Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Curiosity Leads to Success

Curiosity was Benjamin Franklin’s secret to success.

So far, the month of October has been one of the most pleasant in years. For many, jobs are scarce, food is higher, and the country is in hock to the People’s Republic of China.

Aside from this, we can be sure of one thing: almost three of the weeks of October will be wonderful. This is according to Benjamin Franklin's “Poor Richard's Almanac.” The month of October always has exactly 19 fine days (Today is the 29th, have we used up all the good ones yet?). Old Ben went out of his way to help folks and make a shilling as well.

Ben was a believer in seizing every opportunity to learn more about the world and improve it as much as possible. He was one of the first to write self-improvement books. He felt everyone could use some moral enhancement.

As the United States first Postmaster, he spent his life finding ways to unravel mysteries of science. As a printer, diplomat, inventor, philosopher, civic leader and a part-time founder of the United States. He was anything but lazy.

In his day most of the world was an agrarian society. An almanac was read more than the Bible. Farmers needed to know stuff: “When badgers are fat, expect a cold, hard winter.” “Store a bumper crop pumpkins and winter squash under the bed in an unheated guest room.”

Ben warned farmers “Tight cornhusks mean a cold winter.” Another way to know the coming winter will be cold is “when the onion skins are thick and tough.”

Ben Franklin grew up poor and had very little formal schooling. Yet he became a diplomat (the French loved him, so said some ladies), a very successful businessman, civic leader and revolutionary. He was filled with curiosity.

The colonial governments, before the American Revolution, used money printed by Ben Franklin. To protect from counterfeiting, one side of the bills had images of real leaves, carefully printed one at a time. His lifetime stretched most of the eighteenth century, from 1706 to 1790. He would have been named the man of the century but Time Magazine had not been invented.

Franklin might be amazed that today's $100 bill features him and special designs to foil bogus bill makers. (Actually, Franklin would not be amazed his likeness is on our money, he did believe in his own greatness.) Today the $100 bill, has several safeguards against counterfeiting:

Among other things, “The United States of America” is micro-printed on the lapel of Ben's coat. A second portrait of Ben in the form of a faint watermark is embedded in the paper. Ink in the lower right-hand corner numeral changes from green to black when viewed from different angles.

I did not get this information from an original source as I have not seen a hundred dollar bill lately. I confess I got this information from a book, not the Internet. The Web did tell me a Mars Rover was named “Curiosity.” It's strange that people aren't more curious about curiosity. It's a powerful thing. Benjamin Franklin would never say “curiosity killed the cat.” Curiosity solves problems.

(First published 10-29-10 Brownwood Bulletin and San Angelo Standard-Times)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Religious Extremes Dangerous

In the late 1970s a group of radical Fundamentalists began their take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention. I paid little attention as I knew Southern Baptists were far more conservative than liberal or even moderate in theology and practice.

It took the Fundys nearly two decades to prevail. Mostly by setting up a bunch of “rock-hard beliefs” and condemning any Baptist individual, church or school that did not conform to them. That is, claiming the Bible is without error; that women are not up to the calling of God to preach and pastor; that the Convention leaders decide if a church is worthy and if not to withdraw fellowship. No where in the Bible is there such a “hierarchy,” “denomination,” “church” “church polity” or any group to choose whose church is fit or unfit and exterminate them. These are power grabs and self-promoting stunts that have evolved throughout the history of Christianity.

Baptist heritage has never rested on one creed or hierarchy. Each church decides worship procedure, urges stewardship; seeks to make their community better (and Baptist of course). They do not answer to bishop or superintendents. This system, like American democracy, is a tenuous thing. It is fragile, very easily broken, misled, misunderstood or abused.

Baptists can be compared to the spirit of Forrest Gump’s famous phrase: … Baptist churches are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you might find inside.

Extreme fundamentalists thinking is as close as you can get to the opposite of what religions are all about. They are dangerous in Islam, Hindu, Buddha, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormons, New Age stuff, fill in the blank and especially Christianity.

Working Poor Deserve Break

While eating out recently I ask our waitress if she worked two jobs. She said yes. She has another job, not because she wants to, but because she has to carry such a load. She and her husband have three children nearing the teen years.

