Monday, July 30, 2007

Faith and Happiness

My 13 year old daughter and I watched The Pursuit of Happyness tonight. I'd had it hanging around on Tivo for a month or so, thinking if the right time came around...

This is a wonderful film, reminding me often of a similar film about a father and son, Life Is Beautiful. Both put a father in an impossible situation, fraught with problems that threaten to wash over the character and destroy him. The films end differently, but both move resolutely toward a kind of costly human triumph . Both show faith in the face of overwhelming odds.

What the odds evince are the wonderful qualities of human life: character, honor, determination, self-sacrifice. Thumos, perhaps. These qualities never grow old in story-telling, and when the story is well-told, the results are memorable.

I highly recommend both films.

Sunday, July 29, 2007


I've been reading reviews of a book by David Gelertner entitled Americanism.
(David Gelernter, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. New York: Doubleday, 2007.). This could well be the next book our book club takes up, if I have anythng to say about it (and, well, I always do).

From the tone of the reviews, written by the likes of Peter Leithardt and Douglas Wilson, I'm not probably going to like what Gelertner has to say. But we've been aware--haven't we?--of a Great American Civil Religion for some years, and here is both a book to celebrate and define it, and critics to cluck their tongues. I'll quote from Wilson's BLOG AND MABLOG, to give those of you who care a taste of his interesting apologetics:

I have said this a number of times, and I hope that my family and friends figure out a way to get some form of this point enscribed on my tombstone. Secular states that know their business want to keep their citizenry happy and busy with their religious hobbies. The ultimate decisions are made without regard to God and His law, and without taking into account the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. This is an arrangement that all empires have always wanted to make, and no consistent Christian can have anything to do with it.

Gelernter assumes this kind of religious pragmatism throughout. Whether Jesus was the Messiah of God is a matter upon which we can have different opinions. We can be faithful to the ultimate religious issues before us, and we can do this knowing that belief in God is optional. What is not optional is that necessary belief in man.

But Christians don't get to think this way. We don't believe in man -- we believe in the one Man, the mediator between God and men. Man in his own name is all screwed up. He worships things like ideas, and air power, and propositions. I am spending time on this book because in my view it is a very dangerous book. Gelernter is not trying to sell us something that nobody ever heard of before. He is rather explaining to us a good deal of our history, and if we are humble enough to learn from him we will see that the roots of our compromise go back centuries. He is not trying to sell us something that we haven't already halfway bought.
Ok, the gauntlet is thrown down.
I think this book could be the basis for a serious discussion about : religion in America; OUR religion in American; The Fourth Great Western Religion in America; and how the three interact.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Open Source Religion

Forty strangers in a cyber-room talking religion. Wired News has this article about a new development in Do It Yourself Religion, which is going by the name open source religion.
From the article:
"What, exactly, is open source religion? It's the cutting edge of individual spirituality that's thriving outside the walls of organized religion. It's a historic shift in power and authority from religious leadership to the consumer-oriented adherents of religious movements."
The group consisted of Jews, Muslims, Methodists, Agnostics, even Atheists. And they spent a lot of time talking about their deepest religious experiences. As I read the article, I kept thinking, "Judges." Everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. And I thought: "Where did all those people go who had some emotional or intellectual connection to their, um, faith tradition, but rejected the organized version of it?" And here is part of the answer. They are out there, and out there eager to explore Something that is calling to them. And here the language of religion asserts itself:

"...So, faith matters deeply to us -- but the reality of open source religion is that we, as Americans, expect to be able to crack open the doors of religion and chart our own individual meaningful journeys through the resources and traditions we find there."
This is cooking without a recipe. This is reinventing the wheel, except the wheel is not round and doesn't work very well. And there are problems that are gong to smack these people upside the head. The biggest problem is Certainty, the claim to which may have driven them from their religious traditions to begin with.
The article is honest enough to admit as much:

"Team members did point out real dangers in throwing open the doors of religious tradition. For instance, more than a few people asked: If our Ultimate Source is open to everyone's interpretation, then how can we trust that the timeless tradition won't change?"
The truth is, many--even most--Christians indulge in open source religion to some extent. It may not extend to heresy, and it may be born simply of ignorance. But how many of us "tinker" with our faith, adding, subtracting, and editing like some theological Thomas Jefferson until we come up with a designer religion of our own? Yet part of the long , satisfying journey for me has been coming to understand and appreciate what Scripture and the Confessions are actually saying. But to do that took a rather severe humbling of attitude and spirit before I had ears to hear.

It is a thrill for me to meet a faithful Lutheran who knows her catechism, Large and Small. It is a delight to have a conversation with someone I share a Faith Tradition with (I smirk just a little. Ok. I smirk a LOT.) about the Divine Service, the Confessions, or even that day's lectionary readings. It is good that it is a thrill, but it shouldn't be a thrill simply because it is so rare.

