Famed theologian Dr. R. C. Sproul once said to us that the first question he'd ask God on arriving in heaven was, "Why sin?" I can still picture that moment vividly, though I remember nothing more of the conversation than that one question.
He now knows the answer, but is no longer sharing his considerable knowledge with the world. Robert Charles Sproul died yesterday.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said, "Living next to [the United States] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."
Going to the same church as R. C. Sproul was like that. He eventually left that church, as did we, though on different paths. But his influence was great, for good and for ill. Personally, I owe him a good deal, for it was in large part due to his efforts that our family came to know and love liturgical worship.
I don't think our children realized how famous he really was until they went off to college. To them, he was, "the guy whose son taught my Sunday school class," "the composer of that hymn I like," "my friend's grandfather," etc.
R.C. was a great man. By no means do I imply that I liked or respected everything he said or did. Like many people who accomplish much in this world, he was larger than life.
Oh, are you wondering about the title of this post? It comes from this obituary in today's Washington Post. Here's the full quote:
He offered his lectures and classes on what were called cassette tapes for audio listening. He pioneered Bible teaching on VHS tapes for TV viewing. He was figuring out distance learning many years before people would take online classes or listen to podcasts.
R.C. was older than I am, but if I needed any further evidence than morning stiffness to prove that I have been around longer than much of the Post's audience, it is that the author felt it necessary to explain cassette tapes.
Requiesce in pace.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
Mostly, I like the great Reformation hymn, Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Good music, powerful words.
Too powerful. I have a problem singing the middle line of the above verse: Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. Usually I manage to sing it by faith, but sometimes thinking about beloved kindred causes me to choke into silence. I'm pretty sure my devoted Christian friends, strong as ever in their faith, are still choking a bit as they watch their two and a half year old son struggle in his battle with leukemia. The hymn is still true: The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever. It's just hard sometimes.
But I really thought my problem was with the kindred part. I didn't think I'd have so much trouble letting the goods go.
We are in the process of replacing our stove, which has served us exceedingly well for over 40 years. Eventually I may tell the story of its replacement, but first things first.
It was a General Electric stove, one of the very first with a regular oven on the bottom and a microwave oven on the top, and we bought it as part of improving a decidedly-unacceptable kitchen in our very first house, in Rochester, New York. At a price of something over $700, it was quite a splurge back in 1977, but if you ignore the cost of electricity and a couple of repairs, that works out to less than $20 per year for roasting meats, simmering stews, baking bread, boiling eggs, and making cookies and birthday cakes.
It still worked, mostly, after 40 years. The automatic oven cleaning feature started to get a little wonky, so we disabled it in 2001 when we temporarily rented the house out during our time living in Boston. When we returned in 2003, we left it that way in the interest of safety. The part of the oven door that holds it up when open went on strike, and after a couple of strikebreaking efforts that didn't last long, I learned to hold the door with a strategically placed knee as I maneuvered food in and out of the oven. A few years ago, the front left burner stopped working, and defied attempts to diagnose the problem. But it was when the two back burners started to act up that we decided, reluctantly, that it might be time to think about a replacement.
There's a saying, attributed to George Bernard Shaw, that if you lined up all the economists in the world end to end, they still wouldn't reach a conclusion. The same has been said about Langdons. I am a chief example, and the stove decision was no exception. Partly because I find shopping—even online, though that's better—absolutely agonizing, and partly because, well, because the stove still worked. When you have a working microwave, an oven that can bake and roast and broil, and one and two-halves burners, what's the rush? We started our new stove search well over a year ago, and the reason the search reached a conclusion at this most inconvenient time of the year is the Porter decided that I must make the decision now. So I did—I hadn't been wasting all those months and had done a fair amount of preliminary work—but as I said, the new stove is later story.
I'm happy with the new stove, but it was still a wrench to let the old stove go. It was foolish, perhaps, but I cleaned it one more time, with a heart full of thanksgiving: a labor of love, like that of women in bygone days who gently prepared the bodies of their departed for burial. If we could have found it a good home, as we did with the 1999 Chevy Venture we recently had to part with, I'd have been okay. But we learned long ago that no one is so poor as to desire our cast-off furniture, including appliances that work much better than this old stove. I mean, I know people really are that poor, but charities are not interested in meeting their needs in that way. Our city wouldn't accept it for recycling or even hazardous waste, but did give Porter the name of a company that buys old appliances. Great! we thought, even though we had to transport it to their site ourselves.
Which Porter did, today. And discovered that they weren't interested at all in the fact that much of it was still operational; all they wanted was the scrap metal. They paid him 14 pieces of silver—I mean dollars. That was better than our having to pay someone to dispose of it, but my heart breaks to think of our faithful stove, which could still do most of what it had been created for, crunched up into a small metal cube.
Let goods and kindred go. Right. If I can't even do it for a 40-year-old appliance....
At first I didn't participate in the "Me Too" campaign on Facebook (and elsewhere)—meant to reveal the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment and assault in our country and now featured in Time magazine's "Person of the Year"—because, well, because I'm not a joiner, and I don't like chain letters, even if they don't promise me that blessings will come my way if I pass it on, and that misfortune is sure to follow if I don't.
Later, I thought it might not be such a bad idea to highlight a problem that has been ignored too long. Here's the Facebook exchange that started my thinking:
S: Me Too.
