Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Two Old Men

So here are two old men.  I had an AI draw them, because AI is good at doing that quickly.

In many ways, they are the same.  They are, obviously, both old.  Quite old, in the stereotypical way that machine intelligence indicates it.  Long white beards.  Skin cragged and wrinkled.  I'm pretty sure they'd both talk plenty about some ailment or another at Thanksgiving dinner.  Perhaps describe a recent humorous colonoscopy episode in detail.

They are both American, which one can tell because whenever you slap Old Glory behind human beings, it means they must be American.  The more flags, the more American. It's kind of a rule.

They are both of European descent, more or less, because America was part of the prompt I gave Dall-E, and most Americans are, for the time being, that way.  It did create images where one was of one race, the other of another.  I didn't choose those, because I didn't want that to be a factor.

You have a choice between these two men.  Which one do you give power to rule?

That depends how we think about power.  Which one seems stronger?  Which one seems more dominant?  Which one is more aggressive?  Which one has More Flag, which means, per the aforementioned Flag Rule, that they're more American?  Which one reflects your anger, and will be more dangerous to your enemies? 

Now, let's think about machine intelligences for a second.  AI doesn't create new things, not really.  It just accesses all prior human thought, everything we know, and spits it back out at us.  It's a mirror.

When I asked it to make this picture, I distinguished between the two men in this way:  Draw one that's gentle and nice.  Draw another that's angry and evil.

Which one do we think is which?  What does that say about us?

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Three

Chapter Three: Of My Journey and Its Portents

As is almost always the case when one is preparing for one’s travels, even the most clearly laid out preparations inevitably seem inadequate. The distance of the journey itself was a negligible one, as barely seventy miles separated the Wexton-Hughes townhome in the Royal Redoubt at Port Baltimore from Duke Fairfax’s expansive and gracious garden estate, whose fields, mazes, and topiary rest upon the grounds of an old colonial battlefield at Manassas.

Time expended in the completion of the transit was not an issue of any consequence, as even in the stately Town Carriage, Father’s Heavy Shooting Brake, or the relaxed and recreational barouche, such a journey would only require a matter of three quarters of an hour; all three can comfortably maintain an airspeed of roughly one hundred miles per hour, although generally the Town Carriage travels at a more sedate seventy five. The twinjet aerophaeton, which was far more nimble, sporting, and required a human pilot, and was thus to be left to Suzanna as her preferred mode of travel, could complete such a journey in less than ten minutes.

Quite obviously, the journey required no mapping of physical terrain, nor any concern about the particulars of an roadbound overland route, which occupied many a thought of our forebears.
Distance and the route were of little import; rather, of greater and more pressing concern was the political terrain over which I and my small retinue would be travelling, as so much of the region surrounding the ruins of the old capital of the failed colonies remains a savage and inhospitable place.

Reports of late had raised concerns of a heightened level of local conflict among the endlessly fractious commoners, as the anarchist rabble and their brutal fascist adversaries contested with one another in an endless series of bloody reprisals. While it was generally understood that these petty conflicts over meagre resources and desolate territory did not involve the Crown, and both the republicans and Caddigan’s jackbooted thugs had historically endeavoured to avoid incurring Her Majesty’s displeasure, there was in the last missive from the Ministry of Information news of some concerning developments.

Messengers had repeatedly come under small arms fire and other crude and violent assaults whilst traversing areas nominally controlled by the Caddiganites, and a Series Nine belonging to the Marquess of Albemarle had been forced to destroy itself after its flight apparatus had been disabled and it had tumbled to earth. The intent of such an action was clearly to seize the fruits of the Royal Society’s significant technological advancements, and to use those stolen discoveries not just to inflict harm to other commoners, but potentially to endeavor a malevolent action against the Crown itself.

The Caddiganites denied any responsibility for this unacceptable violation of Her Majesty’s Property, and placed blame for the transgression entirely upon terrorists from the People’s Front for the Liberation of Powhatan Lands.

The leadership of the PFLPL, of course, had no coherent response, as it is utterly impossible to determine who is in charge of any given anarcholibertarian faction from one day to the next, or even if any particular organisation…although “organisation” is a generous description of such a squabulous, chaotic incoherence of class resentments and pseudointellectual presumptions…still exists.

Father and I suspected Caddigan, of course, as his unseemly lust for dominance unclaimed by the Crown was a far more likely motivation for such a crime than the earnest, childish naivete of the anarchists; that, and the Caddiganites innate willingness to lie and dissemble in the service of their despots’ brutal aspirations was without peer.

In summary, my journey to this gala would be potentially fraught with not-inconsiderable risks to both my life, limb and the property of House Montgomery, risks whose potential impacts I believed I was striving to minimize in every way humanly possible.

In the face of that primary concern, I still needed to accomplish the following on the day of our journey: be refitted into Mother’s dress, respond to a late message received just that morning from the Ladies Aid Society requesting my presence at a tea service tomorrow afternoon, refresh my competence at several familiar and relatively simple Chopin Etudes to the point where I would not embarrass myself when I was inevitably called upon to play, review the documents Father had sent regarding some necessary repairs to our Estate guesthouse, and respond to four outstanding pieces of pressing correspondence that I had somehow not managed to complete the day before.

It is no wonder, then, that when I was finally helped into the comfortable red velour seat of the Town Carriage I was feeling rather mentally fatigued, and hardly of a mind to apply myself to the genteel demands of polite society.

I had chosen the Carriage for expediency's sake, as the Shooting Brake was too bluntly functional for an event of this stature, and the plexiglass shrouded half-open barouche insufficiently resilient should Caddigan or the anarchists make an attempt to disrupt our passage. It was slower, but it would suffice.

As the eight great cowled rotors of the Town Carriage began spinning up with a high electric whine, my maidservant Amanda took her place in the compartment opposite me, the lenses of her glass eyes glistening in her bespoke porcelain face, her unbound synthetic hair softly tossed by the rotor-disturbed air.

“Are you quite ready, milady? Is there anything further you require before we depart?” Her voice lifted over the growing roar, calming and musical, and was a balm to my weary soul.

“Thank you for your consideration, Amanda. There is nothing further I require, and your attentions to our preparation have been most appreciated. Let us be on our way.”

Amanda gave a curt nod, and then paused almost imperceptibly as she communicated silently with the Town Carriage, at which urging the door closed of its own volition. The door hissed and sealed, the roar and whine of the engines vanished, and the carriage was as silent as a winter snowfall. My stalwart footmen Bertrand and Ernest then each took their places on the rear running boards to either side of the carriage compartment, from where they’d observe the terrain below as we flew. Like Amanda, both were Series Nines, and fully upgraded. They were, of course, careful not to in any way impede my view of our progress.

As the carriage rose away from the carriage house landing pad, my view of the city of Baltimore became more and more complete.

Describing it as a city was something of a misnomer at this point in its history, as it was in many ways a shadow of what it had once been. Most of the former city had fallen to ruin centuries ago following two crippling blows; violence following the colonial collapse, and an inexorable rise in sea levels, which remained to this day a challenge for any ports established for travel or trade over the seas. The location, however, remained highly advantageous for a seafaring port, and it was to that end that the Crown had claimed it from the sea. The Royal Redoubt of Port Baltimore covered but a small fraction of the land that had once been host to an industrial city, even as it served much the same purpose for the servants of Her Majesty as it had for a queen many centuries before.

Observing the fortified town through the window of the carriage as we ascended, it was as always striking for the gracious dignity of its architecture; the stately and capacious townhomes, the public gardens and fields, The Queen’s Store (from whence all produce, foodstuffs, and necessities were procured), the recently completed St. Mary’s Cathedral, the spire of whose steeple gleaming resplendent in the late afternoon sun, and of course the neat manufactoriums and processing facilities that lined the wharves of the seaport itself. Tracing along the port hillside, and arranged such that it provided an insurmountable strategic obstacle to any and all who might attempt to assail it, the fifty-foot-high walls of the outer fortifications cradled the ten thousand souls within in their protective embrace.

