Sunday, January 30, 2005

Gloating aside

Okay, with great effort I wrest myself away from dancing on the graves of the doom-sayers, because it's worth rising above for just long enough to note the voters of Iraq:

* Threatened with "a blood bath" from the insurgents, they came to vote in the millions
"I am not afraid," said Samir Khalil Ibrahim. "This is like a festival for all Iraqis."

* Instead of keeping a low profile, some wore their festival clothes. They danced. /They shared chocolates. They celebrated.
"This is a wedding for all Iraqis. I congratulate all Iraqis on their newfound freedom and democracy," said Jaida Hamza, dressed in a black Islamic veil that also hid her face.

* Told that anyone with the dyed finger that marked a voter would be shot, they waved them around proudly.
Samir Hassan, 32, who lost his leg in a car bomb blast in October, was determined to vote. "I would have crawled here if I had to. I don't want terrorists to kill other Iraqis like they tried to kill me. Today I am voting for peace," he said, leaning on his metal crutches, determination in his reddened eyes.
We've underestimated them. The left has for sure, but I think the right has as well. (And I did too.)

Baghdad's mayor was overcome with emotion by the turnout of voters at City Hall, where he said thousands were celebrating.

"I cannot describe what I am seeing. It is incredible. This is a vote for the future, for the children, for the rule of law, for humanity, for love," Alaa al-Tamimi told Reuters.




More victories

Well, it looks from this news like we've taken over a few other hostile territories

The French government, which was one of the fiercest opponents of the US-led invasion of Iraq, hailed the vote as a "great success for the international community" and called the high voter turnout "good news".

"France never stopped saying, in unison with the international community, that this was a crucial step," a government spokesman said.

In Berlin, the German government hailed the election as "an important step on the path to construction of democratic structures."

I think we have passed the global test, Senator Kerry.

Election day in Iraq!!

Oh my gosh!

Oh for heaven's sake. Can we re-do our own election day, JUST so we can vote out John Kerry by an even bigger margin? What an idiot.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Karl's baby!

Definitely a miracle, or even a concatenation of miracles, like a Celtic knot. Name her after St. Patrick.

Phillip of the Fountain Pen

I met a strange guy in the Starbucks in St. Joseph.

I went into town on an errand and finished up by kicking back with a nonfat half-caf. I had done a little journal-writing time and was settling down to read Abp. Averky Taushev's book on the Apocalypse when a young man came and stood at my table. He had a pad of paper on a clipboard, and he wrote in neat handwriting:
Greetings sister,

May I sit?

I immediately gestured him to the chair in front of me, more out of awkwardness than anything. He's deaf? He's soliciting? He's a deaf evangelist solicitor? Good grief, what a girl goes through for a decent cup of coffee in this town.

He set to writing again, which gave me a little chance to observe him. Early twenties with a beard ... but, y'know, not weird-looking. Not hippie-esque, nor severely buttoned-down. No particular garb or uniform. Not dirty and not obsessively clean. No piercings or tattoos visible. So, what ...?

He wrote with his blue fountain pen:
My name is Phillip. I saw you writing. I see Grace handling the written Word + so came. Do you know what thing it is to write?

Too much information, not enough sense. And he apparently heard my name from the barrista calling it out. Curse the worldly vanity that brings a person to a place where they announce your name to give you your coffee. But let's see what of this we can work with here. "Are you deaf?" I asked, motioning to my ear. "Can you speak?"
He half-smiled and wrote: I can speak.
Okay, now we know that. But ... "I don't understand," I said, pointing to his previous message. He wrote some more:
To write, do you know what it is to write? That is a good practice. The Word is God. John 1.1.
All righty. "I'm reading about the Apocalypse," I said, pointing to my book. They may have seemed like a disjointed reply, but (a) I had a feeling that wouldn't be a problem to him, and (b) if the next question was going to be something about where I was on my Walk with The Lord, I wanted to indicate my high level of spiritual advancement so he could leave me the heck alone. I read books, buddy. Besides, I didn't care much for the whole weird "what it is to write" topic. His answer wasn't much help.
If the world ended would we know it?
Well, um, yeah we would. But I can't say that. So I said, "That depends on the world." Whatever that means.
Matthew 24:3 The apostles ask Jesus for a sign for His coming + the end of the world. Why would they ask this, do you supose?