If all the women I know who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote "me too" as a status... and all the women they know... we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
Stop the silence. Stop the violence.
L: How do you define, "harassed"? There are days when I feel that being whistled at while walking down the street, or approached by a stranger trying to pick you up, is sexual harassment. And how about being kissed too familiarly by a drunk relative? "Felt up" by an overeager teenaged boyfriend at the movies? I could understand the last two being called assault, but I suspect many people wouldn't. At any rate, all of the above are unwelcome and ought to stop. But they are so many orders of magnitude below rape and other forms of what is clearly sexual assault, that I fear to muddy the waters and appear disrespectful of the pain of the latter victims. What is your take on this?
K: My view is this: any time one individual relates to another individual on an exclusively sexual plain, that individual demeans the other and diminishes their humanity. Although there are many degrees of disregard, the bottom line is that one person is being treated as something less than fully human. It's a way of thinking about people that is at the heart of sexism, racism, ageism, etc. As a human society we must insist on asserting the wrongness of that way of thinking. At school we define sexual harassment as any action of a sexualized nature that makes the target feel uncomfortable - from whistling to name calling to inappropriate touching to lifting someone's clothing and much more. It is important not to confuse harassment and assault. And important to distinguish what is legally prosecutable from what isn't. But we make too many excuses and allowances for behavior that is unacceptable. I think it is time to draw the lines about unacceptable behavior that falls short of rape far more clearly than we do.
L: I think life has gotten a lot harder since the 1960's. I could certainly say "me too" to the definitions of harassment you've given. But nothing compared with what I hear from others ... and no worse than non-sexual harassment, which I would call plain rudeness.
That was helpful, but I wasn't convinced. I have friends who have to live with that kind of pressure in their work environment, or have actually been raped, and I didn't think it right to put my own experiences in the same category as theirs. Mine fell into the more general category of "bullying," though with a sexual dimension, because bullies will strike wherever they find a weakness. That, and "the guy was too drunk to know what he was doing, and would be mortified if he knew." It seemed like putting into the same category of "wounded in the war" both the man whose arm was nicked by a piece of shrapnel and the one who had both legs blown off. It's true, but is it helpful?
The broader definition of sexual harassment certainly cuts right to the heart of the problem, and goes along with what Jesus said about both lust and murder. But is it helpful to draw the line around all women, at least of a certain age, and quite a few men as well? Maybe—but I still didn't feel I could participate.
And then, today, I remembered.
I made the comment, in a discussion at choir rehearsal last Sunday, that one of our members, who teaches physical education, sure doesn't fit the stereotype of a female gym teacher. And I got to thinking about what I thought of as a stereotypical female gym teacher, and remembered the bane of my existence from high school.
I've repressed a lot of memories from high school gym class, and I won't name names because I really have managed to forget many of the details. But if the teachers, themselves, were not outright abusive (though it felt like it to me), the system that they participated in certainly was. I suspect it was not uncommon at the time, and it certainly never occurred to me that it was something I could successfully object to—it was just one of the many miserable things teachers were allowed to do to students.
And lest you be wondering what fearful revelations I'm about to make, I'll relieve your minds: It may even seem minor to you, and I don't think I bear any significant scars, other than those inflicted by gym class in general. But there's no doubt in my mind, looking back, that it was an abusive, even a sexually abusive, situation.
By the time we were in high school, we were required to take showers after gym class. I could see it for the guys, but we girls almost never perspired enough to need showers—and the process wouldn't have gotten us clean if we had. No doubt gym class has changed over the years; I certainly hope the bathing situation has.
This is a rough plan of the shower room. Stripped naked, we were forced to give our names to a student monitor, who dutifully checked us off, then walk through a gauntlet of shower heads and out the exit. That's it. No soap—it slows down the line. In fact, the object was to run through as quickly as possible, minimizing our exposure to both water and the prying eyes of everyone else in the room. It was bad enough that we had to change into and out of our gym clothes in a public locker room, but the showers were an extra refinement of torture. Once a month we were allowed to avoid that humiliation, but that required us to announce to the monitor, and all within earshot, that we were having our periods.
If our gym teachers had been male, no one would question that this situation was wrong. I fail to see that them being female made the forced exposure of our young bodies and private matters to their eyes and those of the entire class any more acceptable.
Age, and having gone through the process of giving birth to our children, have since made me less sensitive to what other people see and think, but I still appreciate the private changing areas that are now provided in public pools and gyms. No one—especially no pubescent child—should have to go through what I, and my classmates, endured.
So yes, "Me, too." It's insignificant compared to what others have experienced, but it's part of a pattern of disrespect that needs to end. Jesus had it right, you know. It's our heart attitude that matters. When we wink at smaller offenses, we promote an atmosphere in which heinous acts proliferate.
It's time for national repentance, and a good place to begin would be with the highest office in the land. If that's not forthcoming—a grassroots effort is probably better, anyway.
I haven't forgotten my Seven Days of Thanksgiving series. Those posts take more time to write than I have right now ... maybe I'll finish by Christmas, because, of course, I'm sure to have more time as that day approaches, right?
In the meantime, here's a short TED talk that my friend Ashley shared on Facebook. It says several important things about how to have a good conversation in an age where those are becoming increasingly rare.
