Monday, December 31, 2007

"The Jesus Camp" and Indoctrination?

I'm going to offer a disclaimer now before getting into this post: I have no first-hand experience with Pentecostals or Pentecostal churches, and truthfully don't know much about how that denomination operates. Everything that I'm about to say here should be read strictly as the opinions of a Pentecostal-ignorant, cradle Episcopalian.

Last night, while aimlessly flipping channels on the television (the curse of having nothing but reruns on at the end of the year), A. and I ran across the documentary "The Jesus Camp" on A&E. It seemed intriguing, and we decided to watch it; by the end of the two hours, I was stunned, for lack of a better term. "The Jesus Camp" is a 2006 film that follows Pastor Becky Fischer and the attendees of her annual camp at Devil's Lake, North Dakota. Through the course of the film, the viewer is introduced to some of the kids who visit, learns something about Pastor Fischer, watches as the camp unfolds, and then sees the activities of one of the families in the aftermath of the camp. One girl, nine-year-old Rachael, was a big focus of the film, and I'll touch on some questions I have about her and any child raised in this environment.

I had a lot of concerns about what I had watched when it ended. A few examples:

1. All of the kids were genuinely excited about attending camp, as I'm sure any child would be given the chance to experience something new and make new friends -- in addition to learning more about their beliefs and experiencing some spiritual growth. However, from the first day they were almost brow-beaten by Pastor Fischer; case in point, she stood before in a daily chapel service and told them that she knew there were lots of kids in the room who said they were Christians and acted one way at church, but acted another way when they were in another environment. She then started berating them as hypocrites who needed to be cleansed, and succeeded in bringing a large number of them to tears. Why in the world would anyone think it beneficial to call seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds hypocrites? Why in the world would anyone think that berating a child and threatening them with hell would be helpful?

2. Sharing your faith with your children is a great thing; I certainly won't dispute that. In fact, I've had great fun in recent weeks talking to MB about the birth of Jesus, the role of Mary and Joseph, and the entire nativity story (she is absolutely enthralled with the thought of baby Jesus, the angels and archangels, and everyone who visited after his birth). But we discuss it -- I don't try and program her. Again using Rachael as an example, the children seemed to simply repeat anything and everything they heard from their parents; in one instance, she approached a young lady in a bowling alley and told her that God had put it on heart to talk to her about whether she was saved -- yes, I know kids says the darnedest things, but how many nine-year-olds say anything close to "God put it on my heart?"

At another point, she approached three black men sitting in a park and asked one of them, "Do you know where you're going when you die?" He responded that he was going to heaven, and she replied with, "Are you sure?" Then, as she was walking back across the street, she said, "Oh, they're probably Muslim." Why would a nine-year-old care about that distinction, much less vocalize it?

3. One of the groups of boys was sitting up late one night in their cabin telling ghost stories, apparently after lights-out had been called. The counselor walked in and told them that they should be focused on stories from God rather than ghost stories for which he (the counselor) had no use. Why not let the kids be kids and tell ghost stories?

4. Rachael extemporized at one point on the type of churches she believed God chose to visit. According to her, God doesn't like churches where people sing three songs and then listen to a sermon -- all of which are done with calm and silence. Instead, she said God prefers to visit churches where the congregation is jumping around, waving their hands and shouting "Hallelujah!" Obviously, they have overlooked the verse from the New Testament where Jesus says, "Whenever two or three are gathered together, I will be in the their midst;" I don't recall it saying, "Whenever two or three are gathered AND are jumping around and saying 'Hallelujah!'"

I won't say that this isn't an important film; I found it very eye-opening and it gave me a better understanding of at least this part of the Pentecostal church. In fact, I would recommend that lots of folks watch it -- it was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. And I certainly won't try to say that this is indicative of the entire denomination (read my disclaimer above for the reason). However, I would be stunned if you, too, didn't have some serious questions -- about the way that these children are seemingly "indoctrinated," about how they are taught at an extremely young age to talk about being soldiers in the army of God and eventhat they would be willing to die for Jesus (yes, that comment was made by a child), and about how they are instructed to talk and use language that they clearly don't understand. Parrots can be taught to say, "Polly want a cracker," but they don't know what a cracker is or why they are asking for it. I would hope that my children would make decisions on their faith based on discussions, reading, reflection, and prayer, and not because someone has drilled the language into their head or frightened them into a certain set of beliefs.

In doing some further reading on this documentary, I ran across an article in the Seattle newspaper that said that the camp had been shut down indefinitely as a result of the outcry caused by the film -- even to the extent that the camp buildings had been vandalized (if you disagree with something, try and talk it out like I am here -- don't go into destruction mode). Ironically, the story ran the same week that Ted Haggard -- who is featured in the last 30 minutes of the film -- announced his resignation.

The intent of this post is to drum up conversation and dialogue, not to offend or insult. If I have done so, accept my apologies now. As someone raised in a denomination that sings three hymns and then listens to a sermon -- and doesn't berate children with comments about their being hypocrites -- this is difficult for me to understand or accept. Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

From the Mouths of Babes (and Those a Bit Older)...

I receive a daily email from the Rev. Barbara Crafton and Deacon Joanna Depue called "The Daily eMo," which anyone can sign up to receive at their website. The messages are primarily crafted for use by ministers in writing their weekly sermons, but anyone can get something special out of them. Today, Joanna forwarded an email that included this YouTube posting; the following is a summary taken from the video description:

"Logan is a 13 year-old boy who lives on a ranch in a very small town in Nebraska. Logan listens to Christian Radio station 89.3FM KSBJ which broadcasts from Houston, TX. Logan called the radio station distraught because he had to take down a calf. His words have wisdom beyond his years."

I don't know how you can listen and not see just how wise our children can be...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Grace Through Film

Many people have never heard the name William Wilberforce, nor are they aware of what he accomplished during his lifetime. However, nearly everyone has heard of the hymn "Amazing Grace" -- and the film A. and I watched recently is the intersection of both of these, the known and the unknown.

Kansas Bob had done a review of this film back in February when it first came out (I'm a bit behind the curve on seeing it, but I tend to rely more and more on Netflix), and I'd encourage you to read what he had to say here. I agree with everything he said; it was a truly remarkable film about someone who put his faith into action -- someone who had a choice between a life devoted to God and a life devoted to politics, and who found a way to do both. Ioan Gruffudd, who was cast in the role of Wilberforce, struck me as being the perfect choice for the part -- moving nearly seamlessly from moments of pure awe at what he saw as God's creation in the world around him to moments of intense passion in the halls of Parliament. (As an aside, I'll add here that I was even more pleasantly surprised by his performance when you consider that the only other films in which I had seen him act were the two Fantastic Four films, which were at the very least quite cornball.)

Wilberforce was a man who became a hero to men no less significant than Abraham Lincoln, who was to deal with the issue of slavery here in this country just three decades after the practice was abolished throughout the British Empire. He devoted nearly forty years to eliminating the slave trade, first by leading the fight on legislation banning the slave trade and then seeing legislation passed (just three days before his own death) that outlawed slavery entirely. And he did it in spite of the tremendous forces at work against him within Parliament, making this almost a sort of come-from-behind victory.

A friend and mentor to Wilberforce, John Newton (played by Albert Finney), was a former slave trader who turned away from that profession in the 1750s and spent the remainder of his life trying to atone for his sins and seek forgiveness from the 20,000 souls he said were following him. It was Newton, who authored many hymns in his life, who penned "Amazing Grace," "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," and others that I'm sure you'd know almost instantly upon hearing them. The friendship between the two is a pillar of the film, and the point of the intersection (as I mentioned above) between the hymn we all know and the story that we don't.

Of course, the most remarkable films to me are the ones that provide memorable lines, and this one certainly provided many. However, there's one that has stuck with me that I hope will give you just as much pause for thought -- it was written by Francis Bacon and reads, "It's a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everyone else and still unknown to himself."

Visually, the film was breathtaking, and the soundtrack added an even stronger level of feeling just below the surface. It's a very moving story, and although I haven't yet read any of the two or three highly recommened Wilberforce biographies on the market today I'll go out on a limb and say that this film tells the story in a highly emotional and unforgettable way.

On the NOVA Dad rating scale, five out of five! And if this isn't enough motivation for you to pick up a copy to see for yourself, perhaps this trailer will...

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Confronted by Poverty

There's the man who walks up and down the median in front of my office every day with an empty McDonald's cup that he extends to every driver who passes by.

