Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas was the most magical time

Driving to a 9 p.m. Christmas Eve service and seeing the steady stream of cars along the streets, I was struck by how incredulous I would have been to see such a scene when I was a small child. Surely, no one worked Christmas Eve night. No one had places to go or things to do. Christmas Eve was a magical evening when a jolly old elf would fly through the sky and drop in at every house around the world to leave gifts. This annual miracle would defy laws of physics and economics, which only served to prove just how magical this night was.

We were always in bed early and up long before dawn the next morning. The morning dark was always cold and almost always clear and bright, the heavens reflecting the magical nature of the night. A fire would roar in the fireplace in a living room redolent with the smells of cedar and citrus and chocolate. An excitement that was too much to bear filled the house and its five children who had awaited this moment breathlessly for months. We would all pile into a car and travel through the still-dark morning to my grandparents for breakfast, where cousins and aunts and uncles would greet us and share our excitement and joy.

A living room filled with toys and treats for five children could only be achieved by magic, a magic mixed with religion and love, so the entire night and following morning, it seemed to me, was a magical moment, the most magical time of my childhood. Everyone I knew celebrated Christmas, and it seemed beyond comprehension that some children somewhere might not awaken Christmas morning to treats and toys. We lived a homogeneous life and were all white Protestants, and most of the people we knew were devout church members. All of us participated in church Christmas pageants and hung lights on Christmas trees and wrapped presents and sat down to Christmas feasts, and we were sure that life had been this way since 1 A.D., or at least since St. Nicholas filled his first stocking.

A world where there are gifts enough for every child and time enough to deliver them to every home around the globe was a magical world. And we never doubted the magic, for we had seen it happen. So this year, when I went to bed about the time Santa should have been finishing his Eastern Time Zone deliveries and arose just at dawn, I missed the wonder and the magic of a simpler, more trusting time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where is my Christmas spirit?

"The Christmas cards have all been sent," Karen Carpenter sang more than 40 years ago, and, indeed, we have mailed our cards this year, and the house is decorated with greenery and lights and whimsical statuettes of angels and elves. The wicks are blackened on three candles in the Advent wreath. But we've forgone the traditional Christmas letter we've occasionally indulged in. We won't recount the year that saw so much unhappiness and grief.

In this last week before Christmas, the holiday seems more distant than imminent. The season changes when young children are no longer in the house with their infectious excitement. I recall my mother complaining that she just couldn't get into "the Christmas spirit" for her favorite holiday. I know the feeling.

It's easy to think you've seen it all before after about the 50th or 60th rendition of this holiday. The stress of so many things to do and so much to take care of dims the brightness of holiday lights. And this year has tempered holiday joy with unexpected tragedy.

We will gather with family and wrap our arms around the people we most want to be with on Christmas and on every other occasion, and we will fight against the temptation to think, "I'll be glad when it's over." Instead, I'll be glad for every happiness these dark nights and chilly days can bring me. And for Christmas, in all its varied meanings.

Monday, December 17, 2012

What will we do about gun massacres?

President Obama, speaking before a grieving crowd at Newtown, Conn., said America is not doing enough to protect its children, and that must change. He received a standing ovation after his speech.

But talk is cheap. What will change? What will we do about the easy access to deadly firearms with nearly unlimited firepower? What will we do about the mentally ill who suddenly flash before our collective eyes in tragic rages?

The massacre of 20 first-graders at idyllic Newtown could be a tipping point. It could move the needle of public opinion. It could shame the members of Congress who have sold themselves and their integrity to the gun lobby. It could bring about sensible restrictions on gun purchases and the types of firearms and ammunition available to the general public.

It is not necessary to repeal or revise the Second Amendment, which guarantees a "right to bear arms." But no right is absolute. Free speech and free press do not ban legal protections of privacy and recourse for defamation or libel. Religious freedom does not permit the sacrifice of human life. Gun ownership cannot be banned, but sensible restrictions can be imposed on gun purchases and the types of weaponry available to private citizens.

National and state sovereignty — and civilized society — require that government holds a monopoly on the use of deadly force. Weapons available to private citizens must not equal or exceed the power of those held by the army or police. Private citizens' right to bear arms does not extend to anti-aircraft missiles, heavy artillery or attack helicopters. As part of our contract with the government we elect, we expect the government to protect us from "all enemies, foreign and domestic." We do not have to rely on our own six-shooter or Glock or AR-15. The police have superior firepower and are authorized to use it to protect the public.

Congress should consider again an assault weapons ban, including a ban on high-capacity magazines, such as those used by Adam Lanza. Armor-piercing bullets and body armor, which would give individuals an advantage over police, should be banned. Combat weapons should likewise be restricted. And no firearms should be sold to anyone with a history of mental illness or violent actions.

And America must do something about its mental health system that allows people with violent rages to walk the streets and unleash their fury against the innocents, even little children. Not all mental patients are violent — only a minuscule number are dangerous to others — but everyone with mental illness should get the help he needs to live a non-disruptive and, if possible, productive life. Until we do a better job in treating the mentally ill, we will all suffer.

