I don’t think I have ever been distracted in a prayer by rounds of ‘Poor Jud is dead.’

I don’t think I have ever been distracted in a prayer by rounds of ‘Poor Jud is dead.’

And folks are feelin' sad 

Cause they useter treat him bad 

But now they know their friend is gone for good 

Curly: Good.

How can a guy seriously pray, as one ought to do at a memorial, with that playing over the sound system? It wasn’t good at all that my friend was dead. Still, I should have expected it, attending the memorial of 92-year-old Barbara, who had once played in the musical Oklahoma. She had been in Lil Abner, too, as the back-up Daisy Mai, and also a few other venues.

After show business, she served as an administrator at NYU.

After retirement she became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and moved to upstate New York, probably because her youngest daughter lived there. She was 27 years as a Witness and became known locally as one of ‘the Golden Girls,’ pioneering with some other oldsters, none of whom had been show girls.

“We have someone in our audience today who once worked with Mr. Rogers” [of Rogers and Hammerstein], said the program director at Hochstein Music School. Barbara used to attend all the violin concerts of one of the elder’s children—the same elder who gave her memorial talk, as it turned out. Everyone made a fuss over her after that announcement, and for a brief time she was transported back to the day.

Only the Pioneer Service School conductor had been able to get away with calling Barbara (who never had a hair out of place) Babs—as in “So that everyone can have a share, please try to keep your comments to under 30 seconds. Except for you, Babs—15 seconds for you,” and by this tactic he managed to restrain most of her comments to under three minutes.

After recalling a few anecdotes of Babs’ life, the speaker presiding said that “We are here because she is not.” He went on to let the air out of a few suppositions that invariably fail under stress—such as ‘she is in a better place now.’ She is not. Death is an enemy, not a friend, he pointed out, and cited 1 Corinthians 15:26. He went on to recall how death had not been God’s original purpose, how it had come about in the first place, and how the resurrection hope would one day undo it. She is unconscious in the meantime, as though asleep.

I didn’t overlap with Barbara as much as had most others at the reception afterwards—people who had worked with her in field service for years. Probably the reason I struck a chord with her is that when she heard that I blogged, she did not say ‘Why in the world would you do that?’ (as many of the friends might) but she was very encouraging over it. Her son, too, was a writer, she said—the researcher and author of a book on a topic almost totally unknown to Western audiences, but the Eastern equivalent of Hitler’s concentration camps—Unit 731 in China under Japanese WWII domination. To this day relations between the two countries are strained. It became the subject of another of my blog posts.

The son was there at the memorial talk and reception, looking very much an author, with two satchels hung around his neck—whereas everyone else had managed to stow their gear elsewhere. “Oh, he just talks and talks—you have to interrupt him,” his sister had told me, so I did, briefly, to express condolences and to say that his mom had been very proud of him. The three daughters were there, too, and only the Witness one had I known, so I made a point of meeting the other two. They are both retired professional women and both lit up at my mention that a shared interest in the arts is what had attracted me to their mom. We even spoke some of Barbara’s 2nd husband, Lloyd Barenblatt, whose professional career as an academic was ruined because he wouldn’t name names during the McCarthy era.

Babs didn’t have a background typical of most Witnesses. More typically they have been raised on a farm out in the prairie or worked on a ship in the Atlantic or a workshop in Boise. I refrained from telling these refined daughters about Mickey Spillane, another writer who became a Witness, and who had observed of the ‘great’ authors: “What these guys could never get is that you sell more salted peanuts than caviar.” I wasn’t sure how they might respond to that.

The resurrection hope to an earth made paradisiac under God’s kingdom rule is something very real to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and is what attracted many of them to the faith to begin with—most other religions either being disheartenly vague on the topic or promoting everyone to heaven, where they will float around and—well, who knows what they will do there? I don’t think that I have ever heard a Witness question the resurrection hope. I look forward to seeing my old friend there again someday.

 

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photo: Oklahoma - Mraz Center for the Performing Arts

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Two Darwin Things That Might Have Changed History

Two spiritual events can be traced in the life of Charles Darwin. Had those events turned out differently, one wonders what effect it might have had on his scientific contributions.

The first came with the death of his favorite child, his daughter Annie. At age 10, the child contracted scarlet fever. She agonized for six weeks before dying. Also a casualty was Darwin’s faith in a beneficent Creator. The book Evolution: Triumph of an Idea, by Carl Zimmer, tells us that Darwin “lost faith in angels.” That is an odd expression. Why would it be used? They probably told him that God was picking flowers.