There's the man who stands in the median in front of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving selling copies of the Washington Post, obviously in need of the money that brings him.

There's the lady who sits in the front-door overhang of the office building a block away from mine, with a shopping cart containing everything she owns.

And there's the often-drunk man who approached me in McDonald's recently, asking if I could find him a job and telling me that he used to have a job at the World Bank.

I see these people often -- not all in the same day, every day, but often enough to know that they're there. And I'm torn about not helping them. A. and I give as much as we can -- to our church, to one of the D.C.-area kitchens, to a little girl we're supporting in Honduras. But what about these folks I see every day, the ones I turn my head to avoid as I pass by; what do I do?

Admittedly, I hold a great degree of cynicism about what these folks would do if I gave them money. I suppose it's a lingering feeling from when I lived in south Alabama, and was approached one evening in downtown Mobile by a man who said he and his friend had just gotten off work at the state docks, that his truck wouldn't start, and that he needed a few bucks to get home. Without thought, I gave him some money; after all, I could see the man's truck and his friend just on the other side of the square. The very next night, the same man approached me with the same story. It wasn't until I asked him if he was still having problems getting home from the day before that he realized who I was -- and I realized I had been duped.

There are the stories I've heard from friends of mine who have been approached by people asking for money, and who instead off to buy them a meal -- only to find the man or woman who has approached them gets mad and starts yelling at them, saying that they hadn't asked for a meal.

What am I supposed to do? How can I possibly figure out the difference between those legitimately battling poverty and those just looking to hustle a few bucks from passersby?

All of this got me to thinking about povery in general, and I remembered this (somewhat lengthy) passage that I read in William Stringfellow's My People is the Enemy:

Poverty was my very first client in Harlem - a father whose child died from being attacked by a rat. Poverty is a widow on welfare whose landlord cuts the heat, knowing that the winter will end before a complaint is processed. Poverty is a drug addict who steals from his own family or pawns the jacket off his back to get another "fix." Poverty is being evicted from a housing project because the project manager determines that the family is "undesirable." Poverty is a Puerto Rican shopkeeper whose store is stoned when he tries to relocate south of the 96th Street boundary of East Harlem. Poverty is an adolescent with a tested I.Q. of 130 who cannot read or write the English language well enough to get other than the most menial jobs. Poverty is the pay-off to a building inspector not to report violations of the building code. Poverty is a young couple who marry because that is the only way to get out of the tenements and into a project, and whose marriage fails, and who have neither the grounds for a divorce in New York nor the price for a divorce in another jurisdiction. Poverty is being awakened in the midle of the night by a welfare investigator who demands to search your apartment to be sure you are not cheating the taxpayers. Poverty is the incapacity to complain against the landlord because you can't afford to take a day off from your job or from minding the family to go to court. Poverty is a kid who wants to be adopted to escape from the slums but whom no one wants. Poverty is a boy whose father has thrown him out, a boy who needs a place to stay. Poverty is living in darkness after the electric current has been turned off as a fire hazard, and waiting for six or seven days until someone is sent to repair the obsolete wiring.

Poverty is the enormous burden of waiting - waiting for hours for a doctor to examine a sick child at the hospital clinic, waiting for an interview with a social worker, waiting at the employment office, waiting in line for what the government ironically calls "surplus" food, waiting for everything, everywhere you go.

Poverty is vulnerability to death in its crudest forms. Poverty is the relentless daily attrition of contending with the most primitive concerns of human existence: food and cleanliness and clothes and heat and housing and rest and play and work.

It's a beautiful passage, and a difficult passage; Stringfellow has so eloquently put a face to the different types of poverty that so many people are battling. But having a face put on the problem -- and seeing the faces every day -- what should we do? Do we give money to everyone every time they ask, not knowing or concerning ourselves about which is the mother trying to feed her children and which is the person looking to buy a six-pack of beer? Do we give money to no one, instead sending assistance directly to the shelters and food banks and churches?

What do you do?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Finally! A Reality Show Worth Watching!

I have to say that I'm not typically one to watch televised talent competitions -- in fact, with things like "American Idol," I usually watch the first few episodes where the folks with talent like me try out. Once the good ones start, I'm finished watching, simply being content to find out who the winner is when the paper runs an article.

With the advent of Fox's "Next Great American Band," however, that's changed. I love watching week after week as bands that were formed with a specific genre in mind are put in a position where they must adapt to the artist chosen by the producers. There have been some incredible groups this season, and many of them have made it to the final five. Here is a sampling of who I've really taken a shine to:

The bluegrass-based Clark Brothers, here performing Elvis' "I'm Saved":

The neuvo big band Denver and the Mile High Orchestra, performing "One Time Show":

Sixwire - a group of middle-aged dads - performs the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time":

Tonight they performed songs by Rod Stewart, and next week it's Queen. It's a great show, and every one of the finalists is in for big things down the road. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Bad Infomercial Equals Good Comedy

This is a totally ridiculous post -- I'll admit that up front. But when I ran across this while surfing the net, I couldn't help but link it to my blog, if for no other reason than the fact that I read it and busted a gut laughing.

I'm sure many of you have seen the informercial for that ridiculous "Magic Bullet" kitchen contraption; I've seen it several times -- in fact, A. used to poke fun at me for wanting to watch it every time I ran across it (or watch it at least until the point where Hazel says, "Dinner. Yeah, that's always a production."). Despite the frequent viewings, however, I never took the time to analyze it. Now, I found someone who has, and it's absolutely hysterical. Here are the first two paragraphs from their review, followed by the link for the complete article. Enjoy!

The Magic Bullet is a miniature blender that gets lauded on its infomercial as the "Personal, Versatile Countertop Magician"—a description that must have polled better in focus groups than the more accurate "Cuisinart for Hookers."

Most infomercials are content merely to demonstrate their products and parade an endless number of testimonials. The infomercial for the Magic Bullet, however, is unusual in that it sets up a scenario in which the action is supposed to take place. The events of the Magic Bullet infomercial occur in the morning aftermath of some vaguely-described "barbecue" held the day before by a perky blonde named Mimi and her Aussie husband Mick. One by one Mick and Mimi's guests awake from their slumbers and stumble into the kitchen. As the party-goers struggle to recover from their hangovers and recall what they did with their wedding rings, Mick and Mimi provide entertainment. That entertainment consists of watching Mick and Mimi use the Magic Bullet to prepare food. After all, why hire a magician to perform at your party when you've already paid for a "personal countertop magician." So the Magic Bullet is no mere food processor: It actually turns your house into Benihana's! In addition, Mick delights his yuppie guests by using wonderfully cockney expressions such as "Bob's your uncle, Fanny's your aunt"—which is almost as much fun as watching him grind coffee beans.

Read the complete entry for "The Magic Bullet" here.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Going to the Welles One Too Many Times? Hardly.....

In recent days, I've moved into another one of my side forays into movies and literature, this time involving the great Orson Welles. As I begin to read the first two volumes of the Welles biography written by Simon Callow, and as I move further into watching films from his career that are NOT "Citizen Kane" and "The Third Man" featuring Welles as either actor and/or director and/or producer, I'm really finding myself developing quite an appreciation for the talent he possessed.

After watching "F is for Fake," an early 1970s documentary that Welles created which discussed fakery in art and literature, I commented to Dave that I had a difficult time with it because it was so un-Wellesian. In the ensuing exchange of emails, I was led to the realization that it was very much a Wellesian film -- just not in the same classic 1940s genre in which I had (in my mind) pigeonholed OW. Now that I've gotten him out of the category in which I had boxed him (thanks for the dialogue and new viewpoint, Dave), I'm excited about tackling "F is for Fake" again, along with many other of his later films and documentaries.

Sadly, what so many people in today's generation (and as I'm nearly 40, I feel qualified to talk about today's generation) know Welles for isn't so much this

as it is this

And because of YouTube (as much as I love visiting that website), even more people are becoming familiar with him more as a parody of himself and as a pitchman for wine, fishsticks, and frozen peas than they are as one of the top ten film directors of all time and the creater of what is consistently voted as the greatest American film ever made. Sad that for younger folks, his career has been reduced to these few doing-it-because-he-needed-the-money pitches (and even the now-famous outtakes of him trying to work through a Paul Masson commercial in a drunken stupor).

