Wolf/GOP Brokered Tax Hike Sucks, Especially for Schools and Working People In Allentown

I’m just going to say it. The sales tax is already regressive. Now 1.5% more so. Meanwhile, the NIZ prints money for people who are already rich. JB Rielly and my homeless friends or the single parent working two jobs are all paying the same sales tax on goods…7.5 cents on the dollar for Mr. Rielly is not the same as 7.5 cents on the dollar for others. Add the fact that he is making buckets of cash on projects that are subsidized by PA tax payers at 80 cents on the dollar, not to mention the cigarette loophole. Add to that the $2.3 million the NIZ took from Allentown taxes in 2014, the $330,000 the NIZ took from Allentown School District taxes in 2014, the coming water rate hike, capital improvements, and, now, a possibly illegal EIT hike. Damn.

Ed Pawlowski bought land we didn’t need and can’t use any time soon and paid for it with money from the lease of our water and sewers to the Lehigh County Authority.  $1.5 million. Allentown residents will start paying for LCA’s capital improvements this year, in addition to a 2.5 percent raise in rates.

The Allentown School District has no money.

There’s no comprehensive affordable housing plan in Allentown, even as we read all about how great the Strata flats are.

What am I missing?  Please, please tell me.

UPDATE: Here are some things I missed:

  • Allentown’s EIT hike, even if legal, is also regressive. It’s basically a way to engineer the first half of gentrification (getting poor people to move).
  • The fact that the GOP in the State legislature are on board with a sales tax hike doesn’t do wonders for the charge that they don’t care about overtaxing the middle class.

Steven Ramos Responds

Steven Ramos for Allentown Controller

Steven Ramos for Allentown Controller

There are a few people on the local blogs who leave anonymous comments criticizing current Allentown Controller Mary Ellen Koval as a way of saying something negative about her opponent, Steven Ramos.  Koval is the clean-up hitter on Team Pawlowski.

Steven Ramos has responded on Michael Molovinsky’s bog:

My resume is available at http://www.stevenramos.com. Over the last 15 years I’ve been trusted to set up and manage networks, maintain data security for employers and clients, and manage people and clients assigned to me. I am depended upon to ensure that reports are developed and submitted to various agencies and vendors to be in compliance with federal and state regulations.

Outside of my direct responsibilities, when other aspects of our network have issues I am called upon to find the solutions.

Having the confidence and support of others is not new – from being a leader in every church I have attended to being a contributing member on several Allentown associations; from being a founding member of the police community team in West Chester, PA, to working for various campaigns as a paid member of the team and volunteer; to my days in the army leading, encouraging, and training other soldiers.

The challenge of our controller’s office today is ensuring its independence, doing the work of auditing our agencies and departments, and making those audits available to the public.

This year alone, we’ve had several issues that demanded audits. None were done. Our current controller has demonstrated she is unable to be independent of the administration and is not curious to know why we are losing money, why we don’t know what projects are costing us, and why we may need a tax increase in 2016.

I hope for all of your support and that when weighing my candidacy, my resume, and public statements, that you use the same measure used when weighing other candidates.

See you on Tuesday.


Well-done, Steven.


Allentown Tax Hike Confirmed

Bernie O’Hare has a run-down of the looming Allentown tax hike.  Details won’t likely be known until after next Tuesday’s election.

By law, the budget must be presented to Allentown City Council by Monday.  Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, currently led by Jeff Glazier (up for election on Tuesday) typically, but not always, meets on the fourth Wednesday of the month.  They did not convene last night.  Watchdogs hoping to see a budget before the election are crying foul.  According to Mr. O’Hare, Councilman Julio Guridy has confirmed a tax hike is imminent, but doesn’t know specifics.

It’s worth noting that Lou Hershman, former Council member, former Controller, consistent fiscal watchdog and current Council candidate, was apparently planning to attending the Budget and Finance meeting that didn’t happen.  Here are his words to Mr. O’Hare:

“It’s bad enough that seniors on fixed incomes and the working poor are going to have to pay for the City’s fiscal irresponsibility, but keeping this important information from the public is no better than a burglar who sneaks into your home in the dead of night. Burglars get prosecuted, but it’s too bad there’s no penalty for politicians who steal elections.”

Even with the Pawlowski PAC disabled and its candidates raising pennies over the last few months, the money grab in the run-up to the spring primary, which failed to protect Joe Davis, looms large in Tuesday’s election.  Many city activists are suspicious of the coming budget’s timing.  If delivered to Council by Monday as required by the City’s Home Rule Charter, when will the public see the budget and, importantly, the tax hike?  Before or after the election?  The first November council meeting is Wednesday, Nov. 4, one day after we go to the polls.

Allentown, the dog and pony shows continue.  If you want some restraint brought back to Allentown government sooner rather than later, that is, before the FBI finishes its work, vote for change and reform on Tuesday.  Write in Rich Fegley and Shane Fillman for Council.  This has to stop somewhere, and it has to start with us.

November Surprise?

City Council candidate Lou Hershman was one of the first to report today that the City’s Finance Committee, led by Jeff Glazier, is cancelling its meeting tonight.  If true, that means we won’t be seeing a budget this week.  That means we won’t be seeing a budget until AFTER the election next week.

Just saying.

The rumblings of a tax hike are getting louder.

Saying No to the Pawlowski Method

I’ve been thinking about the implications of the WFMZ story that puts a firm’s name and face to what seem to be the same sweeps for listening devices at City Hall as those described by the FBI.

I’ve been thinking about what needs to happen if we’re going to create a new Allentown, a new tone, a new way of doing things out in the open and for the community.

I’ve been thinking about what the City Council meeting one day after the upcoming election will bring, and I’ve been thinking that regardless of who remains on the dais, we all have some serious work to do.  I hope the folks who ran in the spring with Ed Pawlowski’s PAC are upset politically, not because I have anything against them personally (I don’t), but because of the choice to so closely align with him in the first place.  Yes, these decisions were made before the FBI raid.  But one of the things I have railed against as an activist in Allentown is what I’ll call “the Pawlowski Method.”  Triangulation. Alienation.  Poker games as policy meetings.  Seeking to control City Council through campaign donations, through access, maybe, to Democratic king makers.  Lashing out at even the most mild forms of constructive criticism.  Lashing out at the audacity some citizens have to even ask questions. Even while employed in legal ways, the method makes for bad government and bad feelings.  It also lays the groundwork for what the FBI thinks is here.

Emily Opilo has a piece in today’s Morning Call showing that PAC candidates who were bringing in thousands of dollars int he primaries have raised only hundreds of dollars for the general election.  With under a week to go to the election, Allentown voters have real choices.  Elect PAC candidates or don’t.  Given Candida Affa’s recent talk of “what the mayor needs now is more support,” she should already be disqualified from your list.

A month or so ago I asked the PAC candidates at Council to yank their PAC yard signs and pay for new ones.  I understand now why that hasn’t happened.  There’s no money to do it.

Don’t vote for the Mayor’s former PAC-mates, Jeff Glazier and Candida Affa. Write in Rich Fegley. You only need to read Emily Opilo’s twitter accounts of City Council meetings to understand why.  You only need to meet him once, and not even over one of his excellent beers at one of his amazing brew pubs to understand why.  Write in Shane Fillman, well-known and respected leader in Old Allentown who has pledged to be a watchdog for Allentown’s citizens.   These men will vote their conscience and uphold their commitment to reform Allentown.

For School Board, I endorse Ce-Ce Gerlach without reservation.  I’ll probably also vote for Bob Smith, simply for the gumption he showed in going public with the Mayor’s moves to charge the ASD for police.  Had the Mayor not employed the patented Pawlowski Method, I might feel otherwise.  Among the other candidates are two from the former PAC who, but for their alignment with it, would have had my support.  I am not an “if you’re not for us you’re against us” kind of person, but I feel very strongly about the negative impact Citizens For a Better Allentown, the official name of the Pawlowski PAC, has already had on our politics.  It was the codified extension of the Pawlowski Method, and it sought to lock up his control over City Council and the School Board, netting less democracy, less dissension, less conversation, fewer alternatives, and, finally, fewer solutionsThe Pawlowski Method sold our water.  It sold our air.  It sold our land and sold out our community.  While developers stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars on 8 public dimes for every 2 these barons “risk,”  there’s still no Community Benefits Agreement, no real plan for improving the actual neighborhoods that make up the so-called Neighborhood Improvement Zone. The Allentown School District is still broke, and this Mayor wants to charge it for School Resource Officers even while he tries to pick the School Board’s newest members.

What about the urban renaissance downtown?  Empty storefronts.  Phony brands. Massive corporate welfare.

Living Here In Allentown

For readers who don’t know, I live in Allentown, County Seat of Lehigh, in the Lehigh Valley region of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Allentown has been getting all kinds of attention lately for two reasons.  First is the urban redevelopment program happening here.  It is, I presume, the largest-ever public-to-private transfer of wealth in the history of Pennsylvania besides the Walking Purchase.  You can read about it all over The Morning Call in articles by Scott Kraus and Emily Opilo.

The second reason relates to the first.  Allentown’s Mayor, a sometime would-be governor and/or senator, is being investigated by the FBI.  You can read all about that at The Morning Call, too, and on the local blogs.

The extent to which Allentown’s revitalization is working is hard to pin down.  There are new restaurants, some new retail (not the hoped-for 30 new stores by Labor Day), and some new jobs. There is a (licensed) Starbucks where workers receive none of the benefits Howard Schultz gives to Starbucks employees.  Frankly, I’m surprised he allows these kinds of arrangements.  But hey, I get it.  Enlightened as he may be, he’s no Bernie Sanders.

I mention Fauxbucks because of what its presence says about reality.  Median incomes are simply not high enough downtown to convince national retailers to come here.  They’re not even enticed by free rent.  No Trader Joe’s.  No Whole Foods.  Not even an Aldi’s.  Three City Center can’t even fill out its storefront space with local merchants.

On one hand, Allentown’s even-less-than-hesitant gentrification is great.  I’d prefer local retailers and service businesses in a heartbeat over the pre-fabbed national chains.  The problem is that like those phony hipster-havens, and like the phony brick facades of all of our new buildings, the downtown phase of Allentown’s renewal hinges on gentrification.  Commercial is supposed to beget residential, and residential is supposed to beget more (“better”) commercial.  But with no real economic infrastructure to speak of in most of the downtown neighborhoods, it’s not clear what’s exactly begetting what.

One scenario is that local merchants, enticed by free or near-free rent, will set up shop downtown and provide the kind of authentic, local, walkable vibe middle-class millennials eat up with a spoon.  Having proven the concept, even through some lean years, these local merchants will be rewarded with higher rents they can’t afford.  The Green Pepper will become Chipotle, and so on.

This scenario assumes that these new merchants find sustained success even with all of the obstacles and even with the built-in competition looming on the Waterfront.

One thing I know.  The City’s school district is broke. It’s not yet broken, but it’s broke. Where are the plans to fund it?  Where are the millennial residents of Strata supposed to send their kids to school?  No year-round gym, no year-round music or year-round art for kids living above the so-called Arts Walk?  You can’t fix the City without fixing the schools.  And you can’t fix either of them by forking over tax dollars to a handful of developers.

If the downtown phase of Allentown’s renewal fails, look to the total disregard by developers and some City leaders for the school district, the lack of real living wages, and the ascendance of the mixed-use Waterfront as some reasons why.

D’etre and D’etat: The Difference Between Jesus and Church

I worked at a big fat church for a few years once.

