Month: August 2020

A convention critique

Ordinarily, I would have watched the Democratic Party’s virtual convention. This week we’ve been helping my aunt prepare to sell a house and move into an assisted living facility. This week has required lots of mental and physical energy, so by the time the marquee parts of the convention aired, my old body was horizontal.

This morning I read Peggy Noonan’s summary of the convention in the Wall Street Journal. She’s a gifted writer and a person of principle. She’s a thoughtful, conservative republican and no fan of Donald Trump. I’m more than ready for a new occupant in the White House, but if it doesn’t happen, Noonan’s convention critique may explain why. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Missing was any hint of priorities or plans, of the meaning of the party or its intentions. They made the case against Donald Trump, and a case for Joe Biden as an essentially decent person. But they didn’t say what they’ll do. And this year that is key.

“I’m not sure they’re sufficiently aware of two things. One is the number of people who don’t like Mr. Trump and will vote for him anyway. They don’t have to be talked into thinking he’s a bad character, they’re already on board.

“All summer I’ve been running into two kinds of people. One kind says, ‘That man is a living shame on our country and must be removed.’ The other kind says very little. They don’t defend him. They say, ‘I can’t believe I may vote for him, but . . .'”

From “The Democrats Miss the Meaning,” by Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2020, 11:25 PM ET


A litmus test

A great litmus test has begun. A Knoxville TV station highlighted an organization that is donating child-size face masks for local elementary students who begin school this week.

The test will occur at every level of education. Earlier this week a local middle school principal demonstrated a temperature scan machine that students and staff will be required to undergo prior to admission to campus. Later that day, a news report indicated that the scans are not totally reliable because many people are contagious before a fever occurs, and some contagious people never have a fever.

I’ve been skeptical about the viability of this school year. The absence of consistent federal guidelines, messaging and example-setting has forced local school systems to develop their own plans. They’ve been creative.

Colleges provide the most visible litmus test. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill cancelled classroom learning after just a few days when an alarming number of students and staff tested positive for COVID-19. The Chancellor of the University of Tennessee issued a stern warning that face masks and social distancing are mandatory.

UT Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer announced that face masks would be required for entry to UT football games and attendance would be limited to 25% of stadium capacity. This is expected to cost the university $40 million. This litmus test is a reality check!

Unfinished business

Each of us is a work in progress, as is every institution and the human race.

This simple recognition gives us the freedom to be unabashedly proud of our identity and accomplishments while simultaneously humble about our imperfections, failures and shortcomings.

So, while grateful that the right to vote was finally extended to women 100 years ago this week, it seems ridiculous and obscene that it took so long.

I remember the pain among some of my sisters four years ago when the hope for a woman president was dashed in the Electoral College. After living through these past 3.5 years, I can say, “I feel your pain.”

It seems fitting that this week’s expected Vice Presidential nomination of Senator Kamala Harris, a woman of color, comes during the women’s suffrage centennial and during a season of national racial soul-searching.

What excites me is that today we can more clearly see the future, when the gender and race of someone on a national ticket will be a non-event. It’s only novel because we are, and still have, unfinished business.

A young Tennessee legislator cast the deciding vote for the 36th state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment. “The Nudge And Tie Breaker That Took Women’s Suffrage from Nay to Yea,” Melissa Block, All Things Considered, NPR, August 17, 2020

Common ground

Many years ago, driving through a sparsely populated area of east Tennessee, I saw Bethel Church. About a mile down the road I came across the New Bethel Church. After another mile, I saw the Greater New Bethel Church. Our human instinct to build a better mousetrap sometimes takes the form of creating a better or more faithful Sunday School class, congregation, denomination or religion.

These improvement projects can lean toward the collegial or toward the competitive. We can start new groups with the blessing of the legacy body–which is growth by multiplication. Or, we can start new groups by division born in dissent. The word schism is similar to the word scissor.

Splits in religion, politics or business can energize. But the competitive juices that flowed in youth and young adulthood may be superseded in older adulthood by a preference for collegiality rather than competition and unity rather than division. That’s where I find myself–looking for common ground with others and for creative ways to cooperate around common goals.

On August 13, I read these words from Valarie Kaur:

“What has been an ancient spiritual truth is now increasingly verified by science: We are all indivisibly part of one another. We share a common ancestry with everyone and everything alive on earth. … You are a part of me that I do not yet know.”

Convention memories

My first political convention memory was 1960. I think it was the republican convention that nominated Nixon and Lodge. I was a 9-year-old with my parents visiting relatives in Florida. I was aware the convention was happening, but I was more interested in playing with cousins.

My only 1964 convention memory was that Lyndon Johnson was where John Kennedy was supposed to be. In 1968, I remember watching with my mother the now famous Ribicoff-Daley confrontation at the democratic convention in Chicago. I didn’t realize in the moment that we were watching democrats self-destruct on national TV.

Most conventions since 1968 have been choreographed, made-for-TV promotional events. In 2000, my “takeaway” from the acceptance speeches of Bush and Gore was that both parties hold important points of principle and I was grateful to live in a country that focuses on principles.

