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?