Thursday, August 31, 2006

Men In Kilts

This weekend is Labor Day, which means it's time for the 141st Scottish Highland Gathering & Games. There will be Pipe Bands from the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. Marine Corps Band. Highland Dancing. Scottish Fiddlers. Scottish Country Dancing. Celtic Rock and Folk Songs. Highlander Rubber Stamps (where else can you find "Live Long & Prosper"--in Gaelic?).

And, of course, men in kilts. Everywhere. Brae, brawny, bonnie men.

Like this:

A whole race track of them:

At Justin Herman Plaza, across from the Ferry Building, the Caledonian Club of San Francisco (sponsors of the Games) had a kick-off. One of my favorite Celtic bands was featured: Tempest. I've listened to their sound evolve over the years and laughed because the lead singer is Norwegian. In fact, there is only one Irishman in the band--the others are Cuban, Austrian, and Californian. (From Fresno--where do you learn to play Celtic fiddler in Fresno?) I bought their latest CD and am listening to it now. On the current song, they've teamed with another favorite Celtic band of mine, Wicked Tinkers, who provide the bagpipes, the tapan (an Irish drum) and the didgeridoo.

If you're interested, check out their website:

Here's their latest picture:

It's no substitute for seeing them in person, where they have all sorts of fun interacting with the audience. Okay, at least they seem to be enjoying themselves!

Of course, I had to call Hubs and hold the phone up during the concert. Poor man was stuck at work.

Upon Further Reflection...

from, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle:

"At 29, Popal still lived with his parents in Fremont. His mother was especially sheltering, seeing the world as filled with "evil people" and trying to keep Popal from being harmed, said his cousin, Hamid Nekrawesh.

"Since he was a little kid, they had been overly controlling of him," he said. "They tried to keep him away from evil situations, in their mind, and that had a negative effect on him. He just didn't have any friend or anyone to talk to except Mom and Dad."

"Last spring, Popal was voluntary committed to Kaiser Medical Center in Fremont after a breakdown on brought by a dream of "the devil taking him to a graveyard and trying to kill him," Nekrawesh said."

Popal seems to have been acting on his own and not as part of a terrorist cell. No information has been released about his religious life: what mosque he attended, whether he had become more "fervent" in his beliefs since his return from Afghanistan.

His religion does seem to have fed into his paranoia, much as Andrea Yates' Christian beliefs fed into hers. I do suspect--and it's nothing more than that--that he specifically targeted the Jewish Community Center because he picked up the belief that the Jews are