Things to Worry

      This Saturday morning’s heat and humidity are too much, so I am staying in the comfort of our home trying to read the paper, but the litany of issues facing me keeps coming to mind. Just yesterday I had to pay over $4.00 a gallon for gasoline. Earlier this week our grocery bill was $170.00 for a few bags of food, and my wife told me that the grocery store can no longer obtain and stock my favorite apple. The clamoring over cultural wars grates on my nerves, and politicians continue to campaign on anything but an issue. I am tired of COVID. I also tire of shootings and murder on our streets. The southern border has been a mess for years, and no leader that I can see has a solution. The whining Supreme Court Jurists sound like spoiled children, and speaking of children, when will our infants have a ready supply of formula? I keep hearing about the January 6 Committee but wonder when something of substance will come from it, or will it be a fizzle like the Muller report?

This is quite a bit for a retired educator to face, but as I re-read my list of issues and the daily news,  I became thankful  that the democracy under which I live is safe and that no enemy threatens America. I relax, knowing that we are safe. For now.

Roots and Evil

For five years we have endured the bumps in our driveway caused by, what we thought, were pine tree roots growing beneath the asphalt. One bump in particular was “admired” by neighbors and us as we watched it expand and begin to open at its top. It had expanded so much that, if I was not careful when driving in, my van’s frame would rub against it. However, yesterday the old driveway was removed by a skilled man using a Bobcat, and I eagerly asked him about what I suspected was a massive knot of pine tree roots heaving the asphalt. He said, “I didn’t have a bucket’s worth of roots. I’ve seen that before,” he continued, “when some little roots cause a lot of pressure in clay dirt where water collects. It’s the mix of water and clay that pushes up caused by a small root growing. Ain’t that something. Not even a bucket’s worth.”

Since that conversation with the Bobcat operator, I’ve been thinking about all the years my wife and I had adjusted to the bumps in our driveway, and how we even began referring to them as our speed bumps. We warned visitors about them because they were so large, and when we contracted for the new driveway, we hoped that the excavation did not kill any of our beloved pine trees by removing their roots. Yesterday’s conversation with the Bobcat operator calmed that worry, but the root’s reminded me of what I had known but forgotten.

The roots are a metaphor for evil. While the ones beneath the heaved-up driveway were smaller than anticipated, they had pressured the wet clay which in turn pushed against the asphalt, causing our speed bumps. They, like evil, had done their work: Slow and steady growth, often hidden from view, but persistently working to cause upheaval and damage in our lives.

Six Words

 It is said that the American writer Ernest Hemingway first penned the six-word story which fully captures all the emotion and action of a longer one. Hemingway’s story was this, “Baby shoes for sale: never worn.” Those six words certainly capture all that any longer story could.

The recent epidemic of gun violence leads me to write this six-word story, “Another American day: Shooter, gun, victims.”

Qohelet Knew

Near my stationary bike is a bird box which is fastened to one of the 42 pines trees in our front yard. In years past the nesting box has been occupied by titmice, but this year a brown-headed nuthatch pair claimed it. The small birds are busy with their brood, and I marvel as I watch the parents come and go with morsels in their beaks. As I ride for my morning workout, I watch them and listen as they call to each other.

Yet the front yard with its many tall pine trees is not all life. After last weekend’s storm, I have found five robin hatchlings under various trees that had been blown out of their nests high in the pines. This is a yearly result of spring storms, but even after my fifth season of finding small bodies on the ground, it still saddens me. However, during such times I find that the words of Qohelet ease the sorrow: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

Riding and watching the nuthatches feed their hatchings, I see a robin fly into a tree under which I found one small robin body. Curiously I watch it and  try to locate its nest high in the pine tree, but I lose sight of it in the green needles. But wait, there is more life on the ground under the same tree.

A red-bellied woodpecker attacks the ground. It pecks furiously and tuffs of dirt arch into the air to land nearby. The searcher stands in one place and pecks, then hops to another spot and pecks again and again. It assaults the ground, puffs of dirt fly about, and I resolve to later inspect that postage stamp of yard under a pine tree. But as suddenly as it appeared the woodpecker leaves to search for some morsel in other earth or dead wood.