Unlike many working wives, she has a working husband. The widows, the divorced or deserted wives are among the working poor in the gravest predicament. But it is a sad commentary that the richest country in the world is in such a state.

I grew up in a fairly sheltered world. There were jobs when I finished college. No lotteries and downtowns, large and small, thrived. Families were not threatened as they are today. I grew up with uncles and aunts and seven funny cousins in our town. The ability to have a grandmother just two blocks away. She came to Texas in a covered wagon in 1870. Her old-time common sense and wisdom gained from dirt farm living, nourished by Garrett’s snuff, gave us cousins security and sense of being.

Minimum wage is good for teenagers in the summer but is not a living wage a family needs. Today college graduates find it difficult to get a job in their field. These days, there are terrible stories everywhere you look.

For those of us with good jobs or reasonably fair retirement find it difficult to realize how many families are barely scraping by. Families are hoping they don’t get sick or lose their job.

We forget that over half a million Americans have faced bankruptcy court, primarily due to health care costs. The rest of the industrialized world gets along fine without FOR PROFIT health insurance companies.

While other Americans with secure jobs and rather high incomes and bonuses live in another world. They are not aware of how the rest of the world lives (this includes those members of the millionaire club we call the Senate). These ultra-wealthy (top 2 percent of our population) are moping around feeling sorry for themselves.

They are upset because there is a possibility of losing what President Bush did for them ten years ago. Thinking people see the wisdom of doing away with the Bush tax cuts by letting them expire. If congress can get a spine they might let them expire for the wealthy.

Most Republicans say letting Bush's tax cuts expire at the end of the year would increase the tax burden for the rich. Actually it would only be returning to a more reasonable fair tax situation. Remember, the wealthy once paid ninety percent. All other thriving democratic governments pay more taxes than the U.S.

Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, writes: “Temporary tax breaks for the rich are stunningly bad economic policy. . . Basic economic theory tells us that affluent taxpayers are likely to save rather than spend the great bulk of any funds they receive via a transitory tax break.” The middle class and working poor would not squirrel away a tax break, but spend down their debts and buy more goods. This, we are told, helps families and the economy.

Remember those who have it worse than your family. Giving a gratuity of at least twenty percent for waiters and waitress is the very least we can do. It is fine to pray for them but they deserve more green stuff for their family. It is a golden opportunity to do something for those who work so hard.

Friday, October 8, 2010

China Rejects Nobel Peace Prize Choice


Very few people inside China have heard the name Liu Xiaobo, but last week he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (He is far more deserving for this honor than the one chosen last year.) The choice of Liu is this year’s foremost symbol of the struggle for human rights in China.

Liu Xiaobo is presently serving an eleven year sentence for urging the “Charter 08,” a human rights manifesto, be accepted for discussion among the people and the government of the People’s Republic of China. (Ever notice how all “People’s Republics” or “people’s movements” have little concern for the people.)

“Charter 08,” that he supported two years ago, called for a new constitution in China, an independent judiciary and the simple freedom of expression. It was backed by 300 China academics, artists, lawyers and activists, who want a fuller debate about China's future political development.

The Beijing government never liked even the thought of “Charter 08” and now the choice of Liu receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace sticks in their craw. The free world leaders praised the choice. Does the Communist Party of China give it consideration? Yes, they took about two seconds and immediately called the Norwegian ambassador to come to Party headquarters to protest Norway’s bad choice. They called Liu a “criminal,” and such an award could damage relations with Norway. A typical response by paranoid government officials.

Liu (one syllable pronounced lee-oh) has been a political activitist even before the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre of students seeking more democracy. I was in Beijing for a week before the martial law was enforced. The protests were peaceful and did not want to overthrow the government. The Premier, Zhao Ziyang, begged the students to leave the square, knowing what would happen if they stayed. (Zhao was later fired and kept under house arrest until his death. Typical of how China treats its more thoughtful and patriotic people – those who love China.)

Liu Xiaobo, 54, author, university professor and a constant annoyance for the Chinese Communist Party was not informed of the Peace Prize. Since last December he has been in a prison in Liaoning province for “subverting state power.”

