Sunday, December 30, 2007

Movie Report: The Great Debaters

The Great Debaters is a movie that is good for you; like the books recommended by Oprah Winfrey (who is one of the producers of the movie.) Like the books Winfrey recommends, the fact that the movie is good for you does not necessarily mean that it is not also entertaining, but it probably would not be playing at the multiplex near you did it not have the star power of Winfrey and Denzel Washington, the director as well as the lead actor, associated with it.

The movie tells the more or less true story of the debate team at all-black Wiley College in Texas in the 1930s. Washington plays the role of Melvin Tolson, the English professor, who coached the debate team to a record of no losses over a period of 10 years, with very demanding coaching. James Farmer, Jr., who went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and become a leader in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, was a 14-year-old member of the debate team. After beating all the other black colleges in the southwest, Wiley took on The University of Oklahoma City in 1930, in the first interracial debate in the South. An interesting article on the actual history behind the movie can be found in this article in the Marshal (Texas) News-Messenger, found here.

The movie left my Korean-born daughter-in-law, in this country for just six months, asking a lot of questions. "Did they really not allow blacks to attend certain colleges?" "Why wouldn't white colleges debate black colleges?" "Did they lynch blacks?" "Why?" It was hard for her to conceive of the racism that our country took for granted until so recently. The movie was good for giving her a more detailed picture of the great country that she loves so much.

The movie takes a little liberty with the actual facts, concluding with a climactic debate against Harvard College, that was actually against the University of Southern California. It skillfully pulls the heartstrings, and I had a lump in my throat at the end.

Not to damn with faint praise, but I did not leave the theater thinking the movie is groundbreaking, or should be in line for any big awards. It was good for me, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies. For that, I award it four stars.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

It's A Merry Christmas

Everyone is here; gathered around the fire, reading their new books. Son Number One, with The Bride. Son Number Two with The Girlfriend. As I told them when we were feasting tonight on ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad, and chocolate cake: "If I had realized how much it means to parents to have everyone home, I would have made more effort to visit more often." Not that I'm trying to lay any guilt on anyone. My kids have done nothing to feel guilty about, compared to my own sins. (Of omission, not commission, in case anyone is parsing.)

The New York Times had an article in yesterday's paper about how great it is to travel on holidays, like Christmas Day because no one else is traveling and the crews are particularly nice. Don't believe it. SNT and TG were flying from New York to Indianapolis via Chicago on United Airlines. First, the flight from New York was delayed an hour and a half. That was going to make them miss their connecting flight. No big deal, we would just go to Chicago and pick them up, although that's about an hour further than Indianapolis. Then the flight was cancelled. But eventually they were put on another flight and they got here, so I'm not complaining.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Movie Report: Charlie Wilson's War


Charlie Wilson's War has all the ingredients of a good movie. Big stars in Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Big director in Mike Nichols. Big writer in Aaron Sorokin (creator of The West Wing on television. The story is pretty much true. There really is a big-haired socialite in Houston by the name of Joanne King Herring (she even has a website here and she looks a lot like Julia Roberts) who was romantically involved with a playboy Texas congressman named Charlie Wilson, who resembles Tom Hanks. Herring and Wilson really did work with the CIA to covertly supply the mujahadeen of Afghanistan with arms to fight the Russians, back in the 80s.

Any Hollywood executive looking at the ingredients for this movie would reasonably conclude this is a sure fire winner. It may be a sure fire winner; I won't attempt to predict what the public and the Motion Picture Academy will think of it. I was disappointed, however. There were long stretches in which I was looking at my watch, wondering when it was going to be over, this despite the fact that the movie is relatively short, only 90 some minutes long. It felt formulaic; insert sex scene here; violent scene here; p.c. political pontification here; show Julia Roberts in a bikini, that will attract viewers. Putting the right colors on a paint-by-numbers scene does not turn it into a great piece of art.

What the Hollywood suits forgot is what any good cook knows: the right ingredients by themselves don't make a great meal; it all depends on how they're put together.

Having said that, I did like Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance as a rogue CIA agent. I would not have predicted that he would steal the picture from stars like Hanks and Roberts, but he did, despite his unglamorous appearance.

The movie reminded me a lot of Robert Redford's recent bad political movie about Afghanistan, Lions for Lambs. It, too, had an impeccable pedigree, with Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep involved in it. It, too, bombed because of an over supply of earnestness and an absence of entertainment. The sad thing is that Charlie Wilson's War could have been better; it just wasn't.

I left the theater prepared to give it two stars, the same rating I gave to Lions for Lambs, but after thinking some more about Hoffman's performance I finally upgraded it to three stars, which is average. But this should have been a five star movie.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Movie Report: What Would Jesus Buy?


I left the theater last night after having seen What Would Jesus Buy, not sure whether I had just watched a documentary or a fake documentary. It was that over the top.

It turns out it was a real documentary. There really is a man in New York City, Billy Talen, a cross between Elvis Presley and Jimmy Swaggert, who goes by the name "Reverend Billy," and has a church called "The Church of Stop Shopping." The Church has a website, and (what more proof do you need that it's really a church,) you can even donate money to it.

Fundamentalist Christians might have a little problem with the theology of The Church of Stop Shopping. In a New York Times article in 2000, (might require registration) Rev. Billy is quoted as saying, "We believe in the God that people who do not believe in God believe in. Hallelujah!" Hardly a sermon that will get many amens at your local Southern Baptist or Assemblies of God congregation.

Rev. Billy engages in street theater. The movie documents a road trip he and choir members from his church took to the gates of hell. The Mall of America, in Minneapolis, Wal-Mart and Disney are favorite targets of Rev. Billy's righteous wrath. He is quoted in the Times article as saying, "We are drowning in a sea of identical details. . . . Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist. . . . Times Square has been blown up by 10,000 smiling stuffed animals. . . . Don't shop, children, save your souls!"

Actually, as I understand the Bible, the message of the Church of Stop Shopping is entirely in line with the message of Jesus, who was about as anti-materialist as anyone could be. (I suppose the skeptics among us might say, "But Jesus is not a fair comparison; he didn't have to shop when he could turn five loaves and three fishes into a feast of thousands.") The real heresy is The "Gospel of Prosperity" preached in so many of the mega-churches these days.

Rev. Billy is backed up by a gospel choir who sings anti-shopping songs, and has been known to engage in a little anti-shopping glossolalia. (Try saying "I bought a Honda, but I should have bought a Hyundai" really fast several times if you want to practice your anti-shopping glossolalia.)

But despite my sympathies for Rev. Billy's message, the movie is flawed. It lacks focus or much dramatic interest, until the Church bus gets rammed on the interstate by a semi-truck. What one hears of the choir sounds good, but we are just given snippets of the singing without really letting the choir turn loose. The movie, like the church, is pretty much a one-man show, Rev. Billy, and he can wear you out pretty quickly.

The A.V. Club ranks the movie 14th in its list of the 16 worst films of 2007, a rating harsher than I would give it. (Interestingly, the A.V. Club lists Lions For Lambs as No. 7 on its list of worst films for 2007, a movie which I didn't much like, but to which I still gave three stars, which is an average rating.) I gave the movie three stars, while The Wife gave it only two. I thought it deserved the extra star for daring to be different, particularly in this holiday season. We have enough sappy stuff; it's nice to see something a little more daring, even if it falls short.