I see plenty for me to learn here. I think face-to-face conversations are especially difficult for introverted writers. The illustration where the guy asks, "How are you today?" and the girl responds, "Read my blog!"—that's me all over. It's hard to converse, or even want to converse, when you know that you can answer someone's question so much more coherently if you could only have a few minutes to write your response! On the flip side, that makes us more eager to listen than to talk. I don't want to hear my own stories; I know them already. I want to hear other people's stories.
I was going to make this Day of Thanksgiving about music in general, for which I am indeed very thankful. I have to admit that I usually prefer to listen to instrumental, rather than vocal, music. But there is something about singing that sets it apart. Nothing can be more personal than when your instrument is your own body. It's very handy, too: your instrument is with you wherevery you go, and no one makes you check it with the luggage when you fly. On the other hand, a flute never catches the flu....
Best of all, singing is accessible. If there's ever been a culture that doesn't sing, I've never heard of it. Little children sing with great joy, at least until someone's unkind comment convinces them that they can't. With very, very few exceptions, people who say they can't sing—like people who say they can't do math—are victims either of someone's deliberate cruelty or of someone's poor teaching. Even those too embarrassed to sing in front of others can enjoy singing in the shower.
My father was always told as a child that he couldn't sing. I'm not a fan of college fraternities, but his story reminds me that not all fraternities fit the stereotype.
My parents felt that since I would be living at home I should join a fraternity in order to have some on-campus experiences. First I was rushed by my father’s former fraternity, but to me it seemed to contain all the undesirable elements of fraternities—they boasted about how many football players were members, how many parties they had, an atmosphere that bothered me—and I quickly lost interest. Later a faculty friend suggested his former fraternity and while I liked it better it still didn’t really appeal to me. About mid year I became acquainted with Alpha Kappa Lambda, a fraternity whose members neither smoked nor drank and that one I joined.
Nearly a third of the fraternity membership comprised music majors, and they prided themselves on their fine fraternity chorus. I no sooner had committed myself to the fraternity than the chorus director asked me what part I sang. I had always known that I could not sing and people, including my parents, never hesitated to tell me that I couldn’t sing. So that was my reply to the director. He called me over to the piano and had me sing scales and other notes as he played them. After several minutes of this he said, “You are a second tenor.” Thus I became a member of the chorus. He had recognized that although I did not have a solo voice, I could match the piano tones accurately and thus could follow others and blend in with their notes.
This meant a great deal to me and brought much pleasure. And I owe much to the chorus leader for leading me into singing. In college the chorus sang quite often for various events and it allowed me to find a place in the church choir. And all three years I sang with the chorus we took first place in the annual competition among living group choruses. It also meant much to me after I left college....
Dad sang with a barbershop quartet after college, but what I remember best is his singing at home, usually folk songs, from Old World ballads to sea shanties to cowboy laments. That's a great gift to give a child. I wish I had given it to my own children, but I'm not as resilient as my father was, and still bear my own scars, from wounds inflicted by my junior high school music teacher (who was also—until she drove me out—my church children's choir director; it was a very small town).
Singing knits people together. It's a tragedy that family singing is a lost art. But that is one singing gift we were able to give our own children—not that we gave the gift, but we did put them (and ourselves) in a position to receive it. We have a set of musical friends with whom nearly every get-together ends with people gathered around the piano, singing. That's my idea of a party! Depending on who is present, and the time of the year, the music may be choir anthems, or hymns, or Beatles songs, or Christmas carols, or popular music I've never heard of, but it's all wonderful fun. The following video is one example (there are more people behind the camera). It's my video, but I had refrained from posting it rather than bother to get permission from the singers. But now it has been made public, so I figure it's fair game. :) By the way, don't be tempted to think badly of the people staring at their phones—they're reading the song lyrics.
I'm thrilled that our children and grandchildren know the joy of singing together. The adults and several of the children all play the piano, but you don't need that skill to sing as a family. They also sing a cappella. Unaccompanied singing can be beautiful, and teaches a good sense of harmony. And even though it's not my taste, there's always karaoke....
And it's never too early or too late. Children can sing in groups in school. Many churches and communities have children's choirs. The hardest years, I've found, are the middle ones, when one must juggle babies, and children ... and children's schedules. But after that, the opportunities open up again, with church choirs and community choruses. A few church choirs are too good, or require too much of a commitment, for timid singers, but most welcome anyone who will even try to sing on pitch—and the best way I know to learn to sing is to sing with others.
Go. Sing. Lift up your hearts and your voices, with thanksgiving.
Clean water, coming freely—hot or cold—at a touch, on demand. Not just for my community, but at our own house—several places in and around our house, in fact. That is wealth unheard of for much of the world, stretching along dimensions of both space and time.
Granted, others have been richer in the taste of their water. In my memory, no water in the world has ever matched that which flowed in the streams of the Adirondack Mountains, where I hiked as a child with my father. Our tap water is bland, with the dull sameness that permeates pasteurized milk, orange juice, and cider, and accompanies produce and meats bred and processed to be convenient, standard, and safe. But tap water is fine with me, because if there's a bottled spring water that even hints at that glorious mountain spring taste, I've never experienced it. In fact, I don't believe it exists, because the processing needed to make it safe to transport and sell kills the flavor along with the germs.
But plentiful, clean water, bland or not, is one of the greatest blessings in the world. Water for drinking, water for cooking, water for washing, water for flushing toilets, water for swimming, water for tea and squirt gun fights and baptisms.
