Tuesday, December 30, 2008


January 1, 2009

Dear Family and Friends,
Adell Allen, a long-time parishioner of St. Augustine Catholic Church here in the South Bronx, died on the first of December. She was 92. Born in Jamaica and trained as a teacher, she moved to New York in 1945, working menial jobs for years before finding employment at Lincoln Hospital and rising to unit coordinator. She and her husband raised two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom became medical doctors. At her funeral, her son told the mourners: "My mother defied the racial prejudice she experienced here in America and made a successful career, as did my father. They motivated us kids to do the same. But Mom always said she'd never live to see the day when a Black person would become president of the United States. For the first time in her life, she was wrong about something."
On election night at eleven o'clock, the neighborhood around St. Augustine's erupted with firecrackers and shouts: "O-bam-AH! O-bam-AH!" Not long ago, the noise would have come from gunfire and fights.
Talk about "change."
Whether or not the new administration will be able to effect change in the political sense, profound change has already occurred in the symbolic sense. Electing a Black president has lifted not only Blacks' self-esteem but the whole nation's — and the world's. My friend Georg Michels, a history professor at U.C. Riverside, told me that his aged father in Germany — along with most of the globe — stayed up till dawn watching the election returns and Obama's victory speech. His dad calls Obama der Weltpresident — the World-president.
Let's hope our new leader can use this enormous cache of good will to make genuine progress toward peace and justice here and abroad.
Change: It definitely was a year of it, wasn't it? Just look at your retirement account. Who but those few economists that take the dismal science literally could have predicted what might be the Great Depression II?
Oh well, it's only money.
A receding tide lowers all boats, but it's less evident in areas that are perpetually aground, like the South Bronx. The working poor here are still working and still poor, but the basics get harder to meet. Rents continue to rise, as downsized Manhattanites begin finding the Bronx suddenly attractive. The population is slowly diversifying; White artistic types are colonizing the far south of the South Bronx, doing the loft thing to rundown furniture factories on the waterfront and opening up tony restaurants nearby. Albanians are retreating north, selling their bodegas to the Arabs: Up on Third Avenue, the Kosovo Grocery has become the Anwar Deli. Many West Africans are moving into this formerly entirely American Black and Hispanic neighborhood, as well as a few daring Jews and Asians.
The building boom continues here, though it may only be the completion of securely-financed projects. Two blocks west on Third Avenue, a brewery from the 1920's, one of many in this once-German area, long since turned into warehouses and parking garages, has been demolished, to be replaced by a strip mall, of all things.
But if there is any indicator of economic health and sickness, it is food. The number of people coming weekly to the St. Augustine Food Pantry has tripled, from 200 a year ago to 600 today. Obtaining that much food is a challenge to the pantry's director, Sister Dorothy Hall, an African-American widow and mother who retired from government service six years ago to join the Dominican Order of nuns. One of her main funders is America's Second Harvest, a Chicago-based food philanthropy. This year my sister Jeannie requested our family to forgo Christmas gifts and donate the money to this charity, which I most gladly did.
A related food issue is "sustainability" — decreasing dependence on industrial agriculture by producing food locally. Everywhere in New York City, community-run farmers' markets are springing up, supporting upstate family farmers and bringing urbanites fresh fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices — particularly important in places like the South Bronx, where poor nutrition and low-quality supermarket produce lead to virtual epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and other diseases.
Community gardens also contribute. Last summer, our tiny garden here produced enormous quantities of vegetables, the surfeit of which we gave to the farmers' market up the block, run by local high-school students.
But it's not just vegetables anymore. In August, faculty, students, and alumni of St. Augustine Catholic School built a chicken coop in their garden, and in October, 15 hens arrived from an upstate chicken farm to live and lay in it. In addition to giving the community fresh, nutritious eggs and providing our gardens with natural, nitrogen-rich fertilizer, the chickens have become a unique kind of clucking teacher, showing children where their food comes from and asking them to take responsibility for their care. (The chicken project, by the way, was funded by Heifer International, the organization known for supplying livestock to poverty areas worldwide — another worthy cause to support.)
And my beehives continue to thrive, yielding great quantities of pure, healthful local honey.
It's only natural.
For the chickens' bedding and nesting, we buy hay from a feed store just a few blocks from here — the last holdover from earlier times, when West Farms was not just the name of a subway stop smack in the middle of the Bronx.
There's something timeless about it. The sweet smell of hay in our henhouse stretches back to Bethlehem.
Wishing you peace and well-being in the New Year,
Roger Repohl


