The Right to Keep and Bear What Arms?

Pistol
Pistol

Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. This phenomenon is often referred to as “the tipping point.” It’s probably too early to know for certain, but the wide-spread reactions we are witnessing to the February 14, 2018 shooting at Parkland, Florida, may indeed by a sign of a national opinion shift about the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and its unofficial but most vehement advocate, the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Of course, the Parkland tragedy was only one in a long list of mass shootings in this country, and gun advocates typically point to almost any other solution than more restrictions on private ownership of firearms. “We should enforce the laws that are already on the books,” they say. However, there are cases where a shooter didn’t break the law until he decided to kill multiple people. I don’t think anyone believes that any action taken now will completely stop mass shootings in America, but can they be decreased? Can the number of casualties be reduced? Is it worth trying to include a discussion about restrictions on types of guns and their capacity? I think so.

We can’t exactly shut down all public events in the country, along with movie theaters, malls, parks, nightclubs, and all other places where people gather. We can hope that there are always good guys with guns around who are better trained than the average law enforcement officer, but how effective will that be against a suicidal maniac who wants to take out as many lives as possible before being taken down or blowing his head off? Let’s make it more difficult for them. Let’s make them choose other weapons that aren’t as efficient in closed spaces, at least. Or, we can just throw up our hands and say that no gun laws will ever slow down the murders. But then we are going to have to explain how stronger gun laws in other countries do impact murder rates.

We can no longer interpret our founding documents, such as the Bill of Rights, as if we were still living in the 18th century. In truth, we have been re-interpreting these documents for over 200 years, and adding to them because they cannot completely address a society that continues to change with every generation with regard to values, beliefs, and technological advancements. I think we can all agree that the weapons available even to the wealthiest nations in the 18th century cannot compare to what the average American can now have in his closet.

Contrary to what the NRA would have us believe, the 2nd Amendment is not the only one under scrutiny. There are plenty of restrictions on free speech, protected by the 1st Amendment, that we all accept as a society because doing so makes us safer. Those have developed over time and are still in force. Even now there is serious discussion about how electronic communication creates issues that we have never had to address before but probably will, just as we had to do with broadcasting. The result will most likely be more and newer restrictions to free speech. We impose restraints on religious practice too, and for good reason.

Even gun enthusiasts generally agree that fully-automatic weapons don’t belong in the hands of private citizens, and they certainly don’t support individual ownership of advanced weapon systems used by forces around the world. We have a handful of people in this country who are wealthy enough to buy tanks, grenade launchers, and surface-to-air missiles, but no one argues about their right to keep and bear those arms!  Some of our guaranteed rights were never intended to be, nor can they be, absolute rights.

Both 1st and 2nd Amendments are restricted rights. The current debate really comes down to a question of what limitations our society will accept. I have never advocated for a repeal of the 2nd Amendment nor do I, as a gun owner, support taking away all guns from law-abiding, responsible citizens. I hope the country is moving toward finding ways to reduce violence, which may or may not involve more restrictions on firearms. I do maintain that any discussion of reducing violence by people using guns should take into account the type of guns that are made so widely available to individuals.

The Best of Accommodations

Since we started traveling together around the time we married, my wife and I have unpacked our bags in a wide range of quarters. We have stayed in cabins, cottages, Air B&B houses, condos, and any number of hotel and motel rooms. We have even experienced the nightmare of getting “bumped” a couple of times. On one of these occasions we were in a rural area with very few options, so we wound up at a low-rent motor lodge where the price of the room was literally less than the cost of our dinner earlier that evening. There was a loud party in full swing behind the building, and as I discovered later, most of the participants were not paying customers of the establishment. We had to wear ear plugs just to get to sleep, and even so, I heard several guys two doors down as they were setting up their Hibachi grill outside their room at about midnight. Let’s just say the star rating system usually used to measure the quality of motels was not applicable here.

The aforementioned example notwithstanding, we have been quite lucky with our accommodations through the years. From time to time we have really splurged on the price of a room, and a few of those places have been especially luxurious. I have narrowed the list down to five, in no particular order, and highly recommend each one.