HT to dpulliam of GetReligion


He should be flying high, sound asleep, the Aleutian Islands somewhere to his right and far, far below. Jeremy has been sent to Korea to interact with and interpret his older brother, Colin. And see the world. At least, that's his story, and when I put him on a plane this afternoon at O'Hare, he was sticking to it.
The flight I put him on (In a manner of speaking.) was headed for Detroit (This is modern airlines' version of pulling back the arrow before letting it fly.) where the Bub would catch another, much larger flight to Tokyo, and then on to Seoul. The flight to Detroit was delayed, arriving only 26 minutes before the Tokyo flight pulled away from the gate. We were given to understand that the two gates were miles apart. I told Jeremy about that old OJ Simpson commercial, where he sprints through an airport, leaping over luggage and old ladies, in order to catch a flight. I'm thinking something like that happened in J's case.

Jeremy promises a blog, an attempt to be more descriptive and thorough than his very talented but neglectful older brother in providing us a literary picture of modern South Korea. Hey, maybe modern North Korea, too! And since their travel plans in the next two months include Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand, probably those places as well. When he publishes, I'll let you know. After reviewing it for suitable content, of course.

Jeremy is launched. As I returned home from Chicago, I felt like Sam Gamgee returning from the misty havens after saying goodbye to Bilbo. "I'm back," I said.

Jeremy & Robin

The kids and Deb had just gotten off the plane in San Diego in March, fleeing the remains of the Winter in Wisconsin. Within the hour they were frolicking at one of Deb's childhood haunts on the coast, and Deb got this pic. Rather wonderful, I thought, even if I'm a bit prejudiced.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


" Thomas Jennings , alias Ghenning , of Pancras was indicted for assaulting John Wharton on the Highway, and taking from him 11 s. in Money . He was a 2d time indicted for assaulting Avis, the Wife of John Freeman , on the Highway, and taking from her 6 s. the Money of John Freeman . He was a 3d time indicted for assaulting Elizabeth Freeman , Spinster, on the Highway, and taking from her a Purse, value 1 s. and 4 s. in Money , on the 25th of July last. "


Anyone with an interest in Dickens, for example, or who has read or watched Rumpole of the Bailey, or read the exceedingly good novels of Patrick O'Brien, will find this website fascinating. It is the compleat record of the proceedings of the Old Bailey, London, from 1674 to 1834.

Here is a tasty morsel:

"An Irish man walking by a Watchmaker s shop, and observing no body in it, takes up a Watch fairly in his hand first, as if he were going to cheapen it; but seeing no body come out of the house to speak to him, loath to lose so convenient an opportunity, goes his way with it : but a Gentlewoman over the way took notice of him, and the people pursuing him, he was overtaken, and the Watch found upon him in his hand. He now pretended he meant not to steal it but onely stept out to speak with one; but the Case was plain enough, and he found guilty of Felony, and burnt in the hand ."

Burnt in the hand, indeed. That'll teach him to go his way with it!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Monday, July 23, 2007


Say hello to the world's new Tallest Building.
While you're at it, say hello to the world's tallest UGLIEST building.

1680 feet of conspicuous consumption.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


You only leave home once. At least, that's how it's remembered. Subsequent leavings don't pack the emotional punch of the first one. Maybe they're anticlimatic; maybe life goes on and you're not hit again with the scathing sense of time passing and of memory: how did this lad grow up so soon? How did it come to this?

So, here at the Gee home we're preparing for the parting of a second son, Jeremy. And we're all going about it like real grownups, I must say. But I must also say, I don't like these first partings. There is something irreparable about them. We three left at home will reorder our lives, you know. The wagons, whether we like it or not, will tend to become encircled. The one leaving will be marked and changed by the world. There will be something of the stranger about him when he returns. Yes, he'll be welcomed and loved and fussed over. But rather than a continuing narrative of his life as we have had all his life, while he's gone we'll have only snapshots, emails, those long disjointed phone conversations.

Of course, we also have designs on his room. So there's that, I guess!

Friday, July 20, 2007


What is the secret to happiness?

Our book club last night finished off a two-movie stint, watching 49UP, a documentary featuring British school children, first filmed 42 years ago at age seven, and every seven years (That biblical number!) after that to their current age of 49. It is really a fascinating documentary. We had earlier watched 28UP, which of course featured this group of people up to and including the age of 28.
One of the themes coming out now that these children have reached their half-century mark, is the theme of happiness. Over and over, happiness--however it was to be defined--was proclaimed as the highest goal in life.

Well, is it?

And what has the modern scientific age had to say about it?
If this article is to be believed, modern social science has swung and missed on the idea that the secret to happiness is to be yourself, do your own thing, live your own life, me, me, me, it is all about me. Navel gazing is starting to lose its appeal, as we Baby Boomers age and one thing after another leads to, at best, short term contentment. The Real Deal just keeps eluding folks.

