Ukraine and Russia: This Is Going To Be Much Longer And Much Bloodier

As I write this it’s been about 6 weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine. When Vladimir Putin invaded he expected a quick and easy victory; he didn’t expect Ukrainian resistance to be so fierce. This was partly due to bad advice he was given by his advisors. Dictators often run into this: they demand absolute loyalty from those around him and they tell him only what he wants to hear. Nobody is willing to speak truth or power because they will be fired or worse.

But what happens when a “quick victory” doesn’t work out? Well, nothing good. Rarely does an aggressor recognize the obvious and pull back. And we need only look at several examples from the 20th Century.

  • During World War II Germany fought a war on two fronts: The Soviet Union to the East and the Allies to the West. In 1943 Germany lost the Battle for Stalingrad and Soviet troops began their march toward Berlin. In 1944 Allied troops landed in France and began their march toward Berlin. It was clear that Germany couldn’t win the war but Hitler refused to surrender and the war continued until May 8, 1945.
  • Meanwhile, in the Pacific, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 intended to defeat America’s ability to stop Japan’s quest to conquer much of East Asia. But the next year American forces defeated Japan in the Battle of Midway. It wasn’t easy or fast but American forces were able to begin “island hopping.” In other words we were able to occupy islands that gave us closer and closer access to Japan. Many of us recognize Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa from high school history class. Long after it was clear that Japan could prevail they refused to surrender and they only gave up after two atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • In the 1960s the United States began a policy of supporting South Vietnam against the Communist North Vietnam. We sent advisors and then troops. In 1967 Defense Secretary Robert McNamera asked for a comprehensive report on US involvement in Vietnam, going back to 1945. We now know this report as the “Pentagon Papers.” The report was leaked in 1971 and it reported the American people were regularly lied to and that there were grave doubts as to whether the war was winnable at all. And yet we fought until our withdrawal in 1973.

I don’t think any of us want Putin and Russia to successfully conquer Ukraine. Given his fixation on restoring the old Soviet Union he may then set his sight on the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia).

But a war that goes badly for Putin also goes badly for Ukraine. We are already hearing reports of murder of civilians and other atrocities. We can only pray.

Thoughts on Ukraine and Russia

For the past month we’ve been watching horrific scenes from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s been hard to watch.

Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely claims that he is “liberating” Ukraine from the Nazis. The charge is absurd but it calls for some background.

The nations of what we now call Europe and Eastern Asia have often had fluid borders. Suffice it to say that those who live in modern Ukraine claim their own culture and language.

After World War I they were seen as an independent until they were occupied by the newly formed USSR (Union of Socialist Soviet Republics). From 1920 until 1991 the border between Ukraine and the USSR were sufficiently porous that many ethnic Russians moved to Ukraine. This wasn’t much help to Ukraine as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin essentially attempted to starve the the people of Ukraine in the early 1930s. Ukraine was known as the “breadbasket” of the region because of its rich soil and huge crop yields. But Stalin forced farmers to turn over so much of their yield that between 1931 and 1934 between 4 and 5 million people died of starvation.

But by 1990 – 1991 the Soviet Union could not protect their people and it collapsed, allowing for the freedom of Ukraine and several other countries. In late 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn down and shortly after that East and West Germany reunited, ending Soviet rule in East Germany.

At the time an agent of the KGB, Russia’s spy agency, found himself in East Germany with an uncertain future. His name was Vladimir Putin.

In his climb to power he never forgot the USSR’s collapse and, frankly, he pined for the “good old days” where he could reconquer the nations the Soviet Union lost in 1991.

In 2016 when Donald Trump was elected as the US President, Putin saw an opportunity. In his time in office Trump begged for Putin’s approval.

Trump also often threatened to withdraw from NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) which would give Putin the ability to invade countries in Eastern Europe without worrying that the United States would retaliate.

On February 24, 2022 Putin invaded Ukraine, being told by his advisors that he could conquer Ukraine in a matter of days. It hasn’t happened like that.

But it has caused tremendous damage to the land the people. I’ll be writing more about this as events continue to unfold.

“We Baptize You”

In the last few days we’ve read about a priest who used the “wrong formula” in performing baptims using an invalid formula.

The Catholic Church, and most Christian churches, insist that baptism requires the formula “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It appears this priest used “We” instead of “I.”

