One Hundred Monkeys in Texas

July 31, 2008

Dallas’ mournful news

Filed under: Journalism,Newspapers — alancochrum @ 12:32 pm
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A rumor reached me this week, and then I read a report. The Dallas Morning News is embarking on another round of cutbacks.

Parent company A.H. Belo is planning to dump 500 jobs — 14 percent of its work force. The Morning News “is expected to lose around 40 of its approximately 390 full-time newsroom staffers,” the report says.

My mind flashes back a few years. The News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (then my employer) are fighting over eastern Tarrant County. The competition is fierce — so fierce that the Star-Telegram‘s managerial regime at the time basically tells news staffers that if they’re even caught playing job footsie with the Enemy, they’d better hope that a place has been prepared for them, because they’re out.

Flash-forward to the present. That particular turf war is history. The Star-Telegram recently laid off about 130 people, myself included. The News has seen even more severe weight reduction and is going under the knife again.

Something tells me that at both papers nowadays, the news that a staffer is planning to jump to the other side of the Trinity River would be greeted by secret relief (except, perhaps, in the case of a handful of Big Names). When your big concern is trying to keep the ship afloat, having one less person aboard is not necessarily a problem.

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Julia’s Child?

Filed under: Children,Food — alancochrum @ 11:48 am
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An eyewitness account:

I am in the kitchen; my newly minted 13-year-old has just boiled some spaghetti for his lunch. He puts the pasta in a glass bowl and then pours upon it a generous portion of … lemon juice.

Yes, you read that correctly: lemon juice.

“Where did you come up with that?” I ask with a grimace, expecting a reference to some of his peers.

“Trial and error,” he replies.

I’m sure that a lot of people would nod. On the other hand, they and my son probably would disagree about whether the results should be filed under “error.”

July 28, 2008

“Will all of this ever end?”

Filed under: Bible,Spirituality — alancochrum @ 6:08 pm
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We have two doorbells. The one outside the house is small and golden and makes a pleasant sound; it’s under the control of the person on the porch. The one inside the house is medium-sized and sheds black fur all over the floors; it barks and arguably is not entirely under the control of anyone on the premises.

The other day, the interior doorbell went off at great length and volume; I was busy at the far end of the house and so did not respond for a while. When I finally got to the door, I glimpsed a woman and child going back toward the street; one of them was holding a Bible. A familiar-looking sort of pair.

I could have engaged them in conversation, but I was thinking in terms of having to restrain the dog — not that she would have been any danger to the twosome — and so I decided to take a rain check.

Sure enough, when I opened the door later, a little leaflet with the familiar Jehovah’s Witness look fluttered to the porch. (If you have an eye for such things, you can spot a Witness publication from ten yards away, whether it’s an issue of The Watchtower or books such as Life Everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God or You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth.)

“All Suffering Soon to End!” proclaimed the leaflet’s front. And inside, it said: “The past hundred years have seen more suffering than ever before. Will all of this ever end?

“The comforting answer is yes, and very soon! …

“The human condition is just as the Bible foretold for our times. God’s word identifies our era as ‘the last days’ of this system of things when ‘critical times hard to deal with will be here.'”

Of course, a great many people who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses expect the Second Coming sometime soon. The big differences (aside from the Witnesses’ fairly high score on the Heterodoxometer) have been the iron-fisted ecclesiastical control of Bethel (as the Witnesses’ headquarters is known) and its outstandingly bad batting average on predictions — a situation that could be summarized as: “Eat what we give you, or else … um, never mind; now eat this, or else …”

For those interested in a thorough yet very readable backgrounding, I recommend two books: M. James Penton’s Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses (1985, University of Toronto Press) and Raymond Franz’s Crisis of Conscience (1983, Commentary Press).

Franz’s book is particularly fascinating, given that he was one of the group’s top leaders before being purged. (Commenting on the longtime Witness belief that Jesus’ “invisible presence” began in 1914, he notes that for nearly five decades, the group preached that this event occurred in 1874, and that this was still being taught as late as 1929.)

And judging from the leaflet, things may not have changed all that much. “Will all of this ever end” — this being the misdirected preaching work? You can still hear the tune that was being played more than eighty years ago in the “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” campaign.

Well, maybe millions who are now alive will indeed never die. But if Bethel told me that the sky was blue, I’d still look up.

July 26, 2008

It hurts my I’s

Filed under: Bible,Spirituality — alancochrum @ 8:54 am
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I was looking out a window, waiting for a friend who was supposed to drop off a package. Said friend was not in front of the house at that moment, and I absent-mindedly closed the blinds a little further.