You know modernism is a thing of the past when scientists are willing to look into the dim and distant past for advice and guidance on how to solve modern problems. Yet here are two psychologists writing about Aristotelian virtue as the secret to happiness. And not just virtue, but virtue plugged into a clinical situation.

Virtue, mind you, not values. And what do they mean by virtue? The two scientists, Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, list the seven "umbrella" virtues as:
Wisdom, Courage, Justice, Temperance, Humanity, and Transcendence.

It occurred to me that the apostle Paul had some things to say about virtue as the secret to...righteous living. Galatians 5:22. At the end of a long list of nonvirtues--carousing, sorcery, jealousy and more--he spoke of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. I daresay these are the secret to happiness. As I watched 49UP again last evening, I kept being struck by how far from true joy was the happiness being sought by the aging British school children.

Well, read the article and tell me what you think.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


The nerve.
I have an idea: this town should ban outdoor nudity except for the months of December through February.

Here's the story.

My All-Time Favorite ONION Headline

Roadkill Squirrel Remembered
As Frantic, Indecisive

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Sally Thomas, who is a pretty groovy homeschooling mom and poet, writes a review of Preston Shires' recent book HIPPIES OF THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT in which she discusses what happened to many of those hippies-turned-evangelists of the seventies. Where are they now?

"Their conversions to Bible-believing Christianity were not the sort to rejoice the hearts of suburban, middle-class parents. The intelligence that one’s runaway daughter had given her life to Christ, been baptized in a bathtub, and taken up residence with a bunch of barefoot, long-haired, guitar-strumming, tongues-speaking twenty-year-olds in a place called Maranatha House was only marginally less disturbing to the average Methodist mother than the news that the same daughter had moved in with a professional tabla drummer and changed her name to Windflower."

When the hippies turned "from evangelizing the street to evangelizing the Church", as Thomas puts it, something not so pretty happened, in retrospect.

Not surprisingly, this ...was light on bishops and heavy on extemporaneous prayer, direct interventions of the Holy Spirit, and beanbag chairs. Given a certain orientation toward an emotive, experiential, eschatological, not to say hallucinogenic flavor of Christianity, heavy on baptisms in the Spirit, speaking in tongues, and anticipating the imminent Rapture, the majority of those who did integrate into churches gravitated toward churches with a greater degree of innate ecclesial fluidity: Pentecostal, charismatic, and evangelical. But wherever they went in those heady days, they remade the Church in their image."

My friend pastor Bill Mack likes to tell the story of attending his first church as a young adult, a pentecostal affair in which he worked, if memory serves, as a janitor. He began to notice there weren't any old people in the church. Upon being asked about this, a member shrugged, "Ah, after awhile they realize they just can't keep up anymore."

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Chicken Ark

The Chicken Ark, Too

Apropos of nothing at all, meet our chickens. The white one in the background lays...white eggs. The other three are your perfectly normal, garden-variety brown-egg chickens. When it gets very cold in winter, the white chicken's eggs get small. Robin's-egg small. When it gets very warm and she's feeling ebullient, she lays goose eggs. Double-yolkers.
So I think that this white chicken is the poet of the flock. Temperamental, sensitive, and with a weakness for drink. I'd call her...Edgar Allen Poe, but...

The Chicken Ark is a palace, complete with ramp leading to a double-chambered penthouse in the top. One chamber is for laying eggs, and the chickens have done a nice job of honoring its purpose. The other is for laying around and drinking, telling ribald tales, and gossiping. The bottom, as you can see, is bottomless. It is wheeled at one end. I move this thing around our small orchard, garden, and the back yard, and the chickens are never without fresh grass and bugs. The Ark is my creation, although it is of English origin in design.

Four eggs a day, and you'd think we could eat them all! But the relentless pressure of it all, and we often end up donating a dozen to special friends who appreciate organic, range-fed, old-fashioned eggs.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


My friend Jesse Jacobsen, over at The Plucked Chicken, has brought to my attention a new music downloading service, MAGNATUNE, which has some important new developments in the field. I wandered over there yesterday to spend a couple of hours sampling the music available. Two of the very important distinctions Magnatune is offering are: You can listen to full albums online before buying; and WHEN buying, you get to choose--within reason--how much you are willing to spend, with $5 being the lowest price for an album of music. Now, you could look at this as a merchant appealing to your conscience, which certainly may be true. I would prefer to look at it as a consumer being given the flexibility to "vote with one's wallet" with regard to music selection. If sales of a particular album are averaging $5, then that may be telling the artist and merchant something. If, on the other hand, an album's sale price is averaging $14, but it isn't selling very well...not sure what that means. A cult following, no doubt.