Does this matter? Well, it does. Clearly the priest’s intent was not to perform invalid baptisms and I have some sympathy for him. In the last 50 years the Catholic Church has attempted to become more inclusive and more welcoming. Part of that has included inviting the congregation to participate in worship. Until 1977 only priests and deacons were allowed to offer Eucharist (ie, give Communion to another person). For many people it was unsettling to receive Eucharist from someone other than a priest. Also, 50 years ago the idea of inviting a family member to speak at a funeral mass was unheard of but today it’s common.

And I’m guessing that this priest wanted to include the entire congregation in the child’s baptism. But when the priest says “I” he isn’t speaking for himself but for Jesus. There’s a Latin term “In Persona Christi” which means “in the person of Christ.”

So here’s the problem: we Catholics believe that all sacraments require some action on our part and it’s often what we say. The sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) begins with the penitent saying: “Bless me father for I have sinned.” When we receive Communion the Eucharistic Minister says: “The Body of Christ” and we respond: “Amen.” There’s more but you get the point.

Here’s the other problem: If a person’s baptism is invalid so are all the other sacraments, including marriage. What do we do going forward? I suspect this story will slowly fade away at least in the news media. But if you knew this priest baptized you and you’re fearful with your standing before God, what do you do?

If the Pope calls me for advice (and I’m not waiting by the phone) I’d tell him to issue a proclamation declaring that all these baptisms are valid. If the Pope calls you, tell him I’m available.

Baseball’s Hall Of Fame, Class of 2021

We recently got the news that David Ortiz was selected to join the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

David is often known as “Big Popi” and I celebrate his election to the Hall of Fame.

But today’s Hall of Fame news isn’t about David Ortiz getting in, but those who didn’t. When a player retires from playing baseball he is eligible for the Hall of Fame as long as he has played for ten seasons and has been retired for five.

In the early 2000s baseball produced several players who produced incredible numbers, particularly in home runs. It didn’t take long for the public to suspect or assume that their numbers may have been enhanced by steroids that artificially built muscles that inflated their statistics. When we discuss this we naturally look at Barry Bonds, Curt Shilling, Roger Clemens, and others.

This raises an interesting question: Does a baseball player earn his place in the Hall of Fame only because of his record or is it more complex? Do morals matter?

Ty Cobb (1886-1961) was inducted in the first class of the Hall of Fame in 1936. He grew up in Georgia and played for the Detroit Tigers and never lost his hatred for African Americans. Civil Rights and Racial Equality never mattered in his life and it never mattered in his election to the Hall of Fame.

Conversely, Shoeless Joe Jackson (1887-1951) was denied. He had an extraordinary career but was accused, along with seven other teammates, of conspiracy to purposely lose the 1919 World Series. It’s often called the Black Sox Scandal. He was banned from baseball for life and denied entry to the hall.

Also, Pete Rose (b.1941) was also banned from baseball and denied entry into the Hall of Fame for betting on baseball games while managing the Cincinnati Reds.

I think morals matter. We have halls of fame to inspire future generations. Members show the rewards of hard work and discipline, but I also believe they should model leadership. Everyone on this list put up Hall of Fame numbers but were also good people.

  • Christy Mathewson (1880-1925) was often called the “Christian Gentleman.”
  • Babe Ruth (1895-1948) showed us that even though his father gave up on him and placed him in an orphanage, he could work hard and never lose his affection for sick children.
  • Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) proved not only that a Black man could play major league baseball but he could do that while not responding to the racial discrimination he experienced.

I could go on and on. But I support the exclusion of Barry Bonds, Curt Shilling and Roger Clemens because I don’t want future generations of baseball players to believe that you can cheat you way into the Hall.

Yosemite Not In The Rear View Mirror

Normally at this time of year we travel to Yosemite for their Chef’s Holidays. Last year they cancelled the Chef’s Holidays and the Ahwahnee’s dining room. We elected not to go as we would have to eat boxed meals in our room. This year Chef’s Holidays were also cancelled but we had more options for eating and we decided to go.

When we travel we have two of Nancy’s siblings spend the night at our home to care for Nancy’s father. But one of Nancy’s siblings were exposed to COVID and nobody felt safe possibly exposing Al to COVID on the eve of his 103rd birthday. Instead of a 6 day trip to Yosemite we elected instead a 3 day trip to Los Angeles and it went well.

In the last several years we’ve been looking for an opportunity to visit the J. Paul Getty Museum. It was well worth the trip, if a little overwhelming. My only complaint was the promise they made about having an EV charging station. The web page says you can recharge your car in the parking lot and they have about 10 stations. But you have to download an app on your phone and since the spaces in the underground parking lot, my phone had no service and we weren’t able to charge my Honda Clarity. It would help if you could download the app on your phone before you arrive at the museum. That said it was a day well spent.