December 25, 2008

Ain't it something? Obama picks a whole cabinet and a host of top advisors, and there's hardly a mumble of dissent. Obama picks megachurch-preacher Rick Warren for his inauguration, and half his supporters - his supporters, mind you — are furious: How can you choose a guy who opposes what you favor, a guy who rejects abortion rights and compares gay marriage to incest?
The president-elect is either a master dialectician or a fuzzy-head when it comes to the volatility of religion in American life.
He himself takes the dialectic side: "That's part of the magic of this country," he told the press last week, "that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated. That's hopefully going to be a spirit that carries over into my administration."
The Team of Rivals marches heavenward.
On the fuzzy-headed side, Obama has something of a history. He defended the incendiary Jeremiah Wright till that Chicago firebrand became indefensible; how couldn't he realize that Warren would ignite a similar explosion, though in a rather different constituency?
What does this tell us about Obama's religio-political disposition? To add the requisite transcendent dimension to the inaugural love-feast, he could easily and sensibly have selected some neutral figure, like an all-inclusivist Unitarian. Does Mr. No-Drama like playing with religious fire?
Of course, the only excluded party in all of this uproar is God himself.
God — that poor thing. The Eternal, the Almighty, the Master of Everything has become just another political football, passed and kicked this way and that in this self-congratulatory game.
If I — or you — were God, we wouldn't stand for it. We'd assert ourselves. But either Christopher Hitchens is right that God Is Not Great, or God does not exist, or God exists in a way that confounds the smug assuredness of Warren and the whole bunch of other self-appointed surrogates that think they know who he is and what he is doing.
If the Torah and the Gospels reveal anything about God, it's that just when people believe they've got him figured out, he turns the tables on them. To use one of many examples from the book of Genesis: God hates deception, doesn't he? So God gives the birthright to Jacob through an act of deception, Jacob fooling his blind old father Isaac into blessing him instead of his elder brother. Or to use one timely example from the Gospels: God is all-powerful, right? So he sends his Son to be born in abject poverty and helplessness, not in a palace but a barn.
What kind of a God is this, anyway?
Perhaps God does not exist. Perhaps God is impotent. Perhaps God is disinterested. Or perhaps God is totally different from anything we think we know, at work in ways we shall never know.
At an inauguration, when the president and the nation need all the help they can get, it doesn't seem quite right to be noisy and opinionated in the matter of invoking God. Better to approach God, whatever and whoever he is, in silence and humility, in fear and trembling.
Just in case.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


December 18, 2008

Thomas Merton, the man who invigorated American spirituality in the mid-twentieth century, was killed in Southeast Asia forty years ago, on December 10, 1968.
It was, in actuarial terms, an act of God. After giving a lecture at a conference on East-West monasticism near Bangkok, Thailand, he went to his room, touched a faultily-wired floor fan, and was electrocuted. He was 53 years old.
Merton's life was larger than life, even though he spent over half of it behind the walls of a monastery.
Born in France in 1915 to a cosmopolitan family — his father was a landscape painter from New Zealand, his mother an independently wealthy poet from New York — and orphaned by age 16, he led a raucous, randy life at English boarding schools, Cambridge University, and finally Columbia University in New York. At Columbia, working on a master's degree in literature, he was introduced by a philosophy professor to the Catholic intellectual tradition; it presented him with the unified worldview he had long sought to integrate his fragmented life. In 1938 he became a Catholic, and three years later entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky.
It was a radical and most incongruous lifestyle choice. Merton was a brilliant young writer with a compulsive drive for fame. And, as biographer Michael Mott describes him, "He liked people, he was gregarious, he liked women, he liked talk, lots of talk, argument, and laughter." Yet he chose a religious order based on isolation from the world, perpetual silence, manual labor, and hours of formal prayer — and generally suspicious of things intellectual. Some of his friends predicted he wouldn't last a year.
Fortunately — or providentially — the abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, was a cultured man who saw in Merton's diaries and notes a fresh and unique way of describing monastic life to the world outside. He suggested an autobiography.
In 1948, Harcourt, Brace published The Seven Storey Mountain, named after the rings of spiritual progress in Dante's Purgatorio. In a year it had sold 300,000 copies, and by the end of the first edition's run, double that. Its readership, like Merton himself, was eclectic, not exclusively Catholic. People of every sort, from orthodox to agnostic, identified with its colloquial style and its uncanny commonality: Merton's search for meaning, wholeness, and peace was everybody's, especially after the trauma of World War II, though his particular path to them was surely not.
His first book of popular reflections on the spiritual life, Seeds of Contemplation, appeared a year later, and sold almost as well as the autobiography. When I was in high school in the mid- 1960's, I bought it at the suggestion of my parish priest and devoured the slender volume in one gulp. I've re-read it at least half a dozen times since then.
Most spiritual writing is, predictably, other-worldly; much of it is saccharine. Merton's is neither. It is concrete, staccato, sometimes abrasive, thoroughly masculine: in a word, worldly. Take this passage, for example: "But if you have to live in a city and work among machines and ride in the subways and eat in a place where the radio makes you deaf with spurious news and where the food destroys your life and the sentiments of those around you poison your heart with boredom, do not be upset, but accept it as the love of God and as a seed of solitude planted in your soul ...."
Some years ago I found a first-edition copy of Seeds of Contemplation in the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village. Written in pencil on the flyleaf is:
J. Finnigan
Bank of the Manhattan Company
40 Wall Street
N.Y. 19, N.Y.
The book is marked up with underlinings and marginal notes in pencil, blue-black fountain-pen ink, and red ballpoint. Mr. Finnigan, the Wall Street banker, must himself have re-read it several times.
Merton's literary talent was for drawing you into a life you couldn't imagine living yourself. Book by book, and especially in the journals he kept specifically for publication, you develop a relationship to this man, as if you actually know him: caustic and light-hearted, serious and impish, insatiably curious about everything.
Just as he was no plaster saint, he was no academician but an authentic intellectual. In his journals he energetically engages the biggest thinkers in the biggest thoughts. He carried on lively correspondence with people as varied as Boris Pasternak and the Dalai Lama, and he wrote about Thomas Aquinas and Karl Marx as if he'd corresponded with them too.
When the reforms following the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960's allowed monks more personal freedom and access to the media, Merton's writings turned political. He alienated many conservative Catholics by his agitation for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Released from the repressive severity of the old monastic rule, he fell in love with a young nurse he had met while a patient in a Louisville hospital. Though accounts of this evidently platonic romance surfaced years after his death, from his private journals and the recollections of his friends, many people were already thinking that the trip to Asia, his first extended stay outside the monastery, was a proximate preparation for leaving religious life, as so many priests, brothers, and nuns were doing at the time. Was he considering such a step? And if he'd done so, how would it have affected the countless readers who had drawn so much from him for so long?
Thomas Merton died 27 years to the day that he entered the monastery of Gethsemani.
Was it an act of God?


