Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Price of Success

I am not a devoted sports fan, but I enjoy watching the University of Illinois football and basketball teams play, if the weather is nice and I don't have something more important to do. In the 25 years I have lived in Champaign-Urbana, I attend an average of one or two football and basketball games. I always buy tickets just before the game from people who have extra tickets or street vendors (sometimes pejoratively called "scalpers," but I think that is unfair because they provide a valuable service for which they should be compensated.) I never buy tickets at the box office because I figure that the only tickets the box office will have left at that late date will be in the upper reaches of the stadium or Assembly Hall.

Yesterday I received a text message from my brother (the "Sensible One,") suggesting an outing with our sons to see Illinois play Southeastern Missouri State University play Illinois in basketball. That was a good idea because the students are still not back from their Christmas break, and Southeastern is not a name opponent so there should be plenty of seats available.

I didn't get to any basketball games last year when Illinois played for the national championship, but I knew that there was more demand for tickets now than back in the days when Illinois routinely competed for the Big 10 championship but didn't get far in the NCAA tournament. When the teams aren't doing well, I can usually get tickets on the street for face value, or less. Because of the basketball's team's recent successes, I thought I would have to pay at least face value, $20, or a little more. I was prepared to go another $10 or $20 a ticket.

Imagine my shock after we found a parking space and encountered the first street vendor who said $60 a ticket or two for $100. I told the man he was crazy we would buy some up closer to the Assembly Hall from people who had extra tickets. But when we got up close to the hall, there wasn't anyone with multiple tickets. Either they had sold them all before they got that close or they had only an individual ticket. Since there were five of us, we figured we might not all be able to sit together, but we didn't want to take the risk of buying one ticket at a time and then one of us not being able to get a ticket, so we passed on the single tickets.

Being the experienced last minute ticket buyer, I still thought that as game time approached, the price of the scalpers would come down, but I was wrong. At five minutes before game time, we headed back out to the parking lot and the scalpers were still demanding $60 a ticket or two for $100.

The price of success was just a little too much for us. We headed back to the bar where we had eaten our dinners and watched the game for free on television.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Movie Report: King Kong

I hope the producers of King Kong got a discount on the fee they paid the writers since the plot was lifted from the original King Kong movie made, in 1933, and much of the dialogue consists of roaring. I was taken in by the hype on this movie and went to see it Monday night with my wife and son.

There is a lot to criticize about the movie. I was bothered by the inconsistencies in scale. King Kong is supposedly 25 feet tall. I don't know the heighth of Naomi Watts, the actress who plays Miss Driscoll, Kong's love interest, but she must be a minimum of five feet tall, which would be one-fifth the size of Kong. Even given that apes have disproportionately-large hands, compared to humans, how is it that she fits into the palm of his hand?

My companions thought there were large holes in the plot. Even a fantasy movie, such as this one, doesn't work unless it manages to convince the viewer to suspend his disbelief, at least for the duration of the movie. This movie runs on for three hours and that's just too long to give up disbelieving all its improbabilities.

I gave the movie two stars, mainly because all the critics love it and I'm sure they know more than I do, and it just seemed to cruel to rate a movie that cost $200 million to produce any lower. But this is one movie that I would recommend waiting for the DVD. That way you can fast forward through an hour or so of the roaring and just watch the high parts.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Book Report: "Shalmar the Clown" by Salman Rushdie

The friend who recommended this book for our reading group said that he knew everything that was going to happen before it happened, but nevertheless it was not predictable. Now I know what he meant. The American Counter-Terrorism Czar, former Ambassador to India, Max Ophuls, is murdered in the first chapter by Shalimar the Clown, a terrorist from Kashmir. Very soon we learn the motivation for the murder, Shalimar's wife, Boonyi, was seduced by Ophuls and left Shalimar many years ago.

But the devil is in the details, to coin a phrase, and the details of what happened provide for an engrossing 398 pages. Rushdie, as everyone probably remembers, is a Muslim Indian, who was educated and lived in England many years. He was put under a "fatwa," a sentence of death by Middle Eastern Muslims in 1988 because of his book "Satanic Verses," which offended some Muslims. Rushdie lived in hidding for about 10 years before the "fatwa" was lifted, miraculously escaping with his life.

One can see a lot of Rushdie in this novel, although its primary setting is Kashmir, while Rushdie was born in Delhi and grew up in Bombay, in south India. He paints Kashmir as a Garden of Eden with Muslims and Hindis living side by side peacefully, and even, in the case of Shalimar and his wife, intermarrying, before politics intervened to devastate the region and the villages within it.

There seem to be several levels to the novel, with the personal story being an allegory for the region. In fact, Ophuls's illegitimate daughter is called first "India," and then she changes her name to "Kashmiri." However, it is not a difficult book to read and follow. At first, the excessive use of Hindi words without translation is irritating, but by and large, the meanings can be approximated through the context.

Rushdie uses magic realism, a style of which I am not generally a fan, but it is not overly intrusive. Thus Shalimar, whose village specializes in entertainment, becomes a tight rope walker who gets so good that he eventually walks on air, but the magic is muted, he might just be imagining walking on air. Ghosts appear and talk with mortals, but, then again, it might just be their imaginations.

I was going to give the book five stars, my highest rating, until the Hollywood-like ending in the last 10 pages knocked it back down to four stars. Rushdie is an important contemporary writer, and everyone should read at least one of his books, just for the education. This is a highly readable book for the Rushdie part of your education.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Ooops

This fake "War on Christmas" brouhaha that Fox News and the right wing punditocracy is promoting is giving me fits. Like most people of my generation, I never gave a second thought as to what is the appropriate thing to say when greeting people this time of year. I said whatever popped into my head, which was usually "Merry Christmas." If I knew that the person with whom I was speaking was of some non-Christian religious tradition, I might say, "Happy Holidays," or "Have a good holiday," or something along those lines, but I wasn't consistent about it.

Now Bill O'Reilly and Fox News have me so confused that I don't know what to say. If I say, "Merry Christmas," I'm afraid the other person will think I'm a right wing zealot that is making a point of being in their face about my holiday greetings. If I say, "Happy Holidays," I'm afraid the other person will think I'm being anti-Christian.

Ironically, growing up in an ultra-religious tradition, we rarely said "Merry Christmas." If an English person said it to us, we might say it back out of politeness. The Amish recognized Christmas as the essentially pagan holiday that it is. Christ wasn't born on December 25, 2005 years ago; the date is an adaptation of a Roman celebration honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The idea that the way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose essential teaching was give away everything that you have; rich people cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, is by Buying Things is absurd. For many retailers, 80 percent of their entire annual sales are done in the Christmas season. That fact alone should make true Christians abhore any connections between Christmas and Christianity.

If Faux News and Bill O'Reilly really wanted to promote Christianity, they should try to promote a new saying, "Stop Spending."

As for me, I'm becoming more Buddhist. My holiday greeting from now is going to be "Be Merry."

Friday, December 23, 2005

Movie Report

I only saw 24 movies in theaters this year. Last year, I saw nearly twice that many, 46. Part of the reason is that I didn't get to the Ebert Overlooked Film Festival this year because of the death of my sister-in-law. Also, there were more Sunday afternoons when there was nothing playing that was sufficient inducement to leave my comfortable chair and a good book. Here is a listing of all the movies I have seen thus far in 2005, along with my ratings, 5 stars being the maximum.

Five Plus Stars

  • Crash
Five Stars

  • Meet the Fokkers
  • Look at Me
  • North Country
  • Walk the Line
  • Capote
Four Stars

  • Kinsey
  • Hotel Rwanda
  • Merchant of Venice
  • Apres Vous
Three Stars
  • Ocean's 12
  • Million Dollar Baby
  • Be Cool
  • Bride and Prejudice
  • The Upside of Anger
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
  • Cinderella Man
  • March of the Penguins
  • The Wedding Crashers
  • Hustle & Flow
  • Good Night and Good Luck
  • Grizzly Man
Two Stars
  • Playtime
  • King Kong

Monday, December 19, 2005

Book Report

For the last 15 years or so, I have inflicted an annual Christmas letter upon family and friends. If you're a friend and haven't gotten one, feel grateful, not insulted. One feature of the annual letter that recipients seem to enjoy the most (right after the fact that it only comes out once a year) is our annual book and movie picks. The winner of Best Movie Viewed in 2005 (we list only movies seen in theaters; movies were not meant to be watched on television, and although we watch DVD's occasionally, I refuse to review Bowdlerized versions) in both the Amishlaw and Mrs. Amishlaw categories is "Crash." (Official website:

Best Book in the Amishlaw category was "Gilead," by Marilynne Robinson. Ms. Robinson, who teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop, has agreed to meet with our Sunday afternoon reading group. If that happens, I will certainly have plenty to blog about. In the Ms. Amishlaw category, Best Book was "Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford," by Kim Stafford.

Here is a listing of all of the books I have read this year (51, so far) by rating, 5 stars being the best. Only a few books in my lifetime have ever rated the 5 plus rating, which is the highest rating known to humankind.