Number 1: Old Edward’s Inn in Highlands, North Carolina

Old Edward's Inn, Highlands, NC
Old Edward’s Inn, Highlands, NC

We selected Old Edward’s Inn for a wedding anniversary weekend and opted for one of their cottages with a comfortable bedroom, spacious living area with a gas fireplace, and a beautiful bathroom with heated floors. It rained off and on, but the screened porch was perfect for relaxing and reading while listening to the rainfall. We indulged in a couple’s massage at the spa, which is rated as one of the best in North America. It was our first massage together and was a highlight of the weekend. There are several restaurants in Highlands that are surprisingly good for this small remote town in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Number 2: A casita on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Our casita on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, NM
Our casita on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, NM

We spent the better part of a week in Santa Fe one summer in a grand casita with generous living spaces inside and a private outdoor courtyard with umbrellas, lounge chairs, gardens, and fire pits. The casita was within easy walking distance of dozens of art galleries and the charming downtown with museums, shops, restaurants, and other attractions. It was so invigorating to head out at sunrise for a brisk walk, explore the downtown area during the day, and relax by the fire under the stars at night.

Number 3: Charlemagne apartment in Paris, France

Charlemagne apartment in Paris
Charlemagne apartment in Paris

I call our apartment in Paris by the name of the street where the building was located, two blocks from the Seine River in historic Le Marais district. It was actually a flat jointly owned by some folks in America and France. Accommodations in Europe are typically cramped with few if any indulgences, which is why we were so pleased to find this fourth-floor spot with a small but adequate kitchen, a respectable bathroom, and a combination sitting, dining, bedroom space with soft lighting and tasteful décor. We were able to keep the windows open to enjoy the cool air and the sounds from the sidewalk café directly below us. As in Santa Fe, we were within walking distance of the finest bistros and bakeries the city has to offer.

Number 4: Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica
Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Due to my struggles with a malady called Mal de Debarquement Syndrome (post travel vertigo), I avoid cruise ships like gas station sushi. However, I love the concept of all-inclusive resorts. There are very few in the states at all, but they are abundant in the Caribbean. We found an adult-only version in Montego Bay, Jamaica that was magnificent. Our room had a large bathroom with a separate spa tub and shower. The bed was heavenly and looked directly out the sliding glass doors onto the large balcony, which featured cut-above-the-rest plush lounging furniture. The view from that perch of the expansive pool complex, swim-up bar, and the ocean was absolutely stunning.

Balcony view, Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica
Balcony view, Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica

The Hyatt Zilara is located directly adjacent to the family resort, the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall, and both places share bars, restaurants, shops, recreational facilities, and some beach activities. We enjoyed our share of good meals and creative cocktails (the dirty banana was a perennial favorite) while also spending hours just basking in the sun by the pool. One of the highlights of the trip was yet another couple’s massage, but this time in a white-curtained cabana on the beach, just a few yards from the crashing waves — bliss.

Number 5: Tickle Pink Inn, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Balcony, Tickle Pink Inn, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA
Balcony, Tickle Pink Inn, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA

I know, the name conjures up visions of a roadside stucco-style row of rooms that are rented out by the hour. In reality, Tickle Pink Inn is rated as one of the top ten hotels for romance in the U.S. by TripAdvisor and voted one of the top 500 hotels in the world by Travel and Leisure magazine. Our room was easily the most luxurious place we have ever stayed, even if it was for only one night. We were greeted with a chilled bottle of champagne next to our grand four-post bed. Our room had a balcony with a breathtaking view of the Pacific and a wood-burning fireplace. Combined with one of the best dining experiences I have ever had in the village of Carmel, our stay at Tickle Pink Inn ranks as one of my all-time favorite travel memories.

Schooled by the President

My wife and I joined a group of people from our community to mark off another travel experience bucket list item. In this case, the distance from home was short enough for a road trip. We traveled through pines and vast farmland to the little village of Plains, Georgia, where we gathered with a couple of hundred other people before sunrise in anticipation of the big event: Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church. Okay, I haven’t attended Sunday School in over twelve years, and we could have easily found a class to attend much closer to home, but the teacher wouldn’t have been the 39th President of the United States.

Jimmy Carter has been teaching Sunday School for most of his life, reportedly even during his presidency (1977-1981). However, in recent years his class at Maranatha Baptist Church has been drawing capacity crowds, especially after his diagnosis of brain cancer in 2015. This health scare may have interrupted his teaching, but it didn’t stop it. He teaches his class in the church’s sanctuary that seats about 350 people when filled to capacity, and there is an overflow adjacent room that seats 100 more people who watch  via video feed. The 93-year-old former Commander in Chief is still greeting anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred pilgrims multiple times throughout the year for a 45-minute session, although there are rumors that he will scale back if not completely stop teaching sometime this year (2018).