For about five minutes of those few years, the staff was charged to “live in the republic of ideas.”  I wrote what follows earlier today, but it strikes me as the difference between the Kingdom of God’s raison d’etre and the raison d’etat so many churches live and ultimately die by:

It occurs to me that our use of terms like “industrial” or “industrialized” nation reveals rather efficiently the willingness of our power elites (political and economic) to sacrifice most of us for personal gain; to spiritually, emotionally, and economically destroy the creative, academic, merchant and truly small-business class (let’s call it the bourgeoisie) right along with the cynically styled “working class.” We bourgeoisie and/or proletarians freely mingle, and not-so-freely mimic the choices of the power elites (be they Clintons or Romneys) with what we’re told are consumer “choices” but are really the gasping acts of hanging-on desperately performed by human agents too exhausted from surviving to enact true human agency. This is purely diabolical; if there is a God in heaven, that God must not endorse this system. Surely, the central Christian image of God not in heaven but on a cross is in reaction to the system that enslaved Judea, that murdered John the Baptizer, that found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and sedition. That Christ’s message — God is for the margin and not for the power structures we worship — brought about his death at the hands of those power structures isn’t only a sort of proto-theological poetry, it is the essential Christian fact, the essential Christian witness, the essential Christian claim about the nature and person of God. That Jesus spoke of a kingdom different from those of the Sanhedrin and Rome and Washington and Wall Street and Seattle isn’t some spiritual-only conceit. What Christ called the Kingdom of God is not so-called Christendom, not the so-called Church; it is a physical network of willing rebellion.

Response to The New York Times’ Julian Bond Obituary is also Post-Mortem On Bill Clinton, Good Guy

Many people rightly took The New York Times to task for its obituary of Julian Bond last week.  His great-grandmother, a slave, could not have been a “mistress” of his white great-grandfather, her owner.  The power dynamics of slavery allow only for rape.

This week marks 17 years since Bill Clinton’s admission of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.  It occurs to me that Clinton’s lecherous persona would not be tolerated in the Office of President, in primaries, on social media, were he rising now. That the Left gave him an intentional pass was, of course, the chorus of Clinton-hating conservatives then.  That progressives today question the possibility of consent when one party is the Most Powerful Man in the World is important, not just because it births another irony about the daylight between them and reactionaries regarding sex in general.  More to the point:  The Bill Clinton presidency would be impossible as a native development now.  By 2015’s standards, he is a predator.  The degree to which his inherent power muted the personal agency of Miss Lewinsky is a debate worth having, considering the limitations it assumes for the later.  There are implications for feminism here, of course, but also for the wider issues about cycles of power and abuse.

Hillary and the Clinton-Industrial Complex

By now, you’ve likely heard about the interaction between Hillary Clinton and Black Lives Matter advocates that took place over the weekend.  The advocates rightly questioned Clinton on her support (and her husband’s implementation) of policies that led to the mass incarceration of more black men than ever lived under slavery in this country in what has become the prison-industrial complex’s near-final solution to the natural outputs of centuries of systemic racism and injustice as praxis.

While Bill and Hillary Clinton gained political capital through their expertly cynical navigation of the so-called third way New Democrat ethos (a tough, Nixonesque liberalism that seldom met a Republican proposal it didn’t like, consume, and implement), hedge fund managers gleaned more concrete riches from the transformation of America’s penal system into a network of privately held plantations.

Some, like George Zoley, give to Republican causes and candidates (Marco Rubio is a Zoley favorite).  Others, like Jeremy Mindich, masquerade as progressives. $32,400 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee?  Another $32,400 to the DNC Services Corp?  He even supports ActBlue.  (Credit to this piece at Vice for concisely connecting these dots.  Click through to learn how you, too, are probably investing in for-profit prisons without even knowing it).

For Americans living in poverty, the Clintons’ 90s were a race to mandatory sentencing, three-strikes-you’re-out law and order.  For the Clintons themselves, not so much.  Hillary Clinton is so far above the strictures of law, she saw fit to keep state secrets on private email servers, shielding them, perhaps, from the prying eyes of our first Black president, a man she necessarily and clearly resents, all the while risking national security because she simply couldn’t be bothered to do otherwise.  Is it any wonder China reads the email of top US officials the way Ted Cruz reads The Drudge Report?

In good 90s fashion, the irony of the Clintons’ role building up the prison industrial complex is staggering.  So too Hillary’s detachment, encountering the Black Lives Matter movement with the same wonder with which George H. W. Bush scanned his first campaign-trail groceries.  Three weeks to speak out on Ferguson.  That’s apparently how long it takes to convene a focus group.  How about a grand jury?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/oreilly/  photo CC James Duncan Davidson

Emailing Jeff Bezos About “Callous” Practices; Amazon As The New Atlantis

Jeff Bezos Says Amazon Won’t Tolerate ‘Callous’ Management Practices – The New York Times.

First Things has this to say, likening the Amazon ethos to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis:  Amazon is Cruel to Be Kind.  You know that one was sitting in an editor’s hopper somewhere, waiting for other shoes to drop, maybe, after Spencer Soper’s expose about Amazon warehouse conditions a few years ago.  On that note, my email, dateline Allentown, PA, this morning, to Jeff:

Hi Jeff,

You seem sincere in your message to Amazonians re: the NYT piece.

I’m not an Amazonian, but the issue hits close to home because I live
in the Lehigh Valley and spend time advocating for the working poor.

I’m sure you remember the story from a few years ago about the Lehigh
Valley fulfillment center. If that was how management/culture treats a
workforce that, let’s be honest, has next to zero access to the
management bubble (let alone a shot at moving up the corporate
ladder…they’re mostly temps, and that’s intentional), then why would
it be shocking that the culture in other parts of the company might be
similarly toxic?


I applaud your personal efforts to ensure a progressive and fair
workplace for people at all levels…even temps.

all best,

Chris Cocca,

Allentown, PA

photo:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/oreilly/ CC James Duncan Davison

Almost Every Major Poll Shows Bernie Sanders Challenging or Defeating Clinton and Republicans. Here’s Why | H. A. Goodman

Hillary Clinton is one of the most cynical choices for president in at least a generation.  H.A. Goodman does a good job explaining why.

Almost Every Major Poll Shows Bernie Sanders Challenging or Defeating Clinton and Republicans. Here’s Why | H. A. Goodman.

An aside:  The FBI investigation is going to so thoroughly compromise Clinton’s campaign, it’s not outlandish to think that the real contest a few months from now will be between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.  That’s a contest Sanders wins going away.  Even if Clinton stays in the race, the Bernie movement is only just beginning.  Clinton lost this way to Obama 7 years ago without the burden of a shady record in the executive branch and an email scandal that in every way imaginable precludes her for the office she feels destined for.  Sorry not sorry, Madame Secretary.


Martin O’Malley Plans Revolt Over Democratic Debate Rules | TIME

Martin O’Malley can’t catch a break.  Even this piece from TIME leads in with the conceit that anyone not named Hillary Clinton is one of “Hillary Clinton’s challengers.”   Last time I checked, there’s no such thing as an incumbent in an open primary.  “Incumbent frontrunner” doesn’t count.

The degree to which this primary is open, though, is precisely the point.  The DNC sets the rules.  The DNC may as well stand for the Democratic National Clintonites.  Talk about establishment.

Martin O’Malley Plans Revolt Over Democratic Debate Rules | TIME.


A Foxy, Rowdy Republican Debate?

I didn’t watch the entire debate, but this account basically registers true for the parts I did see, including the bits about Kasich’s decency, Carson’s charming final statement and Huckabee’s hilarious conflation.

I disagree, of course, with Kasich on marriage equality.  Carson was getting at something substantive, philosophical, even, about race with the conceit about how he works on the part of the body (the brain, literally) that makes a person who they are, but that still misses the larger and, in 2015, unmissable point about systemic racism.  Huckabee’s sly Clinton jab was precisely that, and, if I do say so, a few beats better than the typical pulpit joke.

I didn’t find the Christie/Paul scuffle very riveting, but when you think about its implications, you understand that this is one of the hardest and most important tensions of our era.

Cruz, it turns out, sounds exactly like the Bobby Moynihan impressions.  It was very hard to take him seriously.

Rubio seemed sincere and earnest when talking about saving the American Dream.  He shared some of the personal narrative that shapes his lens, and he did it well.

Jeb Bush was solid, but has absolutely none of his brother’s charm.  That’s either a good or bad thing.

Walker had some strong answers.

Trump was Trump.  He is Trump.

Graham, by the way, from the JV debate, had some very interesting things to say about boots on the ground in Iraq and elsewhere.

A Foxy, Rowdy Republican Debate – The New York Times.

From the Spam File: How Would a Goose Do in an Agitating Washing Machine?

On a post about Chipotle’s quarterly earnings, someone (or somebot) posted this:

It may seem insignificant but the little drips can actually add up. How would a goose do in an agitating washing machine. These types of washer dryers save lot of energy when compared to other type of dryers.

You know what?  How would a goose do in an agitating washing machine? The world will hopefully never know.

Man Rescues Old Drone with New Drone

“Make new drones, but keep the old…”

“Meet the new drone, same as the old drone…”

You know I can be found/sitting home all alone/

If you can’t come around, a least please send a drone…”

This reminds me of WALL-E:


more from Christine Linnell.

I know I don’t need to say this, but just a friendly reminder:  recreational drones = awesome.  drones that kill civilians = bad.


When Did We Start Eating Chicken?

Sometime between 400 and 200 BC?  So says new evidence being reported by NPR and Grist.

An interesting line from the Grist piece, noting that eating chicken (though not meat in general) seems to have been a relatively recent cultural decision:

Perhaps we can just decide that we’re not gonna raise animals in horrific conditions just so we can have our all-you-can-eat buffets and cheap burgers. Perhaps we can just decide that we’ll start eating insects or lab-grown meat or weird veggie-based imitation meat simply because it’s better for the planet…

NPR here. Grist here.

Gary Hart and Killer Mike: Use the Ballot to End American Political Dynasties

Earlier today I talked about Lyman Beecher and, obliquely, the role Yale University (then Yale College) played in the Second Great Awakening which, in turn, helped end slavery.

I just read a story about rapper Killer Mike’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders.  H.A. Goodman says:

Polls are ever-changing, but Americans will never long for a king or queen. When Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike tweeted “I cannot support another Clinton or bush ever,” he echoed the sentiments of Americans throughout the country tired of entrenched political factions in Washington. As for why political dynasties are ruinous to any democracy, the Atlanta rapper says, “I am beginning to see American political families like monarchs and I have no affection for monarchs.” This sentiment, in addition to the reasons Killer Mike has endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, can’t be accurately assessed by opinion polls or political wonks.


In fact, it could spell trouble for the Clinton campaign and Democratic strategists enamored with poll driven forecasts. When a recent analysis says that Bernie Sanders is popular primarily among “white liberals,” the aggregate data used to make such a claim ignores the fact that black children face a 38% poverty rate and African-Americans as a group face a 27% poverty rate. This analysis questioning Sanders’s appeal to minority voters also ignores a finding from Pew Research that states, “In 2011, the typical white household had a net worth of $91,405, compared with $6,446 for black households.”

