The Economics of Good and Evil: Part 2, March 18, 2010

•March 21, 2010 • 4 Comments

Fifteen men met tonight to share scotch, tell stories and discuss ideas. Above all we met for companionship, to greet each other on our various journeys into the future.  The trains passing and sounding their horns in the distance seemed an apt metaphor for the intersection of our lives with this particular place. The night  wove a pattern whose thread was our conversation and camaraderie. The constellations pulsed brightly overhead among the bare branches of the trees, and a slim paring of moon sank rapidly, deep in the western sky.

Jerry began by asking Thomas, a leading economist from the Czech Republic to tell us about his background and what he is working on now.

Václav Havel

Thomas: The Czech Republic is a young democracy and young people get to places they would never get in an aged democracy. So at the age of 23, I had a dream job that I never even dreamed of which one should work for and get at the end of his career. I had that at the beginning which was a blessing and also a curse because what do you do after that? So I was working with president Václav Havel who was a great figure known around the world, really, as the only Czech politician, and I served during the last two years of his presidency as economic advisor. I also was involved with some of the reforms which happens to an economist once in a hundred years or maybe once in a generation. I also saw the crisis (the fall of communism), which hasn’t happened in 90 years.

I have been advising the government the last eight years on various issues and the last three years I’ve been working in one of our biggest banks as a commentator. But in the evenings, I was writing this slightly philosophical book called The Economics of Good and Evil.  In it, I focus on the metanarratives that underlie economics and our culture.  We are also working on a stationary model in which an economy doesn’t grow. We’re trying to see if that’s a problem and so far, though we haven’t finished it, it’s not a problem. We think it’s a God-given right or duty that we have to grow at least 2% every year and if we don’t, it’s not a good year. One of the things I’m trying to say is let’s take a shabbat (sabbath) and have a stationary state for a time and focus on other things because I think we’ve dug very deep in the well of consumption. And I’ve been labeled an anti-consumptionist, but I’m not. What I’m saying is don’t we have enough and aren’t there other things in life we should focus on? I think we’ve depleted the well of consumption to the last drop and there is very little joy we can get if we increase our wealth or production. Another thing I’m looking at, but not in this book, is the commandment to rest and not work all the time. We usually take it as a suggestion. If you’ve got something important to do, it’s okay to work on Sunday. It’s like saying if you really have to commit adultery, it’s fine. It’s the same logic.

Justice, one of the group’s newer attendees, mentioned that during the French revolution they got rid of the sabbath for a brief time and people began going insane because they were working seven days a week without a day off, so they reinstituted it. They thought it was merely religious, but it actually ended up being a very human requirement.

Thomas: Resting is not just a function of better work. In the Greek calendar they only had ten months. They had two months off. Those months didn’t even exist. God didn’t rest on the seventh day because he was tired or because he needed to start a new planet on Monday. He was resting because he was finished, resting in the creation of his hands. He was enjoying it. So in other words, for six days you change reality, but on the seventh day you do not change reality, but let it rest. We’ve worked very hard in the last twenty years –and I like to take that number because it’s when communism fell– and we’ve done very well. America’s GDP went up by 87%. I think we need a rest and nature needs a rest. We’re over-driving it, and if we don’t rest then a crisis will come. In Europe, instead of laying people off, we  encouraged companies to give everyone Friday off if they don’t have enough demand. In this way, it was an enforced shabbat. It’s a better model for our economies because if your demand comes back, it’s easier to go back to a five-day week, instead of training new people. And if people don’t work for two years, you basically have to start from scratch. It’s much better than paying unemployment benefits and all that.

I’m trying to study the relationship between economics and ethics in Hebrews. Most of macroeconomics is trying to explain the business cycle and nobody really explains this very well. If anybody manages, he gets the Nobel Prize just like that. The first ever explanation is in Hebrews and it’s what I call a morally determined business cycle. So a lot of the stories in the Old Testament follow the pattern. If the king behaves well and the nation is just, then it will prosper. But if you suppress the widow and do unjust things, you will go down economically and politically and other nations will occupy you. Ethics was a determinant of GDP growth. And of course it’s something that we can’t measure, so it’s not part of the economic discourse.

I’m using the story of Joseph and Pharoah which is the first recorded business cycle in the history of mankind. And we’ve been behaving exactly contrary to that. We’ve been creating budget deficits even during good years where we should have been doing budget surpluses. So my suggestion is that we should not aim at maximum growth, but we should aim at 0% or 1% growth. And with the money that we save, we should pay back the debt. Even America, as stable as it is, cannot afford to have a crisis. And it will come in maybe 15-20 years and if it comes and the debt has not been cleared, then that crisis will destroy even the United States.

Jerry: You say that in 20 years if we don’t correct these things, we will come to an unrecoverable crisis. The biblical view and the man-centered view of economics are on a collision course. So really, you’re writing a book of prophetic significance, because in a materialist society, the economist becomes the prophet.