Outside, much of what remained of that city was still little more than rubble, although here and there the shantytowns of various indigenes and commoners could be seen, as they scrabbled out a meagre existence from small fields or the still-denuded seas.

Further we climbed, as as we flew to the southwest, the character of the land changed. It became more heavily forested, with much of that forest growing on what was once a great sprawl of distributed neighbourhoods, the homes of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of the old republican bourgeoisie. Here and there the remains of a rooftop could be seen, but what once was a maze of bland boulevards and cul de sacs was now devoured by the great forests. Countless souls lived in paper houses built for tuppence and sold for a fortune, and most lived their lives of quiet desperation rushing about trying to service their indebtedness, heedless of the house of cards on which they had built their whole existence. Like the passenger pigeons of legend, these “Americans” fluttered and flew about and filled the skies with their wings until, through the workings of Providence’s cruel sister Hubris, they snared and devoured themselves.

The world does not lament their loss.

As we progressed further to the southwest, the rotted ruins of that culture stretched on and on, providing the viewer with such a grim sameness of landscape that it wearied the imagination, a weariness that lead me to recline sideways against the warm velour of the wingbacked carriage seat, as fatigue and the pressures of the day weighed upon my eyes. The warm sun filled the cabin, even though the altitude was even more frigid than it was at ground level, and the soft movements of the carriage rocked it like a cradle, all of which combined to mean that when I nestled my brow against the familiar comfort of the deep, rich fabric, exhaustion overcame me.

I must have closed my eyes but for a moment, but Lethe visited me as the passing shadow of a noonday cloud, such that I was startled to wakeness when Amanda’s voice gently coaxed me from my slumber.

“Milady, we will be landing in five minutes. May I tend to your hair for a moment, and so prepare you for your arrival?”

I blinked once, and then again, as I sought to regain my composure. “Yes. Amanda, yes, please, please do so.”

She busied herself about my appearance, returning order and decorum to my sleep-scattered hair. As she did so, my gaze returned to the view outside of the window, which was now that of the great and extensive grounds of Duke Fairfax’s estate. Another carriage was disgorging its noble passengers on the landing pad beneath us, and as we hovered and waited our turn to be received properly by the Duke’s servants, I marvelled at the intricate and subtle geometries of the Gardens Fairfax, which ranged freely across nearly one hundred acres of softly rolling countryside, and which were well known as among the loveliest of the classical formal style.

Above and around the perimeter of the estate, a dozen of Her Majesty’s airships of the line kept diligent watch over the arrival of her servants, and whilst I knew that somewhere among them was the HMS Firedrake, Father’s fast attack cruiser, I did not ask Amanda to fetch me opera glasses so that I could gaze upon it in admiration. The Firedrake was a regular visitor to both the Montgomery Estate and Port Baltimore, and it was enough to know that these most stalwart of Her Majesty’s servants were casting their protective care over our persons.

It was a peculiar paradox, I thought in that moment, that such beauty should find its home upon ground that had been fought over and bled over by so many thousands of young men, so many of whom died for a cause…be it the chattel-mad Confederacy or the tragic, ultimately doomed Union…that now mattered to no-one, their cries of victory or of mortal anguish lost to history, as are all of the vicissitudes of our fleeting lives. The history of all human endeavour ends thusly, and all of our conviction that it is not so is, as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes so grimly affirmed, nothing more than vanity.

This was rather a more morbid thought than is best to harbour before arriving in society, and as Amanda finished her repairs to my coiffure, I cast such dourness from my mind.

In a matter of moments, we alighted with the sort of perfection that one expects from a Town Carriage, and with a whir and a hiss, the carriage door opened to welcome in the wind and descending timbre of eight decelerating rotors. Amanda helped me up from my seat, and from the running board Bertrand extended a hand to assist me in the accomplishing of a graceful dismount onto the landing platform, where a half dozen of the Duke’s servants awaited his arriving guests.

The Duke preferred his servants to be more imposing, likely a factor of his decades of stalwart service in the Ministry of Defense. His Series Tens were a hand-and-a-half taller than most, broadly built and massive, and uniformed in a martial manner. It is not that they were actually stronger than a servant of more modest stature…all Series Tens and upgraded prior series servants use the same synthetic musculature…but the impression of heightened power was nonetheless inescapable.

One of them stepped forward, snapped curtly to attention directly before me, and gave a surprisingly gracious bow at the waist.

“Lady Rebecca Wexton-Hughes, of House Montgomery, I assume?” The servant’s voice, a deep polite growl, made it sound as if I was being welcomed by a Bengal tiger, which I do not doubt was the Duke’s intended effect.

“Indeed I am. You are correct.”

“I hope, on behalf of House Fairfax, that your journey from Baltimore was uneventful.”

“It was, and thank you so much for inquiring.”

“It shall be my pleasure to escort you and your retinue to your assigned quarters in the Guest House. Please, follow me.”

I took a deep breath to fortify myself for the social whirlwind to come, and followed closely by dear Amanda, Bertrand, and Ernest, I did as he asked. In that moment, as I strode forward, I felt the pressure of what I presumed to be a trying time arriving unwelcome.

Which, given what was to come to pass, was little more than my own absurd vanity.

Monday, November 27, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Two


Chapter Two: Informing Suzanna of My Plans

I immediately set myself about the business of preparing for my ill-fated journey. Jane, as always my strength and my support, quickly rallied the necessary servants. I would wear Mother’s dress, of course, as I have to all such events ever since I reached the full bloom of womanhood.

There is a school of thought, particularly amongst some of the lowest ranks of the peerage and almost all commoners, that assumes that every social event requires a different equipage. The finest cloth, the purest synthetic silk and plastic textiles, cast in styles and colors to match the very latest fashion. All must be new, else one will be seen as insufficiently au courant, and for both ladies and gentlemen who violate this norm, the resultant whispering and tittering becomes pure social devastation.

This has been, historically speaking, a perniciously persistent expectation, one that has gone hand in glove with patterns of thought that have consistently over the annals of humankind torn apart society again and again. Fashion’s endless demands for novelty, trivial and flippant as they may seem, are the first steps down the road to decadence, which in turn leads inevitably to republicanism, anarchy, and societal collapse.

Her Highness defies this absurd notion.

It is one of Her Majesty's greatest gifts to Her devoted servants that this preposterous assumption has been forever overturned. No longer does one’s regent secretly live in thrall to the whims and passions of the masses. The Crown understands that once a standard of elegance has been established and perfected, it does not need to be changed. The Crown does not change, and like the sun’s presence has from time immemorial held and nourished our little world in her golden orbit, so too does our Virgin Queen hold and nourish her subjects.

Tradition must be the master of decorum, or decorum falls to ruin.

That is not to say that those who feel constitutionally compelled towards the endless pursuit of the new must needs be subject to shame or dishonour. The realm of the a la mode is, regrettably, a distinctively common human compulsion. But just as one does not place a scoop of ice cream upon one’s head when visiting polite company, the absurdity of fashion must be checked and bounded.

It is in those regular blessings of Her Majesty’s presence that this boundary is established. When She deigns to give an audience, or arrives in all of Her Regnant Power at a gathering of the peerage, She is always the same. As She receives her peers, those who in their manner, dress, and posture affirm their commitment to the unchanging perfection of the Regency are duly noted. It is never to the point of giving insult to those who choose to innovate in some trifling manner of appearance, of course it would never be, for such pettiness is hardly something that could ever cross Her noble and gracious mind. But Her favour is unquestionable, and clearly observable, such that it is universally acknowledged among the peers that to show fealty to tradition in dress is to welcome the admiration and blessings of our Glorious Queen.

So with a clarity of purpose and the explicit approbation of all decent God-fearing society, it is my Mother’s dress that I wear to every significant gala, jubilee, or festival. It was GrandMaMa’s dress before Mother ever wore it, and it is in precisely the style that fits within the boundaries of propriety established and blessed by the Crown. It has, of course, been tailored to meet the particular needs of my physique, and most of the structural and functional elements within upgraded in a way to keep pace with the latest dictums of material science, but it remains in appearance exactly as it has always appeared.

