Chaos Keeps the Guns Blazing

“Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected. While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on. These phenomena are often described by fractal mathematics, which captures the infinite complexity of nature.” (fractalfoundation.org)

James A. Yorke, Distinguished University Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Maryland at College Park, is the man who coined “chaos” as a mathematical term along with T.Y. Li in their 1975 paper, Period Three Implies Chaos. He’s no fan of The Donald’s but says his behavior is not chaos. “It might be better to call it hyperchaos. Alluding to the classic billiard ball analogy used to describe chaos theory he says, “Chaos is bounded in some sense. You know the billiard balls are going to stay on the table, but they careen around on the table,” he said, adding that it seems different with Trump. With Trump, the chaos is in many different directions. Seriously.”

Here’s how the billiard balls have rolled around the White House recently: porn star Stormy Daniels sues DJT on Wednesday, Gary Cohn resigns on Tuesday, Sam Nunnberg spills his guts in a media blitz on Monday, steel and aluminum tariffs announced on Friday, Carl Icahn’s sells steel stocks just before the tariff announcement, DJT imagines himself President for life, Hope Hicks resigns, General McMaster’s on the verge, Chief of Staff lies, Jared Kushner uses his position to finance 666 and retaliate against Qatar, Rob Porter beats his wives but isn’t fired until the pictures arrive, DJT meets with the NRA after the AR-15 slaughter of 17 high school students and teachers at Margory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and suggests that arming teachers will solve the problem of gun violence in schools.

C’mon folks… Focus. School children are being killed and the chaos and disruption in Washington is destroying our democracy while we’re all glued to our TV’s waiting to hear the porn star’s creepy revelations about the President’s junk. I can’t do anything about the President’s smarmy behavior or Rob Porter’s spousal abuse, but we can all do something to prevent fellow Americans from killing each other. It’s criminal to wait for more school children, churchgoers, nightclub patrons, and office workers to be gunned down when we can actually do something to slow the epidemic of mass murders. Last year, more Americans died gun-related deaths than all the military combat deaths since the end of the Vietnam War. So, let’s do something about it.

If we’re worried about terrorism we should start looking at the NRA. It would be hard to find a more exemplary case of domestic terrorism. For decades the National Rifle Association has stonewalled all attempts to regulate the manufacture, sale, storage, transfer, or purchase of firearms in America.

In 1996, after a number of public health studies showed that having a gun in the house increased the risk of homicide or suicide the CDC suggested guns be treated as a public health problem, like cigarettes, and proposed an informational public campaign be mounted to inform the public of the risks. The NRA stepped in and convinced Congress to pass a law prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control” and keep it from gathering data on gun related deaths.

In 2005 the NRA flexed its muscle again and Congress enacted the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a law preventing firearms purchasers from bringing lawsuits against manufacturers and dealers when crimes are committed with their products. Then, in of January 2016, again at the urging of the NRA, President Trump rescinded an Executive Order that kept mentally ill persons from purchasing guns but failed to prohibit those on the US government’s “No Fly” list from doing so. It looks like the Second Amendment protects crazies and terrorists while the rest of us are living in a Code Red world.

When will our elected officials find the courage to address the deaths of the 17 innocent young people gunned down with a military-style semi-automatic weapon in an Florida school? Or the 26 kids at Sandy Hook, the 49 club patrons in Orlando, the 14 co-workers in San Bernardino, the 58 concert goers in Las Vegas, and the 26 parishoners in a Sutherland Springs Texas church? The common denominator is guns and federal, state, and local officials need to act. Yes, all of the shooters were mentally ill, but stop the bullshit. If the mentally ill have assault rifles they can kill a lot more people quickly than if they have a knife, a handgun or a bolt-action hunting rifle. Elected officials need to stop drinking the NRA Kool Aid and taking their money. The NRA is an unindicted co-conspirator in every mass shooting in the US until background checks are universal and assault weapons are unavailable to civilians.

There are 30,000 gun-related deaths in America EVERY year. Only a small percentage involve an AR-15 or related military style weapon, but civilians don’t need military weapons to protect themselves. These are killing machines and have no place in a civilian home. The Supreme Court has made it clear that the Bill of Rights, including the 2nd Amendment, is subject to reasonable regulation and restraint. I can’t drive a car without a taking a written test and demonstrating competence behind the wheel. I also need to show ownership evidence of a liability insurance policy before I am licensed. Let’s make it at least that hard to buy a gun. Let’s have minimum age and require all purchasers – whether in a gun shop, at a gun show, on the internet, or a private sale – to undergo a complete background check with a reasonable waiting period.