Thomas: I play this practical joke with journalists all the time. They ask what the future is and I say ‘I don’t know.’ They ask ‘are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?’ I say ‘well I’m not opti, nor am I pessi, I’m just mystic.’ Because mysticism is “I don’t understand and I give up,” but magic is “I want to control it.”

Greg, you haven’t said anything all evening,” said Jerry to his nephew, after a moment of silence fell among us.

There was a brief pause.

“Anyone catch that Georgetown/Ohio game?” asked Greg. And of course we were convulsed with laughter.

We decided that if Jesus smoked a pipe it would be a Peterson.

After awhile, Ralph brought out his guitar and began to play quietly. This is the first time that we have had a musician play at our gathering and it was perfect, creating a stream on which thoughts could drift for those who were quiet, and a background for those in conversation. Smoke, music and talk all seemed distilled to a crystalline whole that was mesmerizing in a way I have not encountered at these meetings. Afterward, at home, I tried to put down some of what I was feeling.

It was a feeling of new friends made, a reluctance to leave, a wish that more could be said, or more connection made. The spirit of God seemed there in a way not experienced before.

The night consisted of many parts that contributed to its perfection: rabbits peering silently through the hedges, an owl calling faint and far-off, the Big Dipper flaming in the sky, the naked trees waiting to be dressed by the spring,  the way the darkness and fire felt on the skin, the smell of smoke in my clothes, the way the music prompted me to look at the stars and be glad of their existence, the way each individual made me glad to be a part of such a group, and that ineffable something that makes such gatherings worthy of remembrance, that makes you wish you could somehow grasp the whole or be a different person than you are so you could enter in more fully, or simply makes you glad to be a part of something so unique and important.

Somehow, we step outside our humdrum lives and feel as if we are truly living. As if being there is an incredibly important thing. Where else do we have quite the same forum for an exchange of ideas?

The feeling lingered, after I left. To interact with other lives and be acted upon by them, even if we never meet again, is remarkable. The interaction of minds is a reaching out in darkness towards some understanding of truth, of what it means to be alive and living in this world. One of the men who attended this evening sent me a poem which he gave me permission to share.

Holy Moments

Heaven and Earth meet in time, space.
In broken Bread and Wine imbibed,
Giving life and presence: Thanksgiving.

Yet also twain worlds meet in unity of body.
Men, like Josephine coats, many colored
Brought together by Providence.

Unlikely meetings fabricated not by human will.
What would we think on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday?
Would we pass each other and see – truly see with His eyes?

Men, travelers on the Road who carry
Various burdens, sundry stories, vocations
Intersect paths and meet as equals.

And so we come from streets of our own;
On this night expecting fire and scotch
To warm our bodies. Only they have prepared us

For a meeting. A meeting of Heaven and Earth.
In this time, in this space, in this moment.
All that we once thought we knew: decreased;

Given way to Holy Moments where we learn,
Like one man oft says, “Pea-brained” we are.
It is in these moments that we catch glimpses of eternity.

I think newcomer Bruce summed it up succinctly. “This is living,” he said.  “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

The Economics of Good and Evil, Part 1


The Economics of Good and Evil: Part 1 March 11, 2010

•March 17, 2010 • 2 Comments

With temperatures rising steadily of late, I think we have put the bitter cold behind us at last. No more Thursday nights bundled to the teeth. At least for awhile. The inevitability of the seasons will bring us back around, but for now, we can relax and enjoy the first touches of spring as it begins to shoulder winter out of the way. We toasted each other and the coming spring with the fine 12-year Old Pulteney single malt.  After saying our mantra in unison, Ralph read a selection from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac about leisure. Speaking of leisure, this is quite a long post, so settle back and enjoy. It is basically a conversation between a prominent Czech economist named Thomas and Jerry. I recorded the conversation because I found it so fascinating. I hope you do as well.

Thomas is a leading Czech economist who teaches at the 650-year-old Charles University in the Czech Republic. For three years, Thomas was the economic advisor for Václav Havel, playwright, last president of  Czechoslovakia and first president of the  Czech Republic. Thomas is in Wheaton to translate his  book Economics of Good and Evil from Czech into English for Oxford University Press. The book deals with economic philosophy and mythology. In every society there are prophets. In an age when everybody is engaged in materialism, the prophets become the economists.

Thomas described the book. “The book begins with the epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest story we have, and this is the first time an economist has written about it. One of the things I’m doing is looking on science as modern mythology. In the beginning, the basic structure of interpretation in the world was a myth.  People didn’t take it as a truth, they took it with a pinch of salt. They knew it was a story to explain natural phenomenon. We don’t take science, another version of a story,  with a pinch of salt today. We’re more serious than we’ve ever been. I’m trying to decode what you see on TV, how they create these myths, how they do make-believe, and I’m using mathematical models and comparing them to the parables of Jesus, for example. So you can explain a similar phenomenon with a parable or with a mathematical model that we are more inclined to use, but at the end of the day, it’s the same yeast, so to speak.

