“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works also is dead.”
—James 2:26 (KJV)
As part of our Lenten observance, my wife and I decided to bolster our faith by studying devotionals from The Upper Room each day. I’m used to daily devotions because I grew up as the son of a Southern Baptist minister, and my family used Our Daily Bread religiously between breakfast and whatever else we did every day of the week. Timberley and her parents were United Methodists but infrequently sat down together at home to read the Bible and a brief devotional. At my house, the readings were followed by a familiar hymn and then a closing prayer, with each family member taking his or her turn praying out loud. In Timberley’s family, talks with God were private, as they should be.
With a nod to Charles Dickens, the past week held the best of times and came close to including the worst for times for Timberley and me as we managed to keep living in two western North Carolina towns at once—one, our hometown; the other, the college town where we worked for two decades before retiring as public school teachers last summer.
This arrangement makes our answers to the questions “Where do you live?” and “What’s your home address?” difficult to answer, especially when they’re being asked by 9-1-1 operators, firemen, tow-truck drivers and auto dealership service managers. Thank goodness for cell phones and one number that fits all situations (I mean that in a couple of respects)—unless you’re on a mountain in one county and the nearest cell tower that your emergency call can hit is off the mountain in the next county.
Yes, it was an eventful week—so much to share, so little time to share it. So, with another nod, this time to Saturday Night Live’s team of crack newscasters, here’s our Weekend Update:
RAHN – Good evening, everyone. This is Weekend Update for Saturday, March 11, 2017, the end of yet another week in the Post-Truth Era of modern American life. Here’s Timberley with our lead story.
TIMBERLEY – Thanks, Rahn. A carefree drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway almost ended in disaster Friday afternoon for two, uh, Burke, no, two Watauga—yeah, we’ll go with that—two, Watauga County residents, as the gas tank of their 2004 Jeep Liberty broke loose and spilled its contents at an overlook halfway up the Grandfather Mountain escarpment. No one was injured, and no fire resulted. Blowing Rock volunteer firemen answered the call to spread oil-drying compound on the spill. Back to you, Rahn.
For various reasons I’ve been thinking about mortality lately—you know, about life and death.
Maybe it was from sitting in the sound booth last week during my church’s Ash Wednesday service and listening to our minister murmur, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” time after time after time through my headphones as he marked gray X’s on congregants’ foreheads. Each of them heard that mantra only once; I heard it about a hundred times—over and over and over. But I’m OK.
Ash Wednesday—or, more popularly in some circles, the day after Mardi Gras—is the start of Lent, the 40 days not counting Sundays when many Christians including us Methodists observe the last days of Jesus’ life before his death and resurrection on the first Easter Sunday morning 2,000 years ago. What Did Jesus Do? He lived. He died. He lives again. It’s a good story, maybe even the greatest ever told.
Yes, yes. I see your hand raised and hear your, “But … but …,” and I know that everything is debatable nowadays, that we even argue about the price of butter in Japan, and that now we have to worry about fake news and alternative facts, and about what he tweeted and what she said and what they posted, and about who really believes anything anymore. And then there’s Hollywood. Don’t get me started.
Until President Donald J. Trump called journalists “the enemy of the American people” earlier this week, I had forgotten just how adversarial the news media, the press, could—and should—be.
Well, no, I hadn’t really forgotten. It’s been around 27 years since I was last paid to report the news, and as time has passed I’ve tended to mentally downplay the more stressful aspects of being a small-town newsman and have focused on mainly the more enjoyable duties, the more fun or more adventurous assignments, and the many positive relationships I experienced as a newspaper sports stringer, staff writer and photographer, and as a radio reporter and news director—a career that encompassed most of the 1980s, basically Ronald Reagan’s two terms and George H.W. Bush’s first couple of years. But I remember those days well.
It was one thing to hear Trump’s self-serving and unconstitutional indictment of the press reported on TV; it was something else to then be attacked on Facebook by an ignorant Trump troll simply because I had posted a comment supporting the Federal Communication Commission’s now-defunct Fairness Doctrine, a policy that Reagan ended in 1987 around the time that I transitioned, shall we say, from radio news back to newspapers. (If you’ve worked in radio and haven’t been fired at least once, then you really didn’t work in radio—or didn’t get the full monty, at least. But that’s another column for another week.)
I’ve got to give our junior U.S. Senator Thom Tillis credit. When it comes to answering letters from constituents, his Washington office will certainly get back to you in short order. Well, sort of.
That’s more than I can say for senior U.S. Senator Richard Burr and 5th District Congresswoman Virginia Foxx. I’m still waiting to hear back from them. On Jan. 23rd, I mailed four first-class letters to Washington—two letters to Mrs. Foxx, one from me and the other from my wife Timberley; and a letter each to Mr. Burr and Mr. Tillis. I also had mailed a letter to President Donald J. Trump three days earlier on Inauguration Day, and I haven’t gotten his response, either. I guess his staff has been busy.
When North Carolina’s U.S. senators—Richard Burr and Thom Tillis—both voted Tuesday to confirm the highly-unqualified Betsy DeVos as America’s next education secretary, even I could see that the fix was in and that all this political foolishness will continue at least until the next election in two years.
