Cornucopia from Hell

12 12 2011

My sister has it made.  She’s got her six-figure income, her two kids, her three-story house on a hill, her luxury vehicles and a fantastic high-profile career.  Anything she wants, she buys, which makes Christmas a little tough on anyone, such as myself, who might try to buy her family presents.  Her kids have more toys than they can fit under the bed.  She makes so much money that her husband’s income was dwarfed, by comparison, so he stayed home to raise the kids and maintain the house.  My sister has everything but happiness.

I wish there were an easy answer.  So much depends on one person, her husband.  Why hold a job, when the income is superfluous?  By the same measure, why clean the pool, when they can easily hire someone to do it?  Maintaining the yard, and cooking breakfast, and nearly every household chore could be outsourced to hired help without putting a dent in the budget.  In fact, that’s exactly what they ended up doing.  It’s no wonder, then, that my brother-in-law spends so much time at home in a state of depression.  It’s no wonder that he cannot make her happy, when he, himself, cannot find happiness.

So he started a hobby.  He bought a very nice toy to play with.  Then, he bought a few more like it.  By now, I think he’s cornered the market on that line of toy.  He filled the walls of his office with these things, on shelves and hanging from pegs.  Then he made a makeshift partition and filled that, too.  Then he started hanging them from the ceiling.  His office now looks much like a beehive, covered in bees, except that instead of bees, they’re toys, and only one kind of toy.  He used to spend his hours playing with them.  Now he lies around feeling depressed.

I think of it as the principle of the new stick of gum.  When I put that gum in my mouth and chew it for the first time, it gives me a burst of fresh flavor.  It makes my mouth feel minty and fresh.  I should probably be chewing on one, now, to rid myself of the aftertaste of coffee, actually.  After about twenty minutes, the flavor is gone.  If I add another fresh stick of gum to the wad, it does, indeed, bring back much of that initial freshness, but the second stick never has the same effect as the first stick.  Twenty minutes after that, the double wad of gum is as vapid as the first ended.  We add a third fresh stick to the wad, and we bring back a little of the freshness, but not like the second stick, and nothing like the first.  Nothing beats the experience of the first.  Eventually, I choke and gag on the large rubbery disgusting ball of gum wedged firmly in my maw, and no more gum can do anything to make it any better than what it is.  There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Similarly, nothing beats the first love.  We, in the western world, appreciate the folly of polygamy, if only for the unfairness to the woman.  What’s most ironic about the situation is that the polygamist thinks himself rich for having so many wives.  If one wife is good, then two wives must be better, right?  The fact is, once that man marries a second wife, both of them put together can never equal the joy he might have had from just one marriage.  Every wife added only makes a family into a herd.  The freshness of true love dies to the staleness of mere numbers.

The paradox of attainment is that, believe it or not, most of the fun is in the anticipation, rather than the acquiring.  The planning and expectation of a reward is, possibly, less intense than the pleasure of buying that new toy or going on that vacation or having that party, but the planning lasts longer.  Twenty-five glorious days leading up to Christmas, filled with lights, eggnog and parties would seem far better than Christmas, itself.  By the day after Christmas, at least one toy is broken, and the others are already less interesting than originally expected, even if we get everything we hoped for.  And that tree is just a dead tree.

Kids used to get excited about simple toys, some fruit and nuts.  When I was a kid, we were overjoyed to get a box called an Atari, which made little squares move on the television.  Oh, that was so much fun playing games with those little icons that didn’t really look like anything.  Give one of those things to your kids and watch them cry for joy.  Well, maybe it wouldn’t be joy.  I’m not sure how, but I think they would find a way to ground you for life.  Every year, society makes fancier and fancier toys for us to play with.  Truth be told, the new toys don’t really make us any happier than the old toys did.  They just make it impossible for us to really enjoy the old toys anymore.  Sure, we can still afford all of the same stuff now that our parents could buy us back then, but no one wants that garbage anymore.  Just knowing that something better is out there makes us hate what we already have.  It’s the cornucopia from Hell.

Oh, I know how a rich man can be happy with his wealth.  Typically, the attempted solution is to spend that wealth into oblivion.  Michael Jackson would be a prime example.  No, the key is to be poor in spirit, if not reality.  You don’t buy it, just because you can.  You make it yourself, maintain it yourself and live like you can’t afford to do otherwise.  You afford yourself a few nice things, and live without the rest.  Limit yourself to a small portion of your own wealth.  Then, and this is the best part, you buy a Christmas for a family that can’t afford anything.  That one good thing is better than a pile, or a mountain, of such things.  Give yourself that one thing, and then give someone else one, too, who cannot afford it.  Life can be a series of first sticks of gum, and never a large tasteless wad.

Besides, it might give your brother a chance to buy you something that you like, something that you don’t already have.

I’m just saying….





The Ultimate End of the United States

14 04 2011

At the front of the chamber of the House of Representatives, on either side of the national flag, are two symbols of power, known as fasces.  These are relief sculptures of the image of an axe embedded in a bundle of sticks and tied together with a strap.  For those who know history, this comes as an obvious reference to the old Roman Empire.  Wherever Caesar went, the fasces were carried before him as a symbol of power.  In the image, here, is also another symbol of power derived from the Roman legacy.  Just to the left and in front of the fasces is a mace with the image of an eagle atop it.  Hitler was in love with this symbolism and used it often, but what he did with it is not relevant, here.  These may be fascist symbols, or they may not be, depending on what meaning we ascribe to them, but one thing they do reference is Rome.

The United States is currently the oldest existing democracy in the world.  This representative democracy was, in fact, modeled after the old Roman design, and for good reason.  The Romans were the first to successfully establish a government that actually served the people.  The ancient Greeks tried democracy, but their efforts were short-lived.  Prior to the Romans, every government had existed for itself.  The citizenry existed to serve the government, and not the other way around.  A king was, essentially, the most successful thief and the most powerful warlord.  He took from the people, and then he took the people.  The people had their property, but the king owned both the people and their property.  Rome turned the entire system on its head.  One can read in the First Book of the Maccabees how the Jews were amazed that a city-state across the sea was managed by consent of the people.  Such a thing was stunning in its uniqueness.  The people of Rome were actually quite content with their way of life, especially compared with nearly all previous civilizations.  Therefore, the Roman model had to be the best possible choice for the creation of a new and happy nation that was to be called the United States of America.

