The New Songbook

That last note of Make the Truth Your Own is one high, towering triumphant blast of a note....you climb as you approach it, and then reach way back in your lungs for every ounce of power to, not just belt it out, but sustain it. Each verse ends just that way, and then reverts into the chorus. On a recent rendition, Tom Whitepebble is ready. He bides his time. He waits for the song to come around. There! The moment has arrived. He nails that high note, with all his might!.....“believe what he tells you is truuuue.....!”

What the......?!  The note's been changed! It's no longer that high crescendo! Now it's just some low-key humdrum note! Worse yet....everyone knows it except him! He's hanging out there all by himself, and they all turn to stare! The new songbook strikes again! Whitepebble looks clear across the hall at me (who is merely minding my own business) and mouths “Why?!”

I know why, of course. It's on account of a woman named Pearl, who is the wife of Tom Pearlsandswine, and who attends the congregation across town, where I used to attend. She loves to sing....we have a lot of people who love to sing....but she really isn't that....um.....good. And when that final note used to come....that final note of each of the three verses, she'd let out a long piercing ape-like shriek that was enough to make you think “how come we don't have a paid choir, like the big churches do?” Moreover,  the way the song was constructed.....you held that last note, so there's no way anyone could ignore her braying in their midst.

I tell you, no one could keep a straight face. Worse, you knew it was coming....the verse built towards it.... so well before that climactic moment, snickering began. So, in the new songbook, they've changed that last note to some bland thing that any clod can handle. What else could they do?

It's not easy to write a review of the new songbook....we've been using it for ….what?....a year or two, now?.....because...because we're accustomed to praising anything we get as being exactly the food we need served up at just the right time, and don't think I'm about to break that tradition! Everything needs updating from time to time, we all know that. We'd used that old songbook for 25 years or so, as we had used the one prior to that. We had ample notice a new one was coming.  It wasn't sprung on us as a surprise. There was even encouragement to practice the melodies so as not to mess them up at the upcoming assembly.....you know how you'll sing a new song real anemic because you're not sure if the next note will be up or down. But, noooo....Whitepebble had to keep listening to his Bob Dylan CDs instead of the new Watchtower tunes. So it's his own fault.

The new songbook, “Sing to Jehovah,” is a substantial revision of the old one. It has 135 songs, of which 35 are brand new. That means 125 songs which didn't make the cut, since the old book featured 225. And many of the survivors have been reworked in word or tune, some to the point of being unrecognizable. Familiar lyrics are assigned to new melodies. Familiar melodies are given new words. It takes a while to get your head around it. Some of those new songs are beautiful, even hauntingly so. Others, though.....well, they might be if we can ever master the tune, but with 3 songs per meeting, and 135 to choose from, not that many opportunities arise. As to the 125 songs that vanished.....look, there was nothing wrong with any of them....nobody's saying otherwise. All of them were indisputable blessings from heaven. It's just that....well....we had to prune a few.

Of course, the instant I laid hands on the new book, I checked to see if "Dah da da da dah" was still there, a/k/a “We Must Have the Faith,” once song #144. It's still there, sort of. It's one of those which has undergone the scalpel, and only a ghost of the original refrain survives. That's too bad.

Our son was speaking by his first birthday. “Ball” was his favorite word, as I recall, and anything circular was a “ball.” Pulling out the MasterCharge card would excite him to no end, just like it does now for Mrs. Sheepandgoats, though for a different reason. But my daughter was not yet talking by her second birthday, and we began to worry. One day, however, Mrs. Sheepandgoats called me, all thrilled, to say she was singing the song.... “dah da da da dah”...the melody is very distinctive. I didn't believe her at first, but later on.....yes, I too heard it. Sure enough, she sang before she spoke (and when she began speaking, she quickly made up for all lost time). For the next few years, whenever that song played, she'd turn to us, eyes aglow, and exclaim: “It's Dah da da da DAH!” So we're not terribly pleased that they've messed with the song, but....such is the nature of progress.

I've even heard it said that they've “dumbed down” the songbook. That's unkind, isn't it? No, they didn't dumb it down!!! They just made it....um...uh....simpler in some places, dropping some lyrics that were absolutely untranslatable, you know, figures of speech and so forth that play well in one language but not another. Nobody, but nobody, translates material into as many languages as the Watchtower. Nobody comes close. By the way, they tell me that most of our translators in tiny backwater countries are youngsters in their twenties, since their parents tend to know the native tongue, but not any other. Another reason, I suppose, not to tax them with overcomplex vocabulary. Too, lyrics with any hint of “religiousity” have been dropped in favor of “plain speaking.” That's good, I guess, but sometimes I miss the old words. I mean, when you're singing some familiar tune, and suddenly your well remembered lines have been replaced, you find yourself grumbling “what on earth was wrong with those words?!” And there's a strange insistence on a few tunes that every note correspond to a syllable, a practice I find disconcerting.

Ah well. Maybe it plays out according to tastes in other parts of the world. The time for considering only English speaking persons has past, as it should. What one person doesn't really care for is all the rage somewhere else. So one has to move on.

You know, it would have helped had Manuel Noriega been able to move on. But, as it was, the onetime Panamanian dictator was stuck as a lover of classical music. He hadn't moved on to appreciate the modern stuff. So when the U.S. military wanted to flush him out of his Panama hiding spot in 1990 (much as NATO would like to do today with Muammar Gaddafi) they blasted him night and day with rock music mounted atop combat vehicles until the poor fellow couldn't take it anymore and gave himself up. And, when mall owners want chase away unruly teenagers, they simply play Mozart over the loudspeakers. Old people love it, but the kids run for their lives. If only we were more flexible when it comes to music.

Flexibility is not the defining trait of the Sheepandgoats clan, however. Predictability is. Thus, social gatherings of the Sheepandgoats men (not necessarily the women) invariably end with a game of Scrabble. Every time. “They always do it?” asked an incredulous new daughter-in-law. Yes. Always. Plus, we have developed peculiar quirks that make us incompatible with even other Scrabble players. The house dictionary rules, for example, and so the character of the game varies depending upon whose house we are in. Playing at Pop's house is a real challenge. There, a set of 1964 World Book encyclopedias still grace the living room bookshelf, a relic from the days he vainly hoped to pound some sense into us. His dictionary is from that era, too. It wasn't easy to get him to accept even such common electronic terms as “fax,” (which go unchallenged in my house or anywhere else) and I was robustly shouted down when I tried to play “adware” over a triple word score, the 'w' resting upon a double letter square.

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Read ‘Tom Irregardless and Me.’    30% free preview

Starting with Prince, a fierce and frolicking defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A riotous romp through their way of life. “We have become a theatrical spectacle in the world, and to angels and to men,” the Bible verse says. That being the case, let’s give them some theater! Let’s skewer the liars who slander the Christ! Let’s pull down the house on the axis lords! Let the seed-pickers unite!

 

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American Motors

“Brakes are a little squishy on the [then 24-year old] Buick,” I said to my wife, Mrs Sheepandgoats. “Would you run it down to the repair shop first thing in the morning?” But she never made it! Backing out the driveway, the brakes failed completely, and she smacked right into a parked car. In front of a police car, no less! The officer emerged. What was that all about, he wanted to know. Upon being told there was no brakes, he, like all guys rescuing the girl, declared he would move the car. A minute later he got out, pale-faced. There's no brakes on this car! he said.

If you've never had brakes fail completely on you, be assured there's no sensation quite like it. It almost seems as though the car speeds up when you hit the pedal. Of course, this doesn't happen anymore, because, in 1965, one American car manufacturer introduced a technological solution, the dual brake master cylinder.

Q: Which American car manufacturer, in 1965, introduced the dual brake master cylinder?

a) General Motors
b) Ford
c) Chrysler

The answer is d: none of the above.

