Movies on the Road, Part Two

When the time came to leave England my wife and I boarded a train in London and soon were speeding across the English countryside towards a large hole, into which we plunged and emerged less than twenty minutes later, and at almost twice our previous speed, flashing across the French countryside.  At first, everything seemed the same.  In a matter of a few hours however we were immersed in all things French; French language, French culture, French food, the works.  We spent a few days in Normandy and then travelled across France by bus, slow train and very fast train to a small city and then a tiny hamlet in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.  After a few days there we climbed back onto a bus which would take us back to the train, which in turn would take us to Bourg en Bresse, a small city in Eastern France.

Bourg en Bresse was the place on our itinerary that I most looked forward to visiting because there is no real reason for a tourist to go there.  The area does in fact enjoy a small amount of local notoriety for the very tasty chickens that are raised there, and if one is desperately seeking a ceramic chicken with which to decorate one’s kitchen or a kite in the shape of a chicken for the delight of one’s grandchildren, or any other conceivable use that one could wish to make with the image of a chicken, it could be found in Bourg en Bresse.  Unfortunately we did not at that moment have any use to which we could put the likeness of a chicken nor room to carry it if such a use presented itself, so we had to find other attractions to bring us to Bourg en Bresse and keep us there for two full days.

Fortunately those attractions did exist.  For my part I wanted to see a French city or town where the only attraction was French people being French.  Nobody in that city would be seeking to separate me from my tourist dollars any more than they would want to separate anyone else from their French Francs.  Except for my rather longish hair and beard which was somewhat uncommon in France at that time I did not look very much unlike any of the citizens of that city who thronged the streets and sidewalks and shops and parks.  That was exactly what I wanted to see, and I got my money’s worth.

My wife was on another mission.  Decades earlier when she was a teenager she had a pen pal in Bourg en Bresse.  My wife was taking French and a French girl, Edith was her name, was taking English.  They would write to each other in their native languages so that the recipient of a letter could practice reading real English and real French as real people speak and write them.  Now, almost thirty years later, we were standing on a sidewalk in front of the house which shared the same address as was on the letters in the bundle which was tied up in a ribbon and resting in my wife’s hand.

“Go ahead and push the button” i said, pointing to the button at the gate entering into the property where the house stood.  “We’re never going to be here again so why not?”  My wife is a cautious person and ringing the bell of a house owned by somebody we do not know in a city half way around the world from home is not the kind of thing that she would normally do.  This time it was different however, and so to my surprise she extended her digit and the button was pushed.  Nothing happened.  Nobody was home, apparently.  “Ah well, we might as well get a picture of you standing in front of the house”.  She agreed to that and I backed out into the street to get a decent shot of my wife and the squarish front of the large white house where Edith once lived.

These actions were very much out of the ordinary in Bourg en Bresse and we were noticed by an older woman who lived across the street.  I guess French people are not shy about asking slightly shaggy strangers in their neighborhoods why they’re taking pictures of houses, and so this inquisitive neighbor emerged from her house to enquire after our business there.  She spoke French and French only and I do not speak French at all, so the lot fell to my wife to use her high school French learned thirty years earlier to explain our purpose.  She failed miserably in that task.  Apparently there is no easy translation of ‘pen pal’ into French.  We were getting nowhere until my wife hauled out her beribboned bundle of letters, one of which contained a picture of Edith when she was a girl of sixteen.

Understanding flashed across the elderly neighbor’s face like fireworks over the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July.  You could see this neighbor, who had lived there when young Edith was showing neighbors the letters that she had received from a girl in the U.S., connect the dots; that this was the very girl!  She practically dragged us into her house and we waited as she got on the telephone.  I could hear a sporting event on a television or radio somewhere in the house and soon, as the woman was making her calls and explaining her mission, an older man appeared around a corner to see what was going on.  He was a great looking guy, wearing khaki colored trousers, what we call a ‘wife beater’ undershirt, a day’s growth of stubble on his face and a bit of a pot belly topped off with suspenders.

