The Day Congress Applauded Hypocrisy

By Bob Litton

In my April 7 post about “Extremism”, I mentioned that the late U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican, was reportedly much saddened by the death of President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat.

Now, although I obtained a bachelor’s degree in history and earned my living during 20 years as a community journalist, I cannot claim to be an expert in history. I had witnessed Goldwater on TV wiping tears away from his eyes when he realized that the Republican Party had been embarrassed by President Richard Nixon during the Watergate drama; I accepted then that Goldwater indeed loved his country more than he loved his party, and I respected him for that quality. My research caused me to wonder if there were any interesting anecdotes about him and Kennedy working together. I did not discover any, but my research was admittedly quite cursory.

While engaged in that search, however, I found some remarkably telling and now timely paragraphs in Wikipedia’s article on Kennedy. I have included them below. Please note that I have deleted all the citation numbers; if you want to see supporting references, go to the Wikipedia article online:

Kennedy extended the first informal security guarantees to Israel in 1962 and, beginning in 1963, was the first US president to allow the sale to Israel of advanced US weaponry (the MIM-23 Hawk), as well as to provide diplomatic support for Israeli policies which were opposed by Arab neighbours; such as its water project on the Jordan River.

As result of this newly created security alliance, Kennedy also encountered tensions with the Israeli government regarding the production of nuclear materials in Dimona, which he believed could instigate a nuclear arms-race in the Middle East. After the existence of a nuclear plant was initially denied by the Israeli government, David Ben-Gurion stated in a speech to the Israeli Knesset on December 21, 1960, that the purpose of the nuclear plant at Beersheba was for “research in problems of arid zones and desert flora and fauna”.  When Ben-Gurion met with Kennedy in New York, he claimed that Dimona was being developed to provide nuclear power for desalinization and other peaceful purposes “for the time being”.

When Kennedy wrote that he was skeptical, and stated in a May 1963 letter to Ben-Gurion that American support to Israel could be in jeopardy if reliable information on the Israeli nuclear program was not forthcoming, Ben-Gurion repeated previous reassurances that Dimona was being developed for peaceful purposes. The Israeli government resisted American pressure to open its nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. In 1962, the US and Israeli governments had agreed to an annual inspection regime. A science attaché at the embassy in Tel Aviv concluded that parts of the Dimona facility had been shut down temporarily to mislead American scientists when they visited.

According to Seymour Hersh, the Israelis set up false control rooms to show the Americans. Israeli lobbyist Abe Feinberg stated, “It was part of my job to tip them off that Kennedy was insisting on [an inspection].”  Hersh contends the inspections were conducted in such a way that it “guaranteed that the whole procedure would be little more than a whitewash, as the president and his senior advisors had to understand: the American inspection team would have to schedule its visits well in advance, and with the full acquiescence of Israel.” Marc Trachtenberg argued: “Although well aware of what the Israelis were doing, Kennedy chose to take this as satisfactory evidence of Israeli compliance with America’s non-proliferation policy.” The American who led the inspection team stated that the essential goal of the inspections was to find “ways to not reach the point of taking action against Israel’s nuclear weapons program.”

Rodger Davies, the director of the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern Affairs, concluded in March 1965 that Israel was developing nuclear weapons. He reported that Israel’s target date for achieving nuclear capability was 1968–69. On May 1, 1968, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach told President Johnson that Dimona was producing enough plutonium to produce two bombs a year. The State Department argued that if Israel wanted arms, it should accept international supervision of its nuclear program. Dimona was never placed under IAEA safeguards. Attempts to write Israeli adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) into contracts for the supply of U.S. weapons continued throughout 1968.

Now, what did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warn a joint session of the U.S. Congress last March 3? Read the pertinent paragraphs here:

Now, I know this is not gonna come a shock — as a shock to any of you, but Iran not only defies inspectors, it also plays a pretty good game of hide-and-cheat with them.
The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, said again yesterday that Iran still refuses to come clean about its military nuclear program. Iran was also caught — caught twice, not once, twice — operating secret nuclear facilities in Natanz and Qom, facilities that inspectors didn’t even know existed.
Right now, Iran could be hiding nuclear facilities that we don’t know about, the U.S. and Israel. As the former head of inspections for the IAEA said in 2013, he said, “If there’s no undeclared installation today in Iran, it will be the first time in 20 years that it doesn’t have one.” Iran has proven time and again that it cannot be trusted. And that’s why the first major concession is a source of great concern. It leaves Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and relies on inspectors to prevent a breakout. That concession creates a real danger that Iran could get to the bomb by violating the deal.

Born in 1949, Benjamin Netanyahu was in his early teens when Israel developed its nuclear arsenal; therefore, a wildly imaginative bit of leeway might be granted him as being “ignorant” of those events. Also, I do not wish to paint all Israel with a broad brush dipped in Netanyahu. Moreover, I have read of many Israeli youths who, viewing their own country as aggressive occupiers of Palestinian territory, have refused to serve in the military forces; and Israeli law allows them to do so. I applaud them.

I want to mention one other sorry episode in our partnership with Israel: the June 8, 1967, attack by Israeli Mirage jets and torpedo boats on the USS Liberty, an intelligence-gathering ship in international waters off the coast of Israel and Egypt. Thirty-four U.S. servicemen were killed and 171 wounded that day. Wikipedia has published online a lengthy but prodigiously well-organized and fascinating article about the incident.

There was much controversy concerning the event in the months immediately following, and it is still ongoing today. The story is too involved for me to include here, so I suggest that you go to Wikipedia’s account, which I consider remarkably balanced; hardly anyone other than the men on the ship come out of it unstained by ignorance, guile, and/or cowardice; it is a story full of elements fit for a Tom Clancy novel.

Although I cannot provide you with much more information, I will summarize the basic issue here: The Israeli military claimed that they could not see any flag on the ship and concluded that it was an Egyptian war vessel, so they strafed and torpedoed it until ordered to stop; the ship’s crew members claimed that their flag was easily visible on that clear day. Here is part of the story:

During the Six-Day War between Israel and several Arab nations, the United States of America maintained a neutral country status. Several days before the war began, the USS Liberty was ordered to proceed to the eastern Mediterranean area to perform a signals intelligence collection mission in international waters near the north coast of Sinai, Egypt. After the war erupted, due to concerns about her safety as she approached her patrol area, several messages were sent to Liberty to increase her allowable closest point of approach (CPA) to Egypt’s and Israel’s coasts from 12.5 and 6.5 nmi (14.4 and 7.5 mi; 23.2 and 12.0 km), respectively, to 20 and 15 nmi (23 and 17 mi; 37 and 28 km), and then later to 100 nmi (120 mi; 190 km) for both countries. Unfortunately, due to ineffective message handling and routing, the CPA change messages were not received until after the attack.

According to Israeli sources, at the start of the war on 5 June, General Yitzhak Rabin (then IDF Chief of Staff)  informed Commander Ernest Carl Castle, the American Naval Attaché in Tel Aviv, that Israel would defend its coast with every means at its disposal, including sinking unidentified ships. Also, he asked the U.S. to keep its ships away from Israel’s shore or at least inform Israel of their exact position.