France followed closely after.  Nation after nation followed in the footsteps of the United States.  This experiment has proved successful, at least thus far.  It is still a young nation, and we would like to keep it that way, but all people are mortals, and everything they make is destined to die.  We do well to know our weaknesses.  Democracy may have many moral weaknesses, but only two of them are truly mortal.

The first and greatest weakness of democracy is the tendency for the strongest political leaders to become stronger, while the weakest leaders become even weaker.  In the case of Rome, as with us, the strongest person in government is always the head of the executive branch.  We know him as the president.  They knew him as Caesar.  Our founders attempted to counter this by giving most of the powers of governance to the legislative branch.  It was a nice gesture, at best.  Congress makes a preferable seat of power, because it divides that power among many people.  No single person has enough of it to dominate the whole country.  The most powerful branch, in this case, is also the weakest.  It’s a delicate balance.  Everyone in power has that power because they strove for it.  We can guarantee that they will continue to fight for more power.  Therefore, the people with the most power will continue to take it from people with less of that power.  The legislature, as a whole, may be more powerful than the presidency, at least initially, but the president has far more power than any member of Congress.  The same was true for Caesar.  Consequently, both Caesar and the president naturally tend toward acquiring more power.  Responsibilities originally assigned to the legislature gradually migrate over to the executive.  For example, the act of declaring war, once a legislative function, has given way to “police action,” otherwise known as the president sending troops anywhere to fight for any reason he wants.  Eventually, the president could become powerful enough to remain in power indefinitely, and he might find that he can do exactly as he chooses with his nation.  Rome turned this course over hundreds of years.  Nazi Germany did it in a matter of a few years.  Most Middle-Eastern “democracies” started out this way.  When it happens, whether it changes over the course of several terms, or only one, we will find ourselves as Rome, engaged in expansion, foreign wars, and pretty much all manner of insanity associated with self-aggrandizement, the symptom of someone’s bloated ego.  The nation may not be a kingdom, but it will behave as one.

The second weakness of democracy, the one that actually might make the nation cease to exist, is the tendency to spend itself into oblivion.  Rome fell to the tyranny of the imperial Caesar, but it continued to exist for several years before ultimately crumbling under the weight of its own debt.  That is the hallmark of democracy, unfortunately.  We can see it everywhere we look.  Some nations rushed into it.  Others took their time.  All of them are headed in the same direction, and all of them have the same destination.  Rome died the slow death of depleting funds.  Government suffered from what might be called the grab-bag mentality.  It’s our own hand, even now.  Everyone wants as much as they can get.  No one wants to give more than they must.  Cutting taxes looks good.  Creating programs looks good.  No democracy ever seems to shrink its role, and no democracy ever does naught but slide further into debt.  The third-party payer weakness can be seen in the insurance industry, driving up the cost of health care, and it can be seen in the loan industry, driving up the cost of homes.  Wherever people are detached from their own expenditures, costs are sure to soar.

Even beyond the money issue, we have the problem of diminishing priorities.  Every priority that we have, even our highest priorities, are hurt by every new priority we add.  Each time we add an objective, all previous objectives become a little more neglected as a result.  Hence, even if the national defense is still our highest priority, the addition of environmentalism takes away from our ability to defend ourselves.  On a personal scale, we might consider the automobile: if we want it fast and relatively safe, then we run on gasoline.  If we want it to burn cleanly, then we run it on methane, but then it is less safe and less strong.  Occasionally, people kill themselves while pumping natural gas, while gasoline rarely causes injury during fueling.  We could make the car more efficient by making it smaller and lighter, but then, again, it has a weaker engine, and it gets deadly in a collision.  Each new priority added weakens all preexisting priorities.  As a nation gets older, it continues to add priorities.  Each priority costs something, whether money, human resources, natural resources, or just attention.

We need to be aware of our weakness as a democracy, and we need to vote accordingly.  This means we need to keep our debt in check.  We absolutely need to curb our innate tendency to always add new programs.  We’ve got to focus on the fundamentals, the things that government must provide.  Lastly, we need to vigilantly reign-in the presidency.  This great experiment will eventually come to an end, if only because it was made by humans, but it doesn’t have to end today, or tomorrow, next year or next century.  It doesn’t have to, but it will if we don’t learn from history.





Famine in the Land of Plenty

25 11 2010

Let’s imagine a hypothetical situation for a moment.  We’ll take a pre-Industrial Revolution town, just some plaster houses with a small business district and surrounding farms, and we’ll give it a combine and a tractor and all of the necessary mechanized implements.  In this way, one man can  manage enough farmland to feed the entire community and have plenty left over for export.  This is an incredible boon for the town, because they now have all the food they need, provided for minimal cost.  Now the farm workers are out of a job.  Because the town was mostly agrarian, that means that most of the inhabitants are now unemployed.  Those merchants with a non-agriculture occupation are also forced out of business, because the majority of their customers are now unemployed.  The whole town slides into economic depression, because, although the food is plenty and cheap, no one has money to buy it, because no one has a job.  The man on the combine must find new customers in a hurry, because the town can’t buy his goods.  In this case, the community has more resources than ever before, but they slip into poverty anyway.  All of their basic needs are filled.  They don’t know what a television is, or a cell phone, or a computer.  They only needed a roof, clothes and food.  They could make their own clothes from the sheep in the backyard.  The roof is a done deal, and the food is plentiful and provided by one man.  With the work of a single individual, the entire town could take a more or less permanent vacation.  This is, of course, an exaggeration to make a point.  But the entire town has done nothing to deserve the food.  Only that one man earned anything.  Therefore, the entire town cannot get the food, because they have done nothing to earn it, even though it is there and ready for the taking.

The real paradox of a depression is that, while the society has all of the machinery necessary to produce everything it needs, which are all of the things it was producing prior to the depression, no one can afford those things.  Through the law of supply and demand, one would expect the products to become cheaper as demand decreases, offsetting the problem, but if the people are unemployed, then the luxuries could never be cheap enough to be purchased, yet expensive enough to be produced.  If the people have no income, then they can’t afford anything at any price, and if they are unemployed, then they have no income.  If people don’t buy their goods and services, then they will be unemployed, but people cannot buy their goods and services because they have no income, either.  So there’s the paradox.  Everyone is willing and able to produce all of the things that everyone else wants to buy, but can’t, because no one is able to buy their goods and services, either.

