I Yam What I Yam

Of course, all of you of a certain age, remember the deeply insightful words of Popeye, and the title of this post, first uttered by him in 1933 and subsequently by Robin Williams as Popeye in 1980…my personal fave.  Without trying to put Popeye on the couch, it is generally understood that he meant…what you see is what you get, don’t expect anything more.  Not a bad proscription for us all.  But what is missing is the how.  How did Popeye get to be who he was?  From whence cometh his sparkling personality?  What about those bulging muscles…was it really the spinach?  Was his mom a good looker?  Did his dad go to sea?

John Locke first opined in 1690 or so that man was a “tabula rasa”.  A blank tablet.  A picture not yet painted, a song not yet sung. There are others, however, who take a very different point of view. Humankind has long debated whether we are most effected by “nature” or “nurture.”  That is to say, are we born to be who we are, or do we become who we are by the vagaries of events washing over us?

I use this discussion as a precursor to my own on-going struggle to define myself, who I am, and how I got to be that person.  Or as Popeye might have said, “who yam I?”  Don’t worry.  I’ll not burden you with the details of my deliberations, but I will point out some incongruities about myself that many of you, good friends, may have noticed along the way.

The most common comparison made about an individual is to one’s parents.  That is part of the “nature” argument.  Has my development been predisposed by the DNA that I inherited from my father, my father’s father, etc?  Perhaps as we continue to untangle the mysteries of the human genome, this will become more clear, but for the present, I only know that about all I had in common with my father is that we both parted our hair on the right side.  He topped out at 5′ 8″ and never weighed in at more than 125 pounds, while a basketball program from my senior year in high school lists me at 6’1″, and I passed 140 pounds about that time and never looked back until I found the shady side of 200.  How can that be if nature is the determinant?  Ah, it’s my mother’s DNA at work here, you say.  Possibly so, as she and her siblings were all of a somewhat larger size; but which set of chromosomes win out in the struggle for physiological heredity.  I vaguely remember “if you cross a tall, green tomato plant with a short purple tomato plant you get…”  Well, I can’t exactly remember the outcome but tall and purple come to mind.  Is this then what they mean when they say that nature is the culprit?  Still sounds more like a crap shoot to me.

But it’s in the behavior dimension that I really start to diverge from my parents.  My father read the local newspaper only occasionally, and my mom was a lifetime subscriber to The Reader’s Digest.  That’s it.  I, on the other hand, was driven to read everything and anything… from the ingredients on the Wheaties box to “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” from the aforementioned Reader’s Digest.  Somewhere in the remaining detritus of my childhood, I have a certificate from the local library with the words Bookworm Club in gilt print attesting that I had read thirty-two books in my twelfth summer.  I don’t want to be mean about it, but I’m pretty sure the my wonderful parents, together, did not read thirty-two books.  They did a lot of other really good things, but reading wasn’t one of them.  Why then am I an inveterate reader?  And a corollary to that is, why do I care so little about what I read?  Go figure.

My dad was a decorated side door gunner on B-26’s in WWII.  He flew more than his share of missions and had more than his share of kills – but I never saw him angry.  I never saw him in a confrontation with anyone over anything.  Well, he and my mom did fight every now and then, but that was most often about what bills to not pay each month.  Unfortunately (or fortunately) I must have missed those genes, for my childhood was  marked by far too many bloody noses.  And my darling wife S. will testify to my inclination to get pushy with lethargic waitresses, and I’m often outraged by the rude, unsafe driver in the neighborhood.

My father’s personal ethos was shaped by an overarching concern about “what others would think about us”.  No, I can’t explain it, but I suspect that, in part, he was motivated by having lost his own father at an early age and being guided by a single mom and three older sisters.  I, on the other hand, always had two parents and, being the eldest of five siblings, was more or less ensconced in the king of the roost position in the familial pecking order.  Is this nature or nurture?  I dunno, maybe it’s both.  I do know that for whatever reason I have been driven to be first in whatever I did.  Note, I did not say best, but first.  There’s a difference of course.  First to finish the test, first in the lunchroom line, first to answer the question (whether I knew the answer or not), first to opine on the unknowable, first to order the new iPhone, and, often, first to the finish line however defined.  I didn’t just want to be the first chosen, I wanted to be the one doing the choosing, and yes, I wanted to choose first.  I will admit that this characteristic could be a serious flaw, but the point is that I’m equally sure that I didn’t get it from my parents.

My parents were not political, nor did they espouse any particular political philosophy.  I never heard them praise or castigate the president, the mayor our even their boss.  I must admit to having strong positions on things political.  Well, to be honest, I always felt it was a virtue to have strong opinions on pretty much everything.  As the man said, “If we’re going to proceed on the basis of opinion, I’d rather it be my own.”  How is it, then, that I have become a political progressive (some would say “wild-eyed liberal”) in the midst of my eighth decade on this planet.  My first political recollection is of a bumper sticker which proclaimed “Democrats for Ike.”  I was nine and knew nada about Democrats or Ike, but I liked the sound of it.  A foot in each camp so to speak.  This attitude has more or less defined my political consciousness and activity until fairly recently.  As a high schooler I was youth chairman for Ed Mesvinsky’s [(D) Iowa] first run for political office. He lost that race.  Surely you remember Ed.  He was the most junior of the legislators on the Watergate Committee, was convicted of felony fraud and spent five years in the federal pokey.  Oh, he is also known as the father-in-law of Chelsea Mesvinsky, nee Clinton.  So you see my political career was off to an uneven start.  Later that year, I was elected as a junior delegate to the Iowa State Republican Convention.  So you see, this was not political philosophy, this was politics dexterity tinged by personal ambition.