"Probably because they wanted a sign? Why don't you speak?"
Because I know what it is to write. This is the daily bread + the flesh of Jesus Christ. Here I measure my Lord between us in holy fellowship.
If it were holy fellowship, my coffee wouldn't be getting cold. "Fellowship? But not by talking?"
The bread is the writing + the speaking is the wine. Both are found @ Table. Yet if man drink + not have bread in his stomach is he not drunken?
Did you ever notice how crazy people make you think you're crazy? Writing is bread and talking is wine and if you speak without writing you'll get drunk. What? I decided to carry on by writing my responses as well. Here's our "conversation":
[me] Isn't it difficult to do this? Don't you ever speak to people?

I do speak yes. Yet is was not the speaking that opened a way to you. You wrote + this is God. The Word is @ one right hand, this is the manifestation of the Lord.
Note to self: journal-writing in the St. Jo Starbucks -- bad idea. Let's change the subject.
I like to write, yes. Are you a Christian?

Not I but you have said, + if you call me a Christian then I shall glorify the Name of Jesus Christ in this name. What does Christian mean but one "acting like Christ?"

Weird response. Who's surprised? But meanwhile, I had figured out how to ask him something I really wanted to know without antagonizing him.
Do you have peace, or are you in turmoil? (I ask because some people who set ascetic practices for themselves are in turmoil.)
I could have said neutral things and gotten out of there, or just said nothing at all and left. But I thought, "No, he's not way-crazy, he's ... middlin'-crazy. And lost. And weird. No one is going to talk to him. Is there a way to get real information to him? Does he know he's lost?"
No, this is my peace. My seeking is in the Lord. In Him do I rest, yet take up my cross + follow Him. This is the faith that lead Abram out of the nations, the faith that gave the law to Moses, how David ruled his Kingdom + how the apostles fellowshipped w/ each other. This is my practice of faith, active + living.

I don't want to sound naive, but I was impressed with that answer. It could've been said by a fool-for-Christ. Still, it was troubling to think that this person with his strange mentality was going at the Scriptures without a paddle ... without a spiritual guide.
Do you have any church or place where you study and pray with others?

What is the church? What does the Bible say of it? When Paul writes an assembly, does he not write the city? In Revelation, John writes to the angel over a city! Here we are, on the ground of St. Joseph we are even now in service. Do you want to pray, sister?
Oh dear.
No, thank you, though I respect what you've said. I'm Orthodox -- though we know that God is everywhere, yet to me that is His best expression on earth.

But speaking of earthly matters, I have to go. My dog is outside, and she's getting cold.

True enough. Can't have a cold dog. Nosirree.
Blessed be Grace in the Name of Jesus Christ. Peace be w/ you.

And God bless you, Phillip.

I was a little relieved that he had no problem with me going. I asked if I could take our written conversation and as he got it together, he wrote a last message that I didn't read till I got in the car.
The communion lives!

***
I mulled all this over all the way home, and I still can't quite make heads or tails out of it. No doubt most people would have walked out. Part of the reason I didn't was self-indulgence. I've been intrigued with people's mental shifting sands, with the mental place where reality recedes without you realizing it. But also, I think I hung in there just to say that one word to him -- Orthodox. It's my way of leaving a hint. Go find out about this place. See if your studies and your world make sense there.

I don't mean to sound so Ortho-centric. A person just goes with what they know. I had my confused stage in college. I wasn't at Phillip's level, but I was in a bad way. And I was born again and had a Bible, by Jiminy, so I was constantly finding out wonderful things that no one else had ever found out and needing to separate myself more and more from other people. It's called prelest -- you think you're getting better and better when you're actually getting worse and worse. I don't know where it would've ended if the Orthodox Church hadn't come to the rescue. (Almost literally, but that's something for another post.)

