Monday, July 24, 2017

vain hair

What a falling off was there!

-- Hamlet, I. v.

I talk to my hair with oils
I say today I need you to curl
And when I style you,
Stay in place, do not spoil!

-- Sylvia Chidi*

I am letting down my hair -- it's fed up with me, and it's leaving. My scalp is complaisant and lets go of it. Not in clumps, but strand by strand. There's a fuzz of short light-colored follicles in my comb.

I'm vain of it, my hair. There's quite a bit left, with a natural wave and some original color. The doctor told me this would happen: the chemical they pump into me every three weeks goes after fast-growing cells, and hair follicles grow fast. The exodus, plotted for three months, is now.

I'm more or less okay with the plumping and sagging face, the scooping flesh under my eyes, the flop under my chin disrupting my noble profile. But these strands of hair, out of their place, speak to me of what is lost. Sometimes, standing its ground on my cranium, my hair has caused a casual observer to mistake my age.

Why is this a big deal? This is the inevitable consequence of a self-care campaign, a soldier's fight irrelevant to the objective, mere roadside incident in what friends call my "journey." And certainly not the most serious incident but a cosmetic distraction, froth of the underlying churn. Keep moving, nothing to see here.

But that's just it. This is something to see, an announcement of visceral combat. It has that meaning to those who know me. Nothing unusual for the bystander in a seventy-year old man with thinning hair (though now I am exposed in my seventyness); but there is something unusual in me with thinning hair. The bystander doesn't know what is wrong, but I do.

This is something to see. For other signs of the struggle there are strategies of camouflage and concealment, selective presentation and tasteful retreat. Or I can tough it out with more or less success, though this doesn't work with a companion who knows me well. But this is right up there on top of my head, where the flag of my dominion flies. My flag is in tatters.

I suppose I could wear a hat. But what hat?

But I've never had a good relationship with a hat.

And a hat is the giveaway that a chemo patient is losing hair.

But then not everybody knows I am a chemo patient.

I could just be an old guy with a hat. But I don't want to be "just an old guy."

This is all about me, isn't it? I am the auditor who is disappointed. 

*"I Love My Hair"

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

american tumor

In Adams's fall
We sinned all.

-- New England Primer

He plays extravagant matches . .
.. On a cloth untrue,
With a twisted cue,
And elliptical billiard balls.

-- W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado

People who live good lives, they're healthy . . .

-- Rep. Mo Brooks, May 1, 2017

Because I work in health care, I know that what I sit in is called a geri-chair, though its more formal name is "medical recliner." It's padded, hard to fall out of, and tilts back. The remote control of a flat screen is at my right shoulder, hanging by its cable from the back of the chair; so I have a universe of entertainment before me, as a gracious nurse inserts her needle into the veteran and often-punctured vein on the inside of my right elbow and establishes an intravenous line. After a few short infusions of introductory drugs, one of which makes me euphoric, she begins the main event: the hour-long drip of a substance that kills cells, some though not all of which are the cells that, if left to themselves, will kill me. I do this every three weeks. I've done it four times now, and depending on how things go I'll do it three or maybe five times more.

The first time I did this, in my drug-induced high, with a remote in my hand and a window before me showing, through a frosted sylvan design like that of a Belvedere Vodka bottle, a larger room of nurses and screens and controls, I said I felt like I was on the bridge of the Enterprise. More often I just feel lucky.

I receive my gifts in the entrails of a medical research center, and two high-priced doctors work for my welfare, with their assistants and specialized nurses. I'm enrolled in two research protocols, so I am scanned and sampled and tracked, and all my information is kept in a single system. Most astounding of all however is the money, most of it for drugs, untold amounts of which fly over my head in cyberspace, only droplets of which fall on me as co-pays, virtually nothing. I'm getting all of this, close as dammit, for free. I'm lucky.