Is there any analogy more slanderous to God than the one in which God is picking flowers? Up there in heaven he has the most beautiful garden imaginable. But it is not enough! He is always on the watch for pretty flowers, the very best, and if he spots one in your garden, he helps himself, even though it may be your only one. Yes, he needs more angels, and if your child is the most pure, the most beautiful, happy, innocent child that can be, well—watch out! He or she may become next new angel. Sappy preachers give this illustration all the time, apparently thinking it gives comfort.

Not surprisingly, the ‘picking flowers’ analogy is nowhere found in the Bible. However, a parallel analogy is found in 2nd Samuel, where it is used to make exactly the opposite point: the flower picker should be executed. The setting is when King David took for himself the attractive wife of one of his subjects and, upon impregnating her, had that subject killed to cover his tracks:

“The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

“David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die!  He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:1-7, NIV)

Now, this analogy appeals to us. This is just. The man is not expected to take comfort that the king stole his wife. No, he deserves execution! So how is it that when we are told God has done the same, we’re expected to feel all warm and fuzzy?

Isn’t this like Abraham Lincoln saying that he was not smart enough to lie? His meaning was that if you lie, you have to adjust every subsequent statement to be consistent with that lie, otherwise you will get caught. Telling the truth presents no such challenge.

The picking flowers analogy is an attempt to cover a lie, and as we have seen, it doesn’t satisfy. The lie is that, when we die, we don’t really die because the soul lives on, going straight to heaven if we’ve been good. Thus, death is a friend. It is a chance for promotion, and we are all happy to see good people promoted. In this context, the Bible’s hope of a resurrection is meaningless. (Acts 24:15) How can someone be resurrected if they never actually died?

Better to tell the truth from the start, and then you don’t have to invent ridiculous stories to cover your tracks. Death is not a friend, it is an enemy. Nor is it God’s purpose for humans; it came upon us due to rebellion. Nor does it bring us into a new state of consciousness; instead we become nonexistent, a state that can be likened to unconsciousness or sleep. Nor does God purpose to leave us in this sad predicament, but he’s taken steps to eliminate death.

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned,” says Romans 5:12. “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:25) “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten….Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave,  where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5,10)

“After he had said this, he went on to tell them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’ His disciples replied, ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’ Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead…’” (John 11:11-14)

How different history might have been had Darwin known the truth about death. Not just Darwin, of course, but everyone of his time, as well as before and after. Instead, fed a diet of phony pieties—junk food, really—he and others of inquisitive minds searched elsewhere in an attempt to make sense of life.

The second spiritual event revealing another crisis of faith, is to be seen in a letter of Darwin’s to American colleague Asa Gray. Darwin stated: “…I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world.”

Plainly, this statement concerns, not science, but God. His question was spiritual, or at least philosophical: ‘Why is there so much misery? How does that square with a God who is supposed to be all-loving and all-powerful?’

Bear in mind that, in younger days, Darwin trained to become a clergyman. This is not to say that he was unusually devout. Rather, he was undecided as a youth; he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. Most go through such a phase. Many never emerge. At the time, the clergy represented a respectable calling for educated people who didn’t find a place anywhere else.

Why didn’t he know why God permitted suffering? It’s not as though an answer does not exist. It is outlined in chapter 44. If Charles Darwin had been familiar with the answer, yet rejected it, that would be one thing. But it seems clear that he had no clue. The fault is not his. It is that of the church, which was charged to make certain truths, or teachings, known, but which failed to discharge that commission, choosing paths more self-serving. You might say that Darwin was spiritually starved.

Had he known the Bible’s answer regarding misery and suffering, it may be that he, and other active minds of his day, might have put a different spin on discoveries of rocks, fossils, and finches. It is why Jehovah’s Witnesses are so enthusiastic over Scripture, sometimes to the point of being pests. The Bible’s explanation of the causes of suffering and death is tremendously liberating. It affects powerfully one’s outlook on life. (July 2006)

From the book TrueTom vs the Apostates!

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Dr. Who Nixes Eternal Life - What Has He Been Smoking?

When they asked physicist Robert Jastrow about living forever—would it be a blessing or a curse?—he said ‘it all depends.’ “It would be a blessing to those who have curious minds and an endless appetite for learning. The thought that they have forever to absorb knowledge would be very comforting for them. But for others who feel they have learned all there is to learn and whose minds are closed, it would be a dreadful curse. They’d have no way to fill their time.” If your purpose in life is to watch a lot of television, therefore, living forever would quickly become a drag. But our appetite for learning can be endless, unless we have closed down shop ourselves.