You can define that term—political foolishness—however you please. There’s plenty of madness and plenty of blame to go around, whether we’re talking about people in Washington, D.C., or Raleigh, N.C., or on our own Facebook pages. Most of us can’t help but watch this absurd reality show—Survivor: America—and then participate either by playing in person at political rallies and protest marches, or by endlessly critiquing the winners and losers on social media from the comfort of home.
Yes, I plead guilty. Sometimes I just can’t help myself, for all the good doing anything does nowadays. Right is wrong, and left is right. Or the left isn’t right because the right isn’t wrong, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Confused? Yes? No? Well, then, can we just agree to disagree? How ’bout that? Feel better?
I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to hate my smart phone. And my tablet computer. Come to think of it, I don’t like this laptop I’m using right now too much, either.
What’s my problem? Well, for one, I think I’m addicted to the Internet—not just to social media, but to the virtual rabbit hole that is the World Wide Web. I used to spend hours at a time at a computer back when I was a newspaper reporter and later a technical writer. On my time off all those years ago, I’d even work on that novel that was going to win a Pulitzer Prize (in my dreams) and stare at a computer screen a few hours longer just to make sure I was near-sighted.
“Those glasses make you look smart,” Timberley said as I modeled the various styles of eyewear in the showroom mirrors—thick safety rims, thin wire rims, no rims, horned rims. “Well, kind of.”
“Really?” I asked, then turned to the white-coated optician. “I’ll take this pair.” I need all the help I can get when it comes to appearing intelligent.
But as it turns out, I’ve been getting too much help from the Internet with looking and feeling stupid. It was an evil plot. Now I get very little writing done because it’s too easy for my truncated attention span to be hijacked by cyberspace or waylaid by the Web. Damn you, Al Gore.
Yes, yes. I know what you’re already thinking. We’re all tired of politics. It’s everywhere we look—on the TV news, in the headlines of newspapers that no one reads anymore, all over Facebook and Twitter, which too many people read (or do we just look at the memes?), and, if not a topic at the office water cooler or in the church pew, it’s discussed anywhere people can gather and express their opinions freely.
No, the question isn’t why are we tired of politics; or even why are so many people, including me, concerned about it to the point of distraction. The question also isn’t why can’t we express opinions freely on the job or at church. We all know the answers to those questions—or, at least, we know our own three-o’clock-in-the-morning-lying-awake-in-bed answers to them, whether what each of us feels and maybe even fears is rational or not.
The question is: Why are political news and views everywhere we look now? Why is your Facebook news feed clogged with political posts, and not with cute photos of puppies and kittens?
Take a few minutes to answer that question before you read on. Listen to a few tunes on YouTube—like R.E.M.’s popular “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” or Jimmy Buffett’s lesser known “Apocalypso,” if you’d like to get up and dance around wherever you are right now. No one will mind. Trust me. Their eyes are all glued to their own smart phones or computer screens.
I mailed my letter to President Donald J. Trump on our way out of town Friday morning. Timberley and I didn’t watch yesterday’s inauguration live, choosing instead to watch its highlights on the CBS Evening News. And today we participated in the Women’s March on Morganton.
Taking those topics in reverse order—since most things dealing with Trump seem backwards to me, anyway—I’m really proud of our hometown and the county’s Democratic Party for organizing the event in support of women’s rights and civil rights. Around 600 women, men and children from Burke and surrounding counties participated in the local march, which included a rally on the historic courthouse square.
The protest was peaceful. The worst behavior that I witnessed came from passing motorists—like the blond woman in the Lexus who gave us a thumbs-down as we waited to cross East Union Street so that she could continue through the intersection when the light turned green. At the same time, many other motorists waved. We saw many friends from here and elsewhere, some that we hadn’t seen for months and even years, and we made some new friends.
Morganton’s march coincided with other protests and vigils across the state and nation, the largest and most highly publicized, of course, being the Women’s March on Washington. I hope the march to preserve all our rights doesn’t end today.
Ever since I learned how to address an envelope—something most school-aged kids don’t know how to do now—I’ve written fan letters to my heroes. Not emails. I’m talking about honest-to-goodness, pencil-chewing, hunted-and-pecked, forehead-creasing, lower-lip biting, pink eraser and Wite-Out smudged fan letters. Emails ain’t got no soul.
And I’ve actually received some personal responses, from people like home run king Henry Aaron and his Atlanta Braves teammate Ralph Garr in the 1970s; Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow and science fiction pioneer Ray Bradbury in the 1980s; and, as of today, President Barack Obama, who, to me, is the best U.S. president of my lifetime so far.
I was an eighth-grader at Happy Valley Elementary School near Lenoir, N.C., in April of 1973 when I decided to write to Hank Aaron, my favorite player, who also happened to play for my favorite team. He was chasing Babe Ruth’s Major League record of 714 career home runs, and I wanted to tell Hank how much I admired him, so I wrote the letter in pencil on lined Blue Horse notebook paper and zipped it off to my hero in care of the Atlanta Braves. I’m not sure how I got the team’s address, maybe from an Atlanta telephone book at the public library. The Internet didn’t exist back then.