Saturday, October 30, 2004

And Boston and Newport

Not a long post, but I just feel like I should wind up the report at sea. I won't be at sea much longer. We sail back to New York Harbor and tomorrow morning it's back to the real world.

Well, so to speak. Getting in to New York City just in time for Halloween may not qualify us for the real world. Maybe it's just our way-station.

I'm ready to be done. This morning I had the strong feeling that I was just plain overdosing on all the good stuff, idle time and PEOPLE. When you think of it, it's exactly the opposite of the environment that monastics need. I'm far from being monastic, but I feel a sort of melancholy that's totally out of place in a situation where your every need is being anticipated and provided (or over-provided) for.

But that's not to take anything away from the last two ports:
* Boston was a lot of fun. We got onto a tour-trolley thing, and I think that's the only way you could possibly do Boston justice. It's too big to walk around and it's not really made for foot traffic. The automotive traffic was pretty awful, owing to the influx of people for the parade that I suppose went on today, but that's why you want it to be someone else's problem. And our tour guides, besides having the best Cliff Claven accent a person could ask for, were rock-steady with the traffic mayhem and gave fascinating details. (Did you know that in 1919 a tank full of molasses exploded in Boston and killed 21 people?) Boston has a wealth of history that is really overwhelming. This was my second trip there, and I anticipate another three or four before I feel like I'll be done ogling over the landmarks.

* Newport, Rhode Island -- well, that was another story. The weather kind of tanked on us, turning from damp to drizzley to rainy. And I goofed on the time of our excursion, so we were just left to our own devices. But I don't mean to say it was a waste. Actually, the short time that Greg and I were actually looking about just made it obvious to both of us that there's actually so much to see and do in Newport that we'll have to make our own trip back here. It is Old Money that didn't fall on hard times, and the "cottages" -- absolutely incredible summer home mansions of the well-to-do -- have to be seen to be believed. We toured one of them -- The Elms -- and I'm still thinking about it. Might be another blog entry in there somewhere.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

What in the world ...

... is it with the Episcopal Church?

This article on new pagan rituals for a "woman's communion service" come by way of Fr. Joseph, but are definitely worth a double take.

I'm not learned enough to have a broad ecumenical picture, but hearing the latest about the Anglican side of things is like watching a glacier slipping inexorably into the sea. I imagine that there are many, many horrified parishioners, but there just doesn't seem like there's any coming back for them.

Report from Bah Hahbah

As someone who only accidentally falls into any sort of trendiness, I'm probably unnaturally impressed with myself that I'm sitting in a woodsy, kitschy-cool combination coffee shop and internet cafe in Bar Harbor, Maine. (We non-Yankees on the cruise ship insist on doing the fakey New England accent and calling it "Bah Hahbah" every single time we say it, but now that I'm here, I haven't heard a single "a-yup" or "clam chowdah". Blast! Do I have to pay for the privilege of local stereotypes? Who knew?)

The husband put us into a bit of a pickle by not having all his work done before the cruise (Bad husband! No biscuit.), but as it turns out, this may not be so bad. It's just a lovely, lovely day out today for the first time so far, but dividing my valuable tourist hours between blogging in the little place with the chocolate-chip cookies, high-speed access and walkthroughs from a black-and-white dog (I'll bet he'd give me an "a-yup" if I asked him nicely), and trolling the little gift ships and hilly, tiny streets may be a fine way to spend the day. Actually, of the two, the former may get the bulk of our patronage. As I mentioned to Greg, there's something really similar about the fare in all the tiny little stores everywhere. The Canadian and Maine ones have more to offer by way of moose, bear, puffin and lighthouse stuff than your basic Corn Belt little-town store. (Missouri not being exactly rife with cultural landmarks, our chotchkes (sp?) tend to feature cows, rivers and the state outline. Not exactly a tourist mecca, the heartland.)

Here's a brief report on the trip so far:
* Oct. 24 -- home to New York: After my near-fatal mistake, I made it to Philly and from there to NY Harbor without any problems, and from there onto the Grand Princess.

I'll say this about the cruise experience -- they really do pull off that feeling of walking onto a four-star hotel. Walking out of the loud, ugly port onto the boat was almost shocking. Suddenly all is clean, posh and plush. Live musicians play away quietly. Elevators sweep along without a sound. Polite little notices await you in your trim stateroom from the purser, the captain, your cleaning staff.

MY cleaning staff? I know it's a bit much, but if you've decided to take a cruise, you've usually already made your peace with it.

* Oct. 25 -- at sea. This day could've been better. Captain Andy had told us in his lovely Scottish accent that we might be expecting some rough weather. Well, we got it, and Gracie the ever-prepared hadn't even thought to bring along the seasickness patches I got for the last cruise. I was kind of amazed to find that I made it to the end of the day before I had to just take to my bed. I belong to the unhappy fellowship of people who get really, REALLY seasick -- watching "Blair Witch Project" made me toss my cookies, and not just because of poor acting. The action of the 15-foot swells Cap'n Andy told us about (I really didn't need to know that, Cap'n Andy.) on the planet-sized boat were naturally not a constant roller-coaster, but when a ship that big is being rocked about, the rolls are very slow and have a lot of weight behind them. So you had to adopt a sort of straddle-legged gait to make it down hallways, ready to put all your weight on one side or another and occasionally just abandoning attempts at sophistication and grabbing for hand-rails on both sides. Going up and down stairs was slow and annoying work, but the elevators could be troublesome as well -- Greg was caught in one for 20 minutes.

* Oct. 26 -- Halifax, Nova Scotia: So it was a bit of a mercy to wake up with the boat docked and NOT moving. It was overcast and cold, but we had a fine adventurous day in town. The guys had hit on the idea of renting a car sometimes and just taking off. This seemed to work well for us. Halifax itself didn't merit a day's worth of sightseeing, but getting away from town and into the country was grand. One of our traveling companions, Donna, is a lobster-nut, and was disappointed because she had heard that the McDonald's in Canada have McLobster. (!! -- words fail me.) It turned out that it was a seasonal thing, and she missed it. Similarly, the locally-ballyhooed Tim Horton donuts didn't turn out to be all that. But just in time to save our tourist dollars from leaving with the tide, we rounded a turn and saw The Arcadian Maple Shop dedicated to all things maple-y, including some that should've been left alone (maple-rhubarb jam?), and a cry went up from all four passengers. Maple is one of those flavors that comes around like a favorite old uncle and everyone's glad to see it. As divergent as the four of us are in other tastes, we happily sniffed, tasted and bought maple stuff. Go, Canada!