The book has become very controversial. The name of the book is  Economics of Good and Evil, which is something economists are not allowed to talk about because we are supposed to be a positive science. So a scientist is not supposed to talk about morality or morale. But my argument is that there is hardly anything else that we talk about.  Take an analyst on the TV.  They ask him, “what’s the inflation?”  He says “3.4,” which doesn’t mean anything and the next question is:  “Is that good or bad?” That same economist who doesn’t believe in morals in science will say, it’s good or it’s bad. The number itself has no meaning; you have to put it in the context and that’s what you need a scientist for. One of the other arguments is that there is no such thing as a positive science. All science is valued-laden.

The ultimate aim or purpose of this book is admitting the myth of economics. We can’t live without a myth, we can’t live without a story. I try to use modern myths like The Matrix; the body cannot live without the story. That’s why they had to play that matrix into the brains of these people. We can’t function without a going version of the explanation of what’s going on. There are stories going through our brains. That’s why we sit here, because we believe in the story and we want to follow a certain pattern that we have.  I’m also trying to legitimize religion and myth, putting it on the same level and saying ‘this is as adequate as science.’  And science is really now returning to admitting the supernarrative or metanarrative, which is really a myth. And I’m studying how to create a metanarrative and how we create reality.”

Jerry: The academic world seeks to find patterns and exceptions.  A pattern is a generalization that makes it possible for us to communicate a body of knowledge to another person. It is a kind of myth. It’s  not real, that’s why it’s not good if you don’t account for the exceptions to the generalization. But when they start to generalize data and come up with an explanation, that is in some sense a falsehood. It’s kind of right, but it’s not utterly right. Until somebody comes along with a better generalization.

Thomas: It’s a going version of truth that you make real by believing it. The brain can only take things that it understands. In an extreme version of that story, Newton didn’t discover gravity, but it invented it.

Jerry: In the middle ages they didn’t believe in gravity, but homesickness. Every thing has its natural home, and unimpeded it wants to go to its home. If you take a rock and let go it falls because it wants to go home. C.S. Lewis says if you ask a medievalist if they really believed that, they would say “of course not, but I’m trying to explain the phenomenon.” If you asked him “why do you call it a homing instinct?” he would ask “why do you call it gravity? Do you actually believe that the stone recognizes that there is a directive assigned to it and it is prudential that it follows the directive and moves to the ground?” It’s just different metaphors.

Thomas: You could call it gobbledygook. No one understands gravity, we give it a name to classify it. It’s a great mystery. Gravity probably doesn’t exist, because gravity is faster than the speed of light. It reacts immediately, because the laws of physics– well, actually I made a mistake, there are no laws of physics– because Einstein’s myth doesn’t allow it.

Jerry: So his myth is waiting to be superceded by a better myth.

Thomas: Yeah. It’s really a battle of myths. So the myth of creation has been one-upped in our society by the myth of the big bang.

Jerry: Lewis wrote a whole book on that called The Discarded Image. He talks about the medieval worldview. And he talks about it being a work of art. And he said, “I’m not in any way trying to say that the medieval worldview was accurate, but it is a great work of art and we need to appreciate it as such, but also because it was superceded, we need to remember that eventually all worldviews will be discarded images.”

Thomas: A good description of a myth is that a myth is something that never happens, but it’s happening all the time. We don’t believe it, but we live it.

Jerry: If the Norse see lightning, and they say “why does it occur?” Well, there’s a god somewhere named Thor and he pounds his hammer and it makes lightning. The lightning is real, actually happening, but the explanation is some myth to describe the natural phenomenon.

Thomas: We now explain that with electricity.

Jerry: Electricity becomes our modern Thor.

The question was asked: Where do you draw the line between the Platonic ‘there is an absolute truth and we come up with theories to connect to it’ and ‘truth is what your theory is?’

Thomas: That’s the core of the debate between Plato and Aristotle. Plato believed there is an objective superstructure that we discover within us.

Jerry: Plato believes these ideas come down to us somehow. So the philosopher’s role is one of  midwife, to help a person give birth to the ideas that are already in him. If he gives birth to a bad idea, he calls it a wind-egg, which is basically an intellectual fart. Aristotle looks at 156 city-state constitutions, he looks at what’s common to all of these and comes up with a definition for the state by virtue  of the generalization of observation.

Thomas: So Aristotle believed that we create those. If you  see a state or a cat or a fire– you could also look at it from the evolution of a child– and Aristotle would say that it is discovering structures or categories.  Thus, Aristotle believes we create those structures while Plato believes we discover those structures.