The real question, of course, is not what The Wife or I thought of the movie but what Jesus thought of it. I think he would give it five stars, bearing in mind that they really didn't get to watch many movies 2,000 years ago, so they would probably rate any movie highly.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Annual Book and Movie Ratings

In the unlikely event that I have any readers left after a two-month hiatus, I will do my annual book and movie ratings. The books are ones I have read or listened to this year, some of them for the second or third time. The movies are ones I have seen in theaters (watching flickering images on a 19-inch television with tinny speakers is not watching movies.) I have read 52 books, which is my annual goal. I have only seen 34 movies so far this year, partly because I missed the bulk of Ebertfest because duty called me East to see my son play his fiddle at Carnegie Hall.

My ratings are based on five stars, with five being the best possible rating, except an exceptional book or movie will get five plus stars, the highest rating known to humankind. I notice I didn't give any zeros this year, and only one single star, that to a lone really bad movie. I try to read books and see movies that I think I will like, so my sample should be skewed towards the higher ratings, but it was probably just the luck of the draw that I didn't get stuck with any really bad selections. Feel free to argue with me. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no matter how wrong.

Books

Five Plus Stars

Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky

Five Stars

A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines
The Optimist's Daughter, Eudora Weldy
Empire Falls, Richard Russo
The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
Mr. Paradise, Elmore Leonard
The View From Castle Rock, Alice Munro
Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter
Little Follies, Eric Kraft
On Chesel Beach, Ian McEwen

Four Stars

Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer
Secret Smile, Nicci French
The March, E.L. Doctorow
Liar's Diary, Patry Francis
The Dead Father's Club, Matt Haig
American Theocracy, Philip Roth
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
Changing Light, Nora Gallagher
The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Kim Edwards
The Known World, Edward P. Jones
A Spot of Bother, Bruce Haddon
Flags of Our Fathers, James Bradley and Ron Powers
American Pastoral, Philip Roth
Moral Disorder, Margaret Atwood
The Echo Maker, Richard Powers
Girls of Riyadh, Rajaa Absanea
The Tin Drum, Gunther Grass
Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
On Saturday The Rabbi Went Hungry, Harry Kimmerman
Scoring From Second, Phillip Deaver
Three Farmers On Their Way To A Dance, Richard Powers
Galatea; 2.2, Richard Powers
Possession, A.S. Byatt
Where Do You Stop?, Eric Kraft
The Maytrees, Annie Dillard
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

Three Stars

My Name Is Red, Orhan Parmuk
Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy
Welcome to the World, Baby Girl, Fannie Flagg
Buddha, Karen Armstrong
Everlasting Flower, Keith Pratt
Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott
At Canaan's Edge, Taylor Branch
Jane and the Wandering Eye, Stephanie Burron
Understanding Richard Powers, Joseph Dewey
Prisoner's Dilemna, Richard Powers
Smart Money, Dave Barry

Two Stars
Finn, Jon Clinch
M is For Malice, Sue Grafton
The Nonviolent Atonement, J. Denny Weaver
Building Peace, Holsopple, Krall & Pittman

Movies

Five Stars

Venus, Peter O'Toole
Lives of Others
Sicko, Michael Moore
No End In Sight

Four Stars

Volver, Almodovar
Notes On A Scandal, Judi Dentch
Letters From Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood
Because I Said So, Diane Keaton
The Namesake
Georgia Rules
Knocked Up
Hairspray
Lady Chatterly
Mash
Death and the Funeral
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Three Stars

The Painted Veil, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts
Breach, Chris Cooper
Zodiac
Fracture, Anthony Hopkins
The Simpsons
Darjeeling Limited
All The President's Men
Lions or Lambs
This Christmas

Two Stars

Dreamgirls, Beyounce, Eddie Murphy
Music and Lyrics, Hugh Grant
Amazing Grace
Astronaut Farmer, Billy Bob Thornton
Once
La Vie En Rose
Mr. Woodcock, Billy Bob Thornton
Across The Universe

One Star

Hot Fuzz

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Illinois Sky

Although usually nothing can compare to the Southwestern sky, last night, we had one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen in a long time. It was fading by the time I got to the house to get a camera, so I didn't try to get a picture. But local photograher Dan O'Brien has this incredible shot here. (But don't move to Illinois for the sunsets. Although we do often have nice sunsets, this one was way above average.)

Monday, October 22, 2007

What I Did in New Mexico

Among other things (playing rook until late at night, talking about old times and new ones,) my buddies and I on Saturday hiked up into a canyon in the foothills of the Organ mountains where we saw these remains of the Dripping Springs Resort, built originally in the 1870s. For a time it was used as a TB sanatorium. But now the buildings are falling down and the place is reverting to nature.







We hiked a little further and found ourselves on the edge of a live fire range on the grounds of Fort Bliss. We were brave. But not so brave that we went more than a foot onto the live fire range. (I was scratching my nose.)




My friend, Marv, is a great photo- grapher and went off the trail here to get a shot framed by the branches of a little tree. He needed some pictures of sky to take back to Oregon and Photo Shop into some cloudy Northwestern shots. The sky in New Mexico is amazing. I love the Southwest. This is where I would like to go to retire. The Wife says, "Nope." She likes trees, grass and four seasons. Give me low humidity and wonderful skies and you can have your trees and grass and pollen.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Narrow Stance

I'm pretty broad-minded and I certainly am not in favor of discriminating against or harassing gays (nor lesbians, trans-gendered, transvestites, etc., etc.) Yet, I have to confess to a perverse pleasure watching yet another family values Republican get caught with his foot under the bathroom stall divider.

Despite my delight at seeing the discomfiture of the hypocrites, I also have to confess to feeling a little sorry for Sen. Larry Craig, who was arrested at the Minneapolis airport a month or so ago for "disorderly conduct." The "disorderly conduct," using the undercover policeman's version, was taking his rolling suitcase into the bathroom stall with him and placing it against the door, looking through the crack of the stall door when the policeman looked in at him, tapping his foot up and down, moving his foot into the stall next to his (by then occupied by the undercover policeman) so that the shoes touched and moving his hand along the bottom of the stall divider. Craig's version is that he is not gay, but he is fastidious about the tidiness of bathroom stalls, and that he has a wide stance. So, he says, he went into the stall, picked up his toilet paper lying on the floor and, because of his wide stance, may have let his foot stray into the next stall far enough to touch the policeman's foot. (The problem with Craig's version is that he has been forced to keep announcing that he is not gay for more than 20 years, while men keep coming forward claiming to have engaged in sexual encounters with him. I suspect that it's all in the definition of the word "gay." The sad thing is that we live in a society where gay politicians still get a political advantage in outwardly condemning their own sexuality.)

I may be oblivious, but in my half century or more of using public bathrooms, I have never encountered anyone who I thought was making a sexual solicitation. No feet into my stall; no tapping; no hands under the divider. I'm not particularly buff, so it may be just a matter of disinterest in me personally rather than proof of the infrequency of disorderly activity in men's restrooms. But why in the world is the Minneapolis police department assigning scarce resources to nab toe tappers at the airport? I just was not aware that this was such a problem that undercover police officers would be patrolling the bathrooms.

So, it was that I found myself at O'Hare Airport this weekend with a need to use the bathroom. And I found myself being reluctant to go in there, now that my eyes have been opened as to what's really going on in airport bathrooms. Might I discover that some of the noises I hear are not coming from the relief of flatulence but baser activities? And what if some undercover cop spotted me doing something that I didn't realize was a secret code? Maybe putting soap on my hands before I wet them is some kind of signal that I didn't know about. But the need to go finally overcame my reluctance, so I bravely started to go into the first men's bathroom I found that was open (several were closed for one reason or another.) What I saw when I got in there was a line of men (waiting to use the facilities, I hoped.) One appeared to be peering, or at least glancing longingly through the crack of what appeared to be an occupied stall. The man just ahead of me appeared to weigh about 450 pounds and I just could not envision the stall he would occupy to be very neat after he left it, and I knew I couldn't do any tidying up without the fear of arrest. The whole lot of them looked slightly disreputable and seedy; they might have all been cops.

