Saturday, March 18, 2006

Speaker for the Dead

My maternal grandfather Andrew Joseph Boike died last week. I offered the eulogy. With the funeral 3-4 days after his death I felt sure I'd be able to give the speech without difficulty. I was wrong. As I watched the respect with which his body was treated and listened to the funeral mass I found myself overwhelmed with the conviction that no gift of words I could give this man would be adequate.

No matter how well I did my job, the end product would fall far short. The realization was crushing. I felt as though God was teaching me a lesson. The gap between my best and the requirements of divine justice is so great that only His grace can bridge it.

For those who would like to read about a life and see what a grandson does with an opportunity to give a eulogy, I reproduce the text of the speech below:

My son is three years old. His name is Andrew and he was named for my grandfather Andrew Boike, who we all call Pop. I hoped that having a first grandchild named for him would reverse his condition and bring Pop back to his old self. It didn’t work, but I did see Pop smile when I brought that little boy around and he was even able to hold him in his lap a few times.

Watching my son grow and the awe with which he perceives his grandparents, I’m reminded of the days when I was young and how like most boys at Walter Jackson, I liked to join in the game of talking up our dads. You know, my dad is stronger than your dad. If we reached a tie on dads, I could start bragging about Pop. And when I did that, no one could match me. That’s what I want to do today. I want to spend just a minute or two bragging on my Pop.

His appearance by itself made him notable. He was short, strong, and had a face that looked like it was cut from a rock. His hair was the color of steel. He had a working man’s hands. Even as he lay dying I looked down at his hands and thought they looked like they had really been to work.

There were stories floating around that gave him mythic status in my young mind. During his high school football years he was commanded to demonstrate a tackle on his assistant coach. He didn’t want to do it, but having been ordered he executed the maneuver so well the man was left with a limp for years. He survived a motorcycle accident and getting hit in the chest with a chainsaw. On top of that he spent all his free time around flowers even though he was highly allergic to bee stings. To a grandson, he seemed like the toughest man alive.

His rugged looks were lightened by a bright and ready smile. He loved to laugh and joke around, particularly with daughters-in-law and grandchildren. If Pop and Uncle Jimmy were together, you knew the parents would be laughing until they had tears in their eyes.

He also loved the polka and learned to play the accordion in his youth. I don’t know how many times Christina and I rode in his car (that 1974 beige/yellow Caprice Classic) with the windows cracked to let cigarette smoke out while Myron Floren’s accordion belted out the beer barrel polka on an eight track wedged into the dashboard. For a grandchild, being with Pop was our own first taste of Oktoberfest. He was like a rock star to us. Okay, maybe a polka star.

He developed a brilliant avocation in flowers with specialties in chrysanthemums and azaleas. After winning several competitions around the country, Pop became a contest judge at the national level. You may remember a novel from many years ago titled Magnificent Obsession. Pop knew something about that. I can remember him quickly maneuvering the car to the side of the road to gather a specimen of some native azalea growing on a hillside. He included his family in his work. Grammy was his indispensable partner in preparing for shows and for years it was a treat to go to his house and see the plants and flowers he’d hybridized and named for different members of the family. I was very proud to see my name on one of those little white tags one day so many springs ago.

The man I’ve described was an interesting person, an exciting person in many ways, but he was also faithful in the small details of everyday life that loom so large when all is said and done.

He spent most of his career with the postal service. My mother remembers what a big deal Christmas was every year and how Pop would come home day after day loaded with Christmas presents from appreciative homeowners on his route. A dozen years after he retired I had a job delivering prescriptions for Brunton Drug. A lot of strangers became instant friends when I mentioned Pop’s name. To tell you the truth, being Pop’s grandson probably helped me get the job in the first place.

Pop was also a faithful provider, father, and husband. He helped build the house his family lived in and put in place a moral and spiritual foundation, too. His five children Brenda, Jim, Becky, Dean, and Joan all married and are all still with their spouses. Many of his grandchildren have married and they are all still with their spouses, too. In a society where some dispose of family ties as easily as an old car, the value of commitment has not been lost on us. It’s one thing to be told, but nothing beats the power of a good example.