The next day we visited the Los Angeles Zoo and it was also great. We try to visit zoos in every city we visit and we’ve been to the LA Zoo several times. Nearly every exhibit had a tribute to Betty White, a picture with her and the animals she cared for so deeply. We enjoy speaking with the zookeepers but when we tell them we’re from San Diego many of them will apologize that their zoo isn’t as good as ours. I have to confess that this makes me crazy because each zoo we visit has its own strengths. We’re not looking for the biggest nor can we judge the best. But it’s fun to see a different zoo. By the way, they don’t advertise this but they have free charging stations and we were able to plug in my Clarity.

Finally, on the way home we stopped by Calvary Cemetery and Nancy was able to lay flowers on the graves of her paternal grandparents, Paul Graff (1882-1967) and Theresa Sailer Graff (1893-1978).

Hopefully we’ll see Yosemite soon and Chef’s Holidays will return in 2023.

Observations on Roe v. Wade 49 Years Later

It was on this day in 1973 that the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that states could not outlaw abortion in early pregnancy. You can read the opinion here. There has been a great deal of attention as the Supreme Court has accepted a case (Dobbs v. Jackson) that may overturn Roe.

As a Catholic I’m feeling torn about this. I’m pro-life and I find myself nearly alone in the hope that the Supreme Court does not decide to overturn Roe. I believe that all life is sacred but I believe one Supreme Court decision will not achieve that goal. Overturning Roe will only allow individual states to legislate abortion policy (as they did before 1973). I doubt anything will bring abortions to zero but this certainly will not.

Conservative states like Mississippi and Texas will outlaw abortion while liberal states like New York and California will not and this will allow wealthy women to travel to end their pregnancies, a right denied to poor women.

If we wish to be a pro-life nation we need to work to prevent unplanned pregnancies and we know how to do that. First we need to provide sex education in high school. Evidence shows that instead of giving teens permission to have sex it gives them the tools to make mature decisions. Second we need to ensure that everyone has free and available birth control.

Finally, Switzerland’s experience tells us that we need to work on closing the gap between rich and poor. Nearly three out of four women choose abortion out of a fear that an unplanned child will drive them deeper into poverty. I have several friends that describe themselves as “oops babies,” that is, a pregnancy that was unplanned but not unloved or unwelcome. Our best ability to become a pro-life nation lies in the ability to prevent unplanned pregnancies or at least welcome them as “oops babies.”

Thoughts On January 6th, One Year Later

On January 6, 2021 I saw something I never expected: A group of terrorists, angry that Donald Trump was not reelected, stormed the Capitol in the hopes of preventing the Senate from certifying that Joe Biden was elected President. You can find an excellent timeline here.

At first even the Republican National Committee condemned the riot. But this was not to last.

In the year since this event Donald Trump has continued to claim he won the 2020 election and virtually all Republicans have tried to excuse or downplay January 6th.

A year later I think we have a few takeaways:

  1. The Republican Party has figured out that democracy isn’t working out for them. Since 1992 the Republican Presidential candidate has won the popular vote only once, in 2004. In 2000 and 2016 George Bush and Donald Trump won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote.
  2. Gerrymandering will only take them so far. For the most part state legislatures determine voting districts and the Republicans currently control statehouses in 30 states. After the 2020 census they are working hard at making sure that congressional districts give them an advantage. Instead of voters choosing the candidates, the candidates are choosing the voters. But there is a problem:
  3. People of color vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Despite all Republican attempts, the United States continues to move from a white majority to a more diverse nation. Children of immigrants who are born here are American citizens and can vote when they turn 18 and Trump’s xenophobia and racism are not lost on them.
  4. Younger voters vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Younger voters generally don’t vote as much as their parents and grandparents but that’s changing. The youngest Baby Boomer (those born from 1946 to 1964) is now 57. Gen X (1965 to 1980), Millenials (1981 to 1996), and Gen Z (1997 to 2012), when they vote, vote Democratic. A child born in 2006 will be able to vote in the 2024 Presidential election.

I believe that if Donald Trump remained in the White House on January 20, 2021 he would never leave. He would attempt to cancel the 2024 elections or at least find a way to win a 3rd term. I believe that would end our democracy.

I also fear that if he attempts to run in 2024 his supporters will do anything to make this happen.

I hope I’m wrong.

Happy 2022

This is the time of year when seemingly everyone wishes everyone else a happy new year. This year it seems like more of a prayer than a greeting.