In French he asked, in a few words as is customary with men everywhere, what was going on.  His wife answered, in French and also in a manner which is customary with women everywhere, and told him in excruciating detail what was going on.  I will never forget his reaction.  First a slight lifting of the eyebrows.  Then an ever-so-slight pursing of the lips and a barely noticable tilt of the head which said, as clearly in French as in any language, “Whatever”.  He then retreated back into the interior of the house, presumably to enjoy the rest of the sporting event which I could still hear.  I really wished that he would have opened a bottle of wine and invited me back into the house to watch or listen to the sporting event with him.  Language, I am certain, would not have been a problem.  By the end of our visit with the old neighbor and her disinterested husband my wife was in possession of Edith’s new address and they remain in contact to this day.  I am deeply envious of them and have already written the story of my own still-lost pen pal.

We spent the rest of the day seeing the city; eating delicious snacks, doing laundry, and by early evening we had enjoyed a sumptuous dinner and withdrawn to our very comfortable hotel to relax for the evening.  We showered and made our plans for the next day and then turned on the television to see what the the French people of Bourg en Bresse were watching that night.  By far, the most interesting movie on the tube that evening was Forrest Gump.  We had already seen Forrest Gump in the United States but now we were watching it in a spacious continental hotel on a huge bed with a bottle of extraordinary wine.  Also, we were watching it in Italian.  Now Forrest Gump is a very good movie and the actors all turned in marvelous performances, and soon it didn’t matter that the movie was in Italian.  Between our memories of the general plot of the movie, the magnificent performances and the bottle of very good French wine we were all in with the movie and blubbering along with Forrest as he was talking to Jenny at her grave site under the big tree which they had climbed as children.

Soon after that Forrest saw his son climb into the school bus which brought the movie around full circle, sat down to await his return, and we watched the feather take off and begin to fly to wherever the winds would take it, just as we all do in our turn.  We gave our noses a final blow after the sad scene and then turned the lights off, resting to prepare for the tomorrow’s journey to wherever the winds would blow our feather that next day.

Movies On The Road, Part One

I love watching movies.  The magic which is created on the Big Screen transports me from my mundane (but pleasant) existence of working seven-to three thirty five days per week, with gardening, church, family and friends filling in the rest of the time when I’m not asleep, and moves me to a place where empires strike back, kings return, and very large lizards with very bad breath rise out of the ocean to stomp cities and then return to rest in the lightless depths of the sea until they are needed once again to save us from destruction or, at the very least, entertain us for a few hours.  It is therefore not at all surprising that some of my favorite memories from a trip which my wife and I took to Europe many years ago revolve around movies.

That might strike a person as being somewhat odd, but it really is not.  One can only bounce from one historic site to another via Tube, bus, Metro, taxi or on foot for so long and then it is simply time to return to bed & breakfast or hotel and recharge for the next day’s adventures.  It is when the street clothes are off, the bath taken, a glass of wonderful french wine poured and the weary traveller is stretched out on a big luxurious (or small and cramped sometimes) bed that the television snaps on and the mystical journey into fantasy begins all over again.  In this story I will recall one of three movies which stood our among the dizzying number incredible sights and feelings that I stored up on that trip.

This first movie was watched in London, in an unspectacular bed & breakfast that we stayed in for nearly a week.  But first, a little background on the bed & breakfast.  We arrived in London from Bath early in the afternoon and took the Tube, London’s underground mass transit system, to Hampstead where we had secured a place to stay in advance.  The Tube station nearest to our  B&B was about five or six blocks away and we crossed that distance quickly as we were traveling very light.  When we arrived at the residence we were admitted inside and shown to our quarters.  They looked very clean, comfortable, and well lighted with windows and skylights in abundance.  The only feature which gave pause to reflect were the two female mannikins on the wall attired in S & M leather.  I don’t normally allow trivial things like that to bother me but my wife was instantly put on edge.  We were told that the room wouldn’t be ready for occupancy for another hour or two and we cheerfully agreed to depart until the appointed time.  Immediately upon our departure we consulted our Rick Steves guide and found another B&B less than a block away.  After proceeding to that facility we rang the bell, explained that we were in town without reservations, and were shown the cramped and rather dingy accommodation which was available.  These accommodations, for all of their shortcomings, were reassuringly free of any leather-clad mannikins, and we instantly settled upon renting it for the duration of our stay.  The landlady agreed to call the B&B which we would now not be taking and inform them of the change in plans.