What I found fascinating, at my advanced age, was a quick survey of the emerging new species of rock music now available. The Indie movement across the globe is now bringing us a vast array of new musical styles, much of it superior to the Back In The Day rock music of your's truly. I now give you: cinematic folk, downtempo rock, introspective avant-garde, heavy acoustic (Heavy acoustic???), electro-garage, Hollywood shock rock, stylish Indie electronic, Horror-Punk Rock (Yeah, I'll pass). I found an album described as "punk-n-roll". I listen for awhile, and think, "I may not know rock, but I know what I like!" And what I don't like. Electro-Balkan? Gimme a break.

Still, the movement afoot is toward decentralization and more rewards for the hard work of the artist. At Magnatune, the artist gets a full 50% of the purchase price. As for decentralization, recording technology is now available for anyone who can afford a computer (My iMac has a program called GarageBand that made even MY guitar playing sound...sound...well...sound like guitar playing). Sufjan Steven's string section recorded their portion of his Illinoise album in the violinist's apartment.

It is a brave new world out there, boys and girls. Or I should say: old men and old ladies. For the young, it is just What's Next. My son Jeremy is spending the weekend in Chicago at an indie music festival. After last year's festival, he brought home all sorts of wonderful music, carefully and lovingly selected and edited for his Old Man's listening pleasure. One needs an interpreter when venturing into these foreign lands. Jeremy knows what I will and will not subject myself to. I can't wait to see what he comes up with THIS year!

You can navigate to MAGNATUNE here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Doug Wilson, the writer from Idaho, has this to say about the glory of science. Well, a bit about its glory, and a bit more about the shortcomings when the pursuit of truth in scientific ventures takes a turn for the worse. He plays upon one of my pet peeves, the sanctimonious phrase that begins, "We now know..." . It smells of evolutionary pride. Wilson points out that when scientific research devolves into Bad Science, what is missing is....humility.

Elsewhere, Harvey Mansfield (in the very same article, How To Understand Politics, written about in today's earlier post), writes something very bizarre: he compares science, and....literature:

"Let me propose that literature and science have the same aim of finding and telling the truth; but, obviously, literature also seeks to entertain. Although some of the greatest works of science are well written, science finds its elegance in mathematics and not in the charm of a good story well told. The social sciences are in a special difficulty because they cover the same field of human behavior as literature. As sciences, they must claim to improve upon the prejudice and superstition of common sense and are therefore compelled to restate the language of common sense, full of implication and innuendo, in irreproachable, blameless scientific prose innocent of bias or any other subtlety...
"Literature, besides seeking truth, also seeks to entertain--and why is this? The reason is not so much that some people have a base talent for telling stories and cannot keep quiet. The reason, fundamentally, is that literature knows something that science does not: the human resistance to hearing the truth...To overcome the resistance to truth, literature makes use of fictions that are images of truth. To understand the fictions requires interpretation, an operation that literature welcomes and science hates for the same reason--interpreters disagree."

Can science, in other words, use metaphor to convey truth? Or is this solely the province of literature and the arts?

Harvey Mansfield's "Thumos"

FIRST THINGS magazine this month is running an article by Harvey Mansfield, the Harvard political scientist with a distaste for political science. The article is entitled HOW TO UNDERSTAND POLITICS, and is very good. He uses the term thumos, taken from Plato and understood as that part of the human soul concerned with self-importance. And he argues that this is at the very heart of politics. He argues further that since modern political science ignores or denies the soul, insisting instead on understanding human beings in terms of self , it misses the mark when studying politics. This article is available now to online subscribers to FT; view it here. Or borrow the print copy from a friend. Or wait two months when it'll be posted on the FT website.

Some teaser quotes:

"You can tell who is in charge of a society by noticing who is allowed to get angry and for what cause, rather than by trying to gauge how much each group gets."

"Generalized self-esteem arises from the modern concept of the 'self' which has a history back to the sixteenth century that I will not go into. It is enough to say that the self is a simplification of the notion of soul, created to serve the purposes of the modern sciences of psychology and economics, both of which want you to be happy in simple, straightforward ways they can count."

"Thumos" by its nature complicated. Sometimes translated as spiritedness, it names a part of the soul that connects one's own to the good. Thumos represents the spirited defense of one's own characteristic of the animal body, standing for the bristling reaction of an animal in face of a threat or a possible threat. It is first of all a wary reaction rather than eager forward movement, though it may attack if that is the best defense...To risk one's life to save one's life is the paradox of thumos...As a human animal, you can even condemn your life and say you are sorry and ashamed, for shame is due to thumos.
Is shame in your interest? It's hard to say yes and just as hard to say no. Apparently you have a self above your self that's sometimes critical of your self and makes you ashamed. Let's call that a soul..."

"...Let us not underestimate human ingenuity in reasoning its way around reason". (That at the end of a long comment regarding the relative lack of application of logic to political campaigns.)

