Friday, November 28, 2008

Overwhelming Emotion from a Powerful Film

It seems that whenever I review a movie on this blog, I have a fairly easy time of commenting on it: the quality of the acting and the plot; the emotion of the soundtrack; whether it moved me to laugh or cry in a genuine way. In short, I am usually pretty good about putting down what I would like folks to know about any given film. Tonight, things are different. I'm having a very difficult time putting into words how I'm feeling after A. and I went and saw "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." Many films are advertised as being "a haunting story" and fall short of the mark; this one will stay with me forever.

Put simply, I can only say that as I walked out of the theater at the end of the 90-minute film, I felt emotionally gutted.

The first hour or so of the movie laid out the basic parts of the story (and I'll try not to give too much away): German army officer gets promotion and command of a concentration camp; he moves his wife, eight-year-old son (Bruno), and 12-year-old daughter to a new home on the outskirts of the camp; son sees what he thinks is a farm on the back of their property; son goes exploring the area that he thinks borders the farm and meets a boy of the exact same age (Shmuel) living on the other side of the fence. Both of the boys have a great deal of innocence about them: Bruno doesn't understand why Shmuel doesn't have more children to play with and why he isn't excited about living on a farm, and Shmuel doesn't understand what has become of his family and why Bruno thinks that the numbers he wears on his pajamas are part of a game that everyone is playing.

Both boys realize that they are not supposed to be friends, but friends they become -- a friendship that grows from curiosity and an early distrust into genuine trust and concern for one another. Because of that friendship, Bruno -- in the last 30 emotionally-draining minutes of the film -- takes a completely unexpected step to help Shmuel find answers about his family and because of this is standing with his friend at the heart-wrenching conclusion.

I'll say here that I highly recommend this film and give it a five-out-of-five. The acting is brilliant, the children who play Bruno and Shmuel are amazing, and the musical score by James Horner is in my opinion one of the best he has ever produced. However, everything you may have heard on the television trailers about how this is a film that will stay with you for the rest of your life is absolutely correct. Everyone in the theater walked out without saying a word, and I didn't say anything at all in the car throughout the entire drive back home.

There is absolutely no way, short of having read the book in advance (which I hadn't), that you can be prepared for this film -- for what you see, for how it hits you, and for the emotion that is pulled out of you by the end. It will definitely make a lasting impression.

Beautiful Song for a Quiet Friday

A nice, relaxing day around the in-laws' house, so I really don't have much to talk about (I've avoided really getting my mind going today). Instead, I'll share another great video here: Chet Atkins and Don McLean performing a beautiful rendition of one of my favorite songs, "Vincent."

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Economy Comes-a Callin'

The growing economic slowdown finally hit home today -- A. called me as she was headed out of her office this afternoon to let me know that her boss had called her into his office and laid her off. Business there had gotten so bad that he really didn't have any choice in the matter; however, he was gracious enough to offer her a good recommendation if she needed it.

Naturally, this came as a shock, although A. wasn't nearly as upset as she might have been. She had been talking for a while about possibly adjusting her schedule so that she would have more time at home with the girls, and to give her more time to study for the LSAT (which she'll be taking in June). Additionally, we're blessed enough with the job that I have that we felt confident that we'd be okay if A. were to ever leave her job, so no great worries there either.

Having been through an extended period of unemployment last year, we're psychologically better able to handle things like this -- although having that kind of life experience is never fun, no matter how strong or better prepared it makes you. There is a blessing with all of this, though -- a job interview in the morning for her. Another company in the area had contacted her recently after having run across her resume, and a successful phone interview last week led to a request for an in-person meeting tomorrow. It's still too early to know what this position entails and whether it will allow her to use her education and previous work experience to great advantage, or when this job would even start if she is hired, but we are hopeful that this might be the silver lining in all of this.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An Evening with Christopher Plummer

This evening, Washington offered another great cultural event that I was fortunate enough to witness. Actually, one of Washington's great independent booksellers, Politics and Prose, continued their phenomenal series of nightly appearances by writers by hosting one of my all-time favorite actors, Christopher Plummer. Plummer, who recently published his memoirs and is in the midst of a tour promoting his book, entertained a very large audience in the store through a 45-minute conversation with XM (formerly NPR) host Bob Edwards.

He is an extremely humorous and charming man, and the stories he told about his early career in the theater and television gave but a glimpse of the great life that he has shared with us in his new book. He was also very gracious and took extra time speaking with every customer who went through the signing line, even posing for photographs with anyone who asked. There were many older ladies in the audience who were almost like schoolgirls waiting to see him, and many brought old keepsakes -- playbills, an original soundtrack for the "Sound of Music," old photos -- that they giddily asked him to sign. I was trying to picture my grandmother up there fawning over him!

A great event, and I'm looking forward with great anticipation to reading his book!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Moment of Reflection Before the Next Phase Begins

The election has ended; President-elect Obama is on his way to the White House; Senator McCain -- after a very eloquent and gracious concession speech -- is on his way back to the Senate. In terms of the historic nature of this event, it's incredible and something well worth celebrating.

During the time ahead, though, the political differences will be argued and both my fiscal conservatism and my social liberalism will be challenged from many sides. I really look forward to the debates ahead, and as a great lover of the game of politics I am looking forward even more to the palace intrigue that will begin at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Today, it is time to put partisanship aside and look at what the election means for the nation. Michael Gerson, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote what I feel is a very eloquent piece about where we are at this point in history. I commend it to you here today and hope that in the time ahead everyone focuses on the fact that it's not the R or the D behind a name that matters, but what we can all do for the country.

"Hail to the Chief"
By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I come to this moment of national decision with deep concerns about the next president. His victory is likely to unleash an ideological and vengeful Democratic Congress. In the testing of a long campaign, Barack Obama has seemed thoughtful but sometimes hesitant and unsure of his bearings. He promises outreach and healing but holds to a liberalism that sees no need for innovation. And as the result of a financial panic that unfairly undermined all Republicans, Obama has stumbled into the most dangerous kind of victory. A mandate for change but not for ideas. A mandate without clear meaning.

But a presidential election is more than a political choice; it is a moral dividing line. It involves not just the triumph of a majority but a transfer of legitimacy that binds the minority as well. This is a largely undiscussed topic in modern political debate: legitimacy. It is a kind of democratic magic that turns votes into authority. It does not require political agreement. It does imply a patriotic respect for the processes of government and a determination to honor the president for the sake of the office he holds.

In the past few decades, the magic of legitimacy has seemed to fade. Opponents of President Bill Clinton turned their disagreements (and Clinton's human failures) into an assault on his power. Some turned to insane conspiracy theories, including accusations of politically motivated murder. After President Bush's reelection, elements of the left began their own attack on his legitimacy, talking of impeachment while repeating lunatic theories about deception and criminality.

After a deserved honeymoon, the new president is likely to find that the intensity of this bitterness has only gathered. Because of the ideological polarization of cable television news, talk radio and the Internet, Americans can now get their information from entirely partisan sources. They can live, if they choose to, in an ideological world of their own creation, viewing anyone outside that world as an idiot or criminal, and finding many who will cheer their intemperance. Liberals have perfected this machinery of disdain over the past few years. Given the provocation, the same approach is likely to be turned against the new president by the right as well.

Barack Obama's first years may well be dominated by a recession and a swiftly arming Iran. Some conservatives will be tempted to take joy from his inevitable struggles; others to spin conspiracy theories from his background and associations. It will be easy to blame every emerging challenge on the faults and failures of an inexperienced young president. But it will be more difficult for me.

I remember the vivid days of possibility that follow a presidential victory. I happened to be in the Roosevelt Room in January 2001 just as the portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, heroic on horseback, was moved over the fireplace, where it hangs during Republican administrations. And I know that someone, feeling the same hope and burden that I felt, will be watching when Franklin Roosevelt is moved back to the place of honor.

There is a tremendous sense of history and responsibility that comes with serving in the White House. You gain an appreciation for the conflicted choices others have faced -- and for the untamed role of history in frustrating the best of plans. It becomes easier to understand a president's challenges and harder to question his motives. Ultimately, I believe that every president, and the staff he hires, feels the duty to serve a single national interest. And, ultimately, we need our presidents to succeed, not to fail for our own satisfaction or vindication.