To say I am lucky is a theological statement, a defiance of the dominant theology of our time, which says I've got mine so I deserve it and the rest of you be damned. The ruling theology of America now is damn-the-poor theology, damn-the-unfortunate theology, grab-everything-that-ain't-bolted-down-and-run-for-the-hills theology, a looter's theology. It would be easy to join in. It would be easy for me to say I deserve the gifts I am getting, that I'm smart and worked hard, earned my degrees and certifications and picked a final career with a health-care agency that out of sheer moral compulsion would provide excellent medical insurance, and then I managed not to get fired or laid off for twelve years. These were smart things to do, and required work. It would be so easy to say, I deserve what I have, it's my right. As if my life were worth preserving at such expense -- which would be to say it is priceless.

And it ought to be my right. Medical care is a human right, and the medical profession knows it. All attempts to treat medical care as a consumer good are confounded when an uninsured person comes in the door of an emergency room. Such people cannot pay and they cannot, by ethics of medicine, be refused, so they are cared for briefly and sent bills of a size beyond their capacity, which we the public pick up in our insurance premiums. In denying our biblical responsibility to care for our neighbors, we smack ourselves in the face with greater penalties. This is not just greed but worse. It's stupidity.

An uninsured person at the emergency room is not like a poor person presenting himself at the Beamer showroom. Those who can't afford a Beamer don't get one: they live without a Beamer, which is perfectly possible. There isn't any human right to a Beamer. But those who can't afford medical care for the condition I live with will die of it. There is a human right to medical care.

The care I receive should come to me by right, but is only a privilege. In my work I meet people who are dying of what I live with, and might not be dying if they had been cared for as I am being cared for. These are not wastrels and rascals. Many are as smart and worked at least as hard as I have, but didn't have my luck. Their lives under God's eye are as priceless as mine, but they didn't get what I have.

This is iniquitous. The gifts I receive are poisoned fruits of a toxic tree. The American tumor dressed up as a medical system eats at the souls of all who encounter it. It is the best working model, for Christians  and Unitarians, believers and atheists, of original sin. There are no right angles or straight lines or level floors. We play on a cloth untrue, striking as best we can elliptical billiard balls, and we ourselves are the twisted cues. We're smart and work hard, and have the best intentions, but we play for a system, and systems preserve themselves. It's as if someone, a long time ago, an original human being perhaps, did something terrible -- so terrible that it distorts all space and time, warping our motives in all dimensions. This is what we used to call the Fallen World.

Do I refuse the poisoned fruits offered me? Of course not. I preserve my life, which seems precious to me and to those who love me. But the life I preserve is tainted with a sinfulness bigger than my fault, and in working for the good of others through a tainted system I confirm the slanting of the world; but there are no untainted systems.

And yet we must be good. The Fallen World must be made beautiful.

When we twisted creatures join together to do good it's more miracle than arithmetic. And we must pray for miracles each day, not in some remote future when we've all become pure and all our companions in justice are spotless. Such waiting for purity is procrastination.

I fear that my religious dis-organization is falling into procrastination, into the joy of inquisition against those who we know will not strike back because they were trying, imperfectly, to help. There is no ideology and no vocabulary list that will save our country, or save us within it. If we're going to turn the tide we'll need partners who wouldn't have done well at the recent brie-and-chablis party. We must form alliances with some who haven't become comfortable with our words for racial and other injustice. If we win, our hands will get soil on them. We'll need the vision of that wealthy bankrupt sinner who wrote that all human beings are created equal. We'll need that proclamation from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25.* We'll need both Liberation Theology and Enlightenment, imperfect as both human thought-scapes must be.

As for me, I forget ideologies and vocabulary lists every time I go to work in my ministry. I have to work at a deeper, less intellectual level. People are dying and people are grieving, and many of them are poorer than me, and many are of colors darker than the deep pinkness of my northern European extraction, and if I started speaking the language of Unitarian justice debates they would throw me out of the room. My appearance represents those who have done injuries to such people, and my ministry depends on their forgiveness -- forgiveness that, miraculously, is frequently extended, and not because I am free of sin.

"Any decent realtor," writes the poet Maggie Smith, "walking you through a real shithole, chirps on/about good bones." When we struggled against Nixon, the pathological and lawless president of an earlier time, we relied on Sam Ervin, a white Southern segregationist senator, to lead the resistance. Think about that, ideologues. I guess the good old boy had good bones. "This place could be beautiful, right?"**


**Maggie Smith, "Good Bones"

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

male gazer

. . . as you were when first your eye I eyed, 
Such seems your beauty still. 

