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.