Robins. Woodpeckers. Brown-headed nuthatches. So much living wrapped in the sweet, spring fragrance of the Ligustrum across our road. From its topmost branches a mockingbird proves Atticus Finch correct, and during my morning workout I am privileged to observe so much life in the pine forest we call our front yard.

Student Handbooks

As a recent volunteer for the Mooresville Graded School District, I was required to watch a brief presentation concerning what to/what not to do when interacting with students, and I was given a copy of the 2021-2022 Student Code of Conduct to read.

Because I had spent many years as the administrator in various independent schools responsible for the revision of student handbooks, I was eager to read the MGSD one. That may sound like dull reading to the uninformed, but during my years as an educator I have learned that  a student handbook is a window into a school or school system. I was not disappointed in my reading of the MGSD handbook, but I was saddened and disappointed.

The independent schools in which I worked and supervised the yearly revision of student handbooks were smaller than MGSD so the handbooks for them were smaller but shared the same objective: Inform students and parents, in a clear way, the expectations for students and consequences if expectations are not followed. The MGSD handbook does that well, and then some, which is an example of how we now require so much non-educational work of our schools.

The MGSD handbook is a 48-page 8.5 x 11-inch booklet with 4 inserted pages and covers all three school divisions for its  6,074 students, parents, and guardians. The expectations for students cover such anticipated areas for an educational institution as: Dress code, fighting, attendance, bus behavior, role of teachers and administrators, and other areas of the life in an educational setting. But an educational institution in today’s world must go further and include rules concerning: Extortion, gambling, violations of state criminal statutes, assault or threats against adults,  possession of dangerous weapons, and other issues of our modern world that have invaded our schools. That invasion demands non-educational work of our schools.

Any HR person will tell you that clearly stated expectations and consequences for behavior make a work place better, and schools are workplaces which owe such clear statements to their teachers, students, parents, guardians, and administrators. But in reading the MGSD handbook, I was saddened to read 48 pages that has much which should, in my view, be handled by families, law enforcement, social workers, judges, or other institutions of our culture. Yet, because a school system must protect itself against the very other institutions it serves, it is forced to include such topics as homicide (page 34) in its student handbook.

It seems to this retired educator that our public schools are burdened with too many requirements placed on them from people outside of education, such as the politicians who take every chance to use any act by a teacher or school administrator to “whip-up” a base. This week I saw an article where non-educators were questioning the practice of withholding recess as a motivating tool for some classrooms. I fear that soon some state legislator will sponsor a bill that all children must be given recess for prescribed times or the opposite is possible—sponsor a bill that deems recess a waste of taxpayer funds. You get the point. After all, why spend funds on all that expensive equipment?

But this is where we are: A relatively small school district like the MGSD must publish each year a 48 page plus handbook of student conduct. Since some factors change often, such as school hours or dress styles, a handbook needs to be revised each year. That is difficult enough and much like playing the Wack-A-Mole game. However, when so many topics like homicide need to be included, in order to protect the schools from its constituents, it is a sad day for our public schools.

Teaching

Last week during a Mecklenburg County budget meeting, Commissioner Vilma Leake criticized the lack of progress made by students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System. According to the Charlotte Observer, she said, “Every parent in this community ought to take out a warrant and have every educator arrested and put in jail for not seeing that their children are not given a quality education, college ready.”

Ms. Leake has many years as an elected leader, but I suggest she is wrong.

Instead, the persons who should be corrected (not arrested) are: The parents who send hungry children to school; the parents who send sleep-deprived children to school; the parents who send children to school who have not learned how to take direction, how to obey rules, and how to take turns; and the parents who give their children cell phones instead of books.

Also, let’s vote out the

 Politicians who poorly fund schools forcing teachers to manage (not teach) classrooms packed with 30 or more students who have vast differences in learning abilities; the politicians who cut the art and music programs “to save” monies; the politicians who use educational philosophies as political props; and the politicians who tell professional educators how to educate.