The next day we spent traveling from one amazing attraction to another, and the tale of those experiences deserves several stories in their own right.  The British Museum, which contained artifacts that filled me with awe and in one case led me to tears.  The National Library which contains the Gutenberg Bible and the hand-written manuscript of one of the Beatles’ early songs, among a million other things.  Harrod’s Department Store which is like a small city itself, and the tiny shops and bakeries that line the main roads and back streets of London.  In one hour’s time we left Harrods, I saw my first Mini Cooper, stood in front of the clothing store where Madonna purchased her conical bra whatever thingy that she wore in concert and a little French bakery that would take a story to tell about in order to do it justice.  After a full day of being mostly on foot we took bus and Tube back to Hampstead, had dinner at what was probably the only cigarette smoke-free restaurant in London, and returned to our quarters exhausted but not yet ready to go to sleep.

British television at that time enjoyed the same reputation as British cuisine, so I had little expectation of finding something worth watching.  I could not have been more wrong.  As I flipped through the channels I came upon a scene of a young man on a motorcycle in a motocross race, and being a man (if not necessarily a young one) I was drawn to this movie ever so slightly over the forgettable rest.  My wife was initially unimpressed but as the movie proceeded even she was drawn in.  And I should point out that the movie moved at a pace that only a culture with two thousand years of history could appreciate.  This thing just crawled along!  Still it was compelling and we settled on watching it to the end.  I opened a very nice bottle of Bordeaux and poured the first of several glasses, and we snuggled under the covers on our narrow and lumpy mattress while we got sucked into the show.

The motorcycle racer was the main character and he was young, handsome, cocky and macho, and living on top of the world.  He was very good at a sport for only the strong and reckless and he felt like he was untouchable, just like many another young man in the UK and elsewhere.  It was therefore not a great worry to him when some lumps appeared on his chest.  His girl friend was concerned but initially he brushed her worries off with his hyper-testosterone bravado.  It was only after the lumps became painful and she pestered the hell out of him that he went to his doctor, just to get her off of his back.  The doctor delivered the young man a shock however.  After poking and prodding, hemming and hawing as doctors love to do in movies, he stated that he was concerned and extremely suspicious that the hero had breast cancer.

The young man almost hit the doctor.  “Only birds (English slang for girls and women) get breast cancer, ya bleedin’ quack” he raged.  The doctor, expecting this reaction, remained calm and explained in simple and plain English that men too can get breast cancer, and that it has nothing to do with your manhood or want thereof.  The doctor recommended that the young man get a diagnostic workup for breast cancer, including a mammogram and ultrasound.  After hesitating for a long time and incurring the wrath and severe henpecking of a very worried girl friend and family our hero capitulates and presents himself to a facility where the tests could be made.  Seated in the waiting room he sees that he is entirely alone in a sea of female patients and reception personnel.  After a considerable wait, and when we are talking about British television drama a couple of decades ago I mean a CONSIDERABLE wait, his embarrassment and shame and frustration boil over and he bolts onto his feet and stalks out of the office before being seen.  The drama ends after he sells everything he owns, moves to Thailand where an alternative treatment is offered for breast cancer, and he dies.

I would not have believed that an excruciatingly slow English drama delivered in black and white on a television in a somewhat sketchy London bed & breakfast would have had such an impact upon me.  We were exhausted from a day of crawling all around London and I was several glasses of wine into the bottle by the time that the movie ended and the credits began to roll.  My wife was not up to the challenge and was already snoring softly, curled up against my right side.  I clicked off the television with the remote control, for which I was heartily thankful since it spared me the trouble of having to get out from under our covers in the cold, dank room, and drained the last of my glass of wine before setting the glass on the tiny table next to the bed.  After clicking off the gooseneck lamp which arched over us from behind the bed I snuggled a bit closer to my wife and thought about the movie for a good hour before finally drifting off into a deep sleep, resting for another day of museums, galleries and tours to be taken on the next day.