Jerry: They both seek to come up with a definition.

Thomas: Most of reality doesn’t have a name. Only the things you’ve seen you give a name to. You observe 10,000 phenomena right now that you don’t have a name for, so you ignore them. Take the first time you fell in love. I think it’s an insult to give it a name because every falling in love is absolutely different. But because we’ve all experienced it, we kind of rape that feeling and call it love. And then we can talk about it. Another examples is that most of the numbers don’t have a name. There are some we give names to, but there are an infinite amount of numbers between one and two. To simplify it, if an angel flew through here, we wouldn’t see it because we don’t have a structure that is receptive to it.

Jerry: The word definition means ‘of the finite,’ de finis. So the thing we define, the pipe, the cup, the fire, these are each finite and they are small enough that I can wrap words around them and distinguish them from something else. But then how do I define God, who is infinite? I have to engage in similitude, in the simile. The medieval scholastics called it the way of analogy.

Thomas: When they said that Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the truth in that is 0.0 percent. He doesn’t have an average lifespan of nine years and he doesn’t sleep half the day. The only thing that is similar is power. But we all understand that. If we say of a woman that she is a flower, well, women and flowers have nothing in common, only that they are fragile or beautiful, or whatever we mean by that.  And in some cultures it could be insulting. What do you mean? She produces photosynthesis, you need to water her?

Jerry: Robert Burns says his love is like a red, red rose. She’s bright and bold. But Wordsworth talks about his love as if she were a pansy, peeking out from behind a stone, shy, retiring, beautiful.

Thomas: Eventually it’s a lie, every poetry is a lie Your love is NOT a red red rose.

Jerry: Plato says the poets are liars.

Thomas: Yeah they are. Terrible liars.

Jerry: The people who follow Plato theologically are the ones who end up not liking the arts. So of all the myths from Gilgamesh to the moderns, which one do you find most emotionally satisfying?

Thomas: I like the old testament a lot, but also modern physics is fascinating. The parables of Jesus are also beautiful.

The talk drifted into a discussion or definition of heroes. Thomas has discovered five archetypes of a hero, which I think, but am not sure, he describes in his book. I’m also not sure of the connection to the preceding discussion, but what the heck. We all want to see ourselves as heroes in some capacity, large or small, do we not?

1) Trickster: Acknowledges he would never win face to face, unethical, uses his brain. Examples: Most of the heroes of the Old Testament, Odysseus, Brer Rabbit from the Uncle Remus stories, C3PO, Prometheus, Tom Bombadil, Samwise Gamgee. When the other superheroes fail, and there is a trying moment, then these small, weak tricksters shine and win the whole story over. There are also negative, tragic tricksters such as Joker and Judas.

2) Muscle guy: Always confronts

3) Bringer of Culture

4) Twins: the internal fight between good and evil. Examples: Batman and Joker, Romulus and Remus, Neo and Agent Smith, Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

5) Hero sufferer: They are weak in other definitions of strength, but their strongest point is their morality. Their strength is their weakness. They will not budge, but will carry it to the end and that’s how they twist the vectors of history. Examples: Jesus, Vaslav Havel, Gandhi, Job.

Well, there you have it. Next time, I’ll make it short and sweet. Until then, peace.

The Economics of Good and Evil, Part 2

March 4, 2010

•March 8, 2010 • 2 Comments

Sixteen people attended tonight’s gathering, an unusual number during the wintertime when eight attendees is considered a good turnout. The outside house lights were turned off, which is also unusual, making arrival seem like stumbling on a campfire in a dark forest, with shadowy forms crowded around the glow of hot coals.

Since there were several new people, Jerry had us go around the circle and give our names and how we became involved with Brotherhood of the Briar. One of the new attendees was Lucas, an economist, mathematician and philosopher visiting from Prague and staying with Jerry while he did some type of research, the nature of which I didn’t catch.  Jerry told him that there are now twelve different chapters of the Brotherhood around the world that began from our parent group and that he expected Lucas to go back to Prague and start a group as we don’t have one there yet. Lucas laughingly said he’d do his best.

At latest count, these are the known chapters:

Wheaton, IL
Phoenix, AZ
Miami, FL
Brea, CA
La Mirada, CA
Bakersfield, CA
Dallas, TX
Indianapolis, IN
London, UK
Sheffield, UK
Republic of Kosovo

Perhaps in future posts we can get the details of the various gatherings.