Getting back to the problem of the man on the combine.  At first glance, we would fault the farmer for buying the combine and putting others out of a job.  That would be foolish, though.  He should not be faulted for providing an abundance of food to the community, or for finding a much more efficient way of doing it.  We should say, rather, that the farm hands have been freed to provide other services to the community.  Unfortunately, these services can not be afforded by anyone, because too many people are unemployed.  Everyone wants to sell something, but nobody can, because nobody can buy anything because they can’t sell anything either.  The problem is not that the town had too much food.  That could never be a problem for anyone.  The problem was that the food industry was too big of an industry for the town.  When it changed, the economy could not absorb the change.  A few unemployed people might eventually find a new niche to fill.  An entire town full of unemployed people would be hard pressed to find any means of income.

A single industry can have a sudden shift.  A market for cars or widgets can saturate overnight.  Suddenly, nobody needs another car or widget.  Everyone who wants one has one, so the industry must downsize, and people are left looking for new employment.  Sometimes, as with the combine, new technology displaces the old.  People who made a living making and selling the slide rule were driven out of business by those who make and sell the electronic calculator.  We cannot fault people for inventing a marvelous new device.  We cannot fault people for finding a better way of producing things.  The problem is not that an industry shifts.  All industries shift.  That’s how progress is possible.  The problem is when an industry shift is so huge that it takes the entire economy down with it.

Those communities in the Midwestern United States area are often plagued by single-industry towns, like a town built around a paper mill, or a town built around a pencil factory.  When that one major factory fails, when the pencil business drops in response to the use of computers, for example, the entire town, all the way from the mechanic to the jeweler collapses.  In terms of basic needs, they still had available everything that they needed to live, same as before, but no one could pay for those things, because too many people were out of a job.  The supply was untouched.  The demand would be untouched if people could find a way to earn their right to the supply.  The economy for the country at large is not entirely different.  When any one industry becomes so huge that it cannot hiccup without taking down all other industries, it has the potential to, sooner or later, start a chain reaction that ultimately has us all waiting in a food distribution line.  On the large scale, these industries are big things like automobiles, fuel and housing, the things that we dump the greatest portion of our income into.  The greatest of these is housing.

At the moment of this writing, foreclosures are extremely high.  The country is full of empty homes and people badly in need of them.  Society has everything it needs to be prosperous.  There are enough homes to go around.  No one need be without one.  In this case, the combine has been replaced with the housing market.  Everyone needs that industry badly, and that industry has ample supply, but no one can afford it at any price, because people are becoming highly unemployed.  There’s no shortage in supply.  There’s not really even any surplus of demand.  There’s just a shortage of jobs.

Now, in any economic crisis, the focus is always on the jobs.  Everyone wants to be employed.  In fact, they’re more concerned about having a job than they are about getting the newest gadget.  Yet, if they don’t buy the newest gadget, then someone else will be out of a job, and other gadgets will not be purchased.  In the past, the government has responded to this one-sided predicament by emphasizing its opposite, by encouraging people to spend their money.  The government is always anxious to have us spend more money, not only because it generates tax revenue, but also because it helps to balance the supply versus demand.  It takes the focus off of getting more money, that we might spend more money, to ultimately help us get more money.  This has two problems to it.  First, it puts the cart before the horse.  No one should be expected to buy anything that they did not already want to buy.  The burden is on the seller to provide something worth buying.  Second, this approach has never once succeeded.  That, alone, should be reason enough to abandon this method.

The real solution goes back to the man on the combine.  His single industry is huge for an agrarian culture.  Any change in his one industry, even a positive change, can cause the economy to collapse.  The people have more food, but fewer people actually get any food, because nearly everyone is now unemployed.  The problem was not that he ruined the industry.  In fact, he improved it greatly.  The problem was that his industry was too important to the over-all economy.  Had he been in the business of selling widgets, he could rise and fall without affecting anyone else.  Likewise, the housing industry is not to be faulted for creating too many houses or too few, but for being too big a part of our expenses.  Home loans, coupled with the rush on the housing market, caused prices to soar.  People could spend more if they could borrow more, and if they were suddenly motivated to buy a bigger house on the same income, then they had less money left each month to spend on other things.  This would not be such a problem, except that those other things happened to be other people’s livelihoods.  When those other things were no longer being bought, then those people lost their jobs.  When they lost their jobs, they could no longer afford to buy other things, and those people lost their jobs.  Eventually, the chain reaction worked its way around to the housing industry, itself, because the people who got the bigger loans could no longer pay for them, because they were largely unemployed.  So the housing industry collapsed.  We have a lot of people in need of homes and a lot of homes in need of people, with no way to bring the two together.  It’s like the town full of people starving to death, because the man with the combine is producing too much food.

In the end, the economy pulls itself together.  The government is always useless in this effort.  If they could have done anything, then they probably would have found a solution to these things by now.  Despite great odds, people must strive to find a way to produce goods so worthwhile that they can squeeze a profit in a dry economy.  The unemployed farm hands must invent other services to provide the world.  Avoiding a recession is quite a different thing than getting out of one, though.  A recession happens not only when something big goes wrong, but it even happens when something big goes right.  The problem is that something big happened.  The problem is that any one industry should be too big a portion of our economy.  If a business cannot shrink and grow, change and develop without toppling the economy, then we have the makings of economic instability.  It would be tempting to suggest government-legislated price limits, but this only forces the problem out in other directions.  The real problem lies in the mentality of the people in our society.  It’s a problem that no single individual can do anything about.  I can do my best to live within my means, thusly creating a stable personal economy, but if the rest of the world does not do this, then my finances will always be at risk.  I can diversify my portfolio, but the whole thing can still plummet entirely if the rest of society crashes.  The best thing I can do is buy a smaller, more affordable home, drive less, and drive an economy car.  In this way, the biggest industries can have less impact in my life.  Still, the economics of one person is not enough.

The fact is that we all love to have the biggest, nicest home, drive the flashiest car, and travel the world.  So long as this country remains addicted to this limited sort of materialism, it will not have the economy to pursue these very things.  It’s almost like trying too hard to sleep, or trying too hard to be happy.  The effort is self-defeating.  In the meantime, the best that the government can do is to avoid making any big changes in spending and taxation, unless necessary.  Sometimes the last thing we need during times of trouble is someone’s idea of a solution.  The government, after all, is possibly the biggest industry of them all.