Gary Hart, who graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1961, says this:

If the presidency were to pass back and forth between two or three families in any Latin American nation we would call it an oligarchy…

Our Founders created a republic and, being keen students of the history of republics beginning with Athens, they knew that placing special and narrow interests ahead of the common good and the commonwealth was the corruption that destroyed republics. They feared this kind of corruption as the greatest danger to America’s success and survival…

By this standard, today’s American Republic is massively corrupt. Every interest group in our nation has staff lobbyists and hires lobbying firms…

The net affect of the money machine — lobbyists, fund raisers, and campaign consultants — is to severely narrow the field of those who can compete for office, especially national office. If the national presidency were to pass back and forth between two or three families in any Latin American nation we would call it an oligarchy.

Goodman also reminds us that it took Hillary Clinton three full weeks to issue a statement about Ferguson.  She’s just that awful.  She’s a Clinton, and as much as we love to remember her husband’s time in office fondly, Clintonism has always, always equaled cynical opportunism.

Here’s the thing. Hillary Clinton, as a progressive, is a fraud. Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, et al are still fighting culture wars that have no bearing in the present or future. To say they are entrenched in the past is an understatement. Hillary, as a politician, and, I dare say, as a political specimen, is, too. The New Democrat Clintonism of the early 90s is stale; it is the old Democrat garbage of Ed Rendell and the cadre of cronies that the Clintons have collected over the past 25, 30 years.  All their old moves and tricks and talking points and number crunching.

People don’t want candidates.  People want leaders.  Monarchs do very little leading these days.  British kings and queens were famously made beholden to the barons in the 12th century and now function in mostly ceremonial and symbolic capacities.  In America, political royalty are beholden the what our newspapers used to call oil barons, banking barons, transportation barons, and, collectively, robber barons. They’ve hammered out their own Magna Carta with our interchangeable cast of power-elites; political legacy types are like so much Monsanto fare: bland, identical, bad for us.

An aside: Before anyone comments about how Killer Mike should expect black America to struggle as long as they embrace representatives with names like Killer Mike, let us not forget that one of the best white bands on the planet are called The Killers, and Jerry Lee Lewis was the Original.


Sandra Bland, Bill Cosby, Barack Obama: Color, Cognitive Dissonance, and Our Undying National Shame

The same day our first black president became the first sitting president to ever visit a prison, we learn about the prison death of Sandra Bland, a young black woman who was beaten by white police and wrongly jailed. The prison says Bland killed herself. Anyone with a brain says bullshit.
Yesterday, the President was asked if Bill Cosby’s Medal of Freedom could be revoked. Mr. Obama, an expert on Executive Orders, said our nation has no precedent or mechanism for revoking the honor, but also said that anyone who does what Bill Cosby has confessed to doing is a rapist. Cosby, a rapist who, with Methaqualone, revoked the freedom of his victims, can keep his Medal of Freedom because the President can’t think of way the Executive Branch could repeal the honor. This is the man who defied all odds to become our first black President. This is the man who delivered (for better and worse) the kind of health care reform no one thought possible. This is the same sitting president who, in recent months, hasn’t met an executive order he didn’t like. But he can’t pry the Medal of Freedom from Ghost Dad.

In Chattanooga, four Marines are dead after a terrorist attack perpetrated the same day Muslims around the world break the fast of Ramadan. Muslim communities have rightly condemned the massacre, which is almost immediately classified as an episode of terrorism. The shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, another clear act of terrorism, was not labeled so by law enforcement with the same speed or diligence. All terrorist acts are hate crimes. All violent hate crimes are terror.

Two days ago, Nate Silver revealed research showing that life is as dangerous for Black Americans in America as is life in Rwanda. That Rwanda.

Yesterday, assholes greeted the first black president with Confederate flags in Oklahoma. Inside the prison, he did one of the blackest things of his presidency, albeit subtly. He called out the prison industrial complex from within the literal belly of the beast. White progressives like me will say he didn’t do enough, never understanding from experience what it is to be black in America, never understanding why even a second-term President of the United State with zero political capital at stake can’t say what he really means simply because he’s also black.

During the 19th-century Christian Revival we now call the Second Great Awakening, which started where I happened to go to seminary, Lyman Beecher said that slavery was a national sin threatening “to entomb our glory.” 200 years later, marks of that shame are no mere scars on our body politic. They are open, festering, bleeding wounds. Blackness is less a social stigma than a sentence; the punctures in Black America’s hands and feet, the gashes in its sides, the ropes around its neck are not just lyrical or spiritual. And just in time comes White America, with another book by the same white author from a million years ago who somehow cemented the Tall White Savior tope among our elite, white, and nominally progressive intelligentsia, this time about how sad it makes her that her daddy is a racist. White Academia will parse this out for decades, but it’s already been called “a revelation on race.” White America doesn’t just control community policing, foreign policy, and most of the nation’s wealth. It, of course, controls the discussion on race, and on the artistic merits of literary treatments of it from genteel would-be hell-raisers working out their privilege.

These are all facets of our most cherished, robust, and foundational national shame. And, put another way, shame is clearly something we have none of.

This is not some middle-of-the-night rant about white guilt or self-loathing. But before I’m the proud descendent of hard-working Europeans et al, I’m a stubborn and imperfect follower of a colored carpenter who was murdered by the State and other social elites for pointing out these very sins and calling bullshit on them. “Jesus help us” is no anemic yearning, no therapeutic incantation. It is a protest. It is a demand.

All theology is black theology, James Cone said. Here blackness has nothing to do with color but with violation: of personhood, of God’s likeness in us, of freedom and of futures. It has entombed whatever civic glory America had claim to, even as it entombed the living Christ himself. This is one of many facets of the Christian hope of resurrection, not for resurrection’s sake, and not for the sake, surely, of some jingoistic pride, but for the coming of an age and order where the war of each against all is over, where each and all have enough, where people aren’t raped and murdered because people in power have taken the mantle of God for themselves.

Jesus, help us.


With Cable and Youth Football in Decline, Disney/ESPN Forced to Call an Audible

Christopher Cocca

From 500ishWords.com, this piece considers the future of ESPN following Olbermann’s  (unavoidable) departure, Bill Simmons’ (inevitable) departure and the streaming experiments the Worldwide Leader is conducting on platforms like Sling.

As someone considering cutting the cord myself, it’s interesting to me that our children’s gray matter, so much fodder for the Disney machine, may not save ESPN after all.  The relationship between young brains and the House of Mouse in question is not the obvious “kill your screens” sentiment.  I’m talking about the fact that if Disney is to keep extracting 25% of its operating profit from the studios in Bristol, young boys have to keep playing football, even while ESPN wrings its journalistic hands over whether or not to tell the truth about CTE.  


Go Read James Baldwin

The new Harper Lee book is not the Harper Lee book we want, but it’s the Harper Lee book we deserve.

Atticus is revealed to harbor anti-integration sentiments. Scout doesn’t know what to do with herself.

It’s not often that the same character gets two separate coming of age stories (unless you’re Harry Potter…then you get 8).

It’s never been hard to understand why Harper Lee didn’t want to release other Finch stories after “To Kill A Mockingbird” become such a touchstone. More stories about Faulkner’s Compsons? Yes. They are flawed and tragic every step of the way. But Atticus had nowhere to go but down, immortalized by a near-Kryptonian Gregory Peck.

I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” too late in life to lionize Atticus. But the non-shock I feel about his revelation as 1950s reactionary (the first literary Dixiecrat) has more to do with social and political history than with the fact that he never made his kids call him “Dad” or that it was, by my Straussian read, Scout and Jem’s antics in the courtroom (a manifestation of Atticus’ crappy parenting) that sealed Tom’s fate in the first place.

If the new book is mostly about Scout being disillusioned by Atticus the Bigot, I’m not very interested. Not because we shouldn’t care about bigotry, but because, really, why should the same upwardly mobile white girl get two bites at that apple? Read James Baldwin instead.

Entire World of Disney

Dad by Disney

RDG Stout

They say that you get three turns of the wheel: your childhood, your kids’ childhood, and your grandkids’ childhood. On my first spin I fell into Generation X.2, which put me right in the sweet spot for both the silver screen’s Disney Renaissance and the small screen’s Disney Afternoon. Kids my age knew the theme songs for Gummi Bears, Rescue Rangers, and Talespin. By sixth grade we were all certain that Ariel was the greatest possible tribute to Alyssa Milano, right up until Guardians of the Galaxy.

But the Disney of the 1990s wasn’t all Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Soon came Hercules. And Atlantis. And (shudder) Home on the Range. Yeah, that happened; someone at Disney thought it would be a great idea to have a slapstick Wild West cartoon starring Roseanne Barr, Dame Judy Dench, and the Bride of Chucky as musical cows. There were some smallish diamonds in the rough, however. Lilo and Stitch touched on powerful family issues, and my college roommate and I could recite the entirety of The Emperor’s New Groove by heart. Maybe we still can. But Meet the Robinsons? Chicken Little? Man, the Disney Renaissance of my childhood was well and truly dead.

Then I had kids. And Disney met Pixar.

Peculiarly, the collaboration of these two studios seemed to keep coinciding with major events in my life. When our son was little, he loved cars and trains and tractors, and so the movie Cars, with all its overabundant merchandising, was like toddler crack to him. This was also back when he was an only child, so we had little compunction about showering him with toy vehicles. I found myself developing an oddly emotional connection with the Cars film, however, and when I stopped to examine why, I could only come up with two reasons: (1) My son adored it, and I was seeing it through his eyes; and (2) Cars is the story about a cocky, self-centered city guy who unexpectedly finds love, peace, and meaning out in the country. At first he views this transition as an agonizing exile, but soon comes to realize just how empty his old life was.

Did I mention that we were watching this shortly after I fell in love with a Minnesota girl and moved from the urban East Coast to the rural Midwest? Go figure.

Like most little boys, our son soon transitioned from machines to animals. He especially loved whales, sharks, and sea creatures in general. Well, there’s a kids’ movie for that too: Finding Nemo. It was love at first sight for him. Before long everything was Nemo this and Nemo that. Again I found myself oddly invested in my son’s favorite movie, and for similar reasons. I loved it because he loved it, and with a degree in biology this was an interest we easily shared. But Finding Nemo is also the story of a dad with a vulnerable child, who is forced to confront his own terror of losing the son he so deeply loves.

Did I mention that our son was born with a rare heart defect that required $300,000 of open heart surgery, and that it was two weeks before we could even hold him? Yeah. I still have trouble visiting the NICU. And this is why I found myself tearing up every time we watched that bloody movie together. Every dang time, right when the seagull tells the story that makes Nemo proud of his dad. Gah.

Meanwhile, the quality of non-Pixar Disney films demonstrated some improvement. Bolt wasn’t terrible. The Princess and the Frog was really pretty decent. (I automatically give any story set in New Orleans an extra star.) But Tangled was something special.

We became parents again with a pair of daughters, nearly Irish twins. And while our girls do enjoy werewolves and broadswords and crossbows, they also love their princesses and frilly dresses. Tangled was their gateway drug. The middle child especially has since branched out into the classics—Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty—but Rapunzel was our household’s first Disney princess. And if the girls like it, Daddy likes it. (This was followed by Wreck-It Ralph, a love letter to every child of the 80s, which culminates in the line, “If that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” Should you happen to be a father of little girls, that sucker will get you right in the feels.)

Then came The Big One. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. Brave had come out a few years after Tangled, and though it definitely improved upon later repeat viewing, I hadn’t been impressed in the theater. So when we heard about Disney’s latest, something called Frozen, I thought the best it had going for it was that it looked an awful lot like Tangled. On Thanksgiving I took my son and two nieces to the cinema to see Frozen, and as it happened we had to make a potty break right at the film’s showpiece song. Yes, we missed “Let It Go.” My initial judgment was that it was a good movie, and obviously destined for Broadway, but I still preferred Rapunzel.

