New Year

December 30, 2019

We arrived home from our South Carolina week numbed by the impact on our brains of all that interstate-staring. Like nearly everyone else, we now stare at the start of 2020, unprepared.

We’re still looking back. We listened to the usual, and always helpful, family suggestions about decluttering and then relocating. We talk about it all the time, wrestle with it, but so far haven’t done anything, even while friends a decade younger plan their moves. Maybe that’s because the past still is with us, not just our Year of Sickness, but the years long gone, when the kids were growing up, when our parents still were with us. Memories draw us back into the past, where our kids think we live comfortably.

It’s true, the coming year is a blank but for a few ideas, some hopeful, others whimsical, and our preemptive strategy for not thinking about the election that everyone already is thinking about and already angry about.

We, or anyone, can try to avoid the anger by dreaming. One thought is a family summer trip to the Shenandoahs. We’d rent a house, the kids would come for a week or a few days. Alternatively, the same type of thing at the beach. We haven’t sold either idea, they wonder what the mountains offer besides hiking. Meanwhile we’ve resurrected our old plan to drive to Florida to see friends and cousins. Then, or before then, I want to get back to New England, maybe Long Island again. Sandy wants to visit our youngest daughter, Kathleen, in Colorado, and see what we should see out there.

We indulge ourselves like this. Medical stuff may get in the way. Short story: everything depends on other things.

wp-15776428649353933121051813291256.jpgThe real world rushes back. The country is in a hard place, consumed with hard feelings. In recent days the Post reported the sad story of a farm family in upstate New York made desperate by the drop in milk prices caused by Trump trade-war tariffs. The parents scramble, embarrassed, for groceries at food pantries, apply for food stamps, and ration meals for their young children, while repeating the Trump mantra: “It’s gonna hurt for a while.” Meanwhile, neighboring farms already have been sold or abandoned.

You find plenty of sources for what’s going on in America, one being the Labor Department’s employment statistics: 266,000 new non-farm jobs in November. A December rally puts stock equities indexes close to a two-decade high. CNBC reports that “36 percent of millionaires support Trump, up from 32 percent in May.” (It then adds, though, that head-to-head he would lose millionaires to Biden.)

The report about the millionaires is strange, but probably true.

Then you can drive through small towns nearly anywhere, southern Virginia or East Tennessee being good places to start, and pass boarded-up stores, abandoned factories, mines, and gas stations; shut-down hospitals, clinics, nursing homes. In these places people drive for hours to line up for free medical care; survive on public assistance; maybe work part-time in retail and fast food.

Sure, these anecdotes are cherry-picked. But the folks working shifts at the 7-11s and Walmarts probably aren’t impressed by the December rally.

The anger isn’t only about bank accounts.  It allows no compromises, it is raw and deep and lacerates the souls of men and women, whether affluent or in poverty, who see no answers in the nation’s political life.

The antidote, if we seek one, is truth, learned through reason, and faith.

That is to say: truth is what exists around us, a lesson taught by Aristotle in those long-ago B.C. years. He explains that we recognize the truth of the physical world, its fundamental nature, through reason, a razor-sharp weapon that demolishes the pernicious notion that we can, all of us, have our own personal truth.

Aristotle’s triumph, handed down by wise men through the centuries, became the bedrock for hard-won traditions and values, personal and political. Over time and even today, those traditions and values have been distorted and manipulated by totalitarians, candidates for public office, and their helpers.

The pontificating above, in the bared teeth of national anger fed by Fox and MSNBC, won’t help much. But to dive deep beyond the power of reason, to again paraphrase Aristotle—we discover another, more sublime truth, revealed by faith. If we accept it, faith leads us to recognize a higher form of existence beyond the world we see, which we can call God. That simple assent helps us know good and evil, truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, the moral life and its opposite. We then are equipped to confront the seedy domain of politics in peace, free of anger and resentment, prepared to change the country, and change the world.