So I just left. I told The Wife I would just wait and use the bathroom on the plane. Those plane bathrooms might be tiny, but I have a narrow stance.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Land of Enchantment

This was the view from our hotel room this morning about 7:00 a.m. I have always loved the Southwest. I had forgotten how blue the sky is out here. I even love the cacti.
This is a view of the front of our hosts' house. I suppose it's the novelty factor. Our hostess longs for trees and grass, and can't wait to get back to the Northwest where it is cloudy all day. I guess the grass is always greener somewhere else -- literally if you're in New Mexico, although it is amazing how much people out here use irrigation to try to recreate the grass lawns of less arid locations.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Blogging has been a little sparse here for the last couple of weeks -- okay, nonexistent. As I've noted before, sometimes inspiration just dries up and one has to wait until the well is replenished. I'm all wet again.

It's not that I've had nothing to blog about. Lots of bloggable events have been happening and I was going to write much about them, but it never happened. Maybe I was waiting for the perfect thing to say instead of going with "good enough." That's a weakness of mine.

Rachel Ries, folk singer and songwriter from Chicago was here at the end of September for a house concert at the house of my brother, the Humble Philosopher/Carpenter, in our twin city. Rachel has a clear, musical voice and she writes songs with idiosyncratic lyrics. She has developed a cult following all over the country. She grew up in South Dakota of Mennonite stock, attended a Mennonite college for a semester and then dropped out to become a full time musician. The Crockheads got to know her a few months ago in Kentucky when her brother married my niece. She is on tour to points west, promoting her new album, Without a Bird. You can read a review of the album, an interview of her and sample some excerpts of her songs here. One neat thing about the concert is that one of her fans, who had heard her in Chicago, was checking her website to see when she would be playing again and discovered she was playing at that very moment in the house concert just a few blocks from his house, so he came over and heard the last half of the concert.

The day after Rachel Ries, our reading group met at our house to discuss The Echo Maker, the new book by Richard Powers. The book won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Powers lives in the twin city and rode his bike over to join our group for the discussion. He was with us once before, to discuss his book, The Time of Our Singing. This time, like the last, Powers was most gracious with out little group of amateur readers; answering each question as if it was the first time he had heard it. Powers is easily the smartest person I have ever met, but he wears his intelligence easily, never condescending or acting bored to have to interact with mere mortals like us. He hung around until almost everyone else had left and then rode his bike home in the gathering dusk, to the distress of one of our members who thought it was too dark to ride on city streets without a light and without a helmet.

I'm in Las Cruces, New Mexico, this weekend, hanging out with my buddies from 40 years ago, doing our now annual reunion. This is the home of Earl, the surveying professor, and his lovely wife, who stuffed us with Mexican lasagna and pecan pie. Our plane left Bloomington this morning at 6:00 a.m., which meant I had to get up at 3:00 a.m. in order to shower and get to Bloomington an hour before takeoff. The flight was uneventful except I have to tell you about going to the bathroom at O'Hare. (No, I didn't get arrested.) That will have to wait for a later blog.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

More Philosophizing

I am not a philosopher and I know you're not paying good money to read this blog in order to read my two bit philosophy, but, for free, I will make one follow up comment to my previous post about things changing and then I'll get on to other things. It may seem despairing to realize, as I said in my previous post, that things always change and for the fortunate, that is our curse. It doesn't have to cause one to despair to realize that everything changes. It just reemphasizes the basic point that we have to live in the moment. Be happy now. I really do believe, as much as I believe anything, that to be happy or unhappy is a choice we make, not something that happens to us based on circumstances. I grew up with a religion that emphasized the importance of being unhappy now, so that we would eventually go to heaven where we would be happy forever. I believe that is a delusion that has caused great damage to many people.

Before I went to school, I thought I would be happy when I got to grade school, when I was in grade school, I thought I would be happy when I got to high school, when I was in high school, I envied college students, when I was in college, I couldn't wait to get out of college, when I was out of college, I thought getting married would make me happy, when I was married, I thought having children would make me happy, when I had children, I thought I would be happy when they grew up. Now that the kids are gone, I look back and think how happy I was when they were little. We always think that some other time is the time of our happiness, either in the future or in the past.

So, to add to my great pronouncement of last time that things always change, just let me add: Live in the moment; be happy now.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

All Things Must End

I've been thinking a lot recently about endings. This has been brought about initially by the impending move of my walking buddy to North Carolina. It was in April, 1990, when he was in my office, with his wife, for an appointment and in the course of the conversation told me he was in a weight reduction program and was having to walk several miles a day. I wasn't in a weight reduction program at the time, but I needed to be getting regular exercise, so I asked him if I could join him.

My friend only lived several blocks from my house, so he would walk over at 5:30 in the morning and then we would walk around the neighborhood for several miles. Neither of us particularly enjoyed exercise and neither of us had ever been in an exercise program that lasted for very long, so neither of us had any expectations that our walking regimen would last for very long. But we had a couple of rules that in retrospect turned out to be the right rules for our situation.

The first and most important rule was the no-call rule. You could not call to cancel the walk. Knowing that the other person would be waiting and getting pissed off if you did not show, got us out of bed and walking many mornings.

The second rule was "Just do it," and I like to think we came up with that slogan before Nike popularized it, but that is probably revisionism. By "Just do it," we meant that we did not beat ourselves up about doing it better. Over the years we saw many fast-stepping swivel-hipping walkers go scooting by every morning for a few weeks or months and then disappear. We figured if we made it too hard on ourselves, we would quit. So, we ambled, and over the years got our amble up to a stroll, and then maybe even up to a pretty good clip, but there were always walkers who went faster. We were never motivated to walk in the rain, and, in the early years, even high humidity might be enough to give ourselves permission to go to breakfast, but we kept at it. In the winter, we went indoors and walked in the Armory at the big U. nearby.

My friend is very conservative, and although he denies it, a rock-ribbed Republican (he thinks he's an independent but he has a Republican mindset.) That probably helped keep us going too, because there was always something to argue about and before we knew it we had finished our prescribed course.

We never got to the point where we enjoyed walking, at least we wouldn't admit to it. Gung-ho exercisers would say, "But don't you feel better after walking?" and we would reply, "No, we just feel tired." We would muse, ruefully, sometimes about how long we had been doing this and when the morning would come when we would just not do it anymore. We would speculate that maybe the time would come when we would race our wheel chairs around the Armory track, although not so fast as to get too tired out.

But nothing lasts forever, and after 17 years, our walking regimen is about to end. My friend is moving to North Carolina in two weeks and our walking will be no more. I'm going to keep doing it and we've made other walking buddies along the way, so I'll probably always have someone to talk with, but it won't be the same.

The realization that all things must end has also been brought to the forefront by my friend, Brent's realization that he is about to die of cancer. Brent is 46 years old; has a wife and two young sons and has a rare form of fast acting cancer that will likely take his life very quickly. I have been inspired by his clear headedness in the face of this tragedy; his refusal to "gild the lily," but to accept what is inevitable with dignity and grace. I hope that when my time comes and that time will come for all of us, I can face my demise with the same acceptance that Brent has demonstrated.

Part of being human is to feel emotionally, although intellectually we know differently, like things will always continue as they are. We will always be young; we will always be healthy; we will always be happy. Things change; they always change. For people in unfortunate circumstances the fact that things change is their blessing; for we who are blessed, it is our curse. All things must end.

