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Not So Nice New England Ice

Dec
18
2008

As I sit here at my computer, a Honda generator hums in the background, a near constant companion since Friday when I ventured outside to assess the damage wreaked by New England’s great December ice storm.

Honda’s trusty piece of equipment has kept the house warm and the fridge cool, kept water flowing from our well, and kept a few lights and outlets energized. All things considered, we’ve got it pretty good; up the street one house has a basement filled with water. It was three feet deep before the local fire company arrived with a gas-powered pump to keep things from getting into the electrical system. A friend in one of the harder-hit communities also has water in his basement – and a tree in his house. His family is huddled around a woodstove making memories while keeping the pipes from freezing at night (with a little help – on Monday temperatures neared an unseasonably warm 60).

Apart from the main thoroughfares, the roads here remain littered with trees and wires. Off the main routes, the damage this storm visited upon the region is vividly apparent. Few trees were spared, losing tops and limbs under the weight of the heavy ice that coated them during the overnight storm (which the National Weather Service warned as late as Thursday might only amount to a “light glazing”). Many roads were blocked by fallen trees, wires, and utility poles, and many houses were damaged by fallen trees and limbs as well. No telling when things will be back to normal, but I’ve got some observations to share with the outside world as soon as I’m able to get to a source of free WiFi.

First, thank you to WTAG, the big AM radio station out of Worcester. Once I got the generator running and tuned in, their broadcast provided a hugely important local service, namely the dissemination of information. To hear radio out of Boston, you’d have no idea of the extent of the devastation folks in much of Northern New England are feeling. WTAG was up and running on generators, answering questions and conveying information received from listeners via text message. WTAG’s suspension of normal broadcasting to provide that vital service was appreciated by many thousands of people otherwise cut off from the rest of the world.

The staff of the Boston Globe, on the other hand, should be ashamed of themselves. While many the region were still without heat or power on Sunday morning, that paper’s lead story was about the difficulty South Shore auto dealers are having selling cars. Pardon me while I wipe the tear from my eye.

You’d think we outlanders would be used to the snubs by now, but I suggest the Globe reconsider calling itself New England’s newspaper until they post a reporter or two west of Route 128. My parents had read more about our situation in the Atlanta Journal Constitution than the Globe carried in their paper. And folks who have gotten television back say the news stations are also largely downplaying the storm’s aftermath.

While listening to WTAG I also noted the regular updates on power restoration provided by electrical utility National Grid. My electric company, Unitil, has been absent through it all. The Fitchburg area, which is largely served by Unitil, is among the hardest hit areas of the state, but no one has heard much from them. I managed to get online briefly this morning courtesy Panera Bread’s free WiFi service and browsed over to Unitil’s web page where I found one pathetically uninformative press release on the situation.

Here’s a clue to the folks at Unitil: when the power is out, most folks can’t get to your Web site. How about a call to the local radio stations to let us know what you are up to?

I’ll spare you a full catalog of the the object lessons in self reliance and the dangers of becoming dependent on Big Government. But I will suggest that you get yourself a generator. And I pity any who are still waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency or someone from Beacon Hill to come with the necessities.

Look out your window and you’ll find neighbors helping neighbors, and local communities mustering their resources to weather the storm — as it should be.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 8:44 AM | Permalink

Eagles, Turkeys and Detroit

Dec
8
2008

Benjamin Franklin’s distaste over the choice of bald eagle as the symbol of the then-fledgling United States of America is more appropriate in 2009 than when, in 1784, he wrote to his daughter Sara Bache about his low regard for the bird:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy.”

Franklin would have preferred that the turkey be designated our national bird, which may be why his description of the eagle is so disdainful. But that characterization comes into keen focus these days, especially the line, “Men who live by Sharping & Robbing,” which strikes me as a spot-on description of the sight of the CEOs of America’s Big Three automakers in Washington, D.C., hats in hand, begging for relief from the government.

What temerity. What brass. What a shameful, pitiful display.

Instead of standing before their stockholders and employees to issue an apology for failing to do what they are paid handsomely to do, they travel to the Capitol to ask Congress (perhaps the only assemblage of people in the country who can sympathize) for a handout – apparently a fait accompli at this writing.