This presidency in particular should be a source of pride even for those who do not share its priorities. An African American will take the oath of office blocks from where slaves were once housed in pens and sold for profit. He will sleep in a house built in part by slave labor, near the room where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation with firm hand. He will host dinners where Teddy Roosevelt in 1901 entertained the first African American to be a formal dinner guest in the White House; command a military that was not officially integrated until 1948. Every event, every act, will complete a cycle of history. It will be the most dramatic possible demonstration that the promise of America -- so long deferred -- is not a lie.

I suspect I will have many substantive criticisms of the new administration, beginning soon enough. Today I have only one message for Barack Obama, who will be our president, my president: Hail to the chief.

Monday, November 03, 2008

What's On My Mind Headed Into Tuesday - Part 3

I'm running out of time before tomorrow's election and I haven't yet run out of issues to discuss, so today I'm going to focus on the two biggest things on my mind as I head into the voting booth tomorrow.

This picture from our family vacation in August shows MB and E. looking out at the ocean, but I've always thought of it with the added layer of looking out to the horizon. Tomorrow represents moving one step closer to the horizon of their lives -- their future. I know how I'm voting and I'm comfortable with my decision, but regardless of what happens tomorrow I'll do whatever I can as a parent to secure their future, their horizons.

And if Senator Obama does in fact win the election, then consider me a member of the loyal opposition for the next four years.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

What's On My Mind Headed Into Tuesday - Part 2

The next two things of concern to me headed into Tuesday's election...

1. Card check. Those pressing this legislation would rather have you focus on the misleading title, the Employee Free Choice Act, rather than on the fact that if passed the bill means anything but a free choice for American workers. Right now, the decision on whether to unionize is a two-step process: workers are first asked if they want to hold a vote on unionization, and if 30 percent say yes then there is a second vote on whether to unionize (a vote that is done by secret ballot). In this method, even if a worker doesn't want a unionized workplace, they can say they want to hold an election and then vote against it with their private ballot. Under card check rules, however, unionizing is moved to a one-step process where workers automatically vote on unionizing -- and it's done in such a way that their vote is public, and where they are open to pressure from coworkers and union organizers to vote for it. Proponents of the legislation say that it doesn't take away the secret ballot at all, but that is a flat-out lie.

Why is card check such an important issue for unions (and the Democrats they support with their contributions)? Quite simply, it is because unions don't hold the sway that they once did -- their membership rolls have been steadily declining, and the money they are able to obtain through union dues has also fallen. If card check is enacted, union rolls will go up, mandatory dues will increase, and organized labor will once again have vast pools of money to play with and throw at their candidates of choice. This is such a big issue for them, in fact, that a story in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago stated that organized labor intends to spend upwards of $300 million in this election cycle for candidates and to push this agenda.

What will this mean for businesses and workers if it passes? That depends on the company for which these men and women work, but in most instances it will among other things:
  • Mandate new benefit plans and salaries for workers (which, at least with the company for whom I work, will actually be much lower on both counts than what workers are receiving);
  • Dictate new job titles and levels of seniority that could be more restrictive than those put into place by management;
  • Make it more difficult for companies to expand and complete renovations or improvements to their workplaces because of being forced to adhere to union regulations on time-lines and contract bidding; and
  • Subject management to the whims of organized labor with regard to strikes and work stoppages.
The House of Representatives passed this last year, and it was only because the Democrats held fewer than 60 seats in the Senate that it didn't progress further. Obama has said he will sign any card check bill that makes it to his desk; McCain is opposed. In short, this bill could be disastrous for American businesses, and even though polls have shown that an overwhelming number of men and women don't like the idea and would be less inclined to vote for a candidate who supports card check, many politicians have very little backbone and are more worried about losing the financial support of unions than representing their constituents.

2. Reductions in the military. Last week, Barney Frank of Massachusetts announced his desire to cut the military budget by 25 percent, which translates to roughly $150 billion. That's a pretty ambitious goal, particularly since -- wait for it -- Congress just recently passed legislation calling for an additional 92,000 Army troops and Marines between now and 2013.

Things in Iraq and Afghanistan have not gone well, despite the success of the surge in recent months, and troops are most definitely stretched thin with their deployments. But is cutting the military budget the way to approach solving this problem? Remember, the Democrats are the ones who are the first to say that their votes against bills providing funding for the troops aren't a demonstration of their lack of support for the troops. If that's the case, then what would slashing $150 billion show them? And I wouldn't be too quick to say that it's money that would be allocated for weapons systems -- because in the long run, I have a strong suspicion that that will not be the case.

Senator Obama has denied that he plans on doing this, but given that if he wins he will have a majority in both the House and Senate with which to work, would he have the guts to buck his party and veto such a measure? Given his past record of bucking his party in favor of the national interest, I don't think so.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

What's On My Mind Headed Into Tuesday - Part 1

Four days out from the election, and I admittedly have some very great concerns about the direction this country may take over the next four years as a result of the outcome of Tuesday's vote. Regular visitors to my blog know that I try extremely hard to examine issues from both sides and not jump based on my conservative gut, and I have tried to do that in thinking through how I feel about this election. Over the next few days (and perhaps even several times each day), I'm going to lay out some of what concerns me and what will be on my mind as I head into the voting booth next week.

In this installment:

1. Single-party control of the government. I'll be the first to admit -- even as a conservative -- that the eight years of the Bush Administration overlapped with the 12 years of Republican control (at varying times) of the House and Senate have been a disaster. The party which came in on the heels of the 1994 Republican Revolution, whose leaders proclaimed that they were heralding the beginning of an era of smaller government, completely lost its way. Any surpluses which existed (side bar: the surpluses of the Clinton years were the result of Congress and the Administration working together; trying to give credit solely to Clinton is incorrect, since it takes both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to get legislation enacted) are long gone, and yes, spending has increased dramatically. The past year alone has seen falling GDP, rising unemployment, and the revelation that our national economy is much more fragile than we were led to believe (or than the experts such as Alan Greenspan even expected). The tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 did work, and revenue flowing into D.C. actually increased; it just couldn't keep pace with the checks the government was having to send out of D.C.

But is swinging the pendulum completely to the other side going to make things any better? I don't believe it will. Just as the Republicans during the past several years threw bipartisanship out the window, the Democrats since 1996 have done no better (even with Speaker Pelosi's pledge to bring both sides of the aisle together to work for the common good). And putting control in the hands of a party who I fear will ignore the members of its more moderate segment and throw the situation even further left will do just as much harm as the ultra-conservatives who have tried to guide the agenda since 1994. Any hope of "Washington coming together for the common good" is close to being completely gone for many years, and unlike the previous eras of Democrat control of Washington (the years when the Sam Rayburns and Tip O'Neills actually worked with Republicans) I fear that the hands of bipartisanship extended across the aisle will be completely withdrawn.

2. New taxes and wealth "redistribution." Ever since Senator Obama made his now-famous comment to Joe Wurzelbacher about spreading around the wealth to ensure that those behind him have a fair opportunity, folks are quick to throw around the word socialism. I'm not worried about what word is used to describe it, be it socialism or anything else, but I am worried about why the government feels it necessary to determine who I help and to what extent I help them. I used to consider myself middle class, but with the moving-target definition we've gotten of that lately (Is it $250,000? Is it $200,000? Is it $100,000?) I'm not so sure anymore. Depending on what number folks finally decide on, I may find myself suddenly (and quite unexpectedly) in the upper class.

My family and I contribute quite a bit to charity each year, and would in fact like to be able to do more. The reality is there are other financial obligations and debts that we must eliminate first. With increased taxes, how are we going to do that? It will take longer to pay down the debt, and we'll have less coming into our household that we can in turn give to those churches and charities that we choose to help. So point one: higher taxes will restrict our ability to give. And I have always believed that it is not government's responsibility to be the sole source of public assistance; the American people should take that upon themselves to help their fellow man, while at the same time recognizing that we should strive to give a hand-up, not a hand-out. It seems to surprise a lot of folks, but poverty also existed in the time of the founding fathers; however, mandating that the government address these problems was not something they included in the Constitution. They relied on the inherent good nature and goodwill of man to address these problems; why has it shifted so much in the 221 years since the drafting of the Constitution that we now expect government to hand us everything? Instead of giving candidates nearly one billion dollars for attack ads and staff salaries, think about what good we could have done with that money on the streets of our inner cities, our shelters, our food banks, and our charities.