While Jane and the other servants prepared, I summoned two footmen, each to bear tidings that pertained to my decision. The first, I instructed to convey my regrets to Aunt June, in precisely the manner that I had mentioned earlier. Aunt June is not one for floral and indirect language, so I spoke to her with clarity and candour about my obligation to my intended, along with frankness about Stewart’s lamentable incapacity to hold more than one thought in his head at any given time.

The second, I instructed to go with all due haste to Father at the Ministry, informing him of my decision to attend the festival, and of my plans for the maintenance of the household in my absence.

I sent the footmen on their way, and then proceeded myself down from my much-beloved sanctuary in the second floor conservatory. If I was to leave Suzanna as the only remaining soul in our urban redoubt, it behooved me to inform her of that state of affairs.

Suzanna would remain, of course she must, and she could not protest it, as she is only sixteen years of age, still yet six months from her debutante ball, which is, if I am utterly honest, not the primary reason it would not be in the interests of Wexton-Hughes to have her represent us at an affair of proper society.

Suzanna is as yet insufficiently attuned to the demands of decorum, although that is perhaps an overly generous description of her complete disinterest therein. She was always a flighty and impetuous girl, even as we grew up together, and while Father places some stead in the impact of birth order in a noble family upon one’s temperament, I am convinced that Suzanna has been Suzanna since she danced and fidgeted in Mother’s womb.

“Oh, that child!” Mother would exclaim. “Even inside me, she was always in motion! I was certain I would simply come apart at the seams due to her endless fidgetings.”

The constraints of a soiree would simply drive Suzanna to madness.

She was much more content when we were at Wexton Hall, and she could ride and run through the estate grounds to her hearts’ content. Here in town, she was reduced to spending her energy in the first-floor sub-basement gymnase, where she would spar for hours with Joao, her personal footman.

It was there that I knew I would find her, and as I continued on down the ornate staircase leading to the entrance hall, I could faintly hear the shouts and cracks of her exertions against the tireless Joao.

Always a girl of fleeting passions, Suzanna had for the last eight months discovered a love for kendo, one sparked by a gift to Father from Hakushaku Yamauchi of the Kazoku. In addition to a ceremonial sword possessed of both singular elegance and impossible sharpness, the gift included three full suits of Nipponese sparring armor, and a dozen bamboo shinai, all crafted impeccably by a master among their legendary swordsmiths. The practice weapons and armor were lovely and intimidating in design, and Suzanna was afire with a desire to learn the art of their use, which Father and I had assumed would be one of her countless weeklong enthusiasms.

But here we were, half a year later, and still she flung herself into mastery of both the technique and the ritual of that ancient Oriental art. Her letters to House Yamauchi for advice on her efforts, translated by Jane, of course, had become an unanticipated gift to the peerage, helping in their own way to cement a bond of affinity between those of us in the old colonies and the reconstituted Nipponese lords.

I reached the door to the first sub-basement, and upon opening it, descended the narrow ironwork stairs to the floor below. The gymnase was a practical affair, designed, as such things should be, for utilitarian purpose; hardwood floors, unadorned walls, a small section of padded floor, barbells, equipment, and all that a lady required to remain well-turned and able, but the acoustics of the space, at the moment, had the deleterious effect of magnifying the din of Suzanna’s fierce exertions to a deafening degree.

Before me, my little sister…although “little” was solely ever an affectionate sobriquet, as she was always more sturdily constructed than I…was engaged in an impressive display of martial prowess, her feints and parries far more deftly considered than those that I recall from my own days spent mastering the rapier and epee to my satisfaction, with Suzanna displaying elegant economies of effort and a tactician’s consideration of form, position, and ground.

Rather unlike my well-spent year of classical Western sporting swordsmanship, Suzanna’s sparring had evolved to include significant modifications to the gymnase floor itself, with her addition of moveable pallets of varying heights, stairs, and inclines added to simulate the effects and requirements of a more natural, irregular terrain. Also distinguishing itself from my own efforts was the distinctive and pleasing nature of the art of Nipponese swordplay, which was of both remarkably measured movement and explosive violence, the latter of which would be released in bursts of motion that were of such a concussive aggression that their juxtaposition with the meditative element delighted and terrified the eye.

Joao, of course, was not engaging the fullness of his capacity, as none of our Series Tens could without bringing fatal harm to a sparring partner, but an uninformed observer could not have known this from the intensity of his strikes and Suzanna’s parries. The two of them, each equally featureless beneath their leather and bamboo armor, were as lithe performers in a martial waltz, and I marveled for a long moment at how far Suzanna had come these last months. They leapt and wheeled about one another with the grace of great fighting cats at play, all coiled effort and sheathed claws, and I will confess to have taken in that moment some filial pride in her attainment.

I observed with pleasure, but then, whilst leaping from a pallet and repositioning herself to defend against Joao’s fierce onslaught, she noted my presence; for an instant, our eyes met, and even beneath the stern bars of her face shield I could see her indignation at the interruption.

“Yameh!” Suzanna’s alto barked out across the room, and Joao instantly transitioned from preparing a strike to a formal resting posture. With a long sighing exhalation and a practiced motion, Suzanna removed her traditional Nipponese helmet, which coming away revealed an avalanche of her unruly, auburn hair.

“My dear sister,” she said, her broad smile spreading beneath wide, high cheekbones, eyes twinkling with sarcasm. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit this morning? I was under the distinct impression you were still grappling with your cruel Hungarian tormentor, and that I’d not see you until our noon repast. I cannot tell you how pleased I am to take this pause from my own exertions, and how much I enjoy providing amusement to those who wish to watch my practice.”

There was a time, when we were younger and I was more foolish, that I would have risen to that offered bait, and the next few days of sisterly feuding would have both made things shamefully tense about the house and infinitely frustrating to Mother. I am, thank the Good Lord, no longer such a child, and my forbearance of Suzanna’s temper now rises from an awareness that she and I both bear the strong will of our beloved and much lamented Mother.

“My apologies, dear Suzanna,” I said, inclining my head slightly in submission to her discomfort. “I know this is your sanctum, just as the conservatory is mine, and I really would not interrupt both of our precious morning recreations to trouble you were it not a matter of urgency.”

She exhaled again, this time doing so with less sharpness, and her refocusing and calming of herself relieved the tension that she had just a moment before radiated.

“Understood, dearest Becca. Understood. What is the matter of which you speak?”

“I am unexpectedly called away on family business and social obligation, to the winter gala at the estate of Duke Fairfax, which I am obliged to attend with Stew. I shall leave tomorrow in the afternoon, which will leave you here alone and in charge of the house until my return Monday morning.”

“I’m to remain here, with the whole household at my disposal, until you return three days hence?”


“That’s all?”


Suzanna’s smile and eyes now both shone together with genuine pleasure. “Well, that’s simply delightful news! More time to practice is always welcome. That, and attending my tutoring. Of course, of course, my tutoring. I would not for a moment consider using my temporary position as lady of the house to invoke a holiday from my duties.”

She gave a demure cough, which I acknowledged with an arch of a single eyebrow. She would do no such thing.   Silly, silly girl. She continued:

“And I am so very sorry about the gala, for I’m sure it’ll be utterly tedious. Perhaps I might guess at your agenda; one day of bleeding heart chatter amongst the dowagers of the Ladies Aid Society, one day of strutting about the gardens of Duke Fairfax in finery with one’s nose in the air, and one day of interminably bland conversation about esoteric matters of state. ”

“One does what one must, dear sister.”

“One does,” she replied, genially enough, “but this particular Wexton-Hughes would rather not. If you’d not mind, Becca, I’d like to continue my practice before my limbered muscles cool to uselessness.”

“Not at all. I assume that I shall see you at supper?”

“You shall.”

With that duty discharged, I took my leave of Suzanna, and from the cacophany of war cries and clamor of weapon upon weapon that followed as I ascended the ironwork stairs, I could surmise that she had only redoubled her efforts.