5 Plus Stars

  • "Gilead," by Marilynne Robinson
5 Stars

  • "Gain" by Richard Powers
  • "Silent Retreats" by Philip K. Deaver (This is a collection of short stories by a local boy made good. I particularly liked the story called "Arcola Girls," about the fast girls of Arcola High School from whence I graduated in 1964.)
  • "Embers" by Sandor Marai
  • "The Time of Our Singing," by Richard Powers
  • "Ex Libris," by Anne Fadiman
  • "Dreams From My Father," by Barak Obama
  • "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Religion" by Anne Lamott
  • "An Artist of the Floating World," by Kazuo Ishiguru
  • "We Were The Mulvaneys," by Joyce Carol Oates
  • "Paradise Gate," by Jane Smiley

Four Stars

  • "The Translator," by John Crowley
  • "The All True Travels and Adventures of Lida Newton" by Jane Smiley
  • "The Secret Life of Bees," by Sue Monk Kidd
  • "The Last Report on Miracles at Little No Horse," by Louise Erdrich
  • "The Testament," by John Grisham
  • "All Over But the Shouting," by Rick Braggs
  • "Colored People," by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
  • "Memoirs of a Geisha," by Arthur Golden
  • "Before the Trumpet," by Geoffrey Ward
  • "The Virgin in the Rose Bower," by Joyce Carol Oates
  • "Their Eyes Were Watching God," by Zora Huston
  • "One Foot in Heaven," by David Waltner
  • "A Tramp Abroad," by Mark Twain
  • "Until I Find You," by John Irving
  • "Shop Girl" by Steve Martin
  • "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini
  • "Shalmar the Clown," by Salman Rushdie

Three Stars

  • "A Widow For One Year," by John Irving
  • "Folly and Glory," by Larry McMurtry
  • "Home on the Prairie," by Garrison Keillor
  • "They Harry The Good People Out of The Land," by John Oyer
  • "The DaVinci Code," by Dan Brown
  • "A Complicated Kindness," by Miriam Toews
  • "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," by Helen Fielding
  • "Seize the Day," by Saul Bellow
  • "The Adventures of Augie March," by Saul Bellow
  • "Trout Magic," by Robert Travers
  • "Pellman Family History," by Hubert Pellman and Miriam Maust

Two Stars

  • "Chronicles," by Bob Dylan
  • "Simplify Your Work Life," by Elaine St. James
  • "Memoirs," by Pablo Neruda
  • "Growing Younger, Growing Healthier," by Deepak Chopra
  • "Out in the Midday Sun," by Elizabeth Huxley
  • "Cutting a Dash," by Lynne Truss

One Star

  • "Candide," by Voltaire
  • "Regarding the Pain of Others," by Susan Sontag
  • "Loop Group," by Larry McMurtry
  • "The Fair Tax Book," by Boortz & Lindner

Zero Stars

  • "The Pillowman," by Martin McDonagh


I apologize to the couple of readers I may have left for the nearly three week hiatus in providing fresh content. I got busy with other things, and the longer it went, the harder it got to get back to blogging. But I'm back now and pledge to get you fresh product every couple of days for the rest of the year and 2006.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


I never did like Bob Woodward.

I was working as a newspaper reporter in Flint, Michigan in the early 70s when Woodward and Bernstein were getting famous as investigative reporters for The Washington Post, reporting on the Watergate scandal. I thought they got too much credit for breaking Watergate when it was really Judge Sirica, the no-nonsense district judge, who made the White House plumbers talk.

Part of the frustration of being a newspaper reporter is that you're always on the outside looking in. Woodward and Bernstein couldn't make anyone talk; only a judge, with threats of jail time for contempt of court could make an unwilling witness sing. The best a newspaper reporter can do is try to find out what is going on in the grand jury room. It's the difference between watching a game and being in the game. For much political reporting, it's not even watching the game, it's being locked out of the room where the game is being played and being dependent on the participants occasionally coming out of the room and telling you what's going on. Such information is inherently unreliable. The person leaking the information to the reporter is going to make himself look as good as possible. That's called "spin," nowadays, but the process was the same before the term was ever invented.

Memories are short and people now don't remember how much of what Woodward and Bernstein reported was wrong. The good their reporting did was not the content of the information they conveyed, but that they kept the Watergate story on the front pages of the newspapers for so long that Congress was finally forced to do its own investigation, which created yet more publicity.

Conservatives argue that the mainstream media have a liberal agenda which they try to impose on the rest of the country by the stories they publish. I used the term "argue" deliberately because thinking conservatives know better. The mainstream media are big business. They are all Wall Street traded companies whose only agenda is making a profit for their shareholders. They need to attract viewers and readers, and so they publish stories that will do that. Hopefully the stories will be more or less accurate because if the viewers and readers decide they can't rely on the particular media outlet, it will lose customers.

When I was a reporter we rarely used anonymous quotes. Woodward and Bernstein did great damage to the media by popularizing the use of anonymous quotes. While, arguably, anonymous quotes are necessary in order to get information out of government that officials want to stay hidden, politicians soon learned to use anonymity to their own advantage. They would leak information to make themselves look good without the readers being able to tell who was giving the information and thus be able to judge motivation and accuracy.

Woodward has made a career out of anonymous inside sources. The suspicion is that some of his material comes from his own head not from any anonymous inside source. The most egregious was a book about the CIA in which he claimed to have reported the dying words of William Casey, the ex-CIA chief, when no one was there except Casey's wife and she denied ever having talked with Woodward.

Woodward has had unparallelled access to the Bush White House, having found favor with The Lying Turd by publishing a laudatory book about the administration's reactions to the 9/11 attacks. Woodward was one of the cheerleaders in the run up to the Iraq invasion, and is the source of the unlikely story that at one point, asked the likelihood of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, CIA Director Tenet jumped to his feet and yelled, "It's a slam dunk." I doubt very much that incident ever took place. I very much doubt that Bill Clinton would have appointed as CIA director someone with that kind of childish demeanor.

The latest episode, with Woodward being told by "a senior administration official," that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA weeks before even the New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, was told about it, and then sitting on the information, never writing a story about it; not telling anyone about it (he claims he told Walter Pincus but Pincus denies it) demonstrates how distorted the practice of using anonymous sources has made the practice of journalism. To make matters worse, he then went on many talk shows and trashed the Fitzgerald investigation, saying that it wasn't going to amount anything, without revealing his own involvement in the matters Fitzgerald was investigating.

Woodward is supposed to be a newspaper reporter. If Dick Cheney told him that Wilson's wife is a CIA operative; that's news. He should have reported who told him, when they told him, what they told him and why they told him. Otherwise, he's simply being used as an administration public relations flack.

Maybe I'm just jealous that I never raked any muck in my short newspaper career, but I'm still never going to buy any of Woodward's books. His credibility is less than zero with me.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Battle at Rocky Top Salvage Store - Part Two

I had a pleasant conversation last night with Ruth Irene Garrett, the ex-Amish woman I wrote about in the previous post, who is in a dispute with Erma Yoder, the proprietor of Rocky Top Salvage Store.

A reader of this blog sent me the website of Irene (as she prefers to be called.) It is here: The website has a contact email address, so I sent her an email raising some of the questions I mentioned in my last post. I soon got an email back from her husband, who told me that she had just arrived home, was leaving today on a book tour for a new children's book that she has coming out for the holidays and that she would like to talk with me by telephone. So, I called her up a few minutes before I needed to leave the office to go home for supper, and wound up talking half an hour.

By the end of the conversation, I was completely won over. She knows way more about Amish culture than I do. The Amish are even stranger than I had remembered.

We spent the first 10 minutes of our conversation doing what all Amish and Mennonites do on meeting each other; trying to figure out how we are related. It is a given that we are related, the only question is how far back the connection goes. She has connections to the Arthur community from which stem my Amish roots. She is probably at least a third cousin.

Irene's mother is from Kokomo, IN; but she grew up in Iowa. While I was Amish only because my parents were and left at the age of 10, when they left, Irene was baptized as a young teenager into the Amish church. Irene committed the sin not only of leaving the Amish church but marrying a divorced man, put her in a double whammy.

Irene was aware of the relatively mild shunning practiced by the Amish in Arthur, IL, and quickly rattled off five or six other Amish communities that are similarly "liberal." In Kokomo, IN, where Irene's mother is from, a ban lasts only for six weeks. In Iowa, where she grew up and left the Amish church, the ban is permanent. Once ex-communicated, the person is shunned until they come back to the church. In Iowa, commercial transactions are not allowed, and, in one case, involving Irene's aunt, who had also left the Amish church, an Amish person could not even touch money that her aunt had touched.

Irene's father is an Amish minister. Although he will allow her to come home and visit, her husband is not permitted on the property. Usually, Irene has someone else drive her to her parents' house for a visit, but one time her husband did so. He was not permitted to even sit in the car and wait for her on their property; her father ordered her husband off the property and made him sit across the road to wait. She said the visits, which she limits to several hours consist of her father preaching to her about her sinfulness and her mother sitting there crying.

Like the Amish of Illinois, the Iowa Amish would not have banned Irene if she had left to join a conservative non-Amish denomination. Her crime is compounded because she joined the Lutheran church, hardly considered Christian at all by the Amish, and she married a divorced man, so she is in a state of continual adultery.

The Glasgow, Kentucky area, where Irene now lives, has five separate groups of Amish, varying from the regular Old Order Amish to New Amish to Swartzendruber Amish to others. Some of the groups will not fellowship with each other. The Swartzendruber Amish are the strictest of the Amish in the Glasgow area and, according to Irene, will excommunicate and place in the ban any members who leave the group, even if it is to join another less severe Amish group.

Erma Yoder, the owner of the Rocky Top Salvage Store, does not belong to one of the strictest groups, Irene says. While her group forbids commercial transactions with a persons in the ban, it permits circumvention. For example, like the Sabbat goy Orthodox Jews can hire to turn their electric light switches on and off, Erma's Amish permit commercial transactions to be done with someone in the ban through a non-church member. So, Irene says, Erma could have had one of her non-church member children take Irene's payment for her groceries.

In fact, Irene says, that Erma did propose such a solution. Erma said that Irene could have her husband pay for the groceries. This would have been acceptable, because although he was helping Irene commit adultery by being married to her, he never belonged to the Amish church, so he was not ex-communicated. This would have been acceptable even though the payment would have been from the same joint checking account. Irene's husband was out in the car waiting for her, has difficulty walking, said "This is stupid," and refused to participate.

Irene told me that she had shopped in other Amish-owned stores in the community, been refused service in some and been allowed to make purchases in others. She said that the reason she pushed the issue in Erma's Rocky Top Salvage Store is that while the other Amish proprietors who refused her service did so quietly and politely and spoke to her in Pennsylvania Dutch so that other customers would not know what was going on, Erma spoke to her loudly and in English, which embarassed her. Irene says that when she protested, Erma said, "What are you going to do about it, write about it?"

I asked Irene why she didn't accept the free groceries Erma offered. She said that she didn't want Erma to say she just came to get free groceries.

Ottie, Irene's husband told me that they were surprised that the newspapers were reporting about the confrontation. Apparently, in Kentucky, like in Illinois, Human Relations Commission proceedings are not public. He states that the lawyer for Erma broke the story in their local newspaper. He emphasized that they are not looking for money; all they want is an apology and training for Amish store owners in human rights laws.

So, who is in the right here? I will let my readers decide. Which is more important, the First Amendment right to freely exercise one's religion or the laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion? You decide.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Yoder's Rocky Top Salvage

There's an interesting battle being fought in Kentucky between Erma Yoder, an Amish woman, and Ruth Irene Garrett, an ex-Amish woman, that involves a clash between the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and human rights laws that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion. (The Lexington Herald-Leader has a story about it here

Supposedly, Erma refused to do business with Ruth Irene when she came into her grocery salvage store because Ruth Irene had been excommunicated from the Amish in Iowa where Ruth Irene grew up. Ruth Irene has written several books about being Amish and her "escape" from the Amish, and Erma supposedly recognized her from her picture on the book jacket.