Point two: even if we do ultimately fall into the category of receiving a further promised tax cut, I'm certainly not fool enough to ignore the fact that the taxes passed on instead to small businesses will hit us just as much as if we had more money being taken directly out of our checks. Sure, we may (hypothetically as an example here) have an extra $100 a month coming in, but that money will in turn have to go to our childrens' daycare expenses (increased taxes on them will drive up their fees), food (increased taxes on farms and food producers will drive up their overhead, and those costs will be passed on to us), fuel (the small, independent gas station owners will have to pay more and increase their portion of the gasoline cost -- as will we), utilities (taxes applied to companies providing our electric, water and gas services will increase our rates) -- and on and on and on.

(Side-bar: It really aggravates me when politicians and the American public rail on oil companies for what they term "obscene profits." For me, God love them for their success!! Why should we penalize anyone for working hard and achieving great success, whether they be a small business or a multinational? And I certainly think it's ridiculous to focus on the oil and gas industry alone: in 2005, per dollar of sales, the oil industry made eight cents of profit, and yet you never seem to hear that the biotech industry made nearly 20 cents profit per dollar, or that banks and lending institutions made nearly 18 cents per dollar. Even technology firms during that time made about two cents more in profit per dollar. Why aren't they being targeted for increased taxes? Why aren't the Democrats hammering them about windfall profits? My answer: it's not sexy to increase taxes on Microsoft, but it sure looks good to stick it to Conoco Phillips or ExxonMobil.)

Next installment in my pre-election series: card check and the military.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Finding Some Peace in a Hectic Time

With one week until the election, I've got a lot on my mind -- hopes, concerns and comments about what we may see in the first 100 days of the next administration. But rather than try and sort it all out tonight, I instead want to focus on something peaceful -- something to calm my mind and get me to regain some balance. It's a photo I took a few years ago of a place where I go often to seek peace and solace - Washington National Cathedral.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sharing History

One of MB's favorite activities at her Montessori school is the weekly show-and-tell time on Tuesdays. Typically, there's no set item that she and her classmates must bring, and often she takes along one of her Disney princess dolls or something having to do with ballet class. I've never actually been able to be there on a day where they've done show-and-tell, and it seems that it's often forgettable for the kids -- as evidenced by the fact that when I ask her what the other kids bring, she gives me a shrug and the "I don't know" look.

This week, the teachers asked that each child bring something relating to their family. Based on what A. told me after the fact, most of the kids ignored the request and brought random items. MB, however, went armed with part of her history -- photographs of her family.

Having a father who spent many years as a professional genealogist and has loved preserving our family's history for as long as I can remember, I've been fortunate to be able to see and read things about my family that are absolutely fascinating. For me, the old photographs are the most amazing thing, and my father has taken great care to scan as many of them as possible so that my siblings and I will have them for many years to come. Out of that collection, I printed several for MB that while not holding any special significance for her now will be very important to her and her sister in later years. I think the greatest gift we can pass on to our children (besides our love and support) is our family legacy, and I hope to do that as much possible in the years ahead.

To round out the story, I'd like to share a few of them here:

This first picture (left) is of one of my great-great-great grandmothers, taken not long before her death in 1919. I see someone who has had a difficult life and who is very tired, but who also seems very much at peace.






The picture on the right is of one set of my great-great grandparents, taken on their wedding day in 1906. In contrast to the first picture, I see youth, optimism and life's road that's wide open before them.

And finally, an example of the multi-generational photos that I love so much; the photo below was taken when I was just two or three years old and is of me (the really happy looking chap), my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandmother. She was the only grandparent of that generation who lived long enough to see any of her great-grandchildren; sadly, I only have an extremely vague recollection of her -- and judging from how thrilled I look in this picture, I must be blocking memories of the day.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Further Thoughts on Colin Powell

I suppose that I'm too much of an optimist to hope that in the 24 hours since Colin Powell announced his support of Senator Obama, those who were vehemently opposed to that endorsement (and who were making comments to that effect) would have at least taken the time to listen to the entire interview on "Meet the Press." Again, even though I'm disappointed by the announcement, I thought Powell gave a very eloquent explanation as to why he came to this decision -- and at the end of the day he stills has my respect.

However, the messages coming across on a few political message boards to which I belong told a different story; a few examples (with the names removed to protect their privacy):

  • "I'm sorry, I don't get it, never have. Powell took credit for Schwartzkopf's [sic] achievements in Desert Storm, then used it to push his career as a politician. Norman, on the other hand, retired and quietly lives in Florida. Powell has done nothing to deserve being anyone's hero. He wasn't a soldier. He was a paper pushing bureaucrat and a politician."

  • "Colin Powell got us into the war in Iraq under false pretenses (and fake Anthrax)... Should we trust him now with his latest "flimsy" endorsement of Barack Obama?"

  • "I was heartbroken to hear this. Just heartbroken. He was one of my heros [sic]. I had tremendous respect for him and thought he was a great example to all."

  • "Here, after so many years we learned to treat every person as human without color or religion preferences, and out come in someone who was self proclaimed republican uttering such nonsense, and only reinforce the old bias against the black race. What a shame!"
I think you get the idea; there were certainly a lot more like this. While I can't rebut all of the comments flying around now, I'd like to offer a few thoughts on these comments (in order that I posted them).

1. Powell was and is, first and foremost, a soldier. When he retired from the military, he didn't actively seek any political or bureaucratic job; he was asked by several different presidents to serve, and being the good soldier he did what he felt was his duty. And by declining the opportunity he had to run for president in 1996, he pretty much killed any pretense that he was a politician.

2. Setting aside the argument about Powell's role in the leadup to the war in Iraq, I don't think his argument for Obama was flimsy. As with everything he's done in his life, it was a rational and well thought-out explanation. Good soldiers, especially those who make four-star rank, never do anything flimsily.

3. Was one of your heroes? Every hero I can think of has some sort of flaw; for a lot of folks during the past few days, it is that Powell went across party lines to endorse Obama. But is the fact that you disagree with one decision in a 71-year life enough reason to completely dismiss the high regard in which you held him in previous years?

4. I am so tired of race being an issue in this campaign. Support Obama or McCain, it's a race issue; oppose Obama or McCain, and it's a race issue. For me, the argument has no merit; yes, there are many voters for whom race is a significant issue, but to try and focus so much time on something that to me is a poor excuse for opposing a candidate is ridiculous. During his "Meet the Press" interview, Powell even went so far as to say up front that he wasn't going to support McCain because they were friends, and he wasn't going to support Obama because he was black. It's sad that here we are in the 21st century and a man's word can't be taken anymore. And I can hear the folks now, saying, "Well, if he hadn't lied at the UN, maybe we'd believe him now."

In the long run, I don't think this endorsement is going to sway many voters one way or another, being instead just a feather of support in Obama's cap. People just need to accept it and move on, and focus on issues that ultimately will make a difference in the final 15 days of this race.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Powell Endorses Obama

After months of rumors and speculation, Secretary Powell formally announced his support of Barack Obama this morning. Almost immediately, I started getting emails from folks who were outraged about his decision, who (regretfully) tried to paint it as yet a further example of a black man feeling duty bound to support another black man, and who said he was doing this as a way of getting revenge against the Bush Administration for the failures he witnessed during his four years at the State Department.

I have too much respect for Colin Powell to believe that any of those are true. I've long been an admirer of his life career, and having done extensive reading him over the years (including Karen Deyoung's outstanding biography Soldier) have found that he never makes any decision based on political motivation. Yes, he proclaimed himself a Republican several years ago, but his politics have always been tempered more by a sense of moderation (echoed by his statement on "Meet the Press" this morning that the Republican Party is moving too far to the right). In fact, one of the reasons he chose not to run for president in 1996 was because he was never certain that -- regardless of his popularity with the American public -- he could garner enough support from the conservative base to make it through the primary process.

I also think that he's been a good leader because he's been able to support AND oppose policies of all three presidents under whom he has served (George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and the current President Bush). And because of the approach he has taken to decisions throughout his career, I definitely don't think that his support of Obama came without much careful consideration (and not purely as a "revenge" factor, as some are already proclaiming).