At the very least, I can make sure my two children have an appreciation for his work -- yet another step in making sure that they are indoctrinated into the world of fine literature, classic film, and great music (I can hear my wife sighing now, knowing what they are in for in the years ahead).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

An Evening with Desmond Tutu

(Photo to the left courtesy of the SABC website, which ran a story about tonight's event.)

In a single word -- amazing.

In a long string of words -- amazing, inspiring, moving, breathtaking, loving, forgiving, accepting, believing, praying.

This is about the best way I can come up with to describe what it was like to be at Washington National Cathedral tonight to listen to a talk delivered by Desmond Tutu entitled "The Spirituality of Reconciliation." In the many years that I have been going to events at the cathedral, it was the first time that I saw every seat in building filled -- thousands of people had come out to listen to him.

I had seen Archbishop Tutu before; his daughter was one of the clergy residents at our church in Northern Virginia, and he attended services often whenever he was in the area. At those points, though, he was just another member of the congregation, and people treated him as such -- no gawking, no pointing, no gasps. He was simply another welcomed member of our church family who was helping to fill the room.

On this night, however, he filled the room all by himself -- and I don't mean that in terms of the size of the crowd he drew. When he walked up to the podium to speak, he filled the room in a different way -- with his warmth, his humor, and his love. He spoke often during the course of the evening about a God who opens up his arms to embrace everyone, and that's exactly what the Archbishop did tonight.

It was an incredible 45 minutes, and one which A. and I will never forget. Even in a room that large with thousands of people in attendance, there was complete and utter silence as he spoke. There was no way that I could write my thoughts and impressions throughout the speech, but I was able to jot down some of what he said (and I hope you'll forgive me for just jotting down these quick snatches of his talk):

- We are like God, and we are meant to imitate God.

- God would much rather we go freely to hell than compel us to go to heaven.

- Part of the glory of being us is to have a God who allows us to have autonomy.

- We are in the forgiveness business because this God and this Christ are in the forgiving business.

- Forgiving refuses to give up on anyone; the God in whose image we are created never gives up on us.

- God picks us up, God dusts off, and God says, "Try again."

- An enemy is a friend waiting to be made.

- To forgive is not altruistic, it is the best form of self-interest.

At the very end of his remarks, he told a story (that he said he has told often, but wanted to repeat again) about a chicken farmer who one day goes out to his chicken run and sees a chicken that looks strange, but he knows it is a chicken. One day, a traveler comes and says, "That's no chicken; that's an eagle." The stranger asks the farmer to give him the chicken.

The visitor takes the eagle out of the pen, walks up to the top of a high mountain nearby, turns to face the rising sun, and says, "Fly, eagle, fly." The eagle takes off, circles for a few moments, and then flies off in the distance and vanishes from sight.

And then in almost a whisper, Archbishop Tutu said, "God says to us, 'Hey, you are no chicken; you are an eagle. Fly, eagle, fly.' God wants us to shake ourselves, put out our pinions, and take off and soar. And we fly; we fly. We fly towards goodness. We fly toward transcendence. We fly; we fly. We fly towards compassion and laughter and caring. We fly. Fly, eagle, fly."

I can't speak for A., but for me this evening was one of the greatest blessings I have ever received.

(Note: The cathedral has posted the video of the Archbishop's appearance on their website; you can click here to watch it.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Your Middle Name Says a Lot

I had been tagged a while back by RDL for this little exercise, and I'm only now able to get around to it. As the rules require, I'll start by posting the rules for the game:

1. You have to post these rules before you give the facts.
2. Players, you must list one fact that is somehow relevant to your life for each letter of your middle name. If you don’t have a middle name, use the middle name you would have liked to have had.
3. When you are tagged you need to write your own blog-post containing your own middle name game facts.
4. At the end of your blog-post, you need to choose one person for each letter of your middle name to tag. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

So, let's see how this goes (not sure that I'm about to do this correctly, but at any rate...):

W: Wary of a lot going on around me -- of things that might threaten my family; of people on the street who seem just a bit off-center; of other drivers.

A: Awed by a lot of things in life: watching my children every day; being married almost 11 years; good music; good literature; good film; beautiful architecture; natural beauty; religious thinkers and speakers. I'm awed by a lot, come to think of it.

Y: Young at heart, but not in the traditional sense of acting like I'm 16 all over again. For me, it's more that I cherish memories from when I was young and draw strength from going back to those places and seeing those friends from time to time.

N: Neat-freak; my wife might argue compulsively so -- alphabetizing and categorizing my books and albums, wanting everything put back in the exact spot from which it came, etc. Of course, with two small children this is nearly impossible.

E: Emotional, particularly during a good movie or television show that's tugging on the heart-strings. And I was an absolute mess when I read "Tuesdays with Morrie," particularly since a friend had given it to me right around the time one of my grandfather's had passed away and I had had to say goodbye to him after a visit knowing that it would be the last time I would see him.

As for who I'm going to take, I'll have to give this some thought; don't know many folks who blog and whose name starts with Y!!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Margaret Thatcher -- The (Funny) Iron Lady

Peggy Noonan recently wrote a column comparing the way Hillary Clinton reacts to certain events with the way other strong-willed women of history responded. I had to share this short excerpt which relates a story about Margaret Thatcher:

The story as I was told it is that in the early years of her prime ministership, Margaret Thatcher held a meeting with her aides and staff, all of whom were dominated by her, even awed. When it was over she invited her cabinet chiefs to join her at dinner in a nearby restaurant. They went, arrayed themselves around the table, jockeyed for her attention. A young waiter came and asked if they'd like to hear the specials. Mrs. Thatcher said, "I will have beef."

Yes, said the waiter. "And the vegetables?"

"They will have beef too."

I'm not sure if it's a requirement or not, but it seems that some British prime ministers have a propensity towards dry -- but hysterical -- humor. Churchill was notorious for it; here are two of my favorites:

1. (It turns out that this one actually dates back to something printed in the Chicago Tribune in 1900 and didn't originate with Churchill at all, but it's still humorous.)

Lady Astor: "If I were married to you, I'd put poison in your coffee."
Churchill: "If I were married to you, I'd drink it."

2. To Liverpool socialist MP Bessie Braddock, who told him, "Winston, you're drunk.": "Bessie, you’re ugly. And tomorrow morning I’ll be sober, but you’ll still be ugly."

Thursday, November 08, 2007

An Unlikely Collaboration

During all of the hoopla lately regarding a Led Zeppelin reunion (which I've been hearing about for years; is it really going to happen this time?), I heard a more subtle line of conversation regarding a new album being released by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. Yes, you're probably having the same reaction I am: how in the world would someone who cut his teeth on early-70s blues-influenced rock and perhaps the finest country/bluegrass artist around today manage to find any common ground?

Well, I decided to find out for myself, and the other night put my hands on many of the tracks from their album, "Raising Sand." In short, I was floored; it is one of the most natural collaborations that anyone could ever expect, and it has already vaulted to being one of my favorite albums. I highly recommend it, and the song "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" alone is worth anything that you would pay for the entire album.

Here is a short little documentary/album teaser to whet your appetite a bit more. I give this album five out of five stars.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Twenty Years Gone

My 20-year high school reunion -- that phrase is still difficult for me to comprehend, even after having just gone home to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to meet up with some of my high school chums (and some folks that I might have spoken to for all of three minutes between my freshman and senior years). It's remarkable that two decades have gone by, and that I've gone from this strapping young fellow

to this older, slightly more rotund man

I think that I definitely won the award for the most number of times that people looked at my high school picture, then looked at me, then exclaimed, "Holy crap!" Saying that I had changed more than just about everyone else there (save one or two) is a mild understatement.

As I drove around my old hometown for a few hours before the reunion, I discovered that I wasn't the only one who had changed significantly in 20 years. Much of the area surrounding my hometown is no longer rural, but is instead full of strip malls and new businesses and warehouses. The old country church that I attended for many years isn't even really in the country anymore, sitting instead on what is now a busy highway and surrounded by farmland that is being developed into several-hundred-unit subdivisions. My high school is completely unrecognizable, having morphed from an asbestos cleaning (three cheers for 1970s construction!!) to a complete rebuild.

But more than slapping me in the face with the reality of how much things have changed (despite my best efforts over the years to deny it), attending this reunion in a way was very cathartic for me. I didn't attend my 10-year reunion, partly because I was living in Alabama at the time but mostly because I wasn't sure how much people that I hadn't really talked to in high school would want to talk to me that far after. It was so refreshing for me to go to this one, though, and it proved to me that everything that I had worried about with the previous reunion was utterly ridiculous. Seeing old friends gave me such an amazing feeling, and in some instances I actually started to develop a great new rapport with people that ran in different circles than me back then.