It was tiny American Motors, IMG_0329 out of business since 1985. So says radio mechanics Click and Clack, who used to ridicule the brand mercilessly.

You know, for the longest time I've wanted to write about American Motors, since these are the cars I was too familiar with growing up. Our family owned several of them. To be sure, that desire to write about them is fading, so I better hurry up and post something before it dies completely. After all, isn't it a bit self-indulgent for some aging guy to go rattling on about the cars he had growing up? And who cares, anyway? Moreover, much of the world would consider it unspeakable luxury to be growing up with, not one car, but two, in the family, as our family did. “You Americans are so spoiled,” a visiting African brother said. “Not only does each family member have his own car, but you have garages to put them in. In Africa, four families would live in that garage!” It's an uneven distribution of wealth, that's for sure. But these days Americans are falling behind the material times, while other countries are rapidly up and coming, building highways which immediately fill with cars.

Besides, from time to time, I used to come across old guys in the ministry who would carry on and on about their Studebakers and Desotos and Packards, and what wonderful cars they were, and how they were ahead of their time. They were also ahead of my time, and so I was only vaguely familiar with those makes. But I do know American Motors. Should I now do my bit for automotive history and spill what I recall about the brand? I think so.

I write this post as Toyota grapples with allegations of sticky accelerator pedals. There's been an evolution. At first, they denied everything and attributed all problems to driver error. But then Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota, went before Congress to tearily beg forgiveness for his jackrabbit cars. However, since then, the Massey mine collapsed in Pennsylvania and the BP oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, Akio Toyoda is twice replaced as the World's Evil Businessman. Freed from the glare of adverse scrutiny, Toyota has gone back to its initial tactic in dealing with sticky accelerator pedals....blaming the victim! So says this story, anyway. Trouble is, I'm not at all sure that's not the correct approach. It's impossible to tell. What with lawyers and gold-diggers, you never know if an unsafe spree is genuine or if it's a tiny glitch exploited beyond all bounds by opportunists. No one ever said all Toyotas run away on you.....worst case scenario is an extremely tiny percentage. Now, I work with a woman whose car also accelerated by itself, climbing an embankment, when all she wanted to do was shut it off; the tire tracks are right outside the office to prove it. It's happened several times, she told me. A cynic (or sexist) might suspect the “nut behind the wheel”....can't this woman drive?....but frankly, knowing her, I doubt that's the case. And.....gasp!....her car is not a Toyota! It's a Honda! Moreover, she took it to the dealer, and they, not being the evil businesspersons of the moment, didn't fix it for free, as Toyota would have. They charged her $700!

But in my day, if you bought a clunker, you bought a clunker. Tough luck! There was no such thing as auto recalls. I have vivid memories of my dad repeatedly aligning the front wheels of his 1960 Rambler American, a car he swore must have been built with “spare parts.” He wore out front tire after front tire, and did not succeed until he learned to ignore the company specs and improvise his own alignment! This American was our first “2nd car.” Up till then, we, and virtually every other family, existed on one car per family. But in the early 60's, “compact” cars were introduced, with the marketing notion that a family might actually buy more than one car, and the idea quickly became reality. Of course, our main car, the car supplemented by the Rambler American, was also a Rambler, a 1958 Rambler Classic.

Most of the psychological hangups I have today trace directly to how, as a child, my people drove Ramblers. Classmates tooled around in deliriously long chariots capped with tailfins on which you could impale a buffalo. Me....I was stuck with boxy toasters that got good gas mileage. Getting good gas mileage is a virtue today, but only a wus cared about it in the sixties. However, my mother was short. She couldn't see over the wheel of most cars, but she could in a Rambler, in which you sat up high. So it was nothing but American Motors for us! Forced to drive these cars, is that how I acquired my life-long habit of sticking up for the underdog? Because, as a teenager at school, you had to defend your families' choice of vehicle, even if you secretly longed for them to show some class and buy a Mustang. And like Johnny Cash sang: “I knew you had to grow tough or die!” [A Boy Named Sue], did defending Ramblers make me tough.....willing to ignore popular opinion? I don't think I'd overstate the case, but maybe I shouldn't understate it, either.

And I'll defend them still, even though it's been 25 years since their demise. Even though I know, deep down in my heart of hearts, that they don't really deserve defending, or at best, deserve it only partially.  After all, aren't they Mormon cars?....something I never even suspected until I saw the Mormon missionaries all tooling around in AMC Hornets....whereupon I discovered that founder George Romney (father of 2010 Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney) was a Mormon. So let Mormons defend them. Of course, I don't know for sure that Romney's AMC successors were Mormons, but why else would the church buy a fleet of Hornets?

Despite the recession of 1958, with George Romney at the helm, Rambler sales increased, while every other make decreased. This landed him on the cover of Time Magazine. The following year, sales doubled, and they nearly doubled again in 1960. Romney retired in 1963 to try his hand in politics, and he later commented that the company's undoing was to abandon his focus on economy in a quest to be like the big boys with a full line-up of cars.

To be sure, AMC's perennial lack of financial resources often showed, and the company's full line-up is an odd mixture of innovation and dud.  The Marlin is a good example. Originally a cool idea (see illustrations), the company didn't quite have the resources to pull it off, so they settled for a dud. The same thing happened with the Pacer, which sold like mad in its first year or two, and then virtually stopped.

Some of the handsomest cars in the 60's were by American Motors....I think of the 68 Javelin, for instance.... but also, truth be told, some of the ugliest. Lacking funds for proper retooling, AMC would start with an attractive product, and then add more chrome and crud with each succeeding year till you could barely stand to look at the result. Popular Mechanics, in 1967, quoted someone saying the Rambler Rebel was the best-looking new car around...“hard to believe it's made by American Motors.” But by 1975, just look at the monstrous mess (pictured) they'd turned it into:800px-1975_AMC_Matador_base_Sedan_beige_left-front-550x275   
(And that green 61 Ramber American, pictured above.....Lord, what an ugly car!) Ironically, though, the coupe version of the same car was thoroughy cool.

But some models, ridiculed today in movies like Wayne's World, were, at the time of their introduction, thought cute and innovative.....the Gremlin and the Pacer, for example. The Gremlin actually won top honors at Consumer Reports in its first year, a recommendation most out of character, as the magazine rarely had anything good to say about the brand. (It's competitors, Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto, weren't around yet....tiny American Motors had beaten them to the punch) And the Ambassador, I thought, was downright handsome.....a poor man's Cadillac, someone called it, in the same way an AMX was a poor man's Corvette. I bought a used one of my own while in school.

The fourth Rambler our family owned was a 66 Classic. It's the same model which drove the Beatles onto Shea Stadium the year prior. Now, this makes no sense at all. Why weren't they driven afield in a Cadillac? This was the British Invasion, after all. The Beatles were the sensation of the decade. But later I learned that promoters of the time didn't treat rock stars in the worshipful way they do today. They didn't spend a lot of money on them, though God knows, they made enough off them. That's why you always hear of rock and roll artists of the 50's and 60's going down in plane crashes. Promoters lined up the ricketiest, cheapest airfare available, not the whispering limo-planes you might suppose they would charter. Rock groups were put up in hotels, to be sure, but not really great hotels....just functional ones. Did promoters figure that rock and roll groups were just kids, and you didn't spoil kids? Or were they all just a bunch of amateurs? A Rambler was plenty good enough for them. Incredibly, the Beatles later played centerfield at a St Louis stadium in the pouring rain.....they got drenched....because management didn't want to pay the $400 required to erect an awning for them. They could have been electrocuted. (see The Unseen Beatles, a BBC DVD, 2007) No wonder youthful musicians loathe the music industry.