December 11, 2008

Well, what do you think? Now that gasoline prices have fallen by more than half since last summer and may drop even further, will you rush to your GM/Ford/Chrysler dealer and buy that new SUV at that unbelievable markdown?
Talk me down, as they say, but I tend to doubt it. You'll probably never go for a guzzler again.
It's ironic that just as prices at the pump were plummeting, the American auto execs were begging Congress for a bailout: Just get us through the next few months and we'll get better, promise.
They could be thinking of what happened after earlier gas crises: As soon as the cost of fuel went down, America's lust for big cars went back up.
It may not happen this time. There are too many other factors in play.
The big slogan of the presidential campaign (remember that?) was "Change," a vague term candidates would fling at each other, the Congress, and the present administration. As the economic implosion continues, however, a real, profound kind of change seems to be occurring from the bottom up — a change in individuals' attitudes toward consuming and conserving.
The auto industry hangs in the balance.
I may have missed it, but in all the Congressional hearings on car-company bailouts did anyone ever mention the very first principle from Economics 101, the law of supply and demand? The reason why the news from Detroit is so bad is not only that Americans aren't buying Hummers, but that they're not buying cars, period. Even the Asian companies with their host of fuel- efficient vehicles are suffering. And it's not only because credit is so tight they can't get loans, it's because people all over are looking at the car in their driveway and saying to themselves, "Heck, it looks good, it runs great — why not keep it a while?"
As Consumer Reports and other sources continue to show, the durability and reliability of cars both foreign and domestic have improved dramatically over the last years. Provided you were not in a major wreck or your cat hasn't torn up the interior, you could easily keep your car for a decade or more, and even then trade it in for what dealers now proudly call a "pre-owned vehicle," thoroughly inspected and serviced and almost as good as new.
Having less money — and even the fear of having less money — necessarily turns people conservative on consumption, particularly of durables: If goods are still good, why toss them out? Living like this for a time, they may come to realize a more fundamental fact: that their identities and self-esteem do not depend on how new their car or their kitchen is but how well it is used.
Last summer's petroleum peril forced many skeptics to see practical value in "going green," a mentality and a movement that had been gaining ground well before the economic meltdown: contributing to a "sustainable" environment by reducing energy consumption, living more simply and frugally, eating locally- grown foods.
Seriously taken and widely practiced, a sustainable lifestyle will have a major effect on the auto industry that has not been voiced in all the bailout ballyhoo. It is not just about making more fuel-efficient cars, it's about how many cars to make.
On Monday, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) announced that ridership on public transportation increased in the third quarter of 2008 by 6.5% nationally over the same period last year. Increases in Los Angeles, the very symbol of the car culture, were even more pronounced: 14% for subways, 15% for light rail, 17% for commuter trains — all this despite falling fuel costs. APTA president William W. Millar commented that "As gas prices rose, more and more Americans made the choice to ride public transit. Now, even though gas prices are falling, Americans tried public transit and may find it convenient."
And not just convenient. "To sum it up," Millar said, "public transportation is good for the economy, good for the environment, and good for energy independence."
President-elect Barack Obama agrees; spending on transit is a major component of his massive public works proposal, and for the same reasons Millar cites. If that comes to pass, there will be many more transportation options available, and it is likely that the trend from the car to the train will continue.
So where does this leave the auto industry? The real issue, the big-picture issue, is not merely about "restructuring," it is about permanent downsizing. In the future, people will buy fewer cars and keep them longer. They will realize that ecologically, the greenest car is the car that is never built. Back to Econ. 101: Millions of individual decisions not to buy will force a different kind of restructuring not presently contemplated by either government or the car companies.
Predictably, both Obama and Congressional Democrats support the biggest car-loan ever, fearing another sector collapse. A better course would be to let the Big Three restructure themselves based on market forces and pour those billions into the industries of the future, the so-called green technologies, giving incentives to locating them in the very places affected by old-manufacturing unemployment. Wouldn't Michael Moore be ecstatic to see solar-panel and fuel-cell companies revitalizing Flint, Michigan?
Bailout or no bailout, the economy is re-shaping itself through decisions made at a million kitchen tables. When all this ends, small may be beautiful again.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