The story of the town with the combine is not entirely fictional, though.  Just prior to the Great Depression, farmers were complaining to their government that food was too plentiful, and they were not generating enough revenue from their farming.  The government’s solution was to pay the farmers to destroy food.  The economic collapse that followed left people standing on the riverbanks watching trucks dump potatoes into a river, with police guarding the load to keep people from jumping in to save the food.  A man could earn a wage to dig a ditch, so that pigs could be herded into it and shot, then buried.  By destroying enough food to feed an entire town, he could earn enough to buy his family a meal.  The masses were starving in the land of plenty, and the government was using their money to make the land less plentiful.  Clearly, they were solving the wrong problem.  But then, the government always did have a way with money.





Signet of a Suzerain

10 07 2010

[fiction]

In the drawing-room stood two men, both bald with the same effect of a fully receded hairline.  One was relatively tall, and the other was more than just relatively short.  The tall man was moustached, with spots of aging on his bare head.  The short man was clean-shaven, with a scalp as fresh as a baby’s buttocks, as though he had spent his entire life out of the damaging rays of the sun.  The tall man seemed fairly bored, and the younger man was obviously excited, not to mention guileless, rubbing his hands together and speaking enthusiastically with a mildly piercing tenor voice.

The taller man was a philatelist, a collector of stamps, who had the fate of ending up in possession of a rare gold coin for which he had no interest.  The shorter man was the numismatist, a collector of coins, who had a personal cache of coins worth about a hundred dollars by their face value, which were, due to their antiquity, worth about a thousand times as much by modern reckoning.  There, before them in a lighted glass case stood a mysterious gold coin, by modern standards roughly made, delicately displayed on a clear acrylic stand.

The numismatist clapped his hands together, said, “I….” and followed his pause with the clicking of heels, as though the thought had passed all the way through his body from hands to feet, merely stopping by the mouth for a brief visit.

“You don’t know what to think of it, do you?” said the philatelist, knowing full well that the coin collector was too proud to admit that he had no idea what he was looking at.  If he had been presented with a stamp that he didn’t recognize, he probably would have retrieved a picture book and attempted to solve the mystery on the spot, but the coin collector was out of his element and could not have found a book on coins at that moment, even if there had existed any book in the world describing this coin, which there hadn’t.

The numismatist paused with a frozen mask of excitement, which broke after a second, when he turned to his friend and asked, “What is it?”

“The coin is one of a kind,” said the philatelist, “No writing exists for it, because there is only one of it, and the only people privileged enough to study it have not been coin collectors.  Novices don’t tend to get their findings published, especially when they aren’t at least hobbyists.”  He pointed to the coin and explained, “This coin has been imprisoned within the private estate of one rich fellow or another for several centuries.  The story of the thing is as much a commodity as the coin, itself.  You must understand that a coin is usually a symbol of wealth.  Real wealth is an abstract thing.  The coin, itself, is nothing.”

“Oh, but I beg to differ!” the other protested.

“And I knew you would,” the philatelist cut him off, “Which is why I thought you would appreciate this thing more than I.  Real property is useful for practical purposes.  The coin is just a liaison between what I give you and what you give me in return.  We might think of it as a potential possession, a temporary substitute for what we really want.”

“But….”

“Yes, I know you beg to differ.  However, before it became a priceless historical treasure, it once was just a smashed lump of metal that symbolized wealth.  This coin, however, was the currency of a special commodity.  It was a symbol of power.  You might call it a diadem, of sorts, or perhaps a signet.  When the Roman Caesars paraded about with fasces held aloft, those bundled axes were the public symbols of power and authority, but in private, this coin was the definitive symbol.  Only the people highest in rank even knew about it, and the thing took an almost mythical significance.  Had the Caesar merely dropped it on the ground and a senator retrieved it immediately, it’s not clear but the senator might have become the new Caesar immediately.  Granted, the right of ownership of the coin was no different from the right of succession, so there’s some dispute as to whether the coin followed the power or the power followed the coin.  In the beginning, there were three of them, one for each member of the Triumvirate.  After the death of Crassus, Julius Caesar had his coin fused with the other.  As you can see, this coin has a double edge, being really two coins joined.  The one belonging to Pompey was lost in battle, we believe, though there are some in the family who have suggested rumor that it eventually ended up in the possession of the tsars of Russia.  As far as I know, this is the only one, or two, depending on how you look at it, left.”

The little man clapped his hands together and mumbled, “Amazing.”  The taller man waited for the chain reaction to pass to the little man’s feet, but when nothing was forthcoming, he nearly resumed his story before being interrupted by a click of the heels.

“Well, I don’t know the full details of this coin’s history, but I understand that it eventually ended up in the hands of one named Frederick Barbarossa, who thought that it lent him the authority to retake the full territory of the old Roman Empire.  His attempted crusade to Jerusalem was merely the excuse for his eastward push.  Naturally, he sacked Constantinople as a matter of due course, because he deemed it a natural part of his domain.  He figured that because he owned the coin, he therefore had a right to the land.  After the old fool managed to drown himself in a lake, an insightful general took from his person this coin, before they threw the corpse in a barrel and pickled it.  I suppose some would consider it a shame to have buried this in a barrel under the Dome Of The Rock, where the king’s body was placed.

“Some time after that, it found its way into a Prussian nobleman’s hands, and from there it ended up in the possession of Kaiser Wilhelm.  Naturally, wherever the coin went, the story followed.  Otherwise, I would not be able to tell you this story, and we’d be dealing with a mysterious coin of unknown origin.  Likely, I would have traded it in for something I could actually spend at the store.”

“You wouldn’t!” exclaimed the numismatist.

“Of course I would,” rebutted the philatelist, “How many perfectly good stamps go to waste for the practical purpose of postage every year?  For the same reason, I’d rather use a coin for its intended purpose than have it lying around collecting dust.”

“It’s a precious relic!” exclaimed the numismatist.

“It’s money!” replied the philatelist with matched enthusiasm.  “What good is it if I can’t spend it?”

“But this isn’t money,” objected the little man, “It’s the mark of a king.  It marks the seal of a royal decree.  This is a piece of history.”

“Even so, it is useless to me,” said the taller man.

“Then sell it to me!” said the coin collector.

“It will cost you several thousand dollars,” warned the stamp collector.