In the bright and illuminating glow of hindsight, there was so much more that we needed to discuss, and so many ways we could have steeled ourselves and House Montgomery for what was to come.

Mais vraiment, as they say, le regret est la prison des vieux fous.

Chapter Three: Of My Journey and Its Portents

Friday, November 24, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter One

In the Shadow of Her Majesty

D.G. Williams

Chapter One: My First and Second Mistakes

In retrospect, as I reflect upon it, the whole unfortunate affair could have been avoided in precisely three different ways. It is not that I regret it now, certainly not given the way that all eventually resolved both to my benefit and to the benefit of the Crown. It is just that so much that I dearly valued was harmed, and so much that was irreplaceable was lost.

All that was needed, or so it seems now, was that I should have found cause to turn down Stewart’s invitation. One simple choice on my part, another path untaken, yet one more sentence unspoken, and Father would still be alive. My errors that day were threefold, and that knowledge vexes me dreadfully.

First, I could have simply continued with my morning practice. 

“There is a caller at the door, milady,” Jane had said, bowing slightly, when I paused and asked why she was standing silent just outside the entrance to the conservatory. I could have ignored her, as often I will, and she by way of unspoken and mutual understanding will simply withdraw, as she is the best and most intuitive of servants.

She could perceive, undoubtedly, that I was utterly absorbed in my modest efforts at the conquest of the Grande Etude No. 10, which had been consuming me for much of the previous week. Liszt is so maddening, such a merciless and seductive adversary, so filled with the lush romance of Hungarian passion, yet also requiring such a level of technical and physical prowess that I am often left exhausted, my barely adequate hands aching for hours afterwards. I was, that morning, making some progress after nearly forty five minutes, which I am certain Jane could have surmised. Her series, ten point four three, as of her last retrofit, is both pre-loaded with every worthy composer’s music and breathtakingly dextrous, and Jane is capable of providing the most marvelous performances on the pianoforte if called upon to do so.

All that was required of me was that I shut out the clangour of the world and the demands of society, and continue unraveling that one diminuendo, which I could most certainly have done, had I not paused in a moment of exhaustion.

As I stopped to catch my breath, I glanced to the door, where I spied Jane waiting silently, the cold light of the winter morning illuminating the ivory whiteness of her ceramic hands, which were folded primly across her intricately patterned dress. That was my one moment of distraction, barely the length of a breath, after which I could have resumed my strivings. But I did not.

“What is it, my dear Jane,” I said, sounding both winded and mildly peevish, not that such a tone was my intent.

She told me about the messenger, as I have mentioned, and so I asked who might be calling at this hour. “They say the message and knowledge of its sender are for your eyes and ears alone,” Jane continued. This was somewhat unusual, I will admit, intriguing, even. Perhaps that was why I did not say, “I’m afraid I’m unable to receive them, Jane, please do extend my apologies, but the value of diligence in one’s music cannot be overstated.”

I have, in my recollection, done precisely that on occasions too numerous to count, which is in part why regular callers and messengers know to avoid the Wexton-Hughes townhome between the hours of nine and eleven in the antemeridian. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, those that still bothered to call on me knew this. Others have dwindled away in the years since I ceased to be a debutante, as I can be at times rather willfully terrible at fulfilling my obligations to society, a matter which had been of no little concern to Father.

So I did not ignore Jane, and that was my first mistake.

My second mistake was to ask her to invite the messenger in. In purely social terms, this wasn’t an error, but a chosen politeness. One welcomes and greets an unannounced caller of the peerage without question, of course, but the correct manners in the receiving in of messengers of various purposes is still of some dispute. Authoritatively speaking, according to Madame Rebuillant’s Definitive and Updated Codex of the Mannered, one does, unless one doesn’t. While I always understood the purpose of those interminable years of courtesy and protocol tutoring, and excelled in my studies thereof, such vague instructions were so commonplace that one wondered if the whole volume was simply a fantasy the dear Madame Rebuillant had imagined on an lazy afternoon that could have been more profitably spent.

Perhaps I was in a generous mood that morning, given my progress on the Grande Etude, or perhaps it was some momentary vagary of my digestion, but it was to Jane that I said, “Well, that is most peculiar. Let us invite them in. Please do send them up, and I shall receive their message myself.”

Jane gave a perfect curtsy, as she always does. “Yes, milady. Of course, milady,” she said, her voice as pleasing as soft chimes. Then she turned, and receded into the central hallway. I listened to her perfectly measured steps recede, fading to barely a whisper as she descended first one flight and then another of the great staircase at the heart of the townhouse.

From below, her voice sang indeterminate like a far distant bell, and I could hear the message bearer enter. Then the footsteps of the two of them could be heard, matched measure for measure in a pleasing contrapuntality as they ascended to the second floor conservatory where I awaited their arrival.

“Milady,” Jane said, again curtseying properly at the entrance, as the messenger waited to be admitted. “The messenger of whom I spoke is here.”

“He is welcome,” I said, waving him in, and she gestured that he might enter.

He was a venerable, aged messenger, one of such a vintage as to draw notice. Perhaps a series seven, nearly a century old, although the variance between the eights and the sevens is difficult to discern if one can’t observe the rearmost structure of the cranial carapace. Which, as he was facing me, the featureless reflectivity of his mirrored mask showing my own distorted form on its surface, I could not. That said, he was in evidently perfect working order, and his trim and perfectly fitted uniform marked him as a representative of an old and well-established family. The identity of that family was, in point of fact, immediately familiar to me, as the crest emblazoned upon his vest was one that had been impressed into my awareness since I was barely more than a girl.

The raven ascendant and radiant, a stylized and pixelated corvid rising with the golden sun haloing its head as it flew, the single visible eye alight with the same singular glow of Helios that shone behind it. It was the banner of the House MacDougall, Baronet of Annandale, of whom the Honorable Stewart MacDougall has these past two years been my intended.

A message from Stew. Dear, unusual, brilliant Stew. Father and Baronet MacDougall had feared that I might be resistant to our union, even though it was clearly a well-made match, one that would be of benefit to both House MacDougall of Annandale and to the future fortunes of Wexton-Hughes and the Earldom of Montgomery. While MacDougall is not yet of the peerage, they are of impeccable bearing and reputation, and the Honorable Stewart MacDougall has made himself of considerable and notable use to the Crown in his service to the Ministry of Defense, where Father has his position.

Father himself had marveled at Stew’s contributions to the Ministry, which was the genesis of his rapid rise through ranks, and, well understanding that his eldest daughter is not one who endures fools lightly, quietly made the initial overtures to Stewart’s father the Baronet Annandale on my behalf.

I will freely admit that I had been somewhat cold when I entered society, but one can hardly blame me. While many young debutantes revel in the new attention of suitors, I found them, to a man…though “man” seems an overgenerous term for that rabble of manchildren…to be utterly uninteresting. One after another they arrived, an assemblage of young peacocks, crowing and preening and displaying, prattling on like little boys about their wealth and their prospects, as if I gave a fig for any of that.

Stew, however, was cut from a very different mold. His mind and his person are of a subtler measure, one that might be misconstrued by lesser persons as being shy, melancholic, or perhaps even rude. His first visit to me was like the calm cool moonlight of evening, a welcome respite from the brash and self-congratulatory displays of his erstwhile rivals.

Silence, I suppose, was one of his greatest distinctions. Stew would not rush from thought to thought, but would sit and quietly consider his next utterance before speaking it. No filling the air with blather, chattering and chittering like a doyennes’ anxious pet tamarin, but instead being unafraid to be still. His words, when then came, were each finely considered and quietly spoken, with a confidence that comes from having fully considered a matter in all of its aspects.

It is why I found the arrival of his messenger and the veiled character of the call so very perplexing.

The facemask shimmered for a moment, and Stew’s ivory visage appeared on its surface. The wide, deep, dark eyes. The long, fine, delicate nose. The small, pensive mouth. The messenger assumed Stew’s slightly stooped posture, the ferroceramic hands clasping and unclasping in the way that Stew is wont to do.