As Americans we generally think ourselves optimistic about the future but I have to admit this year it’s more of a reach for me than usual. Last year at this time I was expecting good things from 2021. Joe Biden was on the cusp of the Presidency and I truly believed that this was the year we would end COVID 19.

I wasn’t entirely surprised by the events of January 6th and was frankly a little surprised that Donald Trump voluntarily left the White House on January 20th. I fully expected that President Biden would need to call the Secret Service to remove a trespasser.

This is what I didn’t expect: as COVID continued to enjoy 2021 I had no idea that large numbers of ordinary people would continue to believe the lies that masks don’t work, that vaccines are dangerous, and that getting sick wasn’t too bad.

Last year 386,000 Americans died of COVID, more than died in 2020. The science couldn’t be clearer. Those who got sick and those who died were overwhelmingly people who didn’t follow simple directions.

Problem is that I don’t see anything turning around in 2022. As far as I can tell the science deniers will continue to deny and the ignorant will continue to work hard to maintain their ignorance. Meanwhile we will continue to discover COVID variants like Omicron.

As an American I find optimism hard, but as a Christian I find hope easier. Unlike optimism, hope does not rely on events but on faith.

Even the most ignorant person, and even the most evil purveyor of these lies lives within God’s love and healing. So if we happy new year is more of a prayer than a greeting, let us rejoice in the hope that makes it so.

Thoughts on Christmas Movies

I write this in the days after Christmas, having watched parts of countless movies, some old, and some new. My wife loves Christmas and spent the last few weeks addicted to the Hallmark Channel. It got me thinking about Christmas movies.

As long as there have been movies we’ve experienced movies about Christmas. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) may have started this with his novel A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843.

The first half of the 20th Century gave us movies that many of us remember from our childhood. I can’t keep up with the number versions of A Christmas Carol but that was far from the only Christmas movie. We also enjoyed It’s A Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Charlie Brown Christmas (among several other cartoons).

All of these movies explored some aspect of conversion. Some character, normally the main character, found his life was changed by the birth of a child 2,000 years ago.

Ebeneezer Scrooge recognized that his choice of profit over love wouldn’t go well for him. George Bailey learned that his life made him a hero, not a sucker. Charlie Brown learned that his heart captured the real meaning of Christmas and he’s not a blockhead.

The birth of a child calls all of us to recognize the possibilities of new life. I think all of us see a newborn and wonder where his (or her) path will lead and hope it’s a path that’s good for everyone. And I think we watch these Christmas movies to remind ourselves of the reality of this.

That said, I have to confess I watch parts of several Hallmark movies with a little concern. In fairness Hallmark is a for profit company and they make movies to make money, not to remind us of who we are.

But if what I saw indicates anything it indicates this: We celebrate Christmas because it allows young, beautiful people to find each other and fall in love. A young man moves back to his hometown and connects with an old girlfriend and they find they were destined from the start. A young woman accepts a job promotion and works alongside a man who seems arrogant but really is trying to heal from a toxic breakup.

This may mark me as a grumpy old man but these movies trouble me. The birth of Jesus didn’t inaugurate a new world where young, beautiful people can finally find each other and fall in love. The birth of Jesus meant that people like Ebeneezer Scrooge and George Bailey and Charlie Brown were more valued than they thought.

And if Faux News finds out about this please understand that this isn’t an attack on the Hallmark Channel or another example on the war on Christmas.

It’s just a reflection from an old guy in California.

Omicron? OMG

It’s been nearly 2 years since we first heard about COVID 19. Despite the efforts of then President Trump to ignore and deny it, we soon learned it was becoming a global pandemic and needed immediate action. Here in California we were essentially locked down on March 19, 2020.

Following the experience of the flu pandemic in 1918 we hoped that by June we could “flatten the curve” and be in good shape for the expected 2nd wave in the fall.

On June 16, 2020 Vice President Mike Pence wrote an article claiming that President Trump’s leadership will prevent a 2nd wave.

But President Trump, Fox News, and other conservatives have continually discounted and denied the need for social distancing, masks, and vaccines. Simply put, their thirst for popularity, political ambition, and clicks has put us all in danger.

They have blood on their hands.

We are all tired of COVID. We are all tired of masks. We are all tired of restrictions on gathering with friends and family. But here we are in December of 2021 and COVID continues to rule our lives.

First it was the Delta variant, and now Omicron. History students in future generations will wonder why we ignored truth and science.

I have no answer for them.