If Obama wins the election on November 4, and if (hypothetically) he were to ask me for my opinion on next steps, my first recommendation would be that he nominate Secretary Powell to return to the State Department. While only a member of the Bush cabinet for four years, his time there and his distinguished military career are among the reasons why he is still held in such high regard overseas. Part of the reason he only served four years at State was because he had a strong difference of opinion with the administration on many foreign policy issues -- and I disagreed then as I do now with the request that he move on because any effective president should have cabinet officers who can disagree and argue the opposite side of an issue. A cabinet full of "yes men/women" is not an effective cabinet, and I strongly suspect that Powell would bring that same level of healthy skepticism to the next administration.

So am I disappointed in Powell's announcement? Perhaps. Am I disappointed in Powell? Absolutely not. If anything, I'm now anxious to see what role this man that I admire so much will play for the next president, be it McCain or Obama.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Autumn Memories

Today, while sitting in our little outdoor office surfing the web and enjoying the autum breeze blowing through the windows, something triggered a memory of some songs I first heard several years ago at right about this time of year. Don't know if it was the wind or the leaves or the sounds of the kids playing next door, but the memories came back hard and fast.

The songs are from the great John Lee Hooker album, "Best of Friends," and feature Carlos Santana. They are among the best I've ever heard, and I've posted the videos for each here for you to enjoy on this beautiful autumn day...



Friday, October 17, 2008

A Campaign Comedy Break

It's nice, even for one evening, to take a break from the grind of increasingly partisan, increasingly bitter, increasingly intense presidential politics. Thank goodness for the annual Al Smith dinner in New York, and for Senators Obama and McCain having the opportunity to poke fun at each other for even just a bit. And with that, here are the clips of the two candidates for you to enjoy.




Friday, October 10, 2008

An Anthem for the End of the Week

A setting of "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," by the English composer John Rutter. After the chaotic week this country and the world has experienced, a peaceful way to bring things to a close.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Helping Parents Cope with Grief

It's rare that I post an entire news article on my blog, but I read this one from the Washington Post this morning and it brought me to tears -- not just as a parent but as a human being. A. and I are so blessed that we have never been through what this article describes, but there are so many others who haven't been so fortunate. As I read the story I became very conflicted about how I truly felt about this; I was certainly emotional (I don't know how anyone could read this and not be), but it was also difficult for me to see this sort of thing being done. Until someone has actually been through this, though (God forbid), there's no way of knowing how anyone would deal with the circumstances.

Regardless, my prayers go out to the parents who have been through this and to the photographers who give so much of themselves (their time and little parts of their spirit) to provide this gift for grieving families. The entire story (along with the link) and the photograph are from the Post story.

Photographers Help Grieving Parents Take the First Step in Healing
By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008; HE01
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/26/AR2008092603088.html

A white rose hanging outside the doorway tells nurses that the family in this one room of the maternity ward at Inova Alexandria Hospital is different. It puts them on notice not to tiptoe around the curtain smiling, ready to coo at a sleeping baby and congratulate the new parents. That's because this couple is not experiencing the happiest day of their lives, but possibly the saddest: Their daughter, several months premature, was stillborn, one of the 25,000 stillborn each year in the United States.

Julia MacInnis, a 40-year-old Alexandria-based photographer, has walked into 18 such hospital rooms during the past year. She is one of 5,500 volunteers for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a nonprofit organization that offers to send, at no charge, photographers to capture images of babies who have died or who are unlikely to live more than a few hours or days.

Many mothers and fathers who have lost their children go home from the hospital with their baby's blankets, a lock of hair or maybe a Polaroid photo snapped by a nurse. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep steps in when parents believe that something more might help them heal.

The death of a child might seem too wrenching a moment to share with a photographer whom the parents have never met and are unlikely to see again. But many parents who turn to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep later cherish the photos taken of their babies. Sherry Petri, a labor and delivery nurse at Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge, who lost her baby in 2005, offers to call Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep on behalf of patients whose babies have died. Some decline, but of those who choose to have the photographs taken, Petri says, she has "never known of anybody who had misgivings."

Maureen Porto, 34, a photographer from Annapolis who has done nine photo sessions, said that some families wait days or even weeks to look at their photos. She remembers one mother who wrote her months after her baby died: "I was grieving that day," she said. "Did I thank you enough?"

* * *

Late one Sunday night several weeks ago, in the dimly lit room at Inova Alexandria, MacInnis offered her condolences to the parents of the stillborn baby girl. The mother was resting in bed, while her husband, dressed in jeans and a green T-shirt, sat on a couch near the couple's birth assistant. Their daughter, her head no bigger than a fist and her mouth slightly open, lay swaddled in a blanket next to her mother.

After the father signed a consent form and the mother tied back her long hair, MacInnis began her work. First she photographed the mother holding her baby against her chest, skin to skin. Then the father joined them, kneeling on the ground next to his wife's bed and leaning his head on her shoulder.

As MacInnis worked, a silver Tiffany & Co. bracelet jingled around her wrist, the heart-shaped charms inscribed with the names and birth dates of her sons, ages 8 and 5. "I do this [volunteering] because I have two healthy children," she said, "and I'm grateful for that."
MacInnis prompted the mother to wrap the baby's fingers around her pinky, and with a click the moment was captured. When a nurse came in to hug the parents goodbye, there was another click -- that moment captured, too.

After about 30 minutes with the family, MacInnis requested that the baby be brought to a better-lit room where she could take a few more pictures. This is the last step in all the sessions she does for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and it's often the last time that parents see their newborns. And so it was for this mother: After a moment alone with her daughter, she watched her husband carry their baby away. Waiting in the hallway, MacInnis could hear the woman crying.

MacInnis walked with the father down the quiet hall to another room, where he placed his daughter in a bassinet and unswaddled her. MacInnis asked a nurse to clean the baby's soles, still stained with the ink used to take her footprint. She zoomed in on the father's hand cupping her tiny feet.

By midnight, MacInnis had snapped her final shots. As she packed up her camera and three lenses, the father lingered for a few minutes with his daughter. Then he left the room and returned to his wife. They had both said goodbye.

* * *
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was born of a tragedy. The organization was founded in Colorado in April 2005 by two women: Cheryl Haggard, the mother of a baby who had recently died, and Sandy Puc', a nationally known photographer whom Haggard and her husband had asked to photograph their son before and after he was taken off life support. While Haggard was in the hospital, another baby died; saddened that, unlike her family, those parents did not go home with photos of their child, Haggard worked with Puc' to form a group of photographers that would serve all families such as theirs.

By July, they had recruited 350 volunteer photographers; in less than two years, they were 2,500 strong. After the organization was featured on NBC's "Today" show this past March, that number exploded to more than 5,000. The network stretches to more than 25 countries, from Israel to South Africa to China, according to the organization.

MacInnis, area co-coordinator with Marirosa Anderson, estimates that the organization, which has no religious affiliation, has a dozen active photographers in the D.C. region. They are most often called to Inova Alexandria, Inova Fairfax Hospital and Reston Hospital Center in Virginia, as well as Holy Cross Hospital and the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. MacInnis is reaching out to other hospitals so that labor and delivery nurses know about their services.

She is also trying to recruit more photographers; only once did she have to turn away a family because no one was available to go to the hospital, and she wants Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep to be able to cover all requests in the area. Volunteers are required to be professional (though not necessarily full-time) photographers and need to be available to go to hospitals with little notice. MacInnis tries to prepare them for the grief that they will witness, but that's not always easy to do.

Most photographers working with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep are women, and many talk about their admiration for the mothers they meet. Porto said that she is "floored" by their strength; some of them had known for 20 weeks or more that their babies wouldn't survive.
Les Henig of Garrett Park, the father of four grown children and five foster children, has done five photo sessions. "I see a lot of emotion [in fathers]," said Henig, 60. "In every case, [I see] as much emotion from fathers as mothers."

At 24, Mary Kate McKenna of Silver Spring is the youngest volunteer in the area. Any photographer working with the organization has a "huge responsibility," she said. "There can't be a reshoot. . . . This is [the family's] one chance."

The work "calls on . . . resources that I didn't know I had," said another photographer, Sarah Hodzic, 32, of Arlington. "I always cry."

