What’s Really Important When You Hit the Field

As we start another football season, it’s good to pause and look back at those who have hit the field, lead others to do so, or both.  Nearly two score and two conferences back, Texas A&M‘s coach was Tom Wilson, who led the Aggies to victory in the 1981 Independence Bowl.

This week Coach Wilson was laid to rest.  I’ll leave it to David Moon Walker, quarterback when Wilson was Emory Bellard’s Offensive Coordinator, to note the following on Facebook:

It was a beautiful service for Coach Tom Wilson yesterday in Corsicana. He gave everyone in attendance his final coaching point in the form of this card he designed. Tom was very much a man of Faith and Family, and he loved his football, golf and fishing.

13920939_10208855047591182_3470187700367552432_nWe all remember from college how much he loved his fishing. What we didn’t know is he didn’t have a clue how to use an outboard motor when he first got to A&M, and he once threw an anchor into the water that he hadn’t yet tied to the boat.

And we’ll recall that every time the A&M coaching staff went out to play golf, Tom always won. But he got the only hole-in-one of his life just a few weeks before he died, only because his grandson insisted they play that day. He wanted to play one more round with his Papa.

But with all that said, what Coach wanted most was for all of us, his Red Raider teammates, fellow coaches, his high school and college players, family and friends, he wanted all of us to understand and appreciate how important the word of Jesus is in our lives.

This is the card he created weeks before with The Sinner’s Prayer. It was stapled to the Memory handout. Yesterday we celebrated Tom’s life, and he was still teaching. RIP.

14063829_10208855047671184_8894296839532779318_nIt’s the most important lesson to learn.  If you want to learn more about this, click here.

Advice to Graduates: The Two Promises I Made to Myself

It may seem an odd time to do a pseudo-graduation piece. Obviously the University of Tennessee thinks so: this weekend I am supposed to officially receive my PhD degree, but the university, having spent a great deal of money on a new, traditional looking quad, doesn’t do an August graduation ceremony, with a graduation speech of any kind. So this will have to suffice.

In accreditation standards, this degree is referred to as the “terminal degree.” I agree: by the time you’re done with it, you’re just about dead. But I have other things to commemorate this year. One of those is the twentieth anniversary of our family divesting itself of our business. Accompanied by the loss of my father and brother, it was one of those times when everything was different at the end than it was at the beginning. In the wake of those events I took stock of things, sought God and made myself two interrelated promises that I have pretty much kept in the score that followed. I think they’re worth passing on because, in the midst of swelling words, it’s easy to lose sight of practicalities.

The first was that I would never again allow myself to be dependent upon one source of income. Up until that point the family business—a company with one product to boot—had been my main livelihood for eighteen years. In those years it was impressed upon me that, from a professional standpoint, the business should be like segregation to George Wallace: first, last and always. Although I had the usual consulting contracts, they wouldn’t last that long, and there were the equally usual non-compete agreements in them. With the unhappy memory of every day being a “hero or zero” event, I decided to diversify my income. It’s been very helpful. We’re supposed to sleep a third of the time; that decision made that third (and the other two-thirds) a lot happier.

One of those diversifications has been my online activity, which started the year after the business went away. It hasn’t been the most lucrative thing, but in the process of putting stuff up I’ve delved back into our family history. We’ve been successful since we’ve been here, and for my father’s family that’s about a century and a half. Much of that success has been due to the diverse nature of the income: my great-grandfather’s yachts, my grandfather’s cars and airplanes, etc. Even the “one product” family business, at the turn of the last century, had a diverse offering which included bridges, dredges, and other products. There was a historical lesson that had been forgotten, and this is a country which habitually forgets historical lessons.

To make that really work involves another family habit: living below your means and staying out of debt to the greatest extent possible. That flies in the face of a credit-driven society driven by instant gratification, and it isn’t always easy in a country where wages are compressed the way they are. That being so, without it, the advantage in your life will always shift towards those who make the payments.

The second was that I would never let my professional (or other) identity be taken over by another institution or individual. This will take a little more explaining.

When your family has been in our business as long as ours was, the public image of the two tend to run together. But which came first? My great-great-grandfather started the company in 1852, sold it eleven years later, his sons bought it back in 1881, we got out of it in 1996. It should be obvious that the company was ours as long as we had it. But that wasn’t the message I heard, especially from the family and those in the company. The message I heard all too often was that the business made us what we were and that we owed the business in perpetuity because of that. That justified the aforementioned idea that it should be the sole source of income.

