Friday, December 25, 2009


What a wonderful Christmas! EO spent Christmas Eve at his sister's, where sister and brother-in-laws served up a sumptuous dinner in their delightfully Christmas-ee house, full of 9 and 10 foot ceilings, wooden floors and a very tall Christmas tree.

Not my sister and brother-in-law's house, but close.

Christmas morning was at grandpa/grandma's, where all EO's children (save the oldest, who is protecting our southern border along with her husband) were in attendance as we opened presents. What a delight! I told my absent daughter I get too absorbed watching everyone else open presents to remember my own, which has always served me poorly when the time comes for thank you notes.

Somehow the story of the King of the Universe being born in a manger touches people's hearts with a sense of joy and wonder. It really does cause our hearts to expand, and for the love of others to take root in our often cold and merciless souls. If the King of Universe can be so kind and so vulnerable, maybe so can we.

The Grinch after realizing the Spirit of Christmas was in the Whos' souls.

There is something wonderful about the accumulated traditions of Christmas, no matter all the excesses and commercialism. Giving gifts, being present in the lives of those we love, giving to those in need - these are all by-products of our meditation on and celebration of the birth of Jesus. Even our obvious mistakes have a certain charm when they represent our bumbling attempts at celebrating the love of the Savior.

The famous Leg Lamp from "A Christmas Story:"
Mr. Parker: "Fra-jee-lay? That must be Italian."
Mrs. Parker: "Uh, I think that reads "Fragile."
Mr. Parker: "Oh. Yeah."

So the next time you read a book by Richard Dawkins and listen to him celebrate the triumph of "bright" science over idiot Christianity, think about a life governed by 9th grade Physical Science teachers, where there is no Christmas.

Tell me who's got the better deal. I'll take Christmas - brought to you by Jesus, Mary and Joseph. And the Catholic Church. Thanks, guys.


Saturday, December 12, 2009


In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
So long, Holly.

- Harry Lime, "The Third Man."

Orson Wells, as Harry Lime

It's gettin' so a businessman can't expect no return from a fixed fight. Now if you can't trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return you gotta go bettin' on chance, and then you're back with anarchy. Right back inna jungle. On account of the breakdown of ethics. That's why ethics is important. It's the grease makes us get along, what separates us from the animals, beasts a' burden,
beasts a' prey.

- Johnny Caspar, "Miller's Crossing."

Jon Polito, as Johnny Caspar

Watching "The Third Man" recently, I was struck by its relationships with "Miller's Crossing," which I watched a few weeks ago. The Third Man is a 1950 movie starring Orson Wells. Miller's Crossing is a 1991 movie by the Coen brothers. The similarities and contrasts were no doubt deliberate.

The Coen Brothers

The two movies feature almost incomprehensibly devious plots involving intricate deceits and betrayals. The plots serve as exposition and symbol of the lot of humankind, with its capacity for love and hellishness bound up in the same heart. In The Third Man, Holly Martin, an alcoholic writer of pulp Westerns, travels to Vienna to work for his old friend, Harry Lime, only to be confronted with the fact of Lime's recent "death." The truth about Lime's fraud scheme and faked death is slowly forced on Martin, until he decides to shoot Lime in the movie's climactic scene.

In Miller's Crossing, Tom Reagan advises his mob boss, Leo, to permit Johnny Caspar, another mobster who pays tribute, to kill Bernie Bernbaum, a bookie who has "cheated" Caspar by trading on inside information on a fixed fight. Leo rejects both Tom's advice, and Tom himself, after Tom confronts Leo with the news that Tom's been "cheating" with Leo's mistress, Verna Bernbaum (the bookie's sister). Tom, out in the cold, falls in with Caspar's gang, and is asked to "whack" Bernbaum as his initiation. Tom manages to fake Bernbaum's death in the lonely woods of Miller's Crossing. Bernbaum, ever the con, turns on Tom and blackmails him. Tom manages to survive, double crossing both Caspar and Bernbaum in the process, and in the movie's climactic scene, he executes Bernbaum.