The communion does live.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Humble, yet bold

I have been having a hard time keeping up with the Orthodox Convert list-serv that I subscribe to, but I'm loathe to delete the digests that have piled up in my e-mail inbox. Every time I finally open up one and start scrolling down, it's filled with goodies like this one.

An inquirer asked, "How can a saint like Paul expect to go to heaven and receive the crown of justice, while monk Ephraim of Philotheou says he expects to go to hell? Isn't this a conflict?"

I think this is a really good question. One of the shockers about Orthodoxy to most American Christians is the emphasis on podvig -- spiritual struggle. The language in some of the services -- especially the Lenten ones -- as well as much that you could read from monastics can easily confuse folks raised with comfy hymns like "Blessed Assurance" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus". In truth, after living Orthodox for over 20 years, I think I know roughly how I would answer something like this, but I couldn't have put it as well as Reader Timothy Copple, who replied:
The paradox of the Faith is that we on one hand see our sins and know they have the power to drag us down and condemn us to hell, but we have the confidence in God's mercy that we can be saved. So both concepts are indeed compatable and often mentioned side by side.

After listing an example or two from liturgies and contrasting them with psalms, he continues:
St. Paul is emphasizing that his and everyone's hope is on the mercy of God in Jesus Christ (everyone who loves His appearing) while Ephraim is speaking of what his own works can accomplish. Based on us, all we can expect is hell. Based on God's mercy, if we humbly rely upon that and guide our lives by it, all we can hope for is salvation. What the good monk is actually doing is proclaiming his reliance on the great mercy of God. He is just coming at it from the other direction.



Monday, January 24, 2005

Chicken soup of the damned

Okay, my chicken soup was making a really eerie noise in the microwave. It's a wholesome, Republican chicken soup -- homemade, relatively lo-cal and only in the fridge a couple days. And yet, a minute or so into the zapping process, it started to wheeze.

Seriously. It was making this low "wheeeee" noise that made Clementine actually move out of a perfectly good sun-spot and investigate.

It could be that the potatoes or something had air that had gotten trapped and the heating process was making it seep out. But I think we could also say that my chicken soup was moaning like something in an Edgar Allen Poe story.

I'm going to go ahead and eat this, because I'm a 21st century type of gal, (and I'm hungry) but if anything happens, you'll know where to direct the SciFi Channel investigation team.

I'm kidding (most likely), but meanwhile, this post from Huw reminds us of the kind of thing that "educated" superstitious people can make themselves believe. These are usually the same people who just can't buy Virgin birth or Creationism because those things are too implausible. Don't get me started.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Apologies, if any are necessary

I've been meaning to say sorry, sorry, sorry about not blogging for some time. I've been kept busy with work and haven't found the right kind of time. It's not that there isn't any time at all. Just the right sort of time. I could divide out time into quite a few categories and explain what I mean. But that sounds like something that's an entry all its own, and I'm looking forward to it.

Wow. Wow. Ow.

Went to see "Pink Martini" in concert with the KC Symphony Orchestra last night -- what a high-energy, power-packed totally enjoyable performance. And boy, do my knees hurt.

Pink Martini is a group that's hard to put an accurate description to. Their Web-site describes them as "Somewhere between a 1930s Cuban dance orchestra, a classical chamber music ensemble, a Brasilian marching street band and Japanese film noir," which might say it as well as anything. It's a 12-member group -- 11 mostly-musicians and one mostly-singer -- that add a fabulously executed, incredibly scintillating Latin rhythm and pulse to an eclectic mix of music. Some classical (like Ravel's "Bolero"), some 50s and 60s American and international ("Brazil", "Andalusia" and a particularly creepy version of "Que Sera Sera"). (For a quick sample, I would download the video of their French song "Sympathique" on this page. If you remember your high school French you'll get a kick out of this lover's lament: "Je ne veux pas travailler, je ne veux pas dejeuner, je veux seulement oublier ... et puis je fume." But I think you can enjoy the song almost as much without understanding a word.)

When they perform in conjunction with a pared-down symphony orchestra, it's a pretty good bet that a good time will be had by all. It's just too bad about my knees.