That movie, the title of which I haven’t a clue, has stayed with me for many years now and has even moved me to make a bit of a row once at work.  A brand new facility dedicated to diagnosing breast cancer was being built at the hospital where I worked and a host of possible names was being kicked around.  A front runner amongst myriad possibilities was the “Women’s Center”.  Remembering that movie I raised a stink.  “Men get breast cancer too” I opined to all who would listen to me or read their email.  “How many men will die because they are not about to go to a ‘Women’s Center’ to get an evaluation for breast cancer?”  Apparently the one-person campaign worked.  The new facility was named the “Breast Care Center” and several cases of male breast cancer have been diagnosed there in the years that it has been open.  I really wish I could find out the name of that drama, its stars and producers, etc.  I would like to thank them for awakening me to a problem and maybe, just maybe, impelling me to agitate for a name change which just might have saved a life.

A Shaky Ride With Wes

When I was young I was famous for my motion sickness, especially when riding in a car. On our frequent trips east to the mountains, and across those mountains to the desert, my father and his friends would often place bets on how far I would make it before I would be emptying my stomach on the side of the road. I was usually good for about twenty or thirty minutes, but anything beyond that was borrowed time. On rare occasions I would make it all the way to where we were planning to picnic or camp, and in that case everyone who was betting would have to pay me.  I never made much money that way.

Possibly my shining hour came one day when I was six or seven years old.  My mother, her best friend Francis and I were driving in downtown San Diego, looking for a store or something. Mom was lost and driving up one block and then turning left, going another block and turning right, starting, stopping, and then starting again. The effect was predictable.  In this case however Mom’s erratic driving attracted the attention of a policeman who put on the lights and pulled her over. Our car was a four door Studebaker Commander and I had already lowered the window and was gasping for air. As the policeman approached our car the nervousness which his authoritarian presence produced in me plus the impending gastric eruption combined to produce projectile vomiting which painted the front of the police officer’s uniform with the emulsified remnants of my breakfast.

I was almost certain that I would be dragged out of the car and shot on the spot, or at the very least removed from my family and placed in “The Home.” The officer however stopped dead still, looked down at his ruined uniform which was just beginning to stink of bile and Raisin Bran, and proceeded to calmly write my mother a ticket as if nothing had happened.  I can easily guess what the officer did next. My mother, mortified by the event and I believe a little bit miffed by thinking  that she could have avoided the ticket had I not puked all over the policeman, aborted her mission downtown and returned home by the fastest route that she could find. My father, upon learning of this episode, laughed so hard that I think he might have peed his pants.

As impressive as that story is, to me at least, it does not hold a candle to that of my friend Wes. Wes’ stomach had been even more sensitive than my own, and the wrong food or wrong smell or one turn too many in the backseat of a car was certain to produce an unpleasant reaction. In fact, when Wes accompanied us on those trips when I was being timed for my wagered-on eruptions it was frequently Wes who was the trigger; he would pop and then I would soon follow. You would think that, with our history, we would be careful not to tempt fate. Such however was not the case. Being young and being boys we left the act of thinking to those better suited for the task and blundered blissfully through life. This clueless wandering led us one evening to the climax of my story.

Wes and I went to the San Diego County Fair one summer when we were both sixteen. We had grown out of the worst of our delicate stomachs and did not think about them much anymore. My parents dropped us off at the fair a few hours before sundown and after giving us twenty dollars each they instructed us to meet them at the front gate at 10 o’clock when they returned to pick us up. Twenty dollars was a lot of money in 1964 and we set aside half for rides and the other half for fair food.

And did we pound that fair food down!  Hot dogs, french fries, cotton candy and snow cones, and anything else that we could find was joined together in the roiling cauldrons that our stomachs were becoming. All of this was washed down with Coca Colas spiked with the half-pint of Southern Comfort that I had smuggled in with us. We ended up doing more eating than riding because that, and looking at all of the cute young girls and trying to strike up conversations (with very modest success) was far more entertaining. We did indulge in a few rides however, and well into the evening we found ourselves standing at the front of a line and preparing to enter the cage of a Roll-O-Plane.

For those of you not familiar with fair rides fifty years ago, the Roll-O-Plane is very much like a ferris wheel. The difference lies in the fact that the passenger is seated in an oblong steel cage which will spin on it’s axis if you pull forcefully back on a lever that sits conveniently in front of you.  The resulting motion is one of the cage spinning while the larger wheel to which the cage is affixed rotates in its large, lazy circle. If I was writing a recipe for disaster I couldn’t possibly think of a better one than Wes, fair food, Southern Comfort and a Roll-O-Plane. We were strapped into our seats, the cage door was secured, and the great wheel lurched slowly forward by stages as more passengers were strapped into more cages.  Finally the cages were full. The gangly, slightly sketchy – OK, really sketchy – ride operator threw the big wooden lever and the Roll-O-Plane surged into motion and the ride was underway.