Both movies proceed by the plot device of a "death" that is in reality a con. The slow moving camera in each film deliberately contrasts its visual calm with the feverish plot twists and moral dilemmas driving the characters. Each movie is set in a weirdly empty city: post-war Vienna, in The Third Man, and Prohibition New Orleans, in Miller's Crossing. In each case the oddly empty cities evoke the essential loneliness of the moral choices faced by the protagonists, Tom Reagan (in Miller's Crossing) and Holly Martin (in The Third Man).

The ominously deserted Ferris wheel, from The Third Man.

The ominously empty woods in Miller's Crossing.

Both movies culminate with the main character choosing to execute a scoundrel, a fraud and murderer, who has up until that point been the object of undeserved pity and mercy by the main character. In each scene the scoundrel is on the verge of once again evading responsibility for his crimes. Bernie Bernbaum, in Miller's Crossing, has just killed Johnny Caspar, his nemesis. Harry Lime, in The Third Man, has just evaded the police and is about to climb out of the sewers which have been his refuge throughout the movie.

In each movie the execution takes place despite the scoundrel's desperate plea for life. In Miller's Crossing Bernie Bernbaum pleads to Tom Reagan to "look inside your heart!" In The Third Man Harry Lime gives a beatifically lit, pleading backward look to his old friend, Holly Martin, as Lime desperately pushes against the sewer grate, moments from his escape. Both protagonists lose a part of their innocence and humanity, however misshapen, when they choose to execute the scoundrel. In each movie the protagonist's execution of the scoundrel is also a knowing renunciation of the possibility of love with the woman attached fervently to the scoundrel: Verna Bernbaum (in Miller's Crossing) and Anna Schmidt (in The Third Man).

Both executions are very personal, conducted in a claustrophobic one-on-one scene with no other witness present, driving home the point that moral choices are intensely individual, yet are always fraught with social consequences.

Of the two movies The Third Man is superficially the bleaker. It is shot in black and white, and much of it occurs at night and in the sewers beneath post-war Vienna. Miller's Crossing is shot in a strange, stylised color, heavy in browns and deep reds, in a New Orleans winter.

Harry Lime fleeing through Vienna's Sewers, from The Third Man.

Tom Reagan and Verna Bernbaum, in a scene from Miller's Crossing.

But the soul of Miller's Crossing is in fact the bleaker of the two. Holly Martin, in The Third Man, executes Harry Lime because he must, in order to affirm a rule of law in a lawless place. In the process Martin nobly sacrifices his own friendship and love.

By contrast Tom Reagan, in Miller's Crossing, kills Bernie Bernbaum at exactly the moment he no longer needs to, as an act of personal vengeance for a personal betrayal by Bernbaum. Bernbaum pleads with Reagan to "look inside your heart!" As Tom pulls the trigger, he responds "What heart?" Reagan's murder does nothing to affirm a rule of law. There is no rule of law in Miller's Crossing, only competing lawlessness and corruption, in the form of two opposing criminal organizations. Tom's ambivalent and hopeless self-assessment, at the end of the movie, says it all: "Do you always know why you do things, Leo?" We are left with no such doubt at the end of The Third Man, however painful the choice has been.

The difference in tone and moral conviction is marked by the last scene of each movie. In The Third Man, Holly Martin stops the car driven by the symbol of weary but determined morality, a military policeman. Martin gets out to stand and watch, silently, while Anna Schmidt, his lost love, walks toward the camera, on a dirt lane lined with barren trees. The policeman waits for Martin as he stands, a symbol of a muted and weary, but very much alive, moral code.

In Miller's Crossing Verna Bernbaum, Reagan's love, tells Reagan to "drop dead" as she walks from Bernie's grave. The camera follows as she drives away, down a dirt lane lined with barren trees. A few moments later Leo, the gangster for whom Tom held some shred of loyalty, walks away from the camera down the same lane, Tom having rejected Leo's offer to return and work for him. There is no car waiting for Tom Reagan. He is utterly alone as the credits roll.

The two movies are an insight into the great moral chasm we have crossed in a generation. The Third Man, in the shadow of WWII, was still able to affirm a morally correct choice, no matter how crippled the characters and how agonizing the choice. Holly Martin chose to sacrifice his own attachments for a higher good. Miller's Crossing, released in 1991, is only able to look on helplessly while competing criminals destroy themselves and murder one another to satisfy their personal lusts and sensibilities. Tom Reagan chooses, at the end, to deny any human connection at all, his hopeless and silent comment on the universal corruption of humanity.