According to this article, and others which have been in the media over the last several days, Erma offered to give Ruth Irene the groceries, but was afraid she would go to hell if she accepted Ruth's money.

Kentucky apparently has a law, like Illinois and many other states, that makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment, and also in public accommodations, on the basis of religion. Such a law makes sense. A store should not be able to put a sign out front; "No Catholics Admitted," or "We Don't Sell to Jews." On the other hand, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits a state from interfering with a person's right to freely exercise her religion, with some limitations, of course. Mormons cannot have more than one wife, and certain Indian tribes cannot use peyote in their religious rites.

But this story smells. I've been Amish. I've been a newspaper reporter. I am a lawyer and I've handled many discrimination claims, including claims of religious discrimination (although in Illinois, not Kentucky.)

First the caveats. Although Amish communities in different localities have many similarities, there are also many differences; differences that an outsider might not recognize. That is because there is no Amish pope. Each Amish church district makes its own rules. The rules tend to be similar, but there are also many variations. The prayer coverings the women wear, vary in size, style and manner of wearing. One Amish district may require its women to tie their prayer coverings with strings in front of the neck; another may allow the women to put the strings behind the neck. There are variations in how the dress is made. There are variations in how the practice of shunning is enforced.

The Anabaptist movement from which Mennonites descended started in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525. In 1545, the movement first began to be called "Menists," or "Mennonites" after a Catholic priest, Menno Simons, in The Netherlands, who became well known as a writer in behalf of the movement. The Amish got started about 150 years later in southern Germany, when a young Mennonite minister, Jacob Ammann, insisted that the Mennonites had gotten too lax in church discipline. Ammann was something of a nut and went around placing in the ban, thus calling for shunning, everyone who disagreed with him. At one point, he even placed himself in the ban.

The purpose of shunning, which like everything else, can be justified by reference to a verse in the Bible, is not to punish but to make the sinner realize the seriousness of the sin; get him/her to stop sinning and return to the church. It is not practiced against anyone who has never been a church member.

The way that shunning is practiced, at least in the Amish churches with which I am familiar, is that it is very pro forma, done for a brief time, and after it is clear the "sinner" is not going to return to the church, it is dropped. So, although a church member is not supposed to eat with someone who is in the ban, when a family member is being shunned, they may be required to eat at a table, technically separate from the table at which the other members eat, but the two tables are separated by a crack so small that someone ignorant of what was going on would not notice it.

My parents were briefly in the ban after they left the Amish church. The only consequence was that one of my uncles refused to ride in my father's car for about six months after my parents left the church. After that, all was forgiven, and his Amish siblings were happy to not only eat with him, but to be hauled around by him.

I question the newspaper story on several levels. It is odd to me that Erma would have read the books Ruth wrote and recognized Ruth from the book jacket. Why would someone as devout as the story paints Erma, waste her time reading an infidel-written book when she could be reading the Bible? Secondly, the story claims Erma offered to give Ruth the groceries Ruth attempted to purchase, but would not accept money from her for fear of going to hell.

I have read a good bit of Mennonite and Amish history, and I have lots of personal experience with Amish, although admittedly, the Amish who are my relatives do not live in Kentucky. I have never heard of anyone advocating the idea that shunning would prevent someone from being paid money for goods, but would permit giving the goods away. That makes no sense. How would a "sinner" come to repentance by getting free groceries instead of having to pay for them?

Nor have I ever heard or read of any Amish teaching that an Amish person who does not shun someone in the ban would go to hell. Even the most ardent shunners view it as a tactic to convince the "sinner" to repent. All of the Amish churches with which I am familiar view the practice of shunning as optional, not mandatory.

Finally, from a legal standpoint, I doubt that the Kentucky law against religious discrimination would view giving merchandise to a customer, instead of receiving payment for it, as anything actionable. How has the customer been harmed? Indeed, I would think that Yoder's Rocky Top Salvage Store would become Ruth's favorite shopping place. Talk about low, low prices!

I think the problem here is in the reporting. I doubt that the newspaper reporter had anything other than a superficial knowledge of the Amish, and he didn't know what questions to ask, so we got a story that is basically absurd. Absurd, but interesting.

Monday, October 31, 2005


It is amazing to me how into Halloween some people get.

This morning, at the Armory where I and my walking buddies walk in the fall and winter, the Navy ROTC class was doing its morning PT. A number of the (what are they called at this stage -- they're not midshipmen yet, I don't think) were dressed up for Halloween. One was dressed as the pope, with flowing white robes, a pope hat and a miter. It was funny to see the pope leading the class in laps around the track with his robe billowing behind. Another one was dressed up as Jesus. It seemed like he should be leading the flock, but then really, I guess the pope is the one who gets all the publicity. There was also a Santa Claus, lumbering around with his thick red suit. I felt sorry for him.

We never went trick or treating when I was growing up. Not once. And I daresay no Amish children have ever gone trick or treating. Asking for things is not something Amish children are allowed to do. Besides, who has time to go driving through the countryside in a horse and buggy when there are cows waiting to be milked; eggs needing to be gathered, and pigs squealing to be slopped?
The trick part of trick or treating was big among the Amish, though. While you wouldn't want to go around and ask for candy, it was okay to push over outhouses, or play pranks like disassembling a buggy and reassemblying it on the roof of the barn. I never actually saw any of those pranks done, but there were long hours of story telling during which I listened to the adults describe in great deal what they or their cousins had done. These stories would be repeated whenever the freundshaft got together. (We didn't have television to entertain us.)

I do remember one year dressing up for Halloween for school. I think it was at Liberty School when I was in first grade. No, I didn't go dressed up as Bat Man or Super Man. I had never heard of Bat Man or Super Man at that stage in my life. I did what all little Amish children who have ever dressed up for Halloween have done, I cross-dressed. I wore one of Mom's old dresses, but I think I kept on my barndoor pants on, sticking out underneath the dress, just to make sure that no one got any ideas about who I really was. My heart was not into transvestiteism.

My father told the story of the Halloween party they had when he was a little boy, at that same Liberty School. All the boys dressed as girls and all the girls dressed as boys. For those unfamiliar with the Amish, creativity in dress is not one of our strong suits. My father said that at the beginning of the school day, the boys normally lined up on one side of the room and the girls on the other. But they didn't switch sides for the Halloween party, so it looked like all of the girls were on the boys side and the boys on the girls side. This seemed to really tickle him. I guess it was funnier back in the days when the roles of the sexes was a little more fixed.

When our sons were little, my wife went through the phases of making cute little Halloween costumes. I remember a Winnie the Pooh costume lasting for several years, and then being put in storage and handed down to our youngest son when he got old enough to go trick or treating. I also remember home made Robin Hood and pirates costumes.

What to do with the treats was always interesting. Our oldest son liked to categorize things. He would come home from trick or treating, dump his haul on the living room floor and then spend the rest of that evening, and several subsequent evenings, sorting it into categories. A pile for candy bars; another for chocolate candy; another for a different kind of candy; another for gift certificates.

Trying to get my fair share of the loot as payment for taking the boys around the neighborhood was always interesting. It was always an internal battle whether I would get some of the candy by hook or by crook. As a crook, I would try talking my boys into giving me some of their candy. I tried to instill the concept of fairness; I should get at least some of the candy as payment for my duties. The hook was the more straight forward method. Just swipe some candy after the boys were sent off to bed. One son, in particular, liked to hoard his candy, and would still have most of his stash left by the next Easter when the Easter bunny brought him still more chocolates. He kept pretty close tabs, though, as to what he had, and would raise the alarm if things started disappearing too fast.

In retrospect, I probably should have stolen more of their candy than I did. They still had baby teeth, very suseptible to sugar, and as a parent I should have worked harder to preserve their health. I should have been able to convince them to trade their loot for carrot sticks. But sometimes children are harder to convince than juries.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Guest Book Reviews

Note from Amishlaw: I've known Anonymous Debra for 35 years, dating back to the days when we both worked on the student newspaper at Eastern Mennonite College, although I've only actually seen her once since then. After a career as a paralegal in Chicago, Debra retired about a year ago and moved, with her husband, to Florida. In a comment to my last post reviewing "The Kite Flyer," Debra mentioned some books she has read recently and enjoyed, so I asked her to expand on her remarks and let me post them as guest book reviews. I extend the invitation to other readers who enjoy books. If you have read something you like, send me a review and I will post it. If I, or someone else, gives a favorable review to a book you hate, let us hear about it. Let's get a good discussion of books going here.

From Anonymous Debra:

Bob Cooley's "When Corruption was King," is the story of his involvement in taking down some heavy Chicago political hitters 30 years ago. This one was particularly interesting for me since I remember when this amazing story broke, Cliff personally knew some of the coppers, and I now work for Bob's brother.

Peter and Elfrieda Dyck's "Up from the Rubble," should be a must-read for every fat, happy, complacent American Mennonite. It's the story of the Dycks' WWII efforts to rescue people (many of them Mennonite) from Russia and Germany and help them settle in new places . . . and Peter was all of about 22 years old! An amazing story that had me in tears, especially since I know people who came to the US via Peter's efforts.

Oprah's latest pick, "A Million Little Pieces," is James Frey's story of his struggle out of the hell of alcohol and drug addiction. If you've ever known anyone with a drug problem, this book is a riveting view from the inside. While I'm not into the Oprah thing, the girl does read good books! I couldn't put it down.

Ah, how wonderful it is to be semi-retired and able to indulge myself in hours of pleasurable, discretionary reading!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Book Review: "The Kite Runner"

I was never a great kite flyer. My earliest memory of flying kites was in first grade at Liberty School, a one-room country school with eight grades, two miles from our farm. I was the youngest student in the school and the only first grader, so I had certain privileges, which included wandering around the room and looking over the shoulders of the older kids while the teacher, Mrs. Fleming, worked with them at the big table in the back. For some reason that seemed to annoy one particular kid, Gene,a fifth-grader who would tell me to go back to my desk and would take out his vengeance on me in the playground during recess and the lunch hour. I suspect that he was annoyed because I was a better reader than he was, but who knows? I don't like people looking over my shoulder either.