I voted for LBJ in ’64…still one of my faves for reasons that don’t need discussion here… but reversed my field in ’68 and ’72 and went with Tricky Dick.  I doubled back in ’76 and voted for Carter (which I came to regret), and found comfort with Reagan in ’80.  I thought we needed a national cheerleader, and he fit the bill.  In ’84 I could not vote for Mondale and the same for Dukakis in ’88.  Yes, I did vote for a Bush.  By ’92 I had come to my senses.  It was the Dems from then on.  I used to worry about  my zigzag record of presidential votes, but I ultimately justified them to myself by thinking I was voting for the person, not a political philosophy.  That’s the only excuse I can come up with.  But by the time Clinton ran and won in ’92 (no, I did not vote for my then boss, Ross Perot), I had finally arrived at a more or less political/social/economic philosophy that guided me.  The point of this overlong explanation is that my political path had absolutely nothing to do with “nature”.  It was nurture all the way.  I was pushed and pulled by the events of my life, the world around me, and my inquiry into their causes.  I’m comfortable with where that has found me.

My religious education was fairly typical and fairly rigorous.  It has its roots in the fundamentalism of the southern Church (most often Baptist) of my mother, and perhaps conditioned somewhat by the fact that my father grew up Catholic but converted to Southern Baptist to satisfy the demands of my mother and the Southern Baptist church.  I was at church whenever the doors were open.  Sunday school, training union, Sunday services morning and night, Wednesday Royal Ambassadors and prayer meeting, Thursday choir practice, and on, and on, and on.  I learned all of the books of the Bible, could quote scripture at the drop of a hat, and I could recite all of the bible “stories” from memory.  All before I reached puberty.  This was religion by “nurture” at its finest.  No thinking required.  Exposing children to a single religious world view has tended to work really well on generations of children and has been accepted practice of parents around the world.  But for me, well, I guess I wasn’t really paying that much attention.

And then I started to ask questions.  I had my first substantive conversation about religion with my mother in the summer of my freshman year of college.  She had asked if I was going to church.  I gulped hard and said no, and that the reason was that I no longer believed in God, the Bible, or the teachings of the church, and that it would be hypocritical to go to church with those beliefs.  She, not surprisingly, reacted as if I had just confessed to mass murder.  In the course of the painful conversation that ensued, the depth of her belief and the foundation of my unbelief slowly revealed itself. She believed in a literal heaven and hell, and knew for sure the path to each.  She was certain that Jonah did survive in the belly of the whale and that the Earth was, indeed, created in six (or seven) twenty-four hour periods.  I, on the other hand, had only questions, but even the questions tended toward uncertainty and ultimately disbelief.  No nature there.  This acorn fell pretty far from the family religious tree.

So, my conclusion on the nature vs nurture argument is “I yam what I yam.”  I dunno exactly how I got here, but it probably involved a dollop of genetics with a wallop of experience. It still doesn’t completely explain why I get a lump in my throat when I watch one of my grandchildren have a success, or why it took me sixty years to fully enjoy the wonder of a sunrise or sunset.  It doesn’t account for my yearning to leave things better than I found them or why I still get a thrill out of sinking a jump shot.  It doesn’t explain why my darling S has put up with me for fifty-two years while most relationships don’t endure nearly that long.  I’d like to know why I couldn’t hit a curve ball, but I could read the small print on the Post Toasties box when I was five.  I think there must be a missing secret sauce.  Something that combines with nature/nurture to make us who we are.  I’m going to name it even though I can’t exactly define it…it’s individualization.  All of us take on board all the nature and nurture we can handle…it’s a different formula for each of us.  We proceed with life, from the cradle to the grave, and in the process we become the unique creatures that we are.  We become individualized.  Thus, here I “yam” for better or worse:

…a tallish male of the species who no longer retains the leaness of youth

…who always wants to start, and hopes to finish, first

…who had the good fortune to engage in a life long partnership with a wonderful woman who could remind me of my shortcomings without anger

…who wants to know something about everything, but does not take the time to study anything in the depth required to become an expert

…who loves being around people but not too closely

…who has many acquaintances but only a few lifelong friends

…who eschews the supernatural, but cherishes nature

…who is still confused about the natural order of things, but continues to search

…who has just enough humility and experience to know that there are many, if not most, who know more that he does, and the corollary that no matter how good one is at anything, there is someone nearby who is better.