The chasm between these two movies is the chasm between my parents' generation and my own.

The next generation - my children's generation - has a choice between these two opposing visions: God and the demands of objective morality, however painful, or the seductive worship of self, in all its loveless and sterile futility. I wonder how they will choose?

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Mrs. Optimist and our optimistic children visited some friends this past weekend. Our friends have 8 children and 1 on the way. Both parents have their PhDs, which means the large brood is not the product of a lack of education. This is usually the second assumption of anyone who hears you have a large family. The first assumption is that you are Catholic. Which in this case is correct.

Big church. Big families.

Big families are kind of rare these days, if you haven't noticed. In our own case, we have only 5 children. We feel like lightweights when talking with our friends who have 8, or our other friends who have 10. Nevertheless, we are part of the fraternity, although we are clearly not top dogs.

Over the years Mrs. EO and I have been fascinated with the level of intimacy people adopt when they find out you have a large family. One of the first questions is usually "are you done yet?" Another question that gets asked is "haven't you heard of birth control? Ha Ha Ha." To which I normally respond "yes" and just stare. That's usually a conversation stopper. And this is fine by me.


I have a theory about the intrusive questions. I think people are both fascinated and repelled by the idea of having lots of children. A large family forces a whole panoply of uncomfortable issues to the forefront of people's minds - birth control, abortion, and tough economic decisions, like staying home from work.

And maybe all those children force you to confront the immense difficulties that attend child-rearing itself, and one's own sense of inadequacy. When somebody else has 2 or 3 times more children than you do, it tends to engender instant angst, especially if the children in the bigger family are relatively well-behaved and happy, and your own darlings are currently morose brats. Hence the goofy "questions" that are more like commentary.

Americans of my generation generally have done a worse job as parents than their own moms and dads. This cannot be easy on people's minds. The thing was, we had the best self esteem of any generation in history. We were certainly the smartest and the most morally enlightened generation ever; we said so constantly, during the '60s and '70s. We were obviously several levels of consciousness above our parents' generation, which consisted of corrupt, racist war-mongers (just for starters).

Talkin' 'bout my my generation.

For various reasons, things haven't gone so well lately. We have had far fewer children than my parents' generation. Sadly, we have raised more criminals, people with mental illness, suicides, and bums than my parents' generation did. Our divorce rate has all but guaranteed that our children will have more parent-generated problems than we did.

The difficulties don't end there. For the first time in American history, our children may be worse off financially than we were. Somehow, we have taken the richest country in the world and run it off the rails financially. A trillion here, a trillion there; it has started to add up to real money.

So, I would say the case for our "suckiness" as parents is strong. What makes it tougher still is that our immediate predecessors were the "Greatest Generation," who overcame the Depression (despite FDR), won WWII,

Quick, find Jane Fonda.

shed the Jim Crow laws handed down to them by their own parents, and created the most powerful and prosperous nation in the history of the world.

Curiously, they managed to stay married and raise big families, too.

Greatest generation liked big families.

My theory is this: when we hit our teens and twenties and wanted to rebel, the only options we had were bad ones. So instead of saving the world from totalitarianism, we worshipped Chairman Mao,

Killed a hundred million. What a guy.

smoked dope,invented AIDS,

legalized abortion, and institutionalized divorce and bankruptcy as secular sacraments.

Well played.

On the other hand, we also invented the internet, Caddyshack, blogging and YouTube. So we got that going for us.

Cinderella Story.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Just got done a long, long trip on the Interstate with the wife (Mrs. Optimist), three large children and two dogs. We left before the sun came up and got home here in Hotville after the sun set. In between we were treated to a long meditation on home ownership, the great American dream.

Home + Pile 'O Debt = American Dream.

My new name for the place where I have lived these many years is BCT, which stands for Big Coldtown. Last Monday, back in BCT for a week, as I got off the train and walked the two blocks to my office there, I was armed with my super heavy, super warm leather jacket. The kind that can save your epidermis when you skid out on a motorcycle.