December 4, 2008

It's crazy. All those Reaganomicists who once chanted "Government is the problem!" are now full of irrational exuberance at its salvific power. Even Alan Greenspan is repentant.
It's like drunks falling off the temperance wagon: Dry for so long, they go on a bender. Actually, to modify the metaphor, they're just switching intoxicants: Now that their supply of the cocaine of unbridled capitalism has dried up, they've finagled the key to the federal liquor-locker.
The present Bush administration has been prepping these erstwhile conservatives for their turnabout for years by quietly jettisoning the bedrock principle of traditional Republicanism, the balanced budget, allowing Congress to spree on every manner of bridge to nowhere here and abroad while racking up the debt — different only in magnitude from the average American's credit- card mentality. Only late in his second term did the president begin to veto spending bills in the name of fiscal restraint — like a few million bucks for children's health-care, of all things.
Pundits love to quote the apocryphal but characteristic observation by the driest wit in the Senate, Everett Dirksen, back in the 1960's: "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money." Adjusted for inflation, Ev, you'd better make that "trillion." And as for real money, even that isn't real anymore; it's impossible to wrap your mind around just how much several trillion dollars is. Dinky little programs like universal health care were until a couple months ago thought far too expensive, but since the bailouts began, expense means nothing — or more correctly, it means everything: We're all ultra-Keynesians now. The dam has broken and the dollars gush out, and any anxiety about the flood is just a momentary qualm, like judging how much to tip the waiter.
It's crazynomics.
Crazynomics is the reactive result of the canonization of the free market that's been deluding Americans for three decades. The superficially noble philosophy of enlightened self-interest, what Bush once confidently named the "ownership society" — the utopian belief that everybody is a Horatio Alger who, left to his own ingenuity, will naturally grow rich — has twisted our collective psyche. Replacing the expert-run company pension with the you-decide 401-k, deregulating the formerly stable institutions for basic saving and borrowing, encouraging sky's- the-limit home loans, offering "free choice" in Medicare drug plans (the public only balked at privatizing Social Security), all are sending half the country over the cliff like lemmings. Panicked to stop the hemorrhaging, the Federal Reserve and the Congress thought nothing of injecting pure gold into the veins of institutions weakened by years of self-indulgence. And of course, the hemorrhaging hasn't stopped.
If this is 1932 all over again, it's because nearly 30 years of laissez-faire economic policy have sent us "Back to the Future" — the now ironic title of a 2004 Greenspan speech outlining his free-market philosophy.
After the Republican-led money-toss at their buddies the banks — let's see, where exactly are those trillions going? — Democrats are at last looking to their former hero, Franklin Roosevelt, in disrepute since the Carter days. They're going to the people, putting their proposed trillions on results you can see: in the short term, repairing the infrastructure and funding new technologies, and in the long term, re-regulating and stabilizing the fundamental structures of the economy — a minimalist, grounding socialism that provides basic economic assurance for everyone: social security, in lower case.
If crazynomics has done anything, it's made large-scale government spending on programs of real national benefit look modest. Funding for transportation, sustainable energy, new domestic industries, even universal health care that couldn't pass on principle when times were flush may now pass on expediency, just to "create jobs." But that's O.K.; it doesn't matter why they pass, as long as they pass.
So look on the bright side. The Great Depression was miserable, but it forced the creation of public works projects whose results endure to this day. Our Lesser Depression may actually pull the country forward to the future.