Relying on nostalgia when American consumers demand quality, these so-called captains of industry act as if they have a right to access the wallets of the American taxpayer because of their own collective failure to perform the basic functions of their jobs, namely, manage a profit-making company profitably. If we can’t build cars for which Americans are willing to pay their hard-earned money, their logic goes, we’ll just pull an end-around and take their money via Washington. America owes us.

But really, should we expect less? These are the same geniuses who think so little of the intelligence of the American consumer that, if we don’t want to buy a Ford Taurus, maybe we’ll buy a Mercury Sable; if we don’t want to buy a Chevy Tahoe, maybe we’ll buy a GMC Yukon. Same car, different label.

These are the rocket scientists who lobby Congress for legislation that makes it cheaper for them to move production out of the country in order to save a few pennies and please wealthy stockholders, and then wonder why the former jobholder, America’s middle class, doesn’t have the money to buy American products anymore.

Last month I wrote of a growing frustration within the citizenry and a potential for violence that I predicted would be incited, in part, by a sense that Congress is spending taxpayer money at the behest of the wealthy and well-connected, without regard for the tax payer. This bailout of the auto industry is just such a scenario, but the prediction may be coming to pass much sooner than expected.

Robber barons and their abettors in Washington have grown so out of touch with us hoi polloi that they can’t understand the outrage welling up when we read news reports of fat bailout checks being given to supposed economic stalwarts, even as more and more of us find ourselves out of work. This past weekend, employees of Chicago vinyl window maker Republic Windows and Doors occupied their shuttered factory after being laid off last week, upset that they will likely not be paid the severance owed them. Republic closed down after being denied credit by Bank of America.

According to news reports, Bank of America issued a curt and callous statement that it isn’t responsible for Republic’s financial obligations.

Are you kidding me? Bank of America isn’t responsible for Republic’s financial obligations, but Republic’s employees, apparently, are responsible for Bank ofAmerica’s financial obligations – to the tune of a $25 billion taxpayer-funded economic relief check specifically intended to fund the kind of credit Republic says it needs, and that would have allowed its 300 workers to make ends meet for at least one more cold month. Now really, who’s fooling whom here?

Bald eagles, once again, swooping in to steal from the labors of the hard working fishing hawk.

Benjamin Franklin wasn’t able to gain enough support for his choice of turkey over the eagle as the national bird. More than two centuries later, I suppose, it doesn’t matter: Washington and Detroit are full of both.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 2:57 PM | Permalink

Merry Christmas, David

Dec
2
2008

For the last four years I have been involved in prison ministry as a volunteer with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, primarily at the medium security facility in nearby Shirley. I was a bit nervous at first – going behind prison walls to comingle with convicted felons can be an unsettling prospect – but the ministry has become an integral and deeply fulfilling part of my life.

I go in with a small team to conduct a faith-based addiction recovery program called the Most Excellent Way. Participants in our fellowship are mostly men whose crimes involved drug or alcohol, and we gather each Sunday evening to study the Bible in keeping with the Christian philosophy that sincere belief in and faithful adherence to the teachings of Christ is the only way to truly be set free from our addictions.

There’s plenty of debate as to whether faith-based initiatives actually reduce instances of recidivism among prisoners who participate in such programs; all I can tell you is that I have seen lives change in my short experience. That’s good enough for me.

It’s not unusual for tire-kickers to attend our Bible study. There’s no shortage of individuals in prison who want to game the system in order to earn “good time” and build up a resume for early release. After all, attending a religious program is, for obvious reasons, a popular way to demonstrate repentance and reform. Parole boards are not easily swayed by such window dressing. Plenty of deals have been struck with God by men who find themselves in foxholes and prison cells, and many times those deals are quickly and conveniently forgotten when the pleading party finds himself removed from his uncomfortable circumstances.

But there are those occasions when the change is sincere. Last Sunday I said goodbye to one man who I believe exemplifies that kind of genuine change.

David first showed up at the Most Excellent Way more than a year ago. What I first noticed about David were the tattoos that he wore on his neck and hands. When I asked him about them, he apologized because they were, apparently, vulgar. David was quiet, but when he did speak it wasn’t uncommon to hear rough language punctuate his contribution to the discussion. As with the tattoos, he’d catch himself and apologize for his choice of words.