* Oct. 27 -- St. John, New Brunswick: I found this town really delightful, in spite of wickedly cold winds that kept anyone from staying out for the whole day. Part of that good impression might really have come from our horse-drawn trolley tour, starring long-suffering Clydesdales Jill and Molly. We were told before we had even quite settled into our seats and adjusted our lap-robes that Jill slacked off and made Molly do all the work on the hills. This information came from our guide Brenda, a charming and entirely unselfconscious woman in her fifties who was ideally suited to tourguiding since she could talk in a constant stream without ever having to draw breath. And all things were good to talk about -- the weather, the landmarks, the gritty realities of riding in a horse-drawn trolley ("We just say that the trolley is powered by natural gas."), her snooty daughter, the price of cigarettes and gasoline in Canada (astronomical), and so on and so on. The benefit of the patter was that as you thought about the possibility of moving to a delightful town like St. John (the oldest city in Canada, named because it was founded on the Forerunner's nativity day), you were also able to imagine what life would really be like. Saint John was hilly, dotted with houses of widely varying eras and quaint. The people seemed unhurried and genuinely friendly with us and each other, as Canadian people so often do. But there's no use even contemplating the dual-citizenship life if you're not willing to accept the weather, the high prices and the limitations of small-town life that come along with its joys. I know something of that last one from the Missouri life, but I might still be in for some surprises.

* Oct. 28 -- Bah H.. oh phooey, Bar Harbor: And here we are again at the cafe. I've gotten some of the Mexican blend coffee, just to broaden the mind, though I eschewed the cinnamon rolls that Greg gave big thumbs up to. I'm starting to find that part of the trick to surviving a cruise without bloating up like a dirigible is being able to say no to 4 out of 5 food opportunities. Greg has found now that he's here that he can't complete his work anyway. We run our own server and it's been knocked out, probably with a little bad weather back home. This necessitates a low-tech solution in the person of Laurie the Pet-Sitter having to schlep to our house, unplug something (the router?) and then plug it back in. Laurie won't be able to do it for a couple hours, so there we are. Funny thing, the internet. Wires and electrons flowing and flying everywhere, but all at a standstill waiting for one switch to be toggled off and then on.

Tomorrow is Boston (I mean it, you guys. I don't want any freaky stuff from gleeful baseball fans.), and then Newport, Rhode Island to look at rich-people houses, and then back to New York on Halloween.

If I get another good window of time, I'll report as needed, but blogging on the boat is a little problematic (for reasons that are worth another entry), so I may just have to wait till I'm back at home-base.

Congratulations and @#%!!

Wow, Boston! Way to go, folks. I'm not even a baseball fan and I'm impressed.

However, since our cruise gets into Boston tomorrow, can you keep it down? Here's what I don't want:
* parades or other street-clogging activity
* painted human bodies
* shouted slogans and hand gestures I don't understand
* riots or any other fussiness

I'm out of luck, aren't I?

Monday, October 25, 2004

All Hallow's Eve, part II

After this post of mine about the problems that Halloween poses for us, I felt like I saw a good solution in an article about a local school -- I'm sure it must be a Catholic school. They teach about saints during the month of October and then everyone dresses up as their favorite saint for Oct. 31 (or maybe it's for Nov. 1 -- All Saints' Day. I really should've read the article more carefully.).

Maybe people with kids have already heard of doing this, but I think it's a great idea.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Strangeness and death

I had a weird thought. And my day became strange.

The day always would have been a little intense. I knew I had to be on a 3:25 flight to go meet up with Greg in Philadelphia, and then the next day at 5 we would set sail on our long-awaited, much-anticipated cruise around New England and Nova Scotia. The day was sort of like one of those Bohemian dances that starts off slow and gets faster and faster and faster. By the time I had the humongous suitcase packed and in the car and the dog off to the pet-sitter, I was doing the thing where you talk to yourself to accomplish little driving tasks. ("Now signal. Now ... turn. Good!")

So as I drew nearer to the airport, I was doing a somewhat convincing imitation of a person who's got it together when Greg called just to check in. He had been running around like mad all day, and I felt bad for him. He was blurting things out and interrupting, more out of fatigue than anything. And out of the blue he said, "And do you have my birth certificate?"

"No," I answered in my best firm-but-gentle voice. "We don't need them for this trip. The cruise line said we didn't need passports."

Silence. And then ...

"That is so wrong. You absoLUTEly need my birth certificate." I hate to admit it but there's something about a husband saying something with that much assurance that makes you believe he might know what he's talking about. I protested a couple more times, but my heart wasn't in it, because my thin coating of complacency was suddenly gone and I was realizing how disastrous this was. It was too late for me to go back home and still catch my plane. I could lead my pet-sitter through an elaborate series of tasks ending with her FedExing these things out to us for Saturday delivery, but it was going to be asking an awful lot, if she could do it at all.

Greg ended the call abruptly with, "Let me make some calls." It would have been rude, except right then, rude was fine with me. I felt like I was in shock. But ... he couldn't be right. I'll bet he's not right. He's not right. It's all okay. He's not right.

He called back. He was right.

BUT we had gotten the day the boat sailed wrong. It was leaving Sunday, not Saturday, and so Greg had already figured out that I could just go home, get my passport and his birth certificate and take a flight out tomorrow. Since my airline ticket was a frequent-flier freebie anyway, it wouldn't cost any more to re-schedule.

It was all so bizarre. From quasi-calm to the brink of disaster and then into real calm ... all in the space of about four minutes. And after a couple of minutes of expressions of relief and disbelief, I started trying to adjust to the new plan. I suddenly had all this TIME. All my work was done, the dog was at the sitter, the house was clean and there weren't any errands to run. Between the intense bustle of getting ready for the trip and the intense exhilaration of taking this vacation, I had suddenly entered this place where labor was ended and my heart could be quiet.

That's when I had the weird thought. "I wonder if this is what it's like to be dead." After all, there I was, between worlds. All my work was suddenly behind me and there was nothing else that needing attending to -- how often does that ever happen to us? And the shock of the adrenalin rush had subsided into a sort of surreal feeling where it seemed like nothing mattered anymore.

I don't say it was a profound thought. I think the reason my mind was inclined toward it is that I found out this morning that a friend's father passed away, and my goddaughter has had two surgeries. Death has been on my mind, even though there are never really any words to your thoughts at those times. (Katie put it exactly right, I thought, in this very moving post.)

Anyway, that's it. I've been trying to sift through it to remember the lesson so I don't forget it. If that was a trial run, I better take note of the fact that I almost left without my passport, which sounds a little too close to the foolish virgins not having oil or the guests to the feast not having a wedding garment.

I better make sure to read the fine print. Nothing worse than a wasted trip.

(P.S: To all the St. Barnabas crowd: I hope you got to know Frank a little. He was kind of a private person, but a very good man. May his memory be eternal.)

Thursday, October 21, 2004

The power and powerlessness of hatred

Hooray! A new find on Karl's list of Ortho-blogs. And Radoje (awfully glad I get to type it and not pronounce it) on this post reminds me of a thought I've had on and off: If Bush is elected, will the intense hatred that a small but virulent percentage of Americans feel for Bush hinder his ability to lead effectively?