And get a load of this nutjob, who claims an AMC Hornet was the best Bond car ever. James Bond, you'll remember, drove Aston Martins, and Lotus Espirits, and BMW Z sportsters. You wouldn't think he'd be caught dead in a Rambler. But in the 1974 film Man With the Golden Gun, James Bond jumps a river in his AMC Hornet X, all the while spiraling a complete 360 degrees around. An Astro Spiral Jump! None of those pampered pricey “pretty boy” cars came close to such a stunt. It was plain ol bread n butter American Motors what done the deed. (Be sure to play the YouTubes on the linked-to post)

Actually, I call this fellow a “nutjob” tongue-in-cheek. I like him. I like his blog. In “researching” this post, I found myself again and again searching though his material, almost to the  point of.....why go anywhere else? He freely admits to being a compulsive automotive nerd given to recording trivia of  lackluster vehicles that other authors would sensibly leave to rust in peace. I'm sorely tempted to spend hours and hours and hours perusing his blog, but of course, I don't. I have to write about God.

Long after I left the family home, when I should have known better, and had no plausible excuse, I bought a used 1983 Concord, pictured here in a Bill Vance post. Such was the hold that the AMC cult held over me, a cult I might never have broken away from had not the company been absorbed by Chrysler, which promptly discontinued all AMC cars. The model I bought is the same of which Car and Driver (2/78) once wrote “You have the eerie feeling in steering the Concord down the road that somehow, something isn’t quite right, isn’t quite integrated.” Actually, I didn't notice that. But, in time, the car developed a discouraging habit of stalling on right turns. I did notice that.

.................................

OH NO!!! Cars II, the movie, is due out in June of 2011, and it appears that both Gremlins and Pacers are cast as villains! I tell you, life is unfair, pure and simple.

 ...............................

[Edit 12/12/2010:  Oh, very well. Here it is, the song Little Nash Rambler.]

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Tom Irregardless and Me     No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

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Redeeming America's Armpit

In the early 1990's Buffalo NY earned the title of America's Armpit. Well.....it didn't really earn the title, it just got stuck with it. There must always be something to arouse national ridicule, and for just a few brief years, comedians peppered their routines with Buffalo jokes. For example, the Air up There, a 1994 movie ripoff of the far more clever Cool Runnings, has the main character firing back to some taunter: “Don't tell me about ….(I think the word was 'armpits,' but it might have been 'dung heaps' or something).....I'm from Buffalo.” It must have been the last straw. Civic minded Buffalonians hosted a garden show that year. Green thumb people gussied up their homes with every sort of plant, and invited others to visit. It took 16 years for Mrs Sheepandgoats and I to respond.

But we did respond this year, for the two-day show in late July. Till then, we'd known nothing about it. All we'd known, thanks to Hollywood, was that Buffalo was an armpit and a dung heap. And that, more or less, squared with our own take of the city. Like Pittsburgh, Buffalo was once a center of heavy industry, steel-making and so forth. Unlike Pittsburgh, it never managed to reinvent itself when those industries evaporated. Hard to believe, but at the turn of last century (1900) Buffalo was the third most populous city in the U.S. Those days are long gone.

But each year gardeners have worked to reverse their armpit image, which was never more than pop-silliness anyway. The garden show has become an annual event, each one larger than its predecessor. One day recently, despairing of anything new in our own city, I chanced upon coverage for the Buffalo show in our local paper. We drove over to check it out. It's only an hour's drive west of Rochester, and we lodged overnight so as to take in both days.

Whoa! This is a big deal! 350 gardens this year. It's the largest show of its kind in America! These folks have been busy and we knew nothing of it. Now, Mrs Sheepandgoats loves this kind of thing, and so do I. Gardens are beautiful, people are friendly, and....one might as well say it....there's a certain nosiness about seeing how others are set up. It's a cheap date, or at least it would have been except for the hotel.....wasn't that overpriced? Plus, Mrs Sheepandgoats grumbled about it a little, since it seemed  dated.....aren't we too good to suffer such indignities?  But we found it through Priceline.com, a service that allows you (supposedly) the best price, but not choice of hotel. You have to trust them to choose for you once you specify how many “stars” you want.

Moreover, no sooner had we checked in and gotten comfortable when in waltzed a trio of women! They'd messed up at the main desk and assigned the same room twice! Fortunately, I was still impeccably dressed, as always, but Mrs Sheepandgoats had begun to change. Not to worry, I headed off the intruders at the door.....they were all embarrassed and headed down to the control desk. After a short time, so did I. The proprietress, a friendly matronly woman, apologized profusely, and then, probing sheepishly as to whether or not I was upset (I wasn't....mistakes happen), ventured that: “they were pretty, though.” Were they? I never notice such things, of course. Besides, Mrs Sheepandgoats is also pretty. Still, I complained to my wife afterward that this sort of thing happens to me all the time, and it's a great nuisance. Pretty women somehow find out where I'm staying and throw themselves at me so that I have to bolt the door to get any peace. It's almost as much of a pain as when I'm strolling down the street with my wife, and traffic comes to a screeching halt, folks snapping their necks around to admire her, disregarding entirely the Bible's counsel, cars smashing into one another, and so forth.....let's face it, the woman's a looker.

But how did this start out an article for Better Homes and Gardens, and practically end in Playboy territory? C'mon Sheepandgoats, back on topic!

You'd almost think there would be a lot of married couples in attendance at the show, and there were, but they were not the majority. Largely, it was packs of women with their girlfriends. Men were....what....maybe 30%? Just an impression, maybe there were more, but the wife and I both commented on it. Guys think their manhood threatened should they confess an interest in gardens, apparently; probably they were off bowling.

The 350 garden sites, front, side, and back yards, were clustered, for the most part, in neighborhoods, so that, if you weren't in one of the neighborhoods....if you were an island somewhere all by yourself....you might not get a lot of traffic. But the neighborhoods themselves were well traveled and some, such as the Summer neighborhood, were mobbed. Summer Street ends in a little hook just west of Delaware St. It's homes were built in the mid-1800's as cottages. Lovingly restored cottages, some painted bright bold colors. A few of them seem not even to have street access, but you had to walk in a house or two deep to reach them.

Nearby was 16th Street, a street with a story some residents posted for all to see. The area is quite modest, you might almost say poor, but several years ago residents banded together to form a neighborhood association. Gardening was the common strategy. Not only did they flower their own properties, but they gifted gardens to neighbors not in position to afford or maintain their own. (One home had a sign in front: 'this garden gifted by the so-as-so neighborhood association'....which I thought was a bit tactless, really. I mean, how must that sign make the people inside feel? But perhaps I'm too sensitive. Anyhow, today 94% of the short street is owner-occupied. Go the next street over,  where there are no gardens, and it's as though you've entered another world.

We started our tour at the Seminary headquarters near the Frank Lloyd Wright house. It wasn't the only headquarters....you could start wherever you wanted. Pick up a map, make a voluntary donation to the cause if you like, and off you go. Take the shuttlebus, drive, or walk. Lots of bistros and shops along Elmwood Avenue, for refreshments and change of pace. It's fairly monied around the FLW house, but to me,  the most interesting gardens were in neighborhoods quite modest, some even being reclaimed from urban decay, with  dinosaur-sized homes being nurtured back from near-extinction. Are gardens the means to revive a city? Instilling civic pride and such? Come to Buffalo and you might almost make a case for it.

It was unseasonably warm that Saturday....disgustingly hot, actually, with obscene humidity, the kind every upstate New Yorker knows only too well. We nonetheless trekked on valiantly till the show's 4 PM end.  Quite a few of the residents offered refreshments of sorts.....cold lemonade, perhaps, though in the poorer areas you were more likely to find those who charged for the service. Ah, well....no matter. And....walking up and down Elmwood Avenue, roughly the show's backbone, there were the aforementioned bistros and coffee shops one might duck into to cool off. The weatherman had called for rain all day, but it held off till the end.....when we were just feet from our car, and then in came down in a manner that would impress Noah. It was almost as if angels had held back the rains all day for our benefit. But they didn't, I'm quite sure. Don't they have other things to do?