The thing about Disney films, though, is that the good ones really do grow on you. We took the kids to see Frozen again about a month later, with a negative 47 degree wind chill. Weather be damned, that theater was packed. Minnesotans took an immediate shine to the story. Stave churches, rosemaling, ice, snow, Minnesota accents, friendly wild creatures, whispers of trolls, Lutheran bishops, saunas, Hans Christian Andersen references—good heavens, Disney had made a movie about us! And don’t even get me started on the religious imagery. I’ve taught classes on the spiritual symbolism hidden away in Frozen. The kids started listening to the soundtrack in the car.

That February my wife and I had planned a belated honeymoon trip to Egypt with Zahi Hawass. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal. But then Egypt came down with a bad case of civil war, and that was the end of that, deposit and all. My wife, however, was bound and determined for us to take some time off together, and so she signed us up for something we’d never done before: a short Caribbean cruise. A Disney Caribbean Cruise. I wasn’t particularly enthused about the idea—the Caribbean over Egypt?—but hot snot, once we were there, it was like paradise on earth. I can’t even describe. We spent four days, together, without kids, for the first time in seven years. It was glorious. Ends up we’re still quite fond of each other. Who knew?

In addition to live theater every night, the ship had this crazy 3-D surround-sound cinema which outdid pretty much every other 3-D surround-sound cinema I’ve ever seen outside of Captain EO. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember Captain EO.) And what were they showing? Why, Frozen, of course: the story of a beautiful Norwegian girl who introduces viewers to a magical world of ice. Rather like my wife. And that’s what did it—that was the tipping point. We now began to understand those friends and family who were obsessed with Disney not just as an entertainment provider but almost as a worldview.

So today I don’t mind that Disney has metastasized all over our home. I don’t mind that our daughters want to wear their Elsa dresses and play with their Elsa dolls and read the latest Elsa books while sitting on their Elsa bedspreads. We pretty much drank the Kool-Aid. And as it so happens, we did end up finding an appropriate replacement for that Egyptian honeymoon. When Disney announced new cruises inspired by Frozen, spanning Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Scotland, I sold my grand prize Harley Davidson (won in an undertaker’s raffle two years earlier), giving one third of the value to charity and putting two thirds towards a Viking-themed Disney Cruise with my Viking-themed wife. I wouldn’t recommend waiting a year and a half between vacations, but this summer it’s going to be just me, her, and the lands of the Prose Edda. And I have the Queen of Arendelle to thank for that.

Well, her and a certain Mouse.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 3.21.02 PM

The Inherent Prospect of Melting Ice as Climatological Warfare

This animation by National Geographic may hold the key to explaining why some people don’t want to do anything about rising sea levels.  Look what happens to India and China if all the ice melts. The US loses more area by proportion, but it doesn’t lose a city the size or strategic significance of Beijing.  Are there people willing to let this happen to the world in the larger scope of this too-cynical-for-words real politik?  Maybe? Probably?  Yikes?

Ironically, China itself is the world’s biggest polluter and biggest emitter of greenhouse gases…


Notes from Niflheim: Frost Bites

RDG Stout

I recently asked our local chief of police if he needed extra manpower to prepare for the infamously raucous Niflheim Mardi Gras. He laughed, but I warned him that chilly co-eds might flash in exchange for scarves.

The East Coast, at least up New England way, just keeps getting pounded this winter, which is doubly bizarre for rural Minnesotans because ours has been uncharacteristically gentle. Indeed, unnervingly so. Last winter was rough even on the seasoned veterans; the temperature stayed around negative 20 for three months straight, with wind chills often dipping near negative 50. The frost line plunged down seven, eight, nine feet. Water mains froze. In town folks had to keep their faucets running for the entire season.

In contrast, this winter has been suspiciously enticing. We experienced warm spells up to 40 degrees (positive!) at both Santa Lucia and Christmas Day. I was out walking the dogs in December, which proved highly surreal. The high school crowd is grouchy because we’ve had so little snow that they can’t break out the snowmobiles, and even the most ardent of the ice fishers had to wait a bit to drive out on the lakes and drag along their mobile fishing palaces.

Recently we’ve dropped back down to a more familiar negative 30 wind chill, so I can return to bemusedly smirking at Facebook friends who cry out in astonishment at five degree temperatures in New Jersey. (Native Minnesotans are far too polite to mock the rest of the country’s inability to deal with even moderately sized frost giants. As a transplant, however, I have no such qualms.)

I remember when I first flew out to Fargo to meet up with my wife, whose move had preceded mine by a few months. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I took a deep breath—and doubled over hacking. It was a balmy negative 40, and my lungs were as yet Pennsylvanian in constitution.

“We don’t gulp the air here,” my wife admonished gently. “We sip it.” What sort of people voluntarily dwell where the very air one breathes burns from the inside out? I tried to sputter. All I got out was, “Ack! H-guh! *cough*” There’s nothing quite like the first time that you feel all the hairs inside your sinuses freeze at once.

I later recalled my Giants in the Earth, and realized that people used to wait out these winters in sod huts. Sod huts! Truly these were gods amongst men. Or at least part bear.

After several months of acclimation, however, I remember chipping my car out of an ice bank one fine day for my morning commute—it often snows here from Halloween to May Day, and we had but a single car garage while my wife was pregnant, so you know she wasn’t going to be chipping out her car—and thinking, “Oh, it’s not so bad today.” So I removed the earmuffs and gloves and scarf, and made do with the long coat.

Then on the drive in I noticed the temperature on the bank sign: negative 20. Negative 20! And I could breathe! And expose bare skin! By thunder, I’d done it! I’d acclimated! It’s like learning that you can breathe underwater, or walk unsuited on the moon.

So buck up, Jersey. You’ll survive. Around here at negative 20 kids still frolic in the backyard with dogs, and school is never, ever canceled. Take some inspiration from the Vikings. Visit Fargo. Read Giants in the Earth. And know that this too shall pass. Why, it probably won’t even last much past May Day.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.  His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.


[B]rad Infinitum: Cannon Beach, Oregon, at Sunset

For this post, I would like to talk about how I created a photo from Cannon Beach, Oregon, last year.

Before I left on this trip, I read about a new technique that can create interesting patterns in the sky when you stack a series of photos taken about 5-10 seconds apart with fast moving clouds. (The technique is described on PetaPixel, among other places, and it tend to resurface as a ‘new’ idea every few years)

I wanted to try it. But the clouds were not moving very quickly and the sun was setting very quickly.

So I thought, since I was on a beach, why not try the same concept, but with waves. Either way, it was too late to move to a new spot, so my choices were to work with what I had or give up and ensure I walked away with nothing.

I set up my camera and took a series several series of photos. One particular group of about 20 photos is what I would like to discuss in this post. Of this group of 20 photos, this was the first:

First Photo!

First Photo!

Ok, not too bad. There’s a lot I really like about this photo, especially in the color of the sky and the sea stacks in shadow.

I opened up the series of photos in Photoshop and stacked them on top of each other with Darken as the blend mode. Darken, like Lighten, are really nice for working with this kind of scene. In the earlier part of this post I linked to an article which talked about using ‘Lighten’ as your blend mode for clouds. I have found that Lighten works best for lighter objects, and Darken works best for darker objects. This is all subjective and mostly about what you like best or what just works best for you.

However, 20 photos was a bit too many. So I turned layers on and off until only about 6 remained. These 6 felt right, so I performed a merge visible on all but the bottom layer and set this new layer to ‘darken’.


Oops, I left a little too much of the transparency on. That just won’t work right. (See the Sun for what I mean)


Ahh better. I’ve masked out the area where the sun sits in the image. This means that the bottom layer’s sun is now showing through.

What is left do do on this photo? 2 major things. In Photoshop, I want to create a mask for the Oranges. I feel like this color is just not where I want it to be. So I’ll create a quick mask and adjust the Hue to make it a little more orange, and also underexpose the area a little to bring the brightness down.

Next, I’ll do the opposite for the waves. I feel like they need to be made brighter, as well as have their colors saturated a bit more.

Finish it all up with a sharpening layer and we have:


After this image had been published, I noticed that the orange in the waves that I so liked was actually due to me forgetting to turn off the transparency of the layer. Once that was turned down, we get:


Now we are nearly at our completed image. I am really liking where this image is going.

There is still an issue with this image that I would like to correct. Do you see the area between the sea and the sky? There is a small color halo. This is an easy fix. We create a new Darken layer and using the paintbrush tool, we sample a nearby color and paint our way across the image. The result is a subtle change, but, it eliminates the annoying halo.


And there it is, the finished image. By stacking images, we can make a relatively calm ocean look like a much more active ocean.


Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis: February 13, 2015: Beautiful Romance and Broken Ego

Melissa Maleski

A beautiful romance begins with a broken ego. That is the only way I can think to summarize Pope Francis’ message leading up to Valentine’s Day.

There was some fairly hard language to come from the Chair of Peter this week. Technically it began at the end of last week when Pope Francis called the abuse-of-minors scandal a scourge, but he kept the ball rolling this week. He called on world governments to stop ignoring the  shameful wound of human trafficking, which boasts a consistent tally of victims in the neighborhood of 2.5 million. In some parts of the world the word shame carries some weight, but us Westerners have some well-padded egos. If Pope Francis wants Western governments to listen when he speaks, I’m afraid he’ll need to use much stronger language. But let me come back to this in a minute.

The Holy Father saved his strongest statement for couples who choose not to have children. Not bothering to mince words, he called this choice selfishA society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society,” the pope said. “The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished. I’m assuming that the lack of reaction in the mass media to this statement is due to Dropped-Jaw Syndrome.

There is a rapidly-growing debate around the inter-web about who is more selfish: parents or childless-by-choice couples. For your edification check out this editorial in Time.  Or this passionate opinion. Or this actual side-by-side debate. Each position defends their claim primarily on the grounds of economics and psychology. The Catholic position, which Pope Francis succinctly stated, rests primarily on moral principles. Economics and psychology are incorporated to support the moral principles, but are not supposed to precede moral considerations.

I don’t want to make this a windy apologetics piece, so I will try to explain briefly why childless-by-choice is selfish by Catholic standards. Male and Female were created as a gift, one to the other. When one male and one female come together, they are supposed to give all of themselves to the other. This is called the total gift of self. It’s a process that is similar to how stars are born. Clouds of gas and dust (the individual persons) begin to collapse and die. As the parts collapse, the center of the clouds get hotter and more solid (Sacrament of Marriage). When the center reaches peak heat and density, a star is born. It starts to grow, and eventually it’s light bursts forth for universes to see. This last part correlates, in people terms, to two things. One, biological conception and birth of children. Two, charitable contributions to society through volunteering, donations, and being generally happy and well-adjusted people. Both components are necessary aspects of man’s existential reality. Holding back, or not totally giving one’s self to another, blunts the humbling impressiveness of this gift. Feel free to argue the logic of it in the comments, but this is Theology of the Body in a mustard seed.

Let me turn back to Pope Francis and Western governments. His statement to Western leaders is not as forceful as the one aimed at childless-by-choice couples, and that intrigues me. Maybe it’s just that the latest consistory of cardinals began this week, but I get the feeling that Pope Francis has a different approach in mind for dealing with those who are on the top of the food chain of power and influence. Rather than engage in compelling dialogue (as, say, Jesus did with the Pharisees and regular folk), I think we may see the Holy Father increasingly limit the attention he gives anyone attached to established power. Like the Sadducees in the New Testament, those who have gotten comfortable being in charge will be nudged to the margins of relevance. What better way to break an over-inflated ego than to deny it room to breath?

Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis, February 6, 2015

Melissa Maleski

The Holy Father kept things low-key this week. No wacky soundbites. Nothing overtly offensive to anyone, really.

Pope Francis reminded the bishops to stay on-board with the Church’s ongoing dedication to cleaning up the vestiges of the shameful sexual abuse scandal. He spoke about the importance of fathers in their children’s life:  Also today’s children, returning home with their failures, need a father who waits for them, protects them, encourages them and teaches them how to follow the good path. Pope Francis did express approbation for spanking a child under certain conditions; I’m surprised that this hasn’t caused an uproar yet. Maybe the obnoxiously frigid temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic region are chilling everyone out.

The Holy Father did announce that he will be addressing Congress when he comes to the United States this September. I can imagine what he will say to our legislative branch.

The real fun will be reading the reactions from Fox News, Breitbart, and the Drudge Report.

Finally, the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero was officially recognized by Pope Francis, which allows the beatification process to begin.

As the Holy Father is wont to do, he made a couple of very sweet and inspiring gestures of Christian charity this week. First, he chatted with a group of special-needs children on Google Hangouts. Then, after already announcing that the planned Vatican bathrooms for the homeless will include showers and barbers, 300 homeless were given umbrellas to keep them dry from the persistent bad weather.

To keep the sweet note going, I’m sharing with you a fun dessert I stumbled upon. It is a sandwich cookie called an alfajores.  It’s an Argentinian iteration of a Spanish delicacy. The recipe, in Spanish and then English, is here. Strap on your metaphorical apron with me and try making these on Valentine’s Day, in honor of our Argentinian Pontiff!


Everyday Genius Closes Shop; Real Pants is a Thing Instead

From Adam Robinson at the former Everyday Genius:


Probably you sent work to Everyday Genius long ago—mystifyingly long ago to be honest—and because of the guest editor system at EG (where many times no one was considering submissions), your work wasn’t read. I kept hoping the next editor would want to pull from our submissions, and sometimes they did. Even until January 2015, guest editors were reading from Everyday Genius’s Submittable account.

However, it is finally necessary to respond to your beautiful and worthwhile piece, because after six great years, Everyday Genius is hanging up its hat. We’ve moved on to new things at realpants.com.

Your participation was meaningful to me, a genuine encouragement. I look forward to seeing you around the literary corners of the Internet.

Best wishes,
Adam Robinson

Final version of Hummingbirds Picture

[B]rad Infinitum: Photographing Hummingbirds in Costa Rica

Brad Molnar

Hello everyone, and a special thanks to Chris for inviting me to write about photography.  This article is about photographing hummingbirds at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens in Costa Rica.

[Ed. note: Brad, thank YOU!  I’ve had the pleasure of seeing your work for years and am happy to share it.  And I love that you’re taking us through the process of editing and preparing the final image, and I know others will, too.]

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to take a work trip to Central America to help bring our San Jose team up to speed.  I extended my trip by a few days so I would have some time to see parts of the country.

One of the places I was able to visit was the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which is about 2 hours outside of San Jose.  Among other things at this location is a Hummingbird Garden.  This only the second time I’ve had the opportunity to photograph hummingbirds, the first being wild hummingbirds on Alcatraz, in San Francisco.

I tried to take advantage of the time, and below is a screenshot of the thumbnails from the software Lightroom.

All of my thumbnails from the day

Screenshot of my Lightroom Catalog of the Hummingbird Gardens

These birds move quickly, much quicker than my autofocus was happy with.

Hyperactive bird drinking a sugar mix

Hyperactive bird drinking a sugar mix

Although the background is really uninteresting.

However, I would frequently end up with the birds out of focus.

Why yes, I was trying to get the feeder in focus and the bird out of focus

Why yes, I was trying to get the feeder in focus and the bird out of focus

Sometimes, the birds would move out of frame giving me a fantastic photo of the feeder.

A picture of a feeder with invisible Hummingbirds

A picture of a feeder with invisible Hummingbirds

I even ended up with a silhouette.  I still like this photo, even if it is not my favorite from the day.


Eventually, my luck began to change and I started getting photos with birds that were both in focus and out of the shadows.

This one came out nice

This one came out nice

This photo in particular was just sitting on my external drive.  I didn’t realize I had it until I started to prepare photos for this post.

I also caught this colorful fellow.

Purple Hummingbird

Purple Hummingbird

Then, I managed to capture my favorite.

My favorite photo from the day

My favorite photo from the day

This one is really nice.  It has 3 birds, but the 2 on the left are looking at each other.  One of them is a bit out of focus, but that’s fine, you can tell what it is.  The one bird is in perfect focus.  This was a really lucky shot.

Now that I have my favorite, it is time to start to work on it.  I shoot my photos in RAW, which means capturing the photo is really only the beginning.  Generally, there’s at least 30 more minutes of work behind every photo that gets shared.

For this photo, I decided that the best part was on the left, and I decided to crop it to a vertical.

After cropping, it was time to get the colors balanced the way I wanted, turn up the saturation, and balance the brightness to my liking.

The result is this:

Final version of Hummingbirds Picture

Final version of Hummingbirds Picture

And there it is, my finalized version of the photo.  I did turn up the saturation a little more than normal.  This was an item I debated for a while, but in the end, I’m happy with how it turned out.  I also turned up the clarity, which brings out the detail in the bird’s feathers.



Notes from Niflheim: Country Moon

One’s definition of “rural” is completely relative. After spending years living out of efficiencies in Philadelphia and Boston, moving to Fargo deeply jarred me. Everything seemed so small, what with buildings rarely rising above two stories in height. I laughed the first time that one of my new coworkers referred to Fargo-Moorhead as “the metropolitan area” for “urban ministry.”

“Urban!” I replied. “Man, this is rural.”

“Then what do you call what we call rural?” he asked, sipping his coffee.

Frontier.” For heaven’s sake, the town is named for Wells Fargo.

That was a long time ago. Having spent almost seven years in a town of 1200 souls, Fargo-Moorhead’s 140,000 indeed seems like the Big City now. All those lights, all that traffic, all the pavement—after living on 5.2 acres of forest and field, the whole thing feels like a wasp nest. Country life has ruined me for being urban, or even suburban, ever again. There’s just something about the space, the people, the wildness that liberates one’s soul. Plus it forces you to learn a whole host of basic survival skills that one never develops living in crowded neighborhoods.

One transitional memory that really sticks with me even today is how we had to adjust to the darkness. Growing up I never much noticed the full moon, save for my time working in the trauma bay. (Weird stuff happens when the moon is full, believe you me.) But this knowledge became less theoretical and more practical when we left behind the highways, the street lights, the passing cars. On a moonless night, there’s nothing, no light at all, a darkness like the plagues of Egypt. You literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. And on a full moon, holy cow. It’s like a spotlight in the sky, a second silver sun. You can see everything.

It also drives kids and dogs wild, and our household possesses both in abundance. Take, for example, last night. We had the Super Bowl on as we chased small children about, but my wife and the kids passed out before halftime, so I switched to something I can only enjoy when I’m the solitary viewer: PBS’s delightful second season of Shakespeare Uncovered. (That’s how I roll, son. Bard4Life.) After A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, I should by all rights have gone to bed, but the moon was just so bright, streaming in the windows … I decided instead to read a bit of The Book of Conquests, which has proven highly addictive. Celtic mythology is metal as fudge.

By the time I finally hit the hay, our night unfolded like so:

10:45 p.m.—Go to bed.

12:00 a.m.—Youngest child cries because moonlight is shining directly on her face. (Middle child long ago tore down the venetian blinds.) Youngest is only consoled with a bottle and being brought to your bed.

1:00 a.m.—Dogs insistently bark at a forest monster that’s, like, right behind you, seriously. You can see them clearly in the moonlight wagging their tails and staring in the windows at you, happy to have saved the entire family from a gruesome demise.

2:00 a.m.—Eldest child awakes and comes in to check on you, because he dreamt that you grew a beard. You remind him that you’ve always had a beard, and get up to tuck him back into bed.

3:00 a.m.—Middle child cries because the moonlight is now shining directly on her face. This is the child we’ve caught howling at said moon. She demands to sleep with a parent.

5:00 a.m.—Eldest child turns on the lights and walks on top of your feet to wake you up because he’s seen an alien. Alas, it seems not to have abducted him.

6:00 a.m.—Alarm goes off because it’s Monday, sucker.

Just another full moon in the country.



RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.

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‘Boyhood’ and Other Films I’ll Only Watch Once

Nathan Key

This isn’t a review of the film Boyhood – there are other articles that can give you a full play-by-play. I watched it a few weeks ago on the evening  it won the Golden Globe for Best Film, but it wasn’t planned out that way. My wife and I share an unwritten rule that we try to start whichever movie is delivered to our home as soon as possible so that our Netflix subscription doesn’t go to waste.  The strategy doesn’t always payoff, but it did with this movie:  Boyhood is an excellent feat of filmmaking that everyone should see. It was incredible for a few reasons; the acting was wonderful, the story was satisfying, and the plot moved organically, striking a nice pace that felt neither rushed nor drug out – even at a whopping 165 minutes. I will highly recommend it. It was a great film, and, as it ended, we agreed that we never needed to see it again.

Let me explain.

We all know that there are certain films that are so terrible (e.g. Troll 2 and Evil Dead) that people want to watch them over and over again, somehow making them into fond friends. I find the opposite is true as well, that there are certain films so good that to re-watch would be to ruin. For me, Boyhood is one of those films. Saving Private Ryan and Memento are One-timers, too. These are all great films that I really enjoyed watching, but I don’t want multiple visits. Multiple views diminish the effect and ruin an otherwise good experience because there is a sense of wonder and otherness in these films that is so powerful in the moment but lost on a second or third time through. Have you ever watched the Sixth Sense a second time? It’s a powerful movie during the first view and a waste of time on the second; the entire mystery and anticipation are gone and the twist ending is ruined by knowing. It might not be at the same level of greatness as some of the other films that I consider One-timers, but you get the point.

Now, don’t confuse the One-timer with the Despised. We usually don’t make it through the Despised and, if we do, we never want to see it again, either, but for completely different reasons. I learned this lesson while watching The Tailor of Panama in its entirety, hopefully expecting some sort of O. Henry twist that would make me fall in love with the story and the characters. It was such a mundane and predictable movie that I was sure at any moment something must be about to happen that would flip things on their head and make sense of the boredom. That twist never came and I was left wondering why I had wasted that much of my life with a film that was not enjoyable and not even interesting. I didn’t care what happened to them in the end. No, the Despised have a shelf of their own – hidden in the back of our minds like an embarrassing little episode we hope our friends will never discover.

One-timers, by comparison, do not contain anything close to mundane. These are films that fill us with excitement and talk. They are so near the actual feeling of life that we want to cherish them like an actual memory rather than dilute them through re-watch. They are a once in a lifetime safari or that week at summer camp when we fell in love. We remember fondly and enjoy relating our experience to others, comparing notes and discussing the events in detail, knowing that we’ll never have anything quite like it again, even if we went back. I visited the town I grew up in a few months ago. I was with my wife and my kids, none of them had never been there before. It was a trip down memory lane – me pointing out my elementary school and the street I grew up on. In some ways it was all the same as when I left it and in other was remarkably different.  “You can never go back again”  lingered on every street. Even if I moved back, I’d never go back to my boyhood. I can’t go back and experience my own boyhood again, no matter where I live. The beauty of Boyhood the movie is that we get a chance to experience something dangerously close. Out of respect for the moment, I don’t want to go back to it either, as easy as it might be. Better to let it drift into memory in the way my own has.