American sources said that no inquiry about ships in the area was made until after the Liberty attack ended. In a message sent from U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk to U.S. Ambassador Walworth Barbour, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Rusk asked for “urgent confirmation” of Israel’s statement. Barbour responded: “No request for info on U.S. ships operating off Sinai was made until after Liberty incident.” Further, Barbour stated: “Had Israelis made such an inquiry it would have been forwarded immediately to the chief of naval operations and other high naval commands and repeated to dept [Department of State].”

Israel eventually accepted blame for the attack but has continued to explain it as an accidental misidentification. Israel also paid millions in reparations.

Secretary of State Rusk, however, was not buying into the “accident” excuse; he wrote:

I was never satisfied with the Israeli explanation. Their sustained attack to disable and sink Liberty precluded an assault by accident or some trigger-happy local commander. Through diplomatic channels we refused to accept their explanations. I didn’t believe them then, and I don’t believe them to this day. The attack was outrageous.

President Lyndon Johnson, though, bought the Israeli version. God, but I hate to relay this paragraph because, being mostly a Democrat, it puts President Johnson in an even dimmer light than he already exists in history books and the public memory, but here is what one author wrote about Johnson’s attitude at the time:

George Lenczowski notes: “It was significant that, in contrast to his secretary of state, President Johnson fully accepted the Israeli version of the tragic incident.” He notes that Johnson himself only included one small paragraph about the Liberty in his autobiography in which he accepted the Israeli explanation of “error”, but also minimized the whole affair and distorted the actual number of dead and wounded, by lowering them from 34 to 10 and 171 to 100, respectively. Lenczowski further states: “It seems Johnson was more interested in avoiding a possible confrontation with the Soviet Union…than in restraining Israel.”

I apologize for all the lengthy quotes. My primary intent in presenting all this to you was to show you that no Israeli—Netanyahu above all—has the moral authority to accuse another nation of subterfuge and deceit.




A Musical Dialogue

By Bob Litton and J.L.V.

Dear readers,

I have a real change of format to present to you today—a unique one as far as this blog is concerned: it is a dialogue between two men who have never met and never had a verbal conversation. Oh, what wonders the Internet has wrought!!!

But first, as usual, a little backstory.

Every other Friday morning, my artist friend Chris comes over to my apartment for a couple of hours of coffee and wide-ranging conversation. Our usual topics are my writing and Chris’ art (primarily comics), but we also wander on to literature, music, TV shows, Chris’ home improvement projects, and a sprinkling of politics.

In mid-March, Chris and I had an intriguing discussion of various questions involving classical music. Neither of us really felt confident to answer my questions. However, Chris suggested we ask his uncle in Louisiana, a professor emeritus of music whose own specialty is the bassoon. That afternoon, I emailed to my friend a list of the questions I had raised, and Chris forwarded them to his uncle J.L.V.

The professor did not respond until April 6 for reasons he supplies in the first of his half of this dialogue.

I was so pleased by J.L.V.’s informative and even, in some places, amusing comments that I asked Chris to request from his uncle permission for me to use them in a blog post, which J.L.V graciously granted.

Below is the result.


First, my email to Chris:

Hi again, Chris —

Here are the issues/questions regarding music we discussed this morning:

(1)   Why is it that violins—particularly scratchy violin solos—dominate music performances?  What makes a scratchy violin sound appealing to some people? A mass of violins working as “backup” I can appreciate, but hardly any solo or duet of violins is tolerable anymore. Tchaikovsky’s violin pieces are particularly grating.

(2)   Why are the majority of classical works—e.g., Beethoven symphonies—heavy-sounding? Is loudness a true value? Or is it just to make sure the percussion section has something to contribute? Or are the composers naturally as angry as Beethoven is always depicted in busts and drawings?

(3)   The oboe (or English horn) in the second movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez performs some of the loveliest phrases of that adagio. The whole concerto is a masterpiece, though, and I do not wish to imply differently by emphasizing the oboe. My question is, is that an oboe there or an English horn? I haven’t been able to distinguish much from the pictures I found in a Google search. All I can tell is that one is slightly larger than the other and produces a sound one octave lower(?).

(4)   The Russian composers are my favorites, especially Rachmaninoff. (I even like some of Tchaikovsky’s works: parts of his Swan Lake ballet are enjoyable.) I read that Rachmaninoff had an alcoholic, wastrel father who left the home after losing five estates to gambling and profligacy, thereby cheering up everybody. Was Rachmaninoff angry at his father his whole life, and did he express that anger in his music? His compositions are incredibly dynamic, but I can’t discern whether that energy is due to anger or to a hyper libido. Much passion there!!! Or was Rachmaninoff perhaps simply composing difficult, fast and loud works to show off his superior pianist’s skill?

* * * * * *

Well, Chris, I hope your uncle doesn’t find these questions too sophomoric to bother with.



Now, the professor’s response:

Hi Bob,

I got a response from my uncle!
Hi, Chris
Sorry I have taken so long to answer this. I could pretend that I have been too busy, but the fact is, I didn’t know what to say, and I still don’t. I will try to make some comments, however.
1. On scratchy violins: In the movie “The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr.T” , the evil piano teacher has imprisoned all the orchestra musicians with their “scratchy violins, screechy piccolos, nauseating trumpets”. Violins have been the primary instruments in the orchestra ever since Lully, the court musician for Louis XIV, organized the first professional orchestra: “The Twenty-Four Violins of the King”.
Like most orchestral instruments, violins are capable of many different sounds, and some of them are accented at the beginning of the tone. (scratchy). Pipe organs often have some ranks of pipes voiced with a short huff or pop, called chiff, at the beginning of the tone. I think most people like most of the sounds violins make (even the scratchy ones).
2. Is loudness a true value? I think historically it has been. Instrumental music in the renaissance was played on fairly soft instruments: lutes, viols, recorders, etc. Even the “loud instruments” – shawms and sackbutts – were not as loud as modern trombones etc. The violin dominated 18th century music because it was louder than the viols: Dryden’s “Ode on St Cecelia’s Day” has the line “sharp violins proclaim their jealous pangs and indignation”, and symphony orchestras were exciting because they were the loudest thing around. In the 19th century, the military band (think Sousa) became very popular, in part because its massed brasses and woodwinds were louder than the orchestra’s violins. Now, of course we have rock bands with their amplified guitars and drum sets. Percussion instruments in the orchestra were generally limited to kettledrums until the 19th century.
3. I am not familiar with Rodrigo’s Concierto, but regarding the oboe and English horn, the oboe is just under two feet long and has a small, flared bell at the lower end. The English horn is closer to three feet long and has a bulb-shaped lower end. It also has a short pipe at the top which holds the reed at a small angle, so it is not blown straight into. It sounds a fifth (half an octave) lower than the oboe.
4. Regarding the anger of composers, I don’t think they are so much angry as striving for excitement. They write music which is loud, fast, and intricate in order to convey excitement and “Wow” their audiences, as entertainers have strived to do for millennia. They use whatever tools are at their disposal, whether it be a violin, grand piano, or electric guitar. We now have tools which can play music so fast and intricately that it is indecipherable, and loud enough to deafen us. For many years I taught a music course in which I required my students to attend concerts, most of which were of classical music, and to write reports on them. These non-music majors were so steeped in the popular genres (rock, etc.) that they thought ALL classical music was “soothing”, even the “Dies Irae” from the Verdi Requiem!
I don’t think I answered your questions, but I hope my answers are interesting and/or useful.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

 In my email requesting permission to use J.L.V.’s comments I had included the YouTube URL to guitarist John Williams and the BBC Orchestra’s performance of Concierto de Aranjues. I also specified which musician was playing, in the second movement, the instrument I was curious about. And in J.L.V.’s permission email he said it is the English horn.