…who believes that doing good is its own reward

…who knows for certain that making mistakes is an important part of human growth, and that fear of failure can only increase the certainty of failure

If Popeye were around today, I’m sure he would advise that I’m getting dangerously close to overthinking this and becoming maudlin to boot. So let’s leave it at that.

I yam, indeed, what I yam.  And a happy yam at that.

PS.  All yams are not alike

 

 

 

 

 

The Commencement Address

Public speaking is everyone’s nightmare, but giving a commencement address whether at Harvard or your granddaughter’s pre-k, is a special form of torture.  Yes, I know it’s an honor and all that, but you know, in your heart of hearts, it’s a no win situation.  First of all, no one is really interested in what you might choose to say.  And if you come up with something really clever, I can assure you, it’s already been done.   The best you can do is to make them laugh a couple of times and stay in their seats until it’s over.

For some obscure reason, those of us who are asked to risk this form of public humiliation take our task seriously.  We want to put our particular stamp of history, of wisdom, of insight on the crowd of attendees who only want to get their diploma and be gone.  I, for instance, did hours of research for great examples of commencement addresses that were clever, original and made a difference.  I could find none.  Well, almost none.  It turns out that one of the more prolific deliverers of commencement addresses is Dave Berry.  You know Dave…the mostly tongue-in-cheek columnist for the Miami Herald and now a prolific (and funny) author of books that appeal, evidently, to all age groups.

In what was, perhaps, his first commencement address, Dave opined that it was his duty to offer advice on the single thing that would most positively affect the future lives of those in the audience.  His advice was, “don’t forget to floss every day”.  This may seem a bit trite as you read this now, as it did to me then, but upon reflection he was right.  I’m pretty sure that no one in the audience has forgotten this bit of insight, and, what’s more, he’s probably right.  Regular flossing most likely will make for happier mealtimes and keep you out of the dentist office.  I admit it.  I was highly tempted to steal Dave’s line.  After all, who would know.

As you will see from my remarks captured below, I did not, and worse yet, I had no such piercing insight of my own to offer, but I did my best.  Some ten years after I gave this address, a not-so-young-any-more young man approached me at the local supermarket and said that he had been in the audience when I spoke.  Wow.  I was impressed….with myself.  I must have said something that stuck.  I asked him what was the most important thing he took away from my speech.   He grimaced, scrunched his eyebrows and replied, “I dunno for sure, but it may have been something about a bus.”  I should have stuck to flossing.

The Commencement Address

Texas A&M Commerce University

May 10, 2003

Thank you Dr. McFarland, Dean Kaminski, parents, and especially all of the graduates here today for allowing me to share this special occasion with you. I’ve been told by those that have done this before that my job today is to say something memorable (hopefully in an entertaining way). But as I dug through my now failing memory for memorable thoughts from the twenty or so commencements of all types that I’ve attended over the last fifty years, I realized that I couldn’t recall a single thing, not one memorable thought that was said at any of them, nor could I remember who the illustrious speakers were. Wow….was I relieved. I figured I was off the hook. I can pretty much say anything I want to and there’s little chance that twenty or thirty years from now you’ll be trying to look me up to blame me for the bum advice that I might give here today.

By the way, if you’re looking for some real wisdom, something that will really rock your boat in the next few minutes, forget it. You’ve been at this learning business for the last sixteen years or so, and I doubt that the next ten minutes is going to be an academic or philosophical epiphany.

I realize as I look at this audience that many of you are so called “non-traditional students” and are already well into this business of living, but I do, however, want to address a question that is common to this and most every other graduating class. You might put it to me this way, “Gary, now that you guys have pretty much screwed up the world, and gotten the economy so that there aren’t many jobs for anyone, and you’ve already made yours, what’s left for me, what am I going to do. What kind of job can I get now that will allow me to live the “American Dream”.

Is that about right? I’ll bet that it’s pretty close.

Well rest easy. You’re not alone. Few of us came from our mother’s womb knowing that we want to be an astrophysicist or a tax attorney or a taxi driver for that matter. But let me start to answer this hypothetical question by revealing a little about myself.

I was a first generation college graduate. Something that this school works pretty hard at nurturing. My mother was the youngest in a family of thirteen and my father likewise the youngest in a family of seven. As far as I know, they were the first to graduate from high school in their families and certainly had no chance to go to college. Not exactly an academic legacy for me to live up to. Yes, they wanted me to go to college, but I’m not sure they really “expected” me to. Let me tell you why I did and what ensued.

I was fortunate to get an academic scholarship that I could use pretty much anywhere, but I still had some serious, although unspecific doubts, or maybe better said, I didn’t exactly have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, much less a genetic legacy of higher education that caused me to pursue a university degree.  Let me tell you why I went to college.

I got a job on a sheep ranch in west Texas the summer I graduated high school.  Of course, I was the greenhorn and got the jobs that no one else wanted. I learned that there are quite a few of those on a shearing crew. I was the dauber. Now I know that this isn’t sheep country and not many would know what that job entailed. The dauber is the guy that daubs hot pine tar on the cuts and nicks that sheep get in the shearing process. Some here might know or at least imagine that all sheep have a uniform and instantaneous reaction to being daubed by hot pine tar, and as a result of that reaction I got to stand ten hours a day in increasingly large and smelly piles of sheep—well, you get the idea. After just a few days of being up close and personal with sheep, my unspecific doubts about college evaporated. In fact, you never saw a more highly motivated college bound student.