Radoje wonders --
What happens if Bush wins? It is no secret that I support Bush despite his imperfections. But living in the Seattle area one sees a level of hatred for Bush that borders on the irrational. I wonder how some of these people are going to take it if Kerry loses.
First of all, am I just TOO out of line if I say a little yay ("...yay...") that any Ortho-blogger other than my lowly self is willing to actually support Bush? I was beginning to think that if he wins, I'll be expected to join an online molieban service. But I digress ...

Out here in a rural area, I won't be exposed to the kind of constant barrage that Radoje and others I know will. But I remember it well from living in other areas. To hear someone discussed every day as if it's an insult to civilization that he draws breath, as if the person is less than human -- it's bad for the soul. If you think I'm exaggerating, consider the offhand remark of an LA Times reporter earlier this month
On a personal level, I despise [Bush] with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.

And no, I haven't seen a similar tone from the right. Limbaugh and Hannity and Matt Drudge issue scathing commentary and their share of irreverent humor, but in years of listening, I've never heard any of them say they hated or despised any individual -- just the behaviors, the rhetoric and the ideas. And I think part of the reason that they couldn't get away with it is because the new media is essentially interactive -- they're not trying on the concept of call-ins over at the LA Times. Nope, they're just burning all by themselves with the intensity of a thousand suns. So what in the world happens if their guy tanks on November 2?

I have a feeling some of them are going to go right off the deep end the way some of the extreme right-wing folks did when Clinton got reelected. I think the difference is (speaking in broad generalizations) that when people on the Right get aggrieved, they usually buy 40 acres in rural Idaho and live off MREs in a bunker. When people on the left get aggrieved they start street riots to mobilize the proletariat (OK I'm exaggerating about the proletariat part...).


I'm with him. Given the demographics, a real revolution is out of the question. ("All right, who broke the Starbucks window??!! That's NOT cool!") What will probably happen is a lot of huffing and puffing ... who knows, Maybe Alec Baldwin really will move to France this time. (Don't let the screen door hit you, Alec. Loved you in "Glengarry Glen Ross," though.)

But I don't think it'll be the end of it. Things are changing. I think we're seeing a seismic shift not so much in political parties and election politics but in some social order. I really think all the ballyhoo over Bush is just today's focus. There are people who are losing their sense of identity and they're in real confusion. I could go into more detail, but it's late and I'm not even sure I know what I'm talking about ... probably a good time to let it go.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

All Hallow's Eve

Do good Christians do the Halloween thing? It's a yearly fight at some of the churches I've been to.

Fr. Joseph has this excellent series of posts about it that includes an exchange that sound very familiar:

One of my coworkers came and asked me what I had against Halloween. I asked, "Why do we celebrate Christmas?" "Because of the birth of Christ," she said. "How 'bout Easter?" "Because of the Resurrection," she replied. I went on to ask about the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. But when I asked, "Why do we celebrate Halloween?" -- she had no answer. It was obvious she'd never even considered the question. She ended up by saying, "Because it's fun."


Well, there it is. That's the biggest problem about it, even for Christians. And some aspects of it are definitely fun. And if I had a kid, I don't know that I could hold the line -- would they understand the point, or would they just think that being Orthodox meant that they didn't get to have any fun?

Perhaps it would be an innocent holiday, if we were an innocent people. I think the problem even for non-Christians is that whether they like it or not, they're living in the Church Age. Christ has come -- those who try to turn the clock back to the days when we didn't really know our God do so at their own peril. Almost impossible to convey to non-Christians accurately, of course. Since they imagine that there is no God, you must be saying such things because you are threatened or you are threatening. It can't be that you're just the messenger, otherwise they might have to consider the message.

Anyway, I'm spared such scenes as Fr. Joseph's because I have the good fortune to work at home. Sometimes I decorate the house a little for fall -- I'm willing to celebrate the beauty of God's ever-changing creation. But no skulls, gravestones, evil spirits and the rest. To put them in my house next to the icons of the Theotokos and St. Mary of Egypt is just asking for trouble, IMHO. ;-)

Monday, October 18, 2004

Bush's religious beliefs

The problem I'm having these days with mainstream media (MSM) (or legacy media, as a wise man calls it) is that they seem to move like the Borg on to a point and then report on it for a while as if it was they were responding to the Clarion Call of the People, rather than following their own edicts about what's going on.

The recent case in point is the respective religious beliefs of Bush and Kerry and what it will mean in the election and the presidency to follow. (Don't you love when these guys paint with a broad brush like this? What the heck do they know about what it will mean for the next four years -- but, hey, it'll sell a boatload of newspapers today!!). Here at the House of Grace, we get three newspapers for reasons that deserve their own blog entry, and last Saturday all three of them were sporting this same story with editorials and news analysis as well. It was as if Bush had answered an altar call and Kerry had gotten, um, Catholicized (sorry, don't know the routine) on the road on Friday.

I suppose some of the reason that that all the MSM awoke to the fact that we are on the verge of electing actual Christians (or professing Christians, if you choose to remain skeptical) is because Kerry made a thing out of it at the third debate. I'm guessing that somebody told him it would be a good idea, but the same guy probably told him that bringing up Dick Cheney's daughter would be good for a laugh. Because it just confused the Christian conservatives ("Fred, did Kerry just say something about God?" "Can't be. Must be getting sound from TBN again."), but it horrified Kerry's base.

This is already old news, but worth bringing up just because the Always Great James Lilek delved into the phenomenon with this story in the NYT from an economist who says, among other things:
“Just in the past few months, I think a light has gone off for people who’ve spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he’s always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.”


Bush: And what'll we do tomorrow, God?
God: The same thing we do every day, George -- plan to take over the world! (Something for the Pinky fans).

Nothing new in the MSM's view of Christians as dangerous and weird, but I thought James got to a very incisive point with his answer to the charge that Bush's rampant zeal (yeah, right -- the guy prays) is the reason that he wants to kill all the terrorists:

I guess Bush wants to kill them all because his religious beliefs make him disinclined to be persuaded, and extreme in his convictions. Ergo agnostics want to kill only some terrorists, and atheists don’t want to kill any? Look. The problem some people have with Bush isn’t that he believes in God, it’s that he really believes in God. To a certain stratum of our intelligentsia, you’re supposed to believe in God like you believe in continental drift, or the tides, or the yearly reappearance of Shamrock Shakes at McDonald’s. The idea that it’s a two-way conversation strikes many as nonsense, proof that we’re dealing with someone two steps removed from worshipping the moon.


Yep. That's the way it gets reported. As if a president who really reads the Bible instead of just taking it along to photo ops is the scariest thing imaginable. And it's not. The scariest thing imaginable is that all the Borg will decide that the next big story is Teresa Heinz-Kerry's baby pictures. Do you think she ever had irises in her eyes, or were they always solid black like that? It's too creepy for words. I'm never buying ketchup again.

*****
If you didn't like that part of Lileks' Daily Bleat, how about this priceless hint for the director of "The Day After Tomorrow"?

You remember that scene where the guys in the Scottish station are sitting around pounding the Balvenie, knowing they're going to die, and one of the guys is talking about never seeing his son grow up as if he's describing a lottery ticket he lost six years ago that may or may not have had the winning numbers? Bookmark that scene should you ever wake in the middle of the night wondering "do I suck, completely?"