The Midland Theater is a vintage Kansas City theater. The baroque-as-hell interior fal-de-ral is not to be believed, and it speaks of a sweeter and better time when ladies and gentlemen were aesthetic, refined and -- apparently -- tiny. Those seats would have worked perfectly for someone with 9" hips and a telescoping femur. Such a person could sit the night away in perfect pleasure.

Then there are the rest of us. Once I wedged myself into the seat, I realized that the best ploy was not to get up and let the restored blood flow inform my brain about the pain. But there was nothing good to do about the lack of leg-room. There was slightly more room on either side of the seat in front of me than in the middle, so I could have splayed my legs far apart. And, country girl that I am, I would've done it if it wouldn't have cut so much into Greg's leg-room. Matters weren't helped by the tall man sitting in the seat in front, who had to winch his femurs into his available space with enough force to push the seat-back a little further into my space. In the end, I figured that once I had adopted my viewing position, I would have to totally ignore all nerve impulses for the duration of the show. (My mental abilities -- what can I say? I scare myself sometimes.)

It's an homage to Pink Martini that I could accomplish this. I had my share of practice in England, which of course has the vintage small-butt, no-leg theater seats as well. But in the end, when you finally arise ... Well, "arise" isn't the right word. When you un-wedge yourself, all the stricken regions chime in as one.

So culture has its price. My hips have forgiven me. My knees are telling me to rent videos and stay home.

Monday, January 17, 2005

In search of the Religious Left

Well, it was bound to happen. The Democrats are officially trying to crank up the volume on That Old Time Religion.

On Wednesday, the very liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) went to the National Press Club and proclaimed the need for Democrats to talk more about values and said it was useful that a Democratic candidate "talked about God."

And haven't I been saying that I would really love if what came out of the last election was the beginnings of detente between the liberal Democrats and the religious Democrats who have been marginalized and silenced for years? I'm conservative myself, and likely to remain so, but lately I've seen the value in having a healthy opposing viewpoint. Except the liberal left isn't healthy. They've been trying to draw more and more sustenance from less and less substance and seem to be going insane, like someone who has a bag over their face.

I hope that doesn't seem like an unkind metaphor. It might just be wishful thinking. I've been wishing that someone would put a bag over Ted Kennedy's face for many years.

Oh. That really was unkind. Oops. Sorry.

Prayer for the victims of abortion

January 24 is the 32nd anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and there is a March for Life planned in Washington DC. Orthodixie will be there, and for those who can't, he includes a link to the service his mission will do.
... we humbly pray, according to Thy unfailing promise: grant the inheritance of Thy kingdom to the multitude of spotless infants who have been cruelly murdered in the abortuaries of this land; for Thou art the resurrection and the life and the repose of all Thy servants and of these innocents, O Christ our God

I can't be there, but I will pray with them at noon. Who knows how many little chisel strokes it takes to make an impression, but I can provide one of them at any rate.


Thursday, January 13, 2005

Thou shalt not test the Lord, thy God without a control group

I really wanted to believe that this story was a hoax. I wish someone would tell me it was.

Doesn't it seem like there's an awfully thin line here between studying faith and punishing faith?

This 'n that

Things of interest ... to me, at any rate:

* Fergie -- probably voted America's Favorite Royal and England's Least Favorite Royal -- says we should give Prince Harry a break over the swastika thing. I agree, though it's always amazing to me that public figures who live their lives in a really brightly lit goldfish bowl will show these enormous lapses of judgment. But there doesn't seem to be any reason to think that Harry really identifies with the neo-Nazis, so ... move along, folks. Nothing to see here. Just a prince in a bad costume.

* They think they've found Leonardo da Vinci's studio. I'm with this blogger -- I'm not sure that the discovery tells us anything new about da Vinci, but it does offer a place of pilgrimage for the newly enraptured. Such is da Vinci's star status these days. (sigh) Well, I try to remember that Leo didn't have anything to do with writing that stupid book.