© 2015 By Bob Litton

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice….Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
— Barry Morris Goldwater (1909-1998), U.S. Senator from Arizona (1953-65, 1969-87).

The remark above was part of a speech Barry Goldwater made during the 1964 Republican convention, when he was nominated the GOP’s candidate for President of the United States. It was one of several of his comments which caused his landslide defeat as well as the clearing-out of many Republican members of Congress. Other, similar comments included “sometimes I think this country would be better off if we just cut off the Eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea” and, speaking of tactical nuclear weapons (which he referred to as “small conventional nuclear weapons”), “Let’s lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin.”

Goldwater became known as “Mr. Conservative” during the 1960s; and he was in fact very conservative for his day, vilified by the Democrats and not a few Republicans as a “reactionary…out of touch with his country”. Yet he was reportedly much saddened by John Kennedy’s death and he ushered Richard Nixon out of the White House, later describing Nixon as “the most dishonest individual I ever met in my life”. He was vehemently opposed to the New Deal and labor unions and he was virulently anti-communist, yet he opposed the rising religious right and their views on abortion and homosexuals. In his last years in the Senate he was respected by Democrats and Republicans alike, being viewed as a “stabilizing force”.

I believe the Republican Party could use more representatives of Goldwater’s sort. I doubt that I would vote for him unless the Democrats could not come up with a better choice. I view his naivety as comical now: his attacks on labor and the United Nations and his notion that tactical nuclear weapons are just very big grenades that field commanders should be able to employ without presidential approval. (The fellow seemed to be abysmally ignorant of the huge and long-lasting effects of nuclear weapons.) On the other hand, he took what nowadays would be termed liberal stances on some legislation. He was not as extreme as he advertised himself to be. Yeah, we need more Barry’s.

It is true, I believe, that many, if not most, of us would like to hold standfast to our principles, assuming we have any. As long as we choose to live in a society where everybody wants to tolerate each other, even like each other, we will continually find it necessary to compromise. Sometimes our side will win; sometimes we will lose. Principle is a very vulnerable ideal.

As for extremism in the present, I am really spooked by what I see in Sen. Ted Cruz. In contrast to Barry Goldwater, who was a strong believer in the separation of church and state, smarmy Cruz does not hesitate to sidle up to the religious right: he announced his presidential candidacy on the campus of Liberty University—the school which far right preacher Jerry Falwell founded.

On secular issues, Cruz came close to single-handedly shutting down the national government through his filibuster in the Senate over the Affordable Care Act. He and his fellow right-wing extremists appear willing to destroy the country in order to impose their reactionary agenda—which actually amounts to the same thing: eliminate every national department and agency except the military and possibly the post office. Even the roads and bridges are less important to them than their wars and church services.

These people—and to a lesser extent, I believe, Barry Goldwater—disavow “moderation” or “compromise”. They hold up the Constitution as a sort of modern Bible, the words of which are eternally true as they were written. They are textualists, unwilling to reflect on the fact that the Constitution was not considered totally adequate even by those who argued all of one summer before finally signing it…as a product of compromise. They view it as a piece of stone on which the new commandments have been inscribed rather than as a living document. They fail to recall that many if not all amendments to the Constitution came about only after marches and riots as well as much civil disobedience had ignited the public conscience. They cannot accept the facts of changing times.


Addendum to “My Spiritual Journey”

By Bob Litton

In a certain way, you might view this essay as an extension of my previous blog post, “My Spiritual Journey (to date)”, and in another way you can see it as a small handbook to that post.

Firstly, I need to clarify my religion. I really do not have any in the sense of absolute belief in a dogma associated with a recognized religious organization; that should have been evident in my “testimony”, to alert and sensitive readers. However, the matter is complicated by my heritage, culture and past experience. I was born, raised and still live in a country which from its beginning has been predominately Christian. For many years I attended Methodist Church services. I have read the Bible in its entirety, much of it several times. Yet, I do not accept the Apostles’ Creed, I do not take the Communion “wine” (in the Methodist church, a jigger of grape juice) and wafer, I do not  believe in immaculate conceptions or the incarnation, I do not approve of every word Jesus reportedly said or of everything he did, e.g., condemning a tree because it had no fruit. I do like some of the things Jesus said, e.g., “no prophet is without honor except in his hometown” and “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  I also like some of the sayings of Paul which are frequently quoted, e.g. Philippians 4:8, where he wrote:  “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything is worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” (I had that saying printed, as my motto, on the back of my calling card.)

Like a growing number of people in America, I am largely disaffected with “organized religion”, yet I still am a “spiritual seeker”. I have not delved much into other religions’ texts. I tried reading the Koran many years ago, but it quickly bored me. I have read the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu’s book several times; I like them, but they calm one’s spirit more than arouse it; they are mystically cosmological rather than spiritual. I have not ventured into much Hinduism or Buddhism material, only a few pages in an anthology of religious texts I recently bought; and they did not touch my soul. No, I am a child of the Western world and feel comfortable enough with Christian literature; even if much of it is mythical, it is great literature and there is much wisdom in it, especially in the Book of Jonah. The point about other religions I wanted to emphasize was that they have their mystics, too, and that, if anything is valid in one religion’s mystical writings, a similar concept will very likely be found in the sayings of mystics who adhered to some other religion’s theology.

Many mystics were unconventional, some to the extent of being chastised by their religious leaders (St. Teresa of Avila, Jan of Ruysbroeck), some even imprisoned (St. John of the Cross), because of their individualistic natures. Their explorations into personal soul-development (considered by some to be Quietism), retreat from the world, and emphasis on Nature as one of the mirrors of God (judged to be Pantheism) aroused suspicion among dogmatic authorities.

I have indicated before in this blog that I do not know whether there is a “god” or not in the conventional sense. Even though I have accepted Christian language, imagery and concepts as a framework when writing my spiritual essays, and even though I am certain there is a spiritual realm out there with a specific Being who has “attended to” me, I do not know that my experiences involve the Being other people mean by their word “God” (with a capital “G”). And I acidulously try to avoid using that word in any absolute sense. Some of my experiences have been bizarre and some funny; I find it hard to attach the terms “bizarre” and “funny” to the doings of  the Holy Spirit. Also, my spiritual Being appears to have extraordinary powers, examples of which should have been apparent to the readers of my “testimony”. However, I cannot extrapolate from my personal experiences a correlation between them and the creation of the universe; nor dare I claim that they warrant a belief in eternal life (which I do not want anyway).