Gene was a bully, although I remember most of his abuse as being verbal. One of the things he used to do was break pieces of the green slate siding off of the school house (which was in its last year of use as a school house before being turned into a pig shed) and throw them at my head. I don't recall being hit, but I was terrified and tried to stay away from Gene.

Gene was not a good student, and apparently not a good thrower of pieces of slate, but one of the things he was good at was flying kites. In the spring of the year, the older boys in the school would make kites out of newspapers, thin lattice strips, home made paste and rags for tails and fly them in the strong prairie winds. The object was to see how high your kite could fly, and there really seemed to be no limits on the altitudes the Liberty School kites could reach, except for the length of the twine keeping them tethered. One particularly memorable day, the boys tied together a series of kites, five or six of them and had them all flying at once.

I didn't even try to make a kite for school, my craft abilities as bad then as they have been the rest of my life. I remember trying to make a kite with my brother, but never being able to get it to fly. I never even had much luck flying store-bought kites as an adult, when I thought I should fly kites with my sons. We would fool around half an hour or so trying to get the things airborne and then give up and go read a book.

Which is an awfully long introduction to the book, "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini, but after all this is a blog. What is a blog for if not to indulge its author in his senile ramblings?

Every book club in America must be reading "The Kite Runner." Although I don't go into bookstores much anymore when Amazon is so much more convenient, I am told that all the local bookstores have the book prominently on display. It is number six on the New York Times paperback fiction list and has been on the list for more than a year. I finished it several weeks ago and our reading group discussed it last Sunday afternoon.

Why is the book so popular? For one thing it has lots of plot, if you like that in a book and many people do. There are many twists and turns in "The Kite Runner," some of them implausible. I would have liked the book better with fewer coincidences. It reminds me of the famous quote by the Emperor Joseph about one of Mozart's operas; "Too many notes."

The narrator of "The Kite Runner," Amir, says in the opening sentence of the book that "I became what I am at the age of twelve on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975." That is a great opening line but it is not true. What Amir was at the age of twelve was a spoiled rich kid in Afghanistan who betrayed a dear friend, Hassan. By the time he was narrating his story, he had found redemption and had become a generous benefactor.

The first part of the book depicts a part of Afghanistan that Americans know nothing about. This was before the country became a pawn in big-power politics; before its invasion by the USSR, and the proxy wars fought by the Taliban with U.S. money and arms. It depicts a buccolic time, at least for rich kids, who lived in luxury and peace. The descriptions of Afghanistan and its culture before it was overrun by first the Russians, then the Taliban and then the United States are rich, and make the book worth reading despite its shortcomings.

Amir's mother had died in childbirth, and Amir felt his father's resentment. He struggled for his father's approval, and had it briefly, when he was successful in the uniquely Afghani sport of kite fighting. Unlike the Liberty school boys, the boys of Kabul used store-bought kites. They coated their kite strings with pieces of glass. The object was to fly your kite so that it would cut the strings of the competitors' kites. (Obviously I know even less about kite fighting than I do about kite flying, but I don't understand how, when two kite strings coated with glass come in contact, it is anything but luck as to which one gets cut.) The kite runner would run after the victimized kite and bring it back as a trophy to the winner of the fight.

One day, after a lengthy kite fight in which Amir finally impressed his father with his flying skills, Hassan was cornered by a trio of bullies who had been threatening the two friends and was brutalized by them. Amir happened upon the incident, while it was happening, but was too scared to help his friend. His guilt caused him to turn upon his friend and betray him in particularly cruel ways. By the end, Amir, who is now grown and living in the States finds a way to redeem himself.

A book that I liked much better, with a similar theme of two young men who were dear friends until one betrayed the other, and then eventually found redemption is "Embers," by Sandor Marai, a Hungarian writer. The plot in that book is very simple but the psychological study of what happened and how it affected the friends is complex and interesting.

Although this review might seem negative, "The Kite Runner" is a much better than average book, and should be read for the insights it gives into another culture, and to common themes that run through all cultures, from Afghani to Amish. I gave it four out of five stars.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Pix from Lucerne

Someone apparently did not feel constrained by the rules against taking pictures during the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra concert, as I happened to find these pictures on the web. They might be from the official photographer. The first picture shows the new Chris, with his burr cut and contacts, standing in the middle just left of the podium, as the conductor, Pierre Boulez, walks out. (See "Chris Pops A String," Saturday, September 10.)

The second photograph gives an idea of the size of the orchestra and the hall. This is looking towards the front, showing the stage and parts of the four balconies.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Footwashing and Pedicures

Growing up as a boy on an Amish farm, one of the highlights of the year was when the ground warmed up enough in the spring that we could shed our shoes for the summer. After a winter of wearing shoes and socks, our soles would be tender (and, of course, our souls were always tender.) For the first week or so that we started going shoeless, we had to hobble gingerly across the gravel driveway between the house and the barn. When our feet got toughened up, we didn't think about shoes as we flew across the gravel. Once the shoes came off in May or so, we went barefooted until school started again in the fall.

Naturally, our feet were not pristinely clean, despite our weekly baths in which they, along with everything else, were vigorously scrubbed. And they were fairly banged up, from stepping in thistles, stubbing toes on rocks, dropping hammers on them and nicking them with hoes.

Nail care was not something we thought much about. I do not remember who trimmed our toe nails, or whether anyone did. I am inclined to think they just kind of wore off, or maybe, tore off, at least during the summer when we were running around with naked feet.

I do remember my father trimming his fingernails, during church, with his ever-present pocket knife, the big blade carefully paring off the thick hunks of nail and letting them drop on the floor. While trimming one's fingernails in church would offend our modern sensibilities, it was not considered rude or gross in the Amish church. The services lasted a good two hours and some kind of diversion was necessary in order to endure. The men and boys were in one room and the women and girls in another, so female sensibilities were not disturbed by the paring and farting.

Amish and conservative Mennonites traditionally have had a peculiar religious rite in which they wash one another's feet as part of the semi-annual communion service. (I realize I am over-simplifying here, as some other religious traditions have incorporated some type of symbolic footwashing into their rituals as well. I am aware that in the Roman Catholic church there is a rite in which the priest washes a parishioner's feet.) The justification for this ritual comes from the stories of The Last Supper in which Jesus washed his disciples' feet.

As a young man, I found the footwashing part of the communion service to be particularly excruciating. (I had not yet given thought to the weird symbolism of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of our fallen leader.) In the conservative Mennonite church where I grew up after my parents left the Amish church, the men and women sat in the same room, but each on their own side, separated only by a center aisle. When it was time for the footwashing part of the service, galvanized buckets with warm water and towels were placed along the front pew. Everyone then took off their shoes and socks (I'm told that the advent of pantyhose caused a particular problem for women, but that's none of my concern, at least right now) and paired up for the actual ritual, one person sitting on the bench washing and then drying with a thick towel his/her partner's feet, after which they reversed positions and duties.

The actual footwashing was embarassing enough for a teen-ager, but the worst part was that at the end, you had to shake hands and then greet your partner with a "holy kiss." This part of the rite, too, has an obscure scriptural justification, there being an injunction in one of the epistles to "greet the brethren with a holy kiss." (While we're being technical, I don't see why the sistern had to do it too, but then I'm not a conservative theologian.)

The trick for getting through this ordeal with the least mortification was to quickly pair up with one of your friends, so you could toss a couple of perfunctory splashes in the general direction of the feet of your partner, give the towel a shake, do a quick air buss, throw some coins in the alms basket and get back to your seat, being careful not to look at each other lest you burst out laughing.

The danger for the slow of foot was getting caught by one of the ministers or older men in the church who thought it their Christian duty to cross generational lines and wash feet with one of the youths. Their intentions were good, but their knowledge of youth psychology was nonexistent. You particularly tried to stay away from one of the ministers who was known not only for long, thorough, between-the-toes foot washing, but also giving wet, sloppy "holy kisses" that had you gagging when you thought about it afterwards.

As soon as I started attending a liberal church where footwashing was optional, I exercised my option not to do it anymore. I'll greet my brethren with a hearty handshake, wash my own feet and leave the wet kisses to my wife.

Several years ago when my doctor told me that because of the loss of nerve sensitivity in my feet caused by my diabetes, I needed to take extra care of my feet. No going barefoot, of course, no matter how warm it is outside, but I hadn't done that for 50 years anyway. He recommended having my toenails cut by a professional, a podiatrist or a pedicurist. I had not been having any particular problems with my feet, so I filed his suggestion away with a lot of other good suggestions that I should take -- someday.

A few weeks ago, I was meeting with a client in our conference room when her cell phone rang. She answered it (much to my annoyance) and it turned out to be her husband who, she told me later, was calling from a nail shop where he was getting a pedicure. She told me they were going on a vacation to the beach in Mexico, and she didn't let her husband walk around in sandals with "gnarly" toenails. I remarked idly that I wanted to get a pedicure someday, and she said, "When?"

"Someday," I said again, but she didn't let me get away with that vague reply; called back to the nail shop, made an appointment for me with Sabrina and arranged to pay for it.

So it was that I slunk out of the office last week and headed for the "U and I Nail Salon," in a strip mall on the main thoroughfare in our town. There was a parking space in front of the store, right next to the street, but I managed to find one off to the side, just in case anyone driving by might recognize my car. All heads (all female) swiveled as I walked in the door despite my efforts to sidle in unobstrusively. At that point I decided a change in tactics was in order, so I announced, loudly enough for everyone to hear, with as much bass as I could muster, "I have an appointment with Sabrina, TO HAVE MY TOENAILS TRIMMED."

Sabrina was a lovely young Vietnamese woman but she had no mercy. "What color would you like?" she asked. I realized she was kidding before my myocardial infarction became a full blown crisis, but I reiterated that I just wanted my toe nails trimmed -- nothing else. I didn't realize what I was saying, and thank goodness, Sabrina gave me what I needed, not what I had asked for.

First, she had me sit in a massage chair with my feet in a minature whirlpool tub. While the tub filled with hot water, she adjusted the chair until I was getting a gentle, but vigorous back massage. Then she turned on the whirlpool so that my feet were getting massaged by the air jets in the hot water. Then she pulled one foot at a time out of the water and started working on my toe nails and the skin around them. When she was done trimming and cutting, she drained the water out of the tub and massaged my feet with lotion.

The whole deal took about a half hour. When she was finished, I said I had one question: "When can I come back?" It was a wonderful experience; almost religious. Not only my feet felt lighter, but my whole body felt more spiritual as I walked back to the car. When I got back to the office I had even worked up the nerve to tell our staff about my mysterious appointment with Sabrina.