Then there's the other side. All that blessed water flowing in to our homes requires a safe channel to remove it for its own cleansing after it has finished with ours. Sewage removal and treatment is something we usually take for granted—until it stops. The dread of sewage backups keeps us vigilant to minimize our water use during hurricane recovery, and grateful for the emergency generators struggling to keep the county's pumping stations and sewage treatment plants functioning.
I'm reminded of the following, from the Book of Common Prayer's baptismal service:
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.
We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.
Inspired by my previous post, Presents of Mind, and a few incidents this year that left me temporarily without blessings which I usually take for granted, I'm starting a Seven Days of Thankgiving series. They'll be in no particular order. Seven days isn't nearly enough, but—as a good friend keeps reminding me—better done than perfect.
It doesn't take long for a power outage, such as we experienced with Hurricane Irma, to make one realize the blessing of reliable electric power. One of my happiest childhood memories is of an ice storm that forced us to use candles for light, cook over a camp stove, and have the whole family sleep huddled together on the floor by the fireplace. But our power outage didn't affect our water supply, nor our septic system, and it was winter, so there was no need to worry about spoiled food. If the few days it lasted was too short a time for a child's sense of adventure, I'm sure my mother was thrilled when the power came back on. I wasn't the one who had to worry about washing diapers! And there was nothing I could call delightful about a power outage in the middle of a Florida September, other than being provoked to gratitude. I can't imagine what the people of Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands are experiencing.
The Charlotte, North Carolina, area is home to some of my favorite people, so when I saw that this video came from Charlotte, I was naturally drawn to it. It's under two minutes long, and definitely worth your time.
I don't need to read anyone's comments (it's making the rounds on Facebook) to hear the negative responses: The the lead character is a while, middle class male. His sweet, blonde wife and his adorable two children, one girl and one boy, send him off from his lovely, suburban home to his first-world office job.
Just. Don't. Go. There.
You'll miss everything important.
Build your own mental video (or film it!) with the characters and situations you think it should have.
And be thankful.
I know it's too early for Christmas videos. It's not even Thanksgiving yet, let alone Advent, let alone Christmas. But for some reason I'm not finding the Christmas-decorations-go-up-before-Hallowe'en problem so annoying this year. Maybe I've given up on trying to fit a proper Advent of solemn, thoughtful preparation followed by 12 glorious days of Christmas into modern, secular, American society. But, aside from the maddening habit of ending the playing of Christmas carols at noon on the 25th, this isn't really modern America's fault. Choirs as well as commercial establishments must begin preparations for the Christmas season early, if they hope to make a good showing in December, so I've been singing Christmas music for weeks already. In my childhood days, December 24 often saw saw us engaged in last-minute shopping, and certainly in last-minute wrapping, but that won't do when one's family is a lot further away than over the river and through the woods, and tucking a small gift into a child's stocking late at night may require international travel—without benefit of a reindeer-powered sleigh. I'm actually grateful that Christmas sales started as soon as they did.
Any church musician knows that it's important to get it right—and equally important to be flexible, charitable, and to choose one's battles.
Today's Orlando Sentinel features, on its opinion page, a wonderful article by guest columnist James O. Cunningham: What's wrong with America? 'Dear Sir, I am'. The link takes you to the front page, from which you could click to page 12—or maybe not; it's not clear to me which parts the newspaper makes available to non-subscribers. But the Sentinel also makes it possible to clip and save articles, and this one deserves wider publicity, so I've included it below. If you find the print too small, click on the image for a larger version. (H/T Porter, who grabbed my attention by mentioning the Chesterton quote.)
Warning: This is an unabashed Grandma-brag—but it has a generally-applicable point as well.
One of my recurrent themes here is the truth that children can do and be so much more than we usually expect of them, from toddlers to teenagers. While our thirteen-year-old grandson's accomplishment is not on a par with commanding a captured naval vessel at the age of 12, nor with captaining a trading ship at 19, I'm quite proud of him—and his parents.
In his right hand is an oak board, similar to that from which he made the object in his left hand, which, when painted, will replace the barber-pole coat rack at a local barbershop.
When he approached the barber, who had advertised for someone to do the work, it took guts and skill to negotiate the commission, not to mention to persuade the barber that a young teen could do the job.
It was an ambitious project, and required working with some heavy-duty power tools—radial arm saw, lathe, planer, and jointer—knowing not only their operation, but proper safety equipment and procedures as well. It was a time-consuming job that required patience, persistence, and focus. That's pretty impressive at an age when many consider him too young to fly unaccompanied on a commercial airplane, to own a knife, or even to stay home alone.
He can cook full meals, too, and I don't mean just heating things up in the microwave.
Is he some sort of genius? Of course he is, he's my grandchild!
But seriously, what distinguishes him the most from many young people is opportunity. His parents didn't just turn him loose among those dangerous tools, unprepared. He's been helping in the workshop (and the kitchen) since he was a toddler. So have his siblings. The kind of training that produces skills of this sort requires patience and persistence on the part of parents, too—and even more so, a willingness to stand up for the right of children to fly in a society determined to clip their wings.
The article may be a little heavy-going, but I know some of my readers will love it. It's not often number theory makes the headlines: Mathematicians Discover Prime Conspiracy. Maybe it's the idea of conspiracy—that always sells.