As the big steel wheel picked up speed Wes and I pulled back on the lever in front of us. The cage tipped back but stopped when we were a little less than horizontal.  We let go of the lever and the cage swung forward. At it’s furthermost point on the forward swing we jerked back on the lever again and this time we went all the way over. Holding the lever back towards us the cage soon began to spin like a propellor as the great wheel made it’s increasingly rapid rotation.  I was having a ball and didn’t notice that anything was wrong until Wes grabbed my arm.

“Man, I gotta get outta this cage or I’m going to get sick” he said. I was at the point of making a logical argument as to how one cannot simply exit the spinning cage of a Roll-O-Plane when it is in mid-ride but my sage advice was cut of by Wes, who looked forward (thankfully) and cut loose with everything that was in his stomach. Hot dogs, french fries, cotton candy and everything else that we had chucked down the tunnel that evening exploded out of Wes and formed a rooster tail of vomit that sprayed out of the cage and sprinkled onto the crowd below. I was clinging desperately to the wall of the cage, as far from Wes as I could get, unmindful of the possibility that if the door swung open I would fall a good distance down to the asphalt pavement below.

The ride operator, as soon as he discerned the nature of the shower that he was taking, cursed loudly and slammed the big wooden lever back to end the ride. One by one he let riders out of their cages, some of whom were unaware of what had just happened and were annoyed by the shortness of the ride. When he finally got to our cage I flew out of that vomit-sprayed chariot as quickly as I could and stood by to help my ash-white friend gain his feet and move away from the scene of the disaster. The operator said a few choice words to us as we were leaving but we paid him no attention.  We only wanted to get away from the glares of the others who had hung around to see who the perpetrators were.

The crowd quickly swallowed us up and we made a beeline to the restrooms where Wes could clean up. I had somehow escaped that unsavory bath completely. Wes was remarkably free of residual chunks, the majority of which had been slung out over the crowd or was now dripping from the steel cage onto the seat and floor where we so recently sat. By the time Wes exited the bathroom he had regained his composure and, like my father a decade before, we both laughed so hard that we almost cried. I stopped to get one more hot dog as we made our way back to the main gate, content to wait for my parents while seated on some benches there and thoroughly finished with the fair for that year.

A Murder Disease in America

The world has learned that one more crazy white guy has gone off of his rails and murdered multiple innocent people, this time in Santa Barbara, California.  Even more chilling than the body count of random people shot and stabbed or sliced to death is the lengthy manifesto that the killer left behind.  It seems that the most attractive women in his community were not interested in having sex with him (it is uncertain at this time if he ever asked) and for this he was going to seek his revenge and punish the world.  The manner in which he fantasized getting his revenge makes Voldemort look like a crossing guard. It is known that the murderer had Asperger syndrome and perhaps other mental and emotional issues and yet was still at large and able to purchase or in some other way acquire an impressive array of firearms.  This is meat enough for a book, but I will only scratch the surface of it all in one short post.

To begin with, what has happened to American society that has made these outbreaks of violence by disaffected white males so common?  Fifty years ago this sort of thing was unheard of.  I know because I was alive then and had never heard of it.  Then, forty eight years ago on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed into a bell tower on the campus of the University of Texas and methodically cut down anyone he could see with a rifle and a very good aim.  Since that time the pattern has been repeated over and over again, with ever more outrageous groups being targeted; high school kids, Amish school girls, elementary school kids, moviegoers and now attractive girls and their boyfriends and anyone else who got in the way.  Something has changed in America since before August 1 of 1966.  Our country was far from perfect then, and more citizens had a right to explode with anger at injustice then than now.  And yet such explosions did not occur.  Why?  And why now?