As one friend was saying, 20 years ago everyone was worrying about dates and cliques and popularity, and there was a certain degree of inequity in where people fell. Now, the playing field is level; everyone for the most part is married, has kids, and was or is in the working world -- and all the thoughts of a social pecking order have long since vanished.

Things went so well that we're thinking of going ahead and trying a 25-year gathering and not waiting another 10 years. Maybe folks will recognize that there is great worth in getting together more than we do, and strengthening the bonds that were always there but that we somehow managed to overlook.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Survey Number 2: Presidential Candidates

Question: Which of the following issues is the most important when considering a presidential candidate?

Total number of answers: 8

Views on Abortion - 0 (0%)
Views on Fiscal Policy - 2 (25%)
Views on National Security - 1 (12%)
Views on Social Issues - 3 (37%)
Other - 2 (25%)

A new question coming soon!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

First Survey Results

My first web poll has ended, and I'm pleased that I had so many people take the time to vote. The results:

Question: Which of these religious writers has had the greatest impact on you?
Total number of answers: 12
Breakdown: C. S. Lewis - 3 votes (25%)
G. K. Chesterton - 0 votes (0%)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer - 0 votes (0%)
Karl Barth - 0 votes (0%)
Other - 9 votes (75%)

New survey to be posted soon!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Beauty Pageant Moments

Recently, we all saw the incident with the young lady (from South Carolina, I believe) who during the interview portion of a beauty pageant gave a rambling answer about Iraq and maps that had nothing to do with the original question. As bad as that is, I just ran across something from a pageant that has to be from the early- to mid-1980s that should make the young lady from SC feel a bit better. Wonder how well it goes over when THIS video gets dragged out at the family reunions?

Oh, heck -- I can't put that up and not give you the opportunity to watch the video of the event from earlier this year.....

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Big Day on the Horizon

One of my heroes is coming to Washington on November 13, and when I received the mailer last week I knew that there was no way we were going to miss it. Yes, I had to rearrange our travel schedule back into D.C. that day (A. and I will be in the Big Apple for a few days prior), and we'll have to go straight from the train station to the National Cathedral, but it's a small price to pay (and as far as Amtrak was concerned, there was no price to pay for changing our arrangements).

There aren't many chances that people get to meet and listen to Desmond Tutu; for me, this particular Tuesday evening in November is one of those times. A powerful voice speaking on a powerful topic ("The Spirituality of Reconciliation"), and -- God willing -- A. and will be there with hundreds of other admirers of a man I believe to be one of the greatest of the last century, if not all of history.

If you're in the D.C. area and would like to learn more, you can go here.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A New Addition to the Blog's "Interactivity"

As a way of making my blog even more interactive (aside from the comments which so many of you kindly leave in response to my posts), I've now added a weekly poll question in the sidebar. The first one has now been added, and it's my intent to leave the questions up for a week at a time before posting the results on this side of things. Hope you'll all take time to participate each week (keeping in mind that the list of answers I'm providing is by no means exhaustive).

Friday, October 05, 2007

A Little Bit of Faith and a Little Bit of Politics...

...but not together. There are two things I wanted to touch on briefly here.

The first concerns the ongoing legal difficulties with the Catholic Archdiocese of Southern California, which has agreed to pay the victims of sexual abuse by priests a total of $660 million. In yesterday's Washington Post, there was an article on page A-3 talking about one of the steps the archdiocese is taking in order to help pay those massive costs: evicting nuns and selling their property. In the piece, entitled "Nuns' Evictions Pose Perception Problem for Catholic Church," staff writer Karl Vick writes:

"Here in Santa Barbara, the sins of the fathers are being visited on the Sisters of Bethany. The three nuns living in a modest building on Nopal Street received an eviction notice last month ordering them to be out by Dec. 31. Earlier 'would be acceptable as well,' the letter said.

"Among those being forced to move is Sister Angela Escalera, 69, who, diabetic and able to get around only with a walker, had hoped to live out her days in the Santa Barbara convent. 'This is how the archdiocese is going about getting the money to pay off the victims,' said her younger sister, Rosemary Escalera Gutierrez, 64, a former nun in the order."

Vick went on to say that Gutierrez was having to speak on behalf of her sister because the church had "slapped a gag order on the nuns."

I haven't been able to find a copy of the complete letter, but needless to say this gives me cause for concern (even though I'm not Catholic). I'm sure there are folks in the archdiocese who are saddened that they are having to "rob Peter to pay Paul," but I would like to think that church officials would have done a better job of trying to better explain this decision. And where are the sisters supposed to go? I didn't see a single mention in the article of trying to assist the three nuns in finding new housing; are they trying to demonstrate that the sisters are expendable -- thanks for your service, now move along? I think that question was partially answered by another former member of the order: "These nuns are precious to us, but there are priests living in fabulous-looking little houses by themselves. You don't see them getting kicked out."

You can read the complete article here.
On the political side, today I attended a conference hosted by Americans for Prosperity, an organization that fights for greater transparency in the appropriations process, the elimination of earmarks and wasteful spending, smaller government -- in essence, conservative values that the Republican Party seems to be abandoning. All of the candidates running for president from both parties were invited; none of the Democrats accepted, while Giuliani, Romney, Paul, Brownback, Thompson, Huckabee, and McCain were all scheduled to speak at various points during the two-day event.

A coworker and I attended the morning session today and heard Giuliani, Huckabee, and several others speak. A few quick thoughts:

  • I liked Giuliani's talk, which ran right around half-an-hour and was focused purely on economic themes. However, it didn't have that assertiveness that a lot of people associate with him in the context of his 9/11 days (which he actually left out of his remarks). He's still a contender for my vote, but I'll need to see a little more passion.

  • Huckabee gave what I thought was the best set of comments (although he was only allowed 7 minutes, as opposed to the larger blocks of time set aside for Giuliani, Thompson, McCain, and Romney), and he spoke without once referring to any written remarks. Having met him twice over the years and having had a chance to chat with him, I think he would make an outstanding nominee -- but he's got huge hurdles in the way of recognition and fundraising that he'll need to overcome.

  • I didn't catch much of Ron Paul's speech, but he and Brownback (like Huckabee) were only given about five minutes to address the crowd. Paul's strict "overbudget-busting" philosophy and remarks fired up what was already a pro-Ron crowd, but I thought the most amusing part was what I have referred to after the fact as his "Oscar moment." In the Oscars, when an award recipient goes over their allotted time, the orchestra starts up and plays them off the stage whether they're finished or not. About five minutes in, the taped music being used throughout the morning started up, and I have expected to see a lovely woman in a long gown come out on stage to escort him off. Paul, however, just talked that much louder -- much to the delight of the crowd -- and eventually was able to finish without musical accompaniment.

Unfortunately, Thompson's schedule was completely changed, and I had to leave over an hour before he ended up taking the stage -- and wasn't able to hear his remarks. It was a fun morning, and certainly gives me a lot more to think about in the coming months (all the time maintaining a certain realistic attitude that -- while I'd like to see us retake the House and Senate and keep the White House -- it's going to be a big swing in the other direction next year).

James Carville, however, in an interview with Politico (a fairly-new D.C. political newspaper), basically said that a lot can happen, and gave a pretty frank assessment of how things can change. Among his statements were these two quotes which I have to admit I enjoyed reading, even if only for a moment:

“We are a little bit of a shellshocked political party. We somehow or another always figure out a way to blow it,” Democratic strategist James Carville said. “Democrats have to talk their way out of winning.” -- and -- “Republicans have just gotten very good at this,” Carville said of presidential politics. “Somehow or another, in the last three elections, they’ve tended to close a little better than we have. No. 3 is that they have a more disciplined and effective echo chamber.”

Time will tell -- although with the nominee for both parties being chosen by mid-February (if things play out like many think they well), things will be here before we know it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Happy Birthday to the King of the Jazz Age

I was scrolling through my e-mails this morning and ran across my daily literary message, The Writer's Almanac, produced by the same folks who put together "A Prairie Home Companion." It's a really interest daily posting of famous dates in literary history, typically the birthdates of world famous writers.