My Brother the Restorer

For those of you who know my brother, Wilmer (for whom I do not have a pseudonymn, although the Amish brats at Yoder School used to call him "Four Eyes," because he wore very thick glasses as a young man,) there is a very nice article about his building restoration projects in our local fish wrapper here. Wilmer is the most creative business person I have ever known. He is always coming up with ideas that no one has ever tried before. It was also exceedingly frustrating to try to represent him as his lawyer. But those stories will have to wait for some other time. He well deserves the praise he gets in the article.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Welcome Visitor

I looked out the window of my study this morning about 7:45 and saw this big guy perched on our side yard fence. He was there on the fence about five minutes, looking all around. I presume he was looking for, or had just eaten a fine breakfast of baby rabbits, or maybe some damned squirrels. The rabbits and squirrels were laying low while he was around. I am not much of a birder, but I think it was a red-tailed hawk, although I didn't know they were that big. After glowering for a while, he flew up to the top of a tree and I haven't seen him since. I hope he hangs around. He will be well fed.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Spiritual Sunday Morning

I woke up late this morning, another perfect day like the ones with which we have been blessed here in Central Illinois the past week. The temperature is 80 degrees, low humidity, not a cloud in the sky, not a morning that should be wasted sitting in church, fidgeting, looking at my watch, wondering when this is all going to be over. Instead, I'm sitting on the patio, listening to my favorite radio station, Whole Wheat Radio, out of Talkeetna, Alaska, a listener-run station operating out of a small cabin in the woods.

Tiny is hardly the word to describe Whole Wheat Radio. There are 33 listeners this morning, and the station has a capacity of only 90 listeners. I like it because it plays the music I like, folk, light rock, country, blues, by independent artists. The operator of the station is a computer genius who has set up an automated station that plays listener requests, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Other than my usual sloth, I woke up late this morning because we had a spaghetti party last night, brought on by an over-abundance of chianti. I have a client/friend, a retired restaurateur, a Sicilian-American, who lives nearby and brings me tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and Sicilian cucumbers. Who needs a garden when you can feast for free from the excess of your friends? Last week he brought over the usual vegetables, but also some home made pesto, spaghetti sauce and a gallon of chianti. We invited Number One Son and The Bride, Baby Milton, EIEIO, another friend who doesn't have a psuedonymn yet and three students from The Bride's English class, two of them from Korea and one from Brazil. Besides spaghetti, The Wife made crostini topped with pesto, tomatoes, and provolone cheese; a salad and an unbelievable peach cobbler, made with fresh Farmer's Market peaches.

I ate too much and we almost killed that gallon of chianti. If I am hung over this morning, it is only from a surfeit of good times, not alcohol.

And now for my spiritual insight of the morning. I know I have done nothing to deserve this gorgeous Sunday morning, any more than I will deserve the below-zero blizzard we will probably have this winter. I think I am enjoying it because of climactic conditions. But if anyone wants to attribute my good fortune to God smiling, be my guest.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Why?

I was reading the August 27 issue of The New Yorker this evening when this poem, which I have reproduced below (probably illegally, but I'll leave it up until someone tells me I have to take it down) jumped off the page and whapped me between the eyes.

"Whoa," I thought, "I could have written this poem," except that I couldn't really have written it because I don't write poetry -- well, sometimes haiku of the preacher's sermons to stay awake in church, but that doesn't really count.

So, I googled the author, Philip Schultz, and discovered he runs a writing school called The Writers Studio, in which he and other teachers teach beginners and established writers how to write better. And, they have an on-line program, although it is a little pricey at $450 for a 10 week program, it is not out of reason.

Now, I'm trying to decide whether that was God whapping me between the eyes, or is it just a coincidence that I had my 61st birthday last week, came back last week from a trip to the north woods in which I did not get any writing done and sat down to read a poem that speaks to me like few poems have ever spoken. Why, indeed? Here is the poem. You tell me what this is all supposed to mean -- if anything.

Why

is this man sitting here weeping
in this swanky restaurant
on his sixty-first birthday, because
his fear grows stronger each year,
because he's still the boy running
all out to first base, believing
getting there means everything,
because of the spiders climbing
the sycamore outside his house
this morning, the elegance of
a civilization free of delusion,
because of the boyish faces
of the five dead soldiers on TV,
the stoic curiosity in their eyes,
their belief in the righteousness
of sacrifice, because innocence
is the darkest place in the universe,
because of the Iraqis on their hands
and knees looking for a bloody button,
a bitten fingernail, evidence of
their stolen significance, because
of the primitive architecture
of his dreams, the brutal egoism
of his ignorance, because he believes
in deliverance, the purity of sorrow,
the sanctity of truth, because of
the original human faces of his wife
and two boys smiling at him across
this glittering table, because of
their passion for commemoration,
their certainty that goodness continues,
because of the spiders clinging to
the elegance of each moment, because
getting there still means everything?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Last Day of Vacation



Tomorrow we head back to reality. But today is still perfect. This was the beach about noon today and the sunset last night. I'm almost done with The Tin Drum. The fiction remains unwritten. Oh, well.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Camping The Way God Intended


After a rather hectic summer, The Wife and I are getting away this week, camping in the piney north woods of Michigan; a couple of miles north of Pentwater, on the shores of Lake Michigan (okay, about half a mile from Lake Michigan, but, still, pretty close.) The weather is perfect; the temperature in the high 70s, creeping towards 80; not a cloud in the sky nor a client on the horizon. We are eating as you can eat only in Michigan. Fresh lake perch, fried in a light batter. Fresh sweet cherries. Fresh peaches. Fresh blue berries. Fresh sweet corn. (Please try to avoid drooling on your keyboard.)

This is camping the way God intended it, sitting on the deck of a three bedroom; 2-1/2 bath house, with Waylon Jennings wailing on the CD player. (Vivaldi has had his turn on the player; we are nothing if not eclectic.) I am told the cell phone should get reception if I lean over the back deck railing, but don't lean too much because the railing is weak and might give way. Perfect.

I have brought along plenty of reading material. I want to finish Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum for our reading group. (It is amazingly funny and readable. I was expecting something more dour and Teutonic.) I have also brought along Richard Powers's first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. I first read that many years ago, soon after it came out, but I want to re-familiarize myself with it before he visits our reading group on September 30th. Just in case I run out, I have also brought along several Eric Kraft novels recommended to me by a fellow blogger.

Besides reading, I have promised myself that I would spend two hours a day writing, aside from blogging. I have a memoir (french word for "lying") started several years ago in a cabin in the Ozarks, that I need to work on. I have a short story percolating that I need to get down on a computer screen. I promised my friend, Philip Deaver, that I would at least try my hand at fiction. He thinks if I can write the Aunt Tillie reports, I can compose some Amish fiction. We'll see. I never thought I could, but maybe it's just a matter of doing it.

But not all of my time has been spent lounging on the deck with books and a laptop. We've done some walking; even if it was just to the fruit stand about a mile away. I've looked up at the night sky and was amazed at how brilliant the stars look when there is no light pollution. Last night was a new moon, so there was not even any moonlight washing out the stars. And, we got to the beach last night, just after sunset, to see this amazing sight.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Book Report; "Girls of Riyadh"


If you're into Arabic chick lit, Girls of Riyadh is the book for you. If you're like me, and have never read Arabic chick lit, but are ready for some light summer reading, this is still the book for you.

Girls of Riyadh was first published in Lebanon, written in Arabic by Rajaa Al-Sanea,(left) a 24-year-old Saudi woman, studying to be a dentist when she wrote the book, and now, apparently working in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. The book was initially published in Lebanon because it was banned in Saudi Arabia, but has recently been allowed in that country, as well, and has become a best seller in Arab countries. (It is apparently not a best seller yet in this country, but give it time; it will benefit from word of mouth.)