Two mathematicians have uncovered a simple, previously unnoticed property of prime numbers — those numbers that are divisible only by 1 and themselves. Prime numbers, it seems, have decided preferences about the final digits of the primes that immediately follow them.
Among the first billion prime numbers, for instance, a prime ending in 9 is almost 65 percent more likely to be followed by a prime ending in 1 than another prime ending in 9. In a paper posted online today, Kannan Soundararajan and Robert Lemke Oliver of Stanford University present both numerical and theoretical evidence that prime numbers repel other would-be primes that end in the same digit, and have varied predilections for being followed by primes ending in the other possible final digits.
The discovery is the exact opposite of what most mathematicians would have predicted... Most mathematicians would have assumed ... that a prime should have an equal chance of being followed by a prime ending in 1, 3, 7 or 9.
Soundararajan was drawn to study consecutive primes after hearing a lecture at Stanford by the mathematician Tadashi Tokieda, of the University of Cambridge, in which he mentioned a counterintuitive property of coin-tossing: If Alice tosses a coin until she sees a head followed by a tail, and Bob tosses a coin until he sees two heads in a row, then on average, Alice will require four tosses while Bob will require six tosses (try this at home!), even though head-tail and head-head have an equal chance of appearing after two coin tosses.
Soundararajan wondered if similarly strange phenomena appear in other contexts. Since he has studied the primes for decades, he turned to them — and found something even stranger than he had bargained for.
What does this mean for ordinary mortals? Who knows? It may mean nothing ... or it may lead to the next big break in cryptography. With math, anything's possible.
J. R. R. Tolkien said that Leaf by Niggle was the only one of his stories that wrote itself. It has long held a special place in my heart, though it has none of the majesty and glory of his Lord of the Rings books.
I hope the copyright holders will forgive me for the rather long quotation below. It is only the beginning of the story; the best part is yet to come, and I strongly urge you to find your own copy and read it all. Mine is included as part of "Tree and Leaf" in The Tolkien Reader. Apparently there is a stand-alone version, but unfortunately nothing for Kindle.
As I said, the best part, the really beautiful part, comes later in the story. But this beginning captures so perfectly the dilemmas of creative people: How to balance the demands and pleasures of "real life"with the deep-seated, sometimes almost desperate need to "work, for the night is coming" on one's own, particular calling. At least, this is my own experience, and, I'm convinced, that of Tolkien himself. Perhaps other creative people, of whom I know many among my readers, will find a resonance here.
And then go and read the Rest of the Story for encouragement.
There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, but he did not hurry with his preparations.
Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do. Most of these things he thought were a nuisance; but he did them fairly well, when he could not get out of them: which (in his opinion) was far too often. The laws in his country were rather strict. There were other hindrances, too. For one thing, he was sometimes just idle, and did nothing at all. For another, he was kind-hearted, in a way. You know the sort of kind heart: it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything; and even when he did anything, it did not prevent him from grumbling, losing his temper, and swearing (mostly to himself). All the same, it did land him in a good many odd jobs for his neighbour, Mr. Parish, a man with a lame leg. Occasionally he even helped other people from further off, if they came and asked him to. Also, now and again, he remembered his journey, and began to pack a few things in an ineffectual way: at such times he did not paint very much.
He had a number of pictures on hand; most of them were too large and ambitious for his skill. He was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening of dewdrops on its edges. Yet he wanted to paint a whole tree, with all of its leaves in the same style, and all of them different.
There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow. Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture. Soon the canvas became so large that he had to get a ladder; and he ran up and down it, putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there. When people came to call, he seemed polite enough, though he fiddled a little with the pencils on his desk. He listened to what they said, but underneath he was thinking all the time about his big canvas, in the tall shed that had been built for it out in his garden (on a plot where once he had grown potatoes).
He could not get rid of his kind heart. "I wish I was more strong-minded!" he sometimes said to himself, meaning that he wished other people's troubles did not make him feel uncomfortable. But for a long time he was not seriously perturbed. "At any rate, I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey," he used to say. Yet he was beginning to see that he could not put off his start indefinitely. The picture would have to stop just growing and get finished.
One day, Niggle stood a little way off from his picture and considered it with unusual attention and detachment. He could not make up his mind what he thought about it, and wished he had some friend who would tell him what to think. Actually it seemed to him wholly unsatisfactory, and yet very lovely, the only really beautiful picture in the world. What he would have liked at that moment would have been to see himself walk in, and slap him on the back, and say (with obvious sincerity): "Absolutely magnificent! I see exactly what you are getting at. Do get on with it, and don't bother about anything else! We will arrange for a public pension, so that you need not."
However, there was no public pension. And one thing he could see: it would need some concentration, some work, hard uninterrupted work, to finish the picture, even at its present size. He rolled up his sleeves, and began to concentrate. He tried for several days not to bother about other things. But there came a tremendous crop of interruptions. Things went wrong in his house; he had to go and serve on a jury in the town; a distant friend fell ill; Mr. Parish was laid up with lumbago; and visitors kept on coming. It was springtime, and they wanted a free tea in the country: Niggle lived in a pleasant little house, miles away from the town. He cursed them in his heart, but he could not deny that he had invited them himself, away back in the winter, when he had not thought it an "interruption" to visit the shops and have tea with acquaintances in the town. He tried to harden his heart; but it was not a success. There were many things that he had not the face to say no to, whether he thought them duties or not; and there were some things he was compelled to do, whatever he thought. Some of his visitors hinted that his garden was rather neglected, and that he might get a visit from an Inspector. Very few of them knew about his picture, of course; but if they had known, it would not have made much difference. I doubt if they would have thought that it mattered much. I dare say it was not really a very good picture, though it may have had some good passages. The Tree, at any rate, was curious. Quite unique in its way. So was Niggle; though he was also a very ordinary and rather silly little man.