On the way home from the hospital, MacInnis sometimes listens to rock music to decompress. This summer, she photographed a baby boy who had died in utero several days earlier; weeks later, she was still dreaming about him.

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep has a password-protected online forum where photographers can correspond with one another. As many as 500 of the volunteers sign on every day to write about their experiences or to ask for help editing images before sending them to families.

The photographers use editing software to smooth over skin that has begun to break down and touch up abrasions and bruises, but Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep asks them not to alter any deformities. The organization generally doesn't photograph babies whose gestation has lasted less than 25 weeks, but some volunteers make exceptions when they feel comfortable doing so. Almost all photographers opt to give families black-and-white photographs; not only do they have a more timeless quality than color images, but they are also more forgiving of the discoloration or tearing of a premature baby's skin.

"Our goal is to revive comforting images of the babies," MacInnis said. But sometimes, she said, "there's only so much that we can do."

Postmortem pictures such as those offered by Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep have been around practically as long as the camera itself. During the 1800s, dead children were photographed in peaceful poses, as if they were sleeping. Infant mortality might seem like something from the Victorian era -- an antiquated heartbreak -- yet, as Henig said, "it is still with us."

Debbie Schechter, a counselor at Washington's Wendt Center for Loss and Healing and the mother of a boy who died at age 5 of a brain tumor, said parents shouldn't worry that looking at the photos will be emotionally damaging. Part of the grieving process is memorializing the loss, such as through a funeral, and making a place for the loved one. That could be in heaven, she said, but also in a photo album.

The parents who left Inova Alexandria without their daughter are just beginning that process. "We didn't get to see the color of her eyes, or her smile, or feel her grip our finger," the mother wrote in an e-mail two weeks after her baby died. "Our photographs are one of the few connections we have to our daughter. I can't imagine what we would do without them."

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Great Peter Sellers Film

I had always heard that Peter Sellers was a much greater actor than the bumbling detective from the Pink Panther movies, but I wasn't really interested in renting "What's New, Pussycat" or "Dr. Strangelove" or any of a number of other films to find out what else he did during his career. (Not, of course, these are necessarily his best work; they were just the first two that came to mind.)

However, after A. and I recently watched the made-for-HBO movie, "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," and I became curious about the film "Being There." Based on what I learned from the biopic, the novel by Jerzy Kosinski was Sellers' obsession for the last two decades or so of his life and he was determined that the film would be made with him in the lead role. Ultimately, it was made and Sellers was nominated for an Oscar (which he didn't win, although he did take home the Golden Globe and several other awards).

In my opinion, Sellers should have won. "Being There" is an amazing film, and Sellers is fantastic in the role as Chance the Gardener/Chauncey Gardiner. The story of this simple man who goes through life mimicing what he sees on television and learns from his interaction with other people is both very humorous, very biting, and in some ways very sad. A short explanation of why I think each applies:
  • Very humorous: It's Peter Sellers; of course it's going to be funny! He does a wonderful job with his facial expressions, but it's the delivery of his lines and the instances of very subdued physical comedy that give this film its laughs (along with some of the lines delivered by other characters in the film).

  • Very biting: In watching the way Chance progresses through the story, inadvertently gaining more and more fame simply for talking about his garden and repeating other lines and gestures that he has picked up from others, I was reminded of what's going on in Washington now. Politicians from both sides of the aisle referring constantly to talking points, towing the party line, and sometimes not wanting/trying/able to give a straight answer to a simple question -- all of these seemed reflected in the character of Chance who gave his own version of talking points and the party line (with straight repetition) and giving convoluded answers to simple questions (with his constant analogies dealing with gardening and the seasons). By the end of the film, all of this had come together to such a degree that the presidency was being thrown around (I hate to say too much out of the hope that you will rent this film) -- and the irony of comparing this story with a real/the current campaign is very apparent and very cutting.

  • Very sad: Chance spends so much of his life alone, and even as the film progresses and he is surrounded by more and more people he is still alone. The sadness of not knowing how to read or write; the sadness of not knowing what to do when his employer dies; the sadness of not knowing how to deal with real people who are so different from the people/characters he sees on television; the sadness of not knowing how to recognize when he is being loved or how to show love.
Even though this film was made nearly 30 years ago, it is still really relevant and well worth watching. And I think Sellers gives a brilliant performance. On my scale, five out of five stars -- definitely rent this film. I liked it so much that I'm going to buy it and add it to the family film library.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Thomas Friedman in D.C.

Several years ago, while attending the National Book Festival on the Mall here in Washington, I kept overhearing folks who were scrambling to make the lecture and booksigning that someone name Thomas Friedman was having for his new work, The World is Flat. He certainly had one of the longest lines of the day, and I left with his name tucked in the back of my mind.

A few weeks ago, I saw that Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore here in the Washington area and a district institution for a number of years, was hosting Friedman (in conjunction with New Republic magazine) at the Historic 6th and I Street Synagogue. I have to admit that I was a bit curious -- still thinking of what I had heard on the Mall a few years ago but also recognizing that is a New York Times columnist who is often critical of some things which I support. However, I'm a believer that if you are going to strengthen your own position on things you have to study both sides of the debate, so I ordered some tickets for tonight's event.

The focus of his lecture was on the next big industrial revolution, which he thinks will be the ET age, and which is covered in his newest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America. Just as the last big revolution focused on IT systems and development, the next one will focus on the development of environmental technology -- and the country that is able to capitalize on new environmental technology first will be the next global leader. He also talked at some length on why it is important to the growth of democracy (aside from the future of our energy needs) that what he terms "petrodictatorships" need to be brought to an end.

I think that after seeing how Al Gore and his environmental crusade and PowerPoint presentation was always being thrust in front of us, I was a bit concerned about how in-your-face Friedman would be with his take on things. Surprisingly -- and pleasantly -- what the audience got was a very calm, quiet (sometimes too quiet; I heard many folks sitting near me during the course of the evening complain that they couldn't hear him) and often humorous explanation of what he sees happening and what he thinks we still need to do. Just a few points of what he brought up (and I only wish that I had been taking notes; guess I'll be reading the book now!!):
  • When he was born in 1953, there were about 3.6 billion people on the planet; by the time we get to the year 2053, there will be over 9 billion people on the planet. More people would have been added to the population over the course of his lifetime than were alive when he was born.

  • Currently, there are 1.6 billion on the planet who are not on the power grid at all -- meaning that there are 1.6 billion people who will never have access to any sort of meaningful education the tremendous amounts of information that make up 99 percent of what we know, and who will never have the tools to try and discover the one percent of things remaining to be discovered.

  • The IT revolution was easy; the folks who were creating Google and Apple and the Internet were coming up with something new and didn't have anything to try and overcome. One of the biggest challenges of the ET revolution will be trying to come up with something new without relying on the dirty, environmentally-unfriendly sources already in place.

  • Throughout history, as oil prices fell democracy took hold. As an example, he used the year 1991 -- oil was at $18 a barrel, and the Soviet Union fell. He has developed an entire graph of two inverse lines, which show a rise in the growth of free societies and democratic governments as the price of oil falls. As Friedman said (somewhat paraphrased her), "What was the first country in the Middle East to disccover oil? Bahrain. What was the first country in the Middle East to run out of oil? Bahrain? What was the first country in the Middle East to have democratic elections? Bahrain. What was the first country in the Middle East to have a free and open society? Bahrain."

  • One bit of humor: a study showed that the average golfer walks 922 miles per year. The average golfer also drinks 22 gallons of liquor per year. "That means the average golfer gets 41 miles to the gallon."
There was a great deal more he said and which I look forward to studying at greater length in his book. In fact, his 40 minute talk extended to nearly an hour and twenty minutes, and I could have listened to much more. He has definitely given me a great deal to think about and has increased my interest in learning more about the green revolution that is upon us and what my family and I can do to take part. If you see that Friedman is going to be in your area, I would highly recommend you go to listen to him -- it will certainly be memorable.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tonight: No Politics, No Religion, No Family

Just a great Henry Mancini song performed by Michael Buble!! One of my favorites, from one of my favorite movies: "The Pink Panther." And as a nice contrast, the version with Fran Jeffries from the film...