Maybe I should have worn the goofy hat, too.

Never mind: it was 50 degrees, the sky was the bleak, mustard-gas grey that covers BCT from November to May, and the wind was ripping in from the river at about 20 knots. As I walked the miserable two blocks to work, I was focused almost entirely on how stinking cold it was. There was just a small voice in my brain whispering "what a wimp! It's only 50 degrees!" It didn't matter - I was freezing.

Russian Front or BCT? Hard to tell the difference.

My shivering may have had to do with the cough, sneeze and runny nose I contracted 14 minutes after arriving in BCT. It may be from the mustard gas, I don't know, but this is one of the little treasures of living in BCT.

My sneezes were not so cute.

Shared misery always feels better.

That and the leaves from the massive old oak trees that surround our house. There are four of them. Each of these trees is at least 70 feet high, and each sheds its own weight in leaves each year. The leaves poured down on our house and yard in the months we've been in Hotville. I spent a day in October trying to fight back, but it only postponed the inevitable.

Pretty, but someone had to rake the leaves.

The entire time we were home in BCT over the Thanksgiving week, it rained. This is not uncommon in BCT; in fact, during the mustard-gas time of year, November through April, it is the norm. Except when it is snowing and sleeting. The gutters were filled with oak leaves (again, for the googleplex infinitieth time). And the solid week of rain plus the filled up gutters equals one thing: you guessed it, home-and-self-improvement projects.

It's self-improvement time, pardner.

The first project was the physical and spiritual battle I go through when cleaning leaves out of the gutters on the second floor roof. I used to do roof-repair for friends when I was young. Now that I have had family members fall and almost kill themselves (one from a roof, one from a scaffold), I hate roofs. In order to clean the second floor gutters, I crawl the last few yards down the roof on my belly, saying Hail Marys continually as I crab-crawl from one side of the roof to the other, removing the gargantuan clots of decaying leaves and acorns from my gutters. After a half hour of this the gutters were clean again, I had some spiritual growth, and I really wanted a whiskey.

After cleaning my gutters and my soul.

Of more consequence is that when the gutters are fouled with leaves, and the rains come down in buckets for a week, water wicks up from the helpless gutters into the asphalt shingles, soaking the roof like a wet mop. At some point the roof begins dripping down into the second floor plaster ceiling, like that same wet mop as you walk across the kitchen floor. Thing is, your kitchen floor is made for that, but our 80-year-old plaster ceiling is not. And VOILA! Home-and-self-improvement project number two for our vacation week: stripping the bubbled wallpaper off the ceiling in our bedroom.

Approximately our ceiling, after adding water.

This involved hooking up a garden hose and bringing it up to our bedroom, placing plastic drop cloths on the floor, and spraying the ceiling. Once it is nice and wet the wallpaper comes off grudgingly - a process begun by nature, through the saturated roof, but finished by Mrs. Optimist in one of those outbursts of home improvement happiness that is uniquely hers. I fill the role of the unenthused but persevering partner in most of these home improvement stories. This was no exception.
Mrs. Optimist is the slender one. Me, not so much.

Late in the evening the night before we were to drive home we finished stripping the paper and determined that the ceiling probably has to be dry-walled, not skim coated. Of course, this means we did not need to strip the ceiling, but how would we know that until we had stripped it?

Of course. That is what home-ownership is all about. Rain, oak trees, gutters, Hail Marys, wicking, dripping, and wall-paper stripping. And the desire for a whiskey.

To every man his Dew.

Which is why I love renting. Which brings us back, happily, to Hotville, where we arrived late in the evening after a very, very long ride begun at zero freezing dark thirty a.m. in BCT. Yes, sweet Hotville, where we rent a lovely apartment. Check that - we actually live in a lovely apartment for free, as part of the Department of Ginormousness sending me to this foreign and exotic climate to teach Ginormous employees how to think and act appropriately Ginormously.

We try to make new Lincolns. It doesn't always work out.

