Thursday, July 28, 2011


Just about every time I get caught up in the clutches of an expert, a scientist, an economist, or a politician I begin to wonder whether or not life has any meaning or purpose. You’d think it would be the other way around. After all, they’re the people whose resumes lionize them as deconstructers the mysteries and myths that have kept mankind in the dark for centuries. As Frederick Buechner once observed, they are the special ones among us who specialize in solving our problems for us. How have they done it? By eliminating “all the ancient myths and dreams and superstitions.” It’s a case of addition by subtraction. Take away the old wives’ tales and open up a spreadsheet and there you have it. Our problems are solved. All we need to do is put our lives in the hands of this modern age’s anointed ones.
Why is it, then, that I cling so stubbornly to the old ways of thinking? I doubt that my answer will satisfy many, but it’s the only answer that makes sense to me. Like Buechner, I’ve had a summons to a pilgrimage¸ where I sense “meanings no less overwhelming because they can only be hinted at in myth and ritual,” where I glimpse “a destination I can never fully know till I reach it.”
I like to think of myself as a reasonable man. I love the political process. I enjoy tweaking the noses of the high and mighty. Lord knows, they richly deserve what they get.  I know that two plus two equals four. I take medication to regulate my heartbeat and blood pressure, which means, I think, that I have some measure of trust in modern science. I have some grasp of great concepts like supply and demand. I think I’ve learned to demand less when everyone else is demanding more, knowing that getting into the rat race will cost me more in resources I don’t have in order to get what a lot of other people seem to think is absolutely necessary to maintain the good life. I’m learning to resist the temptation to convince myself I can’t live without the things they have or want. This all seems quite reasonable to me.
I got a call a couple of weeks ago from someone who was upset about something I’d written. I never did find out what he was upset about. Once I acknowledged that I was indeed Phil Dillon, he screamed, “You’re stoooooopid!” I couldn’t think of anything to say in response other than, “Thank you.” That seemed to make him angrier. He screamed even louder, “Did you hear me? I said you’re stoooooopid!” I thanked him again and he closed with a crescendo. “Go to hell, stoooooopid!” I was tempted to remind him of Forrest Gump’s insight that stupid is as stupid does, but I thought that might bring on a real fit of rage. I reminded him that, while he had established to his satisfaction that I was stupid, I didn’t think I was stupid enough to go where he wanted me to go.
My critic may be half right. There are times I feel as dumb as a stump. I knew just about everything when I was thirty. Now, I’m pushing seventy. I’ve learned more , but I know less than I did forty years ago. This is a big world and a very big universe. There’s a lot about life and existence that’s mysterious and I’m not smart enough to figure it all out. I’ll leave that to those who have a firmer grasp on all the facts.
Sometimes I’m tempted to defend myself. But, I usually come to my senses and realize any defense I mount wouldn’t be acceptable to my detractors. When the temptation does come I read the Book of Job. When his comforters were done with him he found himself confronted by the Almighty himself. The questions from on high came rat a tat, like the Anvil Chorus. “Can you loose the chords of Orion?” “Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?” “Do they report to you?” “Do you give the horse his strength?” “Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom?” After the last question came Job put his hand over his mouth and answered, “I spoke once, but I have no answer- twice and I will say no more.”  
Like Job, I’ve come to the place where I’ve learned, often through painful experience, there’s more to life than spreadsheets, political calculations, science or slickly marketed appeals to greed. If that marks me as a fool, there’s nothing I can do but embrace my foolishness. It’s better, I think, to be a fool at peace than to be a “wise” man caught up in a web of self-deceit.

Friday, July 15, 2011


I’m confused. I’ve been under the impression that things aren’t going well. But, after reading a recent story in the Gazette I’m wondering whether or not I’ve been in hibernation for the past three or four years. The source of my confusion?  The article’s title says it all – “Housing market is strong.” I guess that means all the foreclosures I’ve been reading about are either figments of my overactive imagination or dreams.
I haven’t been this confused in years. When I started my graduate work I landed a perfect student friendly job, working in a funeral home. There wasn’t much to it, or at least there shouldn’t have been. On my first night on the job the student I was replacing took me through the paces. It seemed quite unremarkable until he began showing me how to turn the lights out at the end of the business day. He led me down the main hallway. When we got to the first ante-room he told me to pay special attention. “At this point you depress the switch on this wall with your left hand while simultaneously wrapping your right hand around the opposite wall to hit the switch for the room on your right.” I made a mental note and we proceeded down the hall. As we did he explained that it was approximately 25 steps to   the next stop. When we stopped he also explained that we would need to reverse what we had done at our first stop. I asked him if I should be writing the instructions down. He ignored me, without even the hint of a smile, and we kept walking and depressing. “Left hand, right hand.… Twenty five steps...Right hand, left hand.” When the training exercise was complete I was utterly dazed. I became convinced I would never be able to turn the lights out and would probably be fired before I could ever learn how.

I think when it comes right down to it our leaders are every bit as confused as I am. Someone has turned off the lights they’re trying to turn them on again. Is it “Right hand, left hand?” Or is it “Left hand, right hand?” The truth is, no one seems to have the answer. The only thing they seem capable of doing is offering rosy scenarios, which is another way of saying, “I have no idea where the light switch is, so I’ll just keep whistling in the dark.”

I don’t think it would be fair to blame our local leaders for all the confusion. The snowball has rolled downhill and it looks like small towns like Emporia might be the final resting place for all the confusion.

Where, and when, did this all start? I dunno.’ I’m having a hard enough time figuring out where we are, let alone trying to get my arms around how this mess began.

I think I do know this. We’ve created a system that invites confusion and precipitates crises. I’m told we have a fractional reserve banking system. We’ve got folks who are responsible for maintaining our monetary base and we’ve got banks that can tap into reserves “created” and in turn lend the money stock out to lenders. Right now, for example, policy seems to dictate low interest rates, which the Federal Reserve has sprinkled their pixie dust on for some time now. That means that banks can go to the discount window and get money for next to nothing and lend it to consumers at a profit. The problem is, the public appetite for borrowed money has all but dried up. What, then, should the banks do with the money? The answer is simple and, I think, more than a bit suspicious. Our government is hungry for money to spend. So, banks, who have gotten the money at the discount window are lending some of it back to the government they got it from in the first place at about 3% interest. That doesn’t seem like much until you realize we’re talking about billions, maybe even trillions. That’s anything but chump change.

There seems to be a perverse kind of logic behind it. Government is creating a product, or the potential of a product. Then they basically give it away. The borrower then becomes the lender and sells the product back to the government for a profit. Such a deal! As Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits once said, “It’s money for nothin’ and your chicks for free.”

But, I remain confused. This looks a bit like money laundering to me. The loyal American in me is telling me that our leaders would never engage in such activity, but my suspicious nature is telling me that when times get tough the prevailing philosophy often becomes, “Any port in a storm.”