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Once upon a time, in a kingdom not so very far from here, there lived a king. He lived in a beautiful castle. The castle was full of courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, like many castles are. The castle was also surrounded by a moat–also part of your standard castle. But what made this castle, and kingdom, different was that while most moats are filled with water, and are dug down into the earth, this moat was dug down through the earth and deep into a layer of ice (a really not-so-thick layer of ice, it turned out when scientists from the castle got around to measuring it) that stretched not only under the castle, but under all the kingdom. And under the ice was a fathomless, dark, icy ocean.

You might think that building a castle on a layer of not-so-thick ice is a not-so-bright idea, and you might be right. The scientists in the castle agreed. “The ice under our kingdom can only sustain just so much weight,” they told each other in portentious voices. “The kingdom is growing too heavy. Unless we can reduce the weight of our kingdom the ice will surely break. No can know what will happen then.”

Since the scientists were speaking in carrying voices, it wasn’t long before the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles knew about the kingdom’s weight problem. And once they knew, of course, it was only seconds before word had spread to the farthest corners of the kingdom.

“We’ll just make the castle weigh less,” said the captains of industry. “Easy peasy. We’ll take all the grain out of the emergency food supply rooms. Then we’ll close the rooms down. No grain plus no peasants walking in the castle means a lighter castle! Problem solved.”

“But where will the grain go?” asked the king.

“We’ll buy it,” said the captains of industry. “Easy peasy. You can give us a great price, because after all we’ll be saving the kingdom by lightening the castle.”

“But then how will the people get grain to eat in hard times?”

“We’ll sell it to them. Easy peasy!” said the captains of industry.

“It doesn’t seem to me that taking the grain everybody in the kingdom has contributed, selling it to you at a great price, and then making the people buy it back in hard times is really fair, but let me think about it,” said the king.

Next came the courtiers.

“We have a better plan,” they said. “We’ll just force everyone who wasn’t born in our kingdom to leave. Then we won’t need so much grain for emergency supplies. We’ll sell what we need to the captains of industry, and they’ll sell it back to the peasants. Since so many people will have to leave the nobles can buy more land, which means they’ll need to find more peasants, and it’ll be good for everybody. We might even be able to permanently remove the grain storage areas in the castle!”

“Well,” said the king, “almost all of us came from other kingdoms ourselves. Besides, many of the people who have come here from other lands actually put more into the emergency supplies than they will ever use. Do we really want to exile all of the people who make it possible for us to have such great stuff?”

“Yes! Yes!” chanted the nobles. “Out them, out them, one and all. Then we’ll build a giant wall!”

“Let me think about it,” said the king.

The next group to come up with a plan was the priests.

“Destroy the grain,” they said. “The gods are punishing us because of our lack of faith. The peasants spend all their time in farming, and not enough in prayer. The gods will send grain for the faithful. And the others don’t deserve any.”

“Refresh my memory,” said the king. “Which god is it that’s in charge of grain production?”

“We can’t believe you asked that,” gasped the priests. “Clearly You Are Not Like Us. Anyone who is faithful knows who’s in charge of grain.” And they started a rumor that the king was a heretic, and should be forced to abdicate.

The admirals were the next with an idea. “Having the ice break is a good thing,” they said. “The castle and the grain stores and most of the peasants will slide into the fathomless depths. We’ll be fine. We have boats. And they congratulated each other on having had the foresight to become admirals in what had seemed to be a landlocked kingdom.

Last of all the to come up with an idea were the peasants. “What if we lightened the castle by removing the game room, and the some of the courtiers’ catamites and mistresses? And what if we took the gold and distributed it to the peasants, who could spend it for grain, and wood for home repair projects, and stock to improve their herds, and education for their children, and maybe even to buy a little extra grain to lay by for emergencies and old age? And then we could reduce the size of the treasury. This would spread the weight of the grain, help the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, to be healthier since without the excess grain they would lose flesh, and everyone would be better off.” The king never got to hear their plan, because in order to reach the throne room they had to gain the approval of the biggest, fattest courtier of them all. When he heard the peasants’ plan he sneered, “I worked hard for the grain I have. Why should I have to give it to you for free? If you’d just work hard like I do you could have more grain, too.” And then he told them that their plan was childish, and unfeasible, and that it would never get the votes to pass, and that though the king might actually consider it the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles helping him rule would surely know better.

And so it was that the king, the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, discussed the grave problem facing their kingdom, and at last, after hearing everyone out and carefully considering the needs of the whole kingdom, the king decided on a plan.