Our trip was uneventful, which for us, is eventful. After packing our little SUV in the early morning cold and darkness (I was reminded forcefully what it means to have your fingers get so cold you cannot tie a knot) and driving a few hours, the sun began to shine. It shone so brightly, after a while, that I took my jacket off. And then I began to perspire a little. Then I realized that we were traveling south, and it was indeed getting warmer and warmer. Much warmer and much warmer.

And I thought to myself, What a Wonderful World. Yeah.


Sunday, November 15, 2009


I took the fam to a cutsy breakfast place today in Hotville. The place consisted of a nice cafe attached to a gourmet cooking store. It is very cool and very busy.

This is not the cutesy gourmet store. Just a cool picture.

I noticed something and thought I would pass it on to younger men who are nerds. There is no better place for a nerdy young man to meet beautiful women who are interested in him than in a vegetarian cafe.

First, there are not many guys there. Second, the girls are all fit with great looking skin, since they don't eat Kentucky Fried Chicken or Milky Way bars. Third, they don't like jocks at all. They like sensitive, skinny guys with sketchy facial hair who look like "projects."

That would be you, my friend.

Fourth, the girls talk fast and happy, because they drink chai all day and eat only vegetables. Therefore, nerdy guys don't actually have to carry any conversational load, other than periodic nervous laughter at a slightly deeper pitch than the girls' conversation.

Basically guys, all you have to do is brush your teeth and show up. And pretend you like vegetables. The great thing about that is if you only pick at your lima beans the girls will like you even more. They will think you are a soulmate, since they have been picking at their food all their lives.

Lima Beans: why vegetarians pick at their food.

They won't understand that you are dying for a cheeseburger and a chocolate milk-shake. They won't even think that, because they have never ever wanted a cheeseburger in their lives. They will think you are sad and that you've lost your appetite, and this will make you irresistible.

Why carnivores do not pick at their food.

I know, you don't like vegetables. And you want to be true to yourself. But right now you have no female companionship at all and none on the horizon. And being true to yourself, you have to admit you would like to at least talk to a pretty girl before you die. So you may want to consider vegetables.

Here's something to try for starters, to ease your way in: grilled ratatouille pannini with mozzarella and tomato, topped with pesto. Everyone can eat this, even carnivores.

So there you have it. If you learn to like vegetables, or even figure out a few go-to sandwiches you can swallow, you will have delightful female company for the rest of your life.

Trust me, Mrs. Optimist was a vegetarian and I had a sketchy beard. She's beautiful. And I am very happy.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Recently I took a trip back to Megalopolis, where I am "from."  Hard to say I live there, because right now I live in Hotville, where it is going up to 81 today.  On Halloween.  October 31.  I really like that.

Anyway, the only thing I actually like about airports is the little airport news stores.  I like them because when I travel I can justify the high cost of newspapers and magazines, which ordinarily chokes me.  

So I bought an Atlantic and an Economist.  They are the Eternal Optimist's favored travel magazines.  Now, if I could get the NY Times and National Review, together, I would do it every time.  But usually you can't get the National Review when you are in an Airport news store.  To which I say "shame on the little Airport news store."

Shame on them. Shame.

Normally I don't want to read the NYT without also attending to the National Review.  It is too much like carrying a 5 gallon jug in one hand all day.  It gets real painful and messes up your spine. But I got the NYT at the Airport news store anyway, just because I love to read the party line periodically so I know what I am supposed to think.  I spent a lot of years sitting in churches listening to sermons I did not agree with, so I am quite comfortable reading the NYT.

NYT - also known as the "Grey Lady" - had an interesting article on the Obama administration's assault on Fox News.  It seems the Grey Lady is discomfited by the assault.  Apparently the NYT is doing a little internal soul-searching about missing big stories that Fox grabbed and ran with.  Stories that cast the Obama Administration in an unfavorable light.

For instance, the story on Van Jones, Obama's "Green Czar," a Marxist who thinks George Bush planted bombs in the Twin Towers on 9-11 to start a war.  Obama since got rid of the guy, but my goodness, how did HE get past the background check, eh?  And how did the NYT miss this particular story (and others) until Fox ran it to death and the guy had to resign?  Anyway, the article was a good news story - man bites dog - unusual, illuminating and well written. 