“Spring” by Gerard Manley Hopkins was read from Garrison Keillor’s book entitled Good Poems which prompted a story from Jerry. He was living in Oxford with his family and one day as he was walking home from his studies at the Pusey House theology/faculty library in St. Giles, he saw a sign in Blackwell’s bookshop advertising a reading by Garrison Keillor.  His two older children had seen the first televised prairie home companion and had liked it.  Sixty people were to be admitted for the price of £1 each.  The next day he  asked for three tickets, but the reading was sold out. The three of them waited at the door in hopes that some people wouldn’t  show up, but all arrived. The lady in charge took compassion on them and said they could stand in the back of the room free of charge. When Garrison Keillor saw them standing at the back, he said “you kids shouldn’t be standing there, come up here and sit down.”  So the whole evening he told his story to Jerry’s kids.  Afterwards, Jerry asked Keillor to sign a  few books and during conversation found out that Keillor knew about Wheaton College and considered it a great school. Jerry asked if he would  ever be interested in leaving his books to the college and Keillor said “I might be. Have someone contact me.”  So a librarian was duly told, but he didn’t think Keillor was serious about it, so he wasn’t contacted. Too bad for Wheaton.

There wasn’t much conversation as a group tonight, but many smaller conversations. As I cannot listen to everything, we have a short post this week. Before we broke up, the importance of having a place for men to talk was briefly discussed and it was agreed that gatherings around fires are an ancient ritual that have been carried on for ages. There is a magnetism in fire that draws us to it.

The coals were bright as the night leaned in over our shoulders. I upended the empty bottle of  scotch and tasted the last few drops, as I had arrived too late to get a proper glass.  But I was compensated for this loss by a little Czech hospitality when Lucas brought out a case of Pilsner Urquell and the few of us that remained toasted each other and life over the fire, clinking our bottles and drinking to good company and good conversation.

February 25, 2010

•March 1, 2010 • 4 Comments

To organize a subversive gathering, begin with a fire built from the bones of an old tree and a west wind that sends cedar-scented smoke stinging into the eyes. Add a fresh fall of snow, a waxing moon riding the wheel of a dark sky, unimpeded and sharp with stars, a good pouch of tobacco, six or seven companions, and a lightning-struck tree arching its arms over your band in protection. There you have it: the ingredients for fomenting all manner of rebellions and revolutions.

Let me explain. I have felt these Thursday evenings to be subversive in the sense that they undercut current social and cultural trends in communication as well as subverting the culture at large’s sense of  social progressivism.  Here around the flames,  we encounter other human beings and the elements of nature unequivocally vis-a-vis. Technological mediation is stripped away and experience occurs at first hand. Here we are not ensnared in a web of social networking that forbids depth with a few and encourages trivial interaction with hundreds. Here the tightly reined adversaries of modern culture are loosed: depth, reflection, the exchange of ideas, silence, companionship. It is no accident that we sit outside in all weather  and grapple with real wind, real cold, real rain. We let the cold sink deep into our bones or the snow settle on our backs because they are unflinchingly real, and the real, defined in these terms, is a waning resource in our culture. We have engineered webs of technological connectivity around us, but their function serves to hold at arm’s length rather than invite us in.  Here, time passes as we watch the firelight flicker on each other’s faces and the roar of the headlong world fades for a time. Here, we are alive in a way that our culture is not and does not encourage us to be. Here, we are subversive.

I arrived at 11:15 p.m. to a night of windy darkness. Carl got up to leave and pressed a tin of Dunhill Nightcap into my hands with the injunction to try it, and said, despite my protestation to return it to him next week, that it was okay if I smoked it all! A tin that had just been opened, mind you, bearing this inscription:  “A rich flavoured smoking mixture for the evening with its period of relaxation and leisure.” How appropriate.

Amongst some general conversation I heard Ralph wonder if there would be night in heaven. A discussion spun off into the notion that God created the darkness as well as the light, so how did the environment appear before God began creating if it was neither light nor darkness?  “Like an empty ziplock bag,” mused Greg, in an offhand manner. I told him it sounded like a new branch of theology and he could be its first proponent. We also thought that perhaps we would have the ability to see other spectrums of light and undreamed of colors, or, as Jerry suggested, the gates of knowing might be thrown open, and we might be able to hear with our legs, like the crickets.

I was asked to read some poetry, so I dug around in my car and found a book of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. I chose this poem:

The   spin
Of     the     sun
In    the    spuming
Cyclone   of    his   wing
For     I    was     lost     who  am
Crying at the man drenched throne
In    the    first   fury    of    his     stream
And      the       lightnings       of      adoration
Back  to  black silence melt and  mourn
For  I  was   lost  who   have    come
To      dumbfounding     haven
And   the   finding   one
And the high noon
Of his wound
Blinds my

As this was one of a series, I read a few others and we discussed the imagery that Thomas is so adept at putting into his poetry.

The night, as my dad always says, was “clear as a bell.” The moon gazed down at us on its way to some far country. It seemed small and remote, as if trying to hoard itself before bursting out at its  full in a few days time.

Without much else to report, and as the meeting broke up not long after I arrived, I bid you all a fond farewell. Until next time. . .