In the end, Professor Mansfield (author, you may recall, of the 2006 book , Manliness, which won him such negative acclaim in the feminist press) wants us--and political scientists-- to "consider the importance of human importance" in understanding politics. That is, the importance of the soul--however we are going to define it.

Keep an eye on FIRST THINGS for the full article.

Monday, July 9, 2007


I handle moving claims for a living, in addition to other things. That means I go into people's homes, introduce myself, and try to solve the myriad of problems sometimes caused by inept movers and packers. Furniture dented, carpets soiled, washers and dryers not functioning, valued paintings damaged.
I like to think that I treat all of my clients equally. But, some clients are more equal than others. This is just how life works.
So, when I met Ida Schwartz--this is not her real name--I fairly quickly decided I'd met one of those who are just a little more equal. These are the ones you sit down with to enjoy a cup of coffee and conversation for awhile. This does not happen often. I can think of only half a dozen times in the past decade when it has. When it does, there is always a reward: a friendship made; something new learned or experienced.
Ida is an elderly woman, a Jewish photographer from New York City. She has travelled extensively, which may explain how she is adapting so well to the Midwest.
She has lived many years in NYC, so she's--understand--a freak by Midwest standards. She has also lived for some months in Brittany, France, and in LA. This, of course, makes her even more of a freak, in the Midwest. Well, she lives in Madison, which is where the freaks in the Midwest live, so...

Ida had some cabinets damaged: brightly painted stacked units which the movers had treated rudely. I have had to haul them to my shop and sand and repaint. In doing so, Ida and I had to take a little trip to the paint store to pick out colors. Picking out colors with an artist is not for the faint of heart. There is no accounting for taste. It took a bit o' time. By the time the Flambe and Marigold had been picked and mixed, well! It was time for lunch. So I treated Ida to lunch. This is the sort of thing one can do when self-employed, and which makes life a little more enjoyable. Ida was delighted. Everythng on Denny's menu delighted her. This was a date!--albeit spontaneous. She began to remind me of my mother, who often said when seated at dinner in some restaurant or other: "What an adVENture!" Food, and leisure, and conversation.

I spent the latter part of this morning on site, repairing chips and scrapes and dents in various and sundry furniture belonging to Ida. Oh, and where was I going next? Would I be anywhere near such-and-such a street? Yes, I was going to be near there. And...would it be at all possible for me to drop her off there? Yes, of course. No problem.
But before we left, we had the cup of coffee. She answered a phone call, so I strolled throughout her rooms, sipping java and admiring her black and white photography. Then, we sat and discussed her work. It turns out she was a free-lancer for years for LIFE magazine, BUSINESS WEEKLY, and others. We discussed the changes in technology throughout the life of her career. She pointed out examples from prints on her walls of how technology had changed--more and crisper detail in her later work. I asked her for an example of getting a free-lance assignment from a major magazine. She gave the example of having to film a tennis pro giving lessons to some film starlets in LA. "I was up half the night worrying about how to do it. I mean, what do I know about tennis? And when I found it was just a thinly veneered promo for a resort, I was pretty disgusted. But they liked what I did." I mentioned that, disgust or not, she did her job professionally, and that is what we are called to do. Yes, she agreed, that is how it is.

How to describe a picture? It might take a thousand words. Two of Ida's that caught my eye had both been taken in Britanny many years before. One was of an older woman--a restauranteur--sitting at a table near a front window in her restaurant, two glasses of wine sitting on the table. She is stemming green beans. There is the slightly blurred image of a man walking by, looking into the window at her. This is a picture of vocation, in fact, coupled with the little pleasures that vocation brings: the glass of wine, the leisurely, mid-morning routine of the day. Green beans and a woven basket on the table.
The other was my favorite: a photo of Robert (pronounced Roh BERR, the French way). He is standing in an old, tidy little kitchen, in shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. It is either very early in the morning or late at night (Ida told me it was late at night: he was a baker in the village, just beginning his day, putting together the ingredients for cafe au lait). The shaded kitchen light hangs suspended from the ceiling, so that only the table, its contents, and Robert are encircled in light. He is in his thirties, so it appears, and stands, half-awake, right hand pouring hot water into a bowl, left arm held slightly bent and back, as though he withheld himself somehow from his activity
It is the left arm, held back in such a way, that makes the photo subtly poignant. It is a wonderful print.
Black and white photography is at the far extreme from the sort of visual imagery that we now consider art: full-color action movies is what I have in mind. The stark detail of B&W causes the mind and eye to slow down, just as poetry does. There is no hurrying the reading of a poem. And a good poem requires several readings to appreciate. I would call B&W photography the visual equivalent. We have to stop , and look, and think. We see detail that we would not ever notice in film. We see detail in a different way than we would were it colored. Good black and white photography reminds me of a good Alan Furst novel. He probably writes surrounded by good black and white photography. Taken in Britanny.