Cricket trivia scam alert!

If you can't trust Paul Harvey, who can you trust?

For those of you who don't know, Paul Harvey is a guy who has done little "lighter side of the news" radio commentary for years and years ... well, actually for several centuries. Paul Harvey could solve a lot of history's mysteries just by casting his mind back. But you can still hear him for about 45 minutes on certain radio stations (usually the ones that are going for some folksy charm, or else just have trouble filling an entire programming day) telling you little news stories about stupid thieves, old ladies with weird pets, goofy things that people said and (getting to my point, as I sometimes do) ... little bits of folk wisdom.

And so Mr. Harvey saith: If you want to know what the temperature is, listen to how many times a cricket chirps in 14 seconds and add 40.

And I said to the radio, "What?"

And he repeated the whole thing for me again (who says radio isn't an interactive medium?): If you want to know what the temperature is, listen to how many times a cricket chirps in 14 seconds and add 40.

I want credit for the fact that even riding along in my car with other things on my mind, that just sounded problematic. Fourteen seconds? How am I going to know when fourteen seconds is up? I can't count "Mississippi's" or I'll lose track of the cricket chirps. If I just count the chirps, I'll misjudge the seconds and decide that the crickets are telling me it's 312 degrees outside. (I'm not very good at judging seconds.) And Paul Harvey didn't even tell me whether it was Fahrenheit or Centrigrade. I mean, it was probably Fahrenheit, but how do I know? Maybe he was feeling European today.

Still, Mr. Harvey didn't get where he is today by not knowing what's interesting trivia. I thought about it, and just now when I took the dog out, I thought about it again. The crickets were doing their little bit for me, and I thought, "Now's the time to avail myself of the ancient Native American ways." Except it just turns out to be the most utter crap.

You can't count the cricket chirps because they're all going at the same time. They don't take turns, and one cricket sounds a whole lot like another. And you can't look at your watch and hope to count cricket chirps while looking at seconds because ... (probably everyone is way ahead of me) ... it's DARK outside.

Talk about irresponsible reporting! I think Paul Harvey just makes this stuff up by day and then cackles himself to sleep all night. And by the way, I just looked it up on the internet -- it's 51 degrees, and yes, that's Fahrenheit.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Once more into the breach

I was surprised to find that discussions are still going on about Dr. Bouteneff's article (with Dr. Bouteneff himself chiming in, so no one needs to worry about him being misrepresented). Those who are tired of hearing about all this will undoubtedly want to give it a miss.

For my own peace of mind, I feel like I have to try to get to the bottom of the Orthodox objections to George Bush just once. This is probably a complete exercise in futility, but I would swear that there are some obvious points that aren't being made. So here's some of what I'm hearing:

* "Bush doesn't reflect Orthodox values." -- And neither does Kerry. And I'm pretty sure that none of the Little Division of Hallmark Cards parties do either. Saint Herman of Alaska isn't running this year. When Orthodox are more than 1% of the US population, maybe we can do something about that. Until then, there's the one guy, the other guy, or the little guys. Which one do you think is closest? Vote for that one. Go to church. Pray for your new president.

* "Terrible war crimes and atrocities are going on. Bush has to pay." -- And the idea is that under the leadership of President Kerry, there will be no civilian casualties, no loss of life, no need to interrogate anyone? The idea of an unobtrusive war is a delusion.

* "We shouldn't be at war at all. Kerry will get us out." -- What are the odds? He won't even go on record (unequivocably, that is, which is always the difficulty with Kerry) that he thinks it's a good idea to withdraw. He seems just as happy saying that we need to have more troops, and since his good friends over at France, Germany and Russia (whose checks from Saddam have finally all cleared the bank -- praise be!) have said that they won't chip in, that would mean more Americans.

* "George Bush has done [insert unspeakably awful, improbable and weird accusation]." -- This is the rule: If you see "Farenheit 9/11", go see "Farenhype 9/11". If you read the New York Times, read the New York Post too. If you listen to NPR, listen to talk radio. Think of it as equal time. Just listening to one side these days will make you certain that the person in question ought to be sent to prison forever.

* "We don't have respect in the global community anymore." -- Actually, these days, they don't have much of my respect, but I bet they're okay with that. Anti-Americanism isn't new, and the only way I can imagine that Kerry could mollify the EU and Muslim hotheads is by appeasing them with a lot of lip service and gratuitous obsequiousness. Which he's probably good at, for what that's worth. But I don't see that appeasement has worked all that well for us in the last twenty years. Can someone please stop to remember the other terrorist attacks -- the World Trade Center in 1993 (6 dead), the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 (19 dead), U.S. Embassy bombing in East Africa in 1998 (291 dead) and more -- that showed terrorist networks growing steadily in size, ability and sophistication, and in response to which the U.S. took no aggressive action? Were we "respected" in the global community then? Maybe so, if appeasers love other appeasers, but I don't remember the halcyon days when we were hearing our praises sung in faraway lands for the mere price of the "nuisance" (thanks, Senator) of growing loss of life. And if I'm just missing it, is it worth it to be popular? The strikes on 9/11 were not unpremeditated. They were not out of the blue. We had been warned over and over that the extremist factions of Muslim weren't going to be content with just talking trash and burning effigies forever. We did nothing. Now we're doing something. And if the global community doesn't like it ... well, words fail me. It's nothing that they shouldn't have been doing for decades.

* "Political right and left have no meaning to us Orthodox. Both parties are the same. They're both bad. Bush and Kerry are both bad." -- I've heard this one now more times than I would've believed possible. If you think that there's no difference between them, then you're in a tiny, tiny minority. Christians have overwhelmingly found a more receptive ear at the GOP. That doesn't make it God's party or mean that Christians can't exist outside of that, but as a generalization, it's historically and presently true. The party has not conformed to our views on everything (how could it? Even we don't agree -- have you checked out an Orthodox list-serv lately?), but since I don't believe the arguments against Bush based on the war (see above), I'd have to say that the Republicans' record on life-or-death issues is far better to me than the Democrats'.

* "Democrats have a better stand on equality, social programs and ending poverty." -- Important to be clear-headed here. The Democrats' stand on any of these good things is that you put more power and more funds into the hands of the government, and they do it for you. So voting Democrat because of the wonderful programs they espouse is the same as going to a rich uncle and telling him to give to the poor, feed the homeless, take care of the sick, and so on. The conservative viewpoint on these things is that you can do those things better than the govenrnment can, and the only thing they can do for you is to not tax you so heavily that you have no alms to give.

* "The Democrats are friendlier to the environment." -- But in my personal experience, all the good environmentalism in the world is of no worth without the context of Orthodoxy that is so lacking on the left. Liberals have picked up words like 'stewards' lately, but their concept of stewardship has nothing to do with personal sacrifice and self-restraint, and everything to do with arresting every new sign of development they can see. Apart from Christian virtue, environmentalism seems destined to become a false god.

