confinement arrived after our older daughter and her family moved in with us as they waited to move into their new house. Two weeks later, our jobs required us to work from home. Literally overnight, we found ourselves facing challenges we never anticipated, including what to do with two elementary school kids with no school to attend.

Kids and confinement present unexpected opportunities to create great memories for grandparents and grandchildren. I never met my maternal grandmother who died many years before my birth. She was Chinese, adopted by missionaries from Michigan. She met my grandfather, an illegal Chinese immigrant, had my mother, then divorced. I have only a few memories of him, of Fred. Mostly pictures with him in his apartment in Chicago, or with him outside the restaurant he owned. But I remember the smell of the stairway leading up to his apartment, and the aroma of ginger and garlic in his kitchen. He died when I was five. 

I have a few more memories of my paternal grandmother, but not necessarily warm and fuzzy ones. I have no recollection of her touch, her hug, none of the fond and happy memories one would expect from a grandparent who died after I was married. She did not even come to the wedding, although she lived about an hour away. This lack of attention, I believe, was not for lack of affection, but because it just was not in her nature. At least not for my younger brother and me.  

We are determined, my wife and I, to create as many good memories as possible for the two grandkids confined with us, the toddler who visits on video calls from Louisiana, and the one on the way. The summer road trips to the Alamo and Arkansas caves with the older ones will have to wait until next year, but until then, we’ll make due with all that confinement will allow. And, I try not to think about the fact that another anniversary means one less year to provide special memories of their Papa, to give them what I did not have. 

The kids like musicals and the boy likes mysteries, particularly film noir movies with gritty narration from hard-boiled detectives. We introduced them to Singing in the Rain, where they learned “Good morning, good morning, to you” was a wake-up tradition passed on from us to their mother and then to them. They learned to play dominoes and Black Jack, donning masks as they lost their vacation money to each other. Everyone, including them, nixed my attempt to teach them how to smoke cigars and drink bourbon while we played.  

This week we learned to make tamales, then declared they were the best tamales we ever ate. Well, at least the best homemade tamales we ate this week. But who’s counting, right? 

When I think of the movies, the stories, the games, the clutter of Legos and artwork and school papers, I find myself pondering the inevitable. I see a scene where our grandchildren are watching their grandchildren play. And that is when I image one of our grandchildren telling his or her sibling or cousin, “I can’t remember how Papa smelled. Can you?”  

By then, I will be just a picture in a frame (assuming they have pictures and frames then) or an image in a video, smiling, playing, hugging, laughing. But my touch, my kiss, and yes, my smell will be lost. 

So now I am committed to creating memories, special moments that will outlive me in their hearts, recollections of their Papa they can pull up and share with each other and with their children and their grandchildren, especially on that day when they realize they have lost the last tangible essence of my existence. I hope that is the moment when they will stop and laugh and share their own special memories, happy times created in days like these. 

Published on Prairie Press, May 16, 2020

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The Miracle of Chimayo

Milagro. 

For some the Spanish word conjures up images of bean-field wars. Frijoles were not on my list of things to experience during my pilgrim­age to El Santuario de Chimayo where, it is said, the earth contains great medical powers. 

It is believed to be a place of miracles. Milagros. 

The Sanctuary of Chimayo is nestled in the small northern New Mexico settlement from which it gets its name. For nearly 200 years, people have journeyed to the church, many on foot over hundreds of miles of highways or mountain roads, as acts of faith and worship. Some have arrived on crutches they left behind as they walked unaided from the chapel. Triumphal shrines to personal milagros.

My wife has made several trips to Chimayo during visits to Santa Fe. Each time she returned hoping I could accom­pany her to the place of miracles in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 

I strongly discouraged Sharon’s well-meaning propaganda on the grounds the real event could never equal her description. Besides, no matter how deep a faith I would like to believe I possess, I still carry enough skepticism to cloud immediate acceptance of the unex­plain­able. It’s an occupational hazard that goes with being around too many thieves and thugs and watching the seemingly endless parade of charlatan TV preachers and traveling salvation-show faith healers. 

Sharon was anxious about her return to Chimayo. She wanted to partake of its ancient spirituality and to carry to the chapel a prayer for her stepmother who, less than a week later, would undergo surgery for the removal of a lump in her breast. 

I wanted to be left alone on the cloudless and unseasonably warm winter day to experience what­ever it is that has been shared by pilgrims since the time of the conquis­tadors. I wanted to find my personal milagro, one that would allow me to leave behind the crutches that have propped up my wounded soul. 