“Here is what we will do,” he said. “We will sell most of the grain stores to the captains of industry, and tear down the buildings that housed them. We will give some boards to the admirals so they build nicer boats. We will deport as many of the people who were not born here as we can. And then we will give a little bit of the remaining grain to the peasants, so that we lighten the weight of the castle for all of us. We’ll keep the game room, of course, but we’ll divide the national treasury among the captains of industry, so they may start more industries, and amass more wealth, and therefore hire more peasants, and in that way the wealth will Trickle Down.

“I object,” said the fattest courtier. “If we give any grain to the peasants we won’t have any emergency supplies at all. And besides, they might get the idea that they deserve to benefit from the grain they send to us. Next thing you know we’d have a nation of peasants depending on castle grain. No one would farm, and the grain god would forsake us utterly.”

“So what do you suggest?” asked the king.

“I suggest that remove both legs from all the peasants,” said the fattest courtier. “That’ll teach them to comment on their betters’ weight.”

“What?” asked the king. “Why should the peasants have to lose their legs? How will they farm without them? What would that solve?”

“Never mind,” said the courtier. “But I won’t vote for any plan that requires courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles to starve while we give free grain to layabout peasants. That’s just not right. I don’t think it’s too much to ask the peasants to sacrifice a little.”

The king and his courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, talked long into the night, and at last, in the morning, they came out of the castle and told the peasants the king’s amended plan.

The grain stores would be divided among the captains of industry, the admirals, and the nobles, who would Hold Them In Trust until time of famine, at which time they would sell them back to the peasants at whatever price they chose. The admirals would build more boats to hold the peasants, or else they would use the grain and wood resources to improve their own boats, no one was really sure which, since the admirals got all huffy when the king tried to ask. The priests would devise a set of guidelines for determining who was contributing to the grain god’s happiness, and who was making him angry, and then they would work with the admirals in deporting all heretical peasants. And, as a special concession by the fattest courtier, peasants would only be required to sacrifice one arm and one leg, rather than both legs, so they might better fulfill their personal and civic responsibilities, and be a part of the Grain-Producing Base, and help Rebuild the National Stores of Grain, and have Self-Respect, and a Sense of Worth. And the fattest courtier stipulated that the arms and legs should be returned to the castle and turned into a new and interesting line of Pies, Casseroles, Roasts, Mixed Grills, Soups, and Garnishes, and thereby contribute New Industry, and Free Trade, and Realize Financial Efficiences in the Kitchen.

Some of the peasants asked why they had to sacrifice any limbs at all. The king repeated the fattest courtier’s line about Shared Sacrifice. Some spoke of storming the castle, and taking the grain by force, and knocking down the game room, breaking open the national treasury and sending the gold to peasants farm and wide, and saving the kingdom by evening out the weight on the ice sheet, but the priests counseled against it. “This is too big a problem for any of us to solve,” they said. “Let us hold a big prayer meeting, and as the gods to solve this problem for us.”

When some of the peasants persisted the priests reported them for Terrorist Leanings, and spoke of how the grain god was best served by submitting to the king’s laws, and then the priests reported the angry peasants to the fattest courtier as special cases who should have both legs removed, just in case.

And the next day the castle physicians went out unto all parts of the kingdom to enact the king’s plan for saving the kingdom, and in the end it worked, for a while. The ice sheet did not crack, for a while. The king and the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles, continued to live happily in the castle. They dined nightly on the new range of Food Products that the fattest courtier had devised. As a result of their missing limbs and the depleted grain stores many peasants either died of infection or starved to death, thus lightening the weight on the ice sheet.

And if some of the remaining peasants wished that things had turned out differently, they learned to take comfort in the words of their priests, who explained that trials are sent to test us, and that if they were faithful the grain god, whoever he might be, would surely bless them as he had blessed the courtiers, admirals, captains of industry, priests, and nobles.

And then one morning the sun rose, and shone down not on a beautiful castle on a sheet of ice, but on a great black hole in the ice, and around it lay a wasteland.

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All this week, two things have been pretty much dominating our days: the ongoing drama (I heard one commentator calling it “Kabuki theater”) of the debt ceiling debate, and football camp.

Even though I have largely sworn off watching political coverage, the specter of a possible national default was enough to persuade me to start checking in with the news again. The irony of the public horror at the thought of declaring bankruptcy when I myself just had to go through it did not escape me. Indeed, when I first heard a news anchor waxing passionate on the subject I have to admit I rolled my eyes and said, “This would probably bother me a lot more had I not just had to do it myself.”