Today is the 111th birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of my top five favorite authors of all time. If you've never read any of his work, I highly recommend you do; I was first introduced to Fitzgerald when I read The Great Gatsby during my senior year in high school, and I haven't turned back. I've been particularly drawn to his short stories, including The Pat Hobby Stories, and I've tried to tackle several of his novels over the years. Ultimately, I'd like to finish all of them -- but his books are definitely not things that you should rush through. They should be savored and enjoyed slowly, like a good bourbon -- and the more times you go back and revisit them, the more you're going to find and the more you're going to carry away with you.

Equally as interesting as the tragedy found in many of Fitzgerald's stories, however, is the tragedy of his life. Even now, it's heartbreaking to read about how his life turned out, and how he spent his final years not as the celebrated novelist of the Jazz Age, but rather as a struggling screenwriter in Hollywood. And even after his death in 1940, the tragedy didn't end; when he was brought back to Rockville, Maryland, for burial, the Catholic Church refused to allow him to be buried in his family's plot in their churchyard because of the fact he had fallen away from the church over the course of his life. Instead, he was buried in the old Rockville Union Cemetery, and it wasn't until long after his death that the church changed its mind and allowed for Scott and Zelda to be reinterred in the St. Mary's churchyard (shown here and below).

I wasn't even aware that Fitzgerald had a connection to the area until a few years ago, and now from time I like to make the drive up to Rockville with a copy of one of his books and sit in the churchyard for a while. The photo at the top was taken on one of my first visits, and it's still one of my favorite sites to visit in this area. Had the Washington Post not run their little day-trip column back in 2003 that included the Fitzgerald family plot, I wonder just how many people would have known that hidden in their midst was a small marker to one of the largest personalities in American literary history?

So happy birthday, Scott. Break out the champagne, turn on the old Victrola, grab one of his novels, and throw yourself headlong into a time that -- even 80 years later -- still brings to mind thoughts of Long Island parties, New York dance halls, and people who celebrated the moment and left tomorrow for another time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An Evening with Alan Greenspan

* At the outset, let me give proper credit for this photograph -- it was taken by a staff photographer for the Daily Colonial, the school newspaper for George Washington University in Washington. I hadn't realized in advance that cameras were allowed (I would have had mine with me, were that the case), and the two pictures I took with my camera phone were absolutely horrid.

So here it was, 7:00 on a Wednesday evening, and I was doing something I never would have expected myself to do: attending a talk given by an economist, moderated by another economist. Of course, Alan Greenspan is no normal economist; he is the face of the fiscal successes and pitfalls this country has experienced for nearly half my life. I don't think that under normal circumstances I would have even considered attending this event, but the sheer volume of commentary elicited by the release of Greenspan's new book, The Age of Turbulence, gave me a lot of incentive to get a ticket a few days ago and crowd into the Lisner Auditorium at GWU (along with what appeared to be quite a few hundred other people who ranged from Administration and government officials to economics students and the just generally curious).

For someone who didn't pay much attention during his one college course in macroeconomics (doing enough to get a B in the class), the Greenspan event was half interesting to me -- the half where he discussed his life, career, and the presidents and other high-profile officials with whom he has interacted during his life. The moderator, Daniel Yergin (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, was much more interested (for obvious reasons) in Greenspan's thoughts on various aspects of American economic policies of the past 20 years and on the current fiscal situation, but he focused so much on this that he neglected to ask (with one exception) any of the questions submitted by the audience. In fact, to be such a "numbers guy," Yergin isn't good at telling time -- he said at the outset that he was going to discuss some background with Greenspan for 25 minutes (he ran for an hour) and then move to audience questions (which he didn't reach until he thought there were 15 minutes left in the discussion -- and then ran on for another 45 without asking them). Of course, when Yergin is commanding $40,000 in fees per appearance (according to his entry on Wikipedia), you can do whatever you want. As an aside, when you combine Greenspan's fee to Yergin's, you can see how much the sponsors put out to bring this event together.

Greenspan is definitely an economist's economist -- someone who said he spent his spare time as a 17-year saxophonist in a big band reading economics books, and who has his morning coffee while reading economic forecasts and global production reports -- and he definitely got more into the conversation when discussing interest rate changes and production numbers. I found his discussion of the presidents with whom he has worked over the years interesting, as well as his background and the brief amount of time he spent discussing his friendship with Ayn Rand. He also held to his longstanding view that he will not comment on current Federal Reserve policy -- and each time Yergin asked him a question about Bernanke and recent moves, Greenspan would smile and say, "No."

I was intrigued to hear what he had to say about the comment he made that the current war in Iraq was "a war about oil." That topic did come up, and the statement makes more sense when put in the context he gave. I tried to reconstruct his answer here (which I've shared on a friend's blog and on a message board to which I belong): He fully agreed that removing Hussein from power was the right thing to do, and that it was in fact all about oil. However, it's not about our control of the oil; for many years, Greenspan saw everything that Hussein was doing as a way of consolidating power and so that, ultimately, he would be in a position to make a grab for control of the entire Middle Eastern oil supply. Had that taken place, Greenspan said that oil could have easily gone to $150 or $160 per barrel, which would have had devastating consequences on the global economy. Removing Hussein was the only way to alleviate that economic concern, and so his thought that "it was all about oil" was from a global perspective. As far as the aftermath of the invasion and removal of Hussein, however, he's got big problems with the way the Administration has managed things.

All in all, it was an interesting and entertaining evening; after leaving, I even stood with a small crowd of people outside the auditorium and watched as he signed a few books and posed for photos with some overly-enthusiastic (and nattily dressed) students who looked like they were fresh out of high school and acted like Greenspan was their god. I'm glad I went, and look forward to reading his book (a signed copy of which came with the purchase of my ticket).

If anyone is interested in seeing this appearance, C-Span 2 will be running it over the next few days, and C-Span will be posting the video on their website as well. You can check it out here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Football Season (Real and Imagined) is Underway!

Football season is finally here, and my Cowboys got things started off right with a 45-35 win over the Giants. Granted, the defense gave up more points than I would have liked, but a win is a win -- and the offense was clicking!

Also, week one of fantasy season is on the books (almost; I have a few players playing in the 49ers-Cardinals game right now), and the record may be 1-1 between my two leagues by the end of it. I'm still waiting to see how Dave and We Are the Night do before I can declare victory (or defeat).

Finally, kudos to Julie and her team, Footsies -- her first ever fantasy game, and she pulled off the victory. That, and her Bengals held off the Ravens -- a pretty good weekend for the rookie coach.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

I Feel Like I'm Being Watched

This sounds like an odd title, but after reading this you'll understand what I mean. For quite some time, I have been the one in our family to handle the bookkeeping -- paying the monthly bills, writing the checks, and reconciling the accounts. I'm so careful about it that I will sometimes check our accounts two or three times a week just to make sure things are in line.

So, imagine my surprise when I opened one account this week and saw a weird charge for less than $5. It didn't ring a bell, but at first I didn't panic; lots of times, if we stop at a service station to pick up a snack during a drive, it shows up on the account with an unusual title. However, having just been the victim of credit card fraud earlier this week (different account) and earlier this year (another account), I got really nervous and immediately jumped on the phone with my bank.

After about an hour on the phone with them last night, along with the company to whom payment had been made, it turned out that yes, in fact, I had been frauded. And when I opened the account this morning, there were several more charges posted or pending that weren't mine. Another 45 minutes on the phone with my bank, and a full fraud investigation has been opened, my old account has been locked and a new one has been opened, and I'm breathing a lot easier (at least for now).

I can't think of any times in my life where I've felt more vulnerable than when I feel like someone is watching me and (in a manner of speaking) rifling through my wallet, and I end up getting bitten at the end of things. I think it's absolutely pathetic that there's some (pardon my language) son-of-a-bitch out there who gets his (or her; can't be sexist about this) jollies by scamming and stealing and loading up on crap for their house or apartment while I (or anyone else who falls victim to this) am sitting at home or work desperately trying to stop the hemmorhaging and get things corrected. If it were up to me, folks that commit credit card fraud should be locked up for life -- none of this lightweight garbage in the way of sentences that's handed out.

A side effect of this is that I'm less inclined to want to help anyone, with the thought in the back of my mind always being, "What are you trying to do?" When this has happened in the past, and then I'm approached about making a donation or get a solicitation letter in the mail, I walk in the opposite direction or throw the letter unopened into the garbage. Yes, I realize I could send a check for these sorts of things, but going through this really makes me gun-shy.