* On a related note, seeing a Raphael exhibit made me think about the Big Three of the Renaissance and how they seemed to personify such different stereotypes of the artistic temprament (all of this IMHO, as if that needed to be said.):

-- DaVinci: the Renaissance man, if ever there was one. Painter, inventor, architect, botanist, engineer, blah blah blah. His reputation probably doesn't have quite as much to do with his paintings as with himself. Art seems to have been just an excuse for more exploration, information and expression. (In this piece, you can almost see him having this intense dialogue with the precise qualities of women's hair, rather than just finishing the sketch.)
-- Raphael: the pretty boy. Talented, artistic, good at parties ... but with delicate features and fine sensibilities. Of the three, his real estate value is probably the lowest now, since everyone associates him with the cliche of sweet-faced pink Madonna and Child art. But he was one who helped make it a cliche, and probably would have taken it to a higher level if he hadn't died at age 37. Still, he managed to give us the newest over-exposed art detail to hit the kitsch market.
-- Michelangelo: tortured loner. Unlike daVinci, art was his reason for being; unlike Raphael, you couldn't take him anywhere and not tick someone off. Does it give you just an idea of how messed up he was that the image of St. Bartholemew's flayed skin in the Sistine Chapel Last Judgment was a self-portrait? He lived to be an amazing 89 years old but never married, giving modern sophists plenty of opportunity to speculate that he was gay.

* And speaking of outing historic figures, there's a new book coming out arguing that Lincoln was bi-sexual. Oy vey. For all I know he was. But since he didn't pen a document to that effect in front of witnesses -- or perhaps put on a questionable demonstration -- I don't see how anyone could say for sure (nor am I quite sure I understand what difference it makes). Like the Gay Michelangelo Theory, it gets tossed out as historical fact and any resistance is deemed homophobia. As if it were only possible for heterosexuals to have bias.

* Well ... crap. I guess I have to watch Barbara Walters interview George Bush. But land! I can't watch Barbara's interviews. I don't know which is worse -- her widiculously distwacting speech impediment or her phony "I'm so damn sincere I could die" expression. Actually, I think it would guarantee higher ratings if they let it leak that he was going to let her get three questions in and then break an egg right on her forehead. C'mon, you KNOW you'd want to see that. I bet you'd get a whole different expression for once.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

London photos

For those who haven't heard me blab enough about the London trip (or for those who have and would have rather see something than hear me go on), here's a link to the Yahoo slideshow of the photos. (Click on the button that says "slideshow".)

I'm not in any of them, but then that's the disadvantage (or advantage, depending on how you look at it) of being the one with the camera.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Tsunami burn-out

Frederica on the problem with the tsunami reporting and disaster reporting in general.
The numbers seemed not just unreal, but random. Why not 500,000, or only 50? How big would the number have to be before I could register it? And, even if I did, what difference would it make.

I agree completely. When I wrote this entry about being overwhelmed with the magnitude of the disaster and my relative inability to do anything worthwhile, the death toll was only 11,000. That's not to say that we should ignore the plight of those affected, but which one of us has a context to understand what it means for0 140,000 people to die from one disaster? The news media consider themselves the all-seeing, non-emotional eye, but they don't stop to consider the impact of bringing up-to-the-minute technicolor carnage and death into my living room and then cutting to a commercial for softer bathroom tissue.

This isn't a rant against them though. I don't know what the perfect answer is. I would be heartily grateful for an attitude amongst journalists that acknowledged that there are life and death questions that we can't know, even if we know the precise death toll. And for those who survive the unthinkable, there is a life that goes on after the camera stops rolling ... and until these things happen to us, there is part of the story that none of us quite has words to tell.

But I don't imagine that seismic point-of-view shift will come any time soon. Just something to shoot for.

Good to see the white, white ice of home

Well, imagine my guffaws of laughter when it turned out upon my first sight of dear old Cowtown in two weeks that it was covered in ice and was just nasty cold out.

You can't imagine that?

Bingo.

It was a cold reception for sure. I had something more in mind like one of those brisk winter days filled with the bright cheering sunlight that I've missed so much. But my order must've gotten lost in the mail, (much in the same way as the car key my husband sent to England and the post cards I misaddressed to family. I'm prepared to be philosophical about the latter, but I really could've used the former, especially when my flight was so delayed that the rental car place Greg had reserved a car from as a backup shut down for the night. A virulent pox take Enterprise Rental. May all their carburetors rot forever.)