Then I did a little research and realized that there was a lot more involved, that as with most of what we see happening politically these days the real debate was over things that really don’t hold up well under scrutiny, and that raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with allowing us to incur more expenses, but everything to do with honoring debts we have already incurred.

I came to the conclusion that the debt ceiling should be raised, no matter how distasteful the idea may be. I even agree that we should get spending under control, and that some of the loopholes that allow those who bear much of the responsibility for the global crash to evade paying their fair share should be closed.

The hitch, of course, is that Taxes have become a religion to many in the Republican party, and as with any religion, you have your liberals, who might concede to closing tax loopholes, and your conservatives, who might consent under duress but who suspect the liberals are probably going to Hell. And then you have your lunatic fringe, the wild-eyed tax fundamentalists who insist that what was good enough for George Washington tax-wise should be good enough for us.

And if that isn’t enough, you’ve also got your basic Mean Girl thing going on in the GOP, which has decided that Good Policy is making President Obama’s life so miserable he finally gives up and goes away and lets them have the best office again. I could talk about how veiled and therefore more virulent racism seems to fuel a lot of that, but what would be the point? Somebody somewhere would be sure to utter the words, “Job-killing taxes,” and there we would be, in the middle of an argument we cannot hope to settle because the real things we’re arguing about aren’t the things many of us claim to be arguing about. And because for some of us, our position has become an article of faith, something in which we believe, even though we can’t really provide a good explanation for it. In fact, merely asking for fact-based, logical reasons for our beliefs is like expecting us to produce God in a test tube.

So there’s the news. But in our town there’s also football camp. Every year, the middle school and high school coaches send out word that for two weeks in July they will teach any kid in town old enough to walk and potty train reliably how to play football. (Actually I think kids have to be in elementary school, but you get my point. They cast their nets wide, because there aren’t enough big fish around here for us to be snobbish about hauling in a few minnows.)

Every evening for the last two weeks, the practice field between the high school and the middle school has filled up with boys ranging in height from Patrick, who is six four now, down to a very small child whose head didn’t reach a number of the boys’ waists. I think his big brother wanted to come to football camp, but he had to babysit. And so he brought his little brother along. And because this is our town, and coaches make allowances to get as many kids onto the field as possible, they made the little guy a part of the program. All this week he has run plays with boys bigger and older than he is. He had an unfortunate meeting with a big boy foot during stretches a couple nights ago and developed a nice shiner, but he ran on, undaunted.

He’s the smallest boy, but he’s far from the only little one. Because we’re small potatoes here, football camp welcomes all shapes and sizes. The coaches divide the boys by size and ability for running drills, but the whole group stretches together, and from time to time throughout the evening the head coach blows his whistle and brings all the boys together for footraces, pushing contests, and various games designed to build speed, stamina, and spirit. Patrick says he also talks to them about what it means to be a team–that you become family, encourage the weaker and slower among you, and celebrate all victories together. I saw it play out in the exercises and races, where faster, more agile boys would sometimes double back to run with and encourage a slower boy, and where everybody cheered for a boy who succeeded in doing something right for the first time.

For the last two weeks, I have sat on the grass with my back propped against a power pole and watched a few of the men in my town teach the boys and young men coming after them about the joys of doing something well, of working as a team, and of stretching one’s self beyond one’s limits.

But as I watched I realized that those boys are learning something else as well. They are learning how to be careful of each other. There are probably almost a hundred boys out on that field. They range in height from 6’4″ down to the little guy, who is maybe three feet tall. For much of the time they are engaged in vigorous, close-range activity. There have been few accidents, none serious. I look at the big boys, and watch how they temper their responses to teach the young ones rather than dominate them. I watched the littlest kid’s big brother keep track of him. I watched the coaches watch out for him, shaping his participation to both teach him and protect him. I watched the coaches help the boys to discover each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and then work together for a common goal.

I watched all that, and I realized that while our national life is very much reverting to the law of tooth and claw and might is all, in our town, at least, the boys in football camp are learning about a different law–a law that says that everyone who wants to be involved is welcome, that everyone needs to try their best, that there is no room for egos and power trips on the field, and that if you’re bigger and stronger you have a responsibility to do more than just outplay everyone else. You are responsible for seeing to it that your actions don’t injure the smaller and weaker among you. And you are responsible for showing them what it means to participate with joy, with passion, with excellence, with respect for others, and with honor and sportsmanship. Football camp is about teaching football, but the way it happens here it’s about teaching honor as well.

Perhaps President Obama needs to hold a football camp. I’m happyt to ask our coaches if they’re available.

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