In the Supreme Court case of Schenck vs. United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” There are no “absolute” rights in the Bill of Rights. The Court has recognized that “reasonable regulation” of the guaranteed freedoms is permissible, and that includes the 2nd Amendment as well as the other enumerated freedoms.

The students of Margory Stoneman Douglas High School are doing something we adults have been unable to do – bringing the debate over gun control into the sunlight. They are outspoken and apolitical. They want action and on March 24th they plan to march in Washington DC to show the White House and Congress that it’s time to take on the terrorists at the NRA and enact sensible regulations. Congress and the state legislatures need to step up to protect us from needless gun-related deaths – accidents, homicides, suicides, and mass shootings. There are an estimated 300,000,000 guns in circulation in America today. We aren’t going to confiscate them as the NRA tells the paranoids in its membership, but we could, like the Australians, start with a few sensible restrictions and a modest buy-back program for assault weapons.

On May 21st the Alliance for Gun Responsibility will hold its 6th annual fundraising luncheon in Seattle. M and I, as founding members of the Alliance, encourage you to attend and add your weight to the rising tide of those demanding reasonable, responsible legislation to protect our kids and ourselves from needless gun violence. We’re in it for the long haul. We’re not discouraged. The tobacco industry fought the overwhelming evidence of smoking danger for years, but eventually the truth and public health concerns prevailed. Guns are just as much a public health problem as cigarettes and there is ample evidence to support that despite the NRA’s efforts to suppress it. It’s my hope that good policy and common sense will prevail so that we and our children and grandchildren can feel safer as we make our way in the schools, in our churches, at concerts, on the streets, or wherever we find ourselves.

Peace be with you.

Bar graph from http://everytownresearch.org

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Presidential Portraits

Last week the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, unveiled the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama (above). The former President and First Lady chose two African-American artists to portray their images, and though their unconventional artistry raised a few eyebrows and drew some criticism they barely rippled the waters compared to other news coming out of Washington last week.

In office, the Obamas were not perfect but I’d give anything to have them back. Mr. Obama may have failed us when he didn’t observe the “red line” in Syria, but he always projected the character, intelligence, judgment, language, and respect for others that we expect from the President of the United States.

Speaking apolitically, the Obama portraits are fascinating – unexpected depictions of the most charismatic and attractive residents of the White House since Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Mr. Obama is particularly idiosyncratic. Wiley has been a favorite of mine since the Seattle Art Museum mounted a large exhibit of his work in May of 2016. His beautiful photo-realistic paintings jar viewer sensibilities by juxtaposing African-American celebrities or street people into reimagined classical paintings or unusual portrait poses.

At the unveiling ceremony Mr. Obama joked that he tried to negotiate with the artist for less gray hair and smaller ears, but Wiley wasn’t swayed. He does respect the President’s roots by incorporating pikake flowers representing Hawaii, African blue lilies to signify his father’s birthplace in Kenya, and red chrysanthemums the city flower of his hometown, Chicago, in the background foliage. It says a lot about Mr. Obama that he had the confidence to select an artist as wildly unconventional as Kehinde Wiley to memorialize him and stand with the portraits of all the other presidents in the National Portrait Gallery.

I’m equally impressed by Mrs. Obama’s distinctive portrait. The First Lady’s unknown and unlikely painter of choice, Amy Sherald, is only 44 years old, had a heart transplant at 39, and until a few years ago was waiting tables in Baltimore. As Mr. Wiley’s paid homage to the Mr. Obama’s roots, Ms. Sherald honors Mrs. Obama’s sense of fashion, depicting her in an elegant, high-style geometrically patterned dress. Both artists chose to show their subjects in pensive, serious, non-smiling poses and Mrs. Obama’s gray skin tone with a solid blue background enhances that affect as well.

Marilynn and I visited the National Portrait Gallery two years ago. Only a few blocks off the Washington Mall and not nearly as busy as the National Gallery, it’s well worth the excursion. I’d make the trip again just to see the new portraits. I love the idea that they’re back and larger than life (7’ to be exact). My grandchildren, Ben and Lucie, loved the Wiley show in Seattle. I can’t remember if we took them once or twice, jazzed and had a ton of fun dancing to the whimsy in his paintings.