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At My Age I Shouldn't Have to Prove Anything to Anyone

All Pop wants is to cross the border for a few hours to visit a relative. You wouldn't think that's asking too much. But it is.
 
A distant cousin lives in a St Catherine nursing home, just across the Canadian border. We run up to visit her once a year or so – my brother, Pop, and myself. A driver's license and birth certificate has always sufficed for crossing the border. (or rather, for return crossing, back into the U.S.) But, as of last June, only an “enhanced” license will do – that or a passport. With only minor fuss, my brother and I obtained ours, but no such luck for Pop. State (and perhaps Federal) clerks looked askance at his out-of-state birth certificate from the 1920's – it's old and crumbly – you have to handle it as if it were an ancient Bible manuscript. And....is it a certificate or just a 'notice'? And....does it have a raised seal or is it just a flat one? Go get another one, they tell him.
 
But record-keeping in New Jersey wasn't so hot 90 years ago, and the department has changed hands or moved any number of times since. They don't seem able to come up with anything to readily satisfy New York. Yes, for a certain fee and substantial inconvenience, if Pop can dig up some old coot whose been around forever, who knows him from long ago, and who can testify that, yes – Pop is indeed a person, he was born here, he is a citizen, and if you can get that person to testify to that effect before a notary, then the wheels of progress can slowly move ahead once more. But the old coots are dead, or far away and long forgotten. The guys Pop hangs with now, bowling and golfing buddies, for the most part, don't go back that far. They can testify he throws a good strike ball, but not much else.
 
Pop's been on the phone with a series of persons, but he gets frustrated with the layers of bureaucracy he must plow through, and he gives them a piece of his mind. (no doubt ringing alarm bells everywhere) “I've had a driver's license for 70 years,” he grouses. “I fought in the world war. At my age, I shouldn't have to prove anything to anyone.”

'Why don't you take charge yourself, Sheepandgoats?' one might ask. 'Why don't you help him out?' Yeah, well, maybe that will happen. But it's not so easy as it sounds, for Pop is quite competent. He takes pride in being self-sufficient, and doesn't like to be helped....might not accepting help imply he is helpless? Besides, would I do any better? I've had my own struggles with (local) bureaucracy, untangling an ancient web regarding property rights, which also entailed tracking down old coots who could remember how things used to be, parading them to the bank notary public, hiring a lawyer (who opined that submitted documents had only to “weigh enough”) and persuading certain other interested parties that there was nothing more to be done till the gods of real estate had spoken.
 
Moreover, I've had my own border trouble. It happened some months after 911, as Mrs Sheepandgoats and I were driving home from Quebec City. Rounding the final bend on Rt 137, a long long line at the NY-Canadian border came into view - endless cars waiting for customs. 'Rats!' muttered I to my wife, and then 'well, as long as I have to sit here, I'll read the newsmagazine in the car trunk.' But as I opened the trunk I noticed all eyes in the control booths ahead were upon me. 'Sheepandgoats, you idiot!' Now they think I'm hiding drugs – they'll tear the car apart!

So I waited my forty five minutes, and when it came my turn, the first words from the officer's mouth were: “what were you doing in your trunk?” Getting something to read, I said, adding I instantly knew it was a mistake and they'd all be thinking I was hiding drugs. “Drugs, hell!” the fellow snapped back. “One wrong move and you would have been shot!” That's how it was after 911. They were edgy there at the border, cautious, supposing I might emerge from the trunk with a machine gun.

Now, we don't complain, mind you. Well....Pop does a little...it's more evidence that 'the world has gone to hell in a handbasket,' he grumbles. But I know it's all a consequence of terror and the “war on terror.” People die or are maimed all the time through terror, so it's hardly sporting to gripe over a just a bit of inconvenience, even though we live in America, are all spoiled, and have long taken our “rights” for granted. One must keep things in perspective. Still, when Tom Whitepebble was a boy in Niagara Falls, NY, he'd routinely walk across the bridge to Canada and back, after a day of fun at the falls, and nobody asked him anything. Nobody had to see any papers at all.
 
I write this just after police have arrested some fellow who'd hoped to blow up Times-Square with a car bomb. It might have been a much bigger story, complete with dead bodies and burning buildings – T-S is always mobbed with people - had not his crude bomb fizzled. Such events are routine in the world but (so far) relatively rare in the U.S. Who of my generation would ever have imagined it would come to this, that killing civilians indiscriminately would come into vogue, and even strapping on bombs and delighting to die if only you can take out a dozen or two with you. Tell me....you really don't think it's not evidence that “in the last days” people will be “fierce,” and without “natural affection?”  (2 Tim 3:3)  And did the July Watchtower really say that the recent upsurge in graphic movie, TV, game and media violence might be a satanic ploy, stoking people up for fratricidal warfare?

It steadily escalates. In Russia, “two female suicide bombers killed at least 38 people on packed Moscow metro trains on Monday, stirring fears of a broader campaign in Russia's heartland by Islamists from the North Caucasus,” says the March 29th Washington Post. They call these female bombers “black widows,” and they've struck many times, with great loss of life. They've generally lost all their menfolk to war and all their womenfolk have been raped. They're pretty much crazed, without any social net to fall back into, and it's a sinch to recruit them for suicide missions. The Post names a certain Chechen “warlord” who, a decade ago, “pioneered” the use of women to strike civilian targets. And why? Reprisals for the 1940s transportation of Chechens to Central Asia, with enormous loss of life, by dictator Josef Stalin. [70 years ago!] In recent decades, Islamist militants have joined the fray, giving it new import.

Now, horrible as such grievances are, in past decades people weathered equal atrocities without suffering destruction of their natural affection for humankind. It often broke them, it often broke faith in God, it often left them with hatred for the perpetrators, but not for humankind in general. Jews and other emerged from WWII concentration camps, for example, without dedicating their future lives to revenge, or at least revenge against non-involved persons. A century before that, blacks in this country similarly emerged from brutalizing slavery without goals of hatred and vengeance to all. But times are different today. People are surrounded by hate, and when they escape from one hate-filled situation, they simply enter another one. There is no respite. There is no consolation. It ought to be quite clear that this world produces and promises to produce no end of persons like the Chechen black widows, so increasing violence seems absolutely assured, until God brings about an end to the entire system of things, a forerunner to ushering in his own kingdom.

Under such circumstances, one doesn't gripe about inconveniences at the border. It's more or less to be expected.

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Tom Irregardless and Me                No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

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The French Version of Geraldo?

It's not unusual for the developmentally disabled to have issues of self-esteem. And it's not hard to see why. If your closest associates - in the vast majority of cases, your only associates - are people who have to be paid to see you, you don't think you might have some self-esteem issues?

But Doug has no issues of self-esteem. He is one of the few who has benefited from heavy family involvement. At the restaurant, he barks (more or less literally) directions to staff as they pass by - this or that dish is empty, and he holds it up to make his point. Doug is non-verbal. If you don't know him, you won't understand a thing he says. If you do know him, you still won't understand a thing he says but, combined with gestures, you can usually catch the drift. Doug's very social. He thrusts out a hand to men as they pass, inviting a handshake. From women he wants hugs; he holds out both arms.

After the meal, we drive over to the Fairport commons area - Liftbridge Park - to hang out a bit. We're in luck. Lots is happening - a classic car show and a live band. I wheel Doug near the band, an all-girl group called It's My Party, who perform songs from the early 60's, and perform them very well. They have matching outfits, just like in the 60's, synchronized gestures, and ... um...some campy 60's dialog between songs. The drummer is their producer, and their website says they have performed for 20 years. How can that be, since the singers themselves are yet high-schoolers? Ah, the producer has been around that long, and maybe some of the backup musicians, of which there are 8 or 9 - are some of them high-schoolers, too? The girl singers have been replaced once or twice.