The Second Amendment absolutists will rage against sensible limits on gun ownership and sales, but when they do, let them explain to the parents of Newtown why their right to buy and use guns is worth more than the life of even one 6-year-old.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Charitable deductions and college sports

One of the elements supposedly "on the table" in budget negotiations between the president and the speaker of the House is the charitable deduction. This "tax expenditure" will cost the federal treasury about $230 billion over five years, so it's a low-hanging fruit for revenue seekers. Negotiations have turned to how to change the deduction — eliminate it entirely or place a limit on how much in charitable donations a taxpayer can deduct.

Having worked for two 501(c)(3) nonprofit, tax-exempt charities, I can tell you that revoking the charitable deduction would be devastating to every charity from your local church to the Cancer Society or Heart Association. Charities rely on individual and corporate donations to meet their budget. Without a charitable deduction, much of that revenue would dry up, and I have no doubt that many charities would go out of business.

There may be some simple ways, however, to increase federal revenue without having a deleterious impact on charitable activities. One change to the IRS code could not only increase federal revenue but could also improve higher education and reduce the corrupting influence of big-time intercollegiate athletics.

Simply eliminate the tax-exempt charitable status of athletic booster clubs. Boosters can now give millions of dollars (as a Duke alumnus did recently) to their alma mater's athletic program and claim a tax deduction. Giving to the Rams Club or Wolfpack Club does not contribute to the educational mission of the university. In fact, these athletic donations probably harm the university's mission of educating young men and women. Such donations skew the university's role by encouraging outlandish coaching salaries and lowering academic standards to accommodate athletics.

If you want to support your alma mater, you should give to the university, not to the sports team that represents the university, and the nation's tax code should make that distinction clear. Taxpayers should not subsidize intercollegiate athletics by having to make up the revenue lost when booster club donations are deducted from taxable income.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Promise of jobs is still alluring

Every day this week I've watched a parade of people pass by the front door of my office on the way to an office next door, where a company is hiring. That's right, hiring! Count this as an economic indicator: There are still an awful lot of people looking for work in this economy.

The company doing the hiring is not a big, famous corporation. It's a small outfit providing services to other companies, and judging from some overheard conversations between the job applicants and the staff vetting the applicants, the company is not paying high wages. The numbers I heard were only a little above minimum wage. Yet the parade of applicants seemed never-ending. The quiet corridor in front of my office has become a busy thoroughfare.

Some of the applicants look as if they are entirely unfamiliar with what a time card or pay stub looks like. Others show up in coat-and-tie and are carrying copies of their resume in their laptop bags. The competency range of applicants is obviously wide. I take that as an indicator of just how broad and deep this recession is. The unemployed range from young men in serious need of some job readiness training and simple social skills to middle-aged, middle-management types.

This parade goes past my office even as the state plans to sharply cut the state's unemployment insurance program, which has run up quite a debt to the federal government during four years of job losses. The maximum jobless benefit will drop from over $500 a week to $350 a week. I have some familiarity with this system. Unemployment benefits got me through nine months without a paycheck. Without those benefits, which I earned during 46 years of full-time work, I would have had to dip into savings to pay the mortgage, and I was one of the fortunate ones who had cautiously hoarded savings for just the sort of emergency I faced. Others would have gone bankrupt or homeless without unemployment insurance.

Some politicians worry that too-generous unemployment benefits simply encourage people to idly suck up federal tax dollars. But being unemployed is embarrassing, emasculating and deeply depressing, no matter what the circumstances. Unemployment insurance is essential to a nation surviving an economic downturn. Don't worry about subsidizing idleness; people want jobs. Just look at the parade going past my office door.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Bibles are getting harder to find

Last week I went out to buy a Bible for a dedication gift. I had no idea it would be so difficult.

Since Wilson's only dedicated bookstore, Books A Million, closed months ago, I knew I would have to go to a discount or department store to buy a Bible or any other book. I headed for Target, which I knew had a books section. There were books in the book section all right, ranging from children's books to "Fifty Shades of Gray," but no Bibles.

I told my wife of my dilemma, and she said I should go to Wal-Mart. She had seen Bibles there. So I paid my first visit to Wal-Mart in many months and found the book section, such as it was. But the selection of Bibles was pitifully limited. Refusing to give up, I remembered where I had seen a Christian bookstore and went there. Over to one side, an area overwhelmed by the inspirational books, inspirational cards, decorations, signs and what-not, I found the Bible section. The store had a relatively large number of Bibles, nearly all of them of the King James translation or a modern paraphrase version. After looking over the selection, I selected a hardbound copy and bought it.

The experience left me wondering whether Bible sales were down. It seemed to me they'd have to be. With the demise of big-box bookstores and community bookstores, there are simply fewer places to buy a Bible. And obviously the big-box discounters aren't pushing Bible sales. I looked for some statistics to back up my theory, but I found none. The people who track bestsellers don't track sales of the Bible or the Koran. Some estimate that more than 6 billion copies of the Bible have been printed and sold, but the statistics seem a little squishy. What I hoped to find was an annual comparison of Bible sales over the past 20 or 30 years. Surely, someone must be counting, but Google could not help me with that.