I have a different attitude now about footwashing. I would be willing to go back to footwashing in church, if I could have mine done by a Vietnamese pedicurist. I'd probably still pass on the wet sloppy kiss though. (And I'm not just saying that because my wife reads my blog.)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Heart of Darkness

I was a little nervous about venturing into the deep south last weekend. It's not just that it's red state country; after all, I was in Indiana two weeks ago without any severe repercussions. But that was a trip to a college town and Indiana doesn't call the Civil War, the "War of Northern Aggression." It's not that Georgia is the most backward state in the nation, at least not while we allow Texas, Mississippi and Alabama to stay in the union. I just think, as a nation, we would have been better off, if, while Sherman was burning his way to the sea, he would have rounded up the rebels and shipped them back to Europe instead of passing their cussedness on to us to have to deal with. Lester Maddox and Newt Gingerich, themselves, are enough to get the state kicked out of the union. (And I realize that Jimmy Carter is a Georgian, but as commendable as his activities as an ex-President have been, I would admire him more if he could have been an ex-President without ever having to go through the four years of not being an ex-President.)

We did not have an auspicious start to our trip to Atlanta. We flew out of the airport at Bloomington, some 50 miles northwest of Champaign because I could save $100 a ticket. (If I had known, when I bought the tickets, that gasoline prices were going to be nearly $3 a gallon, I would have just flown out of Willard Airport in Champaign.) We got to the airport about an hour ahead of departure time, with our boarding passes in hand, thanks to Northwestern's system of letting you print out your boarding passes from the internet up to 24 hours ahead of time. All of our luggage was carryon, so we headed for the gate. Rosalee decided to make a last-minute stop at the used bookstore at the airport, but ever the worry wort, I did not want to risk missing the plane because for some reason they decided to leave early. I went on with my stuff towards security so that I would be at the gate, ready to go at any moment.

I am a seasoned traveler, so I didn't have to be told to empty my pockets and put my keys and change, along with my cellphone in the bucket and put my luggage on the conveyer belt. I was ready to step through the metal detector, when the guard asked, "Do you have any I.D.?" I was tempted to pretend I was a Georgian and say, "Bout whut?" but as I opened my wallet and looked for my driver's license I realized this was no time for joking. I didn't have my driver's license. I knew immediately where it was. It was in my sweat pants on the floor of my closet at home. (The story about why my license was in my sweat pants on the floor of my closet is too long and uninteresting to bother with.) I quickly realized that I didn't have time to drive to Champaign and back in time to make the flight. I asked the guard whether a credit card would do, and he said it had to be a picture I.D. As I pawed through my wallet, hoping something would turn up, it did. I found a pass issued by the Champaign County Sheriff's Office allowing me to bypass the courthouse security gate, and it had my picture on it. That satisfied the guard and I was permitted to pass through the portal into the land of waiting.

Those of my readers who have been with me from the beginning of this blog know that 1) I am not comfortable flying; 2) I am particularly uncomfortable flying on Northwestern Airlines while all their mechanics are on strike; 3) I paid $100 for $1 million each in flight insurance, just to make sure that if our planes to and from Europe went down, our sons would be able to afford really expensive grief therapy and 4) the odds won; we got back safely and our sons are still poor. So, although we were flying on Northwestern again and their mechanics are still on strike, I decided not to bet against the odds this time and save the hundred bucks. Anyway, all I need to do is set aside the $300 we saved in airfare and flight insurance and after another 7,500 trips, I will have $2 million to pass on to my sons anyway.

Atlanta was still receiving the tail end of tropical storm Tammy when we flew in on Friday, so our plane was about an hour late. We picked up the rental car, and since I was without a driver's license, Rosalee was going to have to be the only authorized driver. Although we had reserved a mid-sized car and I had a coupon for a free upgrade, we wound up with a PT Cruiser, which I thought would be okay because we both like the looks of the PT, and I had thought that when Rosalee's car wears out, that might be a nice small car for her to drive around town. As she hit the accelerator to merge onto I-85 for our 60 mile drive from the airport to the small town of Hoschton where our hosts lived, Rosalee said, "What's wrong with this car? It won't go." I didn't know that she had gotten that addicted to eight-cylinder acceleration. She also had trouble with visibility, there being obstructions in the back and on the right side. So there won't be any PT Cruisers in our future.

The traffic was awful. We got out on the freeway about 5:30, apparently close to the peak of the rush hour and had to go through the downtown area to get to the north of Atlanta where we were going. Rosalee has gotten used to driving to the loop in Chicago, but the Dan Ryan Expressway is a breeze compared to the Atlanta traffic, which was more stop, stop and crawl than stop and go.

We finally got to my cousin, Milt's house, long after everyone else had gotten there. Milt and I go way back; back about as long as I go back with anyone other than my now-deceased parents. Milt is a few months older than I am. When I was born, my parents and his parents were living on the same farm, although different houses, and I think that's where we lived for two years. Our parents had the opportunity to buy the farm while we lived there, but they needed help from my grandfather, who refused, because he said $250 an acre was way too much to pay for central Illinois farmland. Although that farm didn't have the best soil, it would probably still go for more than $4,000 an acre now, nearly 60 years later.

Growing up, Milt was my best friend. From the farm where I was born, we moved to my grandfather's farm, and Milt and his parents moved to a river bottom farm on the Kaskaskia River. There was gravel on Milt's parents' farm, and his father developed a gravel pit, so there came to be lots of ponds where we could go swimming. We also fished in the Kaskaskia, although at that time it was so polluted from a chemical company upstream, that the fishing didn't amount to much.

The uncles and aunts and cousins would often gather at my grandfather's farm, and Milt and I developed a game, which we called "Ottmuth," a combination of our last names. I don't remember the rules, but it involved dividing the cousins up into two teams which chased each other around in the darkness and tried to capture members of the other team and hold them in a "jail," while their fellow team members would try to free them.

Milt was smart and got good grades, but his parents made him quit high school after his sophomore year to help with the farm and gravel pit. Formal education was not highly valued among the Amish and Mennonites at that time, but I was lucky because my parents let me finish high school instead of making me go to work full time when I turned 16, as many of the young people in our generation had to do. (Not that I was allowed to do much sitting on my duff, reading literature. I worked at an implement store from the time I was 13 years old, before and after school and every Saturday, until I graduated from high school.)

When it came time to be drafted in 1965, Milt and I went off to Flint, MI together, he a few months before I did, to work in alternative service as conscientious objectors. There, we met Marv, a former Amish boy from northern Indiana, and Earl, a Mennonite from Virginia, and the four of us became good friends. Milt and I were roommates until he got married and then Earl and I were roommates until we moved from an apartment to a house, where Marv joined us. We (well, Earl, Marv and I) played guitar together and we chased English girls together (well, Earl and I did; Milt was either engaged or married most of his time in Flint and you didn't chase a girl if Marv had his sights fixed on her because there was no contest; he got her.) I first went bowling with these guys; I first went to movies with these guys; I first went to concerts with these guys, and we stayed up all night playing Rook, at least once at Milt's two-room apartment with his poor wife, Mary, trying to get some sleep on the couch behind us.

In 1968, we went our separate ways. I went to Virginia for college; then back to Flint to work at the newspaper, then to Ann Arbor for my law degree. Earl went to Virginia for a year of college a year after I did, then to the University of Michigan for his civil engineering degree, then worked for a civil engineering firm, then to Purdue for a master's and then to Oregon and New Mexico to teach surveying. Marv went to Stanford for a business degree, then managed a travel trailer factory in Texas, then owned a travel trailer dealership in Texas and is now in Oregon selling travel trailers. Meanwhile, Milt didn't waste time going to college. He got his GED and then got trained in computer programming, and started working for a small start up company that specialized in hospital software, in the early days when computers still used punch cards. Milt didn't get paid much in cash at first, getting mostly stock options. The company grew and grew, then got taken over by a larger company and that company got taken over by a larger company. By the time, I was ready to start paying on law school debts, Milt had already made a fortune with his computer stock.

So, after leaving our modest home in Champaign at 8:15 on Friday morning, flying, hanging around in crappy airports, fighting Atlanta traffic, we finally pull in about 7:30 that night (about an hour longer than it would have taken us to drive there) into the driveway of Milt's country mansion, a five-bedroom; four and a half bathroom house, with, under construction on an adjacent lot, a brick garage almost as large as our house.

This was not the first time the four of us and our wives had gotten together. A year ago, we met at Marv's house in Oregon, and had such fun we vowed to get together annually. Although each of us had stayed in touch with the other three on an individual basis, we had not been together for 26 years until last year. In many ways we had changed; in all of the important ways we were the same. We had all grown older; all of us except Marv had grown heavier. I was the only one, however, who had grown wiser.

In 1965, we were all Republicans. We grew up in Republican families. My grandfather was a staunch Republican, although he would remark after praising Republicans, "But that Roosevelt saved my farm." In my high school in 1964, I was one of only a few people supporting Barry Goldwater against Lyndon Johnson. The high school yearbook's 25 year prophecy had me managing the campaign of a conservative candidate for president. It didn't take me long to see the light. By 1968, I was for Shirley Chisholm, the black Democratic congresswoman for president. I don't remember who I voted for in that election because I hated Hubert Humphrey almost as much as Richard Nixon. In 1972, I voted for George McGovern; in 1976 for Jimmy Carter; in 1980 for Ronald Reagan because I was so disillusioned with Jimmy Carter, and then in every election since then for 25 years, I have voted for the Democratic candidate.

Meanwhile, my buddies are still Republicans. Marv, Milt and I are on an e-mail group in which we argue vehemently, and often scatologically about politics. Bush (or The Lying Turd, as I prefer to call him) has, in my opinion wrecked the country in every way possible. My friends think he is God's gift to the world. While Earl is not part of the e-mail group, he, too, is quite conservative. So, it was with some trepidation that I went to Oregon last year, thinking I would be outnumbered in the late night arguments. It is a tribute to the character of my friends that the subject of politics never came up.

This year, politics came up obliquely, once, when I spotted some portraits of Ronald Reagan in Milt's office and said, "Oh, I didn't know you played darts," and Milt replied, "That's my altar." Other than that we did not discuss it. I'm not sure, if the numbers were reversed, and the liberals outnumbered the conservative by a three to one margin that I would have the grace not to try to convert the misguided one, or at least tease him a little.