February 11, 2010

•February 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Cold tonight. Carl gave me a jar of eleven-year-old Penzance tobacco. One of my favorite tobaccos, Penzance is temporarily unavailable, so I was glad to get it. He also gave me the last of a tin of Dunhill Black Aromatic, which has an exquisite taste that I wrote about a few weeks ago. As Jerry says, Carl has raised our smoking habits from the depths of ignorance. Before, we were smoking Jewel/Osco tobacco; now we sample a smorgasboard each week as Carl continues to be generous with his massive collection of tobacco. I have been one of the lucky ones who have glimpsed this fabled collection. I thought the numerous large, plastic bins in his basement were a great collection, but I hadn’t yet seen the closet stacked floor to ceiling. As I said, our tobacco knowledge and tastes have been raised out of the mud by this generous man.

Jerry told about the time he was living with a few other guys and he came home one day to find his roommate brandishing a 22 rifle, in pursuit of a giant rat. After they had chased the rat into the stove, the roommate took aim, the rat was let out, and the bullet missed by a country mile. Further chasing cornered the rat in a room, where Jerry snatched the rifle away and splattered rat viscera across the wall with three well-placed shots. Lo and behold, time went by, and wouldn’t you know, the Kirby Vacuum man stopped by to demonstrate the vacuum that could clean, paint, and make malts. Well, when they came to the room where the rat had met his end, the remains were still scattered plentifully on the wall. The vacuum was $300. The rent was something like $125/ month. Three months rent for a vacuum cleaner that could make malts and clean up rat remains. Luckily prudence prevailed, but the malt maker was tempting, as Jerry admitted.

I believe this was the first night ever that we played trivia. First it was sports, then presidents, and even some tobacco trivia was thrown in.

The Great Horned Owls were calling again, out there somewhere in the night, and the wind was rolling through the dark pine trees with a rush, scooping the sparks out of the fire and onto our clothes. One large ember found its devious way into Carl’s tobacco bag and he feverishly worked to get it out. As Jerry commented, it would have made an intoxicating aroma if it hadn’t been removed so quickly.

There wasn’t much more conversation, but we stayed awhile longer; a few men gathered companionably around a warm fire, smoking their pipes and sharing each other’s company.

Short post this week. See you next time around.

February 4, 2010

•February 7, 2010 • 1 Comment

Well, here we are again, imploring the flames to banish the cold that threatens to settle into our bones. Ah, but we have the exceptional and rare Johnny Walker Blue scotch to help warm us. And so it does. Along with a bottle of 12 year-old Dalmore. We make merry over the whisky and settle in to hear what is to be heard.

In a talk about family histories, where Jerry mentioned that his mother’s (who is still alive) father was born in 1864 and was nine when Lincoln was assassinated, we somehow (?) got on the topic of submarines and talked about an early model used in the civil war. This was the hand propelled confederate submarine H.L. Hunley which attacked the Union warship U.S.S. Housatonic, attaching a torpedo to the ship’s hull, then backing away while the ship blew up. This submarine, for reasons yet unknown, sank to the bottom soon after, entombing its crew of eight men. It was discovered in 1995 and raised in 2000.

Still on the topic of relatives, Jerry mentioned that his progenitors were the Grants of Scotland. Now it so happened that the dastardly tribe of  Comyns stole one of the Grant women, so the Grants declared war on the Comyns, driving them from their castle in the Spey Valley (where all the Scotch comes from), and chasing them until they took refuge in a kirk (church). The Comyns congratulated themselves, thinking that the Grants would not commit the sacrilege of killing them inside the church.  The Grants apparently felt the same, so instead of going in to kill them, they burned the church down, took over the castle, and kept the skull of the Comyns chieftain in the castle until 1968, when it was removed to a museum. Says Jerry, “We’re direct descendants of that group. Greg’s middle name is Grant. They were really gracious and kind men. Tender guys.”

Ben broke out his Calabash pipe, which is basically a meerschaum-lined gourd. It was universally admired. We held our pipes up and quoted our mantra from Robert Service’s poem. I then read Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Calabash pipe

Tonight Nigel Goodwin joined us around the fire. Nigel is in town from England to speak at the Wheaton College undergrad chapel next week.  He has been involved in the theater world and is  founder of the London Arts Centre Group and founder and Executive Director of Genesis Arts Trust which promotes the Christian faith in the arts and media.