And the check writing thing brings another angle into this. So many companies have gone out of their way over the years to make it possible to pay bills on-line. I've taken advantage of that, both for the ease of it all and because the turnaround time for processing the payment is much more immediate. Now, though, who the hell wants to do that anymore? Checks may be the only safe route anymore (if that can be believed), and I'm thinking I may just start hand-carrying my payments to everyone. I know that's not feasible, but it's worth dreaming -- can you imagine how some of these folks in other states would look at me if I walked in and said, "Good morning; I drove overnight from the East Coast to drop off my payment. See you next month!"

Let this be a warning to you: you're never really safe, even with all of the gizmos and security features that people develop every day. Somewhere, there's someon fast than they are at developing ways to beat them -- and when they're not doing that, then they're watching me and rifling through my wallet.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Two Sides of Pavarotti

UPDATE (9-8-07): As much as I enjoyed the rendition of "Miss Sarajevo" performed by Pavarotti and Bono (which was posted second below), I found an even better one today that's my new favorite. A surprising combination, but I think it's pulled off pretty well. Who would have thought James Brown could sound so good live, and that Pavarotti could handle R&B this well?

Luciano Pavarotti was the first great tenor that I can remember hearing as a child, and I can the beginnings of my love of opera to watching him and Beverly Sills performing on PBS. We've lost two giants of music in just a few short weeks; here are two perfect examples of how Pavarotti could play both sides of the musical fence.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sunday Stew

Yes, I know that's a terribly trite name, but I wasn't sure that I could spell smorgasbord. Oh wait, I CAN spell smorgasbord! At any rate, today is going to be more of a hodge-podge of things rather than a single entry -- it's been that kind of weekend.
Yesterday, I took part in the draft for one of the two fantasy football leagues in which I'm involved. It was actually a nice change of pace from the stress of my other league, which operates on an auction basis; throwing out players for bid, trying to outbid everyone else for that key running back or franchise quarterback, and then having to participate in a second round of drafting players and -- if your roster isn't full at the end of that -- possibly taking part in a supplemental draft.

This one was much nicer; Commissioner Dave got a great group together for the Yahoo league, and I'm joined by teams with such great names as Footsies (Coach Julie), We Are the World (Dave) and Prime Time (Coach Kim). I opted for something representative of the area where I live and work and dubbed my franchise Beltway Bandits (insert lobbyist comment here.....).

At the end of the 15 rounds, I ended up with perhaps the best roster I've ever had in any league in which I've participated -- and while that's exciting for me, there's an extra sense of anticipation in this league due to the fact that limiting it to eight folks means that everyone has a great roster, and every week will have some ridiculously high scoring and terribly close games. As I head into opening weekend, I have the following weapons at my disposal:

QB - Matt Hasselbeck
QB - Jon Kitna
RB - Edgerrin James
RB - Jerious Norwood
RB - Steven Jackson
RB - Brian Westbrook
WR - Marvin Harrison
WR - Steve Smith
WR - Plaxico Burress
TE - Alge Crumpler
TE - L. J. Smith
K - John Kasay
K - Jeff Wilkins
Defense - Pittsburgh
Defense - Jacksonville

Let the games begin!
A. and I had a chance last night to leave the girls with my in-laws and head out for a mini date night. We opted to go see the new British comedy, "Death at a Funeral," and it turned out to be one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. I was surprised to learn that it was directed by Frank Oz (he of Miss Piggy/Yoda fame), and heading into the first 15 minutes I wasn't quite sure how funny the film would be, or how well Oz would be able to pull it off.

From 15 minutes on, though, there was no question about the level of humor -- and the nice thing is you don't necessarily have to be an afficianado of British comedy to get the jokes in this movie. There were a few sight gags, but the situations which develop, the great dialogue and the oustanding acting (from an ensemble cast that included very few people with whom I was familiar) made for a great time. Adding to the great atmosphere for the film was the fact that we went and saw it at the first "talkies" theater built in Roanoke, the Grandin, and the crowd -- while not terribly big; maybe 30 or 35 total -- was really into the film and laughing the entire time.

I've read a lot of mixed reviews on the film, and they seem to be split down the middle. Some reviewers say that it got only an occasional smile out of them, while others call it a laugh riot in the tradition of Peter Sellers or Monty Python. I thought Variety had one of the better reviews (excerpt):

"With a circus parade of mourning Brits and enough appalling circumstances to set proper Englishness back to the Dark Ages, "Death at a Funeral" pits decorum against sex, drugs and dysfunction. The winners? Auds who know you laugh hardest when you're not supposed to, and who appreciate the humorous qualities of embarrassment, blackmail and the twitting of the upper classes. Box office will likely be modest, but reaction will be strongly positive."

I give it four out of five stars, and the NOVA Dad critic's award. As a bit more of a teaser, here is the trailer for it:

Lastly, I've picked up my copy of the new book on Mother Teresa that has generated so much controversy and debate during the past several weeks, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. For those who may not be aware, some of the letters included in this book reveal that she endured a period of several decades (up until the time of her death in 1997) where she didn't feel the presence of God at all in her life. Many people have said that her feelings on this are no different than the dark period experienced by many major religious figures throughout history, while others are arguing that continuing her work while feeling this way and proclaiming God's love for the poorest of the poor amounts to nothing more than living a life of hypocrisy.

I've read many blog posts and internet discussion group entries on this book, but have declined to offer any input until I've actually read the entire book and looked at the letters in question in the context of her entire life. My hope is to put something on here (maybe one entry, maybe a series) when I've read it, and possible engender some discussion above and beyond that which I've already seen.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Sports Blog That's Well Worth a Visit

Another member of my family has decided to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys, as it were) and start a blog -- and it's definitely one worth visiting, particularly if you're a sports fan. Written by my youngest sister, it's a place where she gives her take on sports of all types, and often with a humorous slant (case in point: her most recent post -- entitled "Hey Tennis Players: Shut Up!" deals with her aggravation over how professional tennis players feel the need to grunt, groan or scream whenever they swing the racket). She's got a great sense of humor and biting wit, and has a real gift for writing (I keep trying to convince her to submit some of her short stories for publication; maybe one day she'll realize just how wise I am and send them off). Her blog is a perfect place for her to show off what she can do, and you're definitely in for a few laughs.

I hope you'll all hop over and pay her a visit; like A. with her recent start-up, this is my sister's first foray into blogging -- and I'm pretty sure that, based on her first few entries, it's going to be around for a while.

Visit Girls Like Sports, Too!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Planning for a Feast

Barbara over at Writing from the Inside Out does a great little series on her blog called "Friday Feast," in which she comes up with a menu of questions for folks to answer. This week's was really interesting to me, so I wanted to carry it over here and see what sorts of answers you have for it. I've taken the liberty of dropping my answers in right after the questions, just to get the ball rolling.

Be sure, too, to drop by her blog and pay her a visit -- always some good stuff there.

This Week's Friday Feast, courtesy of Barbara

Appetizer: Say there’s a book written about your life. Who would you want to narrate the audio version?

Well, I'll have to give two here -- had the book been written several years ago, I would have said Gregory Peck. However, if it's going to be written in the future, I'd say it's a tie between James Earl Jones and Alexander Scourby. David McCullough also has a good reading voice. Okay, that's more than two....

Soup: Take the letters from your favorite kind of nut and write a sentence.

Really don't like nuts, unless they're in cookies or brownies -- and that would make the sentence way to long if I took that into account.

Salad: If you could go back in time and spend one week in another decade, which decade would you choose?

The 1920s -- I've always wanted to experience what life was like in the "Roaring '20s" prior to the stock market crash. I guess, in particularly, I'd be looking for the Gatsby-esque lifestyle.

Main Course: Name a song that brings back memories for you.

I can't narrow it to just one -- every song brings back some sort of memory for me.

Dessert: Do you prefer to wash your hands in cold water or warm water?

Whichever is fastest, but ideally really warm water.

A Great First Week Under My Belt

No matter how hard I've tried during the past few days, I have yet to find an even slightly adequate way to express how great it is to be back in the workplace. The job that I accepted (and started this week) has been absolutely amazing, and is without question proof that there was a reason the job hunt took as long as it did.