Indian legends say the santuario site was first an Indian shrine, a place where fire and smoke and hot water burst from the earth. The Tewa say that when the giant was killed at the hands of the twin war gods, fire erupted from many places and the hot, healing mud springs of Black Mesa dried up and left the miracle mud of Chimayo. 

A faint scent of pinon rode on the breeze that encircled the adobe santuario. I stopped at the door carved in 1816 by one Pedro Dominguez, a woodcarver. I stood and considered the unknown experience that waited for me in the nave. 

Nothing I have seen or heard prepared me for the primitive and impressive interior. No crystal cathedral or coliseum-sized church could match this old and hallowed spot. A friend described it as the only place in North America with the same spiritual feel as the holy Christian sites of Greece and the Middle East. 

Rows of worn-down pews serve as guides past a wall-mounted board covered with photo­graphs and pieces of paper bearing the names of visitors whose prayers have been answered. 

At the end of the aisle is the red-on-white painted and carved partition that separates the nave from the sanctuary. Central to the sanctuary is the painted altar table adorned with floral-covered offerings. 

And standing behind and above the altar is the 6-foot Crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas, dark green and decorated with golden leaves. 

I sat on the left of the aisle for several silent minutes before I rose and followed the path that leads beneath a low door to an unexpectedly tiny chapel. Inside is the pit containing the “tierra bendita,” or blessed earth. Visitors ingest or rub the clay on parts of the body. Small amounts are col­lect­ed for those unable to make the trip. 

There were other people within the santuario, but I was alone. All around me were letters, cards, pictures, rosaries and other offerings left by those who preceded me. A poster board carried a poem written by a blind visitor who did not receive his sight, but left in simple words for others to read the joy he experienced during his visit to Chimayo. 

I knelt and raised a handful of dirt, not knowing if I should expect a bolt of electricity to shoot up my arm or a blinding light to blaze from the heavens accom­panied by John Huston’s voice asking me why I am such a sinner. 

There was no extra­ordinary occurrence, just continued silence and solitude, as if God were waiting for me to make the first move, to make the first show of faith. 

A few minutes later, I started for the door, then stopped. I wanted to leave something along with the others who left various tokens to show they walked away and were never again the same.

I looked at my hand and saw the black, knotted prayer rope I had been holding since I walked through Pedro Domin­guez’s door. I lightly placed it upon the small altar, a simple rope made by the hands of an unknown Orthodox monk in a Syrian monastery half a world away. 

Several weeks have passed since my visit. Sharon’s stepmother went to surgery as scheduled. But the surgeon did not cut because the lump had disappeared. 

And I have found a peace and strength unknown to me until a few weeks ago. Did they come from touching some ancient dirt? Did the lump disappear because of prayers at the site of blessed earth? Or was it faith that made us whole? 

There is a Spanish word for it. Milagro.

(This column first appeared in the Morning Paper, Ruston, Louisiana, July 1992)

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The symbolism of Notre Dame and why it touched us all

April 16, 2019 – It may not be an exaggeration to say millions of people around the world awoke this morning with the same thought: What survived the fire at Notre Dame? Many of us went to bed knowing the damage to the ancient cathedral was not as bad as feared as we watched the live coverage from Paris of the shocking conflagration.  

The dawn and each passing hour deliver encouraging news. An altar and pews survive, as do many works of art. Even the three large stained-glass rose windows, maybe the most famous, if not the most visible, parts of the cathedral, survive. Damaged, but miraculously intact. 

Some may ask why millions of Earth’s citizens experienced a shared deep and emotional interest in the burning of a Christian house of worship. Atheists. Jews. Muslims. Hindus. Buddhists. Animists. Conservatives. Liberals. Even those who seemingly go out of their way to use the slightest opportunity to mock or ridicule Christians and their faith. 

So, why did all of these, and millions more, weep and stare in disbelief and whisper healing prayers or offer good thoughts for the best of possible outcomes? 

Victor Hugo wrote that “Architecture has recorded the great ideas of the human race. Not only every religious symbol, but every human thought has its page in that vast book.” 

St. Augustine offered that “Symbols are powerful because they are the visible signs of invisible realities.” 

And Confucius taught that “Signs and symbols rule the world, not words or laws.” 