Friday, September 12, 2008

Playing with Your Life

Sitting at work today, I found myself glued to the television coverage of Hurricane Ike's impending landfall in Texas. Aside from being concerned for our friends and family who still live in that area -- and along the Gulf Coast -- I found myself praying for the tens of thousands of folks who are scrambling to get out of the storms way, and particularly for the 22 sailors trapped on a freighter in the Gulf of Mexico who cannot get out of Ike's way and who are going to have to ride it out. You know things are rough when the Coast Guard can't even get to the ship to rescue them; they are very much in God's hands now, as is every person threatened by this monster.

I've also been bewildered by the folks who aren't heeding the call to leave; in fact, I saw a report about a crowd of folks who have gone to a bar on Galveston Island there they intend to have an extended hurricane party and ride out the storm. Why put yourself at unnecessary risk?? Why put your families (parents, siblings, etc. - I would certainly hope none of these lunatics have children) in a situation where they spend the next days wondering if you survived?

What is enough for these folks? Apparently, it wasn't enough that the governor and state emergency management officials told them to leave. It wasn't enough that FEMA and the hurricane center are saying this storm could rival Katrina and even the 1900 storm that killed 8,000 people in Texas. And it certainly wasn't a big enough hint when folks who are staying behind are advised to write their Social Security numbers on their arms.

I have absolutely no understanding of why they're doing this. They've got my prayers, though -- and my hope that they live through this so that they can wash those numbers off their arms themselves rather than having someone who finds them later do it for them...

Saturday, September 06, 2008

If Congress is Out of Session, Then This Must Be a REAL Hurricane

I always like to try and reassure myself that when we moved back to the D.C. area from Alabama, we were finally able to escape the annual threat of tropical storms and hurricanes (overlooking, of course, the hurricane that struck Washington in 2003, the year we moved back). Hanna had second thoughts, and in the past few hours she finished pounding our area with rain and heavy wind. Now, it's just wind.

As the picture shows, the damage to the yard was minimal; just a few limbs down and a large bush in the backyard crushed. The most damage came from water coming up under the foundation of our house into our basement rec room along two walls. It's not much fun spending Saturday afternoon using a steam cleaner to pull water out of carpet.

Now, of course, we turn our attention to Ike -- already a Category 4, and tentatively projected to head once again near Cuba and into the Gulf of Mexico. We're already praying for our friends throughout that area and hoping that this one decides to start spinning aimlessly in the Atlantic...

Friday, September 05, 2008

Continued Thoughts on Media and Candidates

I’d like to follow up a bit on my post from the other day regarding the media and the Palin family and try and address some of the points raised in comments left by folks who are kind enough to read my blog.

I certainly agree that when someone takes on the challenge of running for public office, they and their entire family are going to be opened up to scrutiny – and that’s something that they should be prepared for and expect at the outset. The point I was trying to make in my post, however, was more a criticism of the media and their approach to this situation. I shouldn’t be surprised about it, and I’m not at all; by and large, today’s media is focused solely on ratings and the financial benefits reaped from their sponsors. However, I'm in many respects still an idealistic dreamer in lnoging for the days when they would focus on the candidates and the issues, not the candidates and their families. I haven’t one time heard any report about Governor Palin herself complaining about the coverage of her daughter’s pregnancy – all the complaints are coming from pundits and other media outlets, the same sorts of groups who complained about the coverage of Obama and Reverend Wright and the treatment of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

Scrutiny of a candidate and his/her background is one thing; outright criticism and – in the case of the Daily Kos website, which out-and-out lied when stating that little five-month-old Trig Palin wasn’t even the son of the Governor, but rather of the daughter who is now pregnant – borderline slander is inexcusable. Gone are the days, apparently, where media coverage was driven by actual news and not by the ravings of folks who post on extreme, radical websites (left-wing and right-wing alike).

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

As a Parent, Not a Voter...

I’ve wanted to post something for a few days now regarding the selection by John McCain of Sarah Palin to be his running mate in the November election, but decided that I would wait so that I – like much of America, it seems – could learn more about her. To this point, what I’ve learned is very encouraging; she seems to have many of the core conservative positions that are important to me.

However, I can’t even get into really learning about her until I get past my anger at the way she’s been treated by (gasp!) the media. I’ve been around politics long enough to know that there’s a bias in media – some networks lean one way, some lean another. What infuriates me (but doesn’t necessarily surprise me, sadly) is the way the way that reporting on candidates has turned into advocating for candidates (or in the case of Palin, smearing them and their families). To his credit, Obama came out early on and said that children and families of candidates should be left out of the debate, and that if he were to find that anyone on his staff were contributing to this sort of activity he would fire that person. But does he believe that enough to call on others to stop these sorts of attacks?

Apparently not. I’m no great fan of Hillary Clinton, but Democrats and the media went after her hard during the primaries because she’s a woman. It wasn’t enough to attack her on differences of opinion on the war in Iraq or healthcare or any of a number of other issues; they had to turn it into a man-versus-woman showdown. Now, they’re doing the same thing again, but the media is doing much of the dirty work (and I haven’t seen any repeat calls from Obama to lay off). Perfect example: US magazine covers for Obama and Palin; the cover for Obama from a few weeks ago had a great photo of him with his wife and the title, “Why He Loves Her” – a very nice sentiment indeed. This week, the cover shows Governor Palin holding her newborn son Trig, with a caption reading, “Babies, Lies, and Scandal.” No obvious bias there!!

There are many folks who are saying that Palin’s daughter should be an issue in this campaign because as an anti-sex education, pro-abstinence advocate the Governor is seeing first-hand how this position is playing out in her own family. As a parent (and as a child who caused my parents more than their share of grief over the years, I’m sure), my goal is to make sure my children are taught the best of everything that A. and I know and trust that they will grow up making good choices in their lives. If for whatever reason they don’t, I don’t feel that would be a reflection on us – we can only give them the tools to use in their lives and hope and pray that they use them correctly. Had we done nothing to help them along and they get in trouble, then certainly we can be pointed to as parents who didn’t do a good enough job. As much as any parent would love to be able to hold their child’s hand throughout their entire life, it’s not possible; mistakes will be made, and we have to help them as much as possible when working through the consequences. But to point to someone like Governor Palin – a woman who kept her own newborn child despite knowing full well he would be battling severe birth defects, and whose daughter is keeping her own child with the full support and love of her family behind her – and say that this is a reflection on her views is ludicrous.

The rationale behind McCain’s selection of Palin is not for me to question; no one from his campaign called for my input, and I have to trust that whether for shrewd political reasons or simply to attract the support of a particular demographic his decision is a correct one. We can question the experience of the candidates, their readiness to be president, and their views on issues from now until election day and I’ll be fine with that. But for the mainstream media to do what they’re doing is below the belt and beneath what used to be the dignity of a very dignified profession. If they want to editorialize or attack, then they should get out of the newsroom and either run for office and become an analyst.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Watching, Waiting and Praying

Nearly three years to the day since Hurricane Katrina blasted Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and the entire country once again finds itself glued to television screens to watch the track of another major storm. I also find myself praying for many friends that we have still have living throughout the Gulf Coast region, several of whom have emailed over the past few days to say that they're leaving and heading north. We pray that their absence from their homes is brief and that they can return very soon.

In the nearly ten years that I was a resident of Alabama, I lived through four hurricanes: Danny, Opal, Erin and Georges. There was a certain fear at the time about what they might mean for our lives and homes, but by comparison to Katrina and now Gustav they were just mere annoyances. I've heard from my parents for many years about the destruction caused by Camille (even in southern and southwestern Virginia), and I was only 9 when Frederic hit the Gulf Coast and caused such horrible damage.

There is no disputing that the aftermath of Katrina was a disaster on many levels, so for me it's reassuring and somewhat encouraging to see that local, state and federal officials have learned their lessons and are reacting much more quickly and proactively to Gustav. Having said that, and knowing how critical residents of the Gulf Coast were to the late reaction after the last big storm, I'm appalled as I flip through the various news channels to see that there are people who have ignored the repeated warnings to leave ("mandatory evacuation" means just that -- a mandatory evacuation) and are sticking around to ride things out. This time, there are no excuses if something happens to them -- the buses and trains were there and taking folks out of town, and they had nearly-constant messages to hit the road. With a wife and two small children, there is no way that I would take the sort of gamble that these folks are taking.