-- Shakespeare, Sonnet 104 (1609)

I realized that, in this world, there would be many instances when my body would not feel like my body.

-- Heather Burtman, New York Times (June 16, 2017)*

I'm a man. I'm straight. Even when I was an unhappy straight man, I knew there was no alternative role, no other kind of creature I could be, because there is no question which portion of humankind attracts me. I look. Science says that men are visual creatures, and old age is no cure. I'm an old straight man. Any relationship based on the notion that I am some other kind of creature would be a house built on sand.

   "When you're a star, they let you do it."** Women are in danger from men who look and reach, who see with their hands and their physical strength, making an empire of vision. There are too many assaults, violations, gropings, catcalls; but even short of violence the male gaze, they tell me, tramples a woman's agency, marks her like a terrain to be colonized, a piece of meat to be carved. And I am male, and I gaze.

     I must resolve the contradiction. I must see, but I must not own what I see. I look, but my look must meet the consent of another gaze. This is, as Kant would say, categorical: no woman exists as a means to my pleasure (nor of course do I exist as a means to hers). I suspect that women do their share of looking, though they are less often on the upper side of a power differential. The gaze must be mutual and continuously responsive, a kind of utilitarian duet whose pleasure, if there is pleasure, arises not from body parts or instruments but from the concert of all. My look dwells nowhere, for there is no home where I look, only a provisional permission. Keep moving. My eyes, goes the joke, are up hereThis is a principle I have always known, but I was not taught how to live with it, and the world taught me its contradiction.

   In the David Lean movie Summertime, released in 1955, Rossano Brazzi gazes at Katherine Hepburn across the Piazza San Marco, appraising her like a sculpture. The Ohio schoolteacher, discomfited and denuded with her clothes on, braving a place where American conventionalities are suspended, did not intend to be a spectacle. The gaze provokes an affair. Though there is no act of force, the man exploits a power differential, his Machiavellian skill against her solitariness. The seduction is exposed when she learns he is a married man with a family right there in Venice. This may be how you do things in Venice, she concludes; but I'm from Ohio and it isn't how I carry myself.

     I was eight years old when Summertime was in the theaters. The seduction and betrayal, beginning in the male gaze, was presented with favor. We are to notice that the schoolteacher is traveling alone: she is a spinster, and the seducer is doing a good deed. Rossano Brazzi represented a middle term, unattainable by American men, of the universal message -- that women were to be perused, pursued, taken and possessed. He doesn't take the woman by force, which we all knew was a crime. His second way, by Venetian polish and deceit, was far beyond our capabilities. In our dreams! So what third way was left for respectable men? Hard to describe -- it seems to have gone by the name "respect." Opening of doors, pulling out of chairs, protection from harsh realities, combined with the right hair cream, discreet boasting, and promises of good providing for herself and hers. But the purpose was to pursue and capture, own and dominate. We were so alone.

This definition of a man's relation to women corrupted the youth into competition. There were a few who seemed to be winners and the rest, observing the evident winners, came to see themselves as losers. If you couldn't capture and possess, if you couldn't display trophies of conquest, you were exposed, and your mates might say you were queer. (That was the definition in those days -- a "queer" was a a failed heterosexual.) The most respectable trophy of manhood was a wedding, but the more common trophy was the narrative of progress on a four-base scale, of notches on one's gun, the communal soiling of reputation, a race to ruin characters by betrayal or by outright lying. If you weren't a winner you were a loser: the only cure for your defect was somehow to recover your "confidence" (for the winners were said to be always confident, and confidence was what opened doors and bodies). You were supposed to carry Vivienne Leigh up the staircase despite her wishes, your doubts and your bad knee: after all, you owned her and you knew what was best. Many of us had no such tales and did not want to fabricate them, so we opted out; but opting out was opting out of manhood.