From the minute I walked through the door this past Monday, the entire staff -- from upper management on down -- made me feel incredibly welcome, and it's very apparent that their input and suggestions on anything that takes place are welcomed and encouraged. Everyone really enjoys the job they do and the industry they represent, and are glad to be a part of everything -- so much so that the turnover rate there is extremely low; I've met some folks there the past few days who have been there over 15 years, which really says a lot to me about their opinion of the association and love of their jobs. I've come on board at a time where the group is really looking to expand their relationships with both the media (within the industry and in the mainstream sector) and with press staff on Capitol Hill, and I've been given the opportunity to really help mold how this plan takes shape and is implemented.

After 10 years in Congress, this is definitely a big step outside of my familiarity zone, but it presents a great challenge -- and I'm one that really loves challenges like this. It's been a great few weeks; A. has settled into her new position quite nicely and has made a great impression on her coworkers and boss. More importantly, she has also found an environment where everyone is glad to be there and comes in each day excited to work -- and not dragging through the door with a great sense of dread.

The breathing has finally started again in our house.....

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Looking for a Good Movie? Try Bourne

With only a few days left until I return to the working world (yes!!!!), I decided to take advantage of some quiet time today while the girls were in preschool/daycare and go see "The Bourne Ultimatum." I had really enjoyed the first two parts of the Ludlum trilogy, and thought this one might be pretty good as well. I certainly wasn't disappointed, and in fact this film far exceeded my expectations. It clocks in at just under two hours in length, but it was moving so quickly from the very beginning that it didn't feel like the movie was half that long.

Early on in his career, I have to admit that I wasn't that big a fan of Matt Damon; his buddy-film with Affleck, "Good Will Hunting," really didn't impress me all that much (truthfully, I only watched it because George Plimpton was in it, and it was one of those times where A. and I could sit in a theater and say, "We know him!"), and I wasn't sure that anything he did further on in his career would catch my attention. The Bourne films, though, turned out to be a great vehicle for him, and he has definitely put his stamp on this role (I can't see it being the type of film that will successfully be remade in 20 or 30 years, a la "Ocean's 11").

I haven't read the Bourne stories in their original form, although I have one full shelf of novels by Ludlum (and the successors who assumed Ludlum's identity after his death) and think I'll dive into them soon. Despite any differences between the book and film, this one had it all: a great story, a great supporting cast for Damon (David Straithairn and Joan Allen, two of my favorites, were great as the two CIA honchos at odds over how to deal with Bourne), and action that didn't stop for longer than a few minutes at a time. All of it added up to a great afternoon at the theater, and a strong recommendation from me that you go to see this movie.

As if this recommendation weren't enough to get you to shell out a few bucks for the movie and some snacks (I opted for the matinee viewing, so I spent less on the movie so I could spend more on the snacks!!), I found this video on YouTube -- a remake of Moby's "Extreme Ways" set to clips from this film -- that should help make my case for this film even stronger.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Transforming Power of Mission Work

My blog friend Kelly, who always writes amazing, inspiring, and thought-provoking posts, has added a new one in the aftermath of her recent mission trip to West Virginia. In it she discusses how she was questioning (prior to her journey) whether her trip would really accomplish anything other than "assuage her liberal guilt" -- and how (after she returned home) she realized just how much she had given and gotten from being there. It's a great read, and I hope you'll all take the time to hop over and visit; it's a great example of just how transforming mission work can be, even if it's just in the next state.

You can read it here: The Basin and the Towel

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Time for Celebrating and Giving Thanks

So here we are -- finally! After sending out over 200 resumes over the past eight months, going to dozens of interviews, and not making the final cut at several places, I was offered -- and have accepted -- a communications position with an outstanding trade association here in D.C. The series of interviews I had with the executives and human resources folks there were outstanding, and I was amazed and humbled with not only how interested they genuinely seemed to be in me as a candidate but by how hard they worked to make an offer attractive enough to get me to say yes. Between this and my wife wrapping up her first full week at her new job, it's been a very happy week in our household.

My father-in-law pointed something out to me in a message this evening that I have never considered before: in the midst of celebrating my good fortune and having received an answer to my prayers for a great job at a great association, I should also take time to pray for the person who didn't get the job.

I've been on both sides of the "news fence" in this job hunt, having received my share of bad -- and now great -- news. I'm grateful he pointed this out to me, and I do pray the other person finds something that makes them happy and allows them to support themselves and any family they may have.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

More on the Child of Yesterday

(Note: This is the photograph to which I referred in yesterday's post. It is called "The Only Flowers of Her Youth," and it was taken in Warsaw in 1938 by the photographer Roman Vishniac. I won't make any other comment -- I think the picture speaks volumes for itself.)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Being Haunted by the Children

As I get older, I think from time to time about certain things that I have done during my life: mistakes I have made; emotional hurt that I have inflicted on friends (accidentally or otherwise); episodes where I have done something to disappoint my family. I know that I have received forgiveness for many of them, whether spoken or understood, from family and friends and from God, and I tuck them away as part of my life's experience and move on.

Today, thoughts about the severity of things I have done were all suddenly and quickly forced completely out of the picture. I took the metro into Washington and made my first trip to the United States Holocaust Museum, and after two hours left realizing -- perhaps even more than I already did -- that anything I had done in my life paled by comparison to the overwhelming, almost indescribable tragedy of what happened during the Holocaust.

My impressions of my visit are still whirling through my head, and I haven't been able to make sense of many of them. But there is one thing that I'm haunted by, and that is the photographs of all of the children's faces. Pictures of children with their families; children with their schoolmates in class; children with their playmates out in their yards or in the streets of their towns; children whose greatest worry in life was how they would spend their free time, or getting their studies done so that their bar- or bat-mitzvah would be successful, or attending services on the next Shabbat with their family.

Children who should have been allowed to live as children -- but not to die as children.

There was one picture in a gallery of photographs that is burned into my memory, of a little girl for whom I started weeping after I left the museum (and for whom I am weeping again while I type this). She was a beautiful little girl, maybe three or four years older than MB, with dark wavy hair and a very shy expression on her face. She is sitting on a bed in her home, surrounded by quilts and blankets, and lookly calmly into the camera. There was no name or age or anything attached to the photograph; she was just a little girl who was happy and safe and secure -- and ultimately, perhaps, one who never lived long enough to think back on a happy childhood. There was nothing that should have made this picture stand out among the hundreds of others on display throughout the museum, but she quickly caught my eye -- and I haven't been able to forget her in the hours since.

The entire experience was overwhelming and emotionally draining, if for no other reason than there are certain things on display that put you right in the middle of that time. I've broken this list apart because, like walking through the museum, you have to take the time to look at each of these individually and be impacted by them individually:

The front gates from a Jewish cemetery where hundreds of people were taken, lined up, and shot to death among the bones of their ancestors.

A collection of hundreds of photos of Jews from the town of Eishyshok, Lithuania, where 900 years of history, tradition, and family ties were completely erased in just two days.

A reconstruction of a section of brick wall from the Warsaw Ghetto.

A railroad car which carried many to the concentration camps, and which you experience not from the outside but by actually walking into and through it, and seeing and feeling just a bit of what those families experienced during their final trips.

A reconstruction of the doors of two of the crematory ovens from the Majdanek death camp.

A room full of nothing but thousands and thousands of shoes taken from people as they first entered the Majdanek camp, while above them on the wall are the words of this poem written by Moses Schulstein:

We are the shoes, We are the last witnesses
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers.
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh,
Each one of us avoided the Hellfire.

Then, as you pass through the last gallery on the tour, again, the children. A wall full of drawings done by children who were imprisoned in a ghetto for a time before being sent to Auschwitz, drawings that have names and birth dates and dates of shipment to the camp attached to each. Out of all of the ones I looked at, only two were listed as surviving the war.

So at the beginning, it was the children calling to me from their photographs, and at the end it was the children calling to me through their crayon and pencil drawings.

And the one little girl sitting ageless and full of life on a warm bed in her safe home.....

Monday, July 30, 2007

Guests at a Dinner Party

Heidi over at Redemption Junkie was tagged to post a list of the six people that she would like to invite to a dinner party at her home, along with her reasons for including them. Although I wasn't tagged, I thought this would be a fun and interesting thing to do and decided to post my own dinner party invitation list here. If you'd like to play along, please feel free; the only guidelines are that the person -- while they can be living or deceased -- cannot be a fictional character, and that language barriers shouldn't be taken into consideration. Finally, as Heidi said, you can't list Jesus as one of the six -- because if it's a dinner party where two or three are gathered, he is already there!