I chose East Texas State because it was far enough away from home that I wouldn’t have to go home on weekends. Not that I didn’t love my family, but I thought if I was going away to college, I really wanted to go away. I’d never heard of, and certainly never seen, the school except in a college placement book, but it seemed to be what I was looking for. I arrived in Commerce from San Angelo on a Continental Trailways bus and was dropped off at the filling station that then served as the bus terminal.  I asked the proprietor (at least he had fairly clean overalls) if he would be so kind as to call a taxi for me. He looked up from changing a tire and said, “son, this ain’t Dallas”. I thought, but didn’t say, sir, I can certainly tell that. He gave me a ride in the back of his pick-up to campus, and as he dropped me off grumbled in a not-unkindly east Texas twang, “you know, I thought about going to this school onct.” You’re pretty lucky to be here, do your best.”

And I was lucky, although I didn’t know why then, but I clearly didn’t live up to his admonition to do my best, at least not a first. After one semester of scholastic probation, several other semesters of fairly lackluster academic work, lots of parties, and changing majors three times, I had the really good fortune that every male in the audience should aspire to…I married really well. A smart (graduating in three years compared to my four and a half), well grounded (east Texas farm background), focused (got a job before she graduated), highly motivated (pushed me when I needed pushing), and beautiful woman, who is with me hear today after almost exactly thirty-nine years of marriage.

My  Bachelor of Arts degree in Broad Field Social Sciences (basically history and economics) that I ultimately got from Baylor University didn’t exactly prepare me for anything. I sure as the devil had no idea what kind of job I could get, what kind of career I was prepared for and certainly not the faintest notion of what my destiny was to be.

The statistics say that each of you will have 8.2 jobs before you retire from your primary career. The statistics also say that it’s highly unlikely that your first job will have any relationship to your last job. Although I spent my entire business career with a single company, I would be hard pressed to find any common thread that held my career together. Certainly it wasn’t my college major, nor was it a notion of what I wanted to do imprinted in me from birth. Virtually all of the jobs I had within that company over thirty years were doing things that I could not have even imagined during my college years, and further, virtually all of the skills I needed to do those jobs I either had and didn’t know I had, or I acquired along the way.

In addition to my short stint as a dauber of sheep, I’ve been a soldier, a computer programmer, a salesman, a technical project manager, I’ve bought and sold companies, been a contract negotiator, a business executive, and ultimately retired as vice-chairman of one of the largest multinational companies in the world, and after my first retirement I founded an private equity firm, became CEO of an internet company, started a horse breeding farm, served on several public company boards, been a consultant to Wall Street firms, and started a commercial real estate company with my sons, and finally, a farmer. And I don’t think I’m finished. You tell me what kind of long-term career plan would have guided me along that path? What college major, what course of study, would have prepared me for this journey?

Early in my career with my company, I was talking with Ross Perot, our company’s founder, about my concern that I didn’t have a definite career plan. I didn’t know what to do first. Ross responded by saying, “A business career (as well as life in general) is a little like standing at a bus stop watching the buses go by. Each bus represents an opportunity. You don’t have to take the first bus that comes by, and one bus might lead you to another and you might have to change buses several times, but you gotta get on a bus.”  Believe me after that advice from Ross, I was out the door looking for a bus. Now I can see this… years later I’m going to run in to one of you (obviously not the class valedictorian) and you’re going to say that ten years ago you told me to get on a bus….

I don’t know what your particular bus will be like. It might not be the perfect bus. It probably won’t be the bus that you’ve imagined for yourself, mine wasn’t. But of this I’m fairly certain, you will find your bus. The fact that you are here today, that you have worked hard and long to achieve a significant goal, is all the evidence I need to reach that conclusion.

One might surmise from my remarks that I believe college does little to prepare you for a job, a career, or your destiny, but I don’t mean to suggest that at all, for as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The things taught in school are not an education but the means of education.” These then are some of the means you have acquired.

You’ve learned that you have to work hard for what you want.
You’ve learned tolerance for people who are different from you and have different points of view.
You’ve learned independence and self-motivation
You’ve learned that you can finish a difficult task
And you’ve learned some of your capabilities and even more importantly, you’ve learned a little about your limitations.

I’ve often thought of a career objective as being like the apex of a pyramid. The higher you want your personal apex to be, the broader and stronger the base must be. The experiences you’ve had, in college and before are a vital part of your foundation, but they aren’t the entire foundation. There is more to be done, there is much more to be learned.

If you got the post graduation job you’ve always dreamed of, great. If you didn’t, you’ll get another. If there is no other right now, work towards the graduate degree you’ve thought about, or find out some more about the world through travel, or start your own business, or play in a band, or help out your family or community for awhile, or move to NYC, or perhaps, look for another bus altogether.