As for the extension I mentioned above, I gladly claim to have reached the goal of my spiritual quest: a primary source and authentication of the initial term that pushed me into the quest: yearning. Of course, there were other significant terms along the way: “lures”, “fragrance”, “spiritual gifts/talents”, “spiritual consolations/graces”, and “Dark Night of the Soul”. I believe I covered all of those and their sources (Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross) well enough in my “testimony”. The word “yearning” and its synonym, “longing”, were also used by several writers, going all the way back to Jeremiah and Paul.

But the source I came upon that “put the icing on the cake” was Jan of Ruysbroeck (1293 – 1381), a Dutch mystic and monastic. Of his several treatises, the best-known is The Spiritual Espousals. It is divided into three books, treating respectively of the Active Life, the Yearning Life, and the Contemplative Life. In the second book, Ruysbroeck uses the term “yearning” alternatively with, but before, “interior” so much that at least one translator (Eric Colledge) used “Yearning Life” as the chapter title in that book. (Other translators/commentators of Ruysbroeck’s treatises, e.g., Evelyn Underhill in her translation of Adornment of Spiritual Marriage, have preferred to emphasize the term “Interior” instead of “Yearning”; but “Interior” seems to me weak, lacking in the emotional impact Ruysbroeck wanted to convey. And, of course, I have a proprietary interest in “yearning”, since it first lured me into my study of mysticism; what I had initially perceived as a symptom of my spiritual awakening, Ruysbroeck had transformed into a stage in its development!

I gave up my expectation of “graces” or “consolations” long ago because, firstly, I had thought my initiation into the spiritual life had concluded and that the Holy Spirit (the only Person of the Trinity I can relate to) had withdrawn. Moreover, I had learned and accepted their purpose: to awaken me to the reality of the spiritual world and my belonging in the Holy Spirit’s presence; they should no longer be necessary. Also, I had begun to perceive inconsequential “spiritual messages” everywhere, even in the comics pages, and I wanted to dismiss those just as Martin Luther reportedly had, because they might just as easily have been sent by some teasing gremlin as by the Holy Spirit.


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Thank you for reading.

My Spiritual Journey (to date)



By Bob Litton (except for credited quotations)

NOTE TO READERS: I want to alert you to the fact that the preface in this post is 645 words long, and the post’s body itself contains 4,675 words. With that warning before you, you can better decide whether you want to read it all. I hope you do, and I hope that you benefit from that reading. I guarantee you that it is not an April Fool’s Day joke. Enjoy!!!


Next Sunday is Easter Sunday. I had not paid any attention to that fact of life until today (March 30), when the notion popped into my head to publish a testimony I had delivered on Pentecost Sunday in 1997.

But first I believe it would be fitting to preface the testimony with a brief backstory. At the time of this event, I was much involved in the local United Methodist Church; I was even helping the pastor teach a 34-week Bible study course called Disciple. I discovered then that I was a pretty good teacher; so did the pastor and some of the eleven other class members. (Classes were limited to twelve members to mirror the number of the original disciples.) I think that realization was probably the seed for the “event”.

One day, the pastor asked me if I could substitute for him in the following Sunday’s service; he explained that he needed to be in El Paso (237 miles west) that weekend for his son’s graduation from the university. Then, on Friday, while I was describing my sermon topic to a Dallas friend, she exclaimed, “Why, that’s Pentecost Sunday!” I had not even been aware of that fact, for the liturgical aspects of religion hardly mattered to me. However, this time, my friend’s information struck me “between the eyes”, for Pentecost was the day the Holy Spirit was introduced to the disciples; and the principle topic of my “testimony” was my first conscious contact with what Christians call that mystical being. Other faiths have different titles and descriptions of the same “person”, but their own experiences have been and are largely consonant with those of the historical Christian mystics. That is why, I believe, most mystics have not been much accepted, during their lives, by their religious leaders.

When Sunday came I was surprised to see the pastor in the sanctuary; I have forgotten (if in fact he ever explained) why he was not in El Paso. However, I have since suspected I had been the victim of a ruse; the pastor and one of the Disciple class members had pushed me (metaphorically speaking) into the pulpit. But then, the pastor, having noticed I had some sheets of paper in my hand, introduced me by disparaging the reading of sermons. The problem with his criticism—although I agree unread sermons are generally more effective than read ones—is that I am really weak at thinking and speaking “on my feet”; also, my talk contained several quotations which I needed to read to the congregation.

Before the service started, the pastor stuck a small microphone on my shirt. After I began the testimony—which I prefer to call it because I did not feel qualified or authorized to tell people how to live through a sermon—the microphone malfunctioned, now working fine, now not working. I faced a dilemma: whether to remove the microphone or persevere regardless of what it did. Did the Holy Spirit not want me to read the testimony? Or did the Holy Spirit not want me to share with others our relationship? I persevered to the end, willing to accept any retribution the Holy Spirit deemed satisfactory.

A few months later, after I had returned to Dallas, I gave a copy of the testimony to Bob Cooper, former associate chaplain at Southern Methodist University and an old friend of mine. Soon thereafter Bob Cooper met with me in a coffee shop and critiqued it. He said it contained much interesting and worthwhile content. However, he remarked, “It is too long and has too many long quotations in it.”

“But,” I responded, “I timed myself the day before, and it took only twenty minutes.”

“Then you read too fast.”

Dear readers, see how fast you can read my testimony on the Holy Spirit.

Testimony of a Spiritual Journey

(A sermon delivered at the First United Methodist Church of Alpine, Texas, on Pentecost Sunday, May 18, 1997)

Text: Romans 8:18-27      

I consider that the sufferings of this present generation are not worth comparing with the glory that is revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.  Now, hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Good morning! My name is Bob. I am a sinner. Do you wonder why I introduce myself in that way?  I hope so, because I intend to tell you. There are three reasons.

The first has to do with my credentials for speaking here today. I know you are sinners. I want to make you feel comfortable by admitting I am a sinner also. We have at least that much in common right from the start.

Secondly, I need to remind myself that I am a sinner. I think you should remind yourselves of that, too. When we attend church every Sunday, contribute to our community through various volunteer programs, and try to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, it is easy for our sense of sin to get crusty—to glaze over—so that we cannot see it without extra effort.

But we are in the world, and—no matter how generally holy we become—we can’t help but slip once in a while. Think of the world as a huge fallow field with all sorts of weeds as well as beneficial grasses in it. You can’t walk through that field without a few grass burrs clinging to your pants legs.

The third reason I announce my sinfulness is that sin, in general, is about as close as “normal people” can get to the gift shared by alcoholics—their disease. That’s right. I said the alcoholics’ problem is a GIFT—or it can be if he or she ever rises above the denial stage.