Ms. Leake is frustrated with the public schools, but I suggest that teachers are not the problem.

Relief

Take a moment and consider these stress-causing issues: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; The Supreme Court leak; Abortion; Political primaries for everything from the United States Senate to county commissioner; Hunter Biden; COVID variants; A seasoned deputy aiding a criminal to escape; Personal problems that affect us all; and feel free to add to my list.

Stress! We live in a world where we are constantly told by headlines “What you need to know.” I don’t know about you, but I resent that statement and avoid reading anything in a newspaper that professes to know what I need to know. The constant clatter of print and talking head news confirms that William A. Percy was correct.

Recently I re-read his autobiography Lanterns on the Levee. While I take issue with certain parts of his story (such as his racist paternalism), his writing is exquisite and a joy to read as it is chock-full of literary allusions. Published in 1941, it is dated in a way, but like all good literature, it carries a message for us these 80 years later. For instance, in writing about his years at Harvard Law school, he tells how students during the early years of the 20th century were restricted in having parties and social evenings. Thus, he writes, “Our chief dissipation was conversation.”  Each night at eleven after studying was finished, a coffee percolator was started in someone’s room and a night of superior talk about various topics was begun. However, Percy writes, “I wonder if this most civilized form of entertainment is fated for extinction by man’s effective mental opiate, the radio?” (italics mine)

Our world, it seems to me, is full of mental opiates: If a television is not blaring so called news that we must know, a machine pipes in unwanted music in public spaces such as airports. Many runners and walkers have the white plugs in their ears that carry music or other clatter directly to their brain. It is all, as someone observed, “A clattering of cymbals.”

Ours is not the first to have problems of a plague, wars, famine, and more. Yet, ours is the first to be able to watch these monsters as they consume us. Instead of taking months for  news to cross the Atlantic it arrives via social media immediately. That marvel causes stress like has never existed. Instead of reading about a death weeks later, we see it happen on a screen as it is played over and over. Stressful for sure, and that stress takes a toll on individuals and cultures. But what to do?

Unplug! Percy and other sages have warned us. Our parents knew of and told us of the dangers of hearing too much. Unplug from the mental opiate machines at least for a while. Stop the noise whether it be something we need to know, a game of snooker or football, a realism show that is likely pre-programed, and more. Stop the noise and sit under a tree or on a bank of a creek or anywhere that has as its “noise” the sound of nature. Let the wind going thorough a tree tell you about its trip to you or hear a bird announce its news or just sit and give yourself permission to not know what is happening in the secular world. Sit with a neighbor and hear about his or her joys. Converse with nature and the dear ones in your life.

Unplug! Even Wordsworth told us that “The world is too much with us; late and soon,”

In the end there is little that we need to know about the secular world for it, too, will pass. But we need to take care of each other and have stimulating, common discussions. After all, we were told to be good stewards of our world, and that includes each other, not just the trees, birds, and such.

Such a Mind as This (A Biblical-Theological Study of Thinking in the Old Testament)

Richard L. Smith

WIPF and Stock, 2021

394 pages

When I ordered Smith’s book, I was  anticipating a book similar to other studies of the Old Testament that I had read, such as Getting Involved with God by Ellen Davis.

Smith obviously had read and studied the Old Testament. His Bibliography extends from page 395 to 410 and is a rich resource. Whether he has read all these sources or not, Smith has written a complex book in which he attempts to show the reader how to think biblically.

I first read his chapter on Job, one of my favorite stories (myth?) in the Old Testament. What I read was not new information or insight into the great story of Job, but a complicated vision of the great story.

I appreciate the work of Smith but find his book too verbose for reading it like  another study of the  OT. However, I think it a  fine reference that will help the student of the OT have a better grasp of the OT. Just keep it on your shelf until you have a particular need for information.