Of course, Dr. Jastrow is an egghead—a thinker—and so he focused on learning. But other things are probably boundless, too, like our capacity to create and to love.

Lately, though, pop culture has been selling death as though it were a benefit. It is probably those atheists. There are more and more of them and buying into their thinking means settling for a final death sentence perhaps not too many years away. Pay attention, and you’ll see the ‘Death is Beautiful’ notion a lot. For example, it surfaced in a recent Dr Who episode: ‘The Lazarus Experiment.’ Now, Dr Who, for a time, was the only show that I deliberately worked into my routine. A British import, it is science fiction with a quirky protagonist, clever writing, travel in a space ship that looks like a phone booth—“it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside!”—and it features endless visits from aliens, most of whom are up to no good. It just so happened that the show fit perfectly into some weekly down time in my schedule—I might never have discovered it otherwise. But having done so, I tried not to miss it. “Yeah, you just watch it on account of that cute blonde!” accused a workmate. But it was not true; the cute blonde was written out of the script, (she was stranded on a parallel universe) yet the show continued to hold its appeal. Years later, however, my interest in the show waned, so perhaps it was at least partially true after all.

The episode name itself is a giveaway, since Lazarus is the biblical character whom Jesus resurrected. But this television Lazarus has invented a machine that makes him young again—he steps in aged and steps out a young man—to the amazement of all the high-brow folk invited to his gala bash. But Dr. Who (was he invited?) smells something amiss. He follows the newly minted youngster, and sure enough, the machine has malfunctioned and has doomed Lazarus to transforming back and forth from human to monster! (They like monsters on that show.) See, in setting back his DNA, the machine has selected ancient mutations long-ago rejected by evolution. (Hmmm…yes…indeed, plausible, nod all the atheists watching the show—whereas if you mentioned anything about God, they’d throw up.)

The Time Lord doctor lectures Lazarus on what a curse everlasting life really is, and what a dumb, greedy thing it was for him to seek it. For when life drags on forever and ever and ever, you will get so tired of it. You will have been everywhere, done everything. Living will have become an endless, pointless trek to nowhere. You will long for it to end, but—fool that you were for choosing everlasting life—it will not end, but it will go on and on and on. Oh, the monotony! See, without death, it is impossible to savor life—and so forth.

Please. Spare me (and Dr. Jastrow). This is atheist tripe. It all depends upon whether you see life as futile or not. If you do, then sure—you would want it to end. But as Jastrow stated, life is only futile if you have made it so. Of course, I’ll readily concede that baked into this system of things are various ingredients to encourage that dismal view—for example, old age and frailty—but if they could be vanquished...

Next time you visit Rochester, New York, where I have lived, you may decide to visit the George Eastman house. Mr. Eastman, who brought photography to the masses and who founded Kodak, turned philanthropist once he’d made his fortune and built half the city. His mansion on East Ave showcases his life, his inventions, his contributions to society, and serves as the nucleus for all things photographic right up to the present. But snoop thoroughly and you will discover that he shot himself in the head at age 78. In the throes of old age, his health failing, one by one he saw his friends going senile, bedridden or wheelchair-bound. He left behind a note: “To my friends - My work is done. Why wait?”

Q: Why did George Eastman take his life?

A.) His work was done. Why wait?

B.) He longed for the blessed release of death to finally end a futile life that had dragged on and on for much too long.

C.) His health was failing and he (a lifelong bachelor) dreaded the indignities of old age -with its dependence upon others.

Does anyone honestly think that, with health and youth, he would not have found more work in which to engross himself? Or would he have longed, nonetheless, for life to end? What! Are you kidding me?

In this, Mr. Eastman is much like Leonardo DaVinci, the artist who painted the Mona Lisa, likely the most famous portrait of all time. Leonardo made his mark not only as an artist. He also contributed hugely in areas as diverse as geometry, anatomy, astronomy, architecture, and flight. Some of his sketches have been used as blueprints for devices in use today. He was a renaissance man; perhaps he even originates the term. Yet toward the end of life, he reportedly sought God’s forgiveness for “not using all the resources of his spirit and art.”

Eastman and DaVinci—two fellows who typify Dr. Jastrow’s statement. And they would be joined by most everyone else, were we not sucked into a morass of drudgery, duty, debt, injustice and hardship. Sure—you might well long for death if you can only envision more of that. Ditto for the frailness that comes with old age. I recently attended a funeral of someone who was happy, content, and productive throughout life. Nonetheless, death was not unwelcome, his relatives assured me, since he’d grown “so tired of being sick.”