Before long it became apparent that David was intent on cleaning up his act. The swearing stopped and the questions became more insightful. He rarely missed a Sunday, no matter how bad the weather or how big the game (Sunday nights, after all, include Super Bowl Sunday). He went from only asking questions to helping other inmates find answers to theirs, and then to encouraging other men to join in the weekly fellowship.

Often, when a night’s studies would come to a close, David would ask that we remember his family – a wife and two young boys – in prayer. Because he came to his faith in prison the David they knew was not the David he had become, and his concern was that he would be able to demonstrate that he had, indeed, changed his ways.

So today, on the cusp of the Christmas holiday, I think of the wonderful gift of forgiveness that was offered and accepted by David, and how he will go home to be with his family for the first time in a few years to share a special season. I think about how the new David is himself a gift to his family; that rather than simply being reunited with a man who would continue to live a selfish life — the consequences of which would visit more pain upon a wife and sons — his family will instead be gifted with a husband and father whose desire is to be an example of a life well lived.

David’s road will not be easy, and he knows it. Merely wanting to do better won’t make it so, and there may be more days than not when he finds himself on his own in this world. He’ll need to rely on God on this new journey as he works to earn the trust of his family and of society, and especially during those daunting times when that trust seems a long way off. I do believe that David has equipped himself to meet that challenge, however.

By sharing their lives with me Sunday nights, David and the other men I’ve come to know and love give me great encouragement in my own life, and are the reason I look forward to going to prison each week. If they can find joy behind bars, certainly we can find it on the outside in our daily lives.

And that, I think, is a tremendous gift for which we can be grateful even in this grim holiday season. Merry Christmas, David.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 2:40 PM | Permalink

Deep Fried Turkey

Nov
27
2008

It’s Thanksgiving. Time to take my life into my own hands.

The Spinney family has recently grown fond of cooking the holiday bird in one of those Cajun deep fryers and, as I learned a few years ago, you can’t be too careful when working with boiling oil.

We had an early snow in North Central Massachusetts, a sort of deke by Old Man Winter who rarely showed his bewhiskered face the rest of the year. A coating of snow on the ground made for a festive atmosphere and we had a number of friends and family over for the feast.

After I set up the pot and got it roiling I took the turkey outside for a plunge into the oil. My friend John Sullivan was with me and we chatted about nothing in particular. How hard can this be? I set the turkey down in the snow to make some adjustments, and then began to lower it into the pot. Some snow had stuck to the bird and as soon as it came in contact with the oil the cauldron turned violent. I quickly backed off and looked over at John. We both laughed nervously at the reaction and contemplated what to do next.

I decided that the best move would be to proceed with the operation, but with speed and awareness. I suggested to John that he move back a few feet and, screwing up my courage, I swiftly dropped the turkey into the pot.

Backing quickly away from the scene, the combination of moist bird, cold snow, and an overfull pot of super hot oil erupted into a fireball that rose fifteen feet into the air and instantly melted the snow around the cooker to a steaming diameter of about six feet.

It was spectacular. It was frightening. It was a valuable lesson. It was a close call.

I had set everything up far enough away from the house and cars so that there was no immediate danger of showing up on the evening news, and – thankfully – it was over as quickly as it happened. Maybe the adrenal rush had something to do with it, but an hour later we were all tucking in to a Thanksgiving turkey that was more succulent than others in memory. Nothing like a fireball in your backyard to put the emphasis on “thanks” in the holiday.

I’ll do it again this year – wiser for the experience. Oil and water don’t mix, particularly at high temperatures – and when I gather around the table with family I’ll give thanks to God for health, safety, His blessings and provision, and for the privilege of living in a country where I have a reasonable chance of improving my lot during the coming year.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 10:35 AM | Permalink

History Lesson

Nov
10
2008

President elect Barack Obama is a student of recent presidential history. He’s been especially interested in the experiences of President Clinton during the first two years of his administration, hoping to learn from the successes, avoiding the mistakes. It’s been reported that Obama is especially keen on steering clear of the problems that came about when President Clinton tried to push an overly ambitious agenda onto Congress, most notably in the form of healthcare reform, resulting in political backlash and a stunning win for the GOP during the 1994 mid-term elections.