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Last day at the internet cafe

I've been wanting to try to sum up the differences and impressions of being a short-timer American in London, and now as luck would have it, I'll have to try to distill it all down to a short enough entry that I can be out in a half-hour or so and back to my hotel so my mother and sister won't worry.

They shouldn't really, but I did promise them I'd try to be back by 11pm. But I don't feel afraid of being by myself on the short walk back to our little hotel room. This area of London is well-travelled by other pedestrians and only seems to get more so as the night progresses. I'm sure it must winnow off at some point, but we've never been up that late.

And in any case, London on the whole seems to be a pedestrian's paradise. It has that in common with the bigger, older cities in the U.S. -- New York and Chicago most especially. Whereas you're a lowly wanderer in the desert if you're getting around by foot in most cities and a downright freak if you're doing it in Southern California (I once had a stranger ask if my car was broken when I decided to take a walk in Garden Grove) -- in a city like London, you're in good company. Lots and lots of good company. There is something grounding about getting around so much just under the power of your own two feet, and of course it's invigorating for body and soul. The temperature has been in a range from about 35-55 degrees Fahrenheit (my guess. They give all the temperatures in Celsius and I don't have time for such nonsense.), and it's just lovely to go around in a coat and scarf, just one of the masses going here and there in a city that has seen nobles and ignobles treading its stones for centuries.

It's a hard city, to be sure, and I don't say I could keep from feeling some misery if I was here for a prolonged period. The skies are constantly gray, rain always seems likely and sunshine is fitful and noncommittal. Those crowds can't help but seem faceless and drone-like from time to time. And the beautiful stone and brick that is everywhere -- in the cobblestones and paving stones that make up every street and out of which the ubiquitous multi-storied Victorian buildings are made -- could seem cold and make you feel friendless if you looked at nothing else for long.

But there's also a wonderful smell of wet stone and earth that permeates the streets and the tube stations. There's a naturalness to walking along with everyone else walking along, trying to get in and out of the tube stations in some kind of mild-mannered but no-nonsense hurry because ... well, because there's so damn many people, and the only way we'll all get wherever it is we're trying to get is if we all keep moving at more or less the same pace.

With that in mind, I've thought to myself that this would be a terrible place to be handicapped. There's almost no provision made in London's driving pace for people that are in wheelchairs or who just can't stride out in a military way.

As to whether it is any less harsh on those who can't keep up in other ways, I couldn't say. I haven't seen a single homeless person in all of the miles and miles of London streets we've covered on foot and by bus. I haven't had a single person come up asking for money. I've heard from our professor, he said only that the city had dealt with the homeless problem very harshly because it was getting out of control. But I don't know much about it myself, so I won't hazard a guess.

But all of this isn't getting me any closer to my sum-up, so let me try my favorite old bullet-point format for other noteworthy comments:

* Anti-Americanism ... what Anti-Americanism? -- This roving reporter can faithfully inform the reading public that I haven't seen anything of the much-ballyhooed English loathing for all things American. To be sure, I've heard an anti-Bush remark or two, but nowhere near the amount of heartfelt grief they give to Tony Blair or the royals. And a short compilation I read of P.J. O'Rourke's impressions as an American in England corroborated my feelings, further remarking that whatever Yank-loathing was supposedly out there couldn't be any worse than what he had experienced during the Reagan years. I think part of the reason that the English aren't still in a righteous fit of pique with us over our audacity in electing Bush is that they simply can't spare the time. The city is rife with nationalities and ethnicities coming and going about their business. To remember always to particularly sneer and glare at American tourists would take more work than I think they're prepared to put into it, and most likely they're so pleased to encounter someone who at least marginally speaks the same language as themselves that all other differences sort of pale by comparison.