Saving Private Ryan is one on the most powerful movies I’ve ever seen, but I never want to see it again, either. Before he died, my Grandfather saw the film and was shaken by it. “Nathan,” he said, “I’m sorry you had to see that. Your other grandfather and I fought that war so that you would never have to experience that. And now they’ve gone and put it on film. I don’t want to stand on the shores of Normandy ever again – even as experienced through film.” Well said, Grandfather.

Boyhood was recently nominated for a number of Academy Awards including Best Picture and a few best actor/actress nominations and I’m rooting for it to sweep all of its categories. But I’ll never see it again. You may have your own list of movies that made you say – “Wow, that was great, but never again.” Leave your picks in the comments and let the debate begin.


Related:  Movies That Make You Put Down the Remote (And Stay Up Way Too Late)


Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis, January 30, 2015 : Encountering Others In Mercy and Peace; Considering Atticus Finch

Melissa Maleski

I gave in to temptation this week and took one of those silly Facebook quizzes. It was something about which literary character I most resemble. I got Atticus Finch, from To Kill A Mockingbird. In the description of the character, one line jumped out at me:

Someone who is as forgiving as they are morally inflexible.

This resonates with me for very personal reasons, but it dovetails nicely with the Holy Father’s week. It was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and Pope Francis spent almost all of his breath on what Christian unity will require of us. To be more specific, he said, “Christian unity will not be the fruit of subtle theoretical discussions in which each party tries to convince the other of the soundness of their opinions.” Rather, he wants us to encounter others and challenge them. This certainly gives some context to his comments on annulments this week.

What the Holy Father’s statements have to do with the description of Atticus Finch is simple. To be agents of Christian unity, Pope Francis wants us to esteem mercy as much as we do Truth. How are we to do this?  Stop legalizing the faith, for one.

In no uncertain terms, Pope Francis is telling us that we won’t win friends and influence people if all we are doing is engaging in doctrinal pissing contests. But he is not advocating the rejection of doctrine or its manipulation. Not at all. I think what he’s saying, first of all, is that we need to first get right with our own beliefs. Either we need to have the moral inflexibility of true conviction, or be open to the possibility that we are wrong–and that someone will someday prove it. Regardless of which way you lean, you need to be at peace with your direction. That peace is crucial to having a meaningful encounter with another person.

Once we have peace, it’s easier to start an encounter. We can spend more time listening. We can spend more energy empathizing. Only then can we challenge, and be challenged. The challenge Pope Francis speaks of is not a verbal one. It is a challenge to act: to live in imitation of Jesus, who unites us all in Himself.

Of course, it’s equally important that we actually care about  encountering others outside of our tiny universe. Never mind the strength of our convictions. If other people aren’t as important to us as we are to ourselves, what’s the point of unity?

So in the spirit of Pope Francis’ call for Christian unity, throw a party with some friends. Engage each other, preferably with a bottle or three of wine. May I suggest an inspired  vintage?

While you are at it, share your thoughts on one last remark of the Holy Father:

It is one thing to pass on the faith, and another to teach the matters of faith. Faith is a gift: it is not possible to study Faith. We study the things of faith, yes, to understand it better, but with study [alone] one never comes to Faith. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, which surpasses all [“academic”] formation.

In context: Pope Francis is explaining why the strength of your faith is determined by how strong the faith is of the “woman who raised you.”  And they say that the Church doesn’t value women…


Beneath Pixie Hollow: A Brief Social History of the Fey Folk

RDG Stout

So apparently fairies are a thing again.

When most folks hear “fairies,” we surely think of Tinkerbell. Disney has rather cornered the market on tiny winged Victorianesque young ladies. As a father of little girls I must confess that I’ve become surprisingly well-versed in the various denizens of Neverland, and I can’t say as I mind a bit of Tinkerbell merchandise. Indeed, I rather hope that hanging a blonde in a strapless miniskirt from the Christmas tree gives my wife ideas.

But this fad goes beyond Disney and the family-friendly market. Neopaganism and the New Age movement have made fairies into big business. Witness the art of Amy Brown, or the 131,395 books that an Amazon search for “fairies” nets you. Cynics would surely dismiss this as infantilism, the aptly-named Peter Pan Syndrome, and lump it as part of a larger phenomenon encompassing Avengers movies and Brony conventions. (Not that we don’t watch a little MLP in the Stout household.)

But methinks there’s more to it than that. Fairies inevitably represent nature, and our postmodern world—largely disconnected from the soil and insulated from the seasons—yearns to reconnect with natural phenomena not just on a physical but also on a spiritual level. We want the world to feel enchanted again. And that’s what fairies do: they enchant the world. But nature isn’t cutesy. And up until recently, neither were fairies.

Continue reading


John Ratzenberger is a Time Lord: The Life and Work of Jacob Riis

Forget about the alleged image of Jay-Z from the 1930s.

John Ratzenberger and groundbreaking photojournalist Jacob Riiss are one in the same.  They even have the same initials.  Nice try, Cliff Clavin.


Riis most likely invented the phrase “how the other half lives,” the title of his epic 1890 publication exposing the squalor of New York’s tenements and the plight of America’s urban poor to middle and upper classes through emerging media.  Read How the Other Half Lives, now in the public domain, here (or download to your digital device free of charge).

A pioneer of visual story-telling, Riis may not really be the Voice of Pixar.  He was, for certain, a voice of and for millions with no other.


With Super Bowl Looming, New Study: Youth Football Participation Down 29% Since 2008

“Football as mass spectacle has never been bigger.”   But youth participation is down 29% since 2008.  – ESPN Outside the Lines.

Christopher Cocca

American football, (that is to say, football), is a fascinating game.  Its history is complex and nuanced.  Like all the major professional sports, it emerged from somewhere in our collective memory, developed through amateur associations of working-class athletic clubs, became an outlet for the ambitions and frustrations of American male adolescence and is now one of the biggest industries in the world.

Even if you prefer baseball or hockey or basketball as products, hobbies, or metaphors, even if you know or care nothing about the game, you’d likely grant that much of its attraction among the faithful is visceral.   My playing experience starts and ends on the playground and in the backyard, with Nerf and, later, synthetic pigskin.  I don’t have a shared locker-room history, I didn’t play the organized game as a child, and I’ve always cared much for more baseball, likely for narrative and immigrant reasons, also visceral.

In the 80s and 90s, we had no way of knowing, as children, what CTE was or that some of our favorite players (Jim McMahon, Junior Seau) would suffer or die from it.  Our parents had no way of knowing that it existed, that playing the full-contact game as young boys even in the best of organized settings could damage our brains and limit our cognitive skills, or that if we played through our teens, that damage could increase our risk of suicide.

But we all know differently now.  I’ve argued before that game’s continued success, especially at the college level (the biggest piece of ESPN’s revenue, and thus a huge piece of Disney’s) requires that our kids keep playing and that the NCAA’s and NFL’s media partners keep mum about the true risks that have evolved alongside bigger bodies and harder hits.

Now, between Super Bowl Media Day and Super Bowl Sunday, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reports on a new study from Boston University claiming that “former NFL players who played tackle football as young children were more likely to have thinking and memory problems as adults.” I’m not a neuroscientist or a youth football booster, but people from both camps weigh in here.

Interestingly, Dr. Robert Stern, lead author of the study, says:

“To allow your child to be subjecting themselves to repetitive head injury at a very early age when they could be doing the sport a different way and minimizing their chances [of brain injury], to me, is just insane,” he said. “It’s wrong. We should not be allowing this to happen.

“Tom Brady didn’t play football until high school. He picked up the game pretty quickly.”

Why didn’t Brady play youth football?  His dad, citing health concerns, forbade the game until Brady’s freshman year.


Andrew Sullivan Retires from Blogging

Christopher Cocca

I have progressed past my libertarian stage, but this piece at the libertarian venue Reason.com does a good job of capturing the gist of what made Andrew Sullivan’s blogging so mercurial and important: A Fond Farewell to Andrew Sullivan, Who Is Retiring From Blogging – Hit & Run : Reason.com.

Sullivan himself says:

One of the things I’ve always tried to do at the Dish is to be up-front with readers. This sometimes means grotesque over-sharing; sometimes it means I write imprudent arguments I have to withdraw; sometimes it just means a monthly update on our revenues and subscriptions; and sometimes I stumble onto something actually interesting. But when you write every day for readers for years and years, as I’ve done, there’s not much left to hide. And that’s why, before our annual auto-renewals, I want to let you know I’ve decided to stop blogging in the near future.


I want to spend some real time with my parents, while I still have them, with my husband, who is too often a ‘blog-widow’, my sister and brother, my niece and nephews, and rekindle the friendships that I have simply had to let wither because I’m always tied to the blog. And I want to stay healthy. I’ve had increasing health challenges these past few years. They’re not HIV-related; my doctor tells me they’re simply a result of fifteen years of daily, hourly, always-on-deadline stress. These past few weeks were particularly rough – and finally forced me to get real.

Sullivan is part of an increasingly rare breed.  Even when you disagreed with him, vehemently, you always appreciated him.  The way his mind worked, the way he could write…and write and write and write.  He helped define the best of what blogging could be, while also, like all of us, struggling with the realities of displaying deeply held passions in real time, of working hard, maybe harder than anyone, to synthesize a genius’ command of historic, social, political, and religious metanarrative with the many strains of their echoes across great and vast swaths of “digital saturation.”   He was and is brilliant.  He was and is essential.  I can’t imagine my own development as a writer or thinker without him.  He wasn’t always right, and it wasn’t always pretty.  That he could and did evolve in public on any number of issues was always part of the deal.  That he loved what America can be at its best was clear and infectious.

I’ve always loved this video, now two years old, in which he explains  his time as a Young Thatcherite.

Spread love, Andrew Sullivan.  Thanks for teaching us a whole hell of a lot.


Planet Tolkien: Let’s Name J1407b, the New Exoplanet With Rings to Rule Them All, After J.R.R.

Christopher Cocca

It feels like astronomers are finding new exoplanets (planetary bodies outside of our native solar system) all the time in their quest for potential Earth-like worlds.  Just a few years ago, we’d only indirectly observed a handful, and, until 1992, as far as we knew, they existed only in theory.  According to the never-wrong stewards of Wikipedia, we’re now up to “1885 planets in 1184 planetary systems including 477 multiple planetary systems” as recently as yesterday.

Earlier this week, scientists reported discovering an exoplanet (J1407b) with Saturn-like rings for the first time ever.  Except these rings are so massive, if they were around Saturn, we’d see them dwarf the moon in Earth’s night sky.  They’re thought to be at least 200 times the sizes of Saturn’s banded system.

Truly, then, a Lord of the Rings.  I’d first thought we should name this planet Gandalf, but Tolkien, having created a marvelous literary world influencing the lives and work of millions, deserves a real world named for him.  Such a move is not without precedent:  the International Astronomical Union honored the literary giant (a Saturn for sure, if not a Jupiter) with Mercury’s Tolkien Crater.  In 1982, astronomer M. Watt named a newly discovered asteroid for Tolkien and a second after Bilbo Baggins.

People have talked for years about naming one of Pluto’s moons Mickey.  Fears of a dawning Starbucks Nebula mounting, a Tolkien namesake is so much less corporate than all of that.