That’s why the Bible’ promise of everlasting life on a paradise earth is so appealing. It’s Robert Jastrow’s dream come true—unlimited time to grow, minus the very real liabilities that eventually cause most of us to tire of life. Perfect health is promised, and an economic system will be in place so that people do not feel they are “toiling for nothing.” Note how Isaiah 65:21-23 describes life as God’s purpose is realized:

“And they will certainly build houses and have occupancy; and they will certainly plant vineyards and eat [their] fruitage. They will not build and someone else have occupancy; they will not plant and someone else do the eating. For like the days of a tree will the days of my people be; and the work of their own hands my chosen ones will use to the full. They will not toil for nothing, nor will they bring to birth for disturbance; because they are the offspring made up of the blessed ones of Jehovah, and their descendants with them.”

There’s a lot of things I’d like to do. I’ve done a few of them. But for the most part, I’ve just scratched the surface. And I’ve spent a fair amount of time shoveling aside the nonsense the present life throws at one. No, everlasting life, should I find myself there, will not be a bad thing. Not at all. (March 2009)

From the book TrueTom vs the Apostates!

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Jesus Dragged His Feet for Two Days

Martha sent for Jesus. She knew where he was. He dragged his feet for two days before coming (John 11:6) and her brother Lazurus died.

Martha knew it was Jesus‘ ‘fault‘. She said ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’

Wouldn’t a more ordinary Martha have said ‘What in God's name took you so long?!’

Instead, she said: “Yet even now I know that whatever you ask God for, God will give you.”

John 11 is the go-to place if you are trying to explain the condition of the dead and the resurrection. I like that you can read a long passage and discuss it as you go; you don’t have to cherrypick here and there. It is always better if you don't have to hop around.

I learn something more each time I read the chapter, and I never noticed this little item about both Martha’s temperament and faith before.

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Use it as a Metronome

Q: When my grandmother died, they decided to hold a huge lunch at a restaurant. Same thing when a cousin died. I heard that this is common for JW. Why?

A: Because it makes sense and is considerate. Some people have come from afar. Some are in no shape to cook. I don't think it is unique to Witnesses. I think it is more common than otherwise.

In cases of family, I remember in my youth people lamenting that the only time the whole family got together was for funerals., as though love itself would not suffice, but only an obligation. I finally decided to run with it. It is what it is. Death in this system of things is a natural course of life. Use it as a metronome, to reliably bring everyone together from time to time.

Kill two birds with one stone. Bring everyone together and use the power of family to help the bereaved one heal. Stay the course, and the time will come when there is no death.

  Wittner_metronome

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"He Was a Good 'ol Boy, that Tom Harley, But He's Deeeaad Now!"

Leroy Whitehouse passed away the other night. I’ll miss that man. A tall, drawling, deep throated, 80-something-year-old black man from the deep south, I used to jest with him how I hoped he would one day give my funeral talk:


“Yeeeaass, he was a good ‘ol boy, that Tom Harley, but he’d deeeaad now! D_E_A_D!”


LeRoy would uninhibitedly offer comments to the 50/50 congregation about his younger days back home “working for the white man.” Or relate how even long term Bethelites are not perfect, illustrating it with a brother who declared “I don’t give a damn!” Taking the nervous titter in the audience for appreciation, he repackaged the line and ran it through two or three more times: “I don’t give a damn!”


I will miss him plenty. He was a friend.

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They Welcomed Back Charlie Rose at CBSThisMoring

They welcomed back Charlie Rose on CBSThisMorning. He’d been off a few weeks for heart surgery. His colleagues made a great fuss over him. Even Trump said ‘Welcome back, Charlie. We missed you.’ Even CBS, who hates Trump, ran the clip. Who doesn’t like it when enemies come together? Image

You know, I switched to CBS mostly because of him, but I liked him better personally when he stuck with PBS. There, he had freedom to interview newsmakers at any length he chose – sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes 2 hours. He’s perceptive in his interviews, and that talent can’t come across on razzle-dazzle network TV. Did he sell out? Yes and no. He didn’t give up PBS. He simply went for more exposure. Goodness knows I go for more exposure. I want to sell my books, which I like.

If anyone sold out, it is Larry King years ago. When I first heard of him in the 70’s, he was interviewing newsmakers for three hours on-air. The first hour was one-on-one. The second and third was moderating questions from the call-in audience. But he sold out to someone, and pretty soon he they had him doing only puff-pieces with celebrities, which aren’t as good.