Having seen the Obama portraits, I’m trying to conjure up the next presidential portrait. What pose Mr. Trump would choose? This is one possibility, an actual photo, in the gold-encrusted throne room at Trump Tower:

I’m sure he loves that pose, but here are two other possibilities:

However the next round turns out, consider how the pair below contrast in style to that of the poseur who took their place. I love their new portraits and they get my vote as the most natural, admirable, and inspirational presidential couple in decades, and I think their official portraits capture those qualities. Bravo, Barack and Michelle.

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Christian Pretzels…

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with Christianity–a sine wave from mandatory Sunday School as a kid to “born again” in college, coffeehouse atheist in the ‘60s, Buddhist flirt in the ’70s, Episcopalian convert in the ‘80s, to unaffiliated quasi-believer in recent years. Not exactly a consistent pattern but it establishes my credentials as a pilgrim. I’m no longer a “true believer,” but the “faith” that remains is tested whenever I hear an evangelical Christian proclaim his or her support for the President who just bribed his porn star girlfriend to keep her quiet.

I think it’s crazy and I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. To me, the relationship between Trump and evangelical Christians looks like a Faustian bargain wherein evangelicals sacrifice their moral principles to support a morally bankrupt President they hope will deliver their ultra-conservative political agenda. The moral compromises and mental gyrations evoke the image of a twisted pretzel.

The incongruity of this pairing is astonishing. ABC News reports that 83% of Americans describe themselves as Christians – Christians of all denominations – from Catholics to snake handling congregations in the Ozarks, and of those polled, 55% identify as Protestant, 22% Catholic and 8% as other (Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) with 37% of the Protestants identifying themselves as evangelicals.

Merriam-Webster defines evangelical as one with a “belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture” whose salvation comes through personal conversion by the atoning death of Jesus Christ. That would seem to include Christ’s moral teachings as well as his atonement, but my problem with evangelical Christians isn’t theological. My confusion is how they reconcile their moral and spiritual values with a politician as un-Christian as Donald Trump? Apparently, politics trumps morality in the Age of Trump.

This unholy alliance with ultra-conservative politicians didn’t start with Trump.  It has a long history, but their alignment with such an immoral agent brings the pairing into stark relief. Historically, it began with the Southern Strategy during the civil rights era. That’s when America began to politicize by religious affiliation. It further expanded after Roe v. Wade (the abortion decision) in 1973 and during the Ronald Reagan era (1981-1989). Evangelicals emerged as a political force and demographic courted by Republican candidates. Flash forward to the present.

The wild card in this poker game is Donald Trump who is not a conventional Republican nor one who personifies Christian values. Nevertheless, a large percentage of Christians made a devil’s bargain in 2016 and voted to have him as their President. How could they square their values with this candidate? I’m not writing to disparage Donald Trump. His character has been in evidence for decades. I want to know how Christians, people of conscience committed to Jesus Christ’s religious and moral teachings, have reconciled their beliefs and principles with the character and actions of a flagrant sexual predator, pathological liar, and borderline criminal?

Last month, when asked about Trump’s affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, Tony Perkins, an evangelical leader and president of the Family Research Council, told Politico that evangelicals are giving the President a “mulligan” for his past behavior. “We kind of gave him, ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here’ ” he told them in a podcast, adding that the president is providing the leadership the country needs because “Evangelical Christians are tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists.” Now, that’s pretzel making of the highest order.

Christians–think of the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the Beatitudes, the moral guidelines of Christianity. Better yet, think of the Seven Deadly Sins – Gluttony, Fornication, Greed, Pride, Envy, Wrath, Boasting, and Sloth. They sound like bullet points on Trump’s resume’.

I’ve always been mystified by the politics of the religious right from Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. There is room for everyone in the American political experiment. That’s what the Bill of Rights guarantees – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion etc. But, the religious right thinks of America as a Christian nation – something the Founders debated and decided against. The right’s value system doesn’t accept the big tent version of America. It seeks a more restrictive America with limitations on other religions, women’s rights, gay rights, voting rights, and fair housing. Are these Christian values? How does the Golden Rule figure in this vision of America?