So, maybe I'm the one with the heart of darkness.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Defense of Marriage Act

The bane of bloggers: to start out prolificly, then to have the efforts wane as the novelty wears off. Two weeks ago was the marriage of Josh and Patricia, officiated by The Sensible One. After warning my faithful readers about reporting on the festivities, my efforts have lagged. But here goes, as best as I can remember it.

Patricia has literally travelled around the world, having taught for several years in Japan, and had guests coming from Japan, New Zealand, Austria and Brazil. Josh's family is from California. So, it would not do to have all these guests come from the four corners of the earth for a 15-minute-slam-bam-thank-you-ma'm ceremony and a reception with a few peanuts and a sliver of pan cake.

Josh and Patricia did it right, starting the festivities with a party on Friday night at Tutto Bene, a wine and tapas cafe in Bloomington. This was not a rehearsal dinner; this was a party for everybody. The tapas were great (sorry about the pedestrian description, but it has been two weeks and my memory isn't as good as it used to be.) I remember some kind of beef on bread, and some kind of hummus-like dish with bread, and vegetables and lots of cheese and lots of fruit and miniature pastries, but the rest I can't remember although there was much more. Maybe it was the wine, although I did not have more than a glass or two, a limit not respected by all of my siblings, who, however, shall remain nameless. It was not The Sensible One. Actually, it was one of my bachelor brothers, who shall remain nameless. It was the one without the hair. He went back to Josh and Patricia's house after the cafe closed up, incessantly repeating some line about little Joshettes and Patriciaettes.

The festivities resumed Saturday morning with brunch at a park in Bloomington. My harried sister, the mother of the bride, rushed out Friday afternoon to buy deli meats for the brunch, thought ham would be great, forgetting that her new in-laws are Jewish, some of them observant. She did not mean to offend, and I doubt that anyone was offended, although one person was heard to exclaim, "What's this?" pointing at the ham. It's an ill wind that doesn't blow some good for someone and my sister's faux pas was a great blessing for the six sibling brothers as we were running out of things about which to tease our sister. This should be good for at least 10 years, maybe more, depending on the availability of fresher material.

After brunch, I went back to the motel to work on my emceeing duties for the reception, that being the consolation prize I was offered after I was by-passed for the task of officiating at the marriage. I came prepared, having obtained my own ministerial credentials over the internet from the Universal Life Church a few days before the nuptials, just in case The Sensible One came up hoarse. I spent all afternoon working on my schtick, and in the last 15 minutes before we had to leave for the site of the wedding, came up with a little song for the newlyweds, but more about that later.

The wedding and the reception were held in the country at a place called "Pick-A-Chic Farm." (I am not making this up.) Apparently, it used to be a poultry farm, but the chicken houses are all gone and there are beautiful grounds with a natural amphitheater and a very nice building with open sides for the reception.

We got out to the Pick-A-Chic Farm a little before 4:30 for photographs. Unfortunately, my camera quit working soon after we got there, so I have very few pictures. I do have a picture of the amphitheater where the ceremony was held, which I will post here.

When we got there, it looked to me, probably like it looks to you. A table at the bottom of the amphitheater, covered with a white cloth with two circles of chairs around it and then a larger circle of chairs at the top of the hill. It looked like it was going to be the setting for some kind of pagan rite. It turned out to be nothing kinky at all. The table was not a table, but a platform, as I discovered when I saw The Sensible One leading the wedding procession, go down the hill and walk up and stand on top of (what I then thought was a table) the platform.

The Sensible One started out by welcoming "Family, friends and all other beings." After some remarks by The Sensible One about the ancestors on both sides of the couple, there was a poem by Alice Walker read by a New Zealander. Then The Sensible One read a poem by Margaret Atwood which ends with the lines, "I would like to be the air that enters you for only a moment. That unnoticed and that necessary."

The Sensible One then referred to the Amish tradition of preaching at weddings from the Book of Tobit, part of the Apocrypha, which tells the story of Sarah, a "strong woman, most desired" whose husbands kept dying on their wedding night. As The Sensible One preached it, "seven men tried and seven men died," until finally Tobit discovered the secret for driving out the daemon that was killing Sarah's husbands. From there, the sermon veered to Babette's Feast, the hook being that the wedding couple met at a restaurant. This retelling does not do justice to The Sensible One's homily, which did make a lot of sense, or so it seemed at the time, but my notes are sketchy and my memory even sketchier. (I have asked The Sensible One to provide me with a copy of his wedding sermon, which, if he gives to me, I will post.)

Things got memorable when it came time for the wedding vows. The Sensible One instructed each to repeat the vows after him. It went like clockwork for Josh, but when it came time for the bride to repeat her vows, The Sensible One asked her to say, "I, Patricia, take Patrick. . . ." Patricia was not tripped up, saying that she would take Josh as her lawfully wedding husband. Then it was time for the exchange of rings. There was no best man or woman, so the groom was in charge of providing the rings. When The Sensible One asked Josh to produce the token, etc., Josh got a stricken look on his face, which The Sensible One interpreted to mean that he had messed up the order of the service and said gallantly, "But, first, you may kiss the bride." After the kissing was accomplished, The Sensible One got back to the rings, and Josh quickly replaced his blissful look with a stricken one. It became apparent that he didn't have the rings. He said he thought they were in the car, but as several young men prepared to make a dash for the cars, Josh's 80-year-old grandfather saved the day by presenting his own wedding ring for the couple to use and which he later gave to them.

After the ceremony, which lasted about half an hour, everyone headed up the hill for the reception. It was my job, as emcee, to inform the crowd that they were to help themselves to drinks and hors d'ouvres, while the bridal couple went with the photographer to get some pictures at sunset. I decided to start right out with a joke, so I said, "Welcome to Pick-A-Chic Farm. But if you're married, engaged, or otherwise taken, please wait until after dark." The joke fell flat. One guy from Los Angeles thought it was really funny, and came up and told me so later. I still think it was a pretty good joke; the problem was my timing. People were not prepared to laugh. I tried to fix it later when I had another announcement by saying that I realize my first joke was inappropriate and sexist. We do not refer to women as chicks anymore and I should not be suggesting infidelity after dark; that the owners of the farm were so offended at my joke that they have changed the name of the place to "Pick A Turkey Farm." That got a few more laughs. I have to be open to the possibility that neither joke was funny, but that's hard to admit.

We had some toasts. I quoted Ogden Nash thusly:

"To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the marriage cup
Whenever you're wrong admit it
Whenever you're right, shut up."

After the toasts, I talked a little about the problem of names. It is not a given any more that the wife will take her husband's last name, as we Otto's discovered 25 years ago when my sister-in-law Barb decided to keep her maiden name and be known as Barbara Shenk. I speculated that the reason was that she did not want to have the initials, B.O. She preferred the initials B.S. That got a decent laugh, as it has at every wedding I've cracked that joke at for the last 25 years. I then confided that I had asked Patricia whether she was going to keep her maiden name, Borntrager, or take her new husband's last name, Tennen. After some more foolishness, I had my brothers come up and help me introduce the new name for the couple by helping me sing the following song:

Oh, Tennen Born
Oh, Tennen Born
How lovely are Josh and Patricia

Oh, Tennen Born
Oh, Tennen Born
Your wedding cake was delicious

We wish you the best of everything
May you be wise and have lots of bling

Oh, Tennen Born
Oh, Tennen Born
We love you, Josh and Patricia.

So ends my report of the wedding. Ninety-nine percent of it is true.

Friday, September 23, 2005


I have to warn my faithful readers that I am going on two short trips in the next several weeks that are likely to elicit another spasm of prose.

The first will be the first weekend in October when I will be attending my niece's wedding in Bloomington, IN. This will be interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is that my brother, the real estate wheeler-dealer, will be doing the nuptials. I am a little jealous of him, having thought that my 18 months seniority in age and my occupation as a "man of the law," would have made me the natural person to ask to do the wedding ceremony. Apparently, the fact that my brother has a mail-order ordination from the Universal Life Church, dating back about 30 years trumped my otherwise superior qualifications. I'm sure in this day of the internet, I could have gotten an equally valid license in short order, but my gentle hints were ignored. My brother refers to himself as "the sensible one" in our clan, which tells you more about him than the rest of us. Anyone who has to go to such pains to establish his bona fides has valid reason for thinking that people might question them. I am sure that the wedding ceremony will be somewhat unlike most of the ones being performed in the rest of America that Saturday.

The following week, I am going to Atlanta for a reunion of some buddies of 37 years ago when we were all farm boys doing our alternative service as conscientious objectors in Flint, MI. We had our first reunion last year in Portland, OR and had such fun we decided to do it again this year in Atlanta. My buddies have all become right-wing Republicans, but miraculously, last year, the subject of politics did not come up. I didn't say anything because I know when I am out-numbered, and they did not say anything because they have a lot of class. But going deep in Dixie with a bunch of George Bush supporters is sure to get my juices flowing. Whether the juices will be creative or tiresome, I will leave to others to judge.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pictures of Our Trip

Pension Villa Maria, where we stayed in Lucerne. See "Getting Around In Lucerne," September 8, 2005.

Do you know Jack? Members of the quartet after the Monday evening performance of a composition by the German composer, Helmut Lachenmann. From left, Chris, Kevin, Lachenmann, John and Ari. See "Jack Knocks Them Dead," September 8 and "Jack Knocks Them Dead, Part II," September 9, 2005.

The poster in the train station's Information Center we spot as soon as we arrive in Lucerne. Chris is at the bottom center looking straight ahead. Pierre Boulez is entering from the left. This photograph is from 2004. See "A Familiar Sight in Lucerne," September 7, 2005.

The walk along the quai by the shore of Lake Lucerne. See "Life Along the Quai (Modified)" September 7, 2005.

The Dying Lion of Lucerne, a statue carved from "living rock" and the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world, according to Mark Twain. See "The Big Shew," September 10, 2005.

Chris and Jeremy. Still poor despite their father's investment in flight insurance. See "Fear of Flying," August 28, 2005.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Bush, Brownie and Blunders

Finally, Bush has achieved his expressed goal while running for president in 2000 of being a uniter. Everyone, except for a few right-wing nuts, agrees that the disaster relief efforts in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina were botched. Bush was even heard, the other day, accepting responsibility if the federal government made mistakes in the effort.