Ida is a mature artist. There is none of the extraneous, superficial "artistry" about her. She's grounded, she's old, she's worldly but in a pleasant, simple way. She has nothing to prove. Her little condo is a combination of beautiful things hanging on the walls coupled with the fussy mess of a slightly disorganized person. Prints and proofs stacked on beds; next to beds. An ironing board set up, stacked with books.
The coffee mug I drank from this morning showed Moses holding the Ten Commandments. The caption read, "Take two tablets every morning". I was about to broach THAT subject, but the phone rang again. And then we were off.
Next time, perhaps.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Baseball At The Break

It is just past mid-season in Major League Baseball, time for the All Star game and for those players who aren't going to be in San Francisco for the game to go lick their wounds and prepare for the Dog Days.

It is a long season. I think I would hit a wall sometime in June were I playing professional baseball. And this is often what happens to young players who are more used to a shorter minor league season, or a college season, and less pressure, less bite on the curveball, less exposure to huge crowds. Just the constant pressure of playing against the best in the game day in and day out must take its toll.

Enter the Milwaukee Brewers. This is one of baseball's youngest teams, and so may be susceptible to the kind of burn out I've described. They currently are in first place in the division, but just completed a 3-7 road trip which was disappointing and made me wonder if they are ready to be successful in the second half. As it stands today, their entire infield and two thirds of their outfield have less than two years of regular playing experience on the big league level. The vets are Jeff Jenkins in left and whoever is catching that day. Their starting pitching is a nice mix and has done a commendable job, in my opinion. of keeping them in games. Their offense, when tuned, rested, focused, is explosive and really wonderful to watch.

The biggest surprise offensively has been Ryan Braun at third base. In just over 30 games in the bigs, he's hit 11 homeruns, is batting over .340, and has been a major offensive contributor, batting in the three-hole between JJ Hardy and the very impressive Prince Fielder. But so young! Do these guys have the character and maturity to finish out the year the way they've started it? I'm wearing a hair shirt these days; fasting, flogging, chanting, spiritually preparing myself for the famous Second Half Collapse. Ashes and sack cloth.

One mediating factor is the division the Brewskis are playing in, which is mediocre. The Cubbies show real signs of life, but gosh. They're the CUBBIES! The Lovable Losers! Yet if I were the Cubs right now, I'd wish there were no All-Star break, as hot as they've been. It may be the All-Star break that cools them off, and gives the Brewcrew a chance to regroup. This is comparable to dusk arriving at Gettysburg, for both sides. If the Cubbies stay strong, we are hopeful that the Brewers will be stronger. It has been a long, long time since 1982.

So baseball fans. Sit back, enjoy the All Star Game Tuesday night (Four Brewers players made the team!) and get ready for whatever the second half brings. The horror, the horror!

Episcoslamic Muslipalian Ann Holmes Redding*

And you guys in the bookclub thought you were clever with your "Methobapticostal" schtick. Here is a woman who has outdone you, seamlessly merging her Episcoplian priestess role with a belief in Islam. You can read all about it here: (Scroll down a bit)

Couple of questions.

When she reads in the Koran that all infidels must die, except those with whom a treaty has been signed, does she take action against herself? I'm a little fuzzy here. Neil, help me out.

I guess she doesn't believe in very much about Jesus that we would consider common place. So who are we calling God now? Who's name gets invoked?

As I inputted (Izzat a word?) on Ed Veith's Cranach Blog, my theory is that it is just getting harder these days to set oneself apart from other mere "Episcopalian Priestesses", for obvious reasons. All the good theories have been taken; you can write a book but who's going to read it?

Help me out, Book Club. I have a burning need to know.

*The title is taken from the weblog cited above.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Robin and The Slushie Machine

The Slushie Racket

Yesterday was Slushie Day for Robin and me at the local fairgrounds. Her swim team uses this as a major fund raiser. Total newbies like us are allowed into the Slushie-On-Wheels trailer, given a good thirty seconds of in-depth instruction, and left to fend for ourselves. Fortunately the Lemon Sisters hung around to guide us through the hard parts. Robin and I are slotted in at 2-6 pm, although Robin will be heading off to the 4H Olympics at 5 pm, and there is no one, I notice, slotted in after us for 6-10 pm.