“I have stamps!” offered the little man, pulling out a wad of mishandled used stamps.  “To me, they are just pictures printed on stickers, but I’m sure they must be worth a trade.”

“Unfortunately,” said the philatelist with a touch of contempt, “those particular stamps are just a bunch of pictures on stickers to me, too.  I don’t have much use for recent printings of generic postage.  I would much rather sell it to someone willing to pay with modern cash.”

Eventually, the terms for the transfer of ownership were made between the two, amounting to the cost of a new car.  During that time, outside by the numismatist’s car, his chauffeur and the other man’s butler were having a discussion on the matter.  Naturally, the question came up as to the matter being discussed in the drawing-room.  The chauffeur asked the butler what he knew of the matter, to which the butler replied that the little man was being sold a story.

The driver’s face registered a certain shock, and he pushed his hat back on his head.  “Surely you don’t mean the poor little chap is getting taken, do you?”

“Well,” said the butler “My employer tells me that the coin is nothing but the object of a story, and that it is really the story that is being sold, in this case.  He tells me that it is nothing but a flat piece of metal with a vague design.  If it weren’t for the tale that went with it, your master would not have thought it worth anything.”

“But, he’s an expert on coins!” remarked the chauffeur.

“Hence the need for the tale,” replied the butler.

“This is wretched!” exclaimed the chauffeur.

At this, the butler began to feel that he had possibly jeopardized his own employment.  “Listen, please don’t let on.  If word gets out that I spilled the beans, I’ll lose my job.”

“But this is unjust!” exclaimed the chauffeur.  “My boss is getting ripped off by yours, and you expect me to do nothing about it?”

The butler was beginning to sweat profusely, and he raced through his options, scrambling in his mind for a way to save his career.

Just then, the two wealthy hobbyists left the building, talking about this prize.  The philatelist was just then making a final statement.  “Now, I’m not superstitious, but the legend with this coin is that it tends to pass through the hands of great people, anointing them to positions of power whither it goes.  Though it never made me a king, I might ask that if you should find yourself the head of Europe some day that you would kindly remember the one who helped you get there.”  He paused for effect, and then grinned at his own dry humor.

The numismatist burst into giggles and shook the man’s hand, thanking him for the sale, the noise of which just managed to cover a muttered string of obscenities from the chauffeur.  The butler took note of the chauffeur’s response, though, and he turned as white as a sheet.  The little man hopped into the car with his prized possession and admired it for the first few miles of his return home.  It was then that the chauffer broke the news to him.  He told his employer that the butler had warned him that the story surrounding the coin was just a fabrication concocted to sell this worthless mintage.  In a matter of a few minutes, the poor man went from pure joy to a fit of depression.

“It’s not even real?” the numismatist whined.  “I should have known.  Here, I call myself an expert on coins, and I let myself be taken by a fancy tale!”  He knew that he would not have the assertiveness to cancel the check or fight for his money and his dignity back.  Instead, he chalked it up as a learning experience and rudely tossed the coin upon a bible that lay flat on his dresser at home.  There, it rested untouched for many years, until the man eventually passed away at a ripe old age.

The estate sale was a fancy one, garnering quite a load of money for its furniture and valuable coins.  In that sale the aforementioned coin, the signet of a suzerain, was sold for almost nothing.  No one knew what it was, so no one could possibly know what it was worth.  They might have guessed that it was real gold, but one might have difficulty assaying the gold content of a coin while at an estate sale.  They could have guessed it was valuable by who owned it, but the story would still have been lost.  Indeed, it was the story that sold the coin, but the butler had misread his employer’s disdain for the thing as meaning that it wasn’t really worth anything.  The story had been quite true, and it had miraculously survived for nearly two thousand years, only to die at the hands of a disillusioned numismatist.  He had found his treasure, only to discard it as a trinket.  Consequently, the story behind the coin was lost forever.

[/fiction]


It is the burning desire of the modern human to pursue poetry, but it is the staunch habit of such people to accept only prose.  We all yearn for magic and intrigue, yet we only trust the dullest, most ordinary explanation of things.  We think we are more rational for rejecting the miraculous and accepting readily the common.  However, true rationality is a firmly supported line of reasoning leading to a conclusion.  Yet, we jump to accept the prosaic understanding without sufficient evidence, and we so quickly dismiss a history when it offers us too much charm or mystery.  This is the sickness of modernism.  It is pessimism that parades itself as Reason.

But, for practical purposes, we could say that apart from the story the thing really was just a coin.  In fact it was just a lump of metal, which just happened to be gold, an ore more abundant than tin and far more valuable just because people believed that it was valuable.  Take away the subjective belief, and all we’re left with is a dead thing that isn’t really useful for much.  Its practical value is not much.  Everything lies in what people believe about it.  A human can be reduced to a sack of chemicals.  A home is just a pile of bricks.  A planet is just a lump of dirt, and we’re all just a bunch of lucky monsters that chanced to form, that we might crawl over this clod and devour what we could.  This is the most prosaic way of looking at things, and our culture readily accepts it as the most logical truth, even if it is a baseless lie.  This is modernism: if something sounds magical, then it must not be true.

Therefore any history, no matter how true it may be, is threatened with certain death if it offers even a glimmer of something truly wonderful.





Systematic Living; the bird who would be caged

6 07 2010

A man named Leo once told me that he thought he would love to have a bird, but he thought it cruel to keep one trapped in a cage.  The beast was made to fly and be free, and here it is, stuck in a tiny little prison.  I asked him if he believed that caged birds were unhappy.  He believed that they must be.  I asked him if he had ever owned a bird, and he had not.  Then I asked him what he thought would happen if a person were to open the door to the cage and walk away.  He said he imagined that the bird would just fly right out.

Now, I’m not a bird expert.  I’ve heard that the zebra finch is very difficult to keep caged if the opportunity presents itself for the bird to escape.  I’ve never owned a zebra finch, but every other caged bird I’ve seen, including the few that I’ve owned, have been very much opposed to leaving their cages for any reason.  I’ve seen cage doors left open for hours, with the bird sitting as far from the door as possible, refusing to even consider leaving.  I’ve seen them fight like mad their owners when they were being forcibly removed.  Once removed, I’ve seen them return immediately to their cages.  In the best of circumstances, the bird might be content to merely sit atop the cage without going in.  When we imagine ourselves as the bird, we assume an eagerness to get out of there and never return, but to the bird, it is a home.  The cage is safe.  We use the cage to keep the bird in, but the bird uses the cage to keep everything else out.