As someone who worked in politics for many years and who is a self-professed political junkie, this is the time of the year where I should be preparing to watch debates, final convention appearances and around-the-clock prognostications. None of that now, though. Can't focus too much on the new sense of energy that the choice of Sarah Palin has provided for the Republican ticket -- and I am pleased that the GOP is taking this serious enough to cancel all activities for the first day of the convention and consider putting together major fundraisers throughout the week for the Red Cross and other relief organizations.

May God continue to be with everyone in this nation at this time, but particularly with all of those who will be living through Gustav's (hopefully short and weak) appearance on our shores.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

How a Traveler on God's Journey Goes Insane...

At this point, I'm back to struggling to see God at work in everything and am working to fight off a nervous breakdown. Short version:

- We got our car back from Goodyear;
- We joyfully hit the road out of Atlanta;
- We got as far as Spartanburg, South Carolina before all of our transmission fluid was gone (Goodyear at this point should be called Badservice);
- We're having to have Triple-A tow the vehicle again in the morning, this time to a dealer;
- We're having to rent a car and drive to meet my in-laws in Virginia;
- We're returning the rental car and taking their car back home to northern Virginia; and
- My father-in-law and one other person will be driving back to Spartanburg to pick up our car.

If you've ever seen the 1931 version of "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi, then you'll know what I mean when I say I've been reduced to being the crazed version of Renfield. If you've never seen it, then here it is, submitted for your approval (you only need to watch the first 20 seconds):

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Finding God in the Midst of Your Vacation

Ladies and gentlemen, it's the trip that keeps on giving -- except this time, I got big indications that God has been making the journey with us (as He does all the time on all of our journeys).

We pulled away from the Gulf of Mexico this morning at about 8:00 for the long drive back to Northern Virginia, and after a great breakfast at a diner that was one of A's family traditions when she was growing up we headed north. The first several hours were very uneventful -- a drive to Montgomery, an impromptu picnic lunch at a nice park in one of the city's historic sections, and a quick visit to pay our respects at the grave of Hank Williams. We then continued north towards Atlanta and our ultimate destination for the day, Greenville, South Carolina.

Things were going great until we got within a stone's throw of downtown Atlanta, and the engine overheated. Remarkably, I stayed very calm; this is normally something that would really have set me on edge, especially seeing as how it happened in the midst of a traffic jam in one of the busiest interstate highways in the southeastern United States. A. even managed to keep her humor; she handed me the camera and said, "Take a picture; it's part of our vacation!" So I now have a great shot of the hood of our car sitting up, with the beautiful skyline of downtown Atlanta in the background.

At this point, it was then that I started to see God in everything that happened from then on. In order:

- A member of the Georgia Department of Transportation emergency response unit pulled up literally three minutes after we pulled off the road and just as I was calling Triple-A to find out if we needed any help. Because Triple-A drivers cannot accept children in car seats (because of seatbelt laws) we were going to have to try and find a taxi that would come to the midst of a traffic tie-up on I-85 to drive A. and the girls to a hotel. The DOT driver pointed out that about 200 yards ahead of us, a cab driver was sitting on the side of the road out of gas -- and then he drove ahead to make a deal with him that he would provide gas for his cab if he would in turn take A. and the girls to a hotel.

- The cab driver was from the very area in Atlanta to which the car was going to be towed, and he knew exactly how to get there and which hotel to recommend for us -- and after panicking because we had no cash on hand to pay him, it turned out that he was one of the cabs that took credit and debit cards.

- The Goodyear shop that we selected for the repairs (since they're open on Sundays) was already closed when I called to advise them that we were going to be brining it in shortly. However, the manager on duty volunteered to not only wait until the car and I were both there safely (which took nearly two hours after first pulling off the road), but also to drive me to the hotel near the shop where A. and the kids had already registered.

- Numerous random folks, from sheriff's department officers to crews painting and repaving the interstate, kept stopping by to see how they could help (and to offer their own diagnosis of what was wrong).

- Most remarkably, when the Triple-A driver finally arrived, I was greeted with this large quote posted on the back window of his truck: "God will make a way somehow."

He did indeed; now we'll see if he can hang out with the mechanics for a while in the morning to get the car back on the highway.

And for my friends who are members of the clergy, there MUST be a sermon in here somewhere...

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Vacation Continues...

After several days in Selma and Mobile, we arrived on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico this afternoon. The trip down was much less eventful in terms of car repairs and odd conversations -- in fact, we had the opportunity to have some wonderful visits with old friends and eat some great Deep South cooking (when in Mobile, I highly recommend a crabmeat omelette po'boy and a bushwhacker; now THAT'S a great meal). A. and I talked several times about how much we miss living in Alabama, but we also recognize how wonderful our lives are now and how many more opportunities we and our kids have in our current location. Besides, living away from here makes the visits back even more memorable.

The night arrival was very nice, and we got to take the girls out for a stroll on the beach to see the stars and watch the intrepid families out hunting crabs. After several days of miserably hot weather, it was also great to be sitting on the beach with a great breeze blowing in off of the Gulf (also as a friend of mine told me via email during our trip, "It's August; what were you expecting?"). MB had been to the beach before (although it had been several years) so she knew what to expect -- and had a pretty good time. E. on the other hand had never been and was experiencing a child's "first time at the beach" syndrome: Don't put me in the sand! Don't let me touch the water! It's too loud! Oh! OHHHHH! (Note: you should read that in the style of the Sam Kinison for the full effect...)

Now we get to the real relaxation...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

National Lampoon's Vacation: The Next Generation

Well, this isn't really as chaotic as the Chevy Chase farce (three farces, actually, two of which were totally unnecessary), but it is the first time our family has been able to take a meaningful vacation in quite some time -- in fact, since our youngest was born. This year, we opted for a trip back to our old haunts on Alabama's Gulf Coast for some fun on the white sandy beaches and visiting with old friends.

Day one was supposed to be a nice drive to lower Tennessee for a night's stay at the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel, and it appeared like we would meet that goal. However, while checking tire pressure and filling the gas tank along the way I noticed cracks in two of the tires. That one little observation resulted in a two-hour stop at one of the Shenandoah Valley's "folksier" tire and automotive places, although I was extremely grateful that they squeezed into what was already a busy Saturday for them. What was funny was when I approached the desk clerk at the local visitor's center to inquire about a tire dealer in the area; when she said that the tires might be really expensive and I asked how much, she said, "Oh, they might be as much as $80!" I had to laugh to myself before saying, "Ma'am, I live near Washington, D.C. -- that's NOT too much for a tire."

Our short stay in what was apaprently a town founded in 1796, there was certainly cause for a bit of reflection on my part, particularly after talking to one interesting gentleman and overhearing another while sitting in the mechanic's shop. As often as I think about my desire to ensure the financial well-being of the family and planning ahead to make sure they're taken care of, there are still times where I wonder if I'm doing enough (knowing that the answer is always 'no'). I was reminded, though, how blessed we are to be in the position we're in right now when I overheard one gentleman who came in for an auto inspection; when advised that his car failed as the result of a bad tire he had to choose between forking over what was to him a lot of money (which he didn't have) or taking the failed inspection and trying again in 15 days. He opted for taking the failure notice and trying to scrounge up the money for a new tire and walked out, obviously disappointed and embarassed. In retrospect, maybe I should have anonymously stepped in and paid the $45 for the model tire he needed; regardless, I was reminded how financially fortunate we are.

The other gentleman with whom we actually interacted became a bit annoying after a while because he just kept talking and talking and TALKING. It was obvious he was very poor, and the way he told us about bouncing around from one friend's house to another for visits I'm wondering if perhaps his living arrangements were tenuous. In chatting with him, it also became obvious that we had been much more blessed academically as well, and in some ways I felt bad for him (although A. wasn't totally convinced that he wasn't just being a joker). He started talking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at one point and mentioned that he had almost bought an Afghan at a yard sale; he said he walked up, saw a sign that read "Afghans - $10," and asked the person running the sale for his Afghan. When he was handed a blanket instead, he started protesting that he didn't want a blanket -- he wanted his Afghan. The salesperson asked, "Well what do you think an afghan is?" and he replied, "I wanted someone to help me around the house and do my laundry."