* Tubin' -- I am absolutely going to miss the London transport system. Well, no. I have to be very specific. I will miss the dizzying complexity and relative efficacy of the London underground. That they were able to pull this off in the 1860's seems to my naive heart to be one of the great wonders of engineering in this busy world, and one that I know every large city in America would love to emulate. On the other hand, I don't think much at all about the buses. The bus drivers and conductors seem to range only from sullen to mean. My mother and I had one bus pull out almost literally from under our feet as we were stepping onto it and another pointedly and ridiculously ignore our signals to pull over at the bus stop. Those may just be a couple of bad experiences, but who needs it?

* Pardon me, waiter, but there's a toad in this hole -- the English food. Well, the English food. It's better than it has been. Unfortunately, since it has been downright diabolical in the past, to have it better than that still means it's pretty bad overall. We've had some lovely meals, but we've had some rude surprises. If you ever come here, stick to fish and chips. It's brilliant.

* If it's broke, don't fix it -- I'm definitely not going to miss how often things in London are broken. All things mechanical and logistical go awry, but the whole area seems to be about 33% likely to be as close to broken as fixed at any given time. It teaches you not to count on public facilities, transportation or much of anything else, but it's incredibly frustrating at times.

* Who's rude? -- On the whole, I have to give high marks to the Londoners for courtesy. I don't know if it helps to have been in some of these busy cities and not have my expectations very high, but given the press of people going around by foot and vehicle, I've encountered almost no shoving, snippiness or horn-honking. On the other hand, there are little things I find amusing in the environs, especially given that Americans are the ones who are always accused of crassness. For example, the English don't call their public toilets bathrooms, restrooms or facilities. They call them toilets. That's accurate, no doubt, but it also seems funny to see signs in elegant locations that say "Toilets". It strikes an American as a little crude, and I can't bring myself, when those signs are absent in a restaurant, to go up to anyone and say, "Where's your toilets?" I'd think someone was a dolt if they asked me that. But then, I can't tell them that, or else I'm the dolt.

Oh well. Only two days left to work out quandaries like this. Tomorrow we go off to Stratford-on-Avon for the day, so if I don't intend to just hold it all day, I'll have to figure out how to walk up to someone who is probably a great Shakespearian actor or actress and ask them proudly, "Where's yur terlet?" I think I'll bring my cowboy hat along.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Plays and museums and wizards in short skirts

Well! I was hoping that I would get more time to use the internet cafe here in the mall in London, but our tour group has been taking things at a somewhat frenetic pace, and this may be my best chance to do a little reporting from abroad.

It really has been just a fabulous trip. I wish I had a better word for it than that. "Fabulous" doesn't cut it. Krispy Kreme donuts are fabulous. Being first in line at the post office is fabulous. This should be something else ...

Well, I could absorb and spread some of the local patois and say it was brilliant. Those who watch Brit-TV know that this is a catch-all for anything good, and whereas it's been so devalued by overuse here that I heard one over-enthusiastic cooking show host refer to shitake mushrooms, lobster ravioli and onions in general as brilliant, it's still new to us. So my trip has been brilliant.

The tour group I'm with has given almost equal time to London's amazing museums and its amazing theater. It's like we're cramming for the big, BIG culture exam that's coming next week. Yesterday we went to the National Gallery and saw their exhibit of Raphael work with time at the end to peruse a collection of art that I could literally spend two weeks here dealing with. I really love the great art galleries, and this may be my new second-favorite (the Art Institute in Chicago is still number one, but it's close).

Today was a theater day, and so we toured backstage at the Royal Theatre on Drury Lane and saw Ian ("Gandalf") McKellan appearing in drag in a play for children.

What?

No, seriously. This is a thing that they tried to explain to me before I came, but it didn't make sense until I saw it. The English have a tradition of having plays they call pantomimes over the Christmas/New Year's holidays. These aren't true pantomimes -- people are allowed to talk. It's a play for children, usually one of the familiar stories (ours was "Aladdin") and including lots of the kind of broad slapstick and audience participation -- hissing at villians, responding on cue, doing a sing-along -- that children like. But at some point in its history, the actors began both camping it up and inserting the kind of sly jokes and double-entendres that the Big Folk liked to hear at the music halls. And somewhere along the line, it became the custom to have a major actor perform one of the woman's roles in fairly outrageous drag. And so the imperious and imposing Ian McKellan, without changing his booming, one-ring-to-bind-them voice one whit, appeared as the Widow Twankey and do a completely frightening amount of strutting, mincing and hip-swaying.