The Slushie, as you remember, is the uniquely American sweet: a fast-track brain-freeze delight. No doubt there was at one time a way of making these things which involved hard labor: grinding the ice to the right consistency, extracting fruit juice from berries, mixing with granulated sugar, and then whipping it all together somehow. Today, we pour mysterious concentrate (mixed, I kid you not, with water from a hose out back) into The Machine, and voila: you have Slushie Basic! On a tray above the dispenser sits several truly evil-looking bottles of flavoring: two squirts into the bottom of a large dixie cup, fill the rest with Slushie B, and you're in business. Our flavors today are: cherry, lime, Orangutan Orange (Ha! just kidding about the orangutan!), lemonade, and the kids' all-time favorite: Blue Raspberry. Veterans of the brain-freeze concoction will ask for a squirt of cherry, followed by a squirt of the B-R. Teenaged boys occasionally ask for All-Of-It--a small squirt of every flavor-- which results in a brownish concoction which is truly disgusting. You can't look at it; you can't consume it. The boys line up for it.
It is a hot, bright, breezy day: just right for marketing Slushies!
Next to us is the de rigeur cheese curds stand, and next to it the lemonade and cream puffs place. We know this because we see a steady trail of hearty Norwegian Americans strolling along bearing these goods. I try to figure out the process by which our clients opt for a Slushie. There are those who just know: "I am going to have a Slushie today, and now is the time!" They only have to narrow it down to which flavor. There are those who approach, eyes narrowed, just beginning to consider the possibilities. Clearly they ponder the upside of buying a Slushie; the downside. At $2.50 on a hot day, a Slushie is almost a slam dunk for many people. But do we have it in Root Beer? Ah, no? Gotta think about this. So many choices here on the midway.

The social life inside the Slushie stand: Robin and I have brought books. A book, as you know, is a social communication tool, nothing else. Well, actually, the Alan Furst book I'm rereading is also rather good, but that isn't its primary purpose. The book is brought Just In Case. It provides a gracious means of social escape should the level of conversation in the stand go south towards drivel. This is a real possibility in mid-Summer, on a midway at a county fair in a Slushie stand served by volunteers. Fortunately, we have the Lemon sisters, accompanied by Mrs. Lemon. There is nothing dull about the Lemons. Both parents are hearing-impaired, to one degree or another. They have three very, I mean very lively daughters, all of whom have full hearing but are also well-trained in signing: bilingual! Last week at a swim-meet dinner I watched as Father Lemon told jokes across the room to one of his daughters, and then launched into a rather detailed discussion of the half-life of plutonium. To his daughter. Across the room. I think it was plutonium: I was reading lips.
Mrs. Lemon and I attempt to have a get-to-know-you discussion. Soon enough it gets complicated enough that Athena, the oldest daughter, starts signing to her mother, and responding to my requests for clarification. As the afternoon unfolds, I start to get better at understanding the verbal speech of the mom. We begin to relax. I don't have to retreat into my book. These folks are not only used to long silences, but are also great conversationalists!

Ah, the midwestern county fair! What a mingling of divergent folks! The farmers are all out at this time of year, as are the carnies. There is going to be a rodeo tonight! We begin to see cowboys, all sewn up in their Rodeo best, strutting along the midway. Farmers, carnies, cowboys. And Norwegian Americans! What a place this is. I begin to surreptitiously take pictures with my camera phone.

The Carnies: How to describe this subset of America? Are theirs full-time jobs but for only part of the year? Are these employed hobos? What do they do in Winter? I see faces that have spent too much time in the sun; hard living, chain smoking. The community they are a part of travels with the amusement rides; the houses of horror and the shooting galleries; the twinkly cotton candy stands. About a travelling troubadour, Paul Simon once wrote, "Every town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories....and every stranger's face I see reminds me where I long to be...". This life may be like that. Do these folks have homes to go back to? Or is home that place where "when you have to go there, they have to take you in", as in Robert Frost's famous poem? Is the carnival their home? Surely it is; surely they feel at ease only or mostly with those they work with. I see them from the safety of their booths watching as the townspeople and farmers stroll by. They are The Other: a persona first formed perhaps in grade school. The landed gentry, those grounded in the land and the towns don't understand them or don't want to. The carnies know this, and surely have their own way of staying separate; maintaining a sense of pride in their own right: "We are the true Americans; blue-collar travellers, we are better in touch with what America looks like than anyone else! We are night-dwellers, day laborers, roamers, the vestige of that American prototype--the wanderer--before the land laid its claim."
Well, maybe not in those exact words.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Gulessarian the Rug Guy