You see, when an alcoholic realizes his true condition, especially if he’s a hard case who has already lost his family, his job, and maybe even killed someone in an auto accident he gets scared. If he still has a modicum of his wits about him, he searches for help. HIS VERY LIFE IS AT STAKE.

Thus, people in a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, for the most part take their program very seriously. Before each one in a group speaks he introduces himself in this manner: “Hi!  My name is John (never a last name); I’m an alcoholic.” They turn to God—even to a God they may not really believe in—as well as to other alcoholics for help. They pray; they diligently work the twelve steps; they make themselves available to other alcoholics going through a crisis at any time of the day or night; they facilitate 12-step meetings in jails and wherever else they might be needed.

I was in AA for two years. It was one of the best, the most growth-filled, experiences of my life. I was an agnostic when I went in—in rebellion against the God of my youth. A year into the program, I was probably the most spiritually-minded person in that group.

However, while spirituality is the foundation upon which a 12-step program such as AA stands, it is not the primary purpose of the program. No, the primary purpose is to stay sober or to give up gluttony or to forgo promiscuous sex or whatever the addiction is. So, the thing to do is to talk about your addiction, not about God—at least not solely about God. (The first three steps are called the God steps.)

After a few months into the program, the spiritual atmosphere of that group began to affect me.  I had never really given up my search for God—God as a tangible experience, as something more than a concept in a book written thousands of years ago. I began to have spiritual experiences, charismatic experiences. Some of them were weird. I began to read the classic spiritual writers—St. Augustine, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Jacob Boehme, William Law. I saw that others long before me had experienced the same sort of spiritual gifts I was experiencing. I wanted to talk about these experiences. But AA no longer seemed the appropriate place to discuss spirituality per se.

I returned to the church of my youth—the Methodist Church, or, as it was now called, the UNITED Methodist Church. I hadn’t been inside a church (except for weddings) in 40 years. And I was shocked. There weren’t many people there, and the few who were didn’t seem interested in spirituality as I understood spirituality—at all. As one woman put it, “Half of us come here out of habit, and half to get some social life.”

I began to ponder why. AA was spiritual and the people in the church were for the most part not spiritual. Several possible reasons came to mind, but the one most pertinent to today’s message was that THE CHURCH PEOPLE DIDN’T FEEL ANY THREAT TO THEIR LIVES. The alcoholics had their disease to scare them and to unify them in their search for God. The church people had nothing except possibly a nebulous sense of sin—a sense too vague, honestly, to scare them and only barely strong enough to unite them, after a fashion.

What was I looking for? I was looking for God. During my sojourn in AA—what I call “my term among the Essenes”—God had set some lures, however slight, to attract me to him.

One day, for instance, while on coffee break at an insurance company, I was reading a book about poetry. The author provided by way of example of simile a fragment of verse which read:

……………………….. And music,

Yearning like a god in pain.

I thought I recognized the scrap of verse, but the author didn’t cite the poet. “That looks like something Shelley might have written!” I said to myself. I went home and skimmed an anthology of British poetry. I couldn’t find the line in any of Shelley’s poems. Then I tried Keats. And there was the line in Keats’  “Eve of St. Agnes”.

Then, one day not long afterwards, for some forgotten reason I was reading Jeremiah. In his 31st chapter, verses 18 through 20, I read this poignant dialogue between God and Ephraim. Since this is a dialogue and I don’t want to disturb the poetry by specifying who is speaking when, please take the Revised Standard Version Bible from the rack in front of you and turn to Jeremiah 31:18 and follow along as I read aloud.

I have heard Ephraim bemoaning:

“Thou hast chastened me, and I was


like an untrained calf;

bring me back that I may be restored,

for thou art the Lord my God.

For after I turned away I repented;

and after I was instructed I smote upon my thigh;

I was ashamed, and I was confounded,

because I bore the disgrace of my youth.”

                     Is Ephraim my dear son?

                     Is he my darling child?

           For as often as I speak against him,

                    I do remember him still.

          Therefore my heart yearns for him;

I will surely have mercy on him,” says the Lord.

There was that word again—YEARN—that had such a strange hold on me. Why did it attract me so?

On another day soon afterwards I was reading Gilbert Murray’s book on the Greek dramatist Euripides, and I came upon this paragraph where he describes the religious origin of Greek drama, particularly of the chorus:

The word ‘chorus’ means ‘dance’ or ‘dancing ground’. There were such dancing floors on Greek soil before ever the Greeks came there. They have been found in prehistoric Crete and in the islands. We hear in Homer of the ‘houses and dancing grounds’ of the Morning Star. The dance was as old as mankind; only it was a kind of dance that we have forgotten. The ancient dance was not, like our ballets, rooted in sexual emotion. It was religious: It was a form of prayer. It consisted in the use of the whole body, every limb and every muscle, to express somehow that overflow of emotion for which a man has no words. And primitive man had less command of words than we have. When the men were away on the warpath, the women prayed for them with all their bodies. They danced for the men’s safe return. When the tribe’s land was parching for lack of rain the tribesmen danced for the rain to come. The dance did not necessarily imply movement. It might consist in simply maintaining the same rigid attitude, as when Moses held out his arms during the battle with the Amelekites.The dramatist may make his characters express all that they can properly feel; he may put into articulate dialogue all that it will be. But there still remains some residue which no one on the stage can personally feel and which can only express itself as music or YEARNING of the body. This residue finds its instrument in the chorus.

And I read in the writings of the Quaker William Law, an early mentor of John Wesley, the following:

Every man that has any feeling of the weight of his sin, or any true desire to be delivered from it by Christ, has learning and capacity enough to make his own prayer. For prayer is not speaking forth eloquently, but simply, the true desire of the heart….

It is not silence, or a simple petition, or a great variety of outward expressions that alters the nature of prayer, or makes it good or better, but only and solely the reality, steadiness and continuity of the desire; and therefore, whether a man offers this desire to God in the silent LONGING of the heart, or in simple short petitions, or in a great variety of words is of no consequence. But if you would know what I would call a true and great gift of prayer, and what I most of all wish for myself, it is A GOOD HEART THAT STANDS CONTINUALLY INCLINED TOWARDS GOD.

And in St. John of the Cross’s classic work Dark Night of the Soul I read:

…there soon begins to make itself felt a certain YEARNING toward God; and the more this increases, the more is the soul affectioned and enkindled in love toward God, without knowing, or understanding how and whence this love and affection come to it, but from time to time seeing this flame and this enkindling, grow so greatly within it that it desires God with a YEARNING of love……

Finally, as we heard today in the scripture reading from the 8th chapter of Romans, St. Paul said:

The creation waits with eager LONGING for the Revealing of the sons of God…. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies…. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

That “longing” and that “groaning,” (as Paul calls it) is the same as the “yearning” described in the previous passages I read to you, and what I very often feel. That is the Holy Spirit helping us in our wordless, constant prayer.