“Dearest Becca,” it said, in Stew’s soft, measured voice. “My most sincere apologies for the likely hour of this call, as I am aware that you are working most diligently to master the Grande Etude. I and your father the Earl are among the company of guests who shall be attending the winter festival thrown by the Lord Fairfax at his estate tomorrow. It is primarily, for me, a significant bit of Her Majesty's business, for which you know I have been preparing for the last fortnight, and of which I can…of course…not speak of through this messenger. It will come as no surprise to you that I had given the subsequent dance and feasting no thought whatsoever. As you also well know, it is my nature to focus only on the task directly before my eyes, and not on the social obligations that I realize are also mine to fulfill. It was only in speaking with your Father this morning that I realized it was the assumption of all that I would be escorting you to the event. My invitation was for you and I together, and the duty for notifying you of that reality, my own. As is so often my failing, that reality had entirely escaped my mind.”
The messenger peered for a long moment at its feet, slowly shaking its head, mirroring what Stew does so often when both irritated with himself and eager to make amends. It looked up, and then continued.

“This not by way of excusing my gross inattentions, but simply an acknowledgement of my foibles and my deep embarrassment at this oversight. I am most dreadfully sorry to have been so remiss in my duties, and for the tardiness of this invitation. If, at this late date, you find yourself with a prior commitment that you must for the sake of propriety honor, I shall not in any way be offended, as the error here is solely mine.

It is my hope that the hour is not yet too late, and that I and all in attendance might have the pleasure of your company. I am, as always, your friend and humble servant, Stewart.”

The messenger straightened to attention, and both Stewarts’ visage and the affect of Stewart’s physical demeanour vanished from its form

“Is there a reply that I might return to my master, milady?” The mechanical voice, now plain and devoid of all but the most precise expression.

Here, I completed the making of my second error. I could have politely demurred, as again Providence in her kindness offered me an escape from what was to come. I could have conveyed my heartfelt regrets, and it would hardly have been the first time that the peculiar Lady Wexton-Hughes had chosen not to attend an event of significance. Stewart would have managed ably, I’m sure.

But I missed the calm of his presence, as one would miss the lack of nightfall on a sweltering summer’s day. He is not what one might describe as passionate, but I have little need for such a person in my life, despite what my silly little sister Suzanna might suggest.

She can afford to desire such a fiery husband, but she does not bear the weight of the Earldom on her soft, smooth shoulders. Suzanna shall never, God willing, become the Countess Wexton-Hughes. It would destroy her, my dear little sister, in all of her pure and coddled delight. It is not that I covet the title, nor that I desire the status it conveys. It is that her playful heart would be torn apart by the demands of the peerage, whereas I appear to have been granted an affinity for such burdens by my Creator. The responsibility would so quickly weather her bright eyes, and her easy laugh would fail.

Suffice it to say that in that moment, as I reflected on my obligations as a lady and Stewart’s indefatigible support, I could not imagine doing anything other than being by his side.

Yes, I would have to send my regrets to Aunt June, with whom I had scheduled an evening repast in anticipation of Father’s absence. But she is my father’s sister, and an honest and heartfelt apology coupled with a clear articulation of the necessary burden of attending the Duke’s soiree will unquestionably dampen any concern that I was snubbing her. June knows me, and knows my love for her is as great as my love for Father, given how often she has well advised me.

So, ignorant of what was to come, I proceeded to give the House MacDougall messenger my reply.

“Please do convey to the Honorable Stewart MacDougall my answer in the affirmative. I shall make all appropriate and necessary arrangements to attend the event in question.”

“I shall do so, milady. Is there anything further?”

“Yes, if I might be so bold, may I ask you a direct question about your provenance?”

“You may, milady.”

“Are you a Series 8 or a Series 7?”

“Series 7, milady. It has been my pleasure to serve House MacDougall for ninety seven years, four months, and three hours. I have been consistently upgraded over that time, and remain at a high level of functionality.”

“That is most impressive. Your long and competent service is a credit to Her Majesty.”

The Series 7 gave a curt bow. “I desire nothing more than to serve Her Highness and those who honor her, milady.”

It was the proper answer, properly stated. One could expect nothing less.

“I shall take my leave now, milady. Thank you for the grace of your reception, and the clarity of your answer.”

“It was my pleasure. Jane, please see him out.”

The messenger bowed again, turned crisply. He and Jane proceeded towards the great staircase, their steps again in rhythm.

And with their departure, my fate was almost sealed.

Chapter Two:  Informing Suzanna of My Plans

Monday, November 20, 2023

Unbreaking the Light

As I puttered about in my half-finished basement this morning, I went to turn on the overhead light fixture in the workroom/workout room where I keep my seed stock.  I'm trying some indoor growing this winter, and was ready to put more seed into soil.

I gave my usual tug on the pull chain, but the light stayed off.  Instead, there was a pop, and out came the chain from the fixture.  It's one of those peculiar pull-chains made from tiny little metal balls, for which I'm sure there's a technical name.  They do break on occasion, and can usually be snapped back together with a teensy little joint.  I clambered up on a stepladder to look at the damage.  No dice.  The chain had broken off inside of the cheap Home Depot LED fixture itself.  Inside the switch.

Drat.  It'd only lasted us about three years, as I'd put it in back during the pandemic after the previous seventies-era fixture failed.

Twelve bucks.  That's all.  All it'd cost to replace.  Guess I'd be installing a new one today, I thought.  I took it down.  It was plastic, all plastic, cheap as can be.

But when I took it down, I looked at it.  So much to throw away, for a single point of failure.  I popped off the plastic light diffuser, and looked at the mechanisms underneath.  The LED array was a complex and beautiful concentric assemblage of dozens of tiny diodes, embedded in a disk-shaped plastic circuit board.  When I was a boy, such a thing would have been a technological marvel.  They'd work for the next twenty years.  The plastic housings and clear LED shield would last for centuries.  All of that, wasted.

Just more debris in the human waste stream.  More trash.  All because of that one tiny part.  Just that one.

I decided, absurdly, to try to fix it.  It was Monday, after all, technically my day off, although what that means when you're a part time pastor and occasional author is a little hazy.  It was my time, and it'd be like model-building back when I was a pup.  At which I was not particularly good.  I'm handy-ish, just enough to get me into trouble.  I'd likely fail, but why not?

I examined it.  The light had clearly been assembled by hand.  There were screws, and if a thing is screwed, a thing can be unscrewed.  So I carefully disassembled it, bit by bit, until I could access the switchbox itself.

The box was tiny, with two little snaps.  I could see the remnants of the pull chain inside it.  Good.  That meant it wasn't the switch mechanism that had failed.  I disconnected two wires, popped the switchbox open, and inside, it was remarkably simple.  A set of contacts, spring loaded.  A rotating pull mechanism, with a teeny tiny spring tensioner.  An equally teeny plastic housing, to which the remnants of the pull chain attached.  I saw how it worked, more or less, and gave thanks for my reading glasses.  

Somewhere in the world, all of these delicate bits and bobs had all been put together by human hands.  Likely in Asia, likely by little hands guided by young eyes, hands that probably had to assemble these switches and screw these mechanisms together hundreds of times a day.  I thought about the drab daily labors of the last soul to have touched these pieces, and what their life is like.  It made me considerably more motivated to put it back together.

After some fumbling and a few failed attempts to fit a spring no larger than the nail of my pinky onto an equally small plastic post, the switch came back together.  The end of the pull chain snapped into place. I plugged it back into the switchbox mechanism, threaded the chain out of the unit, and then began the process of reassembling the light.

The whole process took just over an hour, far more than I'm sure it took that underpaid worker to assemble it in the first place.

I reinstalled it, and said a little prayer that it might give light again.  Marvel of marvels, it actually worked.  The workroom filled with light, along with my pleasure at unbreaking a thing.

It is so very much harder to unbreak things.