            Racism Hidden Behind Grammar

Readers often respond to the writer of an article or essay they have read. Recently one such reader wrote to a writer about an article printed in the Washington Post Magazine. Printed below is the email as shared by the writer.

                                    Hi Damon:

I like your pieces in the WP magazine but I really stumbled reading your article in tomorrow’s edition.

Specifically:

…although it ain’s a perfect analogy: ain’t? Really poor choice.

…some of them white boys: them? How about ‘those’?

You do good work; don’t try to  sound like you are still in the street.

Regards,

            The writer shares the reader’s email in which he or she rails about the use of “ain’t” and whips to death that old horse. That is a choice any of us can make, but I see that specific complaint like a charge against a windmill. However, what I find most distressing in the reader’s email is its tone and subtle racism. 

The reader has some knowledge of grammar and punctuation-the correct use of the semi-colon in the last sentence shows this, but he missed a comma in his opening sentence. However, the condescending tone and subtle racist attitude expressed in the reader’s last sentence is startling. The reader might as well have written, “You do good work, boy; don’t try to sound like you are still in the street.”  For one thing, who is the  reader to pronounce to the writer that, “You do good work;”. The writer knows that his work is good, or he wouldn’t be doing it. This clause is pure arrogance on the part of the reader because he or she assumes a superior position and passes a judgement, not an opinion on the work of the writer. But it is the veiled prejudice that steals the show. The last clause exposes the racist attitude of a reader commenting on the written words of a Black writer. The reader shows that he or she thinks that every Black writer must have, at one time, been “in the street.” In other words, if  you are Black you come from an inferior environment, even if, by now, you do good work. How is a writer to respond to such a tone and words?  Shuffle as he looks down and says, “Thank’ ya, Massa.”

But the writer, like any writer, is free to sound any way he or she wishes. However, in doing so, the writer must be willing to suffer any just and fair consequences—such as having a helpful editor make a change or changes. But a racist attack is  never warranted, and this email demonstrates another way of expressing racism, in a sly and sinister manner.

However, the writer does err in one regard. He writes in his splendid and controlled response this: “If you were better at this than I am, you would know, as I do, that the rules of grammar are mostly suggestions. Guardrails to help us corral and curate the mess in our heads into something cohesive.”

I suggest that rules—grammar or otherwise—are rules, not guidelines. In the usage of them or those, the rule concerns case; the difference between nominative and objective case. However, this rule’s distinction, like so many others in our grammar, is being lost through careless writing or editing or both. However, does it matter if the writer gets his message to the reader? Consider this example of the lowly comma and it use: “Let’s eat Grandma.” Let’s eat, Grandma.” Grammar and its cousin punctuation matter for the sole purpose to facilitate effective communication. They are rules to be followed as closely and respectfully as possible so that all readers will find the writing to be a road map to a destination or conclusion.

But the arrogant tone and subtle racism of the reader’s email far outpace the writer’s misuse of case. The use of case is the type of error which is easy to correct, but the ugly tone derived from privilege and its cousin racism is a choice, not a mistake. But unlike the mistakes we make in grammar, it lives and breathes and hurts us all like COVID.

Now, ain’t that the truth.

Legislating from the Bench

Before the Senate vote for Judge Jackson, I contacted Senator Tillis and encouraged him to vote for her. After voting against her,  he answered me explaining that, while he found her well qualified, he was concerned that she would “legislate from the bench.” I wonder how the Senator views the recent ruling of Judge Kathryn K. Mizelle who voided the national mask mandate for public transportation?

In her 57-page ruling,  Judge Mizelle writes: “Wearing a mask cleans nothing. At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance.”

So, here we have a 33-year-old, newly appointed judge for life, not approved by the ABA, who writes that the CDC does not know its science, and that she knows more of masks that it does. By the way, the ABA stated that its reasons for giving Mizelle a “not qualified” rating include that “since her admission to the bar [2012] Ms. Mizelle has not tried a case, civil or criminal, as lead or co-counsel.”

Legislating from the bench is a problem, but not with Judge Jackson.