Christmas Grace

December 23, 2019

We found no more inexpressively beautiful sound this weekend than The First Noel, played by 82 tuba and euphonium musicians at Tuba Christmas, on Saturday on Main Street in Greenville, S.C.

The First Noel, the Angels did say,                                                                                                        Was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay,                                                                  In fields where they lay, keeping their sheep,                                                                                      On a cold winter’s night that was so deep …

Farther down Main Street, a young boy, maybe 14, played carols on his violin, the notes soaring sweetly. I tossed a dollar in the violin case, the first, in a few minutes it was filled with bills. People were in that kind of mood.

wp-15770304925138537663277359198249.jpgLike everyone else at Christmas, we got busy—the planning, shopping, budgeting—all the usual stuff that passes in a blur.  Last weekend I entered the Happy Trails holiday fun run. It’s nominally a 50-kilometer run but I wanted only to show up—the first event I’ve entered in 19 months. I slogged 14 wet, slow miles in the rain and was happy with that. Happy, but dazed.

That same evening members of our local running group, the THuGs, gathered as pirates for our traditional Christmas dinner. We exchanged gifts and shouted toasts. The wives, who didn’t dress as pirates, enjoyed it, or pretended they did. They awarded prizes, all seven of us got something—as we should. Participation has been down this past year. We’re certain that pirate-related events will boost interest.

wp-15770964253354728009411926537242.jpgI set aside my pirate gear and we confronted things a chord or two higher. Tuesday evening we joined the Holy Family food pantry volunteers for dinner. I rejoined the team after more than a year’s sabbatical. It was a happy reunion with the veterans and an occasion to meet new volunteers, who help people who need help, some desperately, a need that keeps growing. Later that night we picked up our daughter Laura in Washington after her exhausting journey from London. Seeing her again after seven months answered our prayers, the prayers of parents who lose sleep wondering what their kids will encounter in foreign places.

On Wednesday we had one medical thing, a neurologist appointment for Sandy. She gave him a positive report and we bolted from his office. The next day we headed for Greer, S.C., for our middle daughter’s and son-in-law’s home, for the third year.

Last year’s trip now seems a decade ago. With me out of surgery then just two weeks, Sandy drove the entire round trip, nearly 1,000 miles. Our other kids also showed up, first time in years. The older grandson, then five, read me stories at bedtime. Still, it was a tough week.

wp-15770305787268045617247079431857.jpgYet here we are again, at Christmas, seeking the eternal truths of the season. A few days earlier a friend, a Notre Dame alum, sent me a letter from the university president, Father John Jenkins. Instead of flogging the school’s sports teams and asking for money, as with the usual college president email, Father Jenkins said other things:

“In this season of Advent, we reflect upon our blessings and our struggles. We can see God’s Providence working in our lives, just as it did in Mary’s life. And yet we worry, fretting about matters great and small, and making many plans that we hope will guard us from sorrow, suffering, pain, and loss.  … we cannot shield ourselves from these things, they come into our lives unbidden as part of the human condition. … our blessings also come to us unbidden and unearned, gifts from God in the truest sense. … As we gaze upon the manger this Christmas, may the infant Jesus remind us of our vulnerability and dependence on God.”

Here I find myself reading about my own year. Yet as Father Jenkins uses the plural pronoun, I force myself to stop with the “me” and “my” as I look back. I didn’t get through it myself. Sandy, our kids—were, and are there every inch of the way, along with all the physicians, their staffs, siblings, other family, spread out across many states. Others were present for me: friends, the THuGs, those still in the area and others who have moved; the Happy Trails gang, many of whom I haven’t seen in a year or more; the Food Pantry team, parishioners, the monks of St. Anselm Abbey, the lady across the street—got me through the operating rooms, the radiation chamber, the chemo pen.

img_20190505_1243317482795200650325628733.jpgIt felt good to get out on that trail last Saturday, gasping and wheezing aside. I watched the trail stretch out before me, finessing the rocks as best I could, sidestepping the mud for a while, then giving up on that as it rained harder and the trail started flowing.