The charming little red-brick church is tucked in a pecan grove a couple of miles outside the center of Plains, a hamlet of less than 800 people where Jimmy Carter was born and raised and the place he and First Lady, Rosalynn, still call home. No part of the state defines “rural Georgia” better than its southwest section, and Plains is a bonafide representative. Maranatha Baptist Church looks like so many other little churches I have seen and visited during my life. The members are equally familiar: genuine, proud, polite, but above all in this case, fiercely respectful and protective of their world-famous congregant. Those who are charged with orchestrating this unusual ministry of the church do so with humility, humor, grace, and above all, efficiency.

The church’s website advises attendees to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m. in case the crowd is large. We arrive at ten after the hour. Entrance to the sanctuary is based on a simple numbering system. When we pull into the dirt driveway of the property, a friendly fellow welcomes us and hands us through the car window a slip of paper with a sequential number indicating what will later be our place in the lineup to file into the church. We are number 58 — obviously not quite as committed as 57 other sojourners, the earliest of which we later learn arrived at 4:00 a.m.

Like many activities that combine religious practice with celebrity status, the President’s Sunday School class attracts an eclectic assembly that writers like Chaucer would find fascinating, as do we. One notable example is the chap who arrives in a mint-condition Model-T, sporting the requisite hat/goggle combination and accompanied by an extraordinarily tall tabby cat that he walks among the pecan trees on a leash. We learn that he is just beginning a long journey across the country to visit various attractions, an adventure he will record in a travelogue — think Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the feline version.

On the Sundays the Carters are attending, the glaring distinction of this church is the early and abundant presence of law enforcement, which includes local sheriff deputies and at least six Secret Service agents, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs canvassing the exterior of the church building and weaving their way through the herd of vehicles parked under the trees behind the church. A member of our group observes what a misnomer “Secret Service” is to describe a team of people at a little country church dressed all in black with sunglasses and ear pieces, handguns clearly visible. Their service is no secret whatsoever. During the hour of worship that follows his class, President Carter sits in a pew next to one of the two center aisles (the Carters are indeed members at Maranatha). There are agents at the entrances to the building and one agent sitting directly behind him. Every time President Carter stands with the rest of the congregation, the agent stands and shifts his own position slightly out into the aisle just behind Carter’s left shoulder — an added measure of protection. Without a doubt, we are attending the safest worship service in the state that morning.

On the Sunday we attend, illness has descended upon a significant portion of the congregation, including Rosalynn Carter who is recovering from surgery in Atlanta. A few of the members are having to pull double duty. Jan is the fearless and funny woman, school teacher turned event coordinator, who lines everyone up outside and gets them ready to go through security and enter the church. She is joined by several other members inside who provide instructions for the Presidential encounter, all the dos and don’ts that are expected, including no applause for the President. We are reminded this is church, not a campaign rally. Jan also plays the piano later in the morning for the worship service. Shortly before the teacher enters the sanctuary, the recently-installed pastor, at the ripe age of 23, provides a Q&A about himself, his family, the church, and the Carters. Another woman who helps with the orientation before the President’s arrival identifies herself with the last name “Carter,” and someone in the audience asks if there is any relation. She replies, “Yes. Billy Carter was my father.” Later that morning, this jovial niece of the President returns to the podium to lead the singing — the music minister is out that day involved in a church-related activity out of town. They are a resourceful and flexible church family.

President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter

 

President Carter could not be more charming. We just barely make the cut to get in the sanctuary and are sitting in the choir loft behind him, but he graciously turns around to include us. He spends the first few minutes greeting everyone and asking, by sections of pews, “where are ya’ll from?” Place names are shouted out: Maine, Texas, Canada, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, and many others. We are amazed by the distance some of these folks have traveled to hear a great statesman with humble beginnings speak of a faith that has no doubt sustained him through trials that would crumble most of us.

Jimmy Carter is judged harshly these days by so many of our population who consider his presidency to be lackluster at best and a dismal failure at its worst. He faced insurmountable challenges and horrible crises while in office, and admittedly some of his decisions perhaps did not serve the country well. Many of his accomplishments in the White House are overlooked now, but he should always be remembered for brokering a peaceful resolution demonstrated by a handshake between a Jewish prime minister and a Muslim president that undoubtedly saved many, many lives in the Middle East and beyond. Also, no one denies his decades of post-Presidential humanitarian achievements with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center, monitoring elections around the world, and so much more. To my way of thinking, he is a remarkable testimony to the charity and love most often identified with Jesus, the one he calls Savior. In the end, his Sunday School lesson always comes back to that simple but profound profession of faith.