Many in the audience are older folk - revisiting their youth, one suspects - and after the show, a woman remarks on the lankiest singer's long limbs. "Yeah, it's hard to get clothes," the performer replies. Actually, I thought she said it's hard to get close. That would fit too, for the trio accentuate their songs with 60's cheerleading gestures, arms flailing like windmills.

Doug is captivated by all this. You want to leave? I ask after a few songs. Slight but emphatic shake of the head no. You want to stay? Slight but emphatic shake of the head yes. You want one of their CDs? Yes. So we wait in the lineup, which really isn't wheelchair accessible, and they sign his copy with hugs and kisses - xxooxxoo. Of course, Doug solicits actual hugs and gets them from the girl or two closest to him. Backing out, he keeps it up and gets several more hugs from other girls....you know...girls in the audience, girl friends of the singers, and so forth!

Back at the home I write up a report - they like to keep track of social progress and "if it's not documented, it didn't happen." I tell about all the hugs and conclude with the question "how does he do that?" I mean, it's not as if anyone offered to hug me.

These are my people: the developmentally disabled - to use the current jargon. Working at the group home was probably the most enjoyable job I've ever had, and I resisted any attempts to rise in the ranks because each step up meant more bureaucracy and less contact with residents. I still keep up with them. This outing with Doug was on my own time.

All this explains why I'm not in a hurry to pick any quarrel with Sabrine Bonnaire, one of France's premiere actresses. We're on the same team. True, I'm not familiar with her acting career, but then I'm not French, am I? Who would ever have thought that a film would be made about a group home, and if it was, who would ever have thought it would be any good? But such is Ms. Bonnaire's first stab at film directing. The film is Her Name is Sabine. It's a documentary set in a group home. Sabine is Sabrine's sister.  Sigh....I hope it's not a sign of how invisible these people are that even the reviewer has screwed up the title: it is not the cheery My Name is Sabine, as he states. It is the more provocative Her Name is Sabine, implying that most people would see her as a subject, a patient, a resident, a disabled person, a ....but she has a name.

Sabrine Bonnaire makes sure people know her name. She's pulled photos and home movies out of a seemingly bottomless reservoir to show her sister growing up - a vibrant, talented (she plays classical piano), pleasantly quirky girl - once inseparable from the 18 month older Sabrine. But she suffers from autism. It's effects grow more pronounced through the years. Her parents pull her out of school and hire tutors. Still, she deteriorates. An admittance to the hospital's psych ward is a total disaster - the screen goes black while Sabrine narrates the details.

Sabine is now in a group home, just like where Doug is. The French actress used her fame to jump-start funding, and the house exists largely because of her. She's since met with French President Nocolas Sarkozy and Minister for Work and Social Affairs Xavier Bertrand to argue for the disabled. Is Sandrine Bonnaire the French version of Geraldo Rivera? Like him, she's done much to advocate for this most vulnerable population, and I can't do anything but cheer her for that.

Now....the point upon which I would contend with Ms. Bonnaire is a small point. It's hardly the focus of her story. Barely worth mentioning. On the other hand, I will mention it AND I will make a big deal over it. It steams me. In the midst of the film review linked to above is inserted Sabrine's observation about their Jehovah's Witnesses upbringing (who would have guessed?), as if it somehow explains Sabine's troubles:

Sandrine and Sabine grew up in a large, working-class family on the outskirts of Paris. Their mother was a Jehovah's Witness whose strict adherence to the sect's rules on birth control explains the number of children: 11 in total, of which Sandrine, now 41, is the sixth, Sabine the seventh. Growing up in a Jehovah's Witness home was "quite heavy", says Sandrine. "First of all, it was very boring. You don't do birthdays and Christmas when everyone else does them. You can have them, but three or four days after the date, so you feel apart from your friends."

I tell you, I won't put up with it. I'll bet you anything that this girl was fully embraced in the local congregation and circuit, where the atmosphere is warm and accepting, and where children are taught to be kind and compassionate to those less fortunate, rather than "bullying" and "mocking" (yes, even during birthdays and Christmas), as they were in the grade school Sabine had to be pulled from. It's not Jehovah's Witnesses who screwed up the title of her film. The JW mother ought to be a hero in this story, not a token religious nut. She nurtured her daughter as a child and adult as, one by one, other siblings departed for lives of their own. How is it that Sabine plays classical piano without, at the very least, mother's support? Mom dutifully followed doctor's advice and admitted Sabine into the local hospital, where they put her in locked isolation and straightjacket, administered drugs by the truckload, denied toilet facilities, and ultimately forbade family visitation - these were medical experts, mind you - and finally returned the woman to her mother in far worse shape than they found her. Does it occur to anyone that the mother's faith helped her carry on when everyone else failed her daughter? As stated at the outset, family involvement with the developmentally disabled is, at least in the U.S, rare.

And what is this about the "sect's rules on birth control?" Nobody among Jehovah's Witnesses has any hang-ups about birth control, unless you mean the abortion-inducing IUD kind, which yes, we do reject. But contraceptives? Condoms? No one has any issue with them. So if the mother did have strong views in this regard, it didn't come from the "sect." And the holidays? Well, yes, I suppose. But surely it's a matter of perspective. There were Jewish kids when I was going to school and they sat out every Christmas and Easter. It wasn't that big of a deal. There were compensating attributes within their own faith. No one carried on about how they were deprived. Look, if there's a party going on, of course a child will want to be part of it, same as all will want to subsist on ice cream and candy. But as adults, you hopefully come to realize what's important and what's not. Christmas, to take the most prominent example, does not fall on Christ's birthday. Jesus never said anything about celebrating his birth anyway, and most customs associated with it are from non if not anti-Christian sources.

In fact, is it just Sabrine Bonnaire or is it all of France? For perhaps two decades, France has leveled a 60% tax on financial contributions made to Jehovah's Witnesses, a repressive measure unheard of in any free country, and a plain attempt to stamp out the group. The policy's been under appeal from the outset and will likely be decided in the European High Court. Look, I know that much of Europe is intensely secular, and probably France most of all. I suspect it stems from World Wars I and II, bloodbaths that found fertile soil in the very continent where churches held most sway. If churches can't prevent such mass slaughters, what good are they? But how ironic that the only Christian group with the guts to unilaterally stand up to Hitler is the one most harassed in post-war France!

Still, the movie is great. It's a shame so few Americans know of it, just as they know nothing of Maigret. French critics dubbed it "the most beautiful film Cannes has given us this year". Mrs. Sheepandgoats and I, though not of that august body, fully concur.

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Few Odd Fellows But Plenty of Weirdos

Mrs. Sheepandgoats and I blew into Ithaca just as the whole city was about to “stand up for peace.” Of course, we didn’t know they were going to do that. We’d just come down to catch the tail end of the three day music festival. But we hadn’t been in town more than half an hour before some counterculture type person urged us to get to Stewart Park where, at 3 PM, folks would congeal into a giant peace sign. They planned to photograph it from the air and submit it to the Guinness World Record organization. Instead, we risked being seen as warmongers and stayed in the Village Court section, where a cajun band called Bayou Road Krewewas playing.

For a quick mini-excursion, you can’t go wrong traipsing down to Ithaca. My wife and I do it a lot. Just 90 miles southeast of our Rochester home, Ithaca is a college town. SUNY (State University of New York) at Ithaca perches high on the hill to the south and Cornell University straddles the eastern one. The city proper is crammed on a shelf at the foot of Cayuga Lake, but it doesn’t really fit, so it flows up into the surrounding hills, climbing as if ivy. Up there, the streets…commendably gridlike on the shelf…throw off all restraint and writhe here, there, and every confusing where. Descending one of those hills on a snowy day is no job for an atheist.