This seems insane to us, doesn’t it?  Who would prefer captivity?  Yet, we sacrifice freedom for security all week.  Let’s start with that mortgage, shall we?  We happily imprison ourselves in debt, assuring that we cannot simply leave our homes at will.  Rather, we are stuck in these abodes so long as we cannot find someone to buy them from us.  We become obligated to a bank, because we like to sleep in the same place every night.  Bad comparison, you say?  Imagine living as a vagabond, a nomad without a permanent home.  Such people have a great deal more freedom, minus the security.

Five days a week, we go to work at the same place, doing the same thing, day after day, after day.  We complain about our jobs regularly, until we lose them.  Then we complain about losing our jobs until we have a new one to complain about.  When we have one, we miss our freedom, and when we don’t have one, we miss our security.  Unrealistic would be the effort to find a new job every day, though many people do it.  I have seen them on the street corner, these migrant workers, waiting for a stranger to show up and offer them an arduous job for not enough money.  They have the freedom, and they prefer it over the security.  When offered a more permanent job, I’ve known of them to refuse in favor of the freedom to retire for a couple of weeks until their money runs out.

When we choose to work the same job every day, no matter how much we hate it, we make a choice to live systematically.  I know what I’m going to do tomorrow, because it will be about the same as what I did today.  The next day will be the same.  The day after that will be no different.  The repetition is painful, but I’ve got an income.  I don’t need to waste time looking for a new job each day.  When I come home from work, I return to the same home every day.  I don’t need to waste time looking for a safe cave or overhang to take shelter in each day.  As a result, my life is more efficient, and my systematic living has bought me greater prosperity.

What may not reason so well into this pattern is the tendency that so many people have of spending their free time in the evenings the same way every night.  For most, it’s a night on the couch in front of the television, watching the same shows each night, as actors pretend to live glamorous lives.  As the actors pretend, the viewers pretend with them, living vicariously through the television.  Yet, no one is actually living life.  When the rest of life is an empty repetition, one should wonder why we would waste the time, that precious little time, when we could do anything with complete freedom without sacrificing security.  What we do for fun need not be the same today as it was yesterday.  It doesn’t even help in the slightest.

What we do in our spare time doesn’t even need to be particularly fun.  It could be anything at all.  It could be productive or frivolous.  We are completely free to do something different with that fraction of each day.  Generally, though, we tend to repeat ourselves in the end, the same as we did in the beginning.

True, we have our preferences.  True, we have our hobbies.  I tend to think, though, that the real driving force is not our inclination toward what we do, so much as it is the security found in lazy repetition.

Our lives are generally repetitious, because we are a systematic people.  It makes us effective in what we do.  It makes us wealthier, and it improves our standard of living, generally.  We love the cage that we have built for ourselves, and we dare not leave it, even when the door has been opened for us.  My cage may be keeping me in, confining me to the drudgery of daily living, but it may also be keeping out the things that frighten me, the insecurities and uncertainties of spontaneous living.

There is a value in systematic living, and our society thrives on it.  However, there is also a danger to it.  When the stables are on fire, the horses are frightened and run into them for security.  They prefer the conflagration over survival, because the stables are a symbol of security for them, even when they are really an execution chamber.  When the government goes mad makes us do what we ought not do, we choose the security of compliance over the need for freedom and rebellion.  Thankfully, we are not there yet, but we will be eventually, and there will be cows among us who wander wherever they are herded.  Going along with the crowd feels safe, even if it deprives us of our freedom.

If God calls us to pull up stakes and travel the world to spread the Gospel, then this is at once a horrible shattering of all security and an unfettering of boundless freedom.  Would that we had the courage.

In the meantime, should we feel tempted to complain about this little Eden that we’ve constructed for ourselves, let us at least appreciate the security that we’ve been granted.  When this Eden is shattered, let us be thankful for the freedom we’ve been leased.  Either way, we could complain, but either way, we could be grateful.





Descent into Royalty

18 04 2010

[fiction]

No cell phone for  a week was punishment enough to send my teenage daughter into fits.  Try no cell phone for a lifetime.  We add to that no internet, no text messaging, no blogging, no computer games.  That’s only a half-truth, though.  In reality, I’m stuck with no computer at all.  For that matter, I’m without electricity.  I don’t even have a land line.  I couldn’t call 911 if I needed to, and if I could, there would be no one there to answer it.  I have no car, but at least I have no gasoline to put into it.  When the sun goes down, I tell someone to burn something, and my home, my cold drafty stone prison, is dimly lit by a conflagration that makes my eyes water.  I spend the evening listening to someone play a song on a “stringed” instrument that I’m sure must be strung with actual cat gut.  The poor beast seems to holler with every tortured pluck.  The alleged minstrel hasn’t discovered homophony yet, either.  I’ve tried to teach him, but he seemed to think me mad for suggesting that he play more than one string at a time, and in retaliation he threatened to drive me mad, as if to prove him right.  I wonder often what might be playing on the old plasma screen, if such things existed, if there were any programming being broadcast anywhere.  I’d even take a little black and white cathode ray tube, if I could.  Forget the television.  I would give my kingdom for an AM radio to make me feel that there was life out there, somewhere.

The sun sets slowly, and the cold eats its way through these stone walls, right into my bones.  Tonight, I shall sleep on a sack of grass, the haunt of fleas and mites.  The servants shall have it heaped with lilac and some other flowers whose names I never learned, as if that helped.  My bed will be warmed by the fetid body of another man, my servant, because the men in these parts do not believe in sleeping next to their wives.  My wife seems to agree with that tradition, and so I am condemned to live like a student in an over-crowded frat house.  I spend my days in an uncomfortable hard chair, listening to the droning of stewards and bailiffs giving account of the day’s revenue.  So many heaps of that crop, so many piles of cordage collected.  And for entertainment, there’s a child with Downs Syndrome dressed in a jester’s outfit, doing his best to be silly.  If an award could be given to any person with the highest happiness-to-investment ratio, that kid would get it with no contest.  He’s got even less going for him than I do, but I don’t remember ever having a day quite as good as the one that he seems to be having at this moment.