     We don't tell our stories of man and woman in the same way we did sixty years ago, which is why some of the classics embarrass us in our affection. In The Bishop's Wife, it hurts to watch Carey Grant and David Niven toss Loretta Young through hoops. "Fight for her," says the angel to the bishop, but no one asks her what she wants. And I flinch, in the coda of Casablanca, as Bogart mansplains to Bergman that "Someday you'll understand . .  . . if that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it." It's all for the best, little woman, I've got man's work to do, so go along now with the other guy. Oh well.

     We're trying -- I and the people I know, work with, befriend and love -- to figure out a better way of living with each other. There are still glass ceilings and pay differentials, harassments and intimidations, but I think sometimes we succeed. Growing up is hard, and it can take many decades for a person or a society to learn the obvious. A joyous truth dawns on me, again and again: a woman, member of that other persuasion who are the majority of humankind, is first middle and and last a person. Rossano Brazzi was on the wrong track. My will to power, if I could find it, would not prove to be my most attractive feature. I've a good head of hair for my age, with a natural wave and hints of its original color, but the best things about me are my mind and my heart. They are only good, can only attract if I give them away. I've been learning: in life as in ministry, it's not about me. My best move is to listen, attend, breathe. I have to be present to that other person. This isn't easy, and I'm messing up right now as I write a thousand words about me and my feelings. Not in me or in the other, but somewhere on the other side of the membrane, beauty might arise. My eyes, goes the joke, are up here.

     Beauty has no objective meaning, but is in the eye of the beholder, and relies therefore on a certain forgiveness. All bodies will prove hideous when viewed without limit or compassion, for in the rule of facts we are all just sacks of bone and meat, blood and worse. God pronounced the world tovah, beautiful, as God created it, but put the human beings in the world, male and female, for shamar, to watch over and keep it, well, beautiful. Beauty vanishes without attention, and thrives with tending.

    "I'll have what she's having." In When Harry Met SallyRob Reiner asked if men and women can be friends, and Harry thinks no, because sooner or later the man will want to "nail" the woman. But this is a love story, and before it ends we learn that Harry and Sally belong together because they were friends.

   How's this for a concept? Not every love is a love story; most, in fact, are not. But first things first. I wouldn't want to be in a love story with someone who wasn't my friend. Can men and women be friends? If they cannot then life is not worth living.

*"My Body Doesn't Belong to You"

**Access Hollywood, 2005

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

college reunion

They don't understand, do they?

-- Our Town

Look you, the stars shine still.

-- The Duchess of Malfi

I fear reunions. I fear a flood of grief and regret.

Grief not for wildness of youth, scrapes and escapades long gone and not to be revived. There were no scrapes. There was no wildness.

Primary narrative for a preacher's kid: a joy-riding car-wrecking dope-smoking wild-oats-sowing scourge, disciple of Marlon Brando on his loud bike, just bailed out at midnight by discreet arrangement in respect of the parson's position, an arrangement known across the town and in the pews by morning's light, and that is why the pastor's cheeks are burning as he ascends the pulpit. That was not my narrative. Sometimes I wish it had been. You hear how it lives in my imagination.

Mine was a second scenario, impulse curtailed and curdled, perfection imperfectly performed. Never arrested, never flunked out, never made anyone pregnant -- the clean slate that can bring no joy as an end in itself, but only as a modest flower on the vine of love. Paranoids have real enemies, and the lonely are not always to be pitied. Good grades at the prep school down the street appeased the parents, covering many sins of omission. If you are a "good kid" and no athlete, your grades are all most people want to know. Buttoned down, consumed in fantasies that rarely intersected with the world. More conversant with ancient characters of drama than with persons of my age, my sentences too long and lexicons no longer current, I was so old in youth, bitter in isolation.

And there was always an enemy, someone I was angry at and appointed chief wrecker of life. If that villain had only not done this or that to me . . . I thought life would then be good. Not that I had an idea what good life would be, too busy defending myself against real slings and imaginary arrows to look in other faces and wonder what behind their personae they were making of life, where their tender spots might be, how we might, or might not, have made a little bit of life together. Not a hot mess I was, but rather a cold one.