After four hours I took a tumble, luckily my Santa Claus hat cushioned the blow. I shook my head, clearing the cobwebs. I climbed to my feet. Then I was back in the barn. Old times. Well, not exactly. All those people to remember. All their prayers to treasure—and the infant Jesus in the manger.


December 16, 2019

In mid-December we look forward to a holiday season that offers the promise of spiritual peace. This time calls us back to memories, maybe joyful, maybe not, but lasting, either way. Yet this year, while we look again to our families and friends for sustenance and hope, we’re distracted by the ugly fight on Capitol Hill over impeachment. We’re challenged to preserve the joy of the season, in the face of spiritually exhausting national events.

We can find that joy in our faith. Yet we’re forced to confront the unfolding tragedy, if only to remind ourselves to persevere, to remain on a path that strengthens faith and offers hope. Meanwhile, to grasp the meaning of the current trauma we can find perspective, and maybe a lesson, that emerges from other moments in the nation’s experience.

For me, one is striking. It speaks to faith and hope—but, as today, at the end of a hard path.

In 1952 a short, rumbled man published a book. It is an autobiography, a story of a deeply troubled life, yet an incisive and eloquent history, and an indictment of an age and its politics. The rumbled man’s book, entitled Witness, chronicles his acceptance of Soviet Communism, his nightmarish 12-year membership in the American Communist Party, and his ultimate rejection of Communism. Just as important, the book tells the story of an urbane, Harvard Law School-educated and well-connected man, a former senior State Department official named Alger Hiss.

In 1948, the rumbled man, Whittaker Chambers, then a senior editor for Time magazine, testified as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee to accuse Hiss of belonging to the Communist Party and of espionage for the USSR. Hiss indignantly denied being a Communist, but eventually admitted to having known Chambers by another name. Given irrefutable evidence in the form of government documents Chambers had concealed for years, a jury convicted Hiss of perjury. He served three years in prison. He never confessed.

In his Forward, entitled “Letter to My Children,” Chambers seeks to explain why men leave the Communist Party. He quotes the daughter of a German diplomat assigned to Moscow who had been extremely pro-Communist, but abruptly became a dedicated anti-Communist. The daughter, who also was sympathetic to Communism, was embarrassed by her father. In explaining his defection, she said, “he was immensely pro-Soviet. But—one night in Moscow—he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.”

Chambers cites the names of many American Communists he knew during the 1930s, some in important government jobs. In the 1920s and 1930s, and even later, Americans were exposed to the views of many Communist sympathizers, beginning with the newspaper reporter Lincoln Steffens, who in 1919 visited Russia, then convulsed by violent revolution, and returned crowing, “I have seen the future and it works.”

The American writer John Reed smuggled Russian jewels into the U.S. to support Communist operations in this country. In the 1920s Armand Hammer, president of Occidental Petroleum, financed the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. In the mid-1930s The New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, on assignment in the Soviet Union, wrote articles praising Stalin and denying that he caused the famine that killed millions. The sociologist Margaret Mead declared that “great progress for humanity” was being made in the USSR. Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s vice president, became a Soviet apologist. In 1948 he ran for president as a candidate for the Progressive Party, accepting the endorsement of the Communist Party USA, and Party members campaigned for him. Later he broke with the Soviets and wrote a book, Where I Was Wrong.

Through those years other prominent Americans romanticized Communism and denied or ignored Stalin’s brutality. In time, they earned the apocryphal label,“useful idiot,” attributed falsely to Lenin, referring to those who facilely accepted Soviet propaganda and heaped praise on its purveyors. In decades since, many prominent public figures became infatuated with the Communist prison states of China, Cuba, and North Vietnam, useful idiots, even in our own time.