I didn’t used to be in these miserable circumstances.  There was a time when a domain was something that followed the letters, “http,” a colon and a couple of slashes.  Now those were the days.  I lost hours in front of the computer, playing games and reading stuff I don’t remember.  Then I lost the rest of the time lying on the couch, snacking and staring like a zombie.  Between the two, there was always the MP3 player.  I had a job that I thought I hated.  I had a daughter that thought she hated me.  I was lower-middle class, but I had the world at my fingertips.  At work, I was the bottom of the totem pole, and I hated it.  Now, I’m a king, and I’m wishing I could be at the bottom again.  My biggest thrill is to drink melted chocolate from a small glass cup.  Did you know that glass is scarce here?  That’s why they have to cover the windows with great tapestries that keep out the sunlight.

Ah, but I’m a rich man.  I haven’t had a bath in weeks, can’t remember the inconvenience of having to wait for the tap water to get warm.  I smell like a compost heap.

My name was Edward Aisin.  I met a dope on the net who thought he had a design for a time machine.  I took one look at his plans and recommended a good psychiatrist.  A year later, I realized he was not far off.  At least, he seemed to have the theory of the matter down, solid.  With some spare parts salvaged from the junk in the garage, I made a flimsy hack job of a time machine.  It was mostly tape and glue, an entry for a fifth-rate modern art show.  The on-button consisted of two bare wires that sparked when they came together.  The device roared to life, and I wriggled through it, barely managing not to break it asunder in the process.

The next thing I knew, I was sucking on tepid milk.  Well, let’s not go into details, but I think I lost a month to mental development shortly after birth.  I must have wasted half a year in coming to my senses before I realized what had happened to me.  Oh, certainly, I went back in time, but my body did not go with me.  I was back to being imprisoned in a crib, in a world without satellite television, a world that barely had satellites.  I thought, then, what a wretched soul I’d become.  The freedom of adulthood was lost.  My car was gone.  My favorite songs had not been recorded yet.  My entire CD collection was gone, along with the very idea of a CD player.  I was a man trapped in a baby’s body.  I had to wait half a decade for the invention of the Atari, just so I could make little squares move across the screen and pretend that they were airplanes and submarines.  Science fiction movies had terrible special effects.  The internet had technically been invented, but no one had access to it.  Life had become boring as snot, and the spare parts and junk that I called a time machine must have stayed in the old time.  I imagined it would sit there and hum happily, until someone discovered it and unplugged it…except that it hadn’t been invented yet, so technically, I could turn it off myself if I wanted to…in a few years, but I’d have to invent it first.

But, who wants to drag through a few decades of dull childhood, endure puberty all over again and slowly return to the starting point, just to turn off a machine that I left running when I left home?  If I had known that it would not come back in time with me, then I never would have used the thing.  I thought I would come back as a middle-aged, overweight man, not return to the womb and live a rerun.  The second time around just wasn’t the same.  For one, there was no way I was going to let my mother boss me around.  I may be a child, but for crying out loud, I’m a grown man.  I was ten years old before I managed to scrape enough parts together to build another time machine.  By then, I devised a way to really go back in time.  The previous design had wedged me into the past, where I didn’t belong except where I already belonged, if that makes any sense.  I could only go back as far as I existed.  The new design was substitutionary.  I would trade places with something else.  I don’t know what I thought that thing would be, perhaps a rock, or a gerbil, or something.  I hadn’t considered that I might be stuck living life as a gerbil (oh, what a thought).  I wonder if I’d still want to raise a family, at that.

On the night that I had planned to restore my dignity, my father grounded me for my insolence.  Of course I was insolent.  He wasn’t going to ban me from watching television, because I was already banned from it, so I had to spend the evening holed away in my bedroom.  But, as soon as they were asleep, I sneaked out to the garage and activated the device.  It hummed and lit the garage with its eerie glow.  I could hear someone’s voice coming from it.  Eagerly, though somewhat wary, I crawled into it and found myself standing before a haughty, effeminate pansy, adorned with jewels and lace.  He was flipping his wrist in my general direction and telling me where to go.  Not knowing any better, I did what he told me to.  “Edward,” he said, “There’s a reason why I run things around here.  The sooner you learn it, the happier we’ll all be, so run along to your room, then.”

Being, by now, used to this treatment, I did what he said.  Down the long stone corridor, the servants lead me to my room, where my wife was waiting.  By the looks of things, she was expecting more than just me.  She looked like she could give birth at any moment.  I stared at her dumbly, wondering who I was and how old I was.  Five minutes ago, I was a child.  Two minutes ago, I thought I was a teenager, by the way I was being treated.  Now, with my pregnant wife before me, I wondered just how old I really was.  She looked…ashamed.

Philippa was her name, as I later discovered.  When I had married in my former life, we waited until we were nearly infertile before having a child.  We deemed it greatly important that our children, who turned out to be only one child, be blessed with all the wealth that we had been raised with.  In retrospect, I suppose we overestimated our own childhood.  As kids, we had nothing.  It makes me wonder why we waited so long.  I think it was simply that we could not bear to part with all of life’s trappings and freedom.  We waited and waited.  The house was never big enough, never had a big enough yard, and so on.

Now, I was practically a child, living in a castle, married with a child on the way.  As it turned out, I was still Edward.  I just happened to be a different Edward.  The fop in the hallway turned out to be a man named Mortimer, who slept with my mother and killed my father.  As it turned out, the hat on my head was a crown, but I needed a full month to come to grips with who I was, because I was treated about as much like a king as were the king’s dogs.

To think of it, I was a king!  What a glorious happenstance!  I went from the bottom to the top in a second.

But the joy was short-lived.  As I discovered, the real King Edward was a weakling.  He had allowed himself to come to this place where his mother’s paramour ruled the country while he sat in a back room and played the good little boy.  The father was dead at the hand of Mortimer, the philanderer, the adulterer.  I decided, then, that I would not be the obedient milksop that they had expected.  The moment my wife gave birth, our lives would be in grave danger, for we would have an heir.

Needless to say, I overcame my circumstances.  We killed Mortimer, and I assumed the throne as a real king.  When the real King Edward traded places with me again, he would find his life much improved.

A year later, I found myself bored out of my mind, wondering if I could be developing a case of sciatica, sitting on the throne and staring out the open window at the fading twilight.