Another Clinton-era lesson our president-to-be would do well to take to heart is the one delivered on April 19, 1995 when Timothy McVeigh detonated a truckload of fertilizer near the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City.

McVeigh saw himself as a soldier and patriot who drew twisted inspiration from the Declaration of Independence and other American Revolution-era documents. He was irritated by high taxes and what he felt was an assault on his constitutional rights. Motivated by, among other factors, a sense that his country’s government was growing more and more out of touch with its people, he acted out his frustrations in a single moment of extreme violence that took the lives of 168 federal employees, and children in the facility’s daycare center.

You see, America is a country born of bloody revolution, yet we’ve been told since our earliest days in elementary school that we citizens have the power and duty to effect political change through the ballot box. Rather than take up arms, we have the opportunity every two years to “throw the bums out” and show our public servants who’s boss.

But few actually believe that to be the case anymore. Congress is more apt to do the bidding of monied special interests, with high-powered lobbyists calling the shots, doling out favors and campaign cash to those congressmen who vote the correct way.

Barack Obama is on the cusp of inheriting a nation where many of the conditions that fostered McVeigh’s terrorism not only remain, but have been exacerbated by nose-diving economic conditions and piqued political rhetoric. Branded as a socialist and terrorist-friend during the last weeks of the presidential campaign, there’s already a fear that, among other things, the federal government under Obama-Pelosi-Reid is going to come hard after the Second Amendment — a short-fuse issue for those on the extreme political right who consider the right to bear arms nothing short of sacrosanct.

There is also concern among many Americans that the federal government will use the current economic crisis as an excuse to seize authority and grab power. Anger is already boiling over the recent $750 billion economic bailout, seen as a hasty solution to a problem created by greedy Wall Street barons and irresponsible layabouts, to be paid for by hard working citizens. How many desperate souls today are facing the prospect of foreclosure, unemployment, and a rising cost of living? How many of those people may hold to an extremist political view that, like McVeigh, see violence as the only remaining answer to their problem?

State governments are not immune to this sort of distrust, either. Here in Massachusetts, where scandal after scandal emerged against the backdrop of a failed citizen’s initiative to repeal the state income tax, there’s a definite sense that the legislature and its 90 percent Democrat majority is more concerned with back-scratching and political hackery than with doing the people’s business. Many people share similar frustrations without taking those feelings to a McVeigh-like extreme; it only takes one to bring about tragedy.

We’ve already got a pretty good idea of who that person is: white, male, intelligent but under-educated, unemployed and with a history of job transience, possibly a veteran, most likely single or in a failing marriage. He may at times be a heavy drinker, and the people he knows are in similar circumstances and can offer little in the way of moral support. He reads voraciously, spends a lot of time online in chat rooms and browsing extremist web sites, has probably studied documents like the Federalist Papers extensively, and believes himself to be cast in the mold of a colonial patriot. He may not be a blatant bigot, but he has racist tendencies.

If he voted, it was probably for a hard conservative third party candidate. He’s prone to accosting strangers at the gas station, diner, post office, or grocery to offer unsolicited complaints about taxes, illegal immigration, creeping socialism, or other forms of what he believes to be governmental oppression. Those offering even polite agreement can expect to endure an irate philosophical monologue of anti-government invective in hopes of discovering like-minded, frustrated “patriots.” Our friend, believing the power of his vote to have been usurped by a powerful and privileged few, may seek other means to show his displeasure.

Barack Obama promised change, and his campaign attracted hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of new voters who responded en masse to eight years of bungling government under Republican stewardship. Some three million people donated to his campaign coffers in small amounts, adding up to hundreds of millions in a political war chest.

But already there are accusations that leftist groups, most notably MoveOn.org, will want to see something in return for their efforts. MoveOn.org issued a press release shortly after Obama’s victory reminding the world (and, presumably, Obama) of its role in the 2008 election, and many on the right believe Obama will repay in kind.