Get it done, science.

Get it done, overlapping science and Tolkien fandom.  There should be a petition.  Like this one.


The Problem with The Fantastic Four Trailer

Christopher Cocca

The Fantastic Four teaser trailer has been released by 20th Century Fox/Marvel, and there are problems.  First and foremost, it mimics the gravity of the Man of Steel promos (a tone that translated well to the film) unconvincingly.  The Richards family may be superdom’s “First Family” and represent an important moment in the history of comics (which, are, of course, an abiding part of American folklore, just as Brian Wilson is our greatest folk musician), but you don’t get that feeling from the teaser.  Comparisons to Superman don’t help.  There’s even the classic car shot from the Star Trek reboot, making all of this feel re-tread.

Reed’s outsider-genius status will always evoke a certain pathos, but the downright absurdity of his acquired powers sort of ruins everything.  Using IN CINEMAS SUMMER 2015 instead of simply SUMMER 2015 is another stab at unearned weight, and the most egregious.

Yes, this is just a teaser reel, but the best thing about it is the way the title is rendered at the end.


Burning ISIS

RDG Stout

Editor’s Note: Stout, a Lutheran pastor, shares this anecdote about the origin of this piece: “For the first time in a decade I got into the pulpit this past Sunday, felt that my sermon stank, and made up a new one on the fly. What I can remember of it largely became Burning ISIS.

I want to talk about the Assyrians.

The Bible is full of evil empires that run roughshod over God’s people one after the other. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans. It’s easy for them to run together. But the Assyrians were different. The Assyrian Empire was not united by language or ethnicity or legends of shared ancestry. No, the Assyrian Empire was based on religion.

Their chief god was Asshur, and all you had to do to be considered Assyrian was to bow down and worship the Assyrian god. If you refused, well—the emperor was well within his rights to persecute you not only as an enemy of the state but of the cosmic order itself. Remember, the Assyrians are the people who invented crucifixion. When the nation of Israel broke in two, and 10 out of the 12 tribes of God’s people were scattered to the winds, never to reform again, it was at the hand of the Assyrians. They were the religious fanatics of their era, the archenemies of Israel. And I should note that they lived in what we now call Iraq. Basically, the Assyrians were the ISIS of their day.

This brings us to the book of Jonah. It’s a short book, only four chapters, takes about 10 minutes to read. Chances are that the last time you read the story, if ever, was back in Sunday School. We tend to treat Jonah as a children’s story or a comedy, and there are certainly comedic elements in it. But it contains a major twist, a real hook at the end, that makes Jonah a very adult book indeed. It goes something like this.

Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, there to prophesy that unless they repent of their evil ways God will destroy them for all that they have done. Jonah immediately hops on a boat—and takes off in exactly the opposite direction. He sails to the farthest land he can think of. And on the way, a great and terrible storm comes up, threatening to sink the ship. The crew, all gentiles and pagans, realize that there is something unnatural about this storm, and each man begs forgiveness and mercy from his respective god, to no avail. Meanwhile, where’s Jonah? He’s hiding from the storm down in the ship’s hold.

Finally someone thinks, “Hey, what about that Hebrew guy? Maybe he knows something about all this.” So they bring up Jonah and he says, “Yeah, this is my fault. My God gave me a mission and I refused to do it. You’ll have to throw me overboard.” And the pagan crew, to their credit, replies, “No, we don’t want to do that. Just say you’re sorry!” But Jonah stubbornly insists, “No, I’d rather get thrown overboard.” So the crew calls out to God, “We really don’t want to do this, but here it goes!” and they heave Jonah overboard. Immediately the storm is calmed.

Now Jonah is sinking down, down into the depths of the sea. And at this point he thinks, “Okay, maybe I should say that I’m sorry and ask forgiveness.” And right then, he is swallowed by a whale! Often the whale is portrayed as the punishment of God, but it’s not. The whale is actually what saves Jonah from drowning. And where does this whale finally spit Jonah up? Why, on the shores of the Assyrian Empire, right where he was supposed to head in the first place.

Now, the Assyrians have a god named Dagon—Asshur is top dog, but he’s not the only one—and portrayals of Dagon always envision him as a man being vomited up out of a giant fish. So when Jonah gets horked up on shore by a whale, what must the people think? Why, here is a messenger from God! “Great,” mutters Jonah, “now I have an audience.” And he utters the shortest and most pathetic prophetic speech in the Bible, just one single line: “40 days and Nineveh shall be no more!” And then Jonah goes up on a hill to watch the Assyrians be destroyed.

But wouldn’t you know it? Against all odds, the people of Nineveh repent! They beg forgiveness for their sins and turn to God in sackcloth and ash. And God says to Jonah, “Because they have turned from their evil, I will not destroy their city.” And Jonah goes ballistic. He yells out to God, “I knew it! I knew this is exactly what would happen! This is why I ran away in the first place! I knew that You were loving and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! I knew that if they turned towards You then You would forgive them—and I wanted to see them burn for what they’ve done!”

That’s the hook, right there. That’s what makes Jonah a very adult book indeed. Through the whole story we hear God pronouncing judgment and whipping up storms, and we think that God is the vengeful one. But He’s not. We are. We’re the ones who want to see evil punished, to see the bad guys get what they deserve. We’re the ones who want sinners to burn for everything that they’ve done. God doesn’t want blood. Man does.

It’s the same way when Jesus comes. He shows up and people flock to Him, throw palms before Him, try to make Him King. And they do so because they recognize Him as the Messiah and they expect Him to go to Jerusalem and kick out the bad guys.  At that point there’s a new evil empire over Israel: the Empire of Rome. And everyone expects Jesus to draw the sword and raise an army and conquer Rome—and He does! But not with violence. Not with fire and blood and steel. Jesus conquers Rome through the Cross.

We want Jesus to call down fire from Heaven. That’s how James and John earned their nicknames, “Sons of Thunder,” by asking Jesus to make sinners burn. That’s probably even why Judas betrayed Jesus, to try and force His hand. But that’s not how God works. He doesn’t burn up the wicked, no matter how badly we think they deserve it. Instead, He prays for those who hate Him, loves those who persecute Him, forgives us even as we are murdering Him on a Cross.

This is the love that conquers sinners. Who would’ve thought that Rome, the evil empire, would become the beating heart of Christianity for a thousand years and more? Who would’ve imagined that Saul—a religious fanatic who, far from being an Apostle, hunted down and persecuted and even participated in the execution of innocent Christians—would be struck down, not with fire from Heaven, but with a vision from Heaven, transforming him from the Church’s avowed nemesis into her greatest advocate?

Perhaps the hardest aspect of Christianity is the call to love our enemies, even as they hate us, even as they persecute us. This doesn’t mean that we love the evil that they do. We live in a world where fanatics behead innocent people and put it on YouTube. My God! We see the cruelties of ISIS on the news and we just want to see them get what they deserve. We want God to call down fire from Heaven—or if He won’t, perhaps the U.S. Air Force will. But God doesn’t work that way. If He sent His angels to slay every sinner, which of us could stand? We were all enemies of God once.

Christians have a duty to resist evil. But in the process we cannot allow ourselves to dehumanize our fellow man. Clichéd though it may sound, we must love the sinner and hate the sin, for indeed we are sinners one and all. And we are forged in the Image of God, one and all. You never know what the Lord will work through the hearts of wicked men. You never know what act of love will turn a sworn foe into a true brother. Grace is always available for those who desire it. And Christ is always bringing sinners to new birth in impossible and mysterious ways.

There are still murdering fanatics in Iraq who will kill anyone who does not bow down to their god. And we are still called, as we have always been, to love those who hate us and pray for those who persecute us. It’s a 2,000-year-old story. And it’s still our story today.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.


Open Submissions: Blog Posts, Features, and Fiction


Rad Infinitum is a venue about many things. Pop culture, politics, people. Poetry and pilgrimage. Sports and science and social media. Business, and the business of health and food and communication. Art. Guys and girls and geeks and Good. We all have our obsessions, ephemeral or otherwise. Maybe it turns out that self-reference matters, and the things we like, our many fandoms, are part of how we fit together.

Starting today, you can submit blog posts, features, and original fiction to Rad Infinitum through Submittable.  We’re looking forward to hearing from you.


Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis, January 23, 2015: Love as Justice

Melissa Maleski

Rabbits. Out of an entire lengthy interview  that covers some incredibly heavy subjects, all people could talk about this week were rabbits. I think Mr. Cuddles aptly expresses my feelings on the Papal news blitz this week:

cute rabbits flickzzz.com 014-709115

Mr. Cuddles and I want to direct your attention to the more relevant “R” word used in this notorious portion of the Holy Father’s interview: “responsible.” Pope Francis spoke of the irresponsibility of a woman who was having her eighth child after having seven cesarean sections. The Holy Father was not calling the number of children irresponsible, but how she seemingly disregarded prudence under the guise of “trusting in God.” In cases like these, “trusting God” is really just Pilot-esque hand-washing; life is going to happen, especially when we just sit there and let it.

The flip side of this responsibility–of this prudence–is responsible justice. Having large families and “being open to life” may seem an odd thing to be labeled as responsible justice, but think of it in terms of the second of the Great Commandments: love your neighbor as yourself.  This essential teaching of Jesus tells us four compelling things about how we’re meant to live.  One, everyone deserves love. Two, each of us is responsible for giving love to others. Three, we are responsible for accepting the love that others give us. Four, the two cannot be separated. When we give love and accept love it is an act of justice. The “responsible” part just means that we are making a conscious effort to act justly towards everyone. So “being open to life” is much more than just having lots of kids. It means being open to giving all people the love they deserve,

When you put these two together–responsible prudence and responsible justice–you can see Pope Francis’ mindfulness of human dignity in whole. Love your neighbor as yourself can’t become love your neighbor more than yourself or love your neighbor less than yourself without somebody getting the shaft.

And that, in my opinion, is the Holy Father’s point, a message that was dwarfed this week by rabbits. In case you aren’t able to read the whole interview, let me catch you up to speed. Pope Francis said:

One of the things that is lost when there is too much wealth or when values are misunderstood or we have become accustomed to injustice, to this culture of waste, is the capacity to cry…We Christians must ask for the grace to cry. Especially wealthy Christians. To cry about injustice and to cry about sins. Because crying opens you to understand new realities, or new dimensions to realities.

When I say it is important that women be held in higher consideration in the Church, it’s not just to give them a function as the secretary of a dicastery — though this would be fine. No, it’s so that they may tell us tell us how they experience, and view reality. Because women view things from a different richness, a larger one.

But don’t forget that we too need to be beggars – from them. Because the poor evangelize us. If we take the poor away from the Gospel, we cannot understand Jesus’ message. The poor evangelize us. I go to evangelize the poor, yes, but allow them to evangelize you. Because they have values that you do not.

Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too, but for them a child is a treasure. Some would say ‘God knows how to help me’ and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.

Today, paper and what’s left over isn’t all that’s thrown away. We throw away people.

I don’t know what to say after that last one. It’s a brutal, brutal truth.

On a final note, Pope Francis threw out a book recommendation that will help frame his thinking behind “ideological colonization.” Written in 1903 by Robert Hugh Benson, it’s called Lord of the World. From his preface I think Mr. Benson will be quite entertaining:

I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as on many others. But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people. Whether I have succeeded in that attempt is quite another matter.

In case you missed last week’s Fridays With Francis, which dealt with ideological colonization in more depth, read it here.