My question in 2020 is whether principles still matter. Much of today’s politics is about personality rather than principle. Slick soundbite slogans tend to distort rather than edify. This is a pivotal moment for the nation.

Why do political parties still hold conventions?” by Kimberly Adams, Marketplace, July 16, 2020 (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

How we arrived here

Sometimes I read history to remind myself how past events helped shape our present world. From George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility:

“Before the Civil War, the federal government had been barely visible to most Americans. By the end of the war the federal civilian bureaucracy, 53,000 strong, was the nation’s largest employer….

“The nineteenth century … was a century of tariffs, subsidies and monopoly grants to canals and railroad companies. … The Union Pacific alone was given 4,845,977 acres of land in Nebraska–one-tenth of the state–including every other section along its right of way for twenty-four miles on each side of the track.”

“The post-Civil War Republican Party normalized vast governmental interventions in the nation’s economic life. Franklin Roosevelt took this to another level….”

We’re in a new era of “governmental interventions,” launched in March to undergird the nation’s economy. It’s a new era but not a new idea.

“Map of Nebraska showing the Union Pacific Railroad land grant,” from the Library of Congress.

Sunbelt snapshot

We made a quick trip to Irving, Texas to a regional training facility operated by Canine Companions for Independence. To minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19, we left home at 12:04 AM on Friday and returned at 1:08 AM Saturday (today). Though groggy, all is well.

We traversed the I-20 corridor between Birmingham and Dallas. We packed plenty of food. We stopped only at rest areas and travel centers. At dusk yesterday, we were in a Chick-fil-A drive-through line in Vicksburg. We saw many crowded dine-in restaurants. Here are some anecdotal observations from this brief snapshot of business in the coronavirus-impacted Sunbelt:

  • “Masks required” signs are widespread though not universally heeded.
  • The U.S. is now a laboratory experiment. Our diverging approaches to the virus will show us what works and what doesn’t.
  • Parts of the Sunbelt, at least, are open for business, and our brief excursion gives the appearance that business is booming.
  • Fortunately, our quick trip brought no insight about Sunbelt hospitals, but reports indicate they are stressed due to the surging virus.
Photo by Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times, from “Stephen Hahn, F.D.A. Chief, Is Caught Between Scientists and the President,” by Sheila Kaplan, August 10, 2020

They simply can’t

One of Richard Rohr’s recent meditations quoted Indian-born teacher Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999), who reflected on the German mystic Meister Eckhart (died c. 1328):

“Eckhart was frequently criticized … because his language was far too unitive. We like our distinctions! We don’t want to hear that we have the same soul as our enemies …. We want to hate them, don’t we? … But mystics don’t hate anyone. They simply can’t. They pray, as Jesus does on the cross, ‘Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).”

Two parts of the paragraph have lingered with me for several days:

  • His language was far too unitive.” What a delightful accusation! What a legacy: “He was far too unitive. He wasn’t nearly divisive enough.”
  • Mystics don’t hate anyone. They simply can’t.” Easwaran helps me focus on a mystic’s substance rather than style. Mystics are hateless. Hmmm.

Imagine being incapable of hate, living in the real world and unable to hate anyone. They simply can’t. I need to think about this for a few more days.

From “Top 25 quotes by Eknath Easwaran,” by AZ Quotes


My wife Cathey is a puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence. Puppy raisers teach the pups 30 commands and socialize the dogs over 18 or so months. Due to COVID-19, she and her friend Amy have been co-raisers for Reba a bit longer–about 22 months. Social distancing has made the socialization process more challenging.

Today, Reba “graduates” from the first phase of her preparation as a service dog. We take her to what I call “Dog College” for “matriculation” to the next phase–3 to 6 months of formal training. Through corporate and individual donors and the contribution of the volunteer puppy raisers, CCI dogs are placed at no cost to grateful recipients.

We call Reba “the princess” because she is very self-confident. She is a bright, energetic purebred Labrador retriever. Reba and several of her littermates have been kept “intact.” She may be used as a breeder or she may be matched as a service dog with a recipient. Critters, like people, come into our lives to bless us for a season. We are blessed to be a blessing.

From a recent “graduation” party for Reba and littermate Rudy, also raised in Alabama.

The year that was…different

Today I’m thinking about children. In addition to those afflicted by chronic struggles, I’m remembering those whose quiet joys have been taken away by the coronavirus–such as the kids who live for March Madness, MLB, the NFL and college football. And, of course, school classrooms.

Few scores from recent years remain with me. Sometimes I can’t even remember who won recent games. But, my memory for circa 1957-61 is clear about things that really mattered–such as when cars were first equipped with four headlights. It was 1958, of course.

I remember odd things from that era, such as Bear Bryant’s first three bowl games at Alabama. The combined scores (13-13) reflected the defensive football of that era. In 1959, Penn State won the inaugural Liberty Bowl, 7-0; Texas tied Alabama 3-3 in the 1960 Bluebonnet Bowl; and Alabama ended the 1961 season by defeating Arkansas 10-3 in the Sugar Bowl.

The good news is that kids are resilient. They have an enormous capacity to improvise, create, and make their own memories. Maybe in some important ways for them, 2020 will be not the year that wasn’t, but the year that was.