The 1989 massacre made a deep impression on him and was one of the reasons the Beijing Normal University banned him from teaching. For the last dozen years he has not let up criticizing China’s treatment of Tibetans. In 1996 Liu was arrested for speaking out about China’s one-party political system. Instead of prison he was sent for re-education at a labor camp for three years.

Then in 2008 he was arrested again, just two days before the “Charter 08” was to be published. It was typical of the late night arrests one-party countries do to perfection. When his wife, Liu Xia, asked the authorities about his where-abouts, they ignored her. The authorities would not admit to taking him. It was weeks before news of his arrest was made public.

At his trial in December last year the United States government felt compelled to speak out: "We call on the Government of China to release [Liu Xiaobo] immediately and to respect the rights of all Chinese citizens to peacefully express their political views.”

Announcing its 2010 peace prize in Oslo, the Nobel Foundation said: "Liu has consistently maintained that the sentence violates both China's own constitution and fundamental human rights."

The police said if his wife wants to go to his prison and tell of the prize, they will allow that. How nice of them!


Sunday, October 3, 2010

My Red Headed Blanche Skinner

Brownwood, Texas has a lot to be proud besides friendly people.

Brownwood’s own Blanche Westerman Springer’s paintings have been exhibited in many states and are represented in private collections in Minnesota, Florida, California, Kansas, Arizona, Virginia and Texas. We were classmates as we grew up in Brownwood.

Just as Charlie Brown’s “little red-headed girl,” Blanche was my red-headed love. And just as Charlie Brown’s experience, nothing ever came of it. Years later at a reunion we told each other of the long-ago grade school fantasies.

Not counting me, painting has always been her first love as far back as when she and Tom Springer were married in Brownwood’s First Methodist Church in 1947.

Blanche paints character studies, landscapes and still life in oil, pastel, charcoal and watercolor. Working in pastels she does very detailed and realistic presentations of Indian heads, some with colorful headdress. She has won awards in numerous shows and was selected to show work in the 19th National Sun Carnival Art Exhibition at the El Paso Museum of Art.

She has displayed several of her paintings in Marble Falls, Brownwood and Central Texas. She was one of 11 artists chosen to show at the Second International Conference of the United State-Mexico Board of Governors in 1981. She has twice been named Artist of the Month by the El Paso, Texas, Chamber of Commerce.

It was during this time she became close friends with another Brownwood High classmate: Jacquelyn Rice Powell (BHS Most Popular Girl 1944 and FFA Sweetheart 1946). Jacquelyn was tall and stately and one of BHS’s finest graduates.

The BHS Class of ‘47 Newsletter’s of Dec. 1997, carried Blanche Westerman Springer’s portrait of fellow classmate, the late Fern Wooldridge Butler (BHS cheerleader; 4 years with the band) on the front page. As far as I know the original hangs in the Butler Brownwood home.

In one of Blanche’s letters she told me: “Fern and I became best friends our senior year in BHS. She stayed with me the first night I was home alone with our first baby girl. Whenever I was in Brownwood I always saw Fern.”

Blanch studied with Manuel Acosta, Lewis Krupp, Ben Konis, Carlos Pineda and Ray Lopez-Aleman. She is a member of El Paso and Lower Valley Art Association and has served as president.

Her paintings have been exhibited in many states and are represented in private collections in Minnesota, Florida, California, Kansas, Arizona, Virginia and Texas. She paints character studies, landscapes and still life in oil, pastel, charcoal and watercolor. Working in pastels she does very detailed and realistic presentations of Indian heads, some with colorful headdress. She has won awards in numerous shows and was selected to show work in the 19th National Sun Carnival Art Exhibition at the El Paso Museum of Art.

Could anything in life be more wonderful than doing the thing you love all the time, even into a mature age. She finds that painting and art became her love when she discovered pastels and the joy of becoming acquainted with individual faces as she painted portraits.

There is another BHS beauty who became a very well-known artist. She was Nelda Grace Phillips when we graduated from BHS. For many years she has lived in Dubai and held exhibitions all over.

Brownwood, Texas has a lot to be proud of of its artists and art. There is more to this central Texas town than just friendly people and 2010 Division 3-A best football team.