Sunday, April 19, 2015


Today is the 20th anniversary of the terror bombing of the federal building at Oklahoma City.

Grow old enough, cynicism aside, it seems many moral and ethical issues fade into shades of gray. There is right. There is wrong. And there is rationalization.

One thing difficult to rationalize, that truly cannot be rationalized even in this day when the Tea Party asks to see a president's birth certificate simply because he is a man of color, is the terror bombing of the Oklahoma federal building by Timothy McVeigh.


I've recently talked extensively with someone who suggested many things I consider moral failing—like constant lies—are the result of psychological diseases. We lie because we have an inferiority complex. We lie because we are depressed and cannot face what we perceive as unchangeable sorrow.

Was McVeigh insane? He didn't seem so. Is hate—as exampled by McVeigh's hated of the evolution of our society and the errors of our government at Waco—a form of madness?

I do not know. I do know I've read many things about the Oklahoma City terror attack, both to rationalize and to explain it. I know McVeigh is dead, executed because of the atrocity, expressing only regret that the building did not fully collapse. I still don't know what would motivate a person to participant in the massacre of innocent noncombatants, especially in a pre-meditated, cold-blooded attack.

There is one thing particularly that I heard, and have listened to many times since, that speaks to me about the tragedy. It is Robert Earl Keen's song "Shades of Gray." It is a spare, hard-bitten allegory about the nature of choices, with but a bare mention of the date of the bombing at the end of the song. If I were smart enough to analyze the song, had the insight to deconstruct the allegory, I would wonder over the meaning behind the federal officer being a black man. I have a suspicion it is there because McVeigh was a neo-Nazi sympathizer. In any event, it is one of Keen's better narrative songs, and I cannot listen to it without meditating on the scope of human evil.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Diggin' Coal from the Bottom of Your Grave"

In the last year, I've read several books about the Appalachian coal, one set close to the modern era, another in the late 1800s, when a Civil War veteran trekked out of South Carolina to cut timber only to uncover a coal seam.

My people are from Appalachia, albeit the southern portion of eastern Tennessee, a place where the same subsistence farms—like those in Kentucky—sat on limestone instead of coal.

Coal was stripped from the land owned by the Anglo-Celt people that settled the land in the wake of pioneers like Boone. Of course, others came to die in the mines too—Italians, eastern Europeans, and more. But most of the heritage of Appalachia traces back to those English, Irish, and Scots people who escaped poverty, or imprisonment, or the hangman to settle in the colonies. And the music reflects that.

I came across this song as a I was researching information to write a review. I think I've listened to it ten or more times. For some subconscious reason, it makes me want to know the first Presley who stumbled onto these shores. I do think, in some fundamental measure, we all have traces of our blood within us.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Car Seat

Don't buy a poodle unless you like to bathe dogs and cut their hair. We tried. The poodle came out looking as if she'd been run through a blender.

That means we go to Springfield to get the dog groomed. Fair trade, I suppose. I no longer have to pay for haircuts, and so now I can afford to pay for a dog's haircut.

Pinky the Poodle is a laid-back dog, quite easy going. With her and the new Boston we've taken great pains to socialize them, and we've done our best not to let them interact with anyone who might tease them.

All three dogs love people. The Boxer is shy, but she sounds fierce, and she is protective -- but only of the kid who lives here. The kid once strayed toward a neighbor's yard occupied by a cranky Chow. The chow began barking and moving toward the kid, and Daisy the Boxer shot across the road and rolled the Chow, easily twice her weight, up into a nice little ball.

But I'm trying to tell a story about Pinky the Poodle. Pinky barks at no one. Pinky never growls. But Saturday past, when my wife and the kid drove down to Springfield to get Pinky groomed (among other things), it happened to be a very pleasant day, warm for February, and as a result, the "I'll Work for Food" cardboard sign-holders were out in force. 

My wife said there was one at nearly every major intersection. Pinky the Poodle, riding in the front seat, would watch them but showed little interest even when my wife gave a teenage girl a couple of dollars. Then, late in the day as they were on their way home, a woman began to approach the van.

My wife noticed that the woman was obviously mentally ill. My wife said she was talking to herself, and simultaneously appeared to be holding a conversation with a person she believed was walking beside her.

Whether my wife had any intention of handing the troubled soul a few dollars, I don't know, but if she had wanted to, it all changed when that mellowest of poodles, Pinky, stood up in the seat, and a low rumble began to come from her chest.