To try and further convince you that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and working in our lives right now, I will testify to some other aspects of his showing to me. I must first emphasize that these revelations or graces or consolations were not granted me because I deserved them. If I had deserved them they would not have been graces, but rewards. Like Paul, I had rebelled against God until He said, “Enough of this!  You’re getting old, Bob, and I have work for you to do.  Stop behaving like an untrained calf!”

On at least two occasions I have smelled the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. I did not know what it was when I smelled it. On both occasions I was in parking lots, one near the AA group’s meeting place and the other at my apartment complex. On both occasions I looked about me to discover where the sweet aroma was coming from. There were no flowering plants, no perfumed women in the vicinity, only oak and pecan trees and a whole bunch of concrete. I wondered what could have caused the briefly lingering fragrance, but I didn’t at the time attribute any supernatural cause to it.

In St. John of the Cross I read that such a fragrance is one of the consolations God grants new converts, to further lure them to seek him, a sweet milk of spiritual favor granted before he withdraws it, weaning the convert, much as a mother (in those days) spread bitter aloes over her breast to wean her child and lead him toward a more solid diet.

And in Father John Arintero’s The Mystical Evolution I read:

Now Jesus Christ, in everything that he touched during his mortal life—as poverty, abjection, the cross—left a sweet odour, a delicious savour, but few souls have their senses sufficiently purified to perceive this odour and to taste this savour, which are altogether supernatural. The saints have “run to the odour of these ointments”.

And the Holy Spirit has entered my heart or mind—I know not which, if there is indeed any difference.  In most cases these silent communications appeared at first to be simply my own thoughts, yet thoughts I was compelled to utter aloud, even though no one was around to hear me. What I am saying, is that I have prophesied. Curiously, however, in many instances these “prophecies” were what I would consider inconsequential. I will relate here two of the more significant episodes, one from the first of my spiritual journey and the other from near the end of the consolations period.

The first is from my journal entry dated October 5, 1990.

Leaving my apartment on this clear, cool, clean day, I heard a mockingbird singing in the small oak tree that shades my pickup from the morning sun.  At least I believe it was a mockingbird, for I could not see it; it apparently was perched on the other side of the green-leafed branches.  Remembering my resolution to try and hear God’s voice through other beings besides humans, I paused by my truck’s door, my hand resting on the door handle. The bird had an impressively inclusive repertory, by which evidence I concluded it was a mockingbird. Yet, willing as I was and trying as I might, I could not distinguish any message for me from God—or even from the bird qua bird. Finally, I smiled, shook my head, and said, “Sorry, God.  I guess I’m just not there yet.” I got into my truck and drove away.

Two mornings later, on October 7, before rising from bed, I reached over to pick up a New Yorker magazine I had bought the night before.  After scanning the cartoons (always a first priority when it involves the New Yorker) I started reading the poems.  One poem, by Lars Gustafson and translated from the Swedish by Yvonne L. Sandstroem, was about an 86-year-old Mexican woman who had recently died.  When the doctors examined her they discovered she had been carrying around a dead fetus in her womb for 60 years.

Stuck right in the middle of the lengthy poem were the following lines about a bird who apparently had annoyingly caught the attention of the poet as he was trying to compose his poem. They are an interruption in the poem, yet a part of it:

….. Mockingbird, what do you want?

You have so many voices, and I don’t know which one of them to take seriously.

The scornful sometimes, the complaining sometimes —

then there’s a kind of clucking,

on certain days in early spring,

when dampness still clings to the moss on the oaks,

as if you didn’t quite want to speak out.

Mockingbird in the green oak tree!

What’s the secret you sit there trying to


Now for the second incident, which as I said earlier came at the end of my consolation period.  I was in a dark and lonely mood as I took my morning walk around a section of White Rock Lake in Dallas. I said to God something to this effect, “Oh Lord, I know you’ve withdrawn your favors from me so that I can become a spiritual adult. But I’m still weak. Please, just one more grace to let me know you’re still with me.”

I was walking up an asphalt road toward a coffee shop. Off to my left I could see a small dark cloud which looked as if it seriously had rain in it, even though it was ridiculously small and there were no other gray clouds up there. Suddenly a gust of wind, the sort you feel just before a rain starts, blew towards me. It stirred up a dust devil from the grit on the street. The grit hit me in the face. I said, “Okay, God, I can take a hint!” I thought that was His comical answer.

The next day I went to my job at a bookstore. I walked into the buying area in back. There alone was one of the other employees, a man named Ernest (name changed in respect of his privacy). He was looking over some used books, pricing them. “Are you wearing perfume?”  Ernest asked.

“No,” I replied and kept on going. I punched in my time card and looked at the schedule to see what time my register duty was. Then I thought a moment, came back to Ernest and said, “Ernest, I’ll tell you what you smelled. You exhaled the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. I know because I’ve smelled it before, too.”

I explained that God was simply trying to get his attention and build up his faith. He was calling him to Himself.  I told him that he could expect more strange occurrences in the coming days—episodes which many people might try to explain away as coincidences, but he would know better. I showed him a couple of paragraphs in a book of letters of spiritual direction by Louis XIV’s chaplain, Archbishop Francois Fenélon, that I thought might be clearer than my amateur explanation.

“This really speaks to me,” said Ernest, after reading one page. I loaned him the book so he could read the letter at his leisure and ponder its message.

The next day I asked Ernest if he had read the letter, and he replied, “Not yet.”

That astounded me. I mean, if I had been told by someone I thought trustworthy that God was trying to get my attention, I would have eagerly given my attention.

The third day I asked him again, “Well, Ernest, have you read that letter yet?”

“No,” he replied, “but a strange thing happened yesterday. A guy came in to sell some books. As we looked through them, he picked one up and said, ‘What’s this book doing here? That’s not my book!’

“It was Fenélon!” Ernest continued, adding, “I took two steps backward.”

I was just as surprised as Ernest was. Sure, I had prophesied what would happen to him, but I had no idea what particular experience he would have or when. I had simply extrapolated a probability based on my own experience.

A few days later I again asked Ernest if he had read the letter.

In a voice of exasperation, he said, “No, I haven’t, Bob.” Then, looking kind of panicky at me, he said, “Bob, you’re scaring me!”

I pondered the situation a couple of days, trying to figure out what God was up to and why Ernest was reluctant to respond. (Months later memories of one or two startling, even awful,  experiences that had happened to me, too, came back to me but they were much heavier than this situation.) Ernest seemed to be running from the Holy Spirit too soon, while I had been complaining that the contact had ended too soon. Finally, I went to Ernest and apologized for scaring him and I told him that perhaps that episode hadn’t been meant for him. Maybe it had been meant for me. I had asked for a consolation, a reassurance that all my own experiences were not figments of my imagination. Perhaps God wasn’t going to grant that prayer directly, but indirectly he would allow me to witness a grace given to someone else.

“Yes,” said Ernest, when I related this to him. “It validates you.”

A remark by Meister Eckhart seems apropos here:

The mind can never rest except in the essential truth which is locked up in it—the truth about everything. Essence alone satisfies, and God keeps on withdrawing, farther and farther away, to arouse the mind’s zeal and lure it on to follow and finally grasp the true good that has no cause. Thus, contented with nothing, the mind clamors for the highest good of all.