Mental illness plays a role in many of these tragic events.  The shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary, the one in Aurora Colorado, and now at Santa Barbara were clearly mentally ill.  I suspect that most if not all of the other shooters were clinically mentally ill too, but what of it?  There were plenty of mentally ill people before August 1 1966 and they didn’t pick up a weapon and start taking people out.  There are also multiple thousands of people suffering from mental illness today who have not the slightest intention of harming anyone, other than perhaps themselves.  Why are the mentally ill shooters walking up to and over the cliff now when before they did not?  I wonder if anyone is working on that?

The Santa Barbara shooter was particularly aggrieved because attractive women were ruining his life by not having sex with him. I hardly know where to start with that!  Clearly the shooter believed that he was entitled to have sex with attractive women, and this was not happening because attractive women are wicked and denied him sex with the especial intent to ruin his life.  I remember being in public school in the 1950’s and 60’s.  We had attractive girls back then too, although I look at pictures of the piled-up hair and other accessories now and cringe a little bit.  I and just about all of my friends were not athletes or ruggedly handsome or supremely self-confident, so we never had as much as a kiss or even a conversation with those attractive girls.  Nevertheless, none of us ever even spoke of any feelings of anger towards those girls or the popular boys to whom they were drawn.  It just didn’t even enter our minds.

So where did this sense of entitlement come from?  Why did our Santa Barbara shooter feel that he was being cheated because attractive women (and probably unattractive women as well) preferred to not allow him to masturbate into their bodies?  And if just one young woman would have agreed to enter into a physical relationship with him would he have been cured?  I don’t think so.  His sickness would certainly have driven her away from him and then caused him to kill her for running.  Our shooter appeared to have worshipped sex but really I think he worshipped himself, and sex was only a decoration on his short life of madness and death.

So what do we do about this?  What can we do?  I don’t know.  Maybe we should build more mental hospitals and get the more severely ill out of society.  Maybe we should ban handguns, but then men like our Santa Barbara killer would use knives and explosives.  Maybe we should encourage women to purchase and train in the use of handguns.  A murderer who does not know if a woman is armed or not is less likely to act if the odds are high that she is.  Maybe we are over saturated with sex and violence in all forms of entertainment.  Maybe some form of censorship is necessary to tone down our testosterone-drenched society, but then maybe that wouldn’t do any good at all and leave us with boring and insipid entertainment, although I believe that that proposition sells short the creative abilities of good writers.

I don’t know the answers to these questions.  I don’t even know if I have asked the right questions.  But I do know that our society is badly broken and we need to either ask hard questions and take chances, or shut up and let the carnage continue unabated while we wring our hands do nothing.  That seems a poor choice to me.

To Give or Not To Give

Today as I exited a building in downtown Portland, Oregon, I was confronted by a young woman sitting cross-legged on a street corner holding a sign.  Well, I shouldn’t say “confronted”, perhaps, because she never said a word to me.  In fact, our eyes never really met.  She just sat there, staring at the concrete sidewalk, holding a sign which said “Please help. Evicted from my apartment. Need someplace to stay with my cat”.  After glancing at her sign I walked away, going about my business.  I couldn’t quit thinking about her though, and it is that conflict which I propose to share with you, dear reader.

I do not know this woman from Eve.  I have no idea if she has in fact been evicted from her residence.  I don’t know if she even has a cat.  If she does, the cat was mercifully not with her to be used as a prop.  If I or anyone else was to give her money there is no guarantee whatsoever that it would be used to correct the misfortune which she claimed to have suffered.  There was no rational reason at all why i should give that woman a second thought.

Which is why it makes it strange that she was all that I could think about for the next several minutes.  To begin with, I thought that if she really was in tight financial straights she should call upon her family for relief, as I would do.  I then remembered that many people do not have even remotely functional families, and that this is not an option for everyone.  I also thought that this woman had arrived at her situation by making bad choices and that the answer, instead of sitting on a street corner begging, is to start making good choices.  In that context, giving her money only put a band aid on her wound and enabled her to continue making bad choices.  The full weight of how dreadfully judgemental that thought was had me cringing within a moment and lamenting that I had ever thought it.  I can decide whether or not to give a beggar a few bucks without loading shame on them and guilt on myself.