At length Niggle's time became really precious. His acquaintances in the distant town began to remember that the little man had got to make a troublesome journey, and some began to calculate how long at the latest he could put off starting. They wondered who would take his house, and if the garden would be better kept.
The autumn came, very wet and windy. The little painter was in his shed. He was up on the ladder, trying to catch the gleam of the westering sun on the peak of a snow-mountain, which he had glimpsed just to the left of the leafy tip of one of the Tree's branches. He knew that he would have to be leaving soon: perhaps early next year. He could only just get the picture finished, and only so so, at that: there were some corners where he would not have time now to do more than hint at what he wanted.
There was a knock on the door. "Come in!" he said sharply, and climbed down the ladder. He stood on the floor twiddling his brush. It was his neighbour, Parish: his only real neighbour, all other folk lived a long way off. Still, he did not like the man very much: partly because he was so often in trouble and in need of help; and also because he did not care about painting, but was very critical about gardening. When Parish looked at Niggle's garden (which was often) he saw mostly weeds; and when he looked at Niggle's pictures (which was seldom) he saw only green and grey patches and black lines, which seemed to him nonsensical. He did not mind mentioning the weeds (a neighbourly duty), but he refrained from giving any opinion of the pictures. He thought this was very kind, and he did not realize that, even if it was kind, it was not kind enough. Help with the weeds (and perhaps praise for the pictures) would have been better.
"Well, Parish, what is it?" said Niggle.
"I oughtn't to interrupt you, I know," said Parish (without a glance at the picture). "You are very busy, I'm sure."
Niggle had meant to say something like that himself, but he had missed his chance. All he said was: "Yes."
"But I have no one else to turn to," said Parish.
"Quite so," said Niggle with a sigh: one of those sighs that are a private comment, but which are not made quite inaudible. "What can I do for you?"
"My wife has been ill for some days, and I am getting worried," said Parish. "And the wind has blown half the tiles on my roof, and water is pouring into the bedroom. I think I ought to get the doctor. And the builders, too, only they take so long to come. I was wondering if you had any wood and canvas you could spare, just to patch me up and see me through for a day or two." Now he did look at the picture.
"Dear, dear!" said Niggle. "You are unlucky. I hope it is no more than a cold that your wife has got. I'll come round presently, and help you move the patient downstairs."
"Thank you very much," said Parish, rather coolly. "But it is not a cold, it is a fever. I should not have bothered you for a cold. And my wife is in bed downstairs already. I can't get up and down with trays, not with my leg. But I see you are busy. Sorry to have troubled you. I had rather hoped you might have been able to spare the time to go for the doctor, seeing how I'm placed: and the builder too, if you really have no canvas you can spare."
"Of course," said Niggle; though other words were in his heart, which at the moment was merely soft without feeling at all kind. "I could go. I'll go, if you are really worried."
"I am worried, very worried. I wish I was not lame," said Parish.
So Niggle went. You see, it was awkward. Parish was his neighbour, and everyone else a long way off. Niggle had a bicycle, and Parish had not, and could not ride one. Parish had a lame leg, a genuine lame leg which gave him a good deal of pain: that had to be remembered, as well as his sour expression and whining voice. Of course, Niggle had a picture and barely time to finish it. But it seemed that this was a thing that Parish had to reckon with and not Niggle. Parish, however, did not reckon with pictures; and Niggle could not alter that. "Curse it!" he said to himself, as he got out his bicycle.
It was wet and windy, and daylight was waning. "No more work for me today!" thought Niggle, and all the time that he was riding, he was either swearing to himself, or imagining the strokes of his brush on the mountain, and on the spray of leaves beside it, that he had first imagined in the spring. His fingers twitched on the handlebars. Now he was out of the shed, he saw exactly the way in which to treat that shining spray which framed the distant vision of the mountain. But he had a sinking feeling in his heart, a sort of fear that he would never now get a chance to try it out.
Niggle found the doctor, and he left a note at the builder's. The office was shut, and the builder had gone home to his fireside. Niggle got soaked to the skin, and caught a chill himself. The doctor did not set out as promptly as Niggle had done. He arrived next day, which was quite convenient for him, as by that time there were two patients to deal with, in neighbouring houses. Niggle was in bed, with a high temperature, and marvellous patterns of leaves and involved branches forming in his head and on the ceiling. It did not comfort him to learn that Mrs. Parish had only had a cold, and was getting up. He turned his face to the wall and buried himself in leaves.
He remained in bed some time. The wind went on blowing. It took away a good many more of Parish's tiles, and some of Niggle's as well: his own roof began to leak. The builder did not come. Niggle did not care; not for a day or two. Then he crawled out to look for some food (Niggle had no wife). Parish did not come round: the rain had got into his leg and made it ache; and his wife was busy mopping up water, and wondering if "that Mr. Niggle" had forgotten to call at the builder's. Had she seen any chance of borrowing anything useful, she would have sent Parish round, leg or no leg; but she did not, so Niggle was left to himself.