* "Republicans are in the pocket of big business." -- And Democrats are in the pockets of trial lawyers, labor unions, show-biz people and lots of other unsavory types, besides having their own agenda of growing the government bigger in order to keep their power. Not sure if there's a clear winner there. I see less threat in big business, but that might just be me.

* "It's just a choice between the evil party and the stupid party." -- Okay, here maybe I'll surprise somebody. I know I come off like a smart-aleck, so it might sound disingenuous of me to say, but that language offends me coming from an Orthodox person. I leave it to secular people to throw words like 'evil' around as if they have no meaning. In weak moments, I probably have thought of liberals as stupid, and I'm not proud of that, but to have a fellow Orthodox brother or sister tell me that I would willingly associate with something evil is a foul thing to say. If you want to go for the same impact, and you dislike Republicans that much, how about 'mean' or 'greedy'? I still think it's inaccurate, but I can live with it.

That's my take. The usual disclaimer is in place about these just being my impressions. I'm not a pundit, even by blog standards.

If I can end with one faint conciliatory note, can we please all agree to pray very, VERY hard on Election Day that whatever the results are, they would be decisive? Even if I have to live with President Kerry for four years, I don't want a replay of the 2000 election.

Lord, have mercy on all of us.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Apocalypse watch -- ten minutes and counting

I knew it. They're talking about putting microchips into people, and folks can't wait.

So what's the problem, right? It's just a thing to help people with complex medical problems get quicker care by being able to communicate more complete and accurate health record information.

I've got two problems with this. One is already hinted at if you make it to the end of the article. Consider these two little throwaway graphs:

... Silverman said chips implanted for medical uses could also be used for security purposes, like tracking employee movement through nuclear power plants.

...Meanwhile, the chip has been used for pure whimsy: Club hoppers in Barcelona, Spain, now use the microchip to enter a VIP area and, through links to a different database, speed payment much like a smartcard.


Problem number one: no matter how isolated the proposed use for this chip is at present, once it's linked into security and electronic payment, its popularity will explode.

What I'm really expecting to see within ten years is a microchip that turns you into a walking telephone/e-mail receiver and sender. The same technology plus GPS could be used to determine anybody's whereabouts at any time in question, making many crimes a cinch to solve.

Actually, I'm pretty sure the technology exists now. It's the climate for its proliferation that doesn't exist. The current generation is cautious about such threats to privacy and freedom, and wouldn't throw that away for convenience and a lower crime rate. But I don't think the next generation will see it the same way. There are some forces in modern culture that have become runaway trains -- constant communication, immediate transfer of funds, unhindered medical research advances and complete personal safety being some of the fastest accelerating ones.

It all sounds ludicrous, and the idea of having a chip implanted would be too horrible for most people to do it. But only a generation or so ago, test-tube babies were unthinkable. Sex change operations. And of course my favorite -- cloning. Given enough time, the unthinkable becomes thinkable, and then -- if it seems to follow the general trend toward making life move along faster than it does now -- it becomes acceptable, desirable ... and finally, like all the other advances that have taken a little bit of our humanity, it becomes worth whatever cost we have to pay for it.

That's my second problem with the microchip idea. It seems to me that whenever we take these bold new steps, we pay for them. From the time of the Industrial Revolution on, we've been striding forward, moving out. Better lives, more things -- faster, cleaner, safer, more affordable, better quality. But we never want to notice the things that are lost to pay for them. We've got speedy transportation -- but we've got paved landscapes, air pollution and daily fatalities. We've got a dizzying array of affordable goods -- but we've got a trade agreement with China and a country where over half the people are overweight.

In short, these technological advances seem to me like deals with the Devil, and our recent inclination has been to pay.

Last debate debotted (new verb)

Well, just so much same-same for the third debate. I thought both men looked more tired than in the last two debates, but who could blame them for that? I've only watched the debates and I feel a year older. So certainly I can be excused for having an impish little desire to see:

* a clean judo flip at the end instead of that high-principled hand-shake. I mean, who are we kidding?

* similarly, the Teresa Heinz-Kerry/Laura Bush smackdown. Teresa looks like a born ankle-biter to me, but there's something just weird about how Laura Bush smiles. I think she might have some Chinese stars tucked away up a sleeve somewhere.

* the commentator fake Kerry out just once:
Commentator: Sen. Kerry, do you smell cheese?
Kerry: Well, as your president I want America to realize that I do smell cheese. I certainly do. I think that's one of the biggest differences between myself and the president. And just as I did when I was fighting for my country for four whole months ... and I mean, I think that it's indicative of the president's failed policies that ... um ... I'm sorry, did you say 'cheese'?

* or mess with Bush:
Commentator: Mr. President, want a deep-fried Twinkie?
Bush: Hell, yeah. HELL, yeah.


But as usual, I'll have to settle for reality. Bummer.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Superman

By now everyone has heard that Christopher Reeve died Sunday of cardiac arrest. I can admit here, in this somewhat private setting, that though anyone's death is a loss, I greet the news with a small amount of relief. That sounds terrible of me, so I better elaborate. I hope I can put my thoughts accurately into words.

I know very little about Christopher Reeve, but I want to remember him for the example he was to me shortly after the 1995 horse-riding accident left him a quadriplegic.

My admiration wasn't based the idea that he was a hero (I feel that people overuse that word to include everyone who ever has a public battle with much of anything). I was thinking more of the Orthodox perspective of tragedy. We believe that even these things are gifts from God. We believe some people have the gift of tears, the gift of pain. These are mysteries to ponder. In that context, it means that God chose this prominent, young, athletic movie actor to suffer in this way. (As I said, this isn't a point of view I'd try to express outside of Orthodox circles. People would think I was crazy or that my faith was mean, or both.) I can't know why God chose Reeve for this, but when I try to think of any other actor or actress and what they would have done in this circumstance, I feel that he had a grace that transcended the usual truculence and self-centeredness of celebrity. He didn't blame anyone, he didn't want to complain or act as if nothing happened. At least not at first.

As time went on, that seemed to change. He started saying things like "I am going to walk again", which struck me as classic show-biz superciliousness -- out of all the people who have had crippling spinal injuries, he would be the one who would walk again. By virtue of what? His money? His fame? His personal decision not to accept quadriplegia? As if it doesn't take more raw courage to accept the paralysis and just live every day. And he went from being a spokesman for spinal cord injury research to being an activist for stem cell research and a critic of administrations that didn't do enough to further his vision of himself as whole and ambulatory. My problem with his activism wasn't just my personal opposition to stem cell research, but the sense of mourning at losing a hero.

His death will be an occasion now for the Biography channel to run the story of his life, which I would like to see. And activists will invoke his name as if he died from a complete lack of the cells taken from embryos. So the former will call him a hero and the latter will call him a martyr. He's neither to me. He's someone that was given a gift that he may or may not have been able to accept.