There was another area in which Pop was less concerned with telling than showing. Someone mentioned to me the other day that although Pop wasn’t the type to say he loved me, I should know that he did. The words caused me to think. It was true that he was like a lot of other men of his generation in that he may not have been one to tell you he loved you. But I never doubted it. He showed me over and over again. It was always clear to me that this amazing man was my friend and he loved me and approved of me and was proud of me. He watched my ballgames, expressed interest in my schoolwork, and gave me funny nicknames. He treated my father like a blood relative rather than like an in-law and immediately accepted my wife into the family.

I know he loved his other grandkids just as much. I have specific memories of him speaking proudly of the accomplishments and attributes of all the other grandkids. He was really in love with Christina, Kevin, Mandy, Nathan, Josh, Heather, Matthew, John Paul, David, Cassady, and Shaina. His family became his treasure and in the years before his failing health really took hold he was simply great at being a grandfather. Effortlessly great. At least it looked that way to me.

Grammy and Pop’s 50th wedding anniversary was one of our really memorable family events. I look at the pictures and see Pop happy and fully engaged. The pictures of him holding Grammy’s hand like a newlywed are worth keeping forever. I married not long after that celebration and it is a great comfort to me that my wife Ruth got to know Pop before his weakness and withdrawal became more pronounced. She liked him immensely. It was a very easy thing to convince her to give our first child the name Andrew.

It’s a little tragic that my children Andrew and Grace, Mandy’s son Jacob, Kevin’s unborn child, and the many other great grandchildren yet to come won’t get to experience Pop the way he was for so many years, but he won’t be forgotten. I was bragging on Pop when I was seven and will probably be doing it when I’m sixty-seven. He made a big impression on me. And the wonderful, enduring fact of his life is that I’m not the only one.

Given by Hunter Baker on March 16, 2006

Friday, March 17, 2006

Working on a Trial Basis

Did a little something today over at Jewish World Review about the lawyer who bungled the Moussaoui case.

Here's a teeny foretaste:

That's what it must have felt like for Carla Martin to wake up yesterday morning. Suddenly her picture is on the front page of the New York Times, looking frazzled and a tad disheveled. The Times explains to all and sundry that this "obscure" functionary at the Transportation Security Administration has shredded the Justice Department's case against Zacarias Mousaoui by coaching government witnesses — slipping them advance e-mails of what to expect.

If it's not bad enough to get blamed for doing what "everybody does" and gets away with, she must endure the indignity of being labeled obscure. If I picked up a paper that read "Obscure columnist Jay Homnick has been named the central figure in a blockbuster investigation concerning white slavery, killing for hire, heroin smuggling and unpaid parking tickets", my response would be predictable: "Obscure? Whaddaya mean obscure?" Now, it's true that it is common practice and that the other guys never seem to get caught. But it's still wrong and unfair and, for the Bush administration, supremely obtuse.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Iran Amok

A whole lot of very nice folks, most of a scholarly bent, had their Purim celebration ruined this year by Jeffrey Goldberg’s gratuitous assertion on the New York Times Op-ed page that the holiday was commemorating something that never happened. All of them, apparently, have my phone number.

Goldberg’s trump card in support of flushing the royal tale down the drain is the fact that the ancient Persian kingdom was very tolerant of other religions and cultures, not likely to indulge a spasm of rabid anti-Semitism. His retroactive certainty was in no wise shaken by the observation that Iran was a very philo-Semitic country until 1979 when the Shah was deposed.

In fact the book of Esther is most remarkable for its scrupulous recording of the multicultural tableau of Persian society. It is very clear from the outset that the Jews enjoy full freedom and live as equals. Esther and her adoptive father, Mordecai, are not outwardly identifiable as Jews. Mordecai does not tell that he is a Jew until the king’s courtiers pester him for days to explain why he defies Haman. Esther does not reveal her national identity until the critical moment when she can use it to foil Haman’s plan.

The Talmudic tradition adds the information that the Jews participated fully in King Ahasuerus’ national feast; he even provided kosher food “to do in accordance with the will of each person”. Clearly there is an effort in this recitation of events to hew closely to actual detail. This is hardly the stuff of bogeyman myths. Remember, too, that this is the same Biblical record that reported the generosity of Cyrus in allowing the Jews to rebuild the Temple – a piece of history that Goldberg chooses to believe.