So what I feel, setting foot again on hallowed grounds that once I failed to make my own, is not grief but guilt: for a sour virtue, acts undone, roads not taken, dice not thrown, conversations not started, confessions aborted, opportunities of growth tabled in self-pity and delayed to future decades. What a jerk! -- the refrain of a critical heart no longer proud of misery.

We only learn big lessons the hard way, and the longer we wait the harder is the way. It seems I have lived long enough, not having learned the easier way, to scissor up such scripts of anger and futility. Perhaps I do not need a script at all. I don't draw castles in the air and rage because they do not meet the ground. For half a decade now I've not had enemies. Well sure, there are people who make me angry, but it's not a cosmic thing. I get over it.

I was of course saved, or I could not write this. There were those who, for whatever reason, reached down into the well and pulled me out. Some were friends of a year, or a decade; some were of a lifetime. Some were foolishly blind to my folly, and thought I was smart, or talented, or kind, or god help me good looking. And here's the simplest romance: when they put your newborn child into your arms, and she looks into your eyes saying please save my life tonight, you have to start growing up, whether you know how to or not. Fake it till you make it they say in showbiz and many other trades, including ministry.

And Carol, who gave me two babies and a half century of waiting for my adulthood, went to her fiftieth reunion at our college this year, and had a good time, and she commands me to go to my fiftieth reunion next year and also to have a good time. Perhaps, if I go, they won't remember what a jerk I was. Some of them at least. Maybe I'm not a jerk any more. Is that bar low enough? can I leap over it?

Do I really want to have been a bad kid? I'd rather be a good man. I'm not ambitious. I don't want to win anything. I'm not pursuing prizes or advancements. I'd like to be someone in whose presence living things can thrive.

I might turn out to be a younger, better old man than ever I was a young one. I hope. I think. I think I can. I think I can. . . .

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

friendship's requiem

Certain small things/Touch nerve-lines to the heart.
-- John O'Donahue, To Bless the Space Between Us*

Short lines
Of an old fool for no one
Who will read them

Rest in peace
What did I hope for
What did I want really
I wanted
Every now and then
I wanted every now and then
Wanted to
Wanted every now and then to do something nice
Not so nice as you fear
Not that nice
Not nice that way
Something small that you would like
That only you would like
And only I could know you’d like
And I alone could make for you.

A little work of hand and head
A note a tone
A tone of voice
to answer one of yours

And yes I wanted
From you
I wanted
From you
Time to time
To hear you
I wanted to hear you
from time to time
The time the place the smell the heat
The snap of where and when you are.
A little thing
Nothing really

I can do a lot with that
A man of imagination I am
I do a lot with nothing
With little
That’s my m├ętier
Too much perhaps with little
Perhaps too little
It’s in my wheelhouse
My scope of practice
My Modus Operandi

Facio facere feci factus
Do or make
I make something of nothing
Things of nothing
I do a lot with little
Not much

Just a little something
Nothing at all
Is what I want
Wanted because
Out of nothing I make something

A note a tone

Not so much
Nothing really
Not so much to ask
In return
Return for
A small thing but mine own
My soul
Nothing much

The rest is silence

*(New York: Doubleday, 2008), p. 165

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Monday, April 10, 2017

white bird

Seventy years are given to us!
     Some even live to eighty.

-- Psalm 90:10 (NLT)

Oh to be seventy again!

-- attr. Georges Clemenceau

. . . a small white bird banging in my heart.

-- Peter Meinke, "Poem to Old Friends Who Have Never Met"

The arithmetic is staggering. It staggers me. Today at about three in the morning I completed my seventh decade and -- get this! -- began an eighth. Doesn't seem right. When I say it out loud, my friends say surely that's wrong. But yes, I am living my eighth decade.

Older versions of scripture were more stately: "The days of our lives are threescore years and ten." In our age of vaccines and potable water and municipal sewer systems, the psalmist seems to bestow a right. I'm owed my seventy years, dammit, it's in one of those amendments somewhere. And if I don't get my threescore and ten then something has gone terribly wrong, so I'll retain legal counsel and there'll be an investigation to find out whose fault it is. Somebody has to be brought up on charges.