At the end of a week or so Niggle tottered out to his shed again. He tried to climb the ladder, but it made his head giddy. He sat and looked at the picture, but there were no patterns of leaves or visions of mountains in his mind that day. He could have painted a far-off view of a sandy desert, but he had not the energy.
Next day he felt a good deal better. He climbed the ladder, and began to paint. He had just begun to get into it again, when there came a knock on the door.
"Damn!" said Niggle. But he might just as well have said "Come in!" politely, for the door opened all the same. This time a very tall man came in, a total stranger.
"This is a private studio," said Niggle. "I am busy. Go away!"
"I am an Inspector of Houses," said the man, holding up his appointment-card, so that Niggle on his ladder could see it. "Oh!" he said.
"Your neighbour's house is not satisfactory at all," said the Inspector.
"I know," said Niggle. "I took a note to the builders a long time ago, but they have never come. Then I have been ill."
"I see," said the Inspector. "But you are not ill now."
"But I'm not a builder. Parish ought to make a complaint to the Town Council, and get help from the Emergency Service."
"They are busy with worse damage than any up here," said the Inspector. "There has been a flood in the valley, and many families are homeless. You should have helped your neighbour to make temporary repairs and prevent the damage from getting more costly to mend than necessary. That is the law. There is plenty of material here: canvas, wood, waterproof paint."
"Where?" asked Niggle indignantly.
"There!" said the Inspector, pointing to the picture.
"My picture!" exclaimed Niggle.
"I dare say it is," said the Inspector. "But houses come first. That is the law."
"But I can't . . ." Niggle said no more, for at that moment another man came in. Very much like the Inspector he was, almost his double: tall, dressed all in black.
"Come along!" he said. "I am the Driver."
Niggle stumbled down from the ladder. His fever seemed to have come on again, and his head was swimming; he felt cold all over.
"Driver? Driver?" he chattered. "Driver of what?"
"You, and your carriage," said the man. "The carriage was ordered long ago. It has come at last. It's waiting. You start today on your journey, you know."
"There now!" said the Inspector. "You'll have to go; but it's a bad way to start on your journey, leaving your jobs undone. Still, we can at least make some use of this canvas now."
"Oh, dear!" said poor Niggle, beginning to weep. "And it's not, not even finished!"
"Not finished?" said the Driver. "Well, it's finished with, as far as you're concerned, at any rate. Come along!"
Niggle went, quite quietly. The Driver gave him no time to pack, saying that he ought to have done that before, and they would miss the train; so all Niggle could do was to grab a little bag in the hall. He found that it contained only a paint-box and a small book of his own sketches: neither food nor clothes. They caught the train all right. Niggle was feeling very tired and sleepy; he was hardly aware of what was going on when they bundled him into his compartment. He did not care much: he had forgotten where he was supposed to be going, or what he was going for. The train ran almost at once into a dark tunnel.
I suppose many visionaries were also potty mouths, and I also suspect Elon Musk's new rocket dream, the BFR, owes its name as much to Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant (BFG) as anything. Dahl was a potty mouth, too, just not as obvious about it to his intended audience.
Be that as it may, Musk dreams big.
This Daily Mail article explains his plan to revolutionize earth transportation.
Musk said the vessel would both take off and land vertically, like a space rocket, and for Earth travel, will take off from floating launchpads moored outside major cities.
It would fly most routes - New York to Tokyo, for example - in about 30 minutes, and anywhere in under an hour, and Musk says the 'cost per seat should be about the same as full fare economy in an aircraft.'
The science fiction fan in me says, "It's about time!"
The realist in me says, "I'll believe it when I see it."
The cynic in me says, "Those impressive flight time numbers fail to take into account the time it takes to get to the launchpad and through security screening, which is what really drags down today's transportation times."
Nonetheless, it seems as if the future of my beloved childhood science fiction novels is coming closer, for good and for ill.
My father would have considered himself a patriotic man. Even though he never served directly in the military—the government having considered his engineering skills to be important for the Manhattan Project, instead—he certainly respected those who did. And he loved our country.
But I think he, along with many of his generation, knew that love of country is too important to be taken too seriously. I hope his National Anthem story makes you smile today.
Washington State being a Land Grant college, we were required to take two years of Reserve Officers Training Corps. Even though there was a war in Europe, the ROTC program was not taken very seriously.
I played in the ROTC band and we spent fall and spring practicing music and marching as we played every Friday for the ROTC parade. The hardest part of that life was playing for parading units at a rate of 120 steps per minute rather than the 160 steps per minute for the college marching band.
In the wintertime we received training in close order drill but it still was rather easy military training. Every spring an ROTC encampment was held during the daytime. During the encampment we attended no classes and went home at night. The Engineering and Infantry units spent the day with military procedures and problems and the band sat on a hillside in the shade and practiced its music. A favorite pastime was to wait until there were large groups marching and then play a waltz.
The only time there was any trouble came one time when we were serious about what we were doing. We were practicing The Star Spangled Banner. That brought down the wrath of the military people because everyone had to stop what he was doing and stand at attention.
In 1941 things became much more serious, but I was no longer involved.
"I don't believe in Climate Change."
"I can't believe I live in a country where so many people don't believe in Climate Change."