My Introduction to Los Angeles

A professional conference this year gave me an occasion to visit Los Angeles for the first time. Although I have been to California twice, I never traveled farther south than Big Sur. I arrived in L.A. two days before my conference began to take in a bit of sightseeing. Like Las Vegas and New York, Los Angeles is an iconic city that is closely tied to the uninhibited side of America, where everything is out of the cage and off the pavement. It attracts huge money, which is shamelessly exhibited in fast cars, flashy clothes, ostentatious jewelry, and mansions that could easily command their own zip codes. Usually we associate the “La-La Land” factor of the city with some of the more affluent sections and suburbs: Beverly Hills, Malibu, Santa Monica, Burbank, Hidden Hills, and Bel Air. However, there is more to Los Angeles than glitter and gold.

The afternoon I arrived, I rented a car and made the short drive down to Huntington Beach, the place where Duke Kahanamoku popularized surfing in the 1920s and graced the town with the title “Surf City.” The wind was especially strong while I was there, so walking out to the end of the long pier to circle Ruby’s Surf City Diner was rather brutal. The reward was witnessing first-hand the largest waves I have ever seen — much higher than those on the Florida coast to which I am accustomed. My visit was capped off perfectly with a few cocktails at the Barefoot Bar of Duke’s Huntington Beach Restaurant while I watched the Pacific sun set, a spectacle that never gets old.

Sunset at Huntington Beach
Sunset at Huntington Beach

 

View of L.A. from Griffith Observatory
View of L.A. from Griffith Observatory

Early the next morning, I drove to the hills just north of Los Angeles to check out the Griffith Observatory. Whenever I travel, I am always in search of vantage points that will offer jaw-dropping vistas, which led me to this location. I was not disappointed. In addition to a close-up view of the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign, the hill-top site provides near-360-degree scenery featuring the nearby green hillsides, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the skyline of the city in the distance. What I didn’t expect was how much I would enjoy the Observatory itself, which serves as a museum of astronomy. From the Fresco painted ceiling above the Foucault Pendulum at the entrance to the wonderful exhibits featuring the sun, other stars, the moon, and planets, the Griffith Observatory is a must-do for anyone who appreciates the mysteries of space. I was particularly impressed to see that a theater in the Observatory is named after the late Leonard Nimoy, the talented actor who portrayed Mr. Spock from the Star Trek television series and movies. He and his wife, actress Susan Bay-Nimoy, made a generous gift for the expansion and renovation of the Observatory. I always liked Nimoy as an actor and an artist, but learning about his philanthropy made me admire him even more.

Solar system exhibit in the Griffith Observatory
Solar system exhibit in the Griffith Observatory

My next stop was the place that most vividly puts the tinsel in this town. Still recognized by many as the shrine of the entertainment industry, Hollywood covers three and a half square miles of prime commercial real estate in central L.A. Strolling down Hollywood Boulevard is an experience that can be recreated nowhere else in the country. The star-studded Walk of Fame stretches for fifteen blocks and is likely the most dangerous sidewalk in California because most people are looking at the ground the whole time they’re strolling along. Tourists also have near collisions with each other in front of the famous Chinese Theatre, where legends of film and television have literally left their mark with hand and footprints in the large cement blocks in the forecourt. Hollywood & Highland Center is a busy multi-story shopping complex that includes the Dolby Theatre, home of the Academy Awards. Of course, there are plenty of retailers, restaurants, specialty shops, and tourism stands up and down the street. Most impressive to me were the historic facades of the classic old theaters along both sides of the Boulevard — El Capitan, Egyptian, Pantages, and Pacific — they recall the golden age of film from the early to mid-20th century. It is easy to imagine what a glamorous time it must have been. Yes, Hollywood Boulevard would have to be classified as a tourist trap, but how can you visit L.A. for the first time and skip this legendary feature of the city?

Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood Boulevard
Bougainvillea arbors at the Getty Center
Bougainvillea arbors at the Getty Center

My last stop of the day was the Getty Center of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Situated on a 24-acre hill-top campus, the Getty Center is a remarkable combination of art, architecture, and nature overlooking greater metropolitan Los Angeles and Santa Monica Bay. The views of the city and the ocean from the various porticoes, terraces, and gardens are unbelievable. The collection, changing exhibitions, and outdoor art on view at the Getty Center reach across European and American history—from medieval times to the present. I was particularly delighted by the central garden, which boasts more than 500 species. The 134,000-square-foot design features a natural ravine and tree-lined walkway. A stream that winds through a variety of plants gradually descends to a plaza where bougainvillea arbors explode into bloom. I rushed through several of the galleries in the complex of buildings but was only able to get a taste of this astonishing cultural wonder. I hope to return to the Getty again someday to enjoy much more of what it has to offer, and when I do, I am sure there will be plenty of other treasures to explore in “The town of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciúncula” — The City of Angels.

Museum Courtyard at the Getty Center
Museum Courtyard at the Getty Center

Sometimes You Just Have To Be There

Travel is stimulating. Visiting new places outside our own environs infuses so many of us with a sense of wonder and renewal. Travel literature goes back at least to the 2nd century with the Greek geographer Pausanias. In the modern era essayists, journalists, and even novelists have treated readers to highly-descriptive narratives that feed the imagination and make us feel like we have actually visited places we have never even seen. Writers like Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, John Muir, and Robert Louis Stevenson were gifted with keen perception and carefully-crafted language, combined with illustrations, that gave their readers a sense of “being there.” The introduction of photography enhanced the experience, and one could argue that publications like National Geographic served as travel literature in serial form.

Beginning in the 20th century, film and television added a whole new dimension to the genre, which required less imagination but awarded viewers with essentially a reproduction of the sights and sounds a traveler would enjoy. There are numerous television channels across the globe devoted to providing this type of content around the clock. The Internet has now made it possible for both professionals and amateurs to share their travel adventures through personal and hosted websites, blogs, social media, and photo and video sharing sites.

For those who are unable to travel for any number of reasons, the opportunities to see the world vicariously through the content provided by others is almost endless, which is quite wonderful. However, and this is the sad truth, when it comes to truly absorbing the magnificence of many locations on the planet, there is no real substitute for literally being there. One of the times this realization was made abundantly clear to me was when my wife and I visited the south rim of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona in 2008.

View of the Grand Canyon from the south rim
View of the Grand Canyon from the south rim

A video of this impressive geological feature, as much as 18 miles wide in some places, will give the viewer a sense of its massive size, beautiful colors, varied textures, and even the sounds of the wind as it rushes through its 4,000-foot depths. What a video cannot recreate is the tingle down your spine when you stand at the rim’s edge as your mind and body react to the overwhelming expanse and the dangers presented by the chasm before you. It is also difficult for a flat screen to depict the depth and breadth of the canyon that the eye perceives.  The video cannot provide you with the brush of the wind against your skin and the smells all around you. The audio can record many of the sounds you would hear, but it cannot accurately reproduce that low, soft “wwwwwhhhhh” created by the air swirling in this enormous space that your ears detect. Obviously, I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it either. There are several places we have visited, and I am sure many more we haven’t, that a book or video simply cannot do justice. Sometimes you just have to be there, and that’s why we travel.

The Evolution of the Library

The industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie wrote, “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” An avid reader for most of his life, Carnegie was responsible through his generous financial support for opening hundreds of public libraries across the country in the early 20th century. Although they disagreed on significant policy issues, Andrew Carnegie and President Franklin D. Roosevelt both recognized and publicly expressed how important libraries are to the health of a society. Libraries have a responsibility to their patrons to provide the resources for developing information literacy skills necessary to participate in the democratic process.

Having grown up in Macon, Georgia, in the 1960s and 70s, I can recall my mother driving me downtown to the main branch of the public library where I could roam through the stacks to find books to read. At the time I had no real appreciation for the privilege this simple activity represented, but when I left home to attend college and worked toward completing degrees in English and history, the value of library resources became much clearer. With an MA in history, my first full-time job was working as a cataloger in the public library of a small town in middle Georgia. Over the next two years, I commuted to Emory University in Atlanta to complete a Master of Librarianship degree. I continued in the profession for the next twelve years, eventually becoming the director of that same library.