In the nearby dining room, a growl emerged from my wife, one that with a little electronic alteration might have served as a sound effect in a horror movie: “I … want … light!”

Or words to that effect, anyway.

This is a recurring scene at my house. My spouse likes the blinds open, with light streaming into the house. I, on the other hand, like things shady.

For one thing, I have light-sensitive eyes; in our old family movies (the kind that you took with genuine film), I am the child who is always trying to shield his eyes from that glaring indoor camera light. Fall, with its coolness and cloudy skies, is one of my favorite times of year.

(As for you summer-philes out there: If you had to look forward to multiple days of 100 degrees or above, as we do in Texas, you might change your mind. If human beings could hibernate, I would find a nice cool cave — Inner Space Cavern north of Austin comes to mind — and not come out between the beginning of June and the end of September. At least.)

It reminded me of a passage from the Gospel of John, one just after the famous “For God so loved the world” declaration:

“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:19-21, NIV)

My little quirk of preferring the shadow to the light is harmless — except, of course, when it clashes with my wife’s preferences. But my innate, fallen tendency to gravitate toward the moral Shadow rather than the Light — to make “I” the most important word? Much more of a problem.

July 22, 2008

Closing the books

Filed under: College,High school,Journalism,Writing — alancochrum @ 2:42 pm
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Theresa Cloer helped get me where I am today.

Not that I’m blaming her for that, you understand.

There I was, a junior at a suburban Texas high school with delusions of writerhood. I had (successfully) submitted some poetry to the school newspaper, the Scroll, and Cloer suggested that I join the staff of Quadrus, the barely-out-of-diapers campus literary publication.

I did, and then she suggested that I try out for the yearbook staff. So in the spring of the year, I received a nice little note — which I still have stashed away — that I would be part of the Valhalla staff the next fall. (In what a local talk-radio host used to call a Brush With Fame, also on that staff was a lass named Laura Lane, who eventually would become actress Lauren Lane of the TV show The Nanny.)

And then the blow fell: Our teacher-sponsor, whose students had affectionately dubbed her “Darth Cloer,” left for greener pastures. No sooner had I stepped through one journalistic door than my recruiter stepped out the other.

True, our new teacher soon arrived and guided her motley crew through the year. I went on to a journalism major, two-plus decades at a couple of newspapers and now other horizons. But it was an interesting prelude to a career.

I read in the July 21 Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the college yearbook is facing a cloudy future. Writer John Austin reports that the 2008 Aerie will be the last for the University of North Texas; the story is the same at Mississippi State and Purdue.

I must admit that I carry no particular torch for collegiate yearbooks. (I bought all of my high school annuals but none from my university.) But I think that Kansas State yearbook adviser Kathy Lawrence had a point in Austin’s story: “They’re losing the only written history of the year prepared by the students who lived it.”

P.S. — Dear Mrs. Cloer: I’m still glad that you recruited me.

July 19, 2008

Some men just don’t want to watch the world burn

Filed under: Movies — alancochrum @ 8:20 pm
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So what did The Dark Knight remind me of? Would you believe … a Japanese novel referenced by an American evangelical writer?

At the end of the recently released movie — this probably isn’t too much of a spoiler — Batman (Christian Bale) decides to take the blame for several murders in order to protect another person’s reputation. When the newly minted Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) protests in pain and horror, Batman declares that the city needs a hero, and he isn’t one — his role is to be whatever Gotham City needs him to be. The knight takes on the mantle of the dragon.

In the 2001 book Soul Survivor, author Philip Yancey discusses the work of Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. In Endo’s book Silence, the shoguns are attempting — with considerable success — to wipe out the church of their era. One of their methods involved the fumie, a metal plaque portraying Jesus or the Madonna and child. Those who stepped on the fumie were declared apostates and released; those who did not were condemned to death.

In Endo’s tale, a devout Portuguese cleric is told that if he steps on the fumie, other Christians will be freed; upon his refusal, they are killed. Faced with this horrific situation, Yancey says, “in the end the priest Rodrigues forfeits his own faith for the love of others.”

The American writer quotes Endo’s climactic scene: “And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! … It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’ ”

Yancey’s description of the scene gnaws at the heart  — it is not surprising that, as he relates, many Japanese Catholics were outraged by what they saw as the romanticization of apostates like the fictional Rodrigues. And Batman’s decision to allow himself to be cast as a murderer is also disturbing; after all, in the end, the image he is protecting is an illusion.