The Vatican and the war

Interesting article here about the Vatican deciding to change position on the war in Iraq. I particularly think this viewpoint is trenchant:
"The child has been born," [Cardinal Sodano] declared recently on behalf of the Vatican. "It may be illegitimate, but it's here, and it must be reared and educated."

I wish I could've gotten more of the context to know what 'the child' is. Is it a democratic Iraq (which would explain the need to be reared and educated) or a war-torn Iraq, which would make more sense but not explain the rest of the metaphor?

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Presidential boondoggle

Okay, here's my imitation of Kerry at last night's debate:

Normal person:
Sen. Kerry, can you tell me what you would do about healthcare/the deficit/my son's low SAT scores?
Kerry:
I can, and I want to be very clear about this. This president rushed to war without a plan to win the peace. He is the first president in 72 years to have lost as much money as he did. Remember: the No Child Left Behind plan does nothing to alleviate the untold suffering of AIDS victims in the coalition that he says he has built but which is really nothing more than four Australians and a dog named Mokie. Under his plan, the nuclear materials in Russia would take 13 years to be dealt with; under my plan my family can do it this weekend. I have a plan. I do indeed have a plan. Sometimes I get my plan out at night and pet it. And the American people have a right to that plan which is my plan and which will be their plan after November 2. Thank you.

You think I'm messing with you? I am not messing with you. The first part of the debate was Kerry's Publishers Clearing House Giveaway of talking points.

It might also have been a mistake for him to look right into the camera that one time. Now, to be fair, it wasn't his idea. Somebody asked a question that was something like, "Can you look right into the camera and tell the American people that you will never raise taxes?" So of course Kerry jumped right onto that opportunity to look like a straight-shooter, but I tell you, man, when he swung that big ol' face dead center and about a foot away from the camera, I was hoping that anyone that had kids had already put them to bed. I promise not to harp on this if Kerry wins, but he's just a little scary-looking, you know?

But I'm not saying that he had all the bad moments. I think they both suffered occasionally from the format where one of them is sitting on his little stool, mike in hand, while the other one is talking, like Sonny Bono just waiting for one of his lines in "I Got You, Babe". Kerry opted for getting a faraway look that I don't think worked well for him. Bush did this blinking thing. I don't know if there were lights in his eyes or what, but he got real blinky when he was waiting his turn. It didn't make him look like the sharpest tool in the shed.

Okay, but enough of the cheap shots. On to the countdown: I'd say Bush won last night, but I'm pretty sure Kerry supporters would say he did. Maybe a better thing to say would be that anyone that liked Kerry at the last debate liked him again, and anyone that really wanted Bush to do better last time was satisfied.

I definitely was. He wasn't vague -- his thoughts were focused, he wasn't at a loss for words. I thought he answered questions in a more linear way than Kerry, and he made his arguments well. The question now is if people really want to hear what he's saying. I think that people in this country really want to do something that matters. I don't think they're as afraid of being grown-ups as Baby Boomers were in their 20's and 30's. So if they believe, at the end of the day, that this war matters, that it's not just a pathetic blunder, I think they'll elect Bush. It's very hard to avoid the conclusion that we're in Iraq based on faulty intelligence, but does that make it the wrong war at the wrong time?

There are other issues, of course, but I'm thinking that this one really trumps the rest.

Just me thinking, of course.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Debate difficulties

I'm still not sure whether I'm going to watch the debate tonight or not. It's pretty grueling really, and it makes for a real edgy 90 minutes, especially since this one features Real People (or nearly. Remember that lunkhead in 2000 with the ponytail who told the candidates to treat us all like children?).

There are two main threats to my health if I decide to watch:

* Bush Hoarseness -- If he doesn't pull it together better than he did last time, I'll lose my voice shouting hints to the TV screen. ("We didn't have the armor for the troops because HE DIDN'T VOTE FOR IT! TELL HIM THAT!!" "His RECORD! TALK ABOUT HIS STINKIN' RECORD!!") This debate is even further away from me than the last one, so I don't think there's any possiblity he'll be able to hear me.

* Kerry Brain-fever -- Trying to figure out what he just said will put you in a sort of weird insensate fog after a while. Example: yesterday reporters asked Kerry if he thought he would commit more troops. Is that hard? It's a yes or no question. Even given some need for nuance and not wanting to commit yourself, it still shouldn't be more than a sentence or two. Here's some of what Kerry responded:
I will do what the generals believe we need to do without having any chilling effect, as the president put in place by firing General Shinseki, [this is a lie, by the way, but it's one of Kerry's favorite lies so we won't see an end to it soon] and I'll have to wait until January 20th. I don't know what I am going to find on January 20th, ... Now, I just don't know. I can't tell you. What I'll tell you is, I have a plan. I have laid out my plan to America, and I know that my plan has a better chance of working. And in the next days I am going to say more about exactly how we are going to do what has been available to this Administration that it has chosen not to do. But I will make certain that our troops are protected. I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, and I will make sure that we are successful, and I know exactly what I am going to do and how to do it.


Well, um, glad to hear it, but WE don't know exactly what you're going to do and just telling us that you do has worn pretty darn thin. And by the way, if you really had laid out your plan to America, you WOULDN'T STILL HAVE REPORTERS ASKING YOU QUESTIONS LIKE THIS!!!

(cough, cough) Excuse me, I think I need to get some more cough drops. I've been buying them in bulk these days.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Oh, so THAT's what we have a vice-president for

Well now!

I'm watching the Cheney-Edwards debate as I type. For those of you who missed it, here's the story:
* Edwards starts in with some of the talking points that Kerry has been trying to turn into this year's soundtrack ("90% of the casualties and 90% of the cost", "plan for winning the peace")
* Cheney has met every attack equably, competantly and completely. He isn't looking dour, he isn't looking at all peevish -- but he's meeting facts with facts, he's meeting disinformation with information. Actually, he's reminding me of the fighting dog (named Andrew Jackson?) in Mark Twain's story "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" who wouldn't move or fight until the other dog had worn himself out, then get hold of the dog's back leg and keep the grip until the fight was over.
* A couple times Edwards actually got flustered. I don't care what your politics are -- there's something about seeing a slick lawyer dude with hair as good as Edwards stammering around that's just precious.
* As with Lehrer throwing Bush a baiting question that he batted away, the moderator's invitation to to Cheney to nail Edwards for being a nasty old trial lawyer became instead an opportunity for both men to change gears. The debate got more mature after that, but it also got more boring. I'm guessing this is where a lot of people changed channels.
* We're now at 9:20, and it seems like Edwards is trying to get in a couple last licks. Don't know if this is just a going-out-of-business sale, a second wind, or if he was hoping to lull Cheney into a false security.
* Cheney is still unflappable. I think the only time he was actually cranky was in chiding Edwards for undermining the sacrifice of Iraqis, and it was entirely appropriate. In addition, Cheney has managed to do something that Bush unbelievably missed -- put the glaringly bad voting records of both Edwards and Kerry in their senatorial careers back under scrutiny.
* I almost get the impression that these two, who are fairly evenly matched, have a certain respect for each other, though of course you won't get them to talk like they have the same opinion on anything. Wouldn't be surprised if these guys get a beer somewhere afterward, if no one is looking.