My wife didn't understand at first the source of the fearsome noise, but as she turned to look at Pinky, the dog had her teeth bared, her head lowered, and her ears pinned back as if the woman were a threat. My wife said, "It scared me for a minute. I've never seen Pinky do anything like that."

The woman stopped about ten feet from the van and looked at Pinky and then turned away. That's as far as the incident continued, but Pinky never took her eyes off the woman until the light changed, and my wife drove away from the light.

But it makes me wonder about some elemental sense of danger a dog might perceive. Why that one particular woman out of the twenty or so begging for change? Pinky's two years old, and I've never seen her show her teeth at anyone.

Whether the woman was a danger we'll never know. I do know that the ACLU and other like-minded organizations lobbied for people to be released from mental institutions decades ago, but society never moved to accommodate people like that woman who obviously need care and medication necessary for stability. Advocates for human rights freed them from institutions, but that freedom has led too many troubled souls to homeless camps and the streets.

Freedom from unwarranted confinement is good; but there must be a better way to help people like that poor woman.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Remembering First Songs

I cannot remember where, but I got involved in a discussion about music, its influence on a person's life, and when that influence began.

What's the first song you remember? For me, it was Frankie Laine's "Ghost Riders in the Sky." Why? Where? I don't know, but I can remember it blaring from the kitchen of my grandmother's porch of the little cottage on Lomita Boulevard.

Then, as a teen—isn't always a teen generation that gets entranced my music?—it was first "Unchained Melody," but soon it was Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. Fairchild Air Force Base, 1956, a radio station playing "Heartbreak Hotel" every 15-minutes is etched into my mind.

An aside, made with nothing but artistic criticism, Fats Domino's "Ain't That A Shame" was covered by Pat Boone way back when there was segregation in music as much as at lunch counters. It may be teenagers getting a whiff of the real stuff contributed a bit toward integration, but I won't go so far as to suggest that. All I know is that Boone's version had none of the power of Domino's original.

Lately—other than my only classical obsession, Bach—I've been listening to a lot of Americana music, mostly the Texas variety, mostly Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett and their contemporaries from the Austin music scene, liking Keen for his narrative songs and Lovett for his quirky yet intelligent lyrics. 

Aside number two: there's an excellent Americana singer locally here, Lyal Strickland

What struck me when I begin listening to Americana music was how many of the artists write their own material, which I suppose brings me to the point of this bit of rambling: a search through the morning's news, a stop at NPR, and the Americana, rock-a-billy artist JD McPherson. Good stuff, every minute. This fellow sounds a whole lot like you might think Buddy Holly would were he around today. Holly and the Crickets had the talent of making every instrument distinct in a song, with Holly's inimitable voice weaving in and out as the song progressed. McPherson's work has that same power—deft instrumentation, a distinctive voice never drowned out by the power of the music.

You're welcome. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: "I Won't Take the Mark"


I Won't Take the Mark: A Bible Book and Contract for Children

  • by Katherine Albrecht Ed.D
  • Hardcover: 42 pages
  • Publisher: Virtue Press (December 1, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0988280213
  • ISBN-13: 978-0988280212

Reviewing books for several venues, I am often contacted privately and asked to review a book. Recently, I was emailed by Katherine Albrecht, Ed.D asking for a review of her children's book, I Won't Take the Mark

I was hesitant. I don't review children's literature. However, I've always been interested in the interpretation of the New Testament's Book of Revelation. Also, my wife, who has a better, more personalized ideal of religion than me, thought it might be an interesting book to read to our 5-year-old daughter. 

That said, I also believed neither of us, my wife or I, might not be able give the book a fair review because we are Roman Catholics. Roman Catholics have a nuanced, historical view of the Bible. Those interested in the Catholic interpretation of Revelation can find it here, but a summation might be quoted:
This book contains an account of visions in symbolic and allegorical language borrowed extensively from the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel. Whether or not these visions were real experiences of the author or simply literary conventions employed by him is an open question.
But I said, "Yes." The book arrived. We have read it.

It was, in essence, as I expected: it is nicely illustrated rendition of the Book of Revelations with simplified interpretations of the text on one page, with the Biblical text from the King James version of the Bible on the page opposite. Readers should note, though, that the characters—most importantly, the renditions of Jesus—are based on modern people, although there are people of color. Jesus, in fact, looks like the typical Anglo. I suspect here, as elsewhere, such unrealistic portrayals are made to create empathy. Readers should also be aware that some images might be disturbing, such as a guillotine.