But entitled as I am to seven, an eighth decade seems to exceed my rights. I might finish it or I might not. The Constitution is silent about it. "Some even live to eighty . . . " how remarkable! how lucky!

And if you've already been blessed with a look into your medical future, if you feel on certain days the fatiguing race of medications through your body, if you know that other, more tiring chemicals are to follow and you know the name of your angel, you might see the next ten years as a contingent matter.

I was widely praised a week ago for not doing much. It brings to mind the secret motto of counseling: don't just do something; sit there! I came late into two meetings, both of them emotional. In each meeting a team of clinicians were coaching someone through a difficult decision. I listened hard, because it took me the whole meeting to catch up. What were they talking about?

By the time I figured out what the question was it had been answered and the team was leaving, and I stayed there with -- in one case the patient herself, in the other case a daughter who had made a hard decision. In both cases tears. In one the assurance that no, she wasn't about to die now, she had many days yet to live with us, and were proud how brave she was, to say that if her heart stopped she would not want resuscitation, would not want intubation. In the other case to say she really loved her mother, that her tears were the proof of how deeply, that the choice was a hard one with no clear answer, that we understood and would support her. In both cases a prayer to whatever it is that brings us here where we cannot bring ourselves, for the unearned gift that life is, for the chance to care about such things.

That's all.

I guess it worked.

There was a shoutout on the company email, much praise.

Perhaps I am entering a phase of minimalism. Perhaps I operate on automatic pilot, accurate without decisions. You might say "instinct." You might say "experience." You might say "lazy." Maybe I am letting go of something. Maybe that's okay.

It's a time to separate, and grasp other work. My heart is elsewhere. Where has it gone, mi corazon? Always a fool and now an old one, I can mess things up in that new territory where a small white bird flutters.

There is fluttering around those who start out in the work, sent to me so I can clear some steps for them, watch them in their wobble and point to pits where they could fall. The holy terror, the impulse to flee and the command to stay in the room for another breath, with what cannot be fixed. Then the reduction of that inbreak to documents so ill-suited it's hard to say whether one makes a stream of gobble or a string of lies -- the soul's war between priest and bureaucrat. This watching, their looking back for confirmation, for some years now have been my chief joy.

And now, even newer, the fluttering around those next to me, nurses and social workers and doctors and yes even managers, who under merciless pressure to produce numbers and protect posteriors, five or six or seven times a day send out their fragile emissary of compassion to broken places of the world, and then recall the shaken messenger before he can flame out -- in this my later stage I hear a call from them.

"Staff support" is in every chaplain's job description, and the job itself makes staff support impossible. In our work reports it's literally unrepresentable: unless I lie, it looks like goofing off. It's not another bloody meeting where, hell or high water, you staff will be supported by me the counselor and here's the agenda. It's not another complication in your schedule. It's my being with you. Maybe we talk about kids, or cats, or temples in Thailand, or John Cleese. Maybe it's you and me laughing till we choke with backstage jokery. Maybe it's me reminding you, or you me, that we don't deserve to be bullied.

These are sweet things, and I am perfectly capable of botching them. They are still sweet.

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

flat wrong

Who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?

-- John Milton, "Areopagitica," 1644

. . . the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.

-- Stephen Miller, February 12, 2017

I don't know why there should be something rather than nothing, but there is something. If there were nothing, then I wouldn't be here wondering about it.

Asilomar, Pacific Grove, CA, 2/19
And there is truth, for without truth there would be nothing. The Something is what it is no matter what we think of it. The earth is not round today and flat tomorrow, depending on someone's opinion. Or someone's belief. Or someone's faith. Earth is there, exerting itself against us in a characteristic way. If it did not have a character, it would be nothing.

Ever since there were sailors, it was known that the earth is round. Sailors know that the other ship disappears "over the horizon" not by becoming too small to see but by sinking beneath the curve of ocean.