While it was nice to hear Bush accept responsibility for any mistakes, it was not really his decision to make as to whether he is responsible for how the federal government does its job. He is the guy at the top. His people are running things. It was his decision to appoint Joe Alumbaugh, whose main qualification appeared to be his ability to raise millions for Bush's political campaigns, to head FEMA, and then to promote Alumbaugh's college roommate, Michael Brown, whose previous experience consisted of running a horse breeders' association. He is responsible for the mistakes in New Orleans, just as he is responsible for the mess in Iraq. And the same corporations who are profiting from Iraq, companies like Halliburton, Vice President Cheney's old company, are already getting no-bid contracts in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Bush has gained any wisdom out of the ordeal. He showed up in his shirt sleeves on television last night to speak to the nation with precious few specifics as to how the people suffering from the aftermath of the hurricane are going to be helped. If aid to New York City after the 9/11 disaster is any guide, the realities will not meet the promises. Federal relief efforts became bogged down in politics, with communities in places like Wyoming getting money for projects that had nothing to do with 9/11, simply because they had influential congressmen who demanded a piece of the pie.

There was no call from Bush for any national sacrifices. There was no plan as to how the cost of reconstruction is going to be financed. Again, if the past is any indicator, Bush will leave it to our children and grandchildren to pay off the national debt he is piling up.

There will be more disasters, natural and man-made. But our country will be in no better shape to handle them until we get rid of the one in the Oval Office.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Go West, Young Man

Horace Greeley advised ambitious young men to go west more than 100 years ago, and it is still good advice for young men and ladies.

Today, I took youngest son, Chris, to the airport for a plane to San Diego. He will be studying composition for his master's degree at the University of California - San Diego. I have never been to San Diego, but I understand that it is a beautiful place. I have been following the weather there since last spring when I found out Chris would be moving there, and the weather has been perfect. I hope that we can go often to visit.

When I graduated from college, the idea of going to California occurred to me, but I knew no one there and felt more comfortable staying in the Midwest. I should have gone. The Midwest gets so hot in the summer and so cold in the winter, and its inhabitants, like me, tend to be sort of gray and stodgy. Maybe Californians do not enjoy life more than us Midwesterners, but they make us think they do.

The members of Jack were teasing Chris about how he is going to change after two years in California. "You'll be saying, 'Hey, Dude, that's good enough'" was the comment one of them made when we were in Lucerne at Lowenpick, eating ice cream. Apparently, Chris has a reputation among non-family members for being a perfectionist. (That reputation does not extend to family members who see less than perfect housekeeping efforts.) Chris was known at Eastman for being minimally dressed for the winter cold, even being admonished once by a homeless man that he should dress warmer. He was wearing shorts when I took him to the airport for California, and I would not be surprised if he wore them every day from now for the next two years.

Ah, to be 21 again.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Sons Still Poor

Sunday, September 11, 2005

6:20 a.m. We are sitting at the departure gate at the Zurich Airport. This does not seem like an auspicious date to travel. Everything is going with Swiss precision. Swiss precision, however, did not note the fact when we entered the country last Sunday that Rosalee had not signed her passport. They catch it now; the deed is done and we are allowed to leave without any talking-to.

9:35 a.m. (Amsterdam time; 2:35 a.m. CDT) We are sitting in the airport (I won't attempt to spell the name) waiting for our connecting flight to Detroit. Our plane was 10 minutes late leaving Zurich, but got to Amsterdam five minutes early. How un-Swiss-like, but then I guess we were in Dutch hands.

We get our money changed back to U.S. dollars, and, amazingly, still have some money left. We brought along in cash half as much as I feared that we would need to spend; intending to use ATM cards for more as we needed it. I think sticker shock at the high Swiss prices made us more thrifty than we had planned to be.

We stopped at a book store because Rosalee thought she might run out of reading materials; having packed all of her extra books in the checked luggage. We asked if they take U.S. dollars and the clerk said "sure." But the bill was $30 for a book whose price tag on the back said $14 Canadian and an overseas version of the New York Times, whose price tag said $8. We must have paid one heckuva high exchange rate. But, then, this is kind of found money. Easy come; easy go.

We were told to be at the gate at 9:20, although the flight does not leave until 10:50 a.m. That seems excessive, but we follow instructions. It turns out that they are using special security precautions. Maybe they do this all the time now in Europe, but we have not gone through anything like this. They are interviewing everyone personally at little podiums set up through the secured part of the departure area. The line is very long. The security agent quizzes us about where we were; where we stayed; what we did; who packed our bags; whether we are taking any gifts that someone else packed. I forgot to mention, when the agent asked, that we were carrying a wrapped gift that we had not opened from Jorg and Regula for their friends in Champaign. Oh, well, they would not try to blow up the plane. Although it takes a long time to get through this process, I am not complaining. My sons can just stay poor.

As we are waiting to board, I overhear a conversation behind me. A man asks what sounds to be an older gentleman if he is from New Orleans. Apparently, there is some kind of identification on his carry-on bag. "Yes, I am, and everything is gone!" he said. He continued, "My wife is a physician and her office is gone; not there anymore. The water is up to the roof of our house and everything is destroyed; clothes, furniture, everything."

"Were you overseas when the hurricane happened?"

"Yes, and thank God, I was. We would have stayed. We have gone through many hurricanes and we always stayed." He went on to relate that some acquaintances who stayed are dead.

The man is disgusted with the government's relief efforts. He says, "If you're rich, you get nothing. All they do is give you a low intererst loan which you have to pay back with money that you have paid taxes on. If you're poor, you get all kinds of free things."

Some of the sympathy I had been feeling for him disappears. Poor little rich guy. Maybe he should give everything away, so he too would qualify for free government handouts. I want to go over to admonish him, but I decide that I do not want to die; this close to being home. (Rosalee would have killed me.)

We're sitting on the plane, waiting until 10:50 to leave. At 10:45, there is an announcement to please check our personal belongings. There is a computer notebook that has been found at the security checkpoint. Fifteen to 20 men jump up and check their packs. Rosalee says, "Notice they're all men." (She does not mean this as a compliment to men.)

We're three hours away from our estimated arrival time in Detroit. I have read my $8 New York Times and it doesn't contain 50 cents worth of news. It's amazing; I have been totally away from all decipherable media now for a week, and there is nothing in the newspaper of record that is really new. The Times, which in my opinion, is still the best of all the media, is still up to its old tricks of quoting anonymous sources when anonymity can't possibly be necessary except to hide the identity of some spin doctor and giving opinions disguised as news.

Example: There is an article on page 6 by Hassan M. Fattah about an inquiry into the murder of a former prime minister of Lebanon. A UN investigator is going to Syria next week as part of the investigation. Here is what the reporter says, "Damacus cafes were full this week and its markets bustled as an erie sense of normalcy belied the crisis the city might soon face. But, in stolen glances and whispered conversations, the city's growing anxiety bubbled to the surface."

This is not news; it is garbage dressed up on wrapping paper to make it appear to be news. There is no crisis in Damacus; it is the reporter's opinion that there might soon be one. In light of the fact that there is no crisis (by the reporter's own words) what makes the sense of normalcy "erie?" Well, he can tell that underneath the "normalcy" there is growing anxiety because he has noticed stolen glances and whispered conversations. Maybe, unlikely as it might be, there are people living normal lives. Flirting is going on with all these "stolen glances" and the "whispered conversations" are assignations. And this is from the best newspaper we've got.

At Detroit, we get on a little turboprop puddle jumper and an hour later, we are in Champaign, where Chris picks us up. He actually flew out of Zurich on Saturday; stayed overnight in Rochester, N.Y. and got to Champaign Sunday morning.

It was a wonderful trip. The flight insurance was a waste of money. But it was a fun waste of $100, and it did give some peace of mind to my fear of flying.

Don't go away though. The first weekend of October, we have a wedding in Bloomington, IN of the first of my nieces and nephews to get married. The nuptials will be pronounced by my younger brother whose credentials were bought by mail order 30 years ago. Then there is a trip to Atlanta to see some old buddies. So, I will probably still have some things to write about, although hopefully less frequently and voluminously than the past week.

The Day After

Saturday, September 10

Maria takes the news of our early departure with good grace. "Well, what could you do?" she asks. She is not going to make us pay for tonight, even though our cancellation is less than 24 hours. We have a last hearty breakfast and checkout. It is dark and misty, about the way we feel after a great week in Switzerland.

We walk down to the Old Town section and walk along the farmer's market stalls set up along the river. They let their zuchinni's get way too big. The Swiss farmers' organization has displays promoting Angus beef. They have a mechanical bull in a ring, going in circles, although no one is trying to ride him. American country and western music blares through loud speakers.

The farmers' market includes a fish market. The fish purveyors dress the fish for their customers around a fountain, with a lion's head on four sides of a middle column; water coming out of the heads' mouths. They use this water to rinse off their knives and the dressed fish.

About 11:00 a.m., we part ways; Rosalee to return to shopping, me to the internet cafe to wrestle with the y's and z's. At 1:30 p.m., we meet for lunch at the Hotel Des Alpes. I feel a lack of having tried a fair sample of Swiss cheeses, so I have a cheese plate, with all kinds of hard and soft cheeses, accompanied with olives, pickled onions and pickled cucumbers.

I have seen the Alps, eaten my fill of cheese, heard my son play and am now ready to leave Switzerland. I spend another couple of hours at the internet cafe, trying to get my blog up to date, and get it up through Friday night.

At 4:45 p.m., we meet to catch the train to the Zurich Airport. As we glide noiselessly along, Rosalee remarks, "This doesn't feel like riding a train. It feels like riding an elevator -- sideways."

At the airport, we find the shuttle van to take us to our hotel, "The Fly Away." The van driver asks us if we are flying out early tomorrow morning, and when we affirm, he suggests we check in at the KLM counter, go ahead and check the luggage we are not carrying on and get our boarding pass. He said we will be able to avoid the long check-in lines in the morning when we will be able to go directly to the departure gate.

We find a deserted area in the airport, to repack our luggage so that we have what we need in the carry-on bags and check in. Then we catch the next shuttle to the Fly-Away. Rosalee was skeptical about the hotel when the travel agent at the train station suggested it to us. Sounds like what might be called "the Bedbug" in the U.S. However, I remind her that we are in Switzerland. They do not have hotels that are not neat and clean. Turns out I was right. The hotel is very modern and high tech and spotlessly clean.