About this feature:  The spiritual leader of a over a billion people, “the People’s Pope”  has captured the attention and imagination of millions others with no formal relationship to the Roman Catholic Church through thought, word, and deed. Writer Melissa Maleski brings an insightful Catholic convert’s perspective to the general themes (culture, politics, spirituality, art, and more) Rad Infinitum covers, and will no doubt add greatly to our experience of Francis’ leadership and unfolding legacy.


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Lord Huron Announces Sophomore Album “Strange Trails” via Facebook and You Tube Teaser Trailer

Nathan Key

After months of subtle hints, Lord Huron announced yesterday that their forthcoming album, Strange Trails, will be released in 2015. The band provided a teaser trailer to coincide with the announcement which showcases short snippets from the new project.

Musically (and visually), it appears that the band will continue to integrate the western motif and 70’s-inspired, narrative storytelling that was the primary appeal of their 2012 LP Lonesome Dreams. Keep an eye out for this offering in the coming months. If Strange Trails packs the punch of  Lonesome Dreams, we could be listening to a preview of one of the best albums of 2015.



Notes from Niflheim: Death and Children


RDG Stout

Last weekend I picked up Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory from the local library. Ms. Doughty is the host of the “Ask a Mortician” web series and the founder of “The Order of the Good Death” over on Facebook. Her backstory is pretty straightforward: innocent, eight-year-old girl is deeply traumatized by seeing another young girl plummet to her gristly demise, and now as a millennial young adult seeks to change the unhealthy denial of real death (as opposed to the glorification of fictional carnage) rampant in American culture.

Her book is nothing earth-shattering, but it’s a quick read and worth the time. I stumbled upon Ms. Doughty’s work in my followings of Caleb Wilde’s similarly themed blog, “Confessions of a Funeral Director.” Like Ms. Doughty, Mr. Wilde seeks a revolution in the ways that we deal with death, or rather our refusal to do so. Both seem to have a healthy following, though both have also been accused of being a bit too Generation Overshare.

Theirs seems a decent quest. As someone who’s worked in both churches and trauma bays over the years, I can attest to our culture’s general befuddlement when it comes to the grave. Then again, mine is not a particularly normal perspective on such matters. I honestly can’t remember when I saw my first dead body. Nor do I have any idea as to how many people I’ve buried, scattered, or otherwise memorialized. What I can tell you is that my record in the hospital was six violent deaths in six hours, from midnight to morning.

Death has been a reality in my life for as long as I can recall. Raised religious, I was always taught that a good death at the end of a long life was an accomplishment for which to prepare, and that untimely or tragic death never has the final say. “Teach me to live that I might dread / the grave as little as my bed,” indeed. As a young child, I remember family walks through the graveyard behind my grandparents’ house. I found it neither macabre nor morbid, but peaceful. Here rested so many people who had walked this same path before me. Here I was full of questions, and these silent stones reminded me that those here interred had found answers. Death may be scary, but the alternative—life without an ultimate aim in mind—seems unthinkable.

Nor have I ever viewed age as a bad thing. In truth, it’s been nothing but kind to me so far. Aging has let me outgrow childish neuroses and embarrassing inexperience. It’s made me stronger, calmer, wiser, and most importantly given me a family. I feel sort of sorry for folks who pine for their twenties, or worse yet their teens. Sure, I had fun back then, but I’m glad it’s over now. The older we get, the more real life becomes. Who would want to go back? I have a feeling that 35-year-old me wouldn’t have terribly much patience for my 25- and 15-year-old iterations.

Of course everything changes when we become parents. Growing up I lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends, high school friends, my Dad. These losses always kept death in mind, but in such a way that it made me appreciate life. I didn’t go Goth or anything like that. But then kids come along—and suddenly there’s something in life so much more terrifying than your own death. Before parenthood, everyone has a different set of fears. After parenthood, there is only one fear, to the exclusion of all others. It is a hard bargain.

My wife and I were given a rather dramatic introduction to Every Parent’s Nightmare when our son, our first child, was born blue. Here we were all ready to take him home to the nursery, to start a new life as a family, and before we could hold him he was intubated, thrown on a plane, and flown to the opposite end of the state for $300,000 worth of heart surgery. All I got to see was his one little half-open eye staring uncomprehendingly at me before he left.

Don’t worry. He’s fine today. In fact, he doesn’t remember a thing. Even that massive scar has faded almost to invisibility. But his mother and I will never forget, and that jolt of terror never fully goes away. Even when the next two were born perfectly healthy and happy, I found myself sneaking into their rooms at night to place my hand on their chests, to feel them breathe. I still do that. We have friends who have lost children. They humble me.

(It’s funny, but I’d always assumed that Shakespeare’s Sonnets were all romantic poems. Then I started reading them, and found that they sing of how children stave off any bitterness associated with aging and death. Clever man, that. We should read him more.)

I work with undertakers all the time. They tend to have great senses of humor, deep compassion for the grieving, and incredibly healthy and grounded worldviews. In fact, my affection for undertakers is what led me first to the works of Mr. Wilde, then to those of Ms. Doughty. Working routinely with funeral directors, caring for bodies, and walking with families as they perform the last great duty that any of us can perform for a loved one, you start to think that death really has lost its sting. Easter arises triumphant.

But when I look to my children, happily turning our lives to chaos, so full of life that we haven’t slept through the night in half a decade, I still feel that spasm of fear. I don’t fear dying, and I never have; but the thought of them going before me is absolutely terrifying. At such times the casual, even cocksure attitude of the preacher is laid bare, and we are revealed as vulnerable to the Reaper as everyone else.

And so I cling ever more tightly to the Cross, to the God Who is a family, to the God Who lost a Son. Sometimes I am less amazed at the promise of life arising from death than I am at the idea that God continued to love us even when we killed His Child. That’ll bring me to my knees every time.

RDGStout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.

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Why a Tie Goes to the Runner: Lessons from Contract Law and the Insurance Industry

Christopher Cocca

Simply put, the Runner is outnumbered.  Cut the Runner a break.

Let’s put a finer point on it.  In contract law, the law of adhesion states that when one party sets all parameters of a given contract with no chance for negotiation, the second party always wins any arbitration having to do with vague language or questions left open to interpretation. The first party must adhere to terms expressly spelled out in the contract.

The Pitcher and the Defense are the first party in our baseball scenario.  The terms of each half-inning (the contract) are clearly in favor of the first party, which is why we get excited when the Batter, the second party in this case, hits safely a mere one third of the time.  Just as a second party comes to a contract at a disadvantage when, say, buying insurance, so to the Batter steps into the box knowing he or she is outnumbered 9 to 1 and that the odds of hitting safely are historically slim (see also the law of large numbers).  Applying the law of adhesion requires that in the case of a Batter/Runner reaching a given base and the ball reaching that same base via delivery from one Defensive Player to another (assuming the second Defensive Player is touching the base in question) at the same time, the judgement ought to go to the Batter/Runner as the party with less ability to negotiate more favorable terms.

Like the law of adhesion, the law of utmost good faith (all parties to a contract are assumed to be honest) is only applicable in baseball in certain situations.  PEDs are banned, as are certain pitches, substances, and practices.  But a catcher trying to deceive an umpire after a pitch that misses, an outfielder taking credit for catching a fly ball when he/she really only trapped it, or any number of other instances of gamesmanship are not only permitted, but also widely lauded.  Gamesmanship is an integral part of the psychology and cerebral appeal of baseball. It’s why traditional fans want nothing to do with expanded instant replay.

Applying the law of adhesion to apparent ties is likely the best and only way to resolve MLB’s vexing (or, if you’re like me, charming) lack of clarity on the issue.




The Batman Singularity Revisited

This post from 2009 about the Batman Singularity still gets traffic just about every day.  More recently, the internet has been asking if Batman would embrace transhumanism in his war against crime and injustice.

We know that Batman augments his strength with tech when he has to. Fights against Superman (The Dark Knight Returns), trips to Apokolips, contingency plans against a Justice League gone wrong.  But would Batman cross the threshold the singularity represents?

I think he’d upgrade within the confines of his own humanity.  I know he wouldn’t trust his deepest secrets, or the use of his particular set of skills, to tech he didn’t invent or wasn’t able to completely control.  He could already be Iron Man, but chooses Kevlar and Batropes over alloys and thrusters.  Pushing his limits is part of the deal.

I think about the so-called Batman singularity in another way: is it possible for a human being to be so physically and mentally advanced as to render the possibility of Batman meaningful in the real world?  Physically, Bruce Lee proves a vigilante Batman could exist on the streets of our Gotham analogues, at least for while.  But Batman isn’t Batman without almost unlimited wealth and a super-genius intellect.  See also Oliver Queen, Tony Stark and Ted Kord, none of whom are Batman.

It stands to reason that someone with enough resources and enough intelligence could, if born with the right genes, transform his/her body toward peak performance and master various physical disciplines enough to approximate Batman. A next-gen tech zillionaire.

“All Lives Matter” is the “Dammit, Otto, You Have Lupus” of Political Discourse

all lives do matter, of course they do. but saying that in response to “black lives matter” is, as I’ve heard someone say, like treating breast cancer or lung cancer by saying “all cancers matter.” The systematic murder of black people in this country must be stopped, and so attention must be called to it. our systems don’t flesh out as though black lives matter at all, and so we have to say it. saying it is, in itself, so scandalous, apparently, that it’s an act of subversion. Jesus would say it.



French flag over the Space Needle

[B]rad Infinitum: After The Violence in Paris

[Edit] Please don’t like this, but, instead please post a comment. [/Edit]

Paris is a great city. One of the first foreign cities I ever visited, and the first foreign city I ever visited without my parents present (1997). Paris is one of the few foreign cities I have been to multiple times (3 to be exact, 1997 x2, 2004).

The events of this past weekend are heartbreaking. I do not know why, but, to me, it feels a lot like the attacks on the USA on 9/11/01. Je suis Parisien. J’adore Paris. #prayforparis

This photo is of one of the tributes that my current city has for one of my favorite cities. I may live in Seattle, but right now, I’m a Citizen of Paris.

I am happy that the city I live in has done this, and I fully support this action.

I am aware that other city landmarks have done similar things. This is a good thing.

I hope and pray, but do not expect, that this is the last time such a gesture is required.


Allentown Budget a Reflection of FBI’s Ongoing Investigation

Ed Pawlowski’s new budget calls for a tax hike (specifically, an EIT increase), needed, in part, to pay for police as federal funding runs out.  It also borrows a cool $4,5 million from the Solid Waste Fund. It daren’t raise property taxes. But what about next year?

A few other thoughts:

The EIT increase raises revenue by $5.5 million.  Remember that number.

Extra police are being hired for the arena zone not out of need or threat, but to assuage suburban fears.  Why can’t we use some of the money from the water deal for that?

Because Ed Pawlowski spent the $5 million we had left over, and $1.4 million of that $5 million on literally toxic land to help his best frenemy, Abe Atiyeh, free up cash for another deal.  That deal is, by all indications, part of the FBI’s ongoing investigation of Pawlowski and people he did business with.

This tax hike comes as Allentown residents also prepare for a 2.5 percent hike in water bills from LCA (to whom Pawlowski famously and contentiously leased Allentown’s water and sewer systems) and unspecified charges for LCA capital improvements.

Allentown needs to turn the page.  Write-in Rich Fegley and Shane Fillman for Allentown City Council. Vote for Steven Ramos for Allentown City Controller.  Restore real checks and balances to the City Without Limits.

Be sure to read Emily Opilo’s piece about all of this in The Morning Call.