I don’t want to be unfair to sincere Christians who are taking an active role in American politics, but I am appalled to see them in bed with a morally despicable character like Donald Trump. Surely they can find one of their own to represent their political desires instead of a charlatan whose political rallies conjure up images of snake handling extremists and Elmer Gantry circus-tent revivals. At times like this I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian and identify with this angel. Remember, the shortest sentence in the bible is “Jesus wept.”

 

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In Search of Heroes

My wife thinks I write too much about the past. She’s concerned that it dates me and worries that readers will think I’m old and out of touch. I agree with her that it’s important to live in the present, messy as that present is, but the past gives us context and offers us lessons for the present.

In times of stress I often find solace in books, and last week’s news cycle drove me into a new translation of The Odyssey. I’ve tried it before; in 1996 I listened to Robert Fagels’ version on tape but couldn’t finish it. The new translation by Emily Wilson is a fluid retelling of the saga that breathes a contemporary feel into the ancient story without damaging its classical roots. It’s full of brave warriors, damsels in distress, dangerous ogres, duplicitous enemies, faithless gods, raging storms and at its center an action hero working his way home from the Trojan War. I was immediately sucked in.

The poem’s provenance is as mythical as its subject. Originally, it was in the oral tradition, a tale told around a fire, and it must have been incredible to experience that way. In the 7th or 8th century BC the first written version was made, and it’s been at the center of classical literature ever since. I could get lost in it and let it consume my remaining 8 years and 7 months on earth (see my previous blog for details). It’s worthy of that kind of study.

But, don’t leave me now; we’re going back to the present shortly with Odysseus’ epic tale as a touchstone to the present. Odysseus, the action hero, is a flawed character who uses the cards he’s been dealt to overcome obstacles and guide his journey home. He and his faithful, long suffering wife, Penelope, remind us that life is difficult and packed with unpredictable twists and turns, but guided by ideals and goals they triumph in the end. In the age of Trump, we are desperate for a hero, someone whose courage, honesty, and example encourage us to persevere and find the right course to the future.

When I was growing up there were plenty of heroes – famous and not so famous – Eisenhower and the Allied troops at Normandy, John Kennedy and PT109, Ted Williams batting .406 and flying fighters in the Pacific, Chuck Yeager, Gloria Steinem, John Glenn and the Mercury astronauts, Jacques Cousteau, Jonas Salk, Joseph Welch, Golda Meir, Jackie Kennedy, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. These soldiers, politicians, sportsmen, scientists and artists were people we looked up to and tried to emulate.

There are still heroes in our midst, but this is not the same world we lived in 50 short years ago. There are no military victories to celebrate. We live in an uncertain world that can be destabilized by the actions of individuals (9/11), where state actors anonymously interfere in the affairs of other states through cyberwarfare (Russian interference in the US election), and our own President, the antithesis of a hero, is immoral, venal, and narcissistic.

Still, in spite of Donald Trump and the shaky state of world politics, I remain a long term optimist. There are men and women with heroic qualities, admirable people who are models of rectitude. They come from all countries, disciplines, and backgrounds – Malala Yousefzai the young Pakistani girl fighting for the rights of young women to an education, George and Amal Clooney working to end the civil war in South Sudan, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s efforts for Habitat for Humanity, Angela Merkel giving safe haven to refugees in Germany, Christine Lagarde’s leading the IMF, and at a time when many of our sports heroes have been shown to have feet of clay, Roger Federer’s continuing superiority in the world of tennis. These individuals command our respect for their excellence, sportsmanship, and character.

Is it hyperbolic to single out a tennis champion as a hero when politicians are seriously discussing the use of nuclear weapons and the end of the world as we know it? Am I fiddling while Rome burns? On the contrary, I see Roger as almost mythic in stature, someone to emulate, someone whose pursuit of excellence can teach leaders everywhere to be better people. He possesses remarkable physical gifts, but it’s his tireless pursuit of on court excellence and off court life balance that has taken him to the top of his profession and allowed him to remain there. His unforgettable battles with Rafael Nadal are legendary and their rivalry has lifted the sport to a higher level. His passion for the game manifests in helping others and working to improve the sport. He celebrates family, and his wife, Mirka, and two sets of twins go with him wherever he plays. He competes for his country in the Olympics and Davis Cup, and is humble in victory and generous in defeat. The world would be a better place if there were more like him. To me his stature is heroic.