Nonetheless, who am I to say? A person can do what he/she wants with his/her career. Sometimes people tire of the present and want to move on. Is that so wrong? They wouldn’t be able to (in my eyes) degrade unless they were up there in the first place. I was furious with Mary Tyler Moore for sinking the Dick Van Dyke show by leaving for a solo career. But why should she not? She made shows of her own, which I didn’t like as well. Not that hers were bad, it is just that Dick Van Dyke’s was so good.

But is there not an overall sad component to this? Charlie once stated he has enjoyed a wonderful career because he has been able to know so many newsmakers. Are they really worth knowing? I’ll take brothers and sisters in my circuit any day.

And surely there is also something tragic about hitting maximum exposure just as you know the clock is about to run out. It is why I value the JW faith, for only they explain how that came to be, and how it will be remedied.

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Speaking at the Metropolitan Funeral Home

I served 20 years in a city congregation that was two thirds black. There were several sisters with unbelieving mates, and some of those mates had issues. One would spend weeks at home where life would be 24/7 bliss. Then he would disappear into the streets for more weeks. Nobody knew if he would return or not. When he did, his wife always took him back.

His wife asked me to give his funeral talk. Though most avoided assignments like this, I relished them for the challenge of offering comfort amidst horrendous circumstances. I mean, when a guy gets knifed to death on a strange doorstep seeking drugs, how do you put a smilely face on that?

“Jimmy had some hang-ups,” I said, “and it is likely those hang-ups had something to do with his death,” I told mourners at the Metropolitan Funeral Home. “We all know it. We might as well say it. Only then can we begin to offer comfort. Like all of us, Jimmy was a combination of strengths and weaknesses. You never know for sure which will win out and sometimes you say ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’

Look, this system is rough and it destroys people. When that happens, you don’t go moralizing over it. These were Bible type people, most of them not ours, so I read a lot of scriptures. But I also went heavy on his good traits, for he did have some. Few in the audience knew that he had graduated at SUNY Brockport and that he was a skilled pianist. I told of the happy times he would play piano at home.

I didn’t know how to conduct myself at the Metropolitan Funeral home. It was not my culture. I gathered that much was expected from the preacher (me) who conducted the funeral. I told the funeral director that I didn’t want to do it, for it would be phony. I would give my talk, sit down, and they could take over and I would do whatever they said. He told me that after his remarks I should lead everybody out the front door.

After his remarks, I led everyone out the front door. When I was almost there, I turned around to find they were way behind me all moving like snails. Of course they were way behind me all moving like snails – they had a casket to carry. I hadn’t thought of that. I doubled back and led them out at a snail’s pace, and felt a little uncomfortable doing so.

My most emotionally rewarding moment? When a Rochester police officer, approached me with tears in his eyes to thank me for speaking well of his brother. Emotional reward is all that counts. Though I have given many funeral talks, I have never charged a dime, as is the way with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I relate the event not to draw attention to myself. It was emotionally fulfilling giving the talk. It is emotionally fulfilling again telling of it. Image

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Tom Irregardless and Me                No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

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Playing With Dinosaurs

The kid at work thinks I'm old. He addresses me that way. “Hey, old man!” he says. It's all good-natured fun, or at any rate, I may as well let the little snot think I regard it as good-natured fun. I ask him if he's ever seen Fred Flintstone on TV.

“I knew that guy,” I tell him. “Not real well,” I admit. He was pretty old when I was a kid. He lived down the street, and my folks warned me to stay clear because he would barrel along in that foot-motor car of his...he sort of was a public menace as he got older.” [see Yabbadabba man] I used to play with dinosaurs when I was a kid, too. They were great fun. Downright mean as they got older, but not to you if you'd befriended them when they were small and cuddly. So I always did.

Aging's not so bad, because you can remember a lot of things, and can start to put them all into context. Youngsters don't remember anything different from the here and now. Pop says he did some of his best work at 60, an age I haven't touched yet, though I'm pushing it. (pushing it pretty hard, too) And wasn't it Andy Laguna who said he didn't mind getting older, since with each succeeding year, he found more reasons to be grateful to Jehovah? Hangups that you might have once had sort of resolve themselves as you get older. 'You don't really know anything before age 40,' I tell the kid. 'Oh, you can figure out how to use the toilet, and perhaps change the TV stations,' but real smarts don't kick in till later.