Getting out of the business didn’t solve that problem. I worked for people who wanted my professional identity completely contained in the work and institution which they ran. That wasn’t any better at what was strictly a job than it was at my own business. But there are others who saw it to their advantage to let “me be me” and they reap the benefits from that. In those cases it’s been a “win-win” situation for everyone. (Remember that, in job hunting, they’re not only choosing you; you’re choosing them.)

There are two parts to this issue: the practical and the “theoretical.” From a practical standpoint, in a world where companies, institutions and even lines of work are in a perpetual state of upheaval, it doesn’t make sense to have one’s reputation in the marketplace dependent upon one institution. Sometimes one can end up the “last man (or woman) standing” in a profession, where the skill set has gone out of currency and you’re the “go-to” person. But even then the reputation needs to be yours, not your employer’s.

The “theoretical” part is a little trickier but just as important, because it goes to how you look at life in general, which in turn will determine where that life goes.

Christianity teaches that we derive our worth and value from God who created us and made our salvation possible. That being the case, it’s always amazing that, in what has been up until now a predominantly Christian country, that so many in church every Sunday pursue personal validation in this society with such gusto. We insist on driving the proper car, living in the proper house, and raising the proper children to communicate the message of success, when the Gospel tells us that none of these things is necessary for happiness.

Secularizing the country will only make this problem worse, because it takes away the alternative to worldly success without obviating the need for perpetual validation in the society. The enforced online groupthink, where we are forced to go along with the herd’s course or else, is only the most distasteful manifestation of this problem. Consider the matter of same-sex civil marriage; in a society as polarized as our is and where cohabitation is as common as it is, it’s really strange that neither or both sides could bring themselves to pitch the institution of civil marriage altogether. Everyone argued under the assumption that the state had to validate a marriage in order for it to be one. The same thing goes for our elite institutions. Whether they provide a better education is open to question; whether they confer on those who endure their degree programs a glow of respectability is not.

I used to think that my family I was born into didn’t like my Christianity because it put God in charge of things, not them. That’s true as far as it goes, but the more I think about it the more I realize that they didn’t like the fact that God defined who I was and not them. The person who defines who you are controls you, which is why identity is such a big deal in this society. My God loves and forgives, and that’s more than I can say about many people and institutions in this world.

These, then, are the two promises I made to myself past the mid-point. I am glad I did. I think you will be glad if you do too. May God richly bless you.

Hey Hipsters, Like the Industrial Look? We’ve Got the Site For You!

The Guardian laments the sameness of the “new” look:

It’s no accident that these places look similar. Though they’re not part of a chain and don’t have their interior design directed by a single corporate overlord, these coffee shops have a way of mimicking the same tired style, a hipster reduction obsessed with a superficial sense of history and the remnants of industrial machinery that once occupied the neighbourhoods they take over. And it’s not just London and Manchester – this style is spreading across the world, from Bangkok to Beijing, Seoul to San Francisco.

If you’re looking for inspiration for the “old industrial” look (and some inspiration is in order) come visit vulcanhammer.info, which is my site for the family business which we (mostly) owned from 1852 to 1996.  I’ve in the process of updating the site, or maybe backdating it: adding drawings from the 1880’s and 1890’s to match the photos from those eras and beyond.  The best part for this is the part which documents our years in Chicago, from 1852 to 1960.

What’s on the site only scratches the surface; if you’re interested in discussing some other things, contact me.

It’s Hard to Humble Americans, But It Can Be Done

That’s what Uber and others have found out the hard way in China:

“Uber’s approach to markets around the world has been fairly arrogant,” from flouting local taxi regulations to threatening to sabotage media critics by digging up personal dirt, says Zennon Kapron, managing director of Shanghai-based consulting firm Kapronasia. “But arrogance is a very difficult attitude to have to be successful in China.”

In addition to their obsession with their time in bed, Americans are an arrogant bunch these days, especially if they think the world will go their way (it used to be called “historical determinism” but people educated in our system have a hard time with the phrase.) To some extent that’s the result of the end of the Cold War, which left the world with only one superpower.

