Empty Handed

Graham Green’s classic The Power and the Glory (1940) is set in Mexico in the late 1930’s. The country has turned against the Church.  Priests, nuns and the faithful are executed.  Public prayer is forbidden.  Church bells are silent.  One lone priest – the “Whiskey Priest” – escapes and is on the run.  He is being pursued by a methodical – and merciless – police lieutenant who is tasked with his capture. 

The Whiskey Priest – an alcoholic who has sinned in varied ways – tries to remain faithful as he travels around – incognito – ministering to his flock sub rosa.   But he is doggedly pursued by the lieutenant and narrowly escapes capture. 

The book tracks the ills of a society which attacks and tries to destroy the Church.  And faith.  In the end, the Whiskey Priest is captured.  And condemned.  He regrets not his imminent death but rather his failings.  Green concludes with: 

He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all . . . He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointment place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint.

There are several lessons in this work.  One is the war on religion (which we deal with in our own country).  Another is the universal question of why am I here?  And for most the nagging question of am I going to God empty-handed.  I’m aware that most of those who read these posts are active – in volunteering, contributing, helping, doing good deeds and working to improve the human condition.  But are we doing enough?  Think about it.  Could we do more to make the world a better place?  If every person – spurred by that simple query – did one extra act of kindness, charity or contribution each day, imagine how much better the world might be.  Think about the novel notion of civil discourse with those we disagree with . . . . .     

The Open Door

I belong to an Episcopal Church in my neighborhood. I am invigorated by the services, educated by our Adult Forum programs and strengthened – in all respects – by just being there.

Our Church is like others – in shape, liturgy and message. But there is one thing that sets this Church apart. The doors of the Church are never locked.  They are open. 24/7.

Members of the Church can stop in.  Folks – who are not members – can stop in as well. At ten at night. Or three in the morning. Everyone is welcome.  To pray.  To think.   To ponder.  Donna and I will sometimes stop in.  In those off hours when we’ve gone in, the sanctuary is usually empty.  Except for us. Which makes our visit more personal.

I like to think that the doors of all faith traditions are open to the public. And yet I am aware that is not the case. I remember one pastor – years ago – haughtily suggesting that unless I was of his faith, his denomination and his synod — the doors to my salvation might well be closed. That’s tough to stomach.  I wonder what Gabriel would have to say about that (see post of January 30, 2012).  I bet his doors are open.  24/7  . . . . .  

So you think you’re glib?

Can you talk for one minute – 60 seconds – non-stop?  Yeah, I can too. I’m a lawyer.  However, can you talk for 60 seconds, non-stop without saying a word that contains the letter “A”?  Think about it.  Try it. . . . this is a good one for kids. . . . .    

I’m sure there are combinations of words and sentences that will accomplish this objective (Hebrew and Arabic contain no vowels – hence no “a”).  For me though, the easiest way to do this is to go “one two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve. . . .” and on up to one hundred.  The first “a” you will encounter is “hundred and one.”  It’ll take you about 60 seconds to get up to the number 75 . . . .  Ta daaaaah!  

Intelligence Testing

[A repeat from September 10, 2015]  When I was in 6th grade, apart from being the local expert on creating and detonating bombs, launching rockets and making Molotov cocktails (see 10/10/12 and 10/15/12), I cut lawns to make a few bucks.  And kept my eyes glued to the ground for stray pennies (see 8/1/12).  And I sold Kool Aid on the local golf course for a dime (sprinting into the weeds when the Ranger came zooming toward me in his golf cart).   

Another occupation of mine involved the creation of nine different “Intelligence Tests” for classmates.  I would type (from scratch – one finger at a time) ten questions on a sheet of paper and give it to a classmate in exchange for a quarter. If they could answer the questions, I gave them their quarter plus another quarter (“you win“). If they didn’t, I kept their quarter.  No one ever won. . . . .

The questions included things like — how many gorillas were in the U.S. in 1919 (one); what King of France tinkered with locks (Louis XVI); how many Indians served in World War I (17,313); what was the parcel post rate on packages going to Manchuria in 1924 (12 cents/pound); and so on.  I earned a lot of quarters.  The reason for my success was that I had a book. It was the book Answers to Questions by Frederic J. Haskin (Grosset & Dunlap, 1926).  The book had all of these questions — and so many more.  Do you know many of the mules sent to France in World War I were killed?  If you can answer that one, I’ll give you a quarter.   

Sweet Dreams

When I was 8 years old, my parents both worked. I’d walk home from school, let myself in the house, call my mother and let her know I was alive.  I was – what was called – a “latchkey kid.”  And then – being instructed not to watch television “except for Cubs games” – I went down to the basement to play with toy soldiers, work on my stamp collection (my grandmother had bought me a small album and a bunch of foreign stamps) or read a book about rocks and fossils. And if the Cubs weren’t on (which was most of the time), I would put old records on the record player.

I listened mainly to big band music — Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and so many others (that’s all we had).  I would sit and sing – memorizing the songs I heard as I played.  Today – I sing some of those songs to my granddaughters – from a memory of sixty plus years ago. Three of the favorites are “If that phone ever rings and it’s you” “The Wiffenpoof Song” and “The Hut Sut Song.”  You want to hear what I listened to when I was 8 years old?
Give it a whirl:
If That Phone – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFNqTrf6pdw
The Whiffenpoofs – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJVUTHLFdQ0
Hut Sut Ralston – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kKU1S0lWxo

And then came “Oh Shenendoah” – which won the fraternity sing eleven years later at Augustana.   That song I sang to Lauren every night from that first night home from the hospital.  And which was played for the Daddy Daughter dance – at her wedding (see August 14, 2011).  Sweet memories.  Sweet dreams. . . . .  