To say that libraries have changed since my childhood is an obvious understatement to anyone who has benefitted from these institutions. There is no shortage of literature about how the advent of the Internet and electronic resources has transformed the way libraries operate. Several standard textbooks have been available for over ten years that cover library services in the context of the information explosion of recent decades. Some studies are now focusing completely on nontraditional library sources — collections that have only existed in electronic format. In their 2016 book titled Discover Digital Libraries: Theory and Practice, authors Iris Xie and Krystyna Matusiak explore different digital library issues and synthesize theoretical and practical perspectives relevant to researchers, practitioners, and students.

Library stacks
Library stacks

The breadth of Internet resources is mind-boggling; however, the depth of those same resources can sometimes be deceiving, which has created a false panacea for information illiteracy. In past generations, library patrons viewed librarians as the trained sentinels of printed resources, the official concierges that users needed for reading recommendations, research assistance, facts, figures, dates, and answers to almost any conceivable question. One could argue that this sense of importance was a bit exaggerated; nevertheless, librarians had a clearly defined function and role in their organizations and the communities they served. Affordable computers and mobile devices with Internet access have been challenging the significance of librarians, and even libraries, over the last fifteen years.

In a recent article in the magazine American Libraries titled “Ten Reasons Libraries Are Still Better Than the Internet,” Marcus Banks explains that these institutions still provide tangible services along with less obvious benefits such as access, privacy, and intellectual freedom. While Banks sees the Internet as “an indispensable and irreplaceable tool for modern living,” he argues that “it is not a library and will not replace the work of librarians.” Of course, what should we expect to read in a trade magazine for this profession, right? No surprise either that I tend to agree with Banks. Professional librarians have always taken seriously their responsibility to lead patrons to the most accurate and reliable information available, either in their own libraries or in those with which they have reciprocal lending privileges. The introduction of the Internet has not altered that mission at all. Only the methods of delivery have changed. As Banks observes, “a conversation with a librarian can clarify exactly what you are looking for and figure out the best way to use Google — or many other resources — to find it.”

One of the major impacts electronic resources are having on libraries is in the use of space. The average desktop computer connected to the Internet, including subscription services provided by the library, gives the user access to resources that thirty years ago could not have been contained in a building the size of the Pentagon. Libraries no longer need stacks and stacks of reference books and bound periodicals. Certainly, many readers still want “real” books — the kind with bindings and paper pages. Reading an e-book will never replace the experience of holding a traditional book in their hands that requires no machine, no batteries, and no WiFi connection to download. But, as library budgets continue to shrink and librarians are forced to become even more creative and innovative in allocating the limited funds at their disposal, they will stop purchasing many print sources that are so readily available in a more cost-effective electronic format. They will also convert sections of the library that were once occupied by stacks to other high-demand options such as public-access computer stations, study rooms, audio/video booths, leisure reading areas, and even coffee lounges.

I recently read a Facebook exchange by my friends and mentors who are also retired college professors.  They were bemoaning the changing landscape of libraries. One of them expressed her conviction that libraries to a certain degree should be “rather intimidating, evocative of all of the great minds whose ideas reside in books therein, yet nonetheless something of a magnet to all of us who want to know things.” I absolutely understood her sense of loss when she pined for browsing the stacks and even smelling the pages of old books. The sensory pleasures of reading are understandably treasured by so many people. At the same time, this “discussion” about libraries and books and nostalgia was taking place on a social media platform that was born and has lived its entire life exclusively in the realm of the Internet. FaceBOOK has never had a single association with pages and bindings. The irony was palpable.

As the platform for the creation, exchange, and storage of information continues to evolve, and even more rapidly in the age of electronic media, perhaps the differences in function of libraries and archives are becoming more relevant and more distinct. To my way of thinking, libraries are designed to provide information created in the present and the recent past. As such, electronic sources will naturally continue taking the place of more traditional print sources. Also, weeding out books that are no longer read by patrons has been a normal task of librarians for ages. Archives offer access to sources that have more historical value and are still considered useful for research and institutional documentation. Considering the fact that archival collections are moving to digital formats at blazing speeds, even these resources will soon be available more by computers than a trip to a physical repository. As for the nostalgia of holding an old book in our hands, doing so in the future may involve visiting a place that functions more like a museum than a library or archive. As sad as that may sound, I would rather see ancient books placed in acid-free storage containers than scanned and made available only as an image on my monitor.