But reality checks always come sooner or later, and China has been a persistent one to non-Chinese business people since we went there many years ago.  And it’s too much to expect that a country which has obsessed with making its people smart would play second fiddle forever.

It’s also worth noting that humility is a Christian virtue; as our country secularises, the arrogance increases, and the contempt for the humble does likewise.  China also has a fast growing Christian population.  It’s a country that has the sense to value humility and the ability to teach hard lessons to those who don’t.

Women Deacons in the Catholic Church? Not the First Time They’ve Thought About It

My mother used to tell her unretentive sons that geese “get up in a new world every morning.”  While I can’t speak to geese, that’s certainly a problem with our press:

Pope Francis has created a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic church, following up on a promise made last May in what could be an historic move towards ending the global institution’s practice of an all-male clergy.

The pontiff has appointed an equal number of male and female experts as members of the commission, which will be led by Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria, a Jesuit who serves as the second-in-command of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation.

Seven years ago, I quoted this article:

The question of women deacons has been before the commission for at least 20 years. The original study on women deacons, requested by Pope Paul VI, was suppressed. While that document remains unpublished, an article published in Orientalia Christiana Periodica in 1974 by then-commission member Cipriano Vagaggini concluded that the ordination of women deacons in the early church was sacramental. What the church had done in the past, he suggested, the church may do again. Other scholars, before and after Vagaggini, have reached similar conclusions, but the current document only refers to the debate and strenuously avoids concluding that women ever received the sacrament of holy orders…

The big difference is now that we have a Jesuit Pope.

Pro-Life Democrats: If You Knew the Priorities…

@timothypomalley is lachrymose for his party’s call to repeal the Hyde Amendment:

I had hoped for this. Until this week. Like many pro-life Democrats, I had been dispirited by the inclusion in the 2016 Democratic Party Platform of the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which has previously disallowed federal funds to pay for abortion except in the case of incest, rape, or the life of the mother. Here, a seemingly reasonable way of making space for us pro-life Democrats was being closed. Before the convention began, I was considering that it was time to leave the Democratic Party. To find an alternative way of building a politics of human dignity in my local community.

Having grown up at the upper reaches of this society and not the lower ones, I can say with confidence that our elites, under all the gaudy rhetoric, have two basic priorities in life: getting laid and getting high or drunk, which facilitates Priority #1.  Look at what’s been at the top of the agenda: contraception, abortion, the LGBT movement, the transgenders, all of it.  It’s all about sex.  That’s why real economic equality (and the economic development that makes it possible) has taken a back seat.  And it doesn’t hurt that a society where wealth generation is held back tends to concentrate what’s left at the top.

O’Malley and his ilk in the pro-life movement have always spoken of a “culture of death.”  But that’s not what this is really all about.  It’s about a thrill-obsessed culture that’s ready to sacrifice anything, everything, anyone and everyone to kill the pain of its own worthlessness.  The Democrats’ lame attempt to frame the issue on the timing of children was just that, as O’Malley justly points out.

That being the case, it’s only a matter of time before this kind of obsession will take command on both sides of the aisle.   In light of that O’Malley’s closing bears repeating:

I have left the Democratic Party this week. And the last gift this Party has bestowed upon me is a sense that the present political system is so broken, so obsessed with death that the rebuilding of the structures will not occur within the present structures of American political life.

Politics are about stories. And it’s time to tell a new one.

Erdogan Bucks for Caliph

Right in the heart of Istanbul:

But now Turkey is going in the opposite direction. President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party has called for a new Islamic constitution. In May, some of his followers demanded that the Hagia Sophia be made into a mosque again.

The coup attempt this month against Erdogan has not only allowed him to consolidate his power, but has energized his Muslim base.

“This coup has empowered President Erdogan more than ever. He was already the most powerful leader of Turkey since Ataturk, and Erdogan can easily use this to establish more control over Turkish society,” Mustafa Akyol, political analyst and author, said.

I wrote about Erdogan’s Islamicist tendencies last year and they seem to be moving forward.  The second transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque (the first time it was done under the Ottomans) is a big deal, but for every day Turkish life there are bigger ones.

Under Ottoman rule, the emperor was also the Caliph, the “Commander of the Faithful.”  ISIS claims to have restored same, which lapsed with the end of the Ottoman Empire.  Perhaps Erdogan is bucking for Caliph, which would unravel Turkey’s current place in the world alliance system (especially NATO and Turkey’s idea of getting into the EU.)