The book is about four young upper class Saudi women and their love lives. Anyone who knows even a little about Saudi Arabia knows that it is a very conservative Islamic society, where women are required to be covered from head to foot, have very little interaction with men who are not family members and whose roles in society are very restricted. What this book does is show what goes on beneath the gowns and behind the closed doors. Surprise, surprise, people are pretty much the same everywhere. Underneath the gowns, the girls of Riyadh are wearing designer clothes, and spend much of their time dreaming, worrying and talking about men. Although nominally, their families may make the final decisions about whom they will marry, the women have ways of getting who and what they want -- but like people in the rest of the world sometimes discover that who and what they thought they wanted didn't turn out so good.

The book follows the lives of four friends, young women in their early 20s. The book opens by describing a wedding of one of the friends, but the young woman who is the envy of her peers soon discovers her new husband has other interests. Two of the other three women eventually get married, only one happily, and one, like the author, pursue a professional career. These women all come from families with money, and I have read some Arab criticism that it shows only the lives of privileged women, but so what, so did Jane Austin. One gets the feeling of authenticity; that Ms. Al-Sanea is depicting a life that she really knows about.

I am sure one reason I liked this book is because, like the Amish, the conservative Arab society is misunderstood by ordinary Americans, judged mainly by its severe rules and the pronouncements of its most extreme practioners. It is refreshing to read a book that does not romanticize its subjects, but shows their common humanity. This is not the book to read if you're only interested in great literature, although, it has as much claim to being great literature as Jane Austin's books. This is the book to read if you like to educate yourself in a light-hearted way about people you know little about.

I gave the book four stars.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Movie Report: Once

The movie, Once is aptly named. Its title describes how many times is too many times to have seen it. I don't know why the professional critics love it so much. It won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and it is generally getting high praise, but not from me.

The story is about a guy (unnamed in the movie) who sings on the street when not helping his father in the vacuum cleaner repair shop and meets an attractive girl. They both have other attachments, but fall in love, write songs and sing together and then go back to their respective attachments.

The movie was made in Dublin, Ireland, where it is set, and one of the many problems is that the actors have a thick Irish accent that make them impossible to understand at times. Like so many English movies, if they are going to show it in America, they should provide subtitles.

The second problem is the music is repetitive and irritating. Every song starts out kind of soft and sweet and winds up with the guy banging on the guitar strings and doing the raspy full-steam heart-felt wailing that Neil Diamond perfected a generation ago. One song sounds pretty much like the next when the guy is involved. The girl sings much better, but still it is mostly the guy who does the singing.

The third problem is there is not much of a story. I kept seeing snippets of a story and wishing they would develop this or that snippet a little more, only to be disappointed. The movie starts out with a very interesting robbery where a thief on the street picks up the guy's money from his guitar case and runs and the guy chases him down. When the guy finally catches the thief, the money goes flying all over and the mugger helps the guy retrieve it and they wind up sharing it. Then what happens? Does the mugger wind up being a down-on-his luck musician, too, who helps the guy develop his music? Nope. The thief disappears and the opening sequence is all we ever see of him.

At another point, we discover the girl has a daughter and while the guy is in her apartment getting used to the idea that she has a child, three guys come in plop down on the couch and start watching her television. This could become interesting, but what happens? Nothing. She explains she has the only television in the building and we never see the guys again, without any further explanation.

There are so many missed opportunities and then the movie ends without any real resolution. Does he make it as a singer? We never find out. Do the guy and the girl get back together? We don't know. I don't like movie endings that are too pat, but there needs to at least be enough there that the audience can speculate and argue about the ending. This movie just ends, 80 minutes after it started and not a minute too soon.

I gave it two out of five stars

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Blog Milestone

At 1:33 p.m. today, some unknown reader from North America became the 10,000th visitor to this blog, started just about four weeks shy of two years ago. (For the sake of accuracy, actually, my sitemeter records visits, not distinct visitors, so I make no claims that 10,000 different people have visited the blog.) I started the blog to tell about a trip to Lucerne, Switzerland to see Number Two Son play the The Lucerne Festival with his quartet, JACK. I had previously gone on some trips and reported back about them by way of email, but saw blogging as a way of writing for an audience that wanted to read my material rather than spamming it to everyone in my address book.

When I got back, I couldn't stop. It has been way more fun than I imagined, and although I have reported on a few more trips, the scope of the blog has broadened to include book and movie reviews, politics, information about the Amish, and whatever happens to grab my fancy.

Thanks so much for stopping by. And, while anonymous browsing is fine, what really makes my day is when I get comments and get some idea of the personalities behind the cyber-clicks.

(By the way, JACK is leaving Friday for Davos, Switzerland where it is playing the Davos Festival on August 7th, and then the Lucerne Festival again on August 16th.)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

My Amish Bonafides


Last week I discovered some pictures of my maternal grandfather and grandmother. They were born in 1894. The first picture, on the left is of my grandfather as a young man, evidently before he joined the church, since he would be violating the ordnung by wearing a tie and having his picture taken, and judging from the cut of his hair. His coat, though is an Amish coat, with the lapel turned to make it appear to be an ordinary suit coat. I would guess he was around 17 - 18 years old, maybe about the time his father sent him east to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with a couple of thousand dollars in his pocket, to look for a wife. That was the trip, after which the Lancaster County bishops sent a letter to the Illinois bishops saying, "Don't send us any more of your young people because the last one taught our young people how to dance." The wife he found was back home in Illinois and the second picture is of my grandfather and grandmother in 1969, when he was a respected Amish bishop, 75 years old and not about to voluntarily allow anyone to snap his photograph. I am told that one of my cousins took this picture surreptitiously from a long way away. My how things change.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Racist History

My car book these days is At Canaan's Edge the third in Taylor Branch's trilogy of history books on the American civil rights movement. This is history that I have a memory of, and I am ashamed of my own uninformed and racist views as a young man of Martin Luther King and the struggle for black equality. I remember very well confidently proclaiming that passing laws would not do any good; there had to be a change of hearts first and that the marchers and protesters were setting back the cause of civil rights by making enemies of sympathizers.

I was wrong then, as I have been many times in my life. First came the laws; and then hearts and minds were changed, proving an axiom about which I have been right over the years; i.e. that a person will not consistently act contrary to what the person believes. The person will either change his/her actions to fit the beliefs or change the beliefs to fit the actions. My theory is that when it became unlawful to act racist, most people also changed what had been thought to have been deeply held beliefs and became in favor of racial equality. And so, George Wallace, the symbol of stubborn segregationism, by the end of his life had become respected by many blacks in Alabama for his work in behalf of blacks. He changed his mind, not because of a Road-to-Damacus type of conversion of his heart, but because the laws were changed and he had to change his behavior.

All this is a long way around to say that I was jarred by a little blurb in our local newspaper tonight, a daily history feature summarizing news stories of 100 years ago and 50 years ago. This is the item as it appeared:
In 1907. U.S. Commissioner of Pensions Vespasian Warner of Clinton went to court to have his stepmother declared part Negro in an effort to prevent her from obtaining the widow's share of the $2 million estate left by his father, Dr. John Warner, who was one of the richest men in central Illinois. There was great indignation in DeWitt County, and it was likely that a petition would be passed by Warner's neighbors asking President (Theodore) Roosevelt to remove him from his position.


It is stunning to me to read that 50 years after the Civil War, in my grandfather's lifetime, a way to keep someone from inheriting money would be to have them declared "part Negro." I did a google search to see if I could find out any additional information and I did come up with this site which doesn't mention the "part Negro" defense, but does indicate that there was litigation which resulted in Mrs. Warner getting a dower interest (1/3) in her husband's estate of $1,650,000, giving her approximately $500,000.