What is this, a new religion? Since when did scientific theories take on the status of gods?
By turning scientific theories and investigations into a matter of faith—all sides are guilty of this—we usually miss the point, which in the case of climate change could be a fatal mistake.
Bear with me here.
It is unlikely in the extreme that an asteroid of disastrous size will hit the earth in any time frame mankind should worry about. But NASA is watching, and working on possible ways to deflect any space object of significant size that threatens our planet. They're not panicking, but they're observing and preparing.
On the climate change issue, we're doing the opposite. That particular "asteroid" might not be the disaster that is panicking so many people—or it might just smack right into us while we're busy squabbling and calling each other names.
"You pitiful, moronic, flat-earthers! You stick your heads in the sand and care more about making money than about the health of our planet, not to mention all those people who are having their homes and their livelihoods washed away."
"You elitist idiots! You censor opposing viewpoints, know nothing about the lives of the working class, and would put our culture and our families at risk for the sake of some unproven computer models."
And somewhere, in a place where glaciers and icebergs don't stand a chance, Satan is laughing.
We argue, sometimes with good reason, over questions about the changing climate: It this something new, or a recurring phenomenon? How much of the change is due to manmade causes, and how much is natural? Which measurements and which computer models are most accurate? How much can we trust computer models?
If you believe the questions are all settled, you don't know science. In science, questions are only settled until contradictory data comes along. Close your mind, and you close the doors to knowledge, growth, improvement, and all that is good about scientific inquiry.
Whatever the truth is behind all these questions, what should be do about it? Should we let nature take its course (man is, after all, part of nature) and simply adjust to the changes, as we have since the beginning of time? Or should we, as responsible, rational human beings, observe, prepare, and (without panic) take reasonable measures to deflect this incoming asteroid?
We don't need all the answers to take action, but we do need to start pulling together on this. Right now we're too busy throwing insults at each other and letting our own beliefs blind us to what other people are saying.
If I were the president of the United States—and I know many of you are convinced that I could do a better job than our current president, so pay attention—here's what I'd do. I would assemble a group of leaders (I hesitate to say "committee," but I guess that's what it would be) representing a wide variety of perspectives on the loosely-defined subject of climate change. Much care would be taken creating this group, because they would need to be able to work together without acrimony. I would begin by polling a large variety of leaders, asking, "Make a list of people who challenge your position on climate change, but for whom you still have respect, and with whom you think you could work together for the common good." If a person responded that there is no one in the opposition whom he or she respects, that person, no matter how renowned, would be excluded from my committee. As much as possible, I would balance opposing viewpoints, because the committee as a whole must have credibility with all the American people: we all need to believe our position is being heard—and so do the hare-brained idiots who oppose us.
The purpose of this committee would not be to rule on the unanswerable questions, but to consider what can, and what should, be done to mitigate the changes we are observing. If the changes are due to human actions, of course it is our responsibility to see that we minimize the harm ("we" being everyone from individuals to corporations to governments). But even if they are 100% due to natural causes (excluding man), isn't it the nature of rational man to attempt to make beneficial changes to natural phenomena? We build fires, domesticate animals, invent air conditioning, develop vaccines, improve agriculture, use umbrellas. The question is, how to get the most benefit with the fewest negative consequences.
This is a sample what I would want the committee to consider:
- What undeniable climate-related changes have happened? Stay away from speculation, such as "Global warming is causing more (or fewer) hurricanes," no matter how tempting; stick with clearly documentable facts, such "Glacier X has retreated by Y meters in the last 40 years." Consider everything from sea levels to weather patterns to geographical and biological changes, and come up with a list that everyone on the committee can agree on.
- Do these changes point in a specific direction? How do they compare with previous trends? Are they accelerating or decelerating? Again, pare the answer down to something all can agree on.
- What is the reliability of the various computer models used to make predictions from these trends? This will be tough to agree on, given our experience with hurricane path prediction models, but no one said being on this committee was going to be easy ... just important.
- What are the probable impacts of these predicted changes? Consider everything.
- What changes can be made that will slow the progress of harmful trends? This is to be a dream list, from the accumulated efforts of individuals to corporate actions to governmental edicts, of what could theoretically make a difference, and how much of a difference each might make.
- What is the probability that each of the above changes could actually be implemented?
- How effective would the resulting partial compliance be?
- What would be the risks and costs associated with those changes? Consider job loss, price increases, economic and governmental instability, national security, anything that would negatively impact compliant individuals and nations.
- What can be done to help those who will be impacted by present and future climate changes?
- What can be done to help those who will be impacted by efforts to mitigate climate changes?
The most important job of the committee would be to speak with a single voice to all the people, with their diverse views on the issue of climate change. The members must hammer out something that they agree on, if there is to be any hope that the rest of us will pull together.
What's the best climate policy? One that people will get on board with. Most people are willing, even proud, to make sacrifices, if they believe (1) the cause is important, (2) their actions will make a difference, and (3) the sacrifices are not unevenly distributed.
NASA's efforts to prevent a catastrophic asteroid crash are based on the idea that a small push, given in the right way at the right time, can deflect even a massive body. If they were to push at the wrong time, in the wrong way, or when a push was unnecessary, they could set up a worse disaster still. If they were to spend their time squabbling over how to do the job, the asteroid could easily get too close for even a massive push to make any difference.
Let's find a way to do this, and do it right.