I don’t want to get maudlin here at the end of my remarks, but I can’t help but leave this occasion with a great sense of pride in your accomplishments and a sense of optimism for the future. Pride because I know of the hard work and sacrifice that it took for you to get here, and optimism because I know that our community, our country and our world will be a better place with people like you in it.

 

 

 

 

He’s a Oner

I lost a friend last week.  No, it wasn’t a surprise.  The tumors in his brain finally got the upper hand.  The fact that I knew it was coming makes it no easier to accept.    You can see from the title above that I still think of him in the present tense, and I suspect that I always will.  That’s his character.

Although I have known him for well over half my life, there are others who can give the particulars of his life, fully lived, far better than I.  There have been times when I’ve not seen him for stretches of time, but when we reengage it’s as if I’ve seen him every day of my life.  In many ways our lives seemed to take parallel paths, but there were important differences as well.  I think it was the differences that made our friendship worth the effort.

Robert (Bob) Norman Sharpe was born a few months before me in 1943.  We were babies of one war and shaped to manhood by a much later war.  He lived his three score and ten, but it wasn’t enough.  There should have been more.  He and I shared the lower middle class roots of a working class family, but neither of us saw our beginnings as a limit to our aspirations.  We both went to small state colleges, but the formal education we received only served to scratch an itch of intellectual curiosity that would continue to grow and would last a lifetime.  We both married good women; most would say far better than we deserved, and these women stayed with us through thick and thin, often more thin than thick.  Just like the vows said.  In fact, Bob told me that after he returned from his tour in Viet Nam, that his wife, Nan, saved his life.  Saved him from himself.

Bob and I both joined the Army when the Army needed fodder for the relentless mill of war.  We both pinned on our gold bars at roughly the same time, with the prospect of fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia a virtual certainty.  We had different strategies for survival.  He opted for the the Special Forces, presumably the best preparation one could get for combat.  I, on the other hand, had the good fortune to transfer to the Adjutant General Corps and receive training in computers and systems design.  No one ever killed a systems engineer, at least not in combat.  Both strategies worked, but our experiences were markedly different.  Bob, like most combat veterans, did not talk much about the reality of his experience, but every now and then, something would surface, usually after a long night of too much mizuwari in a Tokyo bar.  One evening he spoke of an increasing sense of invulnerability in combat.  He hadn’t been killed; therefore, he couldn’t be killed.  In fact, he said that once or twice he was driven to prove his presumption by standing up, without cover in the midst of a firefight. Waiting for the bullet that never came.

Bob was a leader of men. And his men loved him whether in combat, in business or on the banks of a trout stream.  I suspect this type of respect of one man for another has much to do with characteristics we don’t often discuss.  Bob cared for his friends as he cared for those for whom he had responsibility.  He was not reticent of showing how he felt.  It’s now a little trite to say it, but Bob “led from the front.”  He never asked of anyone what he himself could not or would not give.

Bob and I both were recruited out of the military by a then small computer company that was willing to take a risk on us if we would take the risk of the company surviving.  It did and we did as well.  We both went through entry level training in programming and systems design, where I had a slight advantage, but ultimately we both wound up in sales as products of an intensive sales training program for which we were selected to the first class.  We traveled our assigned areas and ultimately the world, seeking business for our company and new experiences and advancement for ourselves.  It is said that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and certainly we were the beneficiaries of a rising tide, but we did more than our part in using that rising tide to our advantage.

Bob’s favorite author, to whom he introduced me, was H. L. Mencken, and he could quote  situationally appropriate bits and pieces of the Mencken philosophy at the drop of a hat.  I heard from him more than once, “…every man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, raise a black flag, and begin slitting throats.”  But his bookshelf and his reading wasn’t limited to Mencken.  Bob was one of those rare types who not only read extensively, but retained almost everything he read.  He could recite stanzas from Shakespeare as well as lines from Mencken.  He knew Bob Dylan cold.  His telling of jokes was legendary.  Some people can, most can’t.  He could.  He would mimic the brogue of a corporal of the guard from the north of England as easily as a sharecropper from Louisiana.  Thing about Bob’s jokes is that they were always on point to the conversation and they were believable.  And he could, and did, keep it up all night.

Bob collected first edition books as well as wines from around the world.  He and I would often prowl the wine auction in Dallas looking for overlooked Burgundies or super Tuscans that were a bargain, or that we just had to have.  He built a great cellar and enjoyed it immensely.  I, on the other hand, bought as he did, but I couldn’t bring myself to drink the really good ones.  Bob noticed my reluctance to pull the cork on a great bottle and once said to me, “Gary, there are two types of wine people in the world.  Those that drink from the top of their cellar, or others like you who always drink from the bottom.”  You know, he was right.  I just had to throw away three cases of really good wines, collected over the years, that had aged out and gone bad sitting at the top of my cellar.  That would never have happened to Bob.