Decorating for Christmas

Aside from gorging on turkey and football, one of the strongest impulses generated by Thanksgiving Day among so many Americans is the urge to head to the attic, basement, or garage and pull out the holiday decorations. At this time of year, any sense of good taste is tossed out like moldy green-bean casserole that was pushed to the back of the refrigerator and forgotten for two weeks. Thanks to the development of inexpensive plastic, PVC, fiberglass, large-scale inflatable statuary, and sophisticated electrical components, some American homes and properties are transformed into dazzling spectacles that almost put to shame the illuminated facades of Las Vegas casino resorts.

The amount of time, energy, and financial resources that families dedicate to decorating varies considerably, but I suspect those who celebrate Christmas tend to be a bit more profuse than their Jewish counterparts. Muslims and Hindus use much less extravagant decorations for their special celebrations at other times of the year. Even among the folks who celebrate Christmas, the amount and type of decorations are quite diverse, with everything from simple nativity scenes to the construction of a North Pole Reindeer Flight School in the front yard that backs up neighborhood traffic for several blocks. The true zealots start their decorating activities the week before Thanksgiving, perhaps even earlier, and it can take them up to two weeks to get the job completely finished. I know a family that puts up a Christmas tree in every single room of the house, including miniature versions in all three bathrooms.

Such enthusiasts have a difficult time giving any decoration a well-deserved sabbatical or even retirement. They have an attachment to or fondness of every piece they ever purchased, so decorating through the years has a cumulative effect. At some point, all surfaces of the house are adorned with festive accessories in an attempt to display every single item they have accumulated. It can be a tad overwhelming. Some manage to pull it off better than others. Lest I be perceived as a decorating snob, I hastily confess that I have in years past clearly fallen into the camp of the unrestrained and over-exuberant. My wife has done an admirable job of intervening and helping me understand that less is better when it comes to Christmas ornamentation.

Christmas Tree and decorations
Christmas Tree and decorations

For most of its history, Christianity has been a remarkably adaptable religion, which partly explains its rapid expansion after the 4th century and its durability throughout a good portion of the western world and across many different cultures. A fine example of this adaptability can be found in Christmas decorations. Ancient Romans brought evergreen trees into their homes to celebrate the winter solstice. They also hung bright metal ornaments on trees around their homes. Pagan societies believed that the holly bush had magical qualities to repel evil spirits. Even beyond decorations, Christians managed to incorporate customs from other faith traditions into the celebration of Christmas.

Americans are a population heavily influenced by capitalism and commercialism. We market everything, including Christmas. We are also a flexible bunch, and we don’t mind bending the truth a little to sell the product. Again, we can see this characteristic exhibited in a fairly common holiday decoration: the nativity scene. We like to portray this pivotal point in human history as a nice package that can easily fit on a small side table or night stand. So we take all the elements of the story — the baby Jesus in the manger, Mary, Joseph, angels, the shepherds, the ox, the donkey, the star, and the wise men with their camels — and we fold them altogether into one, compact decoration. It is irrelevant that the wise men were not there on the night of the Christ child’s birth but at least a month or so later (perhaps much later) after he was presented at the Temple by his parents. We cannot be expected to have a separate set of figurines in the house to represent this part of the story. After all, we need to make room somewhere for a sleigh and eight or nine reindeer too!

The older I get, the more I appreciate celebrating the spirit of Christmas with simplicity and humility. Over the decades I have purchased, displayed, and discarded any number of decorations. I have suffered through finding just the right tree at a farm in the country, cutting it down, paying way too much for it, and hauling it home only to find that once we wrestled it into the stand, it was as crooked as a Washington politician. We have gone through several different artificial trees and are thrilled with the two we have now, one inside and one on our back porch, that came with lights already installed. Over the last few years we have started buying what my wife calls “timeless” decorations — pieces that are reminiscent of generations past. Some people would refer to them as classic decorations. A close friend of ours paints marvelous Santa faces on gourds, and we include our collection of them on the living room mantel every year.

There are two decorations that my wife and I cherish perhaps more than any others, and we put them out every year then carefully store them away until the next Christmas. One is a small, resin angel that her parents gave her when she was a child. It is beautiful and precious. The other is a little plastic illuminated church that houses a manually-wound chime player that plays “Silent Night.” It belonged to my mother, a woman to whom the Christmas story was fundamental and factual. The miraculous birth of Jesus was a mystery she embraced without question, with little or no struggle. She has been gone now for over a dozen Christmases, but that little church keeps the memory of her fresh and close for me. I am grateful to have this modest decoration that is somehow a perfect expression of her faith and this holiday.

Church and angel
Church and angel