In spite of some of the more disturbing illustrations, the book is directed toward children up to ages of 10-to-12. As noted, its theological audience would be conservative Protestant, and within that group, believers who approach the Bible as the literal Word of God.

My wife read it to our daughter two or three times, and our daughter, in fact, asked me to read it to her, which I did. My wife and I found the language focused accurately on the audience—that is, it is consistent with language comprehensive of children between the ages of 5-and-12 years of age. 

My wife especially liked that it reinforced Bible verses with plain language, which will make it valuable to those who adhere to the theology expressed.

A text more in keeping with our Roman Catholic beliefs would not rely on a literal interpretation of Biblical texts. It is not here for me to explain fully the Roman Catholic approach to the Bible, but I personally believe there is power in symbolism. Truly, it is my personal opinion that there is no other method of interpreting the "holy mystery" which is creation without symbolism and metaphor. 

With that in mind, I believe any discussion of "the mark of the beast" is an element of Holy Scripture interpreting end times requires metaphor. For example, I have a small tattoo of the infinity symbol. My daughter asked me if that was the mark of the beast.

"How about when we go to the fair and I get my face painted?" she asked. "Is that a beast mark?"

That, perhaps, is the sort of question a parent should be prepared to answer when reading this book to a child.

My wife and I both believe evil is manifest in this world, and so we tried to reassure our little girl that one of the Creator's gifts is free will, that there is a right to say "No," to reject evil, when it perceived to be present. Is that part of the Book of Revelation? It is, in the sense of those of us who believe that even as metaphor Revelations reminds us that evil is real and eternal, and it acts in this mortal world.

Recognizing from the overwhelmingly positive Amazon reviews that there is an audience for Albrecht's children's book, I can recommend I Won't Take The Mark for an evangelical Christian audience. 

Other believers will find merit in it, but a thoughtful parent will be prepared to answer questions from youngsters who are confused or disturbed by the complex theology (interpreted in Albrecht's book) within the Book of Revelation.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review: Honor and Polygamy

Honor and Polygamy
A Novel Reviewed by Gary Presley
November 24, 2014

"The in-depth descriptions of the Afghan setting and culture add exceptional intrigue to this thrilling mystery."

A different sort of independently published book I reviewed here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

1% Will Have Designer Babies


I liked that word when I first came to understand its meaning. It has a place in recent news, I think, but not in a way that matches the happy connotation the word provides when it slips off a person's tongue. 

Dr Tony Perry, a pioneer in cloning, has announced precise DNA editing at the moment of conception in mice. 
He said huge advances in the past two years meant "designer babies" were no longer HG Wells territory. 
Other leading scientists and bioethicists argue it is time for a serious public debate on the issue. 
Designer babies - genetically modified for beauty, intelligence or to be free of disease - have long been a topic of science fiction.
I've long thought genetic engineering will move the world far from a humane, democracy-based future where people are accepted for who and what they are. (Yes, I realize we live in a stew of racial, ethnic, and religious prejudices that kill and maim.) I first began to think about this issue when I learned several years ago that a majority of babies with Downs Syndrome were aborted. I cannot understand the issue on a personal basis, but I do feel such a thing shapes society in ways we cannot fully understand. There's also the issue of "selective reduction" and of gender selection. 
The world’s wealthiest 1 percent is likely to control over 50 percent of global wealth by next year
It won't be the low-income, single mother or working-for-a-union-wage family provider who'll be able to choose a "designer baby." It will be the one-percenter. And what will that mean? Super-intelligent one-percenters? A permanent inequality where those in power shape the lives of underlings through biology?

It's all science fantasy, of course, and democratic societies have the power to move to curb genetic manipulations so that there will not be a permanent master race controlling genetically engineered slaves. However, those same democratic, representative societies have allowed the world's wealth to be corralled by one-percent of the world's people. It takes no imaginative thinker to speculate that it bodes no good for a humane, democratic society if a small group controls power through wealth and, through practical science can shape human biology.

While you consider that (achievable) fantasy, you may also want to consider the curious case of the woman who was granted assisted euthanasia because of chronic tinnitus (a ringing in the ears).