We try to eat at the hotel pizza parlor, but there is an hour wait; there is no seating outside and it is hot inside. So, we take the desk clerk's suggestion and go find the Lowen (yes, Mr. Autodidactic Grammarian, I know that the "o" is supposed to have two dots over it. The European keyboard I had to use in Switzerland had lots of funny characters. I could probably figure out how to do that on this American keyboard, if I cared.) The Lowen turns out to be an excellent choice. It is in an out-of-the-way side street (so out of the way that I get lost trying to find our way back to the hotel) patronized by locals. They have excellent food. I have weinerschnitzel mit schwein instead of veal, and it was perfect. The weinerschnitzel is lightly breaded and perfectly done. The pommes frites are hot and crunchy. It even comes with vegetables, cooked carrots.

We finally find the hotel and are back in bed by 9:30. We have to get up at 4:30 to catch the airport shuttle and make it to the airport in time for our flight home.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Chris Pops A String

Friday, September 9

We arrive a few minutes before 6:00 to pick up the free tickets Chris and Kevin have reserved for us. The Swiss are nothing if they are not sticklers for time, so we have to wait until precisely 6:00 p.m. We sit outside under the soaring roof of the concert hall and watch lightning in the darkening sky.

A few minutes after 6, we go in and get our tickets. They are not together, but the helpful staff exchange them for two that are together. We find seats in the lobby and watch the gathering crowd. This concert is in the main hall, the hall where the famous orchestras of the world have been playing in August and September, the only concert scheduled for this evening.

Rosalee spots a woman wearing a dress exactly like hers. You just cannot trust designers anymore to give you one-of-a-kind dresses. But Rosalee wears her dress much better than the other woman, presumably Swiss.

At 6:15, we are permitted into the main concert hall to await the 6:30 talk by Boulez. We are hoping that it will be in English. Chris said that Boulez uses English as the language in which to talk to the orchestra.

The program tonight will start with Alban Berg's "Lyrische Suite" and end with "Amerique" by Edgard Varese. In between will be three works by young composers, commissioned especially for the Lucerne Festival. They are Christopher Bertrand, Dai Fujykama and Bruno Montovani (no, not the elevator music guy.)

At precisely, 6:30, Boulez comes wout with Fujykama and Bertrand, and someone else, who is apparently the master of ceremonies. He speaks in German, and I eventually pick out that he will be interviewing, Boulez, Bertrand and Fujykama and that he and Boulez will be speaking German, Fujykama, will speak English and Bertrand will speak French. Why did those people at Babel have to build that damned tower? We can only hope the Japanese guy gets plenty of time to speak.

The moderator and Boulez talk for a long time. As they talk, I look around the hall. It is very modern, but not as stark as the smaller venue where Jack played Monday night. It is relatively narrow, long and very high. There are four balconies. Imposing organ pipes are high up in front. There is lots of wood, but the walls are made of white textured tiles. Chris has told us that the sound is very good. I do not know the seating capacity, but would guess it is about the same as Krannert Center in Champaign which holds several thousand.

Ah, now it is Fujykama's turn and the moderator speaks flawless English. Fujykama was a piano student. He came to Europe from Japan when he was 15. He is 28 now. He first heard traditional Japanese music at Damstadt, Germany in 1997. Before that, he had only studied classical music. This was an awakening for him and he tries to incorporate traditional Japanese sounds into his music. Boulez interrupts to say (in English) that Fujykama had sent two scores to him with his application, pieces written two years apart. Boulez saw such a progression in the complexity of the ideas in the two compositions that he decided to commission him to write for Lucerne.

After about 15 minutes, it is Bertrand´s turn. The moderator switches seemingly flawlessly between German, English and French, but then I could not tell about German and French. At 7:15, the conversations end, and we go find our concert seats, which are in the first balcony, on the right side, with a clear view of the conductor and the string section. It is also a good vantage point to look over the hall. It looks like it will be pretty well filled. There are people all the way up in the fourth balcony. Although I do not get quite the same sense of affluence of the crowd as the people we saw in the lobby on Monday night, this was a well-dressed crowd. Black was the predominant color for both men and women. There were lots of bare and partially bare shoulders and strapless gowns. But the guy directly in front of me is wearing a plaid shirt with a mashed up collar. Probably a musician, who is here to hear, not to be seen.

I wonder where all the money comes from to support this enterprise. The orchestra has about 125 members, about one-third of them for the states. They are all being paid their airfare, room and board to come here and play. That has got to be big bucks, even though they recoup a some of the money in ticket sales. In looking over the roster, I see solid pedigrees. There are musicians here from the New England Conservatory, Julliard, Indiana, Oberlin, Northwestern, as well as Eastman. Christopher´s assistant concertmaster is a PhD student in violin from Indiana University, already has a paying job as concertmaster of the Montgomery Symphony, has premiered a violin work at Carnegie Hall. How the heck this Amishman´s kid, who only yesterday was playing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" in the talent show at the Champaign County fair, and who did not major in violin, but in composition, at Eastman, can be the concertmaster is beyond my grasp.

It is 7:30. From where I sit, the main floor looks to be 90 percent full; the first and second balconies completely full; the third balcony about 75 percent full and the fourth balcony completely full. This is a good crowd. There is an announcement; then, hey, an English translation. "You must turn off all cellphones. No photographs or recordings may be taken." They would not allow me to take my briefcase containing my camera into the hall. I had to check them one of the cloak rooms. Rosalee got in with her purse, the camera inside. She had planned to take a photograph at the end, but decides not to after the stern warning.

The orchestra files in. No, it´s not the full orchestra, just the string section. The Berg must be just for strings. From our angle, we can see Chris just outside the side door to the stage, waiting for his cue. He walks slowly in, to polite applause, takes a slow bow and then tunes the orchestra and sits down. The lights go down. Boulez walks in to similar applause. He shakes Chris´s hand and then takes the podium.

The piece starts very softly; very melodic; very listenable, even for a non-musician. It is a beautiful piece. Wait, that´s Chris doing a solo in the first movement. He has a longer solo in the third movement. At the end, the music fades out very softly. It is very beautiful. There is nice applause, nothing thunderous. Boulez is brought back twice for bows. He doesn´t give Chris any special recognition for the solos. Bummer.

The orchestra goes out and the chairs are re-arranged for the full orchestra. This time, Chris does not do a special entrance. This piece features a bassoon soloist. The brass are more predominant than the strings. This sounds less like traditional classical music, but it is still very listenable. The piece ends and the soloist takes several bows, and then calls up the composer, Montovani.

Rosalee remarks that this is probably the best orchestra in which Christopher has ever played and I agree. They sound phenomenal. The chairs are rearranged for the Fukyjama piece. The violins are in the back, middle; the cellos are in the front. The orchestra comes back out, Chris with them. He tunes the orchestra and then sits down. This piece sounds more like the stereotypical new music with strange sounds. It sounds like Halloween music. Chris has another solo in this piece. In fact he has the last note.

The audience claps enthusiastically. The composer is brought out and the audience keeps clapping. This piece is probably the best received of them all so far. The composer is wearing a tuxedo coat, white shirt, no tie; with his shirt tail hanging out. He said during the pre-concert conversation that his mother is here. I wonder what she is thinking about his get-up. I know what Christopher´s mother would be thinking. "Where have I gone wrong?"

Then there is intermission. The lobby is full of smoke. The Swiss do love their cigarettes. After 20 minutes, we go back inside for the second half.

The orchestra comes out; Christopher with them. No special entrance. The piece starts with percussion and then the flutes and woodwinds. This is the Bertrand piece.

Oh, no, it looks like Chris has broken a string. He is pulling on something up near the scroll during a lull in which the strings are not playing. I hope he does not have a solo. When Chris is playing again, I watch his fingerings and see that they are different from the fingerings of the associate concertmaster. I´ll bet that he is transposing the piece as he plays and playing on the three remaining strings.

The audience claps enthusiastically at the end. They bring the composer back several times. No standing ovation. Chris is having an animated conversation with his stand partner. The orchestra goes out and the stage is reorganized.

The orchestra comes back out for the final piece. Hopefully, Chris has had time to replace his string. He stands and tunes the orchestra. He does not like what he hears and makes a hand gesture. Then, satisfied, he sits back down. Boulez comes out, takes his bow and takes the podium. This is the Varese piece.

The oboes and the harps start this piece off. This is the strangest sounding piece of the program. Some of it is very forlorn and lovely. Then sirens go off and the timpani boom, boom, boom. I like it. In the climax, there is a great deal of wood clapping with a wood clapper.

The piece ends with an ear splitting boom from the percussion. There are many cheers and bravos, not only from me. Boulez takes several bows, then shakes Chris´s hand and the hands of all the front row players. Boulez goes off, then is called back yet again. He recognizes the percussion and brass. The audience starts standing. (I swear, I was not the first. I was not the last either.) Then Boulez grabs Chris´s hand and extends both their hands in the air, like politicians just nominated for political office. I get something in my eye that requires a handkerchief. Finally, Boulez grabs Christopher´s violin and holds it aloft while pushing Chris off stage ahead of him. That is a signal for the orchestra to leave even though the audience has not stopped clapping.

We head out the door and I ask one of the uniformed guards how to get backstage. She directs me out the door and to the back. There another uniformed guard lets Rosalee and me in. I go so fast I forget to stop at the box office to get my camera. We ask for Chris and are given conflicting directions, but then come upon Boulez. I wait while an older gentleman talks with him for several minutes and some orchestra members have their pictures taken, then introduce myself. He murmurs sweet nothings. "Fine musician." "Glad to have him" etc. I was hoping he would give me some better quotes like, "Most extraordinary violinist of his generation," or something.

We go find Chris. He is being congratulated by other orchestra members. It turns out his string did break, and he did try to play on the remaining strings. I asked him what he would have done if it had happened before one of his solos. He said he would have nodded to the associate concertmaster who would have taken over. Another musician there said he saw it happen once to the Boston Symphony concertmaster, and he just handed over his violin with the broken string to his associate and played his violin. The associate handed the violin back, and it kept being passed back until it landed in the hands of the last violinist, who was stuck with going off stage and fixing it.

We do not spend too much time with Chris. He needs to be with his friends. His plane leaves at 10:00 on Saturday, and he will probably be up all night. That is okay. He is 21, and does not need any advice from us.

By the time we leave the concert hall, it is pouring down rain, the first bad weather of the week. We have one umbrella between us, and wind up pretty wet back at Villa Maria. Tomorrow, we will hang around Lucerne all day, and then head to Zurich for the night and then home. Be home Sunday afternoon about 5:30. This trip was well worth the time and money.