Today, looking back 100 years during which untold millions have suffered the cruel consequences of disinformation spread by totalitarians, we now hear Republicans in the House and Senate suggesting that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered with the 2016 Presidential election. Many have ignored, belittled, or denied the findings of the CIA, FBI, and Defense Intelligence Agency, which established definitively that Russia carried out a massive campaign to influence the election.

Despite access to the best nonpartisan intelligence available and the testimony of public servants committed to national service, these men and women, many of them trained in law, have surrendered to disinformation to defend a morally threadbare political agenda. Like the President, they closed their eyes to the casualties inflicted on the Ukrainian military by Russian forces for the three months that U.S. military aid was withheld as a political bargaining chip—aid intended to help reduce or prevent those casualties.

We thought we had seen the worst of useful idiocy in President Trump’s praise of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and China’s Xi Jinping, who lead regimes that have murdered and imprisoned countless thousands, as “great men, great leaders.” The House and Senate Republicans are front and center in the current great debate transfixing the nation. They know the truth about Russian hacking of the election. At the moment they choose instead to repeat the canards spread by Trump about Ukraine. Someday, perhaps they will hear screams.

We look again to Chambers. His path away from Communism and to faith was almost absurdly simple. He writes of how he sat in the kitchen with his young daughter in her high chair eating her oatmeal. He noticed her ear, with its perfect curves and whorls. He recognized then that no impersonal force could create such delicacy and beauty, and that the child’s ear could only be the result of a design by an intelligent Creator. At that moment he left Communism forever. He became a man of faith. Right now, faith seems hard, almost unattainable. But if we can find it in simple things—an act of charity, a moment of prayer, the recognition of difficult truths—even in the shape of a child’s ear—the dreary complexities of the moment drop away. The meaning of the Season returns.

Computer Fun

December 9, 2019

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving a lady with the bank called.  “An unauthorized attempt was made to withdraw funds from your checking account,” she said. She recommended we open a new account. We did that, although we kept the old one open, just in case.

Monday—a big day: the plastic mediport was removed from my chest in a 45-minute surgery. No more hospital visits for a few months—for me, that’s big.  I tried to rest after the operation. But that afternoon my IRA website locked me out. The IRA people advised that somebody had tried to get in. They shut down access to it until we took our two computers to an IT pro to be scrubbed. We hauled them to Best Buy and got in line.

Every organization you do business with by using your computer says the same thing: create passwords of six to 20 characters, use capital and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols. Don’t use your birthday or street address. Don’t use family member names or initials in cute ways the bad guys can decipher.

Computer wizard that I am, all my passwords consisted of my kids’ names. I cranked in the same “user name” for nearly everything. I kept a Microsoft Word file on the computer that listed all our passwords. I thought I was clever. To the pros, I was a fat target.

img_20191115_101256158_hdr-17489516880707560612.jpgI recall, when visiting a friend, asking him for his “wifi” address so I could use my laptop computer while at his home. He stared at me as if I were with the KGB, looked around the room, then thrust his cellphone in my face, showing something like, “Ovb5*gq?wrt7-txt4L.” I blinked. No one is going to get into his business. And no doubt he changed it after we left.

We didn’t lose any money from either of these intrusions. The guy who got into the bank account tried to withdraw $4,500, which we didn’t have. He went for broke, lost, then moved on to another fat target. We were lucky.

We picked up the computers at Best Buy. The tech guy said they didn’t find any problems. The intrusion was an attempted identity theft, not a computer problem, he added.

So we changed the passwords. I started a new project: calling the water company, the power company, the mortgage company, and everyone else who takes money from our checking account or pays us through it. I was amazed that Social Security, after serenading me for forty minutes, simply took the new account number over the phone.

We all know, but hardly ever think about, how technology has transformed our world, from the cosmic to the trivial. When Sandy and I met with our pastor for his blessing a week before my October surgery, he demonstrated with a smile how he could order “Alexa” to turn on the lights in his office. We laughed.