Symbols speak to us from our unconscious mind and from the beginning of human time on Earth. Prehistoric humans carved and painted their symbols on rocks and the walls of caves. Stone structures stand as ancient symbols of beliefs long forgotten. Modern women and men illustrate their bodies with symbols that hold special meaning to themselves, which they communicate to others who share their personal interests. Symbols fill our lives, our histories, our art, and our beliefs. Symbols define us. And we do not realize their importance until something like the fire at Notre Dame reminds us of their importance and our loss when they are lost. 

This fire, though, goes beyond the obvious symbols of art and architecture, engineering, history, and religion. It may be no coincidence that this fire broke out at the beginning of the holiest week for Christians. Palm Sunday and the days that follow allow Christians to participate in the days leading up to the Friday crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection three days later. The birth of Christ, important though it be, is not at the core of Christian belief, which would not exist without the death and resurrection. 

And so, this awful fire, this terrible event that threatened to destroy a symbol that spoke to many people in many ways, has become a new symbol. For non-Christians, it has become a symbol of hope in the midst of despair, of rising from the ashes, an example of overcoming life’s difficulties and disasters. For Christians, it has become a symbol of Easter, hope in the midst of despair, an example of overcoming life’s difficulties and disasters through the knowledge that God is with us, but more important, a symbol of the foundation of the faith: Death and Resurrection.  

This Easter, when Christians say “Christ is Risen” to each other, they will have the visual symbol of the standing structure dedicated to the Mother of God when they respond, “Indeed, He is Risen.”

This article originally appeared on American Thinker.

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Time to put Trump in time out

Coronavirus media coverage is resurrecting debates among journalists, politicians, and regular folks over the definition of news. At the center of these discussions are the daily White House/Trump coronavirus news events.

These are news “events” and not news conferences or pressers or whatever one might call them. They do not provide useful information that could not be disseminated in another way; they only strengthen the beliefs of the opposing bases of the Always Trumpers and Never Trumpers. I will bet your salary that a majority of likely voters do not watch these events, and of those likely voters, only a portion read detailed accounts of them. The rest receive headline feeds and posts on social media or watch their local newscasts package.

Local and national media executives apparently did not learn the lesson of four years ago when Trump played them and pushed their buttons with outrageous and self-serving comments, resulting in the media trying to show Trump’s fitness to be president by giving him millions of dollars in free political air time and column inches. How did that work out?

I hear the arguments from newsrooms that viewers want to watch the live events and then call up to complain when a local station cuts away for a competing news conference from city and county officials who have information the community needs to know. This is not really a case of damned if they do or damned if they don’t. If that is the argument, then the media are chasing ratings and not chasing stories. I can tell you for a fact that news organizations will not cover news conferences they deem lacking in news content. Yes, they will make such editorial decisions before the fact every day.

Unless the White House has breaking information that will change the course of mighty rivers, any outrageous quotes or important new information will hold until the next scheduled newscast or until the next posts by attending reporters. Oh, and those creepy quotes from Trump have moved beyond anyone’s definition of news. The man uses the toilet every day, but the media do not report that POTUS used the toilet today.

No, any organization, local or national, that carries these events live and uninterrupted does so with the purpose of unseating Trump. Recent history supports this idea. Remember when members of Congress and the national media did not have time in January and February to report on the virus outbreak in China, and spent their time and resources instead on impeaching the president?

One could compare media members with petulant children, clenching their little fists and stomping their little feet because they did not get their way four years ago. Not carrying the White House coronavirus events live is one way to put Trump in timeout, but that would be the adult thing to do.

Mundus vult decipi.

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Today’s journalism harms us all by feeding the frenzy

It is fair to say that our country is tired. Let me rephrase that. Our country is not tired, but our people, you and I, are tired of the division, acrimony, and mistrust that pummels us every time we log into our social media accounts, read our newspapers, or watch our favorite news show. In some ways, it seems, we are like children in a dysfunctional family, cringing when mommy and daddy fight and powerless to stop it.

Under normal circumstances, we would turn to the most trusted names in journalism for stability and the road maps to guide us through our national malaise. But these are not normal circumstances and help is not on the way.

The results of a Gallup poll released in September suggest that only 59% of the American people trust the mass media. According to Gallup, only 41% have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the media to report the events of the day “accurately and fairly.”

I do not have enough time, space, or energy to go into what has happened to the profession I started in nearly half a century ago. But, I can offer an example of how we have devolved from reporting the news to creating it. And, at times, becoming active participants in the story.