But there is also this: In various senses, Batman, Rodrigues and Jesus “became” what they were not because others were in need of rescue. Of course, Christ did it so much better. It helps if, unlike the Dark Knight, you really are more than human.

July 16, 2008

One ring (from school and all)

Filed under: High school — alancochrum @ 7:06 am
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To Mark Sewell, 1980 graduate of Union High School (perhaps of Tulsa, Okla.): A Texas journalist is looking for you.

No, no — it’s OK. Really.

My former colleague Bob Ray Sanders of the Star-Telegram is trying to locate the owner of a class ring that I found years ago in downtown Fort Worth. I had made some initial efforts to find the owner, but without success. Upon leaving the paper, I passed the ring to Bob Ray in hopes that he might be able to pursue the matter someday.

“Someday” turned out to be today, as he devoted a column on the op-ed page to the matter. So if the description at the beginning of this post fits you or someone you know, you know where to turn. (Let’s hope that Mr. Sewell Googles his name every now and then.)

Ironically, I no longer have my own high school ring. To the best of my knowledge, I lost it while working at a ride at Six Flags Over Texas, about a year after graduating from Lamar High School in Arlington.

Perhaps that was cosmic justice, though. My father doesn’t have his ring from Fort Worth’s Paschal High, either — because I lost it after he let me play with it when I was a kid.

July 14, 2008

The adventure of the stockbrokers’ clerks

Filed under: Business — alancochrum @ 3:57 pm
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I started reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories while I was in junior high school. This quite possibly contributed to my already awesome NQ (nerd quotient), given that I was hauling around one volume or the other of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, a huge two-book set edited by William S. Baring-Gould.

I now own a copy of that same set, and I recently decided to fill in the gaps in my reading by working through the handful of stories that I either had skipped or did not remember reading. Today’s lunchtime story was “The Stockbroker’s Clerk,” whose plot has some similarities to another story with which I am much more familiar, “The Red-Headed League.”

The irony of this is that I received in the mail today a package from the financial services company that administers the 401(k) I had with my ex-employer. So — what am I going to do with my account? That same question is being asked and answered by the approximately 1,400 people who also were laid off along with me.

Among the choices, I understand, are (1) leave the money where it is or (2) roll it into an IRA with the same company. But you can also roll it into another employer’s retirement plan, or into an IRA with another company — in which case the money exits the current firm’s coffers.

That rushing sound I think I hear? It is the sound of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars cascading out of that company into whatever financial stream, pond or lake the owners pick. My company decided to lay off several hundred people, and now, weeks afterward, the aftershocks are jolting the reservoir of another corporation further downstream.

It makes me wonder whether those 1,400 may soon be joined by some stockbrokers’ clerks, or maybe some of the stockbrokers themselves.

July 11, 2008

Weighty matters

Filed under: Health — alancochrum @ 8:05 am
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This morning I discovered another downside of being between full-time jobs. I stepped on the scale, and the number there was about five more than I remember it being.

I could be mistaken. I don’t really watch my weight (in the sense of keeping an eagle eye on the scale), so maybe nothing has actually changed. And it’s not like I’ve been receiving aid and comfort in the form of quarts of Blue Bell ice cream.

I team-teach a Bible class at my church, and after I told the members that I had been laid off, a nice lady of English extraction told me not to do what she had done when she lost her job of three decades: “I sat around and drank tea and ate cookies all day.”

I haven’t even been doing that. But it does occur to me that, yes, I have been getting less exercise of late, and not for the precise reason that one might think.

I used to take a train downtown, and the distance from the station to my office was a brisk five- to ten-minute walk. My guess is that between the there in the morning and the back in the evening, I was getting in a mile of so of walking five days a week, plus whatever walking around the building I was doing.

But no more. So maybe that has something to do with the larger number on the scale.

I guess my occasional walks with our dog will have to become much more regular — maybe even once in the morning and once in the evening.

Well, that should make the dog happy, anyway.

July 9, 2008

The circle is complete (well, not exactly)

Filed under: Government — alancochrum @ 8:30 am
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Anne Flaherty of The Associated Press reports this week: “The next time the president goes to war, Congress should be consulted and vote on whether it agrees, according to a bipartisan study group chaired by former Secretaries of State James Baker III and Warren Christopher.”

According to the report, the group proposed legislation that would require the president to tell Congress about plans for “significant armed conflict” or non-covert operations lasting more than a few days. Congress would act within about a month, OK’ing the action or not.

This sounds rather familiar. What was it that those dead white guys wrote …? U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8: “The Congress shall have power … To declare War.”

As the poet T.S. Eliot said in “Four Quartets”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
.

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