The Atlantic had an even more interesting article on the culture war going on in epidemiologist circles over the government's swine flu vaccination program.  It seems a significant number of respected flu experts are complaining about the bad science underlying the government's push to vaccinate everyone against swine flu.  The rebel scientists are pointing out that there have never been rigorous double-blind studies that have proven that flu vaccines of any kind actually prevent illness and death from the flu.  In fact, there have been a number of well done studies that suggest that flu vaccine, unlike other vaccines, such as polio, measles, etc., is completely ineffective.

This dispute has provoked the usual politically correct reaction from the flu establishment, including ostracizing scientists who hold non-establishment views, declaring that opponents are endangering people's lives, and adopting the basic "we all know this is true so anyone who says otherwise is a nut" technique.  All of these reactions are also popular among global warming enthusiasts.  And in the Obama administration when dealing with Fox News.

As you may recall, I have been, in the past, reluctant to support the swine flu group-think frenzy.  I will not bore you with the details, but you can bore yourself.  The Atlantic article was thought provoking and well written. I think the article illustrated how wrong people are to think that the sciences, and scientists, offer us an escape from the squalid facts of our humanity.

Science is manned and womaned by scientists, all of whom are human and all of whom suffer in varying degrees from fear, cowardice, corrupt motives, a desire to be liked and respected, and all the other things that hobble politicians, journalists, lawyers and - yes it's true - even firemen, God bless their crazy heroic souls.

Mad scientist.

If you search for truth you must always carefully weigh the motives, prejudices and fruit of those competing for your attention.  So long as they are human, you have to be very careful evaluating what they say.  The Atlantic article was just reaffirmation of this basic, unfortunate, but very important truth.  It was another fine news story, grappling with current events, but also touching deeper, more lasting themes.

And then there was the Economist.  For those of you who have not read it, you are missing a great magazine that reports in detail on the whole world.  It is one great news story after another.  If you want to read interesting articles about America by non-Americans, this is the place.

Whenever I read the Economist I cannot help thinking about how bad Time magazine is.  It's just People with longer, more boring articles.  Time is the rag that trumpeted the New Ice Age story in June, 1974.  Yikes.  Some things you just can't forget.

For those of you who read and enjoy Time, please carefully consider your decision to read the next two paragraphs.  My wife loves "Copacabana," the Barry Manilow song. 


I love her dearly, but I don't make her listen to my views on Barry Manilow.  That would be wrong.  So if you don't want to read about how bad Time is, skip to the last paragraph.


Let me be clear: never, ever defend Time magazine to me.  It is mindless pabulum, and has been for years.  Puree the truth, push it through a liberal steel mesh strainer to remove even minute chunks of common sense, toss in lots of feel good Oprah drivel, and feed it through a straw to your toothless, lobotomized readers.

This is the Time formula.  It moves magazines.  It's also useful in the bathroom, during other movements. That's about all you can say for it.  If it went under we would all be better off, except for the poor souls who work there.  But I digress.


In sum then, I traveled, I read, I enjoyed.  I avoided Time, always a good thing.  I didn't even notice the lousy weather back in Megalopolis, where it was raining and cold, in preparation for more cold, freezing rain, sleet, slush, and snow.

That's early in the winter.  Then it deep freezes in late winter, so cold it can't snow, and the wind howls into your face and kills valuable lung tissue while you walk the block to work in your thermal jammies and gloves and Carhartt.  And all the while the sky is filled for 6 months with a filthy gray slate cloud cover that eventually convinces you the sun has died and God has deserted you.

Did I mention it is getting up to 81 degrees in Hotville?  And that I like it?  Now that's good news.

P.S. My lovely wife, Ms. Optimist, just handed me a letter from the Economist that says "Welcome - your subscription starts now." It was a surprise. What a sweet woman!

Sunday, September 27, 2009


I started writing this blog on the 26th Sunday in Ordinary time, and since this is my blog, I thought I would write about today's gospel reading at Mass.

The gospel reading is drawn from Mark chapter 9. The passage begins with John telling Jesus they met someone casting out demons in Jesus's name and tried to stop him, because "he does not follow us." Jesus tells him not to prevent the man; "whoever is not against us is for us." He then tells the disciples anyone "who causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea." Shortly thereafter Jesus says "if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out."