After our Shenandoah excursion, the rest of the day was uneventful and brought us to Knoxville, Tennessee for some much-needed rest. Next stop, the heart of Dixie - Selma, Alabama!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Has It Really Been a Month?

It's remarkable that it's been over a month since I posted anything here -- and it's certainly not for a lack of activity: planning the family vacation; attending my father's retirement festivities; emceeing a groundbreaking event with the governor of Ohio -- I've definitely had a lot going on. I suppose that none of it was really blog-worthy, however; just the standard "day in the life" sort of things.

It reminds me of when I was keeping my first journal at age 12; it was one of those little blue books with "Diary" printed on the front cover that I had gotten as a gift from my brother and sisters, and I tried to find something to write about each day. Even at those points when nothing was going on, I would write, "A boring day" or "Another boring day."

I'll certainly spare all of you from having to read that sort of thing. My only regret for having done so many "boring day" entries is now I have no idea what I was doing that was so horribly boring!!!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Tom Wright, Stephen Colbert, and a Great Email

Sometime last week, the British theologian (and Bishop of Durham) N. T. Wright made an appearance on "The Colbert Report" to plug his newest book, Surprised by Hope. I was curious as to why Wright would choose Colbert as a forum for discussing the topics covered in the book, and gave the video a quick view. If you haven't seen it, you can watch it here.

I have to admit that after watching it -- and despite the fact that Wright handled himself very well, even with Colbert's over-talking and interruptions -- I was still confounded. So, rather than sit and wonder about it for much longer, I emailed the Bishop's office in Durham. This morning, I received a very kind reply from him, and as you'll see he even asked that I share this with others in hopes that it would address any questions they may have. So watch the video, read his response, and judge for yourself: good choice for a forum, or not?

Thanks for your enquiry. Please feel free to post this on blogsites if people are asking these questions. The answer is that the author does not ‘choose’ which chat shows to appear on. Rather, the publishers are delighted if any chance of free advertising comes along, and Colbert has a reputation for boosting the sales of books quite considerably. It works for me on the same principle as General Booth’s comment that if he could win one more soul to the Lord by playing the tambourine with his toes, he’d do it. I take the view that if I get even a couple of minutes, even in a rather unlikely format, to tell people about resurrection – Jesus’ resurrection, ours to come AFTER ‘life after death’, and the way that works in social justice in the present – then I should take it. Too many people, including too many Christians, are completely ignorant of all this.

Of course, if you know anyone who can get me an invite onto Oprah, I guess I should take that as well. But I don’t think it would be so much fun.

Greetings to any who read this – and please pray for me and for other Anglican leaders this summer!

Tom Wright

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Billy Graham Library

An interest in learning about Billy Graham has come very recently in my life; growing up as an Episcopalian, I really didn't have much interest in Reverend Graham or his crusades -- and when I was a child, I tended to get more aggravated than anything that the crusades always seemed to coincide with the nights that my favorite programs aired (typically on CBS, I believe).

Now that I'm older and reading more about such a wide range of religious issues and leaders, he has crossed my radar screen and worked his way into my reading list. And with the Billy Graham Library having opened in Charlotte, North Carolina within the past two or three years, the opportunity to learn more is very close by.

To tide me over until I can get the family down for a visit, this video introduction to the library (found on the official website) will have to hold me over. It looks like a fascinating place to visit...

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Shock of Losing Tim Russert

Working as I do inside the Washington beltway, where the political news by which we're surrounded (and inundated) every day often doesn't surprise us (after all, so many crazy things have happened in this city that for those of us who work in the political world, nothing surprises us anymore), it takes big news to shock us.

Just a short while ago, we got such news, and it blasted through this city like a lightning bolt: Tim Russert had died.

I loved watching Russert work. Growing up with such folks as Harry Reasoner, Walter Cronkite, Howard K. Smith, and Frank Reynolds, it always seemed that the folks best-suited to deliver the news to us were ones who would attend the high-class parties to which we never got an invitation. Russert was different; he was the grassroots guy you'd see at the bar, mingling with everyday folks (and here in Washington, lots of people had a chance to see Russert out and about) and talking football and politics. He was the guy who came across as someone you'd want to be your buddy -- not because he was famous, but because he seemed like a genuinely fun guy to spend time with.

For political junkies like me, he had a true talent for making politics even more exciting -- asking the questions we always wish we could have asked but never had a chance, sticking it to the officials that deserved it, but always treating everyone with fairness and respect. He loved his job, he loved politics (especially during election season, when he could pull out his famous dry erase board and calculate electoral votes), and he loved this city.

Above all else, though, he loved his family. If you need proof, I highly recommend you read Big Russ and Me, which is one of the best grandfather-father-son books out there.

Tim, you'll be missed. Sunday morning politics will never be the same.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Three Things to Look for in a Capitol Hill Event

Depending on the location, what are three things that you are probably guaranteed to see at a Washington political event?

a. Possibly the next president...

b. Surprise celebrities...

c. A fantastic view...

...and in today's case, you get -- d. All of the above. Not bad for a rooftop party in 100-degree weather...

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Falls Church (Episcopal) -- Alive and Well

Several years ago, when A. and I had first moved back to Northern Virginia from Alabama, we went through a pretty intense process of trying to identify the Episcopal Church that we wanted to make our home. One of those that we visited was The Falls Church, a suburban Washington parish located in the city of the same name. While we enjoyed our visit, a combination of a small Sunday congregation (typical for Episcopal churches headed into the summer months), a guest minister (preventing us from getting a feel for the full-time clergy), and a lack of young couples/families (at least on that particular Sunday) led us to continue searching -- and after visiting other area churches we selected Christ Church in Alexandria.

As you're probably well aware from the news, The Falls Church was one of the earliest congregations in the Diocese of Virginia to vote to abandon the diocese as a result of the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire (in fact, 90 percent of the nearly 1,350 eligible voting members of the congregation voted to leave) and align itself with one of the Anglican dioceses in Africa. The minority portion of the congregation was forced to leave the property (the subject of an ongoing lawsuit that is still in the early stages of being resolved), but they were not without a home for long. A large Presbyterian church in Falls Church invited them to use space in the parish house for Sunday services, nursery, and classes for the kids; adult education forums and other activities are hosted in different homes of members of the congregation, which I think is a wonderful way to hold these activities.

For the past two weeks, members of the clery at Christ Church have been filling in while the priest-in-charge at The Falls Church - Episcopal (as it is now known) has been recovering from back surgery, and my family and I have been acting as unofficial missionaries from our church to support our priests and the small but very much alive congregation. I'm sure part of it comes as a result from my recent reading of Sundays in America, but I have noticed I've become very aware of the way parishioners in various places welcome visitors -- and I have to say that my family has been warmly received by TFCE.

Our large parish home encourages folks to wear nametags each Sunday so that people can greet each other by name, but it seems to meet with mixed results; I have to admit that I rarely if ever do it. The past two weeks, however, I have enthusiastically put on a tag as I've walked through the door and have been greeted by numerous folks before even getting completely into the room. We were welcomed as if they hadn't seen us in one week, not as complete strangers; one gentleman even recognized me this morning and gave me a hearty "It's great to see you again!" The congregation each week has only numbered about 40, but they're lively, engaged, and genuinely enjoying the time together and the time to worship.

The focus on fellowship is there; the focus on worship is there; the focus on education is there. Above all, the congregation possesses and incredible optimism about the future and warmth about the present. I think they have a bright future ahead of them, and depending on the outcome of the lawsuits regarding ownership of the church property tremendous potential for growth and an increased impact in the community.

They've certainly made an impact on us...
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As an aside, I wanted to quickly mention a project underway at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chatham, NJ. Gene Robinson, despite being un-invited to attend the upcoming Lambeth Conference, will nonetheless be in England to meet with anyone willing to sit and engage him in conversation. However, because of the ongoing threats against his life, this will be a dangerous time for him.

Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, rector of St. Paul's, has established a fund to help defray the costs of security for Gene during his trip. To date, the "Christmas in July" fund has raised around $3,000, and there's still time to contribute. Rev. Kaeton's blog, "Telling Secrets," includes a link to a Paypal account where contributions can be made. Aside from that, her blog is definitely worth the visit in its own right -- fascinating content.