There are those who say the earth is flat, but they are wrong. Flat wrong. To maintain their false opinion they must bury themselves away, not just from theoretical predictions and scientific data but from ordinary human experiences as well; and when their little dungeon crumbles and the voice of truth breaks in again, they will have to flee again. If there is no place left to run to, they might resort to violence. Ignorance is essentially aggressive.

The American faith in Milton's "free and open encounter" of thoughts is so severe that to a surprising extent we tolerate ignorance, with all the dangers that such toleration poses. We don't imprison people for speaking falsehoods, unless we can prove they have done serious and deliberate harm. We judge falsehood however, and judge it hard. If you say the earth is flat, you lose credibility. What else, I think, are you deluded about? Perhaps your bank balance is another article of your faith. Should I accept a check from you?

Flat-Earthers do not possess alternative truth. They are wrong. And potentially dangerous. Though the American principle extends to them a right to be wrong, we retain the right to question them. If they respond to our questions by fighting and lying, there are penalties to be paid.

Ignorance is essentially aggressive and potentially dangerous, but then we're all ignorant, aren't we? Truth exceeds the capacity of any of us. No one can own it. Despite our years and diplomas, you and I can only claim to have traversed a small part of Truth's expanse, and that is why we must discipline our ignorance. We must expect to be questioned, and when questioned we must provide answers. Stand and deliver -- the deepest commandment of civil society.

Emerson drew knowledge as a series of circles on the surface of Truth, each superseded by a larger one containing it. My first circle is the sweep of my eye over the horizon. I expand my knowledge by rambling outside of the circle's limits, or I expand it by climbing to a higher altitude from which a larger circle is visible. I see within my world the tiny circle of the flat-earther, within which the world might as well be flat. I see all around that circle its contradictions. Driving from here to the hardware store, taking the subway to midtown, one sees no sign of earth's curvature. But if one flies to Europe, the aircraft follows a Great Circle route that looks like nonsense on a flat map. I see this and am wise, and yet, from the wilds of some even Greater Circle, who watches me and knows me for a fool?

The wider the circle, the greater its territorial claim on Truth; but no circle is final -- "Around every circle another can be drawn." And so goes the progress of mind, of heart, of what we might with fear and trembling call civilization. The earth that looked so flat is revealed, when we go to sea or climb the air, to be round. The round rock spins and reels around a star. Our powers for good and evil expand.

There is of course resistance. As we build the larger circle, we invest in our carpentry; we don't like it when some yokel, whippersnapper shouts "False!" before the plaster dries. We wanted to enjoy our larger limit for a while, take some credit, receive the plaudits of a grateful nation. We don't want to see our drywall knocked down for some other dimension of which we had no notion. And yet it's that, or start to obsolesce. The rot on the vine begins.

Or more terrifying yet, we could start to defend our corrupted position, build the wall higher and thicker, send armies to defend against the threat of Truth, not only as it masses on the outside, but as it undermines and bubbles up on the kingdom's interior. In this way tyranny breaks out, a deadly plague to which nations are prone, but to which churches and political parties, families and social classes are susceptible as well.

The United States of America -- my beloved country -- is not a kingdom. No one gets to say, "This is the last circle!" It was designed by people who intimately knew the human lust for power, were aware that those who seize it almost never give it up unless compelled to do so. They invented something that changed the world -- the peaceful non-hereditary transition of power. They knew that no one has the whole truth, and they symbolized it in divided government; no one has the whole of power. They permanently divided power in a much-abused scripture called Constitution. Those who love America hold sacred the nation's separations of power.

In the America whose documents I learned by heart as a child, and to which I have pledged allegiance thousands of times, no one gets the last word. No one. Particularly that ill-paid employee we imprison in a White House four years at a time to do our dirty work for us. That public servant's word may be first, but will never be final. God help us we are only human, and the endless conversation is our only salvation.

A few days ago, deluded King Heffalump put one of his courtesans on TV to declare that no one can limit his power, or his proclamations. (No, I don't mean "courtier.") There was a revelation: we all saw how hostile to America, its people, its laws and its values were both the serpent and his master. Go back, sonny boy, sad herald with threadbare tights and kazoo for a trumpet, to the one who sent you. In the United States of America you have constitutional rights, but deserve no respect.