We live online every day. Every business operation, except the kid stocking shelves, bagging your groceries, and loading your car, is associated with a website. A company, charity, or college that doesn’t have one doesn’t exist. So all week I sprawled on the sofa, the phone stuck between my ear and my shoulder, listening to bright techno-people guide me to nirvana. I spent an hour as a woman with the water company directed me to click on links, then sub-links, looking for “delete bank information.” Someone else walked me through downloading an “app,” which did not work.

We started using the bank “bill pay” function a few years ago. I recall writing checks, sticking them in envelopes, licking stamps. People still do that, but the cost of stamps has become annoying. If you get the hang of using the bank website, paying online is easy.

Computers are tools, like rakes and hammers. They enable marvelous breakthroughs in the design and performance of highly complex systems used for navigation and communications, manufacturing, defense, finance, medicine, and so on.

The unsettling question: are we any smarter? Many published authors can’t write a coherent sentence or carry an intelligent story line. My book club assignments (Aug. 19 post) are a six-book losing streak. Are we morally stronger, more tolerant, more honorable? Republicans exist afraid of a “tweet” from the president. Answering my own question: No. No way.

Not smarter, not better. That was never the point. More efficient, in many ways. For you and me, computers are communication systems. They link us with others, in a lazy sort of way. Do our emails and “texts” really replace letters or phone calls? How many of your Facebook “friends” are friends?

There’s the dark side: all kinds of online crime—identity theft, fundraising scams, porn. We’ve all heard the horror stories. Thousands of folks, including some very savvy ones, have lost millions with a few keystrokes. The bank reported that our account hack was traced to Collegeville, Penn. Never heard of it. Our son, who knows computers, said that’s a dodge—the hacker may be “spoofing” a computer in Collegeville, but could be in Toronto—or anywhere.

Yet there’s the exception that proves the rule. The low point, so far, is a demand by one company that I obtain a medallion signature guarantee, more authoritative than notarization, to complete a two-page paper form, then mail it back. Paper form? What about your website?

I visit the local branch of our bank. Someone said the manager could do it, but he left early, come back tomorrow. I was there at 9:00 AM. Uh-oh, he actually is not authorized. I need to go to Lorton, five miles up I-95. Fighting the dregs of rush hour, I drive to the Lorton branch. I explain why I’m there—medallion signature guarantee.

The manager, Chris, shakes his head. He could do it, but it would then have to go to the legal department for approval. He squints at my form. At the bottom of the second page there’s a sentence in tiny print: “medallion signature guarantee is required if a voided check is not included.” He hands it back to me. My branch gave me a facsimile of a voided check, which is not a voided check. “Try that anyway,” he says.

At home, I stick the paperwork in an envelope, attach a stamp, and mail it. Then, an email from the bank: “Sign up for our mobile app today!” I’ll think about it.



December 2, 2019

Thanksgiving began for Sandy and me Wednesday with a nervous embark on I-95 to our son’s and daughter-in-law’s home in southeastern Pennsylvania. A little paranoid after hearing the frantic forecasts of holiday traffic nightmares, we left at 5:00 AM, braced for disaster—but cruised into PA about eight o’clock with no snarls or delays.

Thanksgiving Day offered the chance to be with two of our kids as they took a break from busy lives. That morning we caught Mass at the nearby parish. Afterward the pastor distributed loaves of bread to the entire congregation.  “I used to say that Thanksgiving should be a holyday of obligation,” he offered with a smile.

Caroline’s mom Mary and brother Ben and a bunch of friends joined us for the day. As usual, Caroline did nearly all the work. Dinner was spectacular.

This Thanksgiving was high time to remember the Lord’s gifts and the many who kept us in their prayers through months of medical drudgery—scans, chemo/rad, surgeries, Sandy’s week in the ICU—all that. Then too, like most Americans, we’re grateful that we see reasons to be hopeful for the country’s future beyond a political storm that no one predicted. Some days that’s hard, but we work at it.

Visiting Brandywine, which few know about, helps.