So, with the rules out of the way, here is my list of the six people I would invite to dinner.

Gandhi: I've always been fascinated by the lawyer from India who became one of the most remarkable men in history. He completely transformed his region of the world, helped his country obtain independence, and fought against both internal divisions and the British Empire -- and all by doing nothing more than advocating peace and non-violence.

C. S. Lewis: One of the greatest Christian apologists in history. I'd really be curious to discuss with him a wide range of issues facing the church today, and the way that religion and politics have become so intertwined as to in some instances be indistinguishable.

Desmond Tutu: Similar to Gandhi, a man who helped to lead his nation out of the shadow of an oppressive and often brutal regime, and who continues to fight against oppression around the world. A true champion for human rights who puts his faith and Christian beliefs into action every hour of every day.

Johann Sebastian Bach: The man who defines one of the greatest periods of musical accomplishment in history. I'd want to know his secret to such an unending stream of creativity, although I'm sure that -- based on the "Soli deo Gloria" he wrote on each composition -- the first and only answer out of his mouth would be God.

Elie Wiesel: Despite surviving one of the most tragic periods in human history and events that most people would be expected to try and put as far out of their mind as possible, Wiesel has instead waged a lifelong campaign to ensure that people never forget the Holocaust, the indignity and atrocities suffered by the victims -- living and dead -- and the fact that such horrible crimes still continue to this day in all corners of the globe. Even after having read the first part of his autobiography and listened to many interviews with him, I still have this need to ask him -- even though I think I know the answer -- what it is that keeps him going in this crusade of remembrance.

St. Peter: Here's a man who questioned everything (even those obvious things that were right there in front of him), who made mistake after mistake, and who often spoke without first thinking about what he was saying -- and yet Jesus never wavered in his patience with him or his faith in his abilities. I think the first two questions out of my mouth would be "What were you thinking?" followed by "How did you do it?"

Introducing a New Blog

I wanted to take a moment to put out an unsolicited (but entirely warranted) plug for A's new blog. She started it a while back on AOL, and decided today to switch it over to Blogger so that more folks can see it. You can visit her over at A Day in Amy's Life and get her point of view on a wide variety of things, from family goings-on to things of professional interest and all points in-between.

I hope folks will drop by and welcome her to the Blogger family; she's heard how much fun I have with this, and I know she will really enjoy it, too. She has lots of great things to say!!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Great Story About Amma

Back in April, I posted a rather lengthy article on Amma, the mahatma from India who travels the world and, as part of her ministry, gives out hugs to thousands and thousands of people. At last count, she has embraced more than 23 million people -- and the hugs just keep coming. The documentary that I had discussed in April gave an outside look of what it's like to travel with Amma and attend one of her gatherings; in today's Beliefnet e-mail (for which I highly recommend obtaining a free subscription), there's a wonderful article written from the first-person perspective of someone who actually waited for a hug.

Who says hugs can't change the world?

Hugging Amma Was Not Nothing
by Valerie Reiss

I did my best to expect nothing. Waiting six hours for anything inflates expectations—much less for something you know will last two seconds and everyone says will change your life. They say she smells like roses, they say you may weep, they say it feels as if the divine mother herself is wrapping you in her nurturing arms and holding you.

So I waited.
(click the link above for the full story)

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Beauty of Midrash

I recently decided that I wanted to take an opportunity to learn a bit more about Judaism, a religion that sadly I don't know nearly enough about. Other than a comparative religion section of my world history class in high school, and lectures during my life on the Judaic roots of Christianity, I have an extremely limited understanding of the "inner workings" of Judaism. As such, I've started stockpiling some well-written introductory books on the Jewish faith and am in the early stages of reading through them.

One of the aspects of Judaism which I have already developed a strong love of is that of Midrash, which started early on as the name for collection of ancient Jewish stories and legends and now represents the method by which stories from the Torah are studied in order to get at their deeper meaning. The rabbis who through the centuries have added their own studies and interpretations to the Midrash often wrote in beautiful, almost lyrical style, and the few stories that I've read are absolutely wonderful.

A magnificent example of one of these Midrash interpretations is used in a book that I'm currently exploring (and which A checked out of the library for me), The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Judaism, written by Rabbi Benjamin Blech. It concerns a conversation between Maimonides and one other person, an atheist, about the creation of the world. As told by Rabbi Blech:

"Maimonides tried to convince an atheist that there had to be a God who created the world. When hours of debate proved unsuccessful, the nonbeliever excused himself for a few moments to 'take care of some personal business. When he returned, Maimonides took out a parchment on which was written a beautiful poem with perfect rhyme and meter, expressing brilliant ideas. 'What a strange thing happened while you were out of the room!' Maimonides said to his guest. 'The ink happened to spill over on my desk and, as it blotted, it created these words by accident.' The man laughed and asked Maimonides why he wanted him to believe such a foolish impossibility.

"'Why do you reject what I'm telling you?' Maimonides asked. 'Because,' the man answered, 'these words so carefully thought out with such great sense and meaning, obviously had to be composed by someone with great intelligence. They didn't appear here by accident. Somebody had to do it.'

"'Let your own ears here what your mouth has said,' Maimonides answered. 'If you can't believe that a simple poem could have come into being by a quirk of fate, how much more so the entire universe, whose wisdom encompasses so much more than these few words and whose profundity surpasses all human understanding.'"

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

An Order of Good News With a Side of a Parable

Our family was thankfully the recipient of some really good news today, as A. received a job offer from a company with whom she had recently had a series of interviews. They were very impressed with her background and education, and she was equally impressed with the quality of the employees and management at the company -- and especially with the fact that it was the first company she had seen in a while (as either an employee or an applicant) where everyone genuinely seemed happy to be there and actually enjoyed their work. Obviously, we don't know what the future holds for us, particularly with my ongoing search, but this is great news and a great move in the right direction. Now she gets to enjoy just a few more weeks of vacation before she heads back to work -- and two more weeks before our youngest begins her foray into the world of daycare.

I also had one of those parable moments today, where an incident that I witness suddenly hits me with a different, deeper meaning. MB has been going through an extremely trying phase lately -- trying for her parents. I'm convinced that she skipped over the terrible twos and held out until recently, and we've been feeling the full effect of her tantrums, mood swings, and preschool testiness. Sadly, one of the victims of her mood has been her little stuffed doggy, who has been her closest companion since she was old enough to grab a toy. In the past few days, every time she gets angry about something, doggy is the first one to feel her wrath -- usually being thrown to the floor while MB angrily shouts, "I don't want doggy!"

She did it again today, and not long afterwards her grandmother said, "Well, doggy will still be there when you need him." That was when the parable moment hit: how often do we ignore or throw God aside while we try to do things on our own, or in a way that we shouldn't be doing them, and yet when we get tired, frustrated, or realize that we can't do things on our own, God will still be there when we need Him?

It's a simple message, but one which we often forget. Once again, a little child shall lead them -- even if the "them" is nothing more than our thoughts and our comprehension of the deeper things going on in our lives.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Something for My Daughters

One of the things that I inherited from my family from the moment of my birth was a great love of and appreciation for both my family's own history and the importance of overall world history. Now that I have two daughters of my own, I want to be able to pass something on to them when they're grown that's representative of my personal interests, the period in history into which they were born, and the men and women who were important in the development of that history.

As a part of that, and reflective of my recent reading of Wiesel, I recently wrote him a letter and, among other things, asked for something from him that I could give to MB and E as a remembrance of that part of history which he has passed through and which he has worked tirelessly to keep people from forgetting. As I said in my letter, "As the father of two small daughters ... I am very much looking forward to the day where I can share these books with them and explain that, even in the midst of the tragedy and fear that often grip the modern world, there are men and women of great dignity and honor who continually work to bring about peaceful and positive change."

Today, I received back some bookplates personalized for each of them (pictured here, minus their names). I was very grateful for this small gesture on his part, and it will undoubtedly make the copies of his books that I give them when they're grown that much more special. I can say that Wiesel's responsiveness to my letter overwhelms me; here's someone who mingles and associates with political and religious leaders from around the world, and he answers a letter from some unknown guy in Northern Virginia. Two of the people for whom I have a great deal of admiration: Elie Wiesel and Desmond Tutu, and both took the time to write me back. I think the fact that they not only listen to what the average person says, but take the time to respond and seem to genuinely value and appreciate those words, says just as much about the quality of their character as anything else they've done in their lives.