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August 2009 Archives

August 5, 2009

Wedding Bands--Skeel

Vacationing at the beach this week, I noticed something I notice every year: although they have been happily married for many years, neither my brother-in-law nor my sister-in-law wears a wedding band.

I’ve always been strongly pro-wedding band. A wedding band says nothing about the quality of the marriage, of course; and for those who are not married but wish they were, it may be an unhappy reminder. But a wedding band signals a commitment both to one’s wife or husband and to the importance of marriage. In communities where a large majority of children are born and raised outside of wedlock, the statement seems especially important.
Yet professing Christians have not always favored wedding bands. Many English Puritans refused to wear them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Wedding bands were not called for in the Bible, in this view; they were inappropriately ostentatious and possibly even idolatrous.
Let me venture a prediction: as an increasing number of American states legalize gay marriage, and the divide between religious and secular marriage grows, many professing Christians will rethink the significance of wedding bands. I suspect that the vast majority of us wear wedding bands in 2009, and that my brother-in-law and sister-in-law are part of a very small minority. In ten or twenty years, they could have much more company.

August 7, 2009

Still More Cancer, and Hope--Stuntz

Last week, my oncologist told me the results of the latest set of films: I appear to have a cluster of four small tumors on the left side of my abdomen, and one slightly larger tumor on my liver. My cancer is back, and in two places: a bad sign. I’ve started chemo again, and am feeling the usual symptoms, including constant queasiness and others too gross to describe in a family blog. My prognosis isn’t clear, but at this point, the range of plausible outcomes—see how easy it is to talk about the timing of one’s death?—runs from bad to worse. Still, sometimes improbable things happen; the disease itself is example enough of that phenomenon. Maybe my chemo will shrink these tumors, and buy me some time. I hope so, though I don’t assume so—and I try not to think too hard about the “hope” part of that sentence.

That last clause may sound strange, but then hope is a strange commodity. I have heard from more people than I can count that, above all else, the thing I must do (channeling my inner Jesse Jackson here) is to keep hope alive. Don’t give up hope. Don’t quit: battle your cancer as long and as hard as you can, believe that you can and will beat it. Keep hoping and the victory can be yours. 

Only it usually doesn’t work that way. My cancer is not subject to my will—nor to my doctors’, for that matter. Even if optimism is correlated with longer life (and there is some evidence for that proposition), the idea that hope produces the object hoped for remains false for most of us, most of the time. My cancer will do what it chooses—it seems to me an intelligent but demonic force—or what God chooses, not what I choose. My sovereignty doesn’t extend that far.
Which is OK by me. “Keep hope alive” amounts to the belief that I can control the outcomes in my life. Think about that for a moment, and you’ll see that it’s a terrible responsibility. I don’t want it. Much better to say: Forces beyond my control usually dictate my life’s circumstances, good and bad (and in my life to date there has been far more good than bad: few in this sad world have less reason for bitterness than I do). The most I can do is decide how to behave in the midst of them. That’s more than enough. So I’ll do my best to do my job, to care for my family, and to be faithful to my God. That too is more than enough. I prefer to place my hope in more secure things than my own very limited power.

August 26, 2009


In announcing Ben Bernanke’s nomination to another term as Federal Reserve chair, President Obama said he "approached a financial system on the verge of collapse with calm and wisdom." This seems a fair characterization of Bernanke’s personal demeanor, but an odd description of the Fed’s response to the financial crisis. Several of the Fed’s rate cuts and interventions in 2007 and 2008 were more panicky than calm.

The question now is how Bernanke and the Fed will handle the winding down of the Fed’s money printing machine in the coming years. Here, the danger is that Bernanke will wait too long to tighten credit, for fear of triggering another recession. As a student of the Depression, which was exacerbated by tight money, Bernanke seems much more comfortable flooding the economy with money than cutting back.
In a bank, the person who makes a loan is never the same person as the one who negotiates with the borrower if things work out badly.  The skills needed for the two jobs are quite different, and banks fear that the loan officer will not be able to make an objective decision when to cut a borrower off. The same may hold true for the Fed. Although Bernanke’s performance surely warrants a second term, he may need to be pushed to step down in favor of a new, unsentimental chair—Larry Summers?—when the time comes to seriously tighten credit. The question is whether anyone will have the gumption to do the pushing.

Kennedy's Passing--Skeel

Like nearly everyone who does not inhabit the left, I’ve always had deeply mixed feelings about Ted Kennedy—admiration for his dedication and accomplishments mixed with distaste for his partisan excesses and the seamy side of his personal history.

Soon the historians will go to work, putting his legacy into perspective. I believe that his decision to throw his support to Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries last year will be viewed as one of the shining moments of a remarkable political career. The easy decision would have been to support the establishment candidate. But he put the Kennedy name behind the candidate who could open a new page in American history, much as J.F.K did.

In political terms,Ted Kennedy surely will be remembered as one of our greatest senators, much as the nineteenth century triumvirate of John Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster are.