I did some calculating once, and figured that, per the Bible's chronology, a youngster who'd met Adam, when the latter was an old guy, might conceivably, when he himself had grown ancient, speak to the adolescent Noah, long before the latter had attained boat-building fame. It's almost as if one could have know Fred Flintstone back then. It may be two links were actually required between Adam and Noah, but it almost seems that it was just one. Of course, most today think those early biblical lifespans of 800-900 years are but nonsense, but didn't I write here and here how it all sort of hangs together?

If you play with this notion for awhile, you begin to appreciate the coherence that might have developed among human society when one might reasonably speak to, not merely his grandparents, but his great grandparents, and great great grandparents, and great great great grandparents, and so forth for several generations out. You'd get deep roots that way. Whatever prior generations had seen or learned, they almost couldn't help but pass it down.

Today, roots are wafer-thin. We've all seen those studies in which the modern child communicates with a parent a mere minutes per day. And where's the rest of the time spent? It used to be TV, usage of which is still pretty heavy, but is now supplemented by no end of other media options. This might not be so bad if these connected one with something of consequence; one might think the internet could greatly expand people, but you know, and I know, that it connects with pop culture and values entirely from the here and now. You can see it in Wikapedia, a source that Winged Migration Man (where is he, by the way?) looked upon without favor; an item of history runs a few paragraphs, whereas review of a pop TV show runs pages and pages per episode. Is it any wonder that young folks readily accept today's conditions today as normal? They've not been exposed to anything else. There's almost no transference from one generation to the next. Didn't I carry on about it here?

Family mealtime was also once a relaxed setting in which perspectives might flow from one generation to the next. Therefore, some years ago the Watchtower began suggesting that family meals ought not be sacrificed to modern life – families ought to strive to eat at least one together. I was surprised, for I hadn't fully realized the custom had fallen by the wayside. In fact, when I first stuck my toe into “evening witnessing,” I didn't want to start too soon after dinnertime, lest I break up such a family meal. But in time I found that only rarely would that happen, no matter when I started. If it did, I would  apologize and withdraw. Common meals are not really that common, today, even in neighborhoods where you might think they would be. And to think that Torre, from the old country, would not call on folks even during the noon hour, a self-prohibition I thought absurd. But he remembered when even that time was sacred, a time reserved for family and friends.

Times have changed.

Not long ago I was riding with Tom Weedsandwheat. He had to swerve and brake hard so as not to hit some kid who had stepped out right in front of him, headphones on, pants hanging down, skull empty as a beach ball. “There can never be another generation,” he muttered to me. 

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Tom Irregardless and Me      No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘Dear Mr. Putin - Jehovah’s Witnesses Write Russia’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

Life on the Lehigh River

The drive down to the Lehigh River is not steep, but it extends seven miles, starting at Summit Point, which for all practical purposes, is the top of the world. I mean, you know you're way, way up there in the Poconos; look all around you, and there are no peaks. And isn't the grid of roads up there mildly convex, as you'd expect on a mountaintop?

A couple of early steep, sharp turns, and your descent is on, unbroken and more-or-less straight. The road enters a gully in its final two miles, imperceptibly at first, nonetheless, embankments on right and left steadily rise. Then....a short string of row houses appear on your left, crammed between road's edge and embankment. Then another string on the right side. Then.....unbroken rows on both sides....they've wedged a town in here!

But if this is a gully, shouldn't there be rushing water? Ah....there it is, cascading down from the left, and a little further from the right, vanishing into a tunnel carved under the row of buildings. It must re-emerge someplace, yet I never discovered where.

The row buildings, right and left, steadily improve in appearance. They become colorful boutiques, artist dens, eateries, and general stores. The final block widens out, enough to allow angled parking, and the row buildings to the left sandwich a grand inn, but all the while this is a one-street sliver of a town. Oh...alright...toward the bottom, they somehow slip in one parallel alleyway, to the right and a bit elevated, but it hasn't even room for its own set of right and left dwellings. On one side fronts a sandstone row of trendy shops; on the other, the backs of buildings from the main drag.