Some people think that if they could go back in time that they would change the world.  Certainly, I knew much that the rest of the world did not know.  I knew that the Black Death was coming.  I knew a few things about hygiene, and I knew where penicillin came from.  But all of my advantage could not procure a single television.  Oh, man, I know so much more than these people.  Compared to them, I’m practically omniscient.  Yet, for the life of me, I can’t remember how to produce gun powder.  I tried to explain to some artisans how to engineer an aircraft, but while they could make the wings, they could not fashion the engine.  I told them how to make the engine, but they could not quite shape the steel, nor refine the oil.  I told them how to refine the oil, but they could not find how to drill for it.  On and on it went, one technology building upon another, yet, at the end of the day we still had nothing.  Anything less than a functional plane was nothing but modern art.  If we could not do that, then the time machine was well beyond our grasp.

To my horror, I realized that I was stuck in this world of the mundane, condemned to remain a king.  After a time, the amusement of riding on horses, impaling helpless porcine creatures with sharp metal objects lost its appeal.  After a time, the court musicians and dancers were nothing but a pathetic appeal against lethargy.  I had to get out, or I would lose my mind.  Therefore I outfitted the army with more soldiers, finer armor and handful of newly built trebuchets.  I don’t think that the old Edward had ever owned a trebuchet in his life.

It was a fine day, sunny and fresh.  We stood arrayed against the Scottish castle, ready to do battle.  They watched us from atop the walls, wary and unprepared.  The first shot from the catapult signaled the beginning of the siege.  Blood coursed through my veins with excitement.  This was the first bit of excitement I’d had in years.  In the next moment, the drawbridge lowered and a parley was had.  They wanted nothing to do with this battle.  But I had just spent good money outfitting my men and purchasing the new siege engines.  I would not have my fun spoiled by a bunch of cowards.  We refused their unconditional surrender and made them fight us.

A few hours later, we rode over the broken bodies of villagers who wanted nothing better than to be left alone, to live their ordinary lives.  We took our loot and returned quietly home.  Near the road, I spotted a column of smoke rising from a small knoll.  Veering off toward it, I discovered that it was a dugout home, a mere hole in the ground with a sod roof.  Looking in under the apex of the roof, I saw a young man, maybe seventeen, sitting on a stool and telling a story to a group of children.  His wife sat in the corner, working on some needlework.  When he noticed me, he leaped to his feet and hurried out to greet me, more in fear for himself than because of my celebrity.  “Your highness,” he stammered, “I am your humble servant.”

I looked at his dwelling distastefully and said, “Man, you’re living in a hole in the ground!”

“It is my home,” he said apologetically.  “It is not much, but I am pleased to have a roof over my head.”

I poked disdainfully at the sod.  “And I thought my life was bad.  What are you having for supper?”

At this, a worried expression fell across his face.  “All we have is a loaf of bread and two fish, but we’ll be happy to share it with you.”

“No, I don’t want your food,” I snapped.  “How can you live like this, man?  What do you do for fun?”

“I beg your pardon?” he asked.  “I tell stories to the children.  Otherwise, I don’t have much time for fun.  I am but a peasant.  Much work is required to live, but I am grateful.”

“Grateful?” I scoffed, “For what?  To whom are you grateful?  Me?”

“I beg your pardon, your highness, but I am grateful to God.  He has blessed me with a home, a family, and enough food for tonight.  I thank God because the rain falls from the sky, and the grass feeds the bagots, and there is milk for us.  I may not be a king, sir, but I am rich… in a way.”  He looked to his feet in fear of punishment, probably for claiming to be wealthy with respect to me.

I sat back on my horse and looked around at the fog rolling over the green grass, growing like a carpet over the downs.  A few feet away were a handful of goats grazing on the lawn.  The dirty faces of little children gazed up at me from under the roof.  The wife was watching her beau with adoring earnestness.  They were but kids with kids of their own, living in poverty, and this was all normal for them.  They were even worse off than I was.  They were far worse off, but they were happy.  At least, they were happy enough to marry and build a home and be a family.  They would not have the luxuries of a mere king.  They would not have the modern luxuries that I knew as a child.  They would never know all of the wonders and technology that I had grown comfortable with as an adult.  Yet, here they were, living in a hole, and they were happy because they had a roof, a scrap of food and each other.

I was a king, and I lost sleep over my lost plasma television.  I was never hungry, but I was never happy.  I was at the top of my world, but the bottom of my own heart.  I had everything, but I was thankful for nothing.  I wondered, almost seriously, if the peasant had come full circle.  I could almost stoop to try to live like that.

Almost, but not quite.  “Let’s go,” I commanded my men, and we continued home.  At least, I suppose it was as close to being a home as anything would ever be.

[/fiction]





Jesus with a Cardboard Sign

22 03 2010

Yesterday, after leaving church I came upon a homeless man with a cardboard sign.  I’ve known several homeless people, but I’ve never known one that held a cardboard sign.  I’ve never known a homeless person who knew one who held a cardboard sign.  I had developed a theory that the sign-holders are a mysterious class of individuals claiming to be among the homeless without actually being one.  Generally, they seem to have the manner of one who has become accustomed to living upon the generosity of others.

Yesterday was different.  He seemed ashamed of himself.  He was a younger man, which is unusual.  His face was downcast and he kept running his fingers through his hair.  Something about him haunted me.  I felt certain that I might have known him from somewhere.  He seemed familiar, but I didn’t know why.  I pulled into the shopping mall, turned around and worked my way back to the same left-turn lane that I had been in, so that I could get close enough to speak to him.  I felt that I was on the verge of sobbing, and I wasn’t sure why.  This is highly unusual for me.  At the intersection, I managed to be the first car in line, right next to the man.  I rolled down my window and spoke to him.  I tried to help him in some fleeting way.  He spoke clearly, like an educated man.

I saw myself standing on that center median, in my mind.  Inside the mall, people were buying and wearing clothes priced at a day’s wages per piece.  Some stores sold watches and jewelry at two year’s wages.  Most stores were so elegant that I was afraid to enter them, lest I accidentally snag a sweater and be guilty of felony vandalism.  Everyone was strutting around with their mental eyes watching themselves.  They all paid way too much for what they did not need, much of which was torn and patched like the clothes of a homeless man.  I have never understood that style.  Clearly, they had an abundance of wealth.  They were throwing it away on worthless junk.

Just outside, there was someone that society would treat as less than worthless.  I have never been so nauseated by materialism in all my life.  If another man’s needs are regarded as less than the trash that I hardly have any use for; nay, if his life is worth less than a tenth of a percent of any of that crap, then I must be a most evil man.