What I would be interested in knowing is whether the neighbors were outraged that Vespasian Warner was insulting a white woman by trying to establish that she was part Negro or that he was trying to cheat his step-mother, no matter what her race.

This is just another reminder that people who say that blacks have been free for 150 years and should just get over slavery are not really considering the long residue of racism that existed (and still exists) to deny blacks basic human dignity that we whites take for granted.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Movie Report: Go See "Hairspray"

I'm not a big fan of movie musicals, but like the rest of the audience, I walked out of Hairspray this afternoon with a smile on my face. This is a remake of the John Waters movie of 1988, which starred the transvestite performer, Divine, as the mother of a pudgy young singer, Tracy Turnblad, played by Rikki Lake.

John Travolta, who at last report was a Scientologist but not a transvestite, does a hilarious job cross-dressing as the pudgy mother of the pudgy young singer, played this time by a young actress, Nikki Blonsky, whose resume consists of "many roles at Great Neck Senior High School."

It's a little ridiculous to even talk about a plot in a musical, one of the reasons I generally don't like musicals, but this little frivolity does have a social conscience, as Tracy helps advance race relations by breaking the color barrier at the local television station's teenage dance show, "The Corny Collins Show."

The deliciously evil Michelle Pfeiffer plays the villainous mother of the reigning queen of the dance show who doesn't like pudgy people and doesn't like black people. Obviously, there is no suspense -- good will triumph; the show will be integrated, talent, even if encased in pudge, wins out over looks.

Christopher Walken, is the good-hearted father of the young singer, a role played by Jerry Stiller in the 1988 movie, but who returns in this one as Mr. Pinky. Stiller probably beats out Walken for the prize of most weirdly-dressed in the movie, but only by a mismatched tie.

Number One Son and The Bride went with us to see the movie, which was surprisingly well attended, considering all the hype about the Harry Potter book and movie. (This multiplex, with 14 screens had seven devoted to Harry Potter, but reserved one of the biggest screens for Hairspray, which needs a big screen to be properly enjoyed.) Everyone should borrow NOS to go see a movie like this because his encyclopedic memory and obsession with detail adds insights ordinary people, like me, would have missed. He noticed, for example the cameo appearance of John Waters, the writer and director of the 1988 movie as a flasher, and of Rikki Lake, the original Tracy, as a talent scout, in this movie. Just having Travolta in the movie is, of course, a spoof of the movie that made him famous, Saturday Night Fever.

I haven't seen the 1988 version of Hairspray, but NOS thinks the music is better in this year's movie. It certainly is bouncy; the kind of music one might even want to listen to again.

NOS and The Wife gave the movie four stars in their rating system, which only goes to four stars. I gave it four stars on my five-star system, unable to give it my highest rating because it is still a musical. There are certainly worse ways to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Sometimes Being A Lawyer Isn't Such A Bad Job


I heard some hollering in the back yard after I came home from work this evening and looked out the back door to see this poor guy, at work for the cable company. At least in my job, I get to keep both feet on the ground. Literally, if not always metaphorically.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Ask Aunt Tillie: Are All Amish Democrats?

Blogger's Note: Since this blog is somewhat Amishcentric, I get questions from time to time from readers about Amish life and culture, which I refer to my Aunt Tillie, an opinionated, but humble Amish woman. Here is a recent question and answer. Please leave a comment or email me if you have questions you want me to refer to her in the future.

Dear Aunt Tillie:

Your nephew, Amishlaw, always seems to be bashing Bush, and he has already declared himself as an Obamanian. Are all Amish Democrats or is your nephew a deviant?

(Signed Concerned Voter)

Dear Concerned Voter:

I won't offer any opinions about my nephew's deviancies, but I can assure you that not all Amish are Democrats. The party of evolution, abortion on demand and gay marriage? Are you kidding me? A better question would be are there any Amish who are Democrats? I read recently that in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the county with the highest concentration of Amish in the world, 97 percent of the Amish identify with the Republican Party. I read in The Budget (the Amish newspaper) how in 2004 Bush met with some Amish bishops in Lancaster County and got all weepy eyed about our simple religious lifestyle. I don't think you ever read about Hilary Clinton getting all weepy eyed about the Amish; Bill, maybe, but he gets weepy-eyed at everything.

I can't tell you how Amishlaw went wrong, but you have to remember he hasn't been Amish for 50 years. There's something about clopping down the road in a buggy staring at the rear end of a horse that gives you a little different perspective about life. (Blogger's note: So, that's where the Republicans get their platform.)

The only good Democrat I know about is Franklin D. Roosevelt because he saved grandfather's farm in the depression. Harry Truman dropped the atomic bomb and started the Korean War; John F. Kennedy tried to invade Cuba and got us started in Vietnam; Lyndon Johnson got us in a big mess in Vietnam; Jimmy Carter tried to invade Iran; and Bill Clinton -- he couldn't keep his britches buttoned. I know this latest guy, George W. Bush, has gone from one disaster to another, but I'm not sure he's really a Republican. He did go to Yale didn't he? And wasn't he a cheerleader? Sounds like a Democrat to me.

(Signed Aunt Tillie)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Movie Report: Go See "Sicko"

I'm a Michael Moore fan, I'll admit it, having first heard of him when he was a high school kid running for the school board 35 years ago in Flint, Michigan, where I was working as a newspaper reporter. But even if you're not a Michael Moore fan, you need to go see his latest movie, Sicko.

The title of the movie refers to the condition of the United States health care system. No one, except the very rich and very poor, can afford health care these days without insurance. No one, except the very rich, can afford insurance. Moore contrasts the U.S. system with the socialized care provided in Canada, England, France and Cuba. While this might seem like a boring subject, Moore, as always, manages to tell the story with humor and human interest.

I know, I know, Moore presents only one side of a complicated issue, the problem of how to deliver affordable health care to our population. But the facts are undeniable; the United States spends far more per person for health care than any other country, and for the money, it does not deliver the best health care in the world by any objective measurement -- life expectancy; infant mortality rate, or any other measurement you want to choose.

Just yesterday, I had a young couple come to see me for a problem right out of "Sicko." He lost his job and bought Blue Cross/Blue Shield for himself and his young son on the internet. He developed a kidney stone, and after getting pre-approved, wound up having three surgeries because of complications. When the bill reached $50,000, the insurance company started looking for ways to deny coverage. They went over his application and medical records with a fine toothed comb, and discovered he had purchased some pain killers on the internet which he had not disclosed. So, they sent him a letter revoking his policy, refunding his premiums and now he is stuck with the bills. The only way to describe a system that allows such game playing is "sicko."

I've looked around the internet for criticisms of "Sicko," and haven't found many. The main one seems to be that Moore understates the problems of socialized medicine; the primary problem apparently thought to be long waits for routine care. That criticism doesn't impress me much because I have seen the long waits we have under our privatized system. The Wife wasn't interested in seeing "Sicko," saying that it only appeals to people who already agree with its premise. That is true to some extent, but I think it also inspires people to work for change. Although the power of the medical industry's lobbyists is great, the health care system is so broken that change is going to have to happen.

I gave the movie five out of five stars.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Another Post, Ex Facto: 24 Hours in a Buddhist Temple

Okay, here is the much-touted, long-delayed report on our 24-hour-stay in a Buddhist temple in Korea. This came about because The Wife took a course on East Asia this past winter and found out about Temple Stay, a program where one can stay in a temple for periods ranging from a day to weeks.