Brilliant.

Sort of says it, doesn't it?

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Merrie Newe Yeare

I won't try any more of the English accent typing, but I'm still in London. I'm at a better internet cafe than the previous one. (I didn't want to say anything, because I was brought up right, but the owner was chain-smoking in that particularly unapologetic European way, and if I had stayed in there another ten minutes, I could've tried blowing smoke rings every time I exhaled.)

This one is in Whitely's mall near our Bayswater tube station (I've been here, what, five days? And already I'm aware of my last tube station and my next tube station ... or, more to the point, one station that's supposed to work and the back-up you go to when it doesn't work. But more about that later.), and it has a lot of advantages -- a mouse and number pad being but two -- but it's a little noisy in here, so no one should expect great heaps of cleverness. Fair warning.

So Happy New Year to everyone! I hope 2005 started out well. Mine was just a little surreal, which guarantees that I'll remember it for a long time. I have an aversion to gatherings of more than about four people, so the usual New Year's festivities have never held much attraction for me. One of the couple in our travel group volunteered their room on the top floor for a group party. I thought they were a little insane to think they could fit twelve people in their room, because I was under the impression that all the rooms in our small hotel are as ludicrously small as the room I'm in with my mother and sister. That one is supposedly a threesome room, and it's smaller than a single Motel 6 room. No, that doesn't begin to say it. It's smaller than a Motel 6 bathroom. Honest to God, we have to choreograph our movements in order to get back and forth. ("All right, I need to go into the bathroom, so why don't you back up -- no, watch out, you'll sit on the dresser -- okay now, mom, I'm going to open the bathroom door, so why don't you go outside and I'll signal when there's room for you to come back in.") I have never seen such a tiny room. And semi-functional in most ways -- no shower curtain or place to hang one, explosive water pressure, beds from the most ascetic Orthodox monastery of St. Vrykias the Sleep-averse, etc. etc. etc. Not exactly a party location. And by the way, this is not a cheesy hotel. It's beautiful to look at from the outside, and on a street that makes you think instantly of Sherlock Holmes going along in a hansom cab. But it's undeniably seedy in some regards, and I wouldn't have thought that anyone's room would be the right venue for a New Year's bash.

As it turned out, their room had a darling little sitting room, and that room and the bedroom were much more spacious than the rooms lower down. I don't know if that had something to do with them being more expensive back in the days when it was all a boarding house, but it was a delightful surprise.

As was the party itself. In any group like this, you can expect to have some people who are more difficult to be around. Some folks' idea of pleasant discourse has less to do with dialogue than monologue, and those are usually the ones whose point of view is sought out the least. You feel guilty for avoiding them, but I've decided that it's okay to be happy when they absent themselves from ostensibly pleasant gatherings. And so it happened this time. My sister Lynn and I had rehearsed the type of pleasant remarks that we'd make to get out of the soiree after fifteen or twenty minutes, but without even realizing it, the hours sped by.

Champagne was handed around and Jim, one group leader, initiated a countdown based on his wristwatch, with all due apologies for the inaccuracy. That inaccuracy was made apparent a minute or so after we all clinked glasses and drank to the new year and each other (even sang "Auld Lang Syne" at the prodding of one hearty soul), only to have the fireworks begin then. Oops.

And for a brief time we all peeped out the window and oo'ed and ah'ed over what little we could see of the Trafalgar Square fireworks, until someone noticed that we could see them much better on television. It rankled a little to have to trade reality for video, but they were right of course. It was quite an impressive show, and I never would've seen that part.

I also never would've known that everyone kept two minutes of silence at 11:55 in recognition of the tsunami disaster. I didn't know that until I read it in this Drudge Report story.

How strange it is to be where there's so much going on, and still rely on the entertainment and communication crutches to experience it more fully. Well, that's the way it is I suppose.

Well, time to scoot. Our internet time is almost up, so I'll go do some Real Life things and see if I can find another window of time later on.