A Parochial Faith

A few years back, I wrote a book about my Christian faith and the climate crisis.  Is it still relevant?  Of course it is.  I wish it weren't.  Our world still warms, and we still traipse blithely onward into a hotter, harsher future.

Writing that book meant I was obligated to market it, at the introverted pastor of a small congregation...I was not particularly talented.  Though it's the bread and butter of this influencer era, self-promotion isn't a gift of mine.  Gather a launch team!  Talk about yourself endlessly!  Approach random strangers!  Pitch pitch pitch!  It's a horror to my shyness.

But given that some lovely editors and designers had worked so hard, I gritted my teeth, and put myself out there.  I wrote.  I approached strangers.  I connected with others who are active in the place where the "faith" and "climate" Venn diagram circles meet.

But the more I did, I thought, faith in what?  What is the faith that I encounter here?  Mostly, the strongest voices of the climate crisis faithful are of faithful scientists or faithful climatologists, who speak in their secular capacity.  Theologians qua theologians seem of less interest, with an exception.

In that exception lies a thing that struck me.  So much of the explicit faith-talk in the Earthcare/Climate Justice world is, well, "Earth-centered spirituality."  Drums and circles and burning sage, along with folky-singing about Mother Earth and Gaia and loving our little world.  Hymns to the earth.  Litanies for the earth.

It's all about loving the Earth.

Which I do, of course.  I love this amazing, rare, beautiful planet of ours in the same way that I love the little quarter acre plot on which my little house sits.  My home gives me shelter, keeps me warm in winter and casts shade over my head in summer.  It feeds me, as the harvest of my garden arrives on my table.  This little gem of a watery, Goldilocks-zone world is a miraculous thing.

But I don't have faith in the Earth.  My faith is not Terran.  Earth is not my god(dess).  It can't be.  Not because it's bad.  It's just too small.  It'd be like worshiping a blue green pebble in my hand, or a mote of dust floating in a sunbeam.  Sure, it's my home, but I don't worship my domovoi.  I don't impute existential primacy to oxygen, or water, or complex organic proteins, even though I rely on them for my survival.  Those things are teleologically contingent, I say, feeling more than a little smug about my vocabulary.

There was a time, when humankind was still bounded by the limitations of our eyes, that an Earth-centered faith made sense.  Even then, there was a yearning for something greater.

But now?  Now, when we know that space and time are yawningly, terrifyingly vaster than our world?   If God is, with St. Anselm, That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived, earth-worship is a little fuddling.  

Sagan's Pale Blue Dot sure is purty, but it ain't the center of the cosmos, or the reason for its existence.

If I can observe this, why would I declare this planet to be that which defines all meaning?  The glory of God is told in the heavens, all of the heavens, not simply on the third world elliptically dancing about a cheerily plump middle-aged G class star.

Why should this planet, which is mutable and changing, be the purpose that establishes my deepest self-understanding?  How can this world, that will one day be seared and consumed as our sun grows old, fat, and hungry, be the reason for all things?  There are trillions of other planets.  Among them, Fermi and Drake tell us that there are likely many thousands that are just like Earth in the Milky Way galaxy alone.  

I just can't get to being Earth centered.  Terracentrism is as confining as anthropocentrism.  Faith must be robust enough to embrace all worlds, and all life, and all that can possibly be.

Such a faith still calls us to love the Earth as we would a unique person, or any one of the lovely trees that thrive around our homes.  Earth has value in that it is itself.  It is worth carefully stewarding in that it alone among all of the worlds we know harbors not just life, but sentient life.  Or at least sentient-ish life.  We must be wary of harming it, because in doing so, we will invite our ruin.

It is also, at the same time, a infinitesimal speck in the vastness of being.  

Earth spirituality just feels...parochial.  Gaia is the sort of god one can keep in one's pocket, a Queequeggian fetish, a village deity in a Miyazaki film.   

Lovely, in her way, but not really representative of all of Creation.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Late Stage Capitalism


"Late stage"

They say sagely

At the freshest outrage

Of our Mammonist Age

The thought, that like

The setting sun


Race is run

But like late stage cancer

I answer

Is not on the verge of death

Or on its last breath

Late stage capitalism's

Quite alive

Unleashed it strives

And spreads and thrives

Late stage capitalism's

Doing fine

The thing that's dying

Is your soul 

And Mine

Saturday, November 18, 2023

The One Book Every Disney Exec Needs to Read

Disney is in a rut.

The Marvel Character Universe seems to be stalling, with each successive superhero epic yielding less and less interest.  The Star Wars Universe seems to be doing no better.

It's getting to the point where Disney is as flat as they were in the 1970s and 1980s.  Sure, I went to see The Cat from Outer Space and Pete's Dragon in theaters, but they were embarrassing movies, movies for children who didn't know any better.  You love 'em when you're eight, but they're only lovable ironically if you're thirty eight.  No self-respecting adult would see 'em on their own.    

Then again, those films were cheap to produce.  They didn't have to succeed wildly, because they were burped out on a shoestring budget.  They didn't steer the zeitgeist, and they didn't pretend to be important.

But after the Disney Renaissance that began in 1989 with Little Mermaid, the studio has come to think of itself in a different way.  Important.  Something everyone cared about.

Which we did, for a while.  For nearly two decades, Disney and Pixar could do no wrong.  Their films were brilliant.  New.  Exciting.  

Now?  Not so much.

This is clearly baffling to the suits in the C-Suite at Disney.  They go back, and they do what worked.  Look!  Here's the same film again!  Here's the same thing we've been doing!  Hey!  

And it isn't working.

Fortunately, there's a book that contains the answer to all of their problems.  A book that specifically names the issue they're having.

If they read it, and understand it, they'll have an accurate diagnosis of their predicament, which is the first step for any organization in overcoming a conundrum.

The name of that book:

Bread and Jam for Frances.  

It's a little technical, I'll admit.  Filled with complex concepts, real leading edge.  It might be beyond the grasp of all but the most discerning executives.  

Perhaps they can hire McKinsey to explain it to them, although given McKinsey's track record, I'm reasonably sure they'd draw the wrong conclusions.   But within the pages of that volume lies the core problem with Disney today.

Because sure, we might like a thing.  Bread and jam.  Superhero movies.  It might even be our favorite thing.

But that doesn't mean that we want it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day, for the rest of our lives.

Friday, November 17, 2023

The Jesus Paradox

So there's this thing I can't quite figure out.

Churches, or so all of the data and trendlines tell us, are dying in America.  The oldline denominations are frothing away like a salted slug, and there's pretty much no indicator that this is going to change.  We're aging out, and the next generation isn't showing up, and that's just what's happening.

Why?  Because folks aren't interested in church as an institution.  Or Christianity in any of its organizational forms.  Or in the structures and frameworks of religion, generally speaking.

Sure, there's a yearning for real face-to-face community, and a sense that there's been a loss of meaning in our life during this new era of hypercapitalism.  Nothing is authentic.  Everything is for sale, commodified, marketized.  Friendships.  Love.  Intimacy. Family.  All of it.  We have become the product, and our souls reel at the venal horror of it.  People instinctively miss communities of ultimate meaning, gatherings that reinforce both personal and collective self-understanding.

But they don't want to go to a church.   They don't want organizational dynamics, or the inevitable politicking that always results when homo sapiens sapiens gets social.  "Church" and "Christianity" are seen negatively, as self-interested, hypocritical, a light gloss over the power dynamics that have always been a blight on humankind.

Jesus, though?  Jesus is not that.  The Jesus Brand is fire, bruh.  Srsly bussin'.  

Even among those who have been burned by church, those who have been driven out by the patriarchy or by mean-girl-church-lady-clatches, people who have been told they are unworthy, people on the margins?  Jesus, as the Doobie Brothers once sang, is just all right with them.   The radical compassion, the love of friend and enemy alike, the orientation to the last and the lost and the least?  Only the most glazed-eye #twitter antitheists get their knickers in a twist about Jesus.