Nevertheless, I came away with the strong impression that Bible sales must be declining and that those that are sold are likely from outlets catering to the religiously zealous. The average consumer could shop for weeks and weeks and never see a Bible on a shelf. It's little wonder that biblical illiteracy is rampant with few Americans able to understand biblical allusions or metaphors. Bibles are not mainstream consumer products any more.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Words finally come for my brother

In the days since I received the text from my niece — "they're taking him off life support" — I have been unable to write about the untimely death of my brother Bill. Heart surgery is no splinter removal, but I never expected it to end like this. I was nowhere near ready for my oldest sibling to die.

Bill with his granddaughter Shelby and daughter Kelley, background

My mind swirled with lost opportunities. Although we had been separated by many miles for most of the past 50 years, we were brothers, joined by common interests in history, cars, genealogy, family stories and other topics and by a profound appreciation of the paramount importance of family. Years ago, as he approached "normal" retirement age, we talked of taking a tour of Civil War battlefields together, along with his elder son, and I proposed an itinerary along the trails our great-great grandfather had followed to his death at the Third Battle of Winchester. Alas, his work schedule did not allow the time away, and he wasn't ready to retire. "I'm the type who has to know where his next dollar is coming from," he told me once to explain why he wouldn't retire. And he used his income to financially help his four grown children. Others depended upon him. When I told him in an email four years ago that I had been laid off from my job after 29 years with the same company, he responded, "What's mine is yours. Just tell me what you need." I never needed to ask for money, but I was deeply moved and humbled by his offer.

I remember the early morning when he woke me up to say goodbye as he left home to join the Air Force. For years afterward, the Air Force was my juvenile ambition. Later, when I had joined the Coast Guard and entered Officer Candidate School, we had another common interest. Less than a year into his Air Force stint, he rode a Trailways bus home from Biloxi, Miss., and the whole family drove to Charlotte to meet him. The bus arrived hours late, and it seemed so awkward for him to squeeze into the car with the other six of us, in part because the Air Force had changed him and in part because, at that moment, he seemed more like a guest than a brother.

A year later, when our sister, age 17, was killed in a car crash, our minister, working through the Red Cross, located him at his Tampa duty station and gave him the news by telephone. He asked, I gathered as I listened to the pastor's half of the conversation, whether the rest of the family was injured. They were not in the car, he told him. The next day, Bill drove up the driveway in his girlfriend's Mercury and came into the house, where our mother once again burst into tears. He gathered her and my younger sister and me into a hug and squeezed rare tears out of my eyes. A month later, he would marry the woman who had bravely accompanied him to meet the family she would join. At our sister's funeral, Bill, our mother's firstborn, sat with an arm around our mother as we bade farewell to her firstborn daughter.

When the Cuban Missile Crisis loomed later that year 50 years ago, his Air Force wing was moved out of Florida to put more distance between them and Cuban missiles. As an electronics technician working on B-47 and B-52 bombers, he was a key component of the power that forced the Soviet Union to back down.

Bill left the Air Force for a job at IBM, and he regularly praised the company where he worked long, irregular hours, and missed the birth of his first child because he was far away in an IBM training course. The distances between us made visits of more than twice a year rare and difficult. His family grew to four children, but his dedication to his job never waned. He occasionally urged me to seek employment at IBM, but I saw myself as a writer or a newspaper editor, and my preferences leaned toward small towns and small companies instead of the corporate world where he flourished, rising in IBM and then moving into banking after taking early retirement from IBM. His last decade was spent at Bank of America, often traveling from his Florida home and maintaining a grueling schedule and boasting of his long hours, pre-dawn to late-night.

When a scary collapse sent our parents to a nursing home, his job took him often to Charlotte, where he would set aside time to visit them in the nursing home, less than an hour away. I also made the trek to visit them, a nearly four-hour trip each way for me. I admired Bill's resolve to sit with them for long hours, even though their dementia and uncommunicative manner left us sitting through long, uncomfortable silences. I would visit for as long as I could bear to sadly see these once-vibrant and compassionate people rendered to their new state, and I would make the long drive back home deeply depressed by it all. But Bill never missed an opportunity to sit with them, even in silence.

His compassion was evident again when Karen, his wife, was diagnosed with cancer. True to form, he told us little, but it was evident from the sketchy information we received, that she was dying. When the news finally came, it was three days before the family was to gather in Charleston. We had worried about what would happen to that planned reunion. They wouldn't leave her behind, but she could not travel. No travel plans had changed. Bill had no hesitation — the whole family would gather in Charleston. Two weeks later, we attended Karen's funeral and watched solemnly as Bill climbed the ladder to slip Karen's ashes into the columbarium. He kissed the urn before slipping it into the niche.

When he was hospitalized with what was called a "mild heart attack" and awaited surgery, I asked him by telephone, "Was this your wake-up call?" "Maybe so," he said. The conversation was brief; he sounded tired and nearly breathless. I expected he would have his ailing heart repaired, regain some energy and stamina, and finally decide to retire. That Civil War battlegrounds tour loomed. A few days later, I received the cryptic text, and I laid my head on the breakfast table feeling as if I had been hit in the heart by a sledgehammer.