Four or five creeks cascade from the heights into Cayuga Lake. “Ithaca is Gorges” say t-shirts and bumper stickers. It’s true. Gorges cut deep into the earth right through the heart of the city - two of them pass through Cornell itself. Students bustle on campus above while, two hundred feet down, others hike the gorge as if in a different world. Within ten miles of the city can be found over one hundred waterfalls…I’ve heard some say as high as 150 (Mrs Sheepandgoats and myself strive to find them all).….and some of them are truly spectacular. The local earth museum highlights the fossils and sedimentary layers thus exposed. Try visiting sometime, as I have, with Tom Pearlsandswine. Hear him muttering throughout about the “wiles of Satan,” and challenging museum staff at every exhibit. You’ll want to bury your own head in that sediment.

So alluring is Ithaca that some graduate from the colleges and stay put. They obtain four year or six year degrees, then they hole up in some commune on the hills growing organic food. Or work at the local bookstore. Or start an earth-friendly “green” business. According to this webmaster, Ithaca’s been called "One of America's Most Enlightened Communities" and one of "The Top 10 Places to Drop Out of Society." Perhaps the two titles aren’t as mutually exclusive as they at first appear.

An eclectic bunch….some of them. Generally quite pleasant, though you can’t be one who clucks his tongue at unusual characters. Opening day parade for the music festival consisted of “an automotive ballet composed of a procession of Volvos in synchronized driving formation. A group of burly He-Men toting chainsaws as if they were trombones…..A distinct absence of Odd Fellows, but no shortage of weirdos,” according to the Ithaca Journal. I’m told by the local congregation that these folks tend not to be real receptive to the Bible’s message, perceiving it as a ploy to restrict their freedom. I once worked with a young woman whose divorced father turned up years later as a nudist in Ithaca. So I’m not so sure I want to run down to Stewart Park and make a giant peace sign with them. Besides, what would Winged Migration Man (WMM) say? Were any of his old buddies among those who called the peace sign the "footprint of the American chicken?"

WMM is the retired fellow who spent 24 years on a nuclear submarine (see comment section) keeping the world safe, he maintains, by deterring Soviet attack. It sounds plausible enough to me. And if he plays the “Neville Chamberlain” card, I will absolutely acquiesce to him. Mr. Chamberlain was the British Prime Minister…there were several like him… who “stood for peace” just prior to WWII. He reached agreement after agreement with the tyrannical Nazis, each of which was broken, yet each time he was lauded to the heavens as a great peacemaker. But history judges him harshly. Had he and his peers stood up to Hitler early on, tens of millions might not have died. Unfortunately, hawks tend to see Hitler everywhere, and are ever ready to strike. Many say the current President is like that. Only in hindsight do we know which concerns were appropriate and which were overrated.

Besides, an aerial peace sign strikes me as a frivolous gesture…..appropriate for a music festival, okay - but for a serious political statement? What if it had rained that day instead of the picture perfect weather that was really had? Would even half of the participants have shown up? You must understand that I come from a people (Jehovah’s Witnesses) that have stood for peace when it cost them their freedom and, in some cases, their lives. Over 10,000 Witnesses were incarcerated in Nazi Germany for their neutral stand during the 1930‘s and 1940‘s. In the United States, 4300 were jailed for refusing military service. To this day, our draft-age people in certain countries are routinely incarcerated for their peaceful stand. So having seen people really stand for peace, I don't read too much into a human peace sign on a sunny day of leisure.

About 6000 people assembledfor the big sign. It will be a record if Guinness accepts it, since they’ve not yet kept track of peace signs. An organizer enthused that "we're not going to trash any weapons because of this, but if everybody has the same idea in their mind, that they are coming together in peace and unity, then there's a community started." Um….yeah….I guess....whatever that means.

Actually, there is one circumstance in which I gladly would have taken part. If I could have driven down with a busload of my friendsfrom the home. It would have been a win-win for all. My friends would have had a ball…..they’d each have gotten a peace sticker. Since about half are in wheelchairs, they'd take up more space when seen from above, a plus for the organizers. Civilians could easily be drafted to wheel them around, especially in Ithaca. And if Carolyn decided to indulge in her favorite ranch dressing and milk beverage, or if Jackie ate her peace sticker, no one would bat an eyelash. They’d chalk it all up to our beautiful diversity.

………………………………...............

Wolfgang Kusserow, a 20 year old German executed by the Nazis for refusing to go to war, made this answer to the military tribunal:

“I was brought up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to God’s Word contained in the Holy Scriptures. The greatest and most holy law he gave mankind is: ‘You shall love your God above all else and your neighbor as yourself.’ Other commandments read: ‘You must not kill.’ Did our Creator have all this written down for the trees?”

 

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Tom Irregardless and Me               No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

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A Willowbrook Legacy

When my nephew was small, the family lived far away, so I didn’t see him very often. Every time I did see him, therefore, I had to get reacquainted. Young children are shy and it does you no good to cozy up during a short visit; on the next visit you’ll have to start again from scratch.

So there I was trying to warm up to the child, showing interest in his activities, doing goofy things and so forth, and the look on his face plainly said “get this creep away from me!” Obviously a new tack was needed.

“Mitchell,” I ventured, “let me tell you about my friends.”

The boy looked like he might put up with it.

"I have one friend named Carolyn who likes to make herself a cold drink when she gets home from work. Do you like cold drinks? ……My friend goes to the refrigerator and pours a glass half-full with milk. Do you know what she pours for the other half?” The boy looked up.

“Ranch salad dressing! Does that sound like a drink you would like?” The lad looked wondrous, as if I was from Mars, and shook his head emphatically. I had his attention.

Carolyn loved ranch dressing and would have drunk it all day if we had let her. We didn’t, of course. She’d make raids to the kitchen and grab the two ingredients. Sometimes she’d get so far as to emerge one jug in each hand, but we’d always intercept and send her off, to howls of protest.

“I also have a friend named Jackie,” I said. “Do you know what she eats?" The boy shook his head. “Anything,” I answered. “Even if it’s on the floor. Even if it’s not food. She’ll grab it quick and put it in her mouth.” The boy looked at me as if I was from Venus.

She’d also eat paper clips and screws and tacks, so you had to follow her around and watch her very closely. If she spied some….say, dryer lint….she‘d lunge….it was unbelievable how strong she was at such times, so you were wise to clear the area beforehand. It’s a condition known as Pica….who would have thought there’d be a name for it?
She’d also talk non-stop, but only about a dozen phrases said again and again and again. You couldn’t help but like her, and you couldn’t help but regard her as a mischievous child, same as Carolyn. Always active, she used to wander around the house constantly, and staff would have to follow her, lest she ingest carpet, knickknacks, paper, what-have-you, like a giant vacuum cleaner. But she fell ill and spent several months in a coma. (something she ate?) In the hospital, I’m told, they didn’t move her too often and the weight of the bedcovering pressed down on her feet till she could no longer straighen them. Discipline meted out to lots of people, of course, but it didn't do her any good, did it? Thereafter in a wheelchair, she'd talk constantly of going to work and would almost shake her chair apart in excitement when the van showed up. “Go to work,“ she’d repeat, banging fists together up and down, like hammer on anvil……the sign language gesture for “work.“ At work, they told me, she’d speak of nothing but going home.

Then there was Christopher. Christopher couldn’t walk either, or talk, but if you set him on the floor he could hop about and cover surprising ground. I got in the habit of reading stories to Christopher, shamelessly overacting the characters when I saw how much he liked it. He’d rock back and forth and positively howl with delight. You could also give commentary on the TV, as over-the-top sportscaster, for instance, and get the same enthused result. Other times, in the early morning we'd roll out onto the deck and listen to the birds.