Down here the widened street and it's narrow companion end in tees onto rt 209. Beyond is the train station, the tracks, the Lehigh river, the walkway, and another steep mountain. You're in the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. An odd name for a town, don't you think? But when you consider the original name, Mauch Chunk, perhaps you'll think JT an improvement.  Mauch Chunk is the Lenni Lenape word for “sleeping bear;” a native American term that no one except the Lenni Lenape will understand. Jim Thorpe is a native American term that everyone will understand. Descendant of a chief of the Sac and Fox nation, Thorpe attended the nearby Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where he mastered any sport he turned his attention to:  basketball, lacrosse, tennis, handball, bowling, swimming, hockey, boxing, and gymnastics. “Show them what an Indian can do,” his father charged him when he went off to represent the United States at the 1912 Stockholm Oympics. There, he won so many metals, in such a variety of events, that Sweden's King Gustov V gushed  “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world!” “Thanks, King,” the unassuming man replied. For years thereafter, he played major league baseball and football, concurrently. ABC's Wide World of Sports, in 2001, named him the greatest athlete of the 20th century.

Just behind and well above that aforementioned grand inn, up the steep hill, is the 1860 home built for Asa Packer. It's an ornate, three-story mansion open for tours,Asa Packer manision  so of course, Mrs Sheepandgoats and I took one. Asa Packer came from Connecticutt (on foot) in 1833 and made his fortune, first as a canal boat operator, and then as founder of the LeHigh railroad. The idea was to transport the area's coal to the great cities on the East Coast. It made him the third wealthiest man in the country. From his front porch, peer over the inn to see the courthouse he built, where he served as judge, the church he built where he served as vestryman, and the sandstone buildings where he housed his employees. Today, those sandstone buildings contain eateries, studios, and trendy stores. At one time, nineteen of the country's 26 millionaires maintained seasonal homes in Mauch Chunk. One of the ten coolest small towns in America, declared Budget Travel Magazine in 2007. Asa Packer's words are on display just in front of his house: “There is no distinction to which any young man may not aspire, and with energy, diligence, intelligence, and virtue, obtain.”

 

Mrs Sheepandgoats and I didn't stay in his town during our Poconos trip, however. We stayed 20 miles upstream in Stoddartsville, the town of a would-be industrialist to whom fortune was not so kind. Stoddartsville shows up on the map, but if you go there, you'll find only the foundations of some 200 year old buildings. And simple signs erected by the Stoddartsville Historical Society labeling what once stood on each foundation. And a graveyard whose worn tombstones reveal several Stoddarts are buried there. And a few private residences built on some of those ancient foundations. And a small rustic cabin overlooking the Lehigh....that's where we stayed.

2010 Oct poconos trip 022 

John Stoddart was ambitious, too, just like Asa Packer. He also sought to harness the Lehigh, so as to ship grain downstream to Philadelphia, in order to divert commerce from a neighboring system that sent it to Baltimore.....this was to be a “win-lose,” not a “win-win”. He built a community straddling the Lehigh along the Wilkes-Barre Turnpike (which he controlled) with grist mill, saw mill, boat-building capacity, and so forth. It flourished in the early 1800's, (a bit before Packer's time) but alas, Stoddart was too far upstream. The best he could do with his river was provide one-way traffic, utilizing a series of dams which held back waters until they reached flood stage, and then, releasing them all at once, his barges could ride the crest downstream to the next dam! Boats were constructed in Stoddartsville and dismantled at destination, the timber sold along with the cargo. It wasn't cost-effective enough to compete with later “two-way” systems, and John Stoddart eventually went bankrupt, his town fading in prominence. He spent the final thirty years of his life a clerk in Philadelphia.

There's a third character, a Quaker businessman by the name of Josiah White, who touches on the fortunes of both Packer and Stoddart. To Packer, he brought success, but to Stoddart, ruin. Stoddart might have gone under in any case, but White sealed his fate. White's endeavor was canal-building, and it was canal piloting that enabled Asa Packer to amass capital sufficient to build his railroad. Back in Mauch Chunk, just before the railroad station (which is now a tourist information center) lies a town square named after Josiah White. It was he who founded the town, before Packer ever traipsed in from Connecticut.

Ironically, Josiah White's canal ventures owe a lot to John Stoddart's initial support. In the early days of the Lehigh Navigation Company, White tried in vain to raise money from comfortable, conservative, downstream Philadelphia merchants. They were loathe to part with it. White realized he needed the backing of one man, John Stoddart, who (per White's memiors) “was then a leading man among the Mound characters, being esteemed Luckey [sic] and to never mis'd in his Speculations, carried a strong influence with his actions, he being of an open and accessible habit, gave us frequent opportunities with him, & his large Estates at the head of our Navigation, authorized our beseaging [sic] him, which we did frequently." Sure enough, as soon as word got out that Stoddart had invested $5000.00 (with the stipulation that the navigation system begin in Stoddartsville) everyone jumped on board, and the entire hoped-for sum of $100,000 was raised in 24 hours! White began building two-way locks on the Lehigh, but that summer (1819) was unusually dry, and the river proved too shallow for transport. The following winter, ice damaged the locks to the point that White replaced them with the aforementioned one-way “bear-trap” locks, (the locks in no way resembled bear traps, but White's workmen named them so to dispose of incessant pesky “whatcha building?” passerby) the economics of which ultimately sealed John Stoddart's doom....not to mention, destroying the fishing upon which various Native Americans and missionaries depended.