The “lure” is a prominent theme in Meister Eckhart’s writings.

Shortly after that, I entered the “dark night of the soul”,  the time when God withdraws, just as Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross had described it. Since I had read about the “night” and thus been forewarned, I thought it would be an easier experience for me. But it wasn’t, at least I don’t think it was. The graces—the consolations—ceased. “Too soon,”  I thought. “I’m still a child, a novice at this, Oh Lord,” I prayed. “Give me just a little more time!” But that wasn’t the way God works. He decides when a convert has had enough of the manna of his graces.

It was time for me to work toward spiritual maturity. I developed a mental indigestion from my reading of the spiritual classics; I quit reading them. I found it difficult to pray. I was strongly tempted to return to my previous dissipated lifestyle. But something was blocking me from doing that. It seemed like I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go forward either. I was stuck in neutral.

Even worse, I had a strong sense of my sinfulness. It is a paradox that while I was wallowing in worldliness, I had little to no sense of sin; but as soon as I began to grow spiritually—­even very slightly it seemed—I was overwhelmed with a feeling of wickedness. At that time, I couldn’t perceive my condition in the way that Richard Foster describes it in his Celebration of Discipline:

It is true that those in the first flush of faith often are given unusual graces of the Spirit (Foster writes) just like a new baby is cuddled and pampered. It is also true that some of the deepest experiences of alienation and separation from God have come to those who have traveled far into the interior realms of faith.

St. John of the Cross likens this experience of spiritual dryness to the situation of a person in a dark dungeon for many years. There is a window there, but it is grimy with soot and no light gets in, so that the person spends much of his life in darkness. Then, suddenly, a mysterious force starts washing the window. Bright light flows in, blinding the prisoner. When his eyes finally adjust somewhat to the light, he notices all these dark specks—motes—floating around in the air. The motes, so numerous, which he had never seen before, are his sins; and he is overwhelmed with self-depreciation.

Here is what Thomas Keating has to say about the Dark Night in his book, Open Mind, Open Heart: the contemplative dimension of the Gospel:

One of the first effects of contemplative prayer is the release of the unconscious. This process gives rise to two different psychological states:The experience of personal development in the form of spiritual consolation, charismatic gifts or psychic powers; and the experience of human weakness through humiliating self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is the traditional term for the coming to consciousness of the dark side of one’s personality.

The release of these two kinds of unconscious energies needs to be safeguarded by well-established habits of dedication to God and concern for others. Otherwise, if one enjoys some of the spiritual consolation or development one may inflate with pride; or if one feels crushed by the realization of one’s spiritual impoverishment, one may collapse into discouragement or even despair. The cultivation of habits of dedication to God and service to others is the indispensable means of stabilizing the mind in the face of emotionally charged thoughts, whether of self-exaltation or of self-depreciation.

This message, lengthy as it was, is but a brief summary of my spiritual journey to date.  I wanted to share it with you.

Bob Litton

DEFINITION of “yearn” from Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, Vol. XX.

II.6.  intr.  To be deeply moved; to be moved with compassion; to have tender feelings; to mourn, grieve; to long for.

JEREMIAH, King  James Version

31:18 > I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus; Thou hast chastened me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke; turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God.

31:19> Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh; I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth.

31:20> Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he a pleasant child?  For since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy on him, saith the Lord.

JEREMIAH, Revised Standard Version (© 1946, 1952)

31:18> I hear Ephraim bemoaning

Thou hast chastened me, and I was chastened,

like an untrained calf;

bring me back that I may be restored,

for thou art the Lord my God.

31:19> For after I turned away I repented;

and after I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh;

I was ashamed, and I was confounded,

because I bore the disgrace of my youth.

31:20> Is Ephraim my dear son?

Is he my darling child?

For as often as I speak against him,

I do remember him still.

Therefore my heart yearns for him;

I will surely have mercy on him,

says the Lord.


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Innovation Lust

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Back in the 1970s, I began to wonder just how much longer we humans could continue to produce things without the world becoming saturated with those things. I am not speaking here of pollution—which presents its own problems—but of the possible end of ingenuity. At first I thought I was probably alone in my concern because I had never heard or read of such a potential issue. However, in 1977, while waiting in a company’s break room for a job interview, I saw in a magazine an article concerning product saturation. Unfortunately, the interview began after I had read only a couple of paragraphs, and the magazine was not my own so I could not take it with me. I have occasionally wondered what the author’s thesis and conclusion were.

Since that time, I have been observant of any new products and trends in product changes, curious what they imply for my country’s economic future. What I have seen has been a fascinating historical arc. But before I get involved here in modern innovations, I want to share part of a brief history I recently read about a much older start-up: the Pony Express. I see in that story a very evocative pattern for what has happened since the Pony Express was inaugurated in April 1861.

According to the Pony Express Museum’s website, the mail service was started by three men—William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors—as one response to the threat of the Civil War; the purpose obviously was to speed up communication between the East and the West. The acceleration of mail delivery would not be very impressive by today’s standards: the first westbound ride, from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, took 9 days and 23 hours, while the eastbound journey clocked 11 days and 12 hours, almost a day and a half difference. The service lasted only 19 months, until Oct. 24, 1861, when completion of the Pacific Telegraph line ended the need for it. Despite its usefulness in providing Californians with relatively contemporaneous news of the war’s progress, the Pony Express was not a financial success, and its founders ended up filing for bankruptcy. On a positive note, however, only one mail delivery was lost.

The main reason I mention the Pony Express, beyond its romantic history, is to provide a fairly simple, clear example of how an innovation develops and how ephemeral it can be. The express was fairly quickly perceived as a solution to an urgent problem; it was started by a small group of men willing to risk their livelihoods on its success; it was reliant on the energies and bodies of men and animals; and it lost out to a mechanical innovation. (The Pony Express was not unique, however. Marco Polo reported that, during his trip to China, he had witnessed a mounted mail service created by Genghis Khan.)

Over the roughly fifty-five years of my adulthood, I have witnessed various innovations come and go.

While employed at my first journalistic job—publications manager for the Texas Electronics Association in Fort Worth—I noticed that home repair of television sets had died out (or was dying out). The people who sold TVs in the past had usually also visited homes to work on roof antennas or replace tubes in the sets. Now all they did was sell TVs; and it was usually more expensive to repair a TV set than to buy a new one. Also, the number of American TV manufacturers had dwindled from about twelve to four; the Japanese were winning the TV set war. Moreover, American electronics retailers were reliant upon a new popular product: the CB radio.

In less than a decade, another innovation was on the market: the “beeper”. Originally and perhaps more descriptively known as the “pager”, a beeper was a little plastic box with its own phone number by which a person could be alerted that he or she was needed to call the number shown by an LED on his pager. The beeper is pretty much passé now, although a group of “entrepreneurs” was reportedly working last summer on a prototype for a more sophisticated version of the beeper.