Obviously Jesus takes sin very seriously. He uses examples that are horrifying in their directness and implications. "Does he really mean for me to start dismembering myself?"

Let's start from a few basic points we can acknowledge as true. First, he does not deceive. Second, he does not speak idly - he does not just say things for the sake of hearing himself talk. He means what he says.

So we are obligated to wrestle with what he says, because he is talking about very difficult things - plucking out your eyes, for instance.

Tell me something; does your eye actually cause you to sin? Your hand? Nope. What actually causes us to sin? Here are some helpful scriptures:

"each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death." James 1:14

"God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies." Rms 1:24

"By your stubbornness and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself..." Rms 2:5

"But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person..." Mt. 15:18-20.

What comes out of man's heart causes him to sin. So what is Christ telling us? He is saying the issue of sin is vital; it is life or death. We sin because of the evil condition of our hearts. And what is at stake is this: there are parts of our inmost being - part of our "heart" - that defile us, and must be torn away. He tells us we are better for the tearing away: better go into heaven with parts missing than into eternal torment with your precious "self" intact.

When people are addicted to something, no matter what it is, a common thread is that they cannot imagine life without their object of desire, whether it is cocaine or porn or food. "I don't know how I could live without [name your addiction]." It is a very powerful thing, being addicted, and giving up an addiction is in part an acceptance of death, if that is what is necessary. Jesus tells us that we are better off with our eye plucked out or an arm lopped off than continuing to embrace our sin.

Following Jesus means accepting the loss of "self." Our problem as fallen humans is that we have not just looked at the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; we have consumed it, taken it into our innermost beings, and it has entwined itself in and around our "self," such that getting rid of sin, from our vantage point, looks the same as getting rid of our "self." We have never seen our "self" apart from sin; we cannot "see" it; only God can. He knows what he made us to be and can still see it, disfigured as it is by our sin.

When we first come to Jesus his horrible and bizarre words cause a sense of revolt: unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you.

But God means to save you. And saving you means separating you from your sin. And the only way to separate you from your sin is to kill you, and every part of you that is intertwined with sin, then to recreate you.

Most of us think this kind of talk about sin is crazy. So ask yourself, between your judgment on the subject and God's, which do you think has a better chance of being correct?

God made it possible for Christ to intertwine his life with yours. We become intertwined with Christ - that part of us that believes in him, trusts him, loves him - and when the blinding nuclear flash of death comes, only that which is sin and death is destroyed by the fire, because Christ is God of all. His life is indestructible, and as we are in him and he in us, we live in him.

So death, instead of a horrible end, becomes instead a portal to a new life. He has not just endured death, he has converted it from the summation of all our agonies, the final great curse, to the greatest blessing we can have in all eternity. Death has become for us a birthplace into a new and perfect life. We shall be "changed," it says in Revelation, "when the trumpet shall sound."

That is why we as Christians embrace a cross, a symbol of torture and death. It is not an empty image for us, but full of meaning, because we embrace the torture and death of Christ - we accept that we eat his flesh and drink his blood, in order to have life ourselves. And we accept the torture and death of our "selves," that we may live in Christ. "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives within me. And the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." Gal. 2:20.

God asks us to give up our sins - our addictions - each day. Self absorption, selfishness, anger, resentment, bitterness, cursing, fighting, slander, lust, gossip, envy. You name it; like crack, heroin, and meth. He asks us to fill the wrenching void that comes from this heavenly surgery with Christ. Christ is the one who makes it possible to tear our heart away and yet still live.

All this is why we pray today, just as St. Patrick did, 16 centuries ago,

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Christ with you, my friend.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


The correct answer to a lot of questions is "no, we can't."

For instance, say your car gets totaled. You get maybe $3,000 when the insurance is all done. You say to yourself "I'd like a new car." And you are feeling good about your own personal economic stimulus, in the form of a $3,000 check. You say to yourself


You find out new cars are way more than $3,000. You find out with $3,000, you can put a down payment on a new car, and spend $4,000 a year for 5 years paying it off.

Every American has a moral right to a new car.