The world is hungry for heroes and heroines. At a time when gridlock is everywhere from our freeways to Congress to the war in Afghanistan it’s normal to look for someone with the character and leadership skills to guide us toward something better. In times of crisis it’s easy to be discouraged. If you stopped reading The Odyssey in the middle you might have imagined a different and darker ending. There were still many more storms and enemies in his path, but he believed in himself and his mission and, in the end, he made it home. I hope that holds true for us as well.

This week, with the White House in chaos and the stock market in freefall, you can be forgiven if you imagine a dark ending. I’m going with Odysseus and the belief that we will weather the storms, ogres, bullies, and bullshit that’s coming at us. We’ll get there; I just hope it’s sooner rather than later and that we have the means to clean up the wreckage when we do.

“Now godess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times.”

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Running Rapids and Reading Obits…

I feel blessed with friends who are smart, up to date, and engaged in the world, but I’m bothered by a recent phenomenon. Increasingly, M and I find our conversations with friends begin with an organ recital – what hurts, new ailments, what needs to be replaced, good home remedies, doctors’ appointments, and physical therapy magicians – before we move on to the nation’s health.

We also talk about scanning newspaper obituaries for friends and the names of notable people we admire. This wasn’t the new normal until about a year ago. Now it is. Last Sunday, for the second week in a row, the long form obituaries in the New York Times’ were all of people in our decade of life. I immediately went to the Social Security Administration’s life expectancy calculator to see how long I have.

Bingo! I should live another 8 years and 8 months. Good for estate planning but not much time left to write that New York Times bestseller.

All this was in my mind when I learned that my friend, Joel, suffered a serious stroke while visiting friends on Sanibel Island in Florida. His life will never be the same. In an instant, everything changed – for Joel, for his wife Jody, for his children, grandchildren and friends. The good news is, after being life-flighted to a hospital in Fort Myers and spending time in the ICU, he’s out of the hospital and starting the long path to recovery. As our mutual friend, Annie, says he’s a tough old bird and that bodes well for a good recovery. But, none of us will ever be the same. Each time this happens to a friend it reminds us that we’re closer to the end than the beginning.

I’ve known Joel for 60 years. We were fraternity brothers at the University of Washington and reconnected when our families moved to the Sun Valley area about the same time in the 70s. Our kids became friends and went to school together. We skied and played tennis together. We rode Slickrock, Gemini Bridges, and the White Rim trails in Moab. Twenty years ago, during an 18 day raft trip through the Grand Canyon, Joel flipped our raft and dumped Jody and me in the rapids at House Rock just after screaming “the perfect run.” And, Jody, a well-known rock climber, introduced my former wife to the sport and they’ve spent many days together at City of Rocks in southern Idaho. We have lots of shared memories.

On top of our shared interests, Joel is also a serious outdoorsman – bird hunter and fly fisherman – and we’ve eaten more meals of quail, sage grouse and buckshot than I can remember around the grill in their backyard. His love for Idaho, family, and the outdoors cost him professionally, but he made the necessary trade-offs so they could have the life they all loved. His boys, Erik and Matt, graduated from Dartmouth and Middlebury respectively but returned to Idaho to become outdoor professionals and raise their own children – now friends with my children and grandchildren.

And it’s all due to Joel, who for 30+ years commuted from Idaho to teach management courses at the Graduate Business School at Santa Clara University.

I haven’t seen Joel and Jody in almost 10 years, but I still care deeply about them. I moved to Seattle and they’re still in Idaho. We “see” each other on Facebook and I follow Erik and Matt’s adventures where they intersect with Doug, Diana, and Brent. But, the torch has been passed. We can joke about organ recitals and nostalgia for past adventures, but it’s really friendship that’s our connection.

I’m praying, yes praying, for Joel’s recovery and keeping my fingers crossed for good measure. I want both of us to live that last 8 years and 8 months in a high-quality way. We may not ride Slickrock or run House Rock rapids again, but our love for the outdoors remains. I hope in the near future Jody will pack up the van and the two of them will come to visit us in Seattle. In the meantime, I’ll relive “the perfect run”, especially the right side up part. Got to go now; got to get back to writing that New York Times bestseller before another month goes by.

My son Brent with his kids running the rapids at Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon

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