Bob, like all of us, had his idiosyncrasies, but even here, his were larger than life.  I remember a story told by a long time hunting partner about a pheasant hunt in Nebraska. At the end of the day their group repaired to the local pub for some refreshing libations and an opportunity to recount the shots made, missed and not taken.  Another group, most likely locals, was at a table nearby.  They were eating pickled jalapeños out of a jar and chasing it with a cold brew.  Wanting to show up the Texas group, they offered the jar to Bob’s table and one of their number ate not one, but two jalapeños and passed the jar back with a smirk.  To counter, another of the local chaps, ate the last jalapeño, then chased it not with a beer but a swig of the pickling juice in the jar and passed the jar back to the Texans.  Bob had had enough.  He grabbed the jar, chugged the remainder of the juice then took a bite out of the jar.  The locals said not a word, but went about their business.  That was Bob.

As I was cleaning out the wines that I had let go bad in my cellar, I found a 1.5 liter bottle of 1986 Beaulieu Vineyards, Georges de Latour, Private Reserve, 50th Anniversary.  It was still packed in a presentation case on which Bob had inscribed a note on the occasion of my 50th birthday.  As I said, Bob knew his wines and he knew his man.

I’ve thought a couple of times over the last twenty years of opening that wine, perhaps to impress others, perhaps to enjoy myself. But I never did, and I’m glad.  I think I’ll save it for when I might see Bob next, or if, as I suspect, I don’t, at least I will think of him and what he meant to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evil by Any Name

Al-dawla al-islamiya fi al-iraq wa al-sham.  There you have it.  This is the full name  (in arabic) of the group that is currently terrorizing large swaths of Iraq and Syria by using inhuman terror techniques more familiar to the middle ages.  They also have a significant number of the citizens of the civilized world shaking in their boots and shaking their fists clamoring for retribution and then destruction.

As I previously opined in a piece about the former dictator of Libya, Muammar Khadaffi, it’s nigh well impossible to focus on an enemy if you can’t agree on a name for the evil.  Let’s see,  Obama and his crowd insist on referring to them by the acronym ISIL which stands for The Islamic Sate in Iraq and the Levant, and there’s some support for that naming convention in that the arabic “al-sham” evidently most correctly translates  to  “The Levant”.  The fourth estate, at least in the western world, insist on using ISIS or The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and there is also some logic to this as they are doing most of their current damage in Iraq and hide out in Syria.  One hold-out of the pen and ink crowd is the Associated Press which eschews any high fallutin’ name as giving them too much credit for the sicko, killer, creeps they are and merely refers to them as “Islamic militants”. I rather like that terminology, but I would substitute terrorists for militants; unfortunately, in retrospect, “Islamic terrorists” is already pretty overworked.  They themselves, likely after having consulted with a good public relations outfit somewhere in The Levant, have been referring to themselves in their tweets and blog posts simply as The Islamic State.  You can probably see why.

After several hours of frustrating research, I determined that if we were going to have these guys as public enemy number one, I would have to take it on myself to straighten this naming mess out, because I want to get rid of these murdering bas*@#ds.

I’ve ruled out the Obama construction of ISIL for many reasons, not the least of which is that no one, and I mean no one, knows who or what or where The Levant is.  One possible meaning of levant is that it is the present participle of the french irregular verb lever to rise.  Translated to the King’s english it would mean “rising” or if you added the article “le” to it-the rising.  Nah.  I don’t think that’s it. Our government types don’t learn French anymore.  If it’s referring to a place, well, it’s a poor choice because almost no one knows where it is, and if they think they know they’re wrong.  One, usually impeccable source identifies it as “the eastern Mediterranean littoral between Anatolia and Egypt”.  I know the Med, but Littoral and Anatolia goes for naught.  This definition goes on to say that “it includes Cyprus, Israel, Palestine and Aleppo Vilaytel”.  See what I mean. Cyprus for chris sakes.  I dug deeper.  Another usually definitive source said that it is an area, “bounded by the Taurus Mountains to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the West, the northern Arabian desert to the South and Upper Mesopotemia to the east.  Does that help?  Ever been to the Four Seasons Mesopotemia.  Of course not.  ISIL is another case of the Obamaites being too particular about the facts, getting caught up in the details of things, and missing the big picture.  Many of the pundit class say they use it because it implies that the threat goes beyond Iraq and Syria.  I agree with that, but it gets a little fuzzy when you throw in Upper Mesopotemia.

ISIS won’t work because it’s just too confusing.  First of all Isis, as you all know, is the name of the Egyptian goddess who is the offspring of Nut, the Goddess of the Sky and Geb the God of the Earth who then married her own brother Osiris.  This Eqyptian god and goddess stuff get pretty kinky.  So you can see why CNN and the New York Times have made a really big mistake insisting on using ISIS to refer to this particular group of murdering thugs.   In addition Isis is also a perfectly good, and fairly common name of certain of the fairer sex including one Isis Martinez of Miami who has started an on-line  campaign to keep the news media from corrupting an old and honorable name.