The next morning your wife says "we can't afford a new car." You say


You say "I need a new car because they are so reliable and safe and environmentally friendly! I should get a new car because it is better stewardship of my money, of the lives of the people who ride with me, and of the earth itself!" You feel even better about yourself now, because not only are you going to get a new car, but you are going to be a much better person!

Maybe a moral right to a cheaper car.

On morning number three you wake up and it is raining outside. Your head hurts a little. You say to yourself, "NO WE CAN'T."

Just like that, without the comma or exclamation point.

Because you support 5 people, you have to pay a $1,900 mortgage every month, and buy food, clothes, electric, heat, telephone, water, sewer, car insurance, gasoline, health insurance,


pay social security taxes, medicare taxes, federal income taxes, state income taxes, real estate taxes, personal property taxes, city wage taxes, state sales taxes.

I work until May 10 for the government. Then I support my family.

It would be great to have a new car, and maybe there are superb justifications for it. But see, you don't have the money right now. So you say "no we can't."

And your wife just looks at you and says "d'uh." Silently, to herself, because she loves you.

I'm sorry, but right now we are going to have to pass on the vast new government run universal health care system. We just can't afford it, what with the recession and all. The existing government health care system (Medicare/Medicaid) has had a four decade history of mammoth cost overruns, and is teetering on the edge of not only bankrupting itself, but our entire economy. It would be good to fix it, but that means stopping the bleeding, not slitting new arteries.

So I say tripling or quintupling or googleplexing this system is a bad idea. And the explanations for how the new system is going to control and reduce expenses while simultaneously covering 47 million more people are unconvincing.

Every time Obama or Nancy Pelosi get around to the nettlesome detail of cost control - which is not very often - it gives me cold sweats. It reminds me that this part of the grand equation is pure afterthought, something for the accountants, not for the "big picture people."

Any time you subsidize something, you increase demand for it. If I give you a $200 gift certificate for a cell phone, you will go spend $200 on a cell phone. The $200 is found money, and what else can you spend the gift card on, anyway? Doesn't matter if a cell phone is a good idea, or if it is worth it. Put out enough cell phone gift certificates and the price of cell phones goes up, because the supply of money for cell phones has ballooned.

If I give a one trillion dollar gift certificate to America to buy health care, the price of health care is going way up.

Medicare and Medicaid have been pumping huge tax subsidies into health care "gift cards" for 40 years. During those 40 years, the price of health care has been spiraling up faster than the rate of inflation. This is not a coincidence.

We have not coped with this hyper-inflationary aspect of Medicare/Medicaid in 40 years. The system will be insolvent in just a few years if we don't change it. Insolvent means upside down - we are paying more money in claims than we are receiving in taxes.

Bankruptcy leaves us all with an empty feeling.

This insolvency problem, by the way, is not something newly discovered by Obama or Bill Clinton. Before Clinton-care, in the early 1990s, conservatives were routinely demonized as selfish, cynical pigs for saying things like "Medicare/Medicaid will bankrupt us." The Democratic party line was that Medicare/Medicaid was fine, all it needed was the occasional tweak. Now, the insolvency thought has become stylish, and the rhetoric apocalyptic on the left. That is progress, of a sort.

To say that you can push a trillion more in health care subsidies through the system and also bring down costs is magical thinking. If the levees are cracking under the current storm surge, what happens if you triple the load? Right.

If the chosen instrument for bringing down costs - government control - has not brought them down these last 40 years, why is it selfish and unpatriotic to disbelieve that it will suddenly acquire the fiscal discipline and political pain threshold to do it now?

Some liberals frankly acknowledge that this legislation will not control, but will worsen, health care inflation. The hope is that by bankrupting the system, "fundamental change," i.e., a government controlled health care system a la the UK, will simply have to emerge. There will be no other choice. This is viewed as a good thing. Interesting perspective. At least this argument is honest. At least it does not lie and say the system as proposed will control costs.

I am not ready to say it is impossible to construct a system that takes care of very basic health care needs for the entire society without bankrupting us. I am, after all, Eternally Optimistic.

But I have complete faith, of a very special kind, in the present health care thingie wending its way through Washington. I am sure that it will not work and it will bankrupt the government.