In my prior post on “The Best Medicine,” I mentioned a favorite jokester — Aristophanes.  A few years ago, I was asked (for a biographical sketch) what famous figure I would most like to have dinner with.  My answer?  Aristophanes.   Nicknamed by his contemporaries “Old Baggy Pants.”  He was my kinda guy. . . . .

This Athenian satirist, was probably the world’s first stand-up comedian (I would love to be a stand-up comic but I don’t have the legs for it).  He was well-educated and began writing satire in his teens.  He wrote more than 40 plays of which only 11 have survived.  The first play penned under his own name was The Knights (424 B.C.).  It was a scathing satire about the Athenian politician and military leader Cleon – the arrogant demagogue who succeeded Pericles.  Cleon is aptly depicted in the play as a bloated and intoxicated lout – whose face and toga are always smeared with wine.  As mentioned in my prior post, Aristophanes sometimes played the part of Cleon – lurching onto stage, staggering around and mumbling – because he wanted to make sure the part was played “properly.” The spoof was wonderfully popular with everyone in Athens — except for Cleon who sent messengers to Aristophanes suggesting that he “cool it.” 

In the world of literature, the satiric works of Ben Jonson and Henry Fielding were influenced by Aristophanes.  Examine the comedies of Shakespeare and you will find the tongue-in-cheek humor of Aristophanes swimming beneath the surface. If we sat down to dinner, I’d order some Greek crab cakes, moussaka, spanakopita and pastitsio — with a bottle or two of agiorgitiko.    Then we’d start telling jokes . . . . .  

The Best Medicine

Joseph Addison – the 17th Century English writer – said “man is distinguished from all other creatures by the faculty of laughter.”  Sigmund Freud in his The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious states that “jokes” release us from traditional inhibitions which make up the veneer of our personalities.  

Historically, the earliest known “smile” is etched on the lips of a statue of Ebbeh – a Mesopotamian factotum who lived in 2400 B.C. (Ebbeh now resides in the Louvre).  Four centuries later, we enter Biblical times.  There were no Old Testament comedians, but the word “laugh” (or “laughter”) makes its debut in the Book of Genesis.  When Abraham and Sarah are told they will have a son, both fall on their faces – laughing.  Perhaps that is why their son was named “Isaac” which in Hebrew is “He [or God] laughs.” The word “laugh” or its derivations appear 43 times in the Bible (6 of those in the New Testament).  The Koran chronicles 16 uses of the word but most relate to the faithful laughing at the inglorious fate of unbelievers. 

The Veda in Hindu text records the word “laugh” 8 times.   In Buddhist tradition, he “Laughing Buddha” was supposedly a real person – a wandering happy Zen monk named Pu-Tai who lived around 1000 A.D.  The world’s first stand-up comedian was Aristophanes (see post of 8/28/11).  He would lurch out on stage smeared with wine playing the Emperor – Cleon.  It didn’t go over well with Cleon. . . . . The first joke book was The Philogelos (“Laughter Lover“) “published” in the 4th Century A.D.  It was a collection of 264 jokes.  One depicts a chatty barber.  “How shall I cut your hair” he says to his customer.  “In silence” the man responds.   

On March 14, 2005, I delivered a paper to The Chicago Literary Club entitled “The Best Medicinehttp://www.chilit.org/Petersen4.htm The paper delved into this history of humor.  But it also discussed the healing power of humor.  It worksAnd can help.  A great deal. . . . . 

Uptown Funk

I enjoy some music videos.  My post of January 5, 2014, links to a few favorites including Lady Gaga’s classic debut – “Pokerface” – in 2008.  But “Uptown Funk” is one of the best music videos on the planet.  It was released on November 17, 2014, featuring Bruno Mars (the American singer and songwriter), Mark Ronson (the British record producer) and Mars’s backup group – The Hooligans.   As of February 2019, the video has had nearly 3.5 billion views on YouTube making it the fifth most viewed video of all time.  In October 2014, Mike Mullaney (Music Director at CBS Radio/WBMX) called it “the greatest song of all time.”   

Why do I like it?  Spend 4 minutes and 30 seconds – to watch it – and see for yourself – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPf0YbXqDm0 /  Ronson won two Grammy Awards in February 2016, including the big one — “Record of the Year” — for “Uptown Funk.”

But there is a second – fun – reason why Baby Boomers especially (and everyone else) will want to watch the video.  After you watch Bruno and Mark do their thing – please spend 4 minutes and 52 seconds and join the 44 million other folks who have watched  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1F0lBnsnkE  Then try to guess the characters.  And try practicing the final routine. . . . .

Malcolm Gladwell

One of the most meaningful (not just “the best”) non-fiction authors I have read is Malcolm Gladwell (born 1963). 

Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker and was named by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the 100 most influential people.  He is the author of five books but – oh my – what spectacular books!  All are internationally-acclaimed bestsellers and have sold millions of copies.  They are:  The Tipping PointHow Little Things can make a Big Difference (2000) – The story of that special moment when an idea, trend or social idea suddenly “tips” and begins spreading like a wildfire;  BlinkThe Power of Thinking without Thinking (2005) – Why decisions made on gut reaction happen and why some decision-makers are usually right and others hopelessly inept.  Outliers – The Story of Success (2008) – A story of what makes high achievers different.  Answer?  Usually long hours and hard work – and being in the right place at the right time.  What the Dog Saw & Other Adventures (2009) – A pot pourri of fascinating knowledge.  What is the difference between panicking and choking?  What do football players teach us about hiring teachers?  David & Goliath:  Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (2013) – Why and how underdogs succeed.  

These five works should be on everyone’s “to read” shelf.  I’d start with Outliers simply because it’s easy – and nourishing – to read about how ordinary people achieve tremendous levels of success.   They’re all worth a read.  And for me, a re-read. . . .