I would never go for The Islamic State as the bad guys would really prefer if only because that’s what, after consulting with some PR types, they seem to prefer.  Seems to me we have plenty of Islamic States already, that is, those sovereign states which have adopted a theocratic basis for their governance.  Even most of this crowd are, apparently, joining up with us to get in on the destruction of these  pretenders to Islam who murder indiscriminately any who gets in their way.

That leaves us, then, with only the AP appellation of Islamic militants, but that just doesn’t get it for me.  It’s overly broad, overly used and doesn’t convey the heinous nature of what they do and how they are doing it.  I’m open to suggestions, but in the interim, I propose, PIMIPIS&OPifWLT.  It’s a little long and unwieldy, but I think it says it all.  Perverted Islamic Murderers of Innocent Peoples in Iraq and Syria and Other Places if We Let Them.

I’m still open to suggestions.

 

 

 

 

The History of God(s)

Never let it be said that I’m afraid of tackling the tough stuff. Any one who writes about god in Texas better be a preacher or a converted sinner.  I am neither.

I’m not taking  a secular nor a religious approach to the topic.  I’m going to try to deal with the subject as my old history teacher and wide receiver coach, Wally L., would have.  Only the facts…names and dates in particular.  This is not the place for, nor am I inclined to evangelize a point of view.  I’ll let you decide for yourself if any of this makes sense.

For source material I’ve relied on the research of cadres of academics who never tire of writing about god(s) as well as the King James Version of The Good Book.  I’ve not spent much time on the Torah or the Quran as they are but other versions of the Abrahamic tradition and tend to deal with the dogma and laws of their respective brands of religion. As far as I can tell, and according to the people who really study this stuff, they all give allegiance to the same god, abeit in sharply different ways.  Oddly, none of the great bodies of religious writings deal with the origin of god.  Let me give you but one example.  In Genesis, the first verse of the first chapter says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  Nary a word about when or from whence god came.  I guess the implication is that he was just always there…in the beginning, whenever that was.  I know.  You and I were taught in whatever version of Sunday school we attended that Moses wrote Genesis, and he had a direct pipeline to the man.  Remember Moses did the burning bush thing with god and actually spoke (or communicated somehow) to him about a whole range of things, or at least ten of them.  The problem is that all the smart guys pooh pooh this idea.  Moses died about 1441 BCE and all the other scholarly evidence points to Genesis being written between 600 and 500 BCE.  The actual authorship of Genesis is variously ascribed to one of several sources.  The one embraced by most current biblical scholars is referred to as Yahwist or Jahwist who gathered the stories told around campfires in the desert and merged these stories with bits and pieces of legend from the Babylonians and other ancient peoples.  In these passages, the Hebrew letters YHWH, also Yahweh or Jehovah, were used to designate god.  Yes, I know, it’s really confusing.  And this only deals with the god of Abraham.  So now we have one version of god, the presence of which is described only in a book (Genesis) who no one is really sure who wrote or when it was written.  To add further to the confusion, Genesis, as well as the rest of the bible wasn’t even the official word of god until Emperor Constantine gathered up a bunch of bishops of the church and had them vote on which books were in or out at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE.  As word has it, this august group also voted in Jesus as well…just to make it official I guess.

This god of Abraham now is accepted and venerated by roughly 50% of the peeps in the world.  Yep.  That’s right.  2.1 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims (although at the rate they keep killing one another, this number may go down), and 14 million Jews out of a total world population of 7.2 billion.  Hmm.  That means in about four thousand years, there’s still not a clear majority opinion on the matter.  Remember I said in the beginning, I only deal in facts.

This next bit may be a bit controversial, but I believe it to be backed up by the science.  The god of Abraham wasn’t the first monotheistic god.  Yes, that’s what I said.  There were other supreme (gods) before Abraham’s version.  I’m not making this stuff up.  A word on monotheism.  It is, as you know, the belief in one all powerful god.  Omnipotent and omniscient.  The record, as it is currently understood by man, can point to no evidence of monotheism before 1750 BCE.  None, nada.  Yes, there were all kinds of gods, but none of the sort that most of us have come to believe is the god of Abraham.  Now the question for you is does the fact that there is no historical evidence of a single, all powerful god prior to that date mean that one did not exist,  that man had just not discovered him yet, or that he was merely in hiding waiting for a more propitious moment to reveal himself to man.  Another of the many tough questions for you to answer.

As I suggested above, at or about the same time in other regions of the ancient world, civilizations were morphing from polytheism to their own brand of a monotheistic god.  So at about the same time (give or take a few hundred years) polytheistic gods began to go out of favor and began to be replaced by other, more powerful and dynastic supreme beings.  That fact that there was then and continues today to be more than one version of these supreme beings is more than a little problematic from a logic point of view, i.e. how can there be more than one supreme anything?  That means of course, if you follow this line of reasoning, that either one is right and the others are wrong, or that all of them are wrong.  I have my suspicions, but I’m leaving it to you, dear reader, to figure it out for yourself.

