Thursday, May 29, 2014


About the only American-made TV shows Nancy and I watch these days are the ones that aren’t dependent on good writing or compelling stories. Every once in a while we try to test the waters, but we’ve learned that the search for good, solid American made drama is like careening through a field full of Don Quixote’s windmills. As Newton Minnow put it over fifty years ago, television is “a vast wasteland.”

Thankfully, I’m not at the point of despair. The British have rescued me.

About four years ago, Nancy kept prodding me to watch a P.B.S. series called Lark Rise to Candleford. I resisted. I grew up immersed in muscular westerns like Shane and High Noon and it seemed to me that a British drama would move too slowly for me. But, once I started watching I was hooked. The episodes, based on Flora Thompson’s trilogy about life in two adjacent British villages during the Victorian/Edwardian eras, focused on human interaction, family, faith, and love. The dialogue was simple, yet also profound. There was no violence. The American obsession with sex was refreshingly absent.

It was the beginning of what has become a very satisfying journey. After the last episode of Lark Rise to Candleford aired a couple of years ago, I graduated to Downton Abbey. I was about to despair when Downton Abbey’s season ended. But, the British rescued me again; with a series titled Call the Midwife.

As it was with Lark Rise to Candleford, Call the Midwife has wrapped love, beauty, simplicity, grace, and the pains of everyday life¸ into exquisitely crafted packages that have not only engaged my mind, but also my gut.

The series is based on British author Jennifer Worth’s trilogy about her experiences during the 1950’s as a midwife at Nonnatus House, a convent/care center situated on London’s east end. The cast is ensemble, which means that the audience can focus on the story. While I’ve grown to admire each of the characters, my favorite has become Sister Monica Joan. She’s the oldest of the nuns at Nonnatus House. At times she’s scatter-brained, but there are times when she’s the focal point of wisdom for the midwives and her fellow nuns. She’s suffering from dementia, but somehow manages occasional bursts of creativity. One minute you’ll hear her muttering incoherently. Then, at the perfect moment, wisdom comes flowing out in torrents. In a recent episode, one of the midwives asks her if she took up the nun’s life because she loved the work. “Of course not,” she snapped.  “Can anyone love filth and squalor? Or lice and rats? Who can love aching weariness, and carry on working, in spite of it? One cannot love these things. One can only love God, and through His grace come to love His people.”  

Each episode revolves around the miracles of birth and the crises that often come with them. As with the cast, I’ve loved all the stories, but there’s one in particular that reached deeper into my gut than I thought was possible. It’s the story of an expectant mother and her fisherman husband. She’s already lost one child and the fear of losing another weighs on her like a funeral shroud. The child is born and all seems to be well. But the mother develops a postpartum psychosis, believing that the only way for her to protect the child is to commit suicide and take the child with her. After a harrowing rescue, the young mother is institutionalized. The doctors decide that the only cure for her is shock treatment. As the scene depicting the treatments began to unfold I wanted to turn away, but couldn’t. I began to sob uncontrollably, thinking about the ordeal my mother went through after my father died. The weight of being the sole care-giver for three children, compounded by the fact that she was barely literate, was too much for her. She had a complete nervous breakdown. For almost two years the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tinkered with her. The shock treatments took an enormous toll. On the day she was discharged from the hospital she weighed less than 80 pounds.

For the rest of her life, she fought with every ounce of strength she could muster to keep her family together

I’ve occasionally asked myself how or why my mother could endure such pain.

In the episode’s final moments the young mother is seen at home with her child and husband. The long road to reconciliation has begun. A voice-over concludes, “It’s love that gives us the strength to endure the pains that life often dishes out.”

Love truly is the only answer that makes sense.

Newton Minnow was right. When television is bad, it’s a vast wasteland. But, when it’s really good it gets into your gut and teaches you what it means to be fully human.

I’m grateful to the cast of Call the Midwife for that wonderful lesson.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


America has been a dispirited, angry nation for years now. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently put it this way – “We’re walking small. And that shift in our gait and our gumption has been palpable for many years, during an unusually sustained period of frustration that has the feel of something more than a temporary dive: a turned corner, the downward arc of a diminished enterprise.”

“The downward arc of diminished enterprise.” That’s an interesting way to put it. I think Bruni means we don’t do things very well anymore and I think he may be right. We seem to have an uncanny knack for botching executions, pothole repair, the rollout of the A.C.A website, national healthcare, and, here in Emporia, economic development and governance.

I spent part of this morning reading through a 2014 “Social Progress Index” developed by Michael Porter and Scott Stern. It was an ambitious undertaking. Most country to country comparisons I’ve seen have centered on G.D.P. When measured it that light, we’re doing alright. But Porter and Stern have gone well beyond economics as the sole means of measuring societal well-being. Their index measures “the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.” When seen in this light, a different picture of America emerges. We rank 16th, just a tick or two above Slovenia and Estonia on the scale.

Now I’d like to think that we Americans would be second to none in our ability to “create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.” After all, wasn’t our revolution all about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”

It was, of course, but we’ve run into a huge stumbling block. We’re at each other’s throats because almost any time one person’s rights are upheld, someone else feels left out or infringed upon. That, in turn, means that the lawyers get in high gear and the offenses work their way through the court system. The end result is some judicial pronouncement that upholds one point of view or outlaws another. The lawyers get richer. The judges get more powerful. The losers get angrier.

This palpable sort of anger was evident in the Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Susan Galloway et al case that was decided yesterday by the Supreme Court. In a five to four decision, the justices decided that the town fathers hadn’t violated the plaintiffs’ rights by having local ministers pray before their council meetings. One of the plaintiffs, Linda Stevens, an atheist, had argued that the utterance of a sectarian prayer made her feel like she would “stick out.” In other words, a prayer uttered made her feel uneasy. With the support of a skilled lawyer, she developed a case that made its way all the way to the Supreme Court. And, she nearly won.

Greece’s town fathers tried to compromise by inviting a Baha’i believer and a Wiccan priestess to pray before their meetings, but it wasn’t enough. Maybe three or four minutes of unbelieving silence might have satisfied her, but it was too late. As the National Review’s Kevin Williamson put it, “her response to what she perceived as a situation encouraging conformity through social pressure was to seek federal action mandating conformity at gunpoint.”

To me, Ms. Stevens’ remedy looks more like what my favorite poet calls “enforced insanity.”

I’m amazed. I wasn’t aware that I had a constitutional right to force my fellow citizens to cease from making me feel uneasy. If only I’d known.

There are a lot of public things I participate in that make me feel uneasy. I recite the pledge of allegiance, but I don’t like the idea of having to recite a loyalty oath when I feel I’ve done more than enough during my life to prove I’m a worthy citizen. I sing along as some local celebrity’s darling screeches his or her way through our national anthem at our sporting events. I sometimes find myself drifting away at our seasonal celebration when a highly educated minister drones on and on about “the Ground of all Being.” I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but I admit that I feel a bit uneasy when I see the American flag at the altars of our churches. I don’t mind rendering unto Caesar, but I believe that rendering has no place at the altar. I’m not fond of being around pompous politicians and freely admit that I often find myself fighting the gag reflex when I’m near them.

Up until now I’ve gone with society’s flow and it hasn’t done any violence to my belief system. But, I’m considering some next steps. I think I’ll make an appointment with Bob Symmonds, then we’ll let the briefs start flying.