An example of this aired on an Austin, Texas, network affiliate that I will not name to keep them from further embarrassment and ridicule. A few years back, a 73-year-old homeowner tied a metal folding chair and flag to a tree in his front yard. This set the hair on fire of a local liberal blogger who implied strongly that the man was a racist and that his act was a thinly disguised symbolic lynching of President Obama.

It apparently also raised the hackles of the management of said TV newsroom, because the folks there ran a big expose’ during their early afternoon newscast.

The breathless anchor proclaimed they tracked down the display, probably thanks to the blogger who provided the homeowner’s address and telephone number, and were ready to roll the unedited confrontation between the station’s reporter and the homeowner.

Hide the chickens and shoo away grandma, because this was not going to be pretty.

And so began the verbal sparring that became more of an indictment against the station, its management, and, by association, the journalism profession than proof of racism in the Republican Party as the original blogger contended.

The reporter reprimanded, yes, reprimanded, the homeowner by telling him he should realize an empty chair has racist meanings. Then, the reporter challenged him to explain why he was untying the chair if he didn’t think it was a symbol of lynching.

The reporter wrapped up the story by going live from the newsroom to say the man eventually put his chair in the middle of his lawn and kept it there, along with the American flag.

What she and the wide-eyed anchors did not report was that the man broke no law, that police did not arrested him, that the state filed no charges, and that he did not violate the covenants of his homeowners association.

All he did was ruffle the sensibilities of individuals who believe the Constitution reserves freedom of speech only to their speech, and provide news organizations the opportunity to prove why the American public’s respect for journalism is embarrassingly low.

Back when I was teaching, I used to tell my students early in the semester that they should always take their profession seriously and never put themselves above their profession. Journalism, the gathering and reporting of news and information, is one of the most important elements of a free society. It should provide us with the unfiltered information and knowledge we need to make intelligent and thoughtful decisions about our lives and the future of our nation.

 It should not feed the irrational behavior found on the fringes of society or politics. Or in our newsrooms.

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Read and rip: Pelosi may have torn up more than just a speech

When pundits look at the results of the 2020 presidential election, they may decide that Feb. 4 was the day the Democratic Party lost the high ground and eventually the election. Indeed, after the astoundingly tasteless antics of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the eve of what appeared to be the Senate’s rejection of her party’s attempt to remove the president, it now looks like the election is Mr. Trump’s to lose.

If perception is reality, then the endless video loops and memes of Pelosi tearing up her copy of the State of the Union address presents a perceived reality of herself and her party as dividers who have abandoned the idea of national unity in favor of mean-spirited gestures designed to appease mean-spirited fellow travelers.

Others can debate and explain why the president’s SOTU address was his best/his worst. Still others can talk on endlessly about what most political observers and, dare we say, many likely voters already knew, that the address was Trump’s first major speech of his presidential campaign. It laid out what he believes to be his administration’s major accomplishments in the areas of the economy, employment, international trade, foreign affairs, military preparedness, and the killing of terrorist killers.

Even as the words were leaving his lips, fingers were busy finding the lies within the rhetoric, refusing to acknowledge, as they gleefully caught each one, that political rhetoric is and always has been smoke and mirrors, misdirection, with some old-fashion mendacity thrown in for good measure. Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof would have felt right at home in the House chambers: “What’s that smell in this room? Didn’t you notice it, Brick? Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room? There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity.”

Nothing more powerful except maybe mean-spiritedness. Oh, there are those who say Pelosi ripping the speech was payback for Trump refusing to shake her hand. Except, Trump did not shake Pense’s hand. He may have had other things on his mind other than etiquette. Things like reading off a prompter without making mistakes or the events of the next day when those senators in attendance and those in Iowa would decide his political fate.

When Pelosi smugly tore up the speech, she was not just symbolically showing her disgust for the man in front of her and everything he said that night, she was, by her very act, showing her disrespect for each individual highlighted in the speech.

It was a mean-spirited rejection of the wife and mother who lost her husband to a roadside bomb in Iraq. It was a mean-spirited rejection of the army sergeant reunited with his wife and children after his fourth, yes fourth, deployment to the Middle East. It was a mean-spirited rejection of Charles McGee, one of the last surviving Tuskegee airmen, recently promoted to Brigadier General, and of his great-grandson sitting beside him who wants to join the US Space Force.

It was a mean-spirited rejection of the Pennsylvania fourth grader who will build on her love for art and music through expanding school choice programs.