I then thought about my Christian duty to care for the poor.  Jesus spent a great deal more of His time with the poor than with any other group according to the gospels, and I want to act like Jesus as much as my bent, fallen self can.  In the first century however the people of the town and even in Jerusalem knew the beggars personally and could vouch for their stories, and so guesswork was removed as to who was truly needy and who was a slacker.  We have no teaching from Jesus which says ‘render unto the beggar whether she is a slacker or not”, but we do have Paul writing “If he shall not work, he shall not eat”.  In a small community a person would know into which category a person fell.  In my large urban setting I have not that luxury.

Ultimately the image of a cat in need caused me to decide to give the woman a few bucks, and I know that this end to my story reflects no credit upon me, and I make no attempt to claim any.  The image of a cat (which I never even saw) in need was more compelling to me than the image of that woman, not much more than a girl really, in need.  I know that my sins are forgiven but that doesn’t make them any more palatable, to God or to me.

The Stolen Girls of Nigeria

It has now been 25 days as I sit and write this post since over 200 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from a school in that country and carried off into the forest.  No real word was heard of their whereabouts until recently, when the terrorist group Boko Haram admitted that they had committed this act.  Boko Haram is a radical islamist group which fears Western education, and it justifies its actions by saying that the girls should be married instead of going to school.  Subsequent announcements by Boko Haram now make clear their intention to ‘marry’ the girls or sell them.  A few things must be said about this.

This crime has been perpetrated before, and in this very region of the world.  A couple of centuries ago it was Africans kidnapping and selling Africans to Europeans.  Now it is African men kidnapping and selling African girls, but at the heart of the matter it is the same thing.  The terrorists counter that the sale price is the ‘bride price’ which is customary when a girl is married in that part of the world anyway, but this is a hideous perversion of the Nigerian process of marriage and family life.  Boko Haram is not facilitating marriage.  They are engaging in slave trading and rape.

And where is the appropriate world outrage for this act?  Curiously it is for the most part absent.  There are many people, women and men alike, disgusted by this crime.  I know this because Twitter and Facebook are humming with condemnations of the cowards of Nigeria.  Where are the denunciations by heads of state?  Where is the African Union?  More importantly, where are the denunciations by the Muslim world?  Boko Haram calls itself a Muslim organization, and if any outside group has any chance of making them see the horror of what they are doing it would be fellow Muslims.

The most effective moral push-back to this outrage should come from Muslim religious leaders.  Prominent and respected imams should issue a moral judgement called a ‘fetwa’ declaring that this crime is not the act of a true Muslim.  Such pronouncements carry great weight in the Islamic world.  A concurrent fetwa declaring that no true Muslim could buy one of the girls would be of considerable value as well.  Unfortunately no such pronouncement has been made by any Muslim religious leader to my knowledge. An implication could be made that this practice is consistent with Muslim values.  I am not saying that it is so, only that the absence of comment on such a monstrous event can only bring shame upon the religion of the perpetrators who do what they do in the name of their religion.  The silence speaks volumes.

One final comment is in reality an exercise in fantasy.  The terrorists are in fact cowards.  They crawl around in shadows, plant bombs, attack schools and churches and kidnap teenage girls.  They haven’t the courage to fight soldiers face to face, but I think that such an engagement should be arranged.  I would love to see the intelligence capabilities of the Western nations combined to fine the ratholes where these cowards are hiding, and then infiltrate the area with specially trained American service women.  It would be a fitting touch to see Boko Haram get its ass kicked by female soldiers, and to have the Nigerian girls rescued by butt-whipping American women soldiers.

I know, it’ll never happen.  Not because it couldn’t be done, but because our leaders would never pull that trigger.  We all know however that those Boko Haram clowns would never show their cowardly faces again after limping their wounded and bleeding selves back into the bush, knowing that they cannot stand up to a good woman.

To Drink Or Not To Drink

I very recently read a post in which the writer stated his case that a Christian should not drink alcohol.  The writer grudgingly allowed that a Christian could do so, but that because of a host of reasons he or she should not.  I do not subscribe to that point of view, and that has prompted me to write a reply.  It is of course not fair for me to produce my reply without also offering a link to the post which inspired this rebuttal, a post which was very well written even though I disagree with it, but that would require a competency with computers that I simply do not enjoy.  Therefore I am going to present my opinion and my opinion alone.  Reader, please take that into consideration.