When we arrived on Wednesday we headed for Chadd’s Ford, site of the Brandywine Battlefield along Brandywine Creek, nine miles northwest of Wilmington, Del., and 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia. Here, on September 11, 1777 (that dark date again) 11,000 colonial soldiers—call them Americans—faced 18,000 better-trained, better-equipped British and Hessian troops. The Brits’ plan was to seize Philly, the colonial capital, by attacking from the south.


General George Washington staged his forces on high ground north of the creek along the fords he knew. British General Sir William Howe, with better intelligence, sent most of his army to cross the creek at a ford farther north, using only a small cadre in a feint at the American front line. Helped by an early morning fog, the main British force then turned and attacked the American northern flank, surprising Washington. The Americans fought through the day but were outmaneuvered and outgunned and forced to retreat. Howe led his army unopposed into Philadelphia, which they occupied until June 1778. The Continental Congress fled to Lancaster, then to York.

Historians believe British losses were 93 men killed and nearly 500 wounded. Rough estimates of American casualties run to 300 dead, about 600 wounded, 400 taken prisoner. The British captured 11 of the Americans’ 14 artillery pieces. Brandywine was the longest single-day battle of the war, as the two sides fought for 11 straight hours.

Yet the British failed to pursue, and the wounded American force escaped. Washington reported to the Continental Congress that “despite the day’s misfortune, I am pleased to report that most of my men are in good spirits and have the courage to fight the enemy another day.”

Good spirits. At Thanksgiving, or anytime, we’re heartened by the bravery at Brandywine. Our spirits are amplified further by those who see acutely the abundant beauty around us–the collective calling of the Wyeth family, who created their mystically realistic work mostly at their Chadd’s Ford home on the Brandywine.

Famed illustrator and painter Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth and his wife Carolyn had five children. Daughters Henriette and Carolyn and son Andrew, the youngest, shared N.C.’s creative touch. Andrew’s son Jamie inherited his father’s gifts. The Brandywine River Museum, near the Wyeth home where Andrew’s wife Betsy still lives, maintains a permanent collection of Wyeth family work.

Their paintings show the roughhewn grace of American life. The brilliant illustrations of N.C. highlighted popular books and journals until his death in 1945. The austere, lustrous landscapes of Andrew and the stark yet humane portraits of both Andrew and Jamie tell stories of men and women, their strengths and vulnerabilities.

Christina’s World

Andrew’s Christina’s World catapulted the already well-known artist, then 31 years old, to world fame in 1941. It is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting shows the handicapped Christina Olson crawling toward her family’s homestead. Andrew  painted her portrait years later, revealing gently the cares and passions of the elderly woman. His landscapes, set near Chadd’s Ford and at his home on the Maine seacoast, full of delicacy and detail, speak of the hardships and the joys of rural life, in spare shades and subtle color.

Andrew, trained by his father, learned from him that the purpose of art is in the creation of beauty, not in the response to it. N.C Wyeth warned that the artist who paints for the critics “does not know what he is missing.”

Maga’s Daughter (Andrew’s wife Betsy)

Andrew also found a connection to two other American icons, Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost. Both New Englanders—Thoreau, the essayist and rebel, and Frost, the poet—like Wyeth, communicate to readers a sensitivity to nature and the value of human closeness to nature.

Andrew’s sister Carolyn and son Jamie extended the family devotion to precise realism in oil, watercolor, and tempura. They, like N.C. and Andrew, convey a reverence for humanity, compassion, love, truth. Andrew, best-known of the Wyeths, spoke of his work: “I paint my life.” He died in his sleep in 2009.

The Wyeths’ art draws us to their perception of the dignity of work in the fields and homesteads of this wooded, rolling corner of Pennsylvania. For us, Brandywine is a place for appreciating the richness of our colonial history, the courage of good people facing suffering and joy, and the sublime beauty of everyday life. At this moment, we all need that. Good spirits.