It also was a mean-spirited rejection of Kayla Mueller, who died after her kidnapping by ISIS head thug Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And there, representing Kayla and the Mueller and Elledge families, were her parents Marsha and Carl. Marsha is from my hometown.

Thoughtless actions to gain political points only show a shallowness of character, and, to say it one more time, a mean-spiritedness at a time when the people of our country cannot afford more nasty, in-your-face hostility toward the people of our country. Trump critics say his speech did not go far enough to bring our country together. That may be true, but at least it didn’t rip it apart. Perception is reality, and the image is there for all the world to see.

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More hate and the religion of politics

(The publisher of the Prairie Press in my hometown asked if I wanted to do a piece on this, so, lazy guy that I am, I added some bits from a piece back in October, which can’t be said enough.)

It may be hard for news junkies to believe, but some folks may not know about the kerfuffle surrounding the Covington Catholic boys, a drum-banging Native American, and a small group of racist and homophobic provocateurs belonging to the Black Hebrew Israelites.

In brief, the Kentucky boys were part of an anti-abortion rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, when they were drawn by the rants and taunts of the Black Hebrew Israelites preaching their gospel of race and religion baiting, during which a do-gooding Native American got between the boys and the baiters and banged his drum in the faces of the Catholic boys.

Free speech for all, right? Not so fast, Sparky. Those Catholic boys were wearing red MAGA hats, which, as everyone should know, are hate magnets for everyone who hates the current president and, apparently, free speech. You know the ones, the ones who believe you can say what you like as long as they like what you say.

Well, as expected, images of the event blew up social and mainstream media. Within hours, tweets and twits described the boys in the most unflattering terms (to be generous) with many demanding acts of physical violence, even death, against them, their families, and their school. One female TV person even offered to give oral sex to anyone who punched out one of the boys. In other words, she offered sex to any male of any age in exchange for violence against a juvenile.

The mainstream media added to these class acts by piling on and promoting the idea that the Catholic boys were young Ku Klux Klansmen who had shed their white sheets in favor of MAGA caps.

Within a day, however, various videos of the event emerged to show what really happened. The only hate and confrontation came from the foul-mouthed Black Hebrew Israelites who skated away unscathed because liberals, Hollywoodenheads, and their fellow travelers were ready (at the drop of a hat?) to twist and churn a non-event into a hateful targeting of white boys being boys.

What followed were apologies, retractions, sack cloth and ashes from some big media folks. But the damage was done, the snark was out of the bag, and the hate still lingered and permeated the air with the smell of objective and responsible journalism’s rotting corpse.

A woman I know frequently tells me many of the Facebook hate posts she sees come from people who do not have a religious foundation or simply do not believe in God. Politics is their religion, she says, and like all religious zealots, they will seek out and attack anyone who does not share their political belief.

It is hard to argue against that, especially when one considers the many outlets for these outbursts, from in-your-face media bias to vocal and angry crowds. This does not paint with the broad brush of blame only individuals or groups with liberal leanings; there are plenty of right-wing nuts to go around who share the hate trait with their left-wing counterparts.

As early as 2004, the editors of a southern Illinois newspaper saw the hate trend blossoming on their opinion page. “Just a casual view . . . is convincing evidence that the Bush-hating Democrats are hard at work vilifying President Bush! Most of the ‘hate’ letters are not on the issues but merely ugly ‘I hate Bush.’ Many don’t even make any sense, like comparing our president to Hitler . . .”

Is this like back to the future?

A Google search for online hate has President Trump easily outdistancing the last guy by more than 2-to-1 with 195 million returns. Journalists appear to be more hated (27.3 million) than priests (13.8 million), communism (11.6 million), and spammers (1.2 million) combined. And used-car sales people are surprisingly more hated (61.1 million) than Congress (58 million). Who knew?

Oh, and the Kardashians have more online sites with references to them and hate (37.6 million) than ISIS (22.4 million) and terrorists in general (13.5 million) combined.

This is political rhetoric not to be taken too seriously, just as one should not take seriously the rants of professional wrestlers. But pro-wrestling is very popular and lots of folks believe in their hearts that it is real.

The reality of all of this hate rhetoric is that some folks have embraced it by abandoning civil discourse, critical thinking, and common decency. Hate has become the new normal in our society, the inevitable result of exchanging religion for ideology, of exalting the created over the Creator.

Mundus vult decipi.

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