The second part of Christopher’s life has been much more pleasant than the first, thanks to the Willowbrook Decree. As a kid, Christopher was placed at the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. Places like this were once hailed as panacea for the developmentally disabled. Not only would they live in happy bucolic surroundings and get plenty of care geared to their needs, but they would be far away. But in 1972, Geraldo Rivera snuck into the school with hidden camera and detailed shocking conditions: children packed in like cattle, cowering naked and filthy. Feces on the walls. Urine all over. Frequent and violent deaths. The place was, as Robert Kennedy had declared a few years before, “not fit for even animals to live in.” Geraldo’s on-air reporting (which earned him a Peabody Award) jarred consciences. Investigators investigated, hearings were heard, speeches were spoken, and groundbreaking legislation was legislated. All 5000+ residents were dispersed and relocated in small communities. They also received and are still receiving  life-long oversight to ensure personal wellbeing.
The present trend to place individuals with developmental disabilities in community residences, the birth and spread of day programs and special education in New York, then in other states, then in other countries, can all be traced, at least in part, to the Willowbrook hearings. So Christopher, former member of the Willowbrook class, is a hero, a pioneer of sorts, though I doubt he is aware of it.

My nephew enjoyed hearing about my friends and we became chums again. And in calling them friends, I really don’t misspeak. They became friends. I might pull up a chair in Doug‘s room, for instance, and watch some TV with him. This was a challenge, since it was his set, he had the remote, and he’d flip through channels as if spinning a roulette wheel. Still, considering what‘s on these days, it was probably just as well.

Sometimes when I assisted these folks in their daily routines, I would imagine seeing then again in the new system, with sound body and mind. But for dumb luck, life might easily have turned out differently, with them assisting me. In many ways, working in the disabled home was the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. And it changed my overall conduct. Now, if I am invited to a party or someplace, I will put my hands in my pockets, murmur some niceties to whomever I must, and then go search for some mentally retarded persons to hang out with.

………………………………...................................

All names have been changed of course, even that of the nephew. Only my own, Sheepandgoats, is rendered accurately.

update available here.

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Screening With the Barenaked Ladies

If you don’t instill values into your kids, it’s not true that they will grow up free and beautiful and unencumbered, selecting their own values from the rich cornucopia of ideas....and thus escaping your stupid prejudices. No, all it means is that someone else will instill values into them. Moreover that someone else is not likely to have your kids interests at heart, at least, not to the extent you do. Heaven help you if that someone else is the entertainment media. That medium even pushes the percentages of Sturgeon's law, which informs that "90% of everything is crap."

You have to shield the kids somehow. You can‘t quite do what the entertainment industry tells you to do….watch this or that show with your child and then discuss its values or lack thereof. This is just their ploy to double the audience. Maybe it was true in your household that adults had equal leisure time with the kids. It sure wasn’t true in ours. And what limited parent-child time I had…..I sure wasn’t going to blow it all playing “bad cop.”

TV tickets might work. They did fairly well for us. You allot the kids so many TV tickets per week. Using them as they see fit, they would be able to watch 2 hours or so per week of commercial TV. (Public TV was unlimited. And we didn’t have cable….why torture them with unlimited channels they can’t watch?) I remember my son, at 6 or 7, telling someone how much he enjoyed TV….you learn so much. He actually thought that was its purpose. True, we found out years later that the kids had cheated around the edges a little….they’d found a way to counterfeit the tickets or whatever, but even so, it’s a policy I’d repeat in a heartbeat were I to come along with a second crop of kids, which Mrs. Sheepandgoats does not plan to give me.

Or you might just flat-out do away with the television. That sounds a little drastic, but here and there you run across families that have done just that. True, it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but it’s really not that great of a baby…it poops an awful lot and you can well survive without it. As a single person, I actually went through long periods without a television and to this day there are long running popular TV series deemed indispensable of which I’ve never seen a single episode. Ironically, I found not having a TV was a good way to acquire one. People would come visit and notice the gaping hole in your living room. They’d feel uncomfortable, even a bit sorry for you, as if they’d found you naked, or with empty cupboards. The next thing you knew, they’d buy a new TV themselves and give you the old one! I can’t tell you how many TVs I got in that way. I think I only bought one. The method still works. A pal just bought one of those new half acre TVs and gave me his old 25 inch one, a decided upgrade over our storebought 19 incher.

The JW organization tries to help with tips for screening, not so much TV shows, but music. We all know that kids have unquenchable thirst for music, and the music industry fully conforms to Sturgeon’s law, and then some. So the Watchtower chimes in with tips as to how to look at a CD jacket, or what to make of a group’s name…..is it suggestive or even obscene? This way you can screen out the music that is inappropriate.

Such advise works after a fashion, but it tends to filter out almost everything. The Righteous Brothers might sneak through, but most other groups will be tossed out on their ear. The kids are not going to want to exist on just Kingdom songs. Mine sure didn’t, anyway. Even worse, the system can admit stuff that really is offensive…..some uncouth slob, for example, who goes just by his birth name and has a CD jacket featuring  trees or bunnies (rabbits)….you know, things God made. Nothing obvious to tip you off! Still, I followed the system for a time. I mean, it’s very imperfect, just like the movie rating system, but it probably is better than nothing, or at least it’s a starting point.

A group called the Barenaked Ladies rolled into town. They were giving a concert somewhere and my kids wanted to go. I consulted my system and it flashed red alert. Barenaked Ladies? What kind of a name is that? Surely these guys were up to no good. I mean, it’s not very modest a name. You can’t have bare naked ladies running all over the place. If bare naked ladies showed up at the Kingdom Hall, you’d tell them to cover up. I thundered my verdict throughout the house: “No kid of mine is going to any Barenaked Ladies concert!”

Alas, it pretty well spelled the death of my system. It turns out that The Barenaked Ladies is just a good-times band….a fun, mostly  innocuous, wittier and weightier version of the Beach Boys or the Monkeys. Circuit overseers hum their music, for crying out loud…..songs like “If I Had a Million Dollars.” And who cannot spot the joke behind "I Love You Intermittantly," a song whose arrangements and vocals suggests eternal love, or undying love, but whose words say the exact opposite? It’s hard not to like these guys. And you can always just call them BNL, as newspapers often do, though doubtless for brevity’s sake, not modesty.

After that debacle, I changed tactics. I went with my boy to a couple of concerts at the Water Street Music Hall. He was thrilled to have the judgmental old man along. That’s how I came to hear Weezer, who I liked well enough allowing for generational differences……wait a minute….what are they “wheezing” from?…..it better not be marijuana smoke……but there was no sign of it. All they were was loud. At the lineup to get in, everyone held their hand out to get stamped, so I did too. “You don’t need a stamp” the bouncer waved me by, a little disrespectfully, I thought. (The stamp was to verify you were drinking age) “Aren’t there any grownups here?” I retorted. Yeah, the boy was real happy to have me along. But, as stated, the group really wasn’t that bad and I wasn’t displeased I’d come.

I went to another concert later to see some other group whose name I have forgotten. These guys were a little less wholesome. I mean, they didn’t smash guitars or burn bras or anything, but their presence wasn’t quite as agreeable as the other group had been. After that, we both weaned off of concerts for awhile

Years later, when the kids were grown and gone, did I throw in the towel by going myself to the Bob Dylan concert?                           

 

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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)

A Key Old Person and Joe Jennette

Thanks to Ken Burns, old people are hot today. No longer are they geezers who drone on and on and on about the good old days and you'd kinda wish they'd just shut up already since they don't even know what an iPod is. No longer are they the crotchety codgers who grouse about how (per the New Yorker) for the price of a lousy postage stamp today, they used to be able to buy a whole damn Cadillac.