"The issue," say most sane human beings, "is that most people in most churches aren't doing what Jesus says we should do."  I can't say that they're wrong.  Jesus and his teachings are not the cause of the decline of the American church.  Incompetent, unfaithful Christians are.  When we're graceless and false, cruel and unjust, people notice.

Which brings me to the paradox in question, a peculiarity that manifests in the dying oldline progressive churches.

If you look at how progressive churches express themselves into the world, there's a whole bunch of spirituality talk, center-to-far-left political jargon, and wellness/psychoanalytic speak.  There's much talk about "being church."  The emphasis is political, social, and organizational.  It's interfaith, and utterly generic.  

What you don't hear a whole bunch is talk about Jesus and the discipline of following him.

It's reached the point in my own dear sweet fading denomination that I've started to wonder if the Unitarians and the Democratic Party are going to sue us for copyright infringement.

This confuses me.  If we know that Jesus and his teachings still have a profound resonance, why would we de-emphasize discipleship and the effort to shape our personal and social lives around his teachings?

Our individual goal is not to "be church."  Church...the institutional, organizational structure that forms around any grouping of people who have committed to following Jesus together...can take any form, or be in any pattern.  You can be run by elders.  Or bishops.  Or you can take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, with all of the decisions of that officer approved at a biweekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but a two-thirds majority...yeah.  You get the idea.

All that matters is that every person in that church, to the best of their ability and cognizant of their limitations, is trying to follow Jesus.  

Because the fundamental unit of moral analysis is the person.  Individual sentient beings are the ultimate ground of all ethics, and what makes any Christian community Christian is the commitment of each person within it to doing what Jesus told us to do.

Human beings hungry for meaning for their life couldn't care less about the box in which that meaning comes.  They'd rather not focus on the box at all.  They want to be nourished.  They want hope.  A sense of what does and does not matter.  They want radical compassion.

 That hucksters and ideologues have betrayed and misused the "brand" (cough) doesn't seem to have damaged it. 

So why, if the Gospel has such resonance, and the teachings and name of Jesus have such cache, do progressives so assiduously avoid making Jesus and the work of following him their obvious focus? 

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

In Name Only

My Dad was a Republican.  I mean, really very Republican.  He was the sort of Republican who, as a young man, was paid to stand on streetcorners with a bullhorn and deliver speeches.  Not only did he vote for Nixon, but he would insist, all the way to the end of his life, that Nixon was a great president.

We had lots of fun conversations about that.

But the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower is dead.  Dad's party has ceased to be.  He would say as much, over the last few years.  It shambles along, sure, but it is animated by quisling energies that have nothing to do with the core values of a republic.  Fealty to a strongman ain't republican, not by any definition of the term.

The "debates" currently being held between "candidates" for the presidential nomination are perfect evidence of this.  They have all of the authenticity of "elections" in the old Soviet Union.  They're only for show, an empty going-through-the-motions, and will have no bearing on the result.  We all know this.  Everyone knows they're a farce.  They serve no purpose, other, perhaps, than to flag the "winner" as the one who is most disloyal to the despot.  Have an escape plan, Nikki, or get your speech writers to work on the world's most obsequious apology.

Again, there is no Republican party.  There is a right wing party.  But it is not republican.

It's the primal nature of all right-wing movements to be antirepublican.  Back when the nations of the west were first afire with republican revolutions, with the cry of people for governments that stood for liberte, egalite, fraternite, the term "right wing" arose from the French revolution.  

Why?  Il s’agissait simplement de savoir où l’on s’asseyait. It was simply about where one sat.

In the French National Assembly, back in 1789, liberals and republicans sat on the left.  On the right?  Monarchists and aristocrats, those who argued for absolute power in the hands of a king and the landed gentry.  

A right wing republican party, one whose absolute leader is defined by inherited wealth and fevered whispers of divine right?

It's an oxymoron.  

It can exist "in name only," as they say.  In name only.

Monday, November 13, 2023

SNAP, Pantries, and Christian Nations

Just about every Wednesday, a genial cadre of local Buddhists arrive at my Presbyterian church.  

They arrive in a van, laden with seven to eight hundred of pounds of food, which their temple has purchased to help support the efforts of our bustling Little Free Pantry.  Volunteers from the church join together with the nuns, hefting forty pound bags of carrots and onions.  Crates of potatoes and apples, pallets of canned soups and sauces.

All of it will flow through the Pantry over the course of a week, as folks in the community who need food support pull into our gravel parking lot.  It will join the generous donations given by members of the church, and by the good decent folks out in our little town.

When church folk started our Little Free Pantry...think a Little Free Library, only for nonperishable food...we'd not known what to expect.  We'd anticipated it to be a modest supplement to the nonprofit Food Bank that already exists in our community, just across the street, hosted by our Methodist neighbors.  It was simply something to handle the off-hours when those food bank shelves weren't available.

For a while, that was precisely what it was.

But debt-addicted America printed trillions of new dollars into the economy during the pandemic, which had the surprising effect of triggering inflation.  Golly, who coulda seen that coming?  And then, with costs rising ahead of wages, we cut back on the SNAP benefits that had been a lifeline for families during the pandemic.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program feeds tens of millions in our country, and after it was expanded during COVID, that retraction had a notable impact here in the trenches of food provision.  

Sure, the pandemic was over, but inflation had changed the entire economic dynamic, and millions suddenly found that affording little luxuries like housing, transportation, and food had become unmanageable.

Demand soared.  Suddenly, that cute little roofed box, with its equally cute Little Free Produce stand?  They weren't just out on the margins.  Every few minutes, another person stopping by, the flow increasing when the working day came close to an end.  When I arrive in the morning on Sundays, people are often waiting patiently for it to be restocked.  Our hard-working volunteers fill it, and fill it, and fill it.  Over the course of this year, we're on track to having moved thirty thousand pounds of food through the pantry.

Nearly thirty thousand pounds.

Across the way at the local food bank, demand is up fifty percent.

This is the reality.  This is what's happening on the ground.  Up in the cold airless aether of ideological
blather, the conversations in the House of Representatives have turned to cutting SNAP further.  It's "bloated and broken," or so say those who claim to want to offer a "hand up, not a hand out."

Now, I don't have a problem with making programs more efficient.  I don't doubt there are layers of bureaucracy that could be trimmed away.  It's a food program, not a jobs program.  So do that, sure.  But anything that results in less food for the hungry, or that creates more bureaucratic processes, procedures, and protocols for people in need to negotiate?  That's not the kind of country a free and decent folk would want to live in.  

And I don't have any issue with empowering people to be self-supporting.  But the people who need food are working people.  They need those calories so they can work to support themselves.  Having food is a hand up.  Offering people platitudes instead of plates of food only makes sense if you're the sort of fool who thinks you can live by eating ideology.  It's indecent.

On a fundamental level, that's also not Christian, bruh.  It ain't Buddhist, neither, but being that I'm a pastor and Jesus is my Lord and Savior, I can only speak with authority about the former.  

Seriously.  There's a deep irony that the same folks who wrap themselves in flag and cross and declare that America must be a Christian nation?  They're the folks who want America to do exactly the opposite thing that Christians are commanded to do.

We feed people.  Because Jesus. Told. Us. To.  This isn't complicated.  He ain't your Lord and Savior if you don't do what he tells you to do.

Lord have mercy, have these folk even read their Bibles?

Friday, November 10, 2023

The Devil's Keywords

Here is a list, simple and straightforward.  It is a list of things we are meant to desire to be.


Throughout human history, those concepts have animated and driven many nations, and countless human beings.

But are these what you want to be, if you claim to be Christian?  They are not.  None of these states of being represents a meaningful expression of the basic moral orientation Jesus teaches.  

All of them represent the essence of what Christians...meaning, those who do what their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ asks of to avoid.

POWER? We do not desire power, any more than Jesus himself desired power.  When power was offered him, power over the whole world, he turned it down. 