There seems to be an unbalanced emphasis on electronic innovations, particularly in the field of communications. Every year, Microsoft or Apple or one of the other electronics giants has a show where they display the latest gadget, usually some added feature for the ipad. And within a few months, huge lines develop outside stores where eager customers have waited since the wee morning hours to buy the latest gadget.  We have all noted, too, how many of us consumers seemingly cannot drive down a road or sit through a movie or share a meal out with a friend without one of those cell phones in our hand. This madness has called forth innumerable cartoon satires as well as warnings from health officials.

But the TVs have not been entirely neglected: they have gotten wider, thinner, more inundated with channels, and more definitional. They and streaming FM radio channels have pushed the old juke boxes (which I miss) into the cubicles of flea markets. The saturation of TVs in many bars (I counted five in one of our local hangouts) has caused the description of those venues to be changed to “sports bars”.

Movie houses have become sparser because people can view films, initially on VHS tapes and then on DVDs, through their home-based big screen TVs within six months after their initial showings in the movie houses. For a couple of decades, many cities and towns could boast at least one “video store” where the tapes and DVDs could be rented, but the entrepreneurs who established those stores made the common entrepreneurial mistake of expanding too fast and too far, and then their businesses became threatened by the innovation of online movie rentals.

And this mad race to “build a better mouse trap” and replace the proverbial “buggy whip maker” presents a scene of a very nervous humanity racing not just to “keep up with the Joneses” but to out-pace, even supersede, them. It constitutes a prospect of a not very healthy, integrated community, very different from the cohesive communities of the days when buggy whip makers prospered.

All of these major innovations have occurred within the span of the last fifty years. I witnessed them. A fellow named Alvin Toffler published a book back in 1970 titled Future Shock. In that book, Toffler described “‘future shock’” as “‘too much change in too short a period of time’”. (I confess that, although I was aware of Toffler’s book when it came out, I never read it because I had read a review describing its thesis—with which I agreed—and saw no need to read it. What I have quoted here is derived from the Wikipedia article on Future Shock.)  “He believed the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from ‘shattering stress and disorientation’—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock.”

Toffler’s book was published thirty-five years ago. I have witnessed much of the changes he wrote about and can attest to his veracity, for I feel “‘disconnected and suffering from ‘shattering stress and disorientation’”.




“Un Coin de Table” by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 – 1904). At this gathering of some of the literary lights of late 19th century Paris sit the scandalous couple in the left corner of the painting: Paul Verlaine and his young protégé and lover, Arthur Rimbaud. It was not a very convivial group; notice how no one is looking at any other member of the bunch, and that the vase of flowers has been stuck in at the last stage of composition as replacement for Albert Merat, who refused to pose for the same painting with Rimbaud. The painting was shown at the Paris Salon of 1872. (Source: Google Images/Encyclopedie Larousse)

©Text Only: 2015 By Bob Litton 

I don’t know why it is that topic ideas come floating into my brain at the oddest times, especially just after I have concluded that there is nothing left for me to write about; I have, after all, virtually written my autobiography through most of the pages in this blog; and I have drained the well of my accumulated knowledge and wisdom, dispersing it all to an invisible world. But there it was at 2:45 in the morning: Corners!!!

At first it was just a reflection—as I lay in bed, gazing at one of the corners where two walls and the ceiling collide—on a Hank Ketchum “Dennis the Menace” cartoon I had viewed the day before, one showing Dennis in one of his frequent panel scenes, sitting in a corner and hugging his teddy bear. Dennis complains to his mother as she walks away, “Confession may be good for the soul, but it sure is taking away from my playing time.” Is that supposed to be punishment—a substitute for spanking? I wondered. Hardly severe enough! She should at least have carried off his teddy bear!

Then more reflecting: Many of the “Dennis” scenes are of him sitting in the corner. And the same is true of Wagner and Dunagin’s “Grin and Bear It”, where a bruised boxer is sitting on the stool in his corner, but he is recovering, briefly, from punishment. (I couldn’t locate a recent panel to illustrate the kind of complaining remarks the boxer usually makes about his over-sized or more adept opponents.) His corner is the boxer’s retreat, his only safe zone.

Then, of course, many of us are acquainted with that old analogy about “painting ourselves in a corner”. In this case, we are not discussing self-portraits but rather our figurative manner of saying we have inadvertently created a dilemma for ourselves from which there seems to be no way to extricate ourselves without developing it into even more of a problem.

Even Wall Street has its share of shady corners. Surely you have heard of major plutocrats such as the Hunt brothers, who “cornered the market” in silver in 1980. They borrowed heavily to buy as much silver as they could, and they wound up with about a third of the world’s supply. When reaction set in, they were unable to meet a $100 million “margin call” (basically a demand to surrender collateral). The price of silver dropped from an inflated high to less than 50 percent of its “bubble” value within days and led to a panic. The Hunts’ estimated $5 billion fortune declined to about $1 billion by 1988 and eventually they filed for bankruptcy.

Another popular phrase occurs to me: “Cutting corners” to get one’s way despite the legal risks. Although I have heard and read that said about others, particularly in the business and political worlds, I don’t recall having ever tried to “cut corners” myself: probably not enough imagination to venture into it.

Awful lot of negative stuff there about corners. Their self-image must be depressing.

Let us return to art works and try to be more positive. Consider the painting below:

Luncheon_of_the_Boating_Party__85799.1395676758.1280.1280__39347.1405477724.1280.1280 (1)

“Le Dejeuner des Canotiers” (1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Now, this crowd is definitely more congenial–nay, convivial–than the set depicted above by Latour. Almost everyone is at least glancing at another person. And again, we have corners being accented: the two men in boaters’ shirts and hats, the table’s end, and, oddly, the pole in the center rear that seems to divide the composition in half. I love this painting!!! (Source: Google Images/The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)

I have perhaps said all I know to say about “The Boating Party’s Dinner” in the cutline under the reproduction above. One could draw an “X” across the canvas and reveal the compositional structure.

Notice that the same is true of Latour’s painting. The  men’s varying heights (which I guess are actual) and their positions allow them to form two rough diagonals across the canvas. And as for corners, the literary gentlemen are not only crowded at one corner of the table, they are also squeezed into one corner of the room. Even the Impressionistic landscape painting on the back wall helps to accent the corner motif. I suppose Fantin-Latour was just trying to be economical, but all he has accomplished is to cram eight staid portraits into a single frame.

“X”es are in fact basic at least to representational art. Another great artist who bears out my assertion here (if any bearing out is required) is N.C. Wyeth. The compositional strength of his bold, muscular illustrations can be immediately grasped by the viewer who imagines a large “X” penciled across most of his works. To me, they are very pleasant to look upon. I suppose that it is not too far-fetched to claim that the “X” in art is kin to the “X” in home-building: they both support their creations. In fact, perhaps I should have titled and developed this essay as “X”es and corners.

Ah, corners and “X”es, how would we ever get along without you?


POSTSCRIPT:  For another treatment of basically the same subject—mundane motifs in art and literature—check out my April 19, 2013, essay Secular Epiphanies on this blog site.

NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it. Thank you for reading. BL


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