Roaming the Pennsylvania hills where these long-dead men once maneuvered, it's hard to escape the feeling that if you had switched them...put Stoddart where Packer was, and vice versa....the results would have been the same. Both were subject to time and unforeseen circumstances, which might have easily gone the other way. If the Lehigh had behaved that first year of Stoddart's transport system, or if Packer had been subject to a clobbering winter or two, (he went way out on a limb financially in his railroad building) it might be Stoddart's name that is remembered instead of Packer's. That is....as much as any person is remembered. For, successful as he was, I knew nothing about Packer before stumbling upon his home town....did you? Even though he was the third richest man in the country. Doesn't matter. We all end up in the grave, where memory of us quickly fades.

For whatever reason, I vividly remember Brother Benner, the District Overseer, playing devil's advocate with his own argument - an argument drawn from Ecclesiastes about the brevity of life, and its consequent “futility.” Build as you may, you're not around to reap too much benefit from your work. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon reflects upon the “hard work at which I was working hard under the sun, that I would leave behind for the man who would come to be after me. And who is there knowing whether he will prove to be wise or foolish? Yet he will take control over all my hard work at which I worked hard and at which I showed wisdom under the sun.” (2:18-19) This nearly happened in the case of Packer's enormous wealth, after the untimely deaths of his sons. Business associates threatened to squander it all, so Asa's daughter Mary maneuvered to gain control of the family fortune. To that end, she had to marry, since unmarried women back then were never left the estate (even though Mary had nursed both parents through their deaths). She married some obliging business fellow or other, secured the dough, and the marriage ended soon thereafter. Was that the plan from the start? At any rate, as we toured the Packer mansion, the guide pointed to a prominently displayed plaque of St Fabiola, the patron saint of divorced women. (no, I didn't know there was such a saint, either. Must she not need a lot of helpers today, like Santa needs his elves?)

Anyhow, back to Benner, he was discussing the verse 1:11, a recurring theme of Ecclesiastes: “There is no remembrance of people of former times, nor will there be of those also who will come to be later.” We, who were initially created to live forever on earth, are now subject to that sad reality. He spoke of how someone might attempt to counter the verse, for example, pointing to some musician or other: “Yes, so-and-so may have died,” they would say, “but his music lives on and on.” “Give me a break!” Benner responded. “Who was the most famous singer in George Washington's day?” Exactly.

Same thing with Mauch Chunk. Who were the other 18 millionaires who made their home there? Or, for that matter, what about Jim Thorpe, the town's later namesake? What became of him after his athletic days? (alas, for all his fame, he fell upon very hard times) You will remember....imperfectly....a few of the generation before you, and perhaps even a handful of the generation before that, but everyone else is, at best, a name in a stats book, like Packer or Stoddart. Some won. Some lost. But you don't know anything about them.

The brevity or our life is what really defines it. You don't get too many shots. There's a built-in frustration, since every door we open represents several we have closed. Pathways take a while to trod. The more ambitious the pathway, the longer it will take, and the fewer you'll trod. Each pathway we go down represents a multitude we don't go down. And yet, we want to go down them all. Is this what Solomon meant about life being “calamity?” Today's age of specialization makes the calamity even more pronounced. Increase your wisdom or wealth, as Solomon did, and you increase the pathways you can pursue. But, alas, you increase perception of the many more you won't pursue before the clock runs out.

It wasn't meant to be so, and it will not be so one day in the future. Humans, created to live forever but now relegated to a few score of years, are yet to have opportunity for everlasting life. And all these characters of the past....not to mention our own family members...are they to be among the “righteous and the unrighteous” who come out of the memorial tombs, per Acts 24:15, and John 5:28? It's the Bible's hope. It intrigued me from the beginning. It still does, though one must stoke the hope occasionally so that static from this present dismal system of things doesn't drown it out. As Jesus said: “when the Son of man arrives, will he really find the faith on the earth?”  (Luke 18:8)

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Tom Irregardless and Me     No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘Dear Mr. Putin - Jehovah’s Witnesses Write Russia’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)