Since we’re talking about Ottoman history, I invite my readers to browse through my series last year on the subject, as follows:

The Never-Ending Interest in Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club

My piece last year on Donald Trump and Mar-a-Lago has been a hit on this site.  There’s a great deal of interest in the subject, either by his supporters (who think he’s a SJW hero for the club) or his detractors (who are trying to find out some dirt about the place.)  Neither of these quite hit the spot, although his supporters have the better argument.  My last piece was a little brief, so some background is in order.

It’s easy to get sidetracked in an issue like this, because Palm Beach’s social system is different (or sui generis to use the fancy term) than what most Americans are used to, either in the past or now.  Donald Trump’s concept of a club for everyone in the place–black, Jew, gentile–was revolutionary, but that has to be seen in the context of Palm Beach, not some egalitarian utopia.

First: Mar-a-Lago wasn’t a club until Trump bought it.  It was the estate of Marjorie Meriwether Post, the cereal heiress, and it was the largest private home on the island.

Second: until around the First World War, Jews and Gentiles mixed pretty well in Palm Beach.  That changed with the growing perception among the Gentile community that the Jews, God-chosen achievers that they are, were a threat.  Probably the most shameful manifestation of this was the change in the admission process of the Ivy League schools, who de-emphasised academic excellence and went for this “well-rounded” (usually Gentile) student.  We’re seeing a repeat of this with the Asians.

Jews in Palm Beach, not wanting to be at the bottom of the place’s social system (and that’s a bad place to be, as I found out the hard way) started their own clubs, most prominently the Palm Beach Country Club.  The segregation of Jew and Gentile was a prominent feature of Palm Beach society for many years.  The one place that wasn’t extended to was the schools, where I had Jewish friends whom I remember fondly.

Turning to the issue of black people, South Florida is in many ways an extension of the Northeast.  However, looking back the Southern influence was a lot stronger in Palm Beach than I used to realise.  Gentile Southerners brought their racial attitudes to the place just as their Northern counterparts brought their religious ones.  The first time I heard anyone I knew called the N-word was a schoolmate at Palm Beach Day School, something that still blows me away.  Having said that, when some enlightenment started to sink into the place the big issue, IMHO, was economic.  Living on the island is a dreadfully expensive proposition, joining the clubs isn’t any easier.  The Jews had that problem in hand; most black people have not.

Into this segregated/stratified situation enters Donald Trump.  As I noted in my review of Lawrence Leamer’s book:

The inrush of that kind of money has changed the landscape of Palm Beach more than anything else, both physically (to the extent that those who want to build can get past the preservationists) and socially.  At the vanguard of that change is Donald Trump, whose transformation of the Mar-a-Lago estate into a private club, with the concomitant opportunity of the clubless arrivistes to have their own place in the sun free from the constraints of places like the Everglades Club, the Bath and Tennis (B&T) Club, or even the Palm Beach Country Club.

From my viewpoint as someone who grew up in Palm Beach, Trump’s opening of the club scene to nouveaux riches was the biggest innovation that he made.  Putting together a club where Jew and Gentile could mix freely was and is an achievement for which he needs to be given credit. Iconoclastic as that was, Trump saw that an “old money” town like Palm Beach was changing with the billions generated by the newly wealthy, and he put Mar-a-Lago at the centre of that change.  And there’s political significance to that.

As distasteful as nouveaux riches are, they are a necessity for a vibrant economic system.  They show that people can and are moving up.  Unfortunately there are many “gatekeepers” in our society who don’t want others to move up as it would involve them to move out. Some of them are the recently successful people in the tech industry, who know better than anyone that glory is very fleeting.  Others are in academia, who have convinced everyone that the credentials people pay them dearly to hand out are the key to a unruined life.  Still others are in government, the usual laggard, which finds it easier to block change than to adapt to it.

Most of the discontent is coming from the American people’s decision that they’re getting the shaft from all of these “gatekeepers.”  That’s true of both Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters; they share the basic perception of the problem but not the solution.  As long as our haughty masters attempt to lord over us the way they have, they will have blowback.

The fear of Trump is that, if he can take on a social system like Palm Beach’s and win, he could do the same with them.

Yes, he can.