If the Obama administration is perceived by even a tiny minority of Americans as aggressively advancing a leftist agenda; if his detractors are able to raise a chorus of “I told you so” in the face of taxpayer funded handouts; and if the economy doesn’t improve quickly, with more Americans on the unemployment lines and at the mercy of government welfare programs, things could get ugly – in a hurry. And it doesn’t help matters that there are still too many people in this country who need very little in the way of provocation to take brutal action against a black man.

Although I didn’t vote for him, I will be praying for my new president. I want America to succeed, and so I want Mr. Obama to succeed. I pray he has the benefit of good wisdom and good counsel, and I pray that, like me, the 48 percent who didn’t believe Barack Obama represented their beliefs will give him a chance to prove himself as president. And I pray that our frustrated friend finds a different way to express himself than did Timothy McVeigh.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Weak Flesh, Willing Spirit

Oct
14
2008

When the Apostle Peter proclaimed his unwavering loyalty to Jesus, Christ admonished him with the words, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He knew that, at that time, Peter didn’t have the guts to follow through on his promise. Today, when it comes to politics, evangelicals are in the same boat, lacking the will to break from their beloved Republican Party.

The recent pulpit-based protests of 33 evangelical ministers who decried voter support for Senator Barack Obama as a national moral failure is, sadly, just another example of this weakness. The apparently coordinated effort didn’t so much encourage support for Senator John McCain as it did attempt to dissuade congregants from voting Obama, thus adhering to the letter – but not the spirit – of the law prohibiting tax-exempt religious organizations from making political endorsements.

The justification for the overtly political sermons was that the ministers’ exercise of their First Amendment right of free speech trumps whatever provisions may be found in the byzantine tax code. The pastors involved are spoiling for a fight and have all but dared the Internal Revenue Service to pick up the gantlet they have thrown to the ground in challenge.

I’m not siding with The Man in this case – I’m the Libertarian here. But I do think the 33 pastors and their legal support network, the Alliance Defense Fund, should consider the potential implications if their challenge if successful. A further blurring of the line between politics and religion can only weaken the faithful witness of all churches, and especially that of the evangelical church in America.

Let’s face it, few people take evangelicals seriously anymore. We’re viewed as grumpy, narrow-minded crackpots who believe in ancient fairy tales (more on that when I examine Religulous next week). When evangelicals make the news, as with this protest preaching, we play into the prevailing stereotype.

Worse, with each of these events, we make ourselves more and more irrelevant to those who most need to hear our message of hope in these troubled and difficult times.

It’s not as though the party’s faithful are lacking in influence. During the Republican primaries, evangelicals, after all, were largely responsible for the surprising and unexpected performance of Governor Mike Huckabee, an evangelical Baptist minister.

But that power is often squandered by those who would curry favor in hopes of what seems like personal political gain or enhanced standing with a party that, when it push comes to shove, cares little for the evanelical agenda. On more than one occasion during this election cycle Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family regurgitated a perennial threat to lead an evangelical revolt against the Republican Party should the GOP nominate a candidate not to his liking. When John McCain’s nomination became an inevitability Dobson again issued the challenge, but found himself summoned to the border in his political duel. Demonstrating the cravenness of his protestations, he backed off rather than strengthen Obama’s position.

If the political arm of the religious right truly wanted to send a message to Washington, it should have followed through on Dobson’s threat and taken its millions of conservative voters into a new party. It could be argued that doing so would set politics on its ear, eviscerating a GOP that has abandoned its small government roots in favor of its own brand of big government socialism.

A defection by the evangelicals would almost certainly embolden other voter blocs to, at the very least, demand more responsiveness from their elected representatives. Members of a weakened GOP might be compelled to find homes with the Libertarian Party or Constitution Party, for example, and might force the mainstream media to (finally) give deserved respect to alternative parties.

Instead, Dobson’s empty threat only proved what most already believe to be true: that evangelical voters are Republican Party stooges; willing patsies of political operatives like Karl Rove who have little regard for the beliefs of the evangelical movement. These cynics – or are they realists? – know that by uttering a few choice code words or nominating a suitable running mate, the party’s evangelical members can be relied on to fall in line come November.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 10:00 AM | Permalink

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