The book of Esther notes that this Persian decree against the Jews was an aberration, incited by Haman, a descendant of King Agag of Amalek, who had been defeated and killed by King Saul five hundred years earlier. Haman wended his way into Ahasuerus’ good graces, among other ways by political fundraising, and got the king to sign on to his family’s vendetta against the Jews. Once Esther helped restore her husband to his senses, things went back to normal: the king ran a benevolent regime with his Jewish wife, and Mordecai was given a prestigious position, supplanting Haman’s influence.

One last point is critical in appreciating the painstaking honesty of the Jewish tradition in this matter. The Talmud (Megilla 7a) admits that the Rabbis were not inspired on their own to declare a holiday, or even to write up the story in Scripture. It was Queen Esther herself who approached them and made the argument that this was a watershed moment that should not be allowed to fade in the historical memory. They examined the case she presented and conceded that she was righter than their initial assessment.

It is not clear to me why Jews are intimidated away from their patrimony by the flimsiest evidence. If anything, we should ascribe much more credibility to the Jewish version of their experiences, because Scriptural texts consistently reveal the unflattering side of Jewish conduct while crediting all the positive players on the other side. By contrast, the other nations of antiquity never publicized their shortcomings, which would explain why Persia would not stress this one-year blip of hostility in an otherwise tolerant reign. (Still, the book of Esther concludes with the statement that all the facts were available in Persian and Medean royal annals.)

When we see today’s Iran sliding down the slippery slope into anti-Semitic vitriol, and threatening to back that up with weaponry, this is not a case of life imitating art but rather an instance of history repeating itself.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Top Brass

At my son's high school, they put on the traditional Purim play, where the students get creative and they poke fun at everything under the sun.

I thought this one skit was hilarious. Donald Rumsfeld comes in to President Bush and says: "Mr. President, three Brazilian soldiers were killed today in Iraq."

The President begins weeping and wailing, while Rumsfeld looks somewhat befuddled by the strength of Bush's reaction.

"Tell me, Don," the President says, when he collects himself. "How much is a brazillion?"

Monday, March 13, 2006

Sunset, Moonshine

One of my roles at The American Spectator is to deliver the magazine's message in honor of the Jewish holidays. Monday night after sundown, Purim begins with the reading of the book of Esther and then continues for 24 raucous hours of drinking, costumes and parties. Also a mind-boggling amount of philanthropy occurs, particularly in New York City, where some wealthy Jews sit all day receiving poor people and giving each one some cash.

In fact, one Jew who used to give out huge sums of money on Purim and later went bankrupt, sat down at his accustomed spot the next Purim and, depressed that he could not help the people who were lining up outside, took his own life.

Here is a link to my Purim message at the Spectator. And here, if you're an indolent type, is one paragraph to chew on.

THERE WAS NEVER a prohibition against drinking in Judaism, just a word of encouragement in the Talmud (Pesahim 113b): "God loves a person who does not get angry and does not get drunk." This was enough to keep Jews sober as a class even when they lived in societies that were more bibulous than Biblical. Yet Purim was one day a year where the book of Esther declared "a day of drinking and joy"; the Talmud (Megilla 7b) asserts that one should become drunk enough that he cannot distinguish between his friends and his enemies. Although the task of defending ourselves engages us all year round, this day reminds us that ultimately God has our back.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

No Harm, No Foul

Massmurdering bastard Slobodan Milosevic croaks during his trial for crimes against humanity.

Lucky for us Saddam's not dead. Screw his trial. We still have the chance to undo our Vietnam-like mistake and put him back in power. No doubt he could round up his old Ba'athist crew for a reunion like some rediscovered oldies band. Everybody needs a gig, and besides, I bet those dudes can still rock.

Status quo ante. Between the copious contents of Saddam's mass graves and Bill Clinton (and thereby the United States) starving out tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis during the sanctions, the Iraqi people still come out ahead on this war and democracy thing even if we pull the plug now.

So, never mind. It was worth a shot. Peace, we're out, good night and good luck.