Lessons from the Cotter Bridge

The Ruthven Bridge, as it has been officially called since 1976, is a familiar landmark to visitors and residents of north central Arkansas.  It has an interesting history, not only for its design and construction, but also in how it was authorised and its subsequent history.

Arkansas did not establish a State Highway Department until 1927.  Before that time the counties were responsible for building and maintaining the roads.  One of the Department’s first tasks was to identify places where major bridges needed to be built.  One of those sites was the White River at Cotter, west of Mountain Home.  (It’s the same White River, and not far from the site, of the real estate development that the Clintons made famous in the Whitewater scandal.)

Unfortunately the State Highway Commission had put the bridge at Cotter at the bottom of the list.  This was remedied by Judge R.M. Ruthven, who pocketed the report before the Commission met.  Unaware of the priorities of the report, the Commission approved the bridge and construction began.

The bridge was designed by James Barney Marsh, who used a patented design for this reinforced arch bridge.  The rainbow concrete arch bridge was meant to be an economical substitute for the steel arched bridges at the time, and had the added advantage of being more corrosion resistant.  In addition to the novel design, the bridge was built by first putting in place the steel arch reinforcement and then using that to hang the forms and pour the concrete for the rest of the bridge.  This eliminated the use of formwork built from the river bed; the White River’s wild swings in level made that a risky proposition.  (Today bridges across rivers and wetlands are generally built from the top down for environmental reasons.)

The bridge was completed in 1930.  It eliminated significant detours during flooding; the next bridge crossing was upriver at Branson, 100 miles away.  One would think that such an improvement would have been welcome, but traffic was low because the locals preferred to use the ferries, which were paid ferries and slower.  The State Highway Department found this frustrating; one highway engineer stated that “If Baxter County people want to new improvements on their highways, they will have to patronise those already made…”  The Department was not at a loss for a fix: they paid off the ferry operators to get out of business, the last one for USD250.00.  With that traffic picked up, and it remained the main crossing between Baxter and Marion counties until the 1980’s.

It’s strange that, in these days of “free stuff” most systems, religious and secular, need a payment.  Beyond the usual griping about taxation, we pay a great deal of “rent” for many things: housing, Internet and data service, utilities, and the like.  Most religious systems are this way.  They require that we do certain things to get a temporal or eternal reward.  Ever wonder, for example, why Muslims radicalise and then kill others so quickly?  Part of that is that both killing and dying for Allah in jihad is the one sure “straight shot” to Paradise for Muslims.  It’s a steep price for them and for us, although I suspect they won’t find what they’re expecting when they’re ferried across the river into eternity.

Christianity has never been like this because Jesus Christ paid the price for our sin on the Cross.  “The Divine Righteousness which is bestowed, through faith in Jesus Christ, upon all, without distinction, who believe in him. For all have sinned, and all fall short of God’s glorious ideal, But, in his loving-kindness, are being freely pronounced righteous through the deliverance found in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:22-24, TCNT.)  That work is complete.  We don’t have to pay the ferry operator anything to get from this side of eternity to the other.  In fact, like the residents of north central Arkansas, we don’t have to take the ferry; the bridge was built and paid for.  “But, when Christ came, he appeared as High Priest of that Better System which was established; and he entered through that nobler and more perfect ‘Tabernacle,’ not made by human hands–that is to say, not a part of this present creation. Nor was it with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, that he entered, once and for all, into the Sanctuary, and obtained our eternal deliverance.” (Hebrews 9:11, 12, TCNT.)

Many of you—and I know this was an issue in my own family—have been trying to get to where you want to go by paying something, whether money, time (think about all that “volunteer” work you’ve done to pad your resumé) or whatever.  But the most important destination can be had for free; the choice is yours.

If You’re Tired of Paying the Ferry, Click Here

Most of the material for this piece came from Witcher, T.R. (2016) “Arkansas’ R.M. Ruthven Bridge.”  Civil Engineering, July/August, 42-45.  The photos are mine.

Texas A&M Newman Association 1975-6

I’ve alluded to my years in the Catholic Students Association in pieces like this.  Now you can get a little more flavour of what that was like in the following video.

Thanks so much to Jeanne Geidel-Neal for the music for this video.

As noted elsewhere, the “straight outta Irondale” folks won’t like this, but that’s true of a great deal on this blog.

Sailing the Last Voyage with Newton and Pascal

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