Bottom line on Edwards: I think he might've underestimated Cheney and overestimated his own charm and considerable abilities to make people feel like he's said something when he hasn't
Bottom line on Cheney: Certainly acquitted himself very well. Hard to believe that people were saying a few months ago that Cheney was a liability that Bush should do without. I think Cheney turned it back into a shootin' match.

Bottom line on the debate: This one seemed really worthwhile to me, but I'm betting that most people didn't hang in there for the whole thing. Just as well by my reasoning, since Cheney did better in the first half.
Sound-byte for the right: They're gonna love Cheney saying that Edwards' hometown paper has started referrring to him as 'Senator Gone'.
Sound-byte for the left: Hmm. Not sure, really. Probably made the best connection probably when he said in response to Cheney's take on the war picture that 'people can SEE what's happening in Iraq.' And judging from the little bit of spin I'm hearing in the post-mortem, they seem intent on portraying Cheney as 'grumpy and mean', in the words of Mary Beth Cahill.

Bush & reality

I don't know if anyone would believe me that I have some non-partisan comments to make about Bush, but I'll try anyway.

Reading through the roundtable interview with the president in the latest "Touchstone" magazine (sorry, this article is unavailable online as well. I'm not getting a kickback from these guys -- really, I'm not.), I felt myself getting restless. Bush isn't doing as well in the polls, I'm mulling over his hapless performance at the debate last week -- I was looking for some kind of reason to feel good about it all.

The author, James Kushiner, didn't seem to be obliging me. As he reports on the meeting that Bush had with nine Christian editors, Kushiner appears to be looking for something as well and not finding it. He reports about the security check, he tells of seeing Teddy Roosevelt's Nobel peace prize. When Bush enters and begins, Kushiner is dutifully lifting a few quotes, but his focus is so obviously not on Bush's words that you can almost feel your own eyes wandering around the room. Bush talks to them about homeland security, about faith-based initiatives, about taking a stand against same-sex marriage ... his words seem right, but not new. Nothing unexpected. I think if I had been in the room, I might have been wondering at this point, "What are we here for? What do you want from us? We could've read all this in a press release."

It seems to me that the further away Bush gets from the usual talking points, the more his own unique voice comes out. He talks about the need to express faith openly ("People say, 'When do you pray?' I pray at all times. All the time."), about meeting the Pope, about the place of Israel ("I've been to Israel. I view it as the Holy Land as well. I view it as a precious piece of ground."). These aren't the big vote-getting topics, and his speech doesn't seem crafted. It's as if he really wanted to tell Christian writers about how he sees these things.

When Bush is finished talking, someone asks him what the hardest aspect of the war is for him personally.
The president didn't flinch. "The death. That's the hardest part of any war. Knowing that a mother, father, husband, wife, son, daughter is lonely and sad and grieves because of the loss of a loved one ... Part of my job is to comfort as best I can. I also get sustained by the loved ones. ... You hear amazing statements from the mouths of these grieving souls that many times are inspired by the Almighty. It's a powerful reaffirmation of faith -- how the grief comes -- such hopeful words and such sustaining words."


I can't read this without remembering him speaking about this during the debate, and it seems as it did then -- artless, incautious. Genuine. These aren't the sound-bytes of someone who is posturing. It was almost as if at that point in the debate, he wanted to communicate something that he considered of more importance than who is the next president. It was as if he wanted most of all to tell everyone what it's like to be the president who sends Americans to war and spends time with the grieving and wounded and hears what they say. And wants to put it into words that the rest of us will understand.

After the panel ended, Kurshiner says
I asked one of the other participants who has known Bush for years what he is really like, and he answered, "What you see is what you get." That's what impressed me as well.

I guess that's what I consider an amazing thing, so amazing really that it just dawned on me after seeing Bush last Thursday: He's managed to hold on to his humanity to a surprising degree. It seems like what you see is what you get. He was acting annoyed with Kerry because he was annoyed with Kerry. He almost forgot all the rules of the debate and started arguing with him about whether or not to have multi-lateral talks with North Korea.

I can keep my promise that these observations aren't meant as partisanship. This ingenuousness might even seem to some like a liability. It might seem inappropriately naive or immature. Maybe they think Bush is heartless or foolish.

But it will have me tuning in to the next presidential debate looking at it with different eyes. It must be amazing to have had the experience of a war-time president. I want to see what else of that Bush can't put into words.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping ...

... into the future.

Ten points if you remember that line from "Fly Like an Eagle" by the Steve Miller Band. It's a repetitive little ditty, so that line has a way of being on the permanent sound-track in my head when I'm wondering where the day went, as I do most days.

My relationship with time is a deep and a troubled thing. I love it in its abundance; I hate it in its paucity. I love it when I think I'm free; I hate it when I know I'm enslaved. My husband noted once that I covet time like other people covet things. I wish he'd have been wrong, but he's not. I belong to the sad little group that Uncle Screwtape advised Wormwood about, those who consider time as somehow belonging to them and any unexpected loss of time as the moral equivalent of robbery.

So I'm always looking for little helps like the half-page commentary in the latest "Touchstone's" Quodlibet section entitled, "The Redemption of Wasted Time". The author S. M. Hutchens makes a brief and elegant case for the fallacy of the entire human notion of wasted time for two reasons:
The first is that, ultimately, the meaning of our existence is not a matter of our will, nor is its direction in our control except in a qualified way ... Who knows but that from [God's] point of view, the principal reaon for our creation may have been to speak a single word in the place He wanted it spoken, a word that we may have forgotten in a moment, but for which we were born?

In other words, how do I know whether time is wasted or not when I can't know as God does what I was created to do? If I'm cursing one of the many intervals in daily life when I can't move as fast as I want or get to the next place as soon as I want, it's worth considering how little my estimation of where I "should" be is worth.

Sobering stuff. And Hutchens' second reason is even more profound:
The second and even greater reason that it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to be judges of wasted time in any ultimate sense is because of the redemption of time by its Lord, the way in which all that comes to pass is involved in the apokatastasis pantoon where even evil becomes subject to His perfect will through the death, resurrection and glorification of the Son of God, in whom, by whom, and for whom all things were created, most particularly those who love Him and in whom is found the desire to do His will.

He gives an example of a farmer making provisions for livestock, noting that even though the cow will die and the farmer will die, God will remember that little act of good stewardship.
'I go to prepare a place for you ...' means exactly this. The Carpenter, who is building even now, does not do it with nothing, but with the substantial proceeds of redeemed time. It is He who determines its worth, and He alone who is competent to determine what time has been well or ill spent.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Harry Potter as juvenile delinquent

The latest Touchstone magazine has a compelling feature entitled "Jump into Bedtime Stories" about the proliferation of literature for teenagers with very questionable content. (Sorry, the article isn't available from their magazine online, so if you're curious, you'll just have to pick up a copy.) The author, Sharon Dever notes:
This development is not going unnoticed. In a recent article for the New York Times titled "Summer Reading Blues", Barbara Feinberg laments the displacement of the magical and adventurous in juvenile fiction by grittily realistic "problem novels" in which adolescents are plunged into soul-crushing situations.