WEALTH?  Wealth may be the goal of the prosperity gospel movement, but that fools-faith ain't got nothing to do with Jesus, honeychild.  Wealth, and the desire for wealth?  Jesus is real clear to those who follow him: those things imperil your soul.

STRENGTH?  Yeah, that's worldly power again, the ability to assert dominance.  

PRIDE?  Dear Lord in Heaven, that's a Mortal Sin, and something that the much vaunted "Biblical Worldview" fundamentally rejects.

SAFE?  Being Christian isn't about being "safe."  Jesus wasn't interested in being safe.  Neither were the apostles, or the martyrs through the ages.  There's nothing safe about the cross.

Invoking the name of God over this list of Antichristian values is so...peculiar.  

Almost like the man writing them is telling us something about himself.  I wonder what that might be.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

A Harvest of Dry Leaves

For the last little while, my autumns have had a different rhythm.

When we first moved into our little suburban home, fall was a season of raking and leafblowing, as the dozens of mature trees that fill the rear third of our quarter acre shed their leaves.  Leaf piles would be made, then loaded onto tarps, then dragged out to the street to be vacuumed up and away by the county.

It was good hard work, but it always felt a little pointless, particularly when my boys reached the age when they no longer flung themselves bodily into the leaf piles.  Leaves fell, and I raked, and big trucks with vacuum attachments arrived to take them away.  It felt like a slog, just part of a machine.  

Now, though, I look up in the early autumn at the first tint of leaves, and I'm eager for them.

For nearly a decade now, I've mowed up the leaf-fall with my mulching mower, at least the leaves that fall on the wildly heterogenous ground cover that passes for my lawn.  The ground beneath the trees...again, about one third of my lawn...goes untouched, making for both good habitat and richer soil for the trees themselves.

The leaves I do mow are dumped into one of two five-by-twelve compost heaps in the shade of my back yard, where they sit for a year, mingling their carbon with twelve months worth of nitrogen-rich lawn clippings, the leavings from my kitchen, and a years worth of coffee grounds.  

That pile rising up waist-high in my back yard this season will slowly shrink.  Through the labors of billions of aerobic bacteria and tens of thousands of worms, it will transform into wheelbarrows full of rich, organic soil for my garden in the year 2025.  It becomes my tomatoes, squash, and beans.  It becomes my potatoes, garlic, and basil.  This next year, it may become okra, too, because bhindi masala is very delicious.

The leaves aren't debris.  They're not trash, to be taken away.  They're not a nuisance.  They're a harvest that feeds me.

When they tumble from the branches, rustling down like a brittle rain on the first sharp winds of winter, I receive them like manna from heaven.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Yes, You Can Have a Biblical Worldview

I have a biblical worldview.

I know, I know, I'm not supposed to. According to the critics, having a Biblical worldview means you're on the far right of the right wing, at least in the shorthand of our culture's false binaries. It means you're a literalist, that you worship the bible as an idol, that your lumpenfundamentalism would create a world that is six thousand years old, a creation in which all of time and space are lying to us about themselves.

According to the critics, having a Biblical worldview means that you don't see the nuances and subtleties of a radically polyvalent collection of ancient texts, that you don't understand the process of their creation or the formation of canon. Or worse yet, that you're somehow trapped in the moral bronze age, as ignorant and hateful as the Taliban.

For some, this is true. If a person says "I have a Biblical Worldview," that can be shorthand for "I'm so fascist Mussolini might find me problematic." It can also mean that you've created a Frankenstein's Monster, stitching together bits and pieces of cherry-picked texts to match whatever it is you happen to already believe.

This is true of both progressive and conservative, of left and right.

The Bible contains tension within itself. Of course it does. It's a library that spans thousands of years of human history. It argues with itself, the welcome arms of Isaiah and Ruth against the razor-wire fence of Nehemiah and Ezra. It struggles and debates with itself, Paul of Tarsus and his citizenship against John of Patmos and his Beast. War and peace, racism and tolerance, cruelty and mercy, all of these things are incontrovertibly "Biblical." The Bible is erudite and urban, and at the same time earthy and rural. It is beautiful and brutish, blunt as a bludgeon, sharp as a blade, harsh as a blow, gentle as the first light of dawn.

It is all of these things. So is history. That's one of the great strengths of a Biblical worldview. It's deep and rich and complex and real. It is human, but it's also holy.

It stands both within and over history. If you hold it as authoritative, it shapes how you understand all things.

If you say, "I have a biblical worldview," you aren't saying, "I critique and deconstruct the Bible." Sure, you can understand context and language, the impact of redaction, and the sausagework process of canonicity. But a Biblical worldview means you aren't Thomas Jefferson or River Tam, cutting and pasting and fixing, because if you are, you're not existentially engaged with the text. You've set yourself apart from it and over it, which means it is not part of your faith. It does not define you. You have inverted the relationship of faith.

Having a biblical worldview means taking the narratives of the Tanakh, Gospels, and Epistles as the narrative from which you derive primary meaning and purpose. It means you understand yourself as part of that story, and you understand that story as part of you. It's our metanarrative, people, Lord have mercy, have y'all forgotten that concept already? It's mythic, not in the shallow, sophomoric way that internet atheists define the word myth, but in a Joseph Campbell way, as the stories that shape us personally and culturally.

Our short-attention-span era has forgotten this, lost the power of ethos and worldview, as we stumble through the monkey-chatter of competing commodified consumer culture narratives that give us our ersatz alternatives to myth.

A Biblical worldview is not that. But it is something one can legitimately, actually, honestly hold.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Keeping Quiet In Evil Times, Revisited

Years ago, I wrote a post about an enigmatic statement in the book of the prophet Amos.  Amos was a righteous redneck who came roaring out of the sticks to proclaim God's anger at the social and economic injustices of eighth century Israel.  He condemned the corrupt and the self-serving, those in power who used power only for their own gain, and did so with bold, relentless sharpness.

Embedded in his book of prophetic challenge are these words, in which he describes times when greed and power control the reins of justice:

Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.  Amos 5:13

It's a statement that I and my Bible study class revisited recently during our study of the Minor Prophets, and we puzzled over it again together.

What does that mean?  Here, an ancient voice known for their rhetorical and physical boldness, who was willing to walk right up to the temple of the King of Israel, and to challenge it.  Here, a prophet whose vocal indictment of the corruption of power was enough that he was put on the eight century equivalent of a watch list, as a known enemy of the state.

And he's counseling...laying low and saying nothing?

On the one hand, that's certainly what wisdom, understood as a Biblical virtue, suggests.  Be careful what you say.  Be wary with whom you share your thoughtsIn all things, be circumspect, and do not speak if your speech might compromise you.  

When evil is dominant, your survival and that of your family can depend on remaining silent.

On the other hand, speaking truth in a time of oppression is terribly necessary.  To do so requires a different mindset.  It's not simply "being prophetic," because standing against injustice is not itself a prophetic act, no matter what they say in the fading progressive seminaries.  Unless you are driven like a ship before a wild wind, by dreams and visions and the power of God, you're not a prophet.  Prophets don't really have a choice in the matter.  Amos didn't.

Not everyone is a prophet, no matter what our egos tell us.  But any one of us can be a witness.  The prophet does put their lives at risk, but being a witness ain't safe, neither.  Nor is it wise, not in the most craven definition of prudence.

When you see and name an obviously broken thing, or refuse to sing along with the lies that rise from hatred, you call attention to yourself.  You are noncompliant.  You are subversive.  It doesn't matter if you refuse the path of violence, or you refuse to hate.  You threaten power.

When you threaten power, it goes hard, as it did for Jesus.  It was equally rough on so many early Christians, who insisted on being honest about their commitments and about what they believed was radically true.  In the common Greek spoken in the Roman Empire and used in the New Testament, the word for "witness" is μάρτυρα, or "martyr."  Unpleasant things happen when you speak truth in a time when falsehood reigns.

Yet that's what we're asked to do, if we're disciples of Jesus.

Given where we are in the long painful moral collapse of our republic, being imprudent may go hand in hand with speaking the truth of one's witness.