The Bride set us up with a stay at Jeondeungsa, one of the oldest temples in Korea. Their official website is here. Unfortunately, the official website is all in Hongul, the Korean language, but it has lovely pictures, including some of our group. The temple is on Mt. Jeongjoksan on Ganghwa Island in the northwest of Korea (on a clear day, you can see into North Korea.)

The day started about 10:00 a.m. when we caught a bus near our hotel for Onsuri, a little village near the monastery. The Bride's father, as always when we were in Korea, had arranged for everything, including paying for our bus fares and arranging with the driver to tell us where we were to get off the bus. Someone from the monastery was to meet us at the bus stop. The island where the monastery is located is about two hours west and north of Seoul. We got off when the driver indicated, but didn't find anyone waiting for us. The bus stop consisted of a bench under a shelter, so we sat down and waited, not worried at first, but as the minutes ticked by without anyone coming up to us and identifying themselves as being from the monastery, we started getting a little worried. We had no idea what to expect. Are Buddhists dependable, or do they just "live in the moment?" Should we be looking for someone in saffron robes, with a shaved head or would our escort look like us? We had no idea and there was no one around who could speak English. We were the only caucasians at the bus stop; probably the only ones in the village, so we didn't think our guide would have any trouble figuring out who we were. After about 20 minutes, a smiling young man driving a mini-van and speaking broken English came up and directed us to his van. We had no more doubts that we were at the right place or about the hospitality of the Buddhists during the next 24 hours.

The monastery was only a 10 minute drive away from the bus stop, in a beautiful mountain setting with trees all around. It was lunch time and we were first ushered to the dining hall where we filled our plates with rice and vegetarian dishes, some of which I could identify, but all of which were uncommonly delicious. As with all of the traditional meals we ate in Korea, we sat on cushions on the floor with our plates on low tables, approximately the height of American coffee tables. (That was probably the hardest thing we did in Korea; I never did get my legs trained not to go to sleep shortly after sitting on the floor, and the rest of the time was spent shifting my legs trying unobstrusively to retain some feeling.) The monks ate at a separate table from the visitors. There were about 8 to 10 other visitors, all of them Asians. After lunch, we were issued sets of blue shirts and gray pants., the pants made of a coarse but very comfortable cotton. We were told the shirts were for us to keep, the pants we would have to buy, if we wanted to keep them after our monastery stay, which several of us did. We were shown our quarters, two persons to a room, with women and men separated. The rooms were small and had no furniture. We would sleep on the floor, on mats, which turned out to be quite comfortable, especially considering that the floors were heated (as are all floors in Korea.)

None of the monks were comfortable speaking English (although like all Koreans, they had studied English for many years, starting in elementary school, but many have not studied with native English speakers.) We had a translator, a young Korean woman, who was taking some time off from working to decide what she wants to do next. Although she had to stop and try to think of the English words from time to time, her English was very good, for the most part.
We were first given a tour of the place. The "temple" actually consists of a number of separate halls (I'm thinking there were about six, although one of the crockheads will probably correct me,) used for different purposes. Although the interiors were very elaborate, many of the exteriors looked weather-beaten and in need of repairs. The grounds, as a whole looked very nice and kept up, but we didn't see any groundskeepers, so I don't know who was responsible to keep the place looking nice (since everyone who comes there must do some work, we were given the job of sweeping the ground in front of a couple of the halls on the morning following the day we got there, but all we really did was just rearrange the dust.)

One of the halls that we saw on the tour on the first day was a place where the monks held traditional tea ceremonies. We sat, cross-legged, or knelt on the floor as we were taught what the various dishes were used for and in what order first the hot water and then the tea was poured. The instructor did not attempt to explain the religious significance of the tea ceremony, which was just as well as we probably would not have understood it.

Our next activity was making a bead bracelet. Again, the focus was just on the mechanics of doing it, not the religious significance of the beads, although there was speculation by the Humble Philosopher/Carpenter that the beads are used in prayer in much the same way that Catholics use the rosary, to keep track of repetitions of the prayers.
After dinner, which was basically the same as lunch, one of the monks gave us a lecture on meditation. Even though, sitting on the floor, my feet were killing me, I had a hard time staying awake; maybe the meditation was making me too relaxed to listen. Number Two Son, who taught himself meditation, from reading about it when he was 13 or 14,was spotted sitting in the lotus position. It was suggested that he might want to try doing the 108 Prostrations, a series of bows which involve going all the way from a standing position to squatting and then putting one's face on the floor, before standing back up -- sort of an extreme squat-thrust. Amazingly, quite a few of our group (not including me) got into the 40's on Monday evening, before the monk leading the prostrations called a halt because we needed to go on to the next activity. The next morning, three of our group, Number Two Son, The Wife, and Seester, did manage to do 108, although only Number Two Son was able to do the standing up part without using his hands to push off.

We got to bed (or floor, I should say) about 9:00 p.m. on Monday evening, having been told that we would be awakened at 4:00 a.m. the next morning for morning prayers. As I was taking off my shirt, something hit the floor in front of me, a big bug, shown here next to the bracelet for perspective, but which Baby Milton assures me was not a poisonous scorpion. Nevertheless, I was glad I spotted it before I turned off the lights. In consideration of our Buddhist hosts, I scooped the bug up and deposited it outside instead of squashing it like I would have done back in Christian America.

The next morning, it was only 3:45, when The Humble Philosopher/Carpenter banged on the door of the room I shared with Number Two Son and told us it was time to get up. I thought we had until 4:00 a.m., but apparently not. Since the only shower was going to be a cold one, I decided to skip taking a cold shower in the middle of the night. Actually, once I got the sleep out of my eyes, it was nice to be up that early. It was still pitch black, but we made our way to the hall that contained the drums and were treated to a drumming spectacle that I will never forget. Here is a video of about 30 seconds of it. Although the picture is not very good, it gives some approximation of what it sounded like. This went on for about half an hour, in the dark, with two monks drumming part of the time.

After breakfast, we (some of us, see above) did the 108 Prostrations, and then we did some hiking around the perimeter of the old castle grounds where the temple is located. Although there is a lot more that could be told, this post is too long already, but I have to relate one last interesting incident. The monk who led the 108 Prostrations also led the hike around the mountain after breakfast in the morning. At one point, he stopped the hike, and started talking to the interpreter, looking and gesturing at the cross, Seester was wearing. Seester thought "Oh, (shucks) I've offended him by wearing the cross; what was I thinking?" It turns out, to the contrary, he was not offended by the cross. He said he had noticed Seester's cross when she was doing the 108 Prostrations and realized our group must be Christian. He said that when he travels around Korea, which has an active and growing Christian population, he frequently gets yelled at to "believe in Jesus," and told that he is going to hell for being a Buddhist. He said that our show of respect for the Buddhist beliefs and traditions had caused him to go back to his room the previous night and read up on Christianity and was causing him to rethink his own attitudes towards Christians.

In all honesty, our excursion to the Buddhist temple was for purely selfish reasons; we wanted to understand the religion a little better and have an experience we never had before, but if it also advanced the cause of interfaith dialogue and understanding a little bit, maybe it will help us be reincarnated at a slightly higher level in our next lives. There was nothing in the experience that made me want to embrace the Korean form of Zen Buddhism, called Seon Buddhism. The worst part is they believe there is a king who decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Like Christianity, they have added a lot of rules to what their founder, the Buddha, originally taught, rules designed more to distinguish between who is "in" and who is "out" than to perpetuate the original ideals of their religion. The Buddhism for which I have a great deal of admiration is a distilled variation about which I read in the April 22, 2002 issue of The New Yorker which I call the "Goldsmith Variation", after Marshall Goldsmith, an executive coach, which amounts to basically three principles: Be happy now (not sometime in the future,) live in the moment and let it go. I suppose those principles are too simple to use as a foundation for a religion -- who is going to give money for a church, synagogue or temple on those principles?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Another Post Ex Facto: A Slide Show of the Korean Wedding

My sister-in-law, EIEIO, put together a slide show of some of the pictures she and I took in Korea at the Confucian wedding of Number One Son and his lovely bride, The Bride. You can view it here. And you can keep checking back for the long-promised description of our 24 hours in a Buddhist monastery. It will get here eventually.