Can a Christian drink alcohol?  Of course a Christian can drink alcohol.  I can drink alcohol; this I know, ’cause the Bible tells me so.  Psalm 104 focuses on the things, good things, which God has provided for man’s happiness, which include among many other blessings “…wine which makes man’s heart glad.”  The wedding in Cana was where Jesus produced his first miracle, turning up to 160 gallons of water into wine.  I would love to have been at that party!  On the last night of our Lord’s pre-resurrection life on Earth He shared a meal with His disciples of bread and…wine!  So we can put to rest the idea that a Christian can’t drink alcohol.  We should also put to rest the idea that a Christian who desires to drink alcohol should not at any time do so.

There is no argument that drinking alcohol involves risk.  People who are inclined to drink must weigh the possible negative effects if he or she should abuse alcohol.  But how many other things fall into that category?  I would like to suggest that there are many things that represent a risk to the Christian and his stumbling brother and should be practiced with caution or not at all.  My personal favorite is consumerism, and I want to make it clear before I go on that I am fabulously rich and am not throwing stones which don’t deserve to land on me as well.

A great many Christians like myself live in a good deal more space than we need.  I grew up in a family of four which inhabited a house of less than 1,000 square feet.  I now live in a house of just under 1,500 square feet with only my wife, my children having grown up and moved away.  I have two automobiles, one three years old and one sixteen.  I have all I want to eat and, yes, drink.  I own books, clothes, a computer and many other luxuries.  This I do while the great majority of people on Earth, including Christian brothers and sisters, struggle to stay alive from day to day.  Matthew 19:24 says it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.  I should read that and tremble.  Alcohol presents a risk to the body while consumerism presents a risk to the soul.  Christian, if you are reading this on your personal computer or smart phone you are rich.  Think about that.

And then there is this whole business about causing my brother or sister to stumble.  How many common practices of most American Christians could be described as causing that to happen?  Most Christians eat a lot of sugar and refined and processed food products, and even give them to their friends.  And I mean a lot.  How much obesity and diabetes and cardiovascular disease and blown out knees and other joints is a result of that?  Surely those effects are every bit as deadly as is the abuse – not the use – of alcohol.  The Bible does not say that we cannot eat junk, but Jesus never changed a dinner of cage-free chicken with grilled asparagus and a peach for desert into a plate of chicken nuggets with french fries and a donut.  What the Bible DOES say is that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit so by the ‘Christians shouldn’t drink alcohol’ logic, any Christian who eats the standard American diet and shares that diet with another is causing himself and many brothers and sisters to stumble.

Perhaps a model we should be pursuing of a Christian life is one in which we live simply in a small space, eat simple food such as rice and beans and vegetables, many of which can be grown in our own back yard or in a community garden, with a little animal protein (which I might point out  makes my vegan friends ‘stumble’), travel mostly by public transportation and yet fully pursue our careers so that the excess income can be given away to bless our less fortunate neighbors, Christian or otherwise.  A Christian who engages sacrificially with his or her neighbors and refuses to live a rich man’s life as compared with them is going to present a much sweeter and more winsome representation of Christ to the world than a person living in their 2,000 square foot mansion with all of the material luxuries and goodies and toys, and who refrains from drinking alcohol, but also refrains from getting dirty by mixing with ‘those sort of people’.

In conclusion, I would want to suggest one sure-fire practice which will cause our neighbors, Christian and otherwise, to stumble every time, and that is the practice of creating man-made rules and passing them off as biblically ordained.  We Christians have a long and rich history of engaging with that sin.  European and American missionaries who believed that inhabitants of the rest of the world had to become like Europeans and Americans before they could become Christians is one glaring example of this, and boarding schools for Native American children that were run by Christian denominations were an abomination which only the unbounded grace and mercy of God will cover and make right in the end.  The effort of first century Jewish Christians to make gentiles Jewish before they could become Christian comes immediately to mind, and you know what Paul thought of that.

A skeptical public is not going to be attracted to the church of Jesus Christ in the world by a list of extra biblical man-made rules.  Only a sincere model of a man or woman following in the footsteps of Jesus, rubbing shoulders with the sick and poor and marginalized on Earth and sharing with their want and pain and joy is going to get that job done.  And that, I believe, IS in the Bible.