I had to visit Gulessarian's Oriental Rugs this morning; a client from a recent move had a filthy oriental rug, claiming $2300 if it can't be restored.
This is Gulessarian, son. The original Gulessarian was Really Original but is no longer living: he looked like that traditional description of St. Paul: short, bow-legged, big nosed, pot-bellied, short-sighted. Jewish. Gulessarian Son--now the father-- is taller, a gentler, kinder man. Knowledgeable about rugs, but also willing to spin the tale, so to speak. He is attended by three adult daughters. These three are the craftspeople. Father schmoozes, greets, oversees, instructs.
One daughter greeted me, and took the order. A few minutes later Gulessarian himself wandered out. I greeted him, and mentioned Thailand. He vacations there--paining to tell me he prefers the rustic north to the sex-for-sale south. My older son had been vacationing "in the north" of Thailand in January, and is headed back that way in August. So. Exchange of Thai stories; mine second-hand.
Finally, I turned to the carpet I'd brought in, and asked about its background.
"The rug is from India," said the daughter.
"The rug is from India, Pakistan, or Iran," said the father.
"The rug is from India." Said the daughter again.
Ah. THIS is what I'd come for! The Debate. Instead, I got The Lecture.
There is a large wall map behind the counter, showing the Near East and Asia. It is well-fingered; it serves as the stage upon which The Lecture will take place.
The father carefully inspected the rug. Fine weave; soft wool (not a good sign); some compression; too much vinework for northern Iran; strangely coarse detail for so fine a weave. The tassels told him something or other. The finished edges told him something else. He had to touch it. He knew the weaving pattern; he knew the village in Iran where the tradition originated from. Value between $800 and $1400; pay more than that you've been ripped off. Cleanable; no problem.
Where was it made? Hmm, some huffing and puffing. Finally, The Lecture: Before Khomeini took over in Iran, a moderate (forget the name, but Father knew) opened the borders, and out streamed a host of weavers. Where did they go? Gulessarian's finger is now on the map, ranging northeast. "They couldn't go there--the Turks were out to get them." His finger wandered to the northwest of Iran: "The hardest, most unwelcome, poverty-stricken place in the world--can't go there!" Ditto the Transcaucasus. Ditto Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Russia. Ditto Afghanistan. What's left? "India. Northwest India". So, maybe the daughter was right.
A visit to Gullesarian's is always an event. At the door stood a sandwich board, lettered in chalk: "Time To Get the Dirt Out!". I asked if this was supposed to be on the sidewalk outdoors. Gullesarian shrugged. "I've got to change the wording. Around here everyone thinks I'm making a political statement!"

Monday, July 2, 2007

In The Family Way

Here's the situation abroad:
Son #1 is currently in Korea, we're told. These are the days when an enterprising young man no longer looks to America as the land of opportunity. Much more can be gained materially by teaching the Korean Yanks the President's English. And they have baseball over there!

Here's the situation at home:
Son #2, having completely corrupted my daughter in both her musical tastes and bedtime, is leaving us to join Son #1 in Korea, with stops no doubt in Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand. He also has plane tickets for Spain (via Paris), and Brasil.
Daughter #Only is Left Behind, I think gratefully. We've begun to plot what to do with the boys' bedroom. We're taking over the Netflicks queue! There is a plot afoot to visit Ireland! The refrigerator is OURS!! That sucking sound we've been hearing? GONE! A dessert will remain a dessert for more than one night! For the first time since 1982 there will not be a male majority in the house. Um, that is the one thing I haven't really come to terms with.

I WILL get topical in this blog, but let me get the personal stuff out of the way first. This blog business, I mean I've only been doing this gig for like, six hours. And I haven't really gotten started on baseball yet. Or what the book club is reading next.

The Book Club

It is interesting to watch an organism grow. Start with an idea, add a few friends, meet, see how it goes. Some of us will read a book. Some of us won't. Discuss. Someone, single, starts to bring a little food to help the conversation. Someone, some drink. We start with the idle catch-up chit chat, but someone finally guides the conversation to the book.
A few new friends are added. Someone comes to visit, and doesn't come back. Some come and stick around. Something not unlike a tradition gets started. A few years pass. The Book Club starts watching movies now and then. This is not an INVITE YOUR FRIENDS! sort of organization. The balance is homegrown and subtle, not the sort of thing that grows with leaps and bounds.
It is a Christian small group, very Lutheran, reasonably Confessional. It isn't a Bible study, but the Word hovers in the air, and becomes incarnational when someone goes hunting for a passage.
Another year passes. Are we a supper club or a book club? Someone keeps bringing food. We eschew mere pizza; are now expecting greater things. Italian, Korean, the manifest east Asian buffets. But, inevitably, a sudden Fall into fried chicken. We are in fact a fried chicken kind of book club.
A pastor goes, a pastor comes. This one is tall and always wears a suit. We add a scientist. We discuss global warming. We discuss global cooling. We look around and LO! We are all nerds!! How did this happen?


The 21st Century's ultimate Me-Tool: a personal blog. Ok. Ok...I'm doing this for the conversation, all right? You don't have to take part; just know that I tend to like to "guide" conversations and a blog ownership seems like the best way to do so. I'm going to invite my book club buddies: Millie, Ted, Mike, Tim, the Bartletts, and Scott. I'm going to invite some of my other friends. Maybe this will work, maybe not. Let's see what happens.

The title? Well, YOU try naming a blog! As a Lutheran Christian (Score one for Wormwood, there.), I enjoy talking to pagans and other believers in ersatz deteriorata. And there are all of these random thoughts that occur during the workday: why not publicly journal them?

Best wishes to my future readers. May God have mercy on you.