News Flash: Television Hypes the News!

It turns out the dramatic little story by Chicago television station, WBBM, about Arcola hero, Brad Pullen, grabbing the gun when his captor laid it down to pee, tying up the alleged perpretrator with his necktie and marching him out of the bank where he had been held all day was just television hype. It didn't happen. Not even close.

It now comes out that an FBI negotiator talked the gunman into giving up. He and Brad walked out of the bank, without any gun. Don't look for a correction on WBBM's website; it isn't there. Don't get me started on television "news."

Friday, June 22, 2007

I'm From Arcola!

The little town near which I grew up and from which I graduated from high school hasn't had this much press since Dave Barry used to write about marching in the annual Broom Corn Festival parade with the Lawn Rangers. A day-long crisis in which a bad guy from Chicago ("aren't they all?" is the downstate attitude) was holed up with hostages in a little bank branch in town.

Some media are reporting that it ended when the gunman laid down the gun to pee and the remaining hostage grabbed the gun, tied the guy up with the hostage's necktie and marched him out the door. Our local newspaper is saying the guy surrendered peacefully. I'll go with the dramatic version. This is what one of my brothers, the Internationalist, who is home from Vienna for a few weeks to attend weddings had to say about it in a family email.

"The town is small but things ended well. Brad Pullen,
the bank manager who was taken hostage along with his
grandfather(who just happened to be meeting with his
grandson) and five of his employees coolly persuaded
the strung-out hostage-taker to release everyone else.
Then, after seven hours, Brad grabbed the
hostage-taker's gun when he laid it down (to pee),
tied the hostage-taker up with his necktie, and
marched him out of the bank.

"Brad is Gene's friend and was his classmate. He is
the son of one of my classmates, Rick, from my 12
years in Arcola schools. His grandfather has a bar
(the Dog House) down the street from Wilmer's house.
As Rick reminded me last night at the celebrations, in
school we always used to be in the alphabetic lineups
together: Otto, Pullen...

"To further illustrate the town's entanglements...
Brad's fiancée and mother of his three-month-old child
is the granddaughter of my first-grade teacher, Mrs.
McCoy. Brad's sister is the girlfriend of the son of a
classmate of Rick and I, Matt McClain. On Saturday
night, Matt's country music band, the Humboldt
Thunder, played at Brad's grandpa's bar, the Dog
House. I had a long conversation with Matt's wife
(she married Matt when she was 15 and he was 16). She
said for the first time she and Matt were going to
travel. They were taking Matt's motorcycle down to the
Smokey Mountains.

"Rick and Matt are very proud that their sons have gone
to college and amounted to something.

"Brad is a very calm, quiet guy. He didn't make any big
statement to the media. When he finished talking to
the police at 9:30 last night, he calmly walked into
the Doghouse, sat at a corner of the bar and didn't
have much to say.

"Here's a story by WBBM the CBS affiliate in Chicago.
Their video is particularly good. They happened to be
interviewing Brad's grandmother when she got the call
that he'd gotten out.

"Of course, a www.news.google. com search for Arcola &
hostage will get you a lot of stories.

"There were many happy people in the Dog House last
night.

"Adelante!"
(The Internationalist)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Last Sunday in Seoul, Post Ex Facto

Blogger's Note: The posts about our recent trip to Korea for Number One Son's wedding, appear with the most recent ones first. To read them chronologically, scroll down to "Korea Report: We're Off." They really do make more sense that way. This one is out of order because I got behind in my blogging while in Korea and jumped to the end.
In the top photo, the Humble Philosopher/Carpenter and EIEIO try to figure out the subway route while The Sensible One (left) and Baby Milton (right) watch them struggle. On Sunday, the day after the wedding, we took the opportunity to explore an ancient palace and do some shopping. With the aid of a couple of maps, we made our way around Seoul using the subway system and our feet.
The city has an excellent subway system (although I couldn't get Humble Philosopher/Carpenter, who thinks everything Japanese is superior, to admit that Korea has the best subway system, he did allow as to how it was very good.) The trains are very clean, very quiet and graffiti free. Electronic maps in each car show the stops and where you are located. The cost, in the central city area is 1,000 won, about $1 U.S.
Our first destination was Changdeokgung, the "Palace of Illustrious Virtue." It was built in 1405 and used as the seat of government until 1910 when Japan took over Korea for the umpteenth time. We are trying to make it in time for the palace tour at 10:00 a.m. After getting off the efficient, clean, modern subway, we go the rest of the way the old-fashioned way, by walking. That is one big difference about living in a big city; you walk a lot. In small towns, and farms, at least in the United States, no one walks. We walked a lot in Seoul. When we got to the palace, we discovered the tour wasn't until 11:00, and since we had passed the famous shopping area, Insadong, a place to go with lots of restaurants, antique shops and trinket shops. So, we walked some more, back to Insadong for a short period of shopping. I have a very low tolerance for shopping, even for only an hour. After looking at some ties, which were three for 10,000 won (about $10) and almost buying them, I thought to look at the tag and saw they were 100 percent polyester, not silk. That did it for me, I hoofed it back to the palace to wait for the shoppers. The Wife came back with several pots (both of which were broken by the time we got them home) and some other things -- I don't even want to know what. Korean palaces are quite unlike European palaces of the same era. They are mostly made of wood, instead of stone and granite, and are mostly low-slung, narrow buildings, with most or all of the rooms opening to the outside. They are more colorful on the outside, but the insides are comparatively plain. The long hallways common to European palaces are mostly on the outside in Korean palaces. Although Korea hasn't had a king since 1910, when the Japanese took over the country, members of the royal family lived in the palace up into the late 1980s. The big attraction for this particular palace is the secret garden, which is hidden in the back of the palace grounds. The garden is equipped with a library, so the king could read in the comfort of hidden nature. In the picture on the left, you can see the pond in the secret garden, covered with lily pads.
Some of the crockheads are gluttons for punishment and headed back to Insadong for more shopping after we were done at the palace, while Baby Milton, EIEIO and I went back to the hotel for a little rest before meeting NOS, The Bride and The Bride's family for some ginger chicken soup that NOS has been raving about.
Sorry, I don't have any pictures of the feast. We were seated on the floor again (as we were every time we ate at a Korean restaurant in Korea.) The advantage of floor seating is that it is easier to spot dropped food and pick it up unobstrusively. The disadvantage for Westerners is that our feet go to sleep about five minutes into the meal, and then it is a matter of trying to shift position unobstrusively to try to get some feeling back before we have to stand up. What we got were whole chickens stuffed with rice and ginger root in a big bowl of soup. It was accompanied by the usual panoply of side dishes, including kimchee. The chicken was so tender that even a clumsy user of chopsticks had no trouble pinching off chunks of flesh and getting them into his mouth.
When we were done, several hours later, we headed back to the hotel, but made a stop on the way at the Baskin-Robbins for some regular American ice cream to be eaten sitting in regular booth with regular spoons, just to remind ourselves that the whole world hasn't been turned upside down.
Tomorrow: Our overnight stay at an ancient Buddhist temple.