They once were all this and more but Ken Burns changed that with his WWII documentary The War, which recently aired on PBS. Spanning 15+ hours, he told the story of the epic war through interviews with the real live participants, not the bullet-headed generals or the egg-headed historians. Today those participants are pretty old and, for the most part, still ordinary Joes. But they held center stage for those 15 hours. The long buried memories they brought to life were absolutely riveting. Turns out the good old days weren't so good for several very bad years. Like….was it Eisenhower who told how after Normandy, you could walk hundreds of yards and step on nothing but rotting human flesh?

When Mr. Burns’ documentary recorded victory over Germany and then Japan, I knew the story was over. But I also knew there would be some epilogues, some “wrapping up” by the old people. And, dog tired though I was (did I not have to get up early next morning to report to the Institute?) I figured I owed it to these old folks to hear them out. You couldn’t help but connect with these people.

But old people remember lots of things, not just war. Today, the hottest of all old people may be our family’s own Violet, profiled in Violet in the Old Folks Home.Of all living persons, she has the most vivid family memories of the boxer Joe Jennette. This, it turns out, is a critical asset since a TV sports network is making a documentary tribute to Joe. And it’s about time. Long ago, Joe used to routinely fight Jack Johnson, the first black World Heavyweight Title holder, and there’s plenty of people who think he would have captured the title himself had Jack given him a shot. But Jack didn’t. Why should he have? Winning the title himself, he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by fighting black challengers. Wouldn’t he, at best, get bruised up to no purpose? But having broken into the white boxer’s domain, all he had to do was stay there. He could pound white boy after white boy to his heart’s content. He dominated his years in the ring.

All this, of course, was too bad for Joe. It consigned him to the footnotes of fighting. But now TV sports wants to do their tribute. They’re poking around for people to interview and came across the white family Joe married into (my family) through this blog!They even thought they might interview me, Tom Sheepandgoats, but it turns out I don’t really know anything. I’m merely the chronicler. Yes, I saw Joe a few times when I was little, he probably carried me around some on his shoulders, but I really don’t remember. No, better to put the TV people in touch with our family historian, a cousin. But they will really hit pay dirt if they can talk to Violet, Joe’s niece through marriage. It might be good for Violet, too. Old people love to think their memories are valued. Has she yet had her 15 minutes of fame?

Alas, her health has taken a turn for the worse since my post about her. The clock is ticking toward midnight. Pop’s visits are more frequent. Will her memories of Joe be sharp as ever? Will she imagine Joe is still around? (That might be good for an interviewer) Or will she tell them that it’s simply none of their business? That’s unlikely, but you never know, especially if they descend upon her all full of themselves because they're on TV. Violet was always a down-to-earth person

Joe and Adie would drive out in his fine car, a rare sensation, on his way to visit Adie's sister and family in the boondocks. We had one of those country families where everyone gathers around the huge kitchen table for hours on end, trading stories and gossip. By all accounts, Joe cut a fine figure. The neighbor kids were impressed. Who was the rich person with the chauffer? they wanted to know. “That’s no chauffer….that’s my uncle!” Pop replied.

Decades later my own sixth grade daughter searched for an African-American person to write about for Black History Month. She trotted out all the regulars: Martin Luther King, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglas, and so forth. All perfectly fine candidates. Nothing wrong with any of them. But none were family. So I told her the story of her great great uncle Joe, passing the torch of his memory to another generation. Did she not earn an "A" with her report? Would I not gladly embarass her and put it online if I still had it?

From time to time people hit on that post about Joe. The TV writer, for one. But also a couple of young women who are descendants of Joe’s black family, through his brother. This is all welcome. We’ll now be able to link both sides of the family. I wasn’t able to trace his family when I wrote the post. They used to be in Connecticut, I heard. But googling the name, there were more Jennettes and Jeanettes (a misspelling that stuck...even the Jersey City street named in his honor is misspelled Jeanette!) in Connecticut than you could shake a stick at, so I gave up.

We never knew much about Joe’s family. Maybe Violet will remember it all, if they reach her in time. I used to think it was on account of racial tensions. But the old guy (another one!) I work with every morning says, no, all families used to be like that. You seldom kept close to both sides of a family. You’d identify with one or the other. Travel wasn’t so easy as it is now, telephone not so reliable or cheap (people had party lines back then...the neighbors would sometimes listen in), email not so existent, and so you tended to lose touch with one or the other side.

But now, at long last, we can glue it together! We'll do Joe proud.

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)

The Death and Rebirth of the Placebo

For just a brief moment, there was no placebo; there was no such thing. Just for a day. Placebo had its 15 minutes of antifame. And then the day passed, placebos resurfaced, and they've ruled ever since, just as before.

That day was May 24, 2001, and the front page read Survey Finds Placebo Effect Imaginary. From the Associated Press:

"One of the most strongly held beliefs in medicine, that dummy pills or other sham treatments greatly help many patients, has been called into question by Danish researchers who found little or no "placebo effect" in dozens of studies."

Those Danes had looked at study after study after study in which the experimental new drug was compared to the look-alike dummy pill, the placebo. If the new drug was any good, test results beat that of the placebo. But where researchers bothered to include a third group receiving neither drug nor placebo, the Danes found that that group fared about the same as the placebo group. In other words, people sometimes get better all by themselves! They sometimes do, in fact, just about as often as those who received the placebo.

I spoke to a few people involved in pharmaceuticals. They hadn't read the paper and hadn't heard of the survey and didn't believe me. A few days later, I googled "placebo." Conventional wisdom ruled once again. My article was buried many pages back. It took forever to find it. (But you can find it here.) Nobody ever touched the subject again.

I suspect placebo is a notion too good and too lucrative to let die. After all, when you're testing your new drug for efficacy and you can't wait to urge people to ask their doctors if it's right for them, you want it to seem like it has teeth. If it's so much better than the placebo and the placebo is so much better than nothing.....well, you've got some powerful stuff. But if the gap between nothing and placebo collapses, then your drug is not so effective as you thought. Better to keep that gap intact: broad shoulders for all new meds to stand on!

The fact is big pharma pushes a lot of drugs on us. We (in the USA) spent $2.7 billion on prescription drugs in 1960. By 2002 it was $162 billion. There were 600 prescription drugs to choose from in 1960. By 2002 it was 9000. Plus 4000 over-the-counter. Are we that much sicker that we need all those meds? Or conversely, are we that much healthier now that we have them?

And where did this term "meds" come from anyway? They're medicines, dammit! Isn't "meds" a sneaky con attempt to make them seem warm and fuzzy, friendly-like?...every day you take your meds just like you take your tea, or chocolate.

 

That's why when Pop goes to the doctor and the doctor "puts him on" this or that drug, Pop tells him to forget it. Either that or because he's a stubborn cuss. But it's hard to tell someone 85 who's in perfect health that he'd be so much better if he'd just be gobble down more pills. It's a standing joke with us. I meet him in the doctors office, after his yearly physical. (it took forever to get him to agree to those, and he only did so for insurance reasons) "What do ya think, Pop?" I ask, "Want me to get a wheelbarrow for all your pills?" "HA!" he says, "that'll be the day! No pills!"

Most people, overawed by our age's slobbering idolization of science and the doctor's high-priest membership of that discipline, obediently swallow anything they're told to. Not Pop. "Your blood pressures too high," the doctor says, reading his machine. "I want you to take these beta-blockers." "What I'll do," Pop says, "is buy one of those machines myself and see if I can get the blood pressure down with diet and exercise. If I can't, then I'll think about your beta-blockers." He's been able to do exactly that, aided with an immediate drop in blood pressure that comes just from not being in the doctor's office, where we're all at our hypochondriac worst.

Yeah, the old boy thinks that if you steer clear of drugs then one day you'll die in your sleep or drop in your tracks. And isn't that what we all want? A graceful exit when we go. But if you gobble down every pill someone pushes at you, you'll waste away slowly sans dignity in a nursing home. Who's to say he's wrong?

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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)