Ah, I remember it well. What a disappointment it was to enter the world of juvenile fiction and discover that the standard fare included books that were angst-ridden, whiny and annoying. Gone were the wonderful fantasy worlds of Narnia, the Phantom Toll-booth and the Hundred-Acre Wood, and after trying to like the grotty stories about teenagers dealing with mental illness, drugs and divorce -- none of which, thank God, had any relevance to me -- I reverted back to my favorites or went for the older classics by Dumas and Dafoe and Melville (pretty much insuring complete nerdiness, but that's another story).

So what's a parent to do? Well, these days there's Harry Potter, of course, but as Elizabeth observed in a comment to Huw, the latest book is very different. Harry isn't a wide-eyed 10-year-old anymore. He's a sullen, self-absorbed, irritable 15-year-old who's short on patience, self-restraint and gratitiude and big on HAVING BURSTS OF TEMPER IN ALL CAPS. You can hardly stand him.

And worse than what happens to Harry in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is what happens to the magical, incredible world that Rowling made us love at Hogwarts. The wonders that once amazed and impressed both Harry and the reader are now commonplace and unnoteworthy -- moving staircases, talking objects, classes in spells and incantations. Suddenly they're not just ordinary, they're often bothersome, annoying and sometimes downright malevolent. Anyone who can read "Phoenix" and find joy or happiness anywhere in it will have to let me know where.

If it sounds like I didn't like the book, that's not quite right. I have a feeling, though I don't know if I'm right, that Rowling is doing something very interesting. She's not only taking us through Harry's feelings as his age progresses, but through his world-view. There isn't really much to suggest to a discerning reader that Hogwarts and the magic world are any less magical than they were, but they turn out to be more subtle, more dangerous and more complicated. Ten-year-old Harry came out of a closet of innocent ignorance into the magnificence of a world that opened up new wonders all around him. Things were better than he ever believed they could be, and he had a place in it all. Gradually, that world has gotten smaller, darker and more truly dangerous, and the evil that has been gathering since the first book is coming closer, taking shape and taking better and better aim at him and at everything else that's good.

If I'm even right that Rowling is doing this on purpose, is it a good idea? She's doing a more sophisticated job of what the 'young adult' literature is trying for these days -- expressing the world as it seems at one of the most confusing and tumultuous times of a person's life in the interests of ... what? Being relevant to readers that age? Reminding old children like me what it was like? Selling more books?

In Rowling's case, of course, she manages all three. In the case of less-gifted authors than herself -- and there are many, many of them -- it may just serve to turn off most juvenile readers and drive some of the hardier souls like myself into books quite a bit over their heads. Though I can still name all four musketeers, if you want.

I just love "Joan of Arcadia"!

(This is a rave review that's pretty late in coming, since the show's been on for a year or two, but last night's episode reminded me of everything I like about it.)

When I heard that there was a TV show about a high school girl that has encounters with God every week where He tells her something to do, I might have made a snorting noise out loud or I might have only thought it. After all, has television really helped the cause of religious people with shows like "Highway to Heaven" and "Touched by an Angel"? (Although I admit I was a fan of the latter until I realized that their message was never going to be any more than "Smile -- God loves you." Certainly a nice sentiment, but hardly enough to get us through the days of terrorist threats and genocide.)

But my reticence notwithstanding, we tuned in to "Joan" one Friday night. We've been hooked ever since. There are episodes so complex, painful and difficult that I puzzle over them all week. There are others that lighten my heart in a way that is completely unique to me in a lifetime of watching the boob tube (does anybody call it that anymore?). Most amazing of all is that it isn't easy to keep up with what they manage to say every week about what it means to live life with faith in a real and active God.

"Joan" definitely outguns the other shows that mention heaven and angels, both in its depth and its quality. Those shows get bogged down in the question of whether or not there is a God, and end up showing one moment of a person's life when they might meet one of God's messengers as if that moment were all that would happen in their lives. There is obviously much more power in the premise that the protagonist won't meet a messenger but God Himself. And she won't meet Him just once in her life (very Born Again mentality there, if you ask me), but often and regularly. She doesn't always know what shape He'll take -- God has been an old woman, a little girl, a street musician, a dog-walker. The things that God will say may not make sense at the time -- He may ask her to take an art class or give her abiguous exhortations like 'get involved' or 'keep your eyes open'. And, in the aspect that I find the most insightful by far, what He says might not make sense even by the end of the show. You may be left with questions, not of God's goodness or omnipotence, but of Joan's ability (and ours) to fathom His purpose.

Stylistically, the writing bears no resemblance to some of the greeting-card sappiness to be found on the PAX network perenniels. I can pay the show's writers the enormous compliment of saying that I've never found myself offended, irritated or skeptical about any of the things "God" has said on the program. It's all the more amazing, considering that they haven't pulled any punches as far as what Joan has come up against. She has tried desperately to get Him to be precise, berated Him for inconsistencies, cried to Him about children dying and yelled at Him when she was having a crisis of faith.

It's easy to conceive of a show about cute kids having a good time with a cool God. It's a lot harder to get anything nearer the truth. I give the show top marks for not taking the easy way.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Best of blogs - day-after version

Since I seem to be having trouble getting any work done today, the least I can do is save others some complicated mouse-clicks and lift some good quotes about the debates.

In this online article of New Republic, Martin Perez talks about his problem with Kerry's presentation of the facts:
It's not just that he has exaggerated what has gone wrong in Iraq. His entire speech was premised on the assumption that there were European troops and Muslim troops and United Nations gendarmes who would have gone to war with us against Saddam had Bush only waited another few days, weeks, months in the spring of 2003. That is a lie.

Well, y'know, I was kind of wondering about that. Perusing the blogs of generally centrist people these days has made me think that many people have totally forgotten this or never got it in the first place.

James Lileks, who is one of the funniest writers in all of Blogland, wondered about all of these supposed allies that we should have been waiting around for, and finishes with a reminder of one of the great problems with this 20/20 hindsight:
Perhaps the “ally” is that big blue wobbly mass known as the UN, that paragon of moral clarity, that conscience of the globe. You want to really anger a UN official? Tow his car. Short of that you can get away with anything. (Sudan is on the human rights commission, to cite a prominent and amusing detail. It’s like putting Tony Soprano on the New Jersey Waste Management Regulation Board.) I don’t worry that the UN is angry with us. I’d be worried if they weren’t.

And finally, do I get some points for knowing that Kerry's Global Test would be pull-quote of the day? This from an e-mailer to Instapundit:

About that global test...
1) Is there an old copy of it floating around we can get our hands on?
2) Is it multiple choice or essay form?
3) Is the test written in French, German or English?
4) Who determines if we can retake the test?
5) Is it pass/fail or is it more like the SAT?