Let me ask you this, if there is god, what does this god look like?  Hmmm.  The only place I was able to find some certainty on this question was in classical greek and roman history.  They had pretty fixed ideas about what their god(s) looked like.  If you care to look, you can find paintings and sculptures of Zeus, Jupiter, Mars and all the rest, and they look like, well, er, you and I.  Of course, I know they generally were wrapped in robes and carried lightening bolts or tridents or other paraphernalia, but they pretty much looked like us humans.  In case you are interested this phenomenum is called anthropomorphism…which is the assignment of human characteristics to non-humans.  Practitioners of the christian faith, by and large, hang their vision of their god on Genesis 1:26-27 wherein is says in part…”and god created humankind in his image…”.  Clearly whoever read this part of Genesis took some liberties when they started putting oil on canvas.  You will remember that most god pictures in churches and museums depicts a 40’ish male with wavy long brown hair, a beard that would make your average hippie proud, and a robe with a rope sash.  I will admit that I haven’t done extensive research on this, but I’m pretty sure that the KJV says naught about rope sashes and beards.  Oddly, the other two religions of the Abrahamic tradition think it is verboten to paint a picture or build a statue of what god looks like.  And if you are of the Islamic faith, you cold get in really deep water by doing so.

So here it is in a nut shell.  An abbreviated Cliff notes version of the god(s) time line. In short, it is the history of god.

Sometime during the stone age, most likely in the middle paleolithic era (200,000-45,000 BCE), evidence emerged that early man (homo neanderthalensis) practiced totem and animal worship.  Whether these early rituals should be counted as the earliest evidence of gods is a mystery to me, but it sure gets a lot of attention from folks inside the ivy covered walls.  More importantly, and more certainly, during the upper paleolithic age (50,000 BCE-10,000BCE, archeologists have discovered anthropomorphic images in burial sites.  These images and other burial evidence are strongly suggestive of belief in a “greater power” and some form of life beyond death.  If these don’t count as gods, they certainly seem to have god-like characteristics.

Evidence of wide spread polytheism emerged in the civilizations of the neolithic age which spanned the period from 10,000 to 2,000 BCE.  In fact, the evidence I’ve seen suggests that this period was the absolute hay day for gods.  In the Tigris and Euphrates river valley the Sumarians and and Mesopotanians had a surfeit of cranky and demanding gods and goddesses..  In Egypt, one king had the clever idea of naming himself as a god, but also embraced Horus, the Falcon god, Osiris, the Nile god, and Ra, the sun god as well as many others.  In the Indus river valley the gods (too many and confusing to name) were emerging as the foundation of the Hindu religion.  The Agean civilizations, ancient Greece, Rome, Minoa, and Mycea not only had their gods, they gave human characteristics to them and assigned them functional responsibilities.  Zeus, Jupiter, Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, et al reigned over certain of natural phenomena.

For reasons that their is little agreement on, the god tide turned about 2000 BCE.  Polytheism began to falter and monotheism, and single all powerful gods began to emerge.  Chief among this new class of gods was the aforementioned god of Abraham.  He/she/it appeared, as described in Genesis, with the Covenant of Abraham when god called on him to abandon his home and move lock, stock and barrel to the promised land called Canaan.  As far as I can tell, there is no earlier reference to this god before the Covenant…well, there is the reference in Genesis I cited earlier about” …in the beginning…”.

Perhaps you will be surprised to know that there are still other monotheistic gods at work today.  The Zoroastrians have their Ahura Mastra, the Baha’i have their own god who they call interchangeably allah or god, and those followers of the Sikh faith have Waheguru.  I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed.

So you say, “what’s the point of all of this.  Well, I dunno except that I find it interesting that about 85% of the population of the planet claim allegiance to some god or other. The other 15% are either outright disbelievers or don’t much give a flip one way or the other.  One thing is for sure and that is that the idea of god in various forms has been around for a long, long time.  Which leads me to where I come out on the issue (now I’m moving from historical fact to opinion, so you are entitled to stop reading here).  The fact of a single, omnipotent, omniscient supernatural power does not appeal to me on the face of it and does not seem to be supported by empirical evidence.  Likewise, having a whole boatload of gods for various purposes doesn’t pass my sniff test either.  What I do believe is supported by evidence gathered over the millennia is that the idea of god(s) is a powerful notion which has enjoyed staying power through the ages.  I suspect that there is no evidence or lack thereof that would persuade those who are inclined to believe in either the fact or idea of god to abandon that belief.  It may be that belief in some god is in the very nature of man. Don’t worry, I’m not going to let this devolve into a “did god create man or did man create god” philosophical squabble.

Some time ago I had the joy of a hike around our farm with one of my grandchildren.  During the course of our walk we talked.  Well, mostly he asked questions, and I tried to answer.  “Pops”, he asked, “where does dirt come from?”.  You know the kind of questions I’m talking about.  And finally, he asked what I will call the G question.  “Pops, do you believe in god?”  I had long anticipated the time when one of my grandchildren would ask, and I thought I had prepared well for it.  I had not.  My answer was dissembling and confusing, and wasn’t really an answer.  I mumbled something about nature and the nature of man.  “Well”, he said, “what I really meant is that if there is a god and god is good, why wouldn’t a lot of gods be better?”.  I had no answer then and I have none now.