Because of his involvement with and love of theater, Jerry asked Nigel a few questions along this line. Thus, we discovered that his favorite movie is Babette’s Feast, his favorite playwright is Tennessee Williams, his favorite actor is Richard Burton. Because we were on the subject of actors and playwrights, Jerry pulled another story from the seemingly endless repository stored in his mind. The English playwright George Bernard Shaw would debate G.K. Chesterton in different places around England. In Chesterton’s book on George Bernard Shaw he stated in the introduction: “Most people say they agree with George Bernard Shaw, but they don’t understand him. I’m the only one who understands him and I don’t agree with him.” While they didn’t agree, Shaw liked Chesterton. However, he did not like Winston Churchill. He sent tickets to Churchill for the opening night of one of his plays with the message: “Sir Winston, enclosed are two tickets for my play. I sent you two so that you could bring a friend, if you have one.” Churchill replied:  “Sir Bernard, I’m sorry I can’t make the opening night of your play, would you please send me tickets for a second night, if you have one.”

Nigel described how he began his work in the arts. “As an actor, I always felt that when the curtain came down, you didn’t want to go to bed, you wanted to go out and eat, have a good drink and talk and think through and unwind.  But the restaurants and pubs were closed. I came to faith at the age of 25 from a Marxist/ humanist background, and I was studying in seminary and thought I was going to be involved with the Auca Indians in Ecuador. One night I had a dream about a house in the city full of actors and singers and dancers, writers and poets. I woke up and thought ‘God, what’s all that about?’ And I knew I had to find some people. So I found the British rock and roll singer Cliff Richard who’d become a Christian. He’s not big in America, but he sold more records than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.”

We expressed disbelief at this statement, and Nigel good humoredly chastised us. “With respect to you all, if people are not known in America, they’re not known, you know?” he laughed. “There is another world, out there beyond the shores.”

“We didn’t know what we were doing, except that I thought it would be great to have a space where people can talk late into the night if they wanted to over a bowl of soup, or an egg on toast or some beans or something to eat or drink. And very quickly 400 people were trying to get into our house. And they were coming from the rock world, the folk world, the ballet, opera, all the arts. And they were coming by word of mouth. People like Pat Boone or Cliff Richard would sit up all night and chat talking about faith and music and arts. The whole cast of Les Miserables came once. I thought we could have late night supper parties, so that when people leave the theater, they can come and we’ll have a really nice meal, good wine, some low lighting. And about 1:00 in the morning, I’ll bang my hands together and say ‘I’m now going to spoil all your wonderful conversations and tell you who we are here.’ And I always prayed a prayer, and I still do, ‘Lord how do you want to walk in the room tonight?’ And nearly always, God walked into the room through a non-Christian who would say, after several glasses of good wine, ‘How can there be a God of love when people are killing each other up in northern Ireland?’ That’s how God walked into the room. And I would say, ‘well tell me about your definition of a God of love. Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ And if you’ve listened to someone telling you about the God they don’t believe in, they’re much more ready to listen to you tell them about the God you do believe in. And they would stay up all night, talking into the morning. So I didn’t get much sleep. I still don’t get a lot. Look at me now. I’m jet-lagged and it’s one a.m. But I’m awake!”

A soft-spoken man with an impeccable British accent, he talked poetically in a quiet voice that had a rhythmic, lulling quality.  The coals dropped quietly into the fire pit, and his hushed voice exerted both a soporific and commanding aura that was mesmerizing. He spoke words of encouragement.

“God’s into multiplication, not division. It’s all about fruitfulness. It’s another brush stroke on the canvas. It’s another sunset. Not one is the same as the other. We take photographs , but it’s not the same as seeing the sun rising and setting. An artist is like God, but small. We all have something to bring to the table. Don’t let anyone ever take or steal away your worth and value. If anyone tries to rob you of who you are, it’s their problem, not yours. It’s their poverty. Unless you own it and make it your poverty. And that’s the work of the enemy, Mr. Nasty.”

“We are all dysfunctional, all imperfect, but being made perfect. So we are becoming. Every day God asks us do we know who we are today? And today, we are not who we were yesterday. We’re not chameleons, we’re catalysts. By being together, we’re touching each other and God in each other. He’s making the stage, making the canvas, making the difference. Not one of us is the same, and if we’re not present, the glory and beauty of the difference of each one of us, the richness of the colors in each one of us, is absent.”

“We should savor this moment together around this fire,” he said quietly. “There will never be another campfire, just like this. There will never be a pipe just like this smoking moment.”

He gave us all  hugs before we left, a man whom we had never met, but had somehow welcomed us into his world for a few moments. I feel lucky to have met him. We may never see him again, but for a brief space we shared talk, we caught some of his vision, we were silent around the fire. He said a brief prayer before we all left, and I could hear the owls calling in the trees and the dim fall of the coals and the rhythm of speech all weaving a pattern. It seemed to me that he had a love of people and cared that they understood how to come alive and grow and become free.

By all means, feel free to leave a comment if I have neglected to tell something important, have stated something in error or you simply want to add to the conversation.

Until next time, peace like a river.

January 28, 2010

•January 30, 2010 • 1 Comment

The bright moon rested comfortably in the trees this night, looking down at six fools happily gathered around an immense fire and ignoring  the mercury which rested comfortably at zero degrees. And in two nights, this moon will be at its brightest all year. And thereby hangs a tale, as the melancholy Jaques expresses it in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The native Americans named the full moon of January “wolf moon” as it recalled to them the howling of wolves in the cold winter nights. This year, the full moon will coincide with its closest perigee—the nearest it gets to our planet during its orbit—during the early morning hours Saturday, January 30. This will make it appear 30 percent brighter and 14 percent larger than any other full moon this year. By another strange coincidence, Mars will reach its opposition-the nearest it gets to earth- at the same time. It will appear as a bright reddish-orange star swinging right next to the moon. Something to get out and see if the skies are clear Saturday night. Somehow, it reminds me of the meeting of the stars Tarva and Alambil in Prince Caspian. Doctor Cornelius said that they foretold some great good for the sad realm of Narnia. It makes one wish that such meetings could foretell good in the real world.

The cold nearly had us howling, and prompted Greg to remove his shoes, place them next to the fire for a while, then return them to his feet while muttering “That was one of the top five ideas I’ve had.”

I’m not going to lie, I believe I overdid it with the logs. As the flames roared heavenward, Ralph conversationally asked if any of us had ever seen a viking funeral. Said Greg, “Yeah, last week in New Orleans against the Saints.” I nearly roared with laughter.

As was fitting, our talk turned to things cold and northern. We talked about Libby Riddles, who, in 1985, was the first woman to win the Iditarod Race, a 1,049 mile dog sled race. In the lead when she arrived at Shaktoolik, Alaska, she moved ahead into a dangerous blizzard across the ice of Norton Sound while her competitors were forced by race officials to stop. This bold move helped her to win the race, more than three hours ahead of the second place finisher. It had taken her just over 18 days.

Because of the plummeting temperature, I had brought a volume of Robert Service’s poems, to do the annual reading of The Cremation of Sam McGee. This prompted Jerry to describe his trip to Alaska for his 35th wedding anniversary during which he spent a day in the Yukon. I discovered that the book I held in my hands, given to me by Jerry, was not only a first edition, but was purchased in the Yukon at a store on the Dawson Trail, the same trail mentioned in the poem I was about to read. Robert Service has always played a large part around this fire. After all, it is from “I Have Some Friends” that we quote each week as we raise our pipes:

I have some friends, some honest friends
and honest friends are few;
my pipe of briar, an open fire,
a book that’s not too new.

“I had to go to the Yukon, just to say I’d been,” said Jerry.

Jerry related a few stories about his brother Chester. A prolific book collector, he had amassed 50,000 books at his death. A signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird which he purchased for 50 cents at a thrift shop, was sold for $12, 000. Once, when Jerry was involved with doing missions to the British parliament, he asked Chester to come along, but told him he had to pay his own way. So Chester sold two plates he had purchased for $2 and $3, and pocketed $5,000. During a tour of Parliament given by a back bencher, the group saw Chester chatting with majority whip Tony Baker. He pointed to them and asked:

Back bencher: Who is that over there?
Jerry: That’s Tony Baker.
Back bencher: I  know who Tony Baker is, who’s the guy he’s so fascinated with?
Jerry: Well, that’s my brother.
Back bencher: Is he a member of Congress or something?  What does he do?
Jerry: Well, no, he’s an accountant at an auto parts store in northern Minnesota.

On another occasion, a doctoral student in Oxford doing work on Robert Wilberforce’s view of the sacraments, expressed frustration to Jerry that he couldn’t find books at the Bodleian Library on this guy and that no one at Oxford knew about him.

Jerry: You should talk to my brother.
Student: What university does he teach at?
Jerry: Well, he doesn’t. He’s an accountant at an auto parts store in northern Minnesota.

But the student did call Chester, and ended up staying with him for a week and afterwards told Jerry that not only did Chester know more than anyone at Oxford about this subject, but he lent him the books he couldn’t find in the Bodleian.

Jerry says of his brother: “Chester knew about everything, he was the smartest guy I ever met.”

Well, next week we taste the fabled Johnny Walker Blue scotch, which Jerry claims cost at least $600 and possibly up to $2,000. Mark described a time when the governor of Seoul, South Korea, who is friends with his father-in-law, took them to a restaurant where they committed the sacrilege of dropping shots of Johnny Walker Blue into glasses of cheap Korean beer. It has been ten years since that occasion, and next week he is looking forward to an unadulterated chance to savor Johnny Walker Blue.

Jerry said he balked at first when he was given the bottle as our group has never had blended scotch before and he didn’t know if we could handle it.  He ruefully admitted that we could sell it and take care of all the Haiti relief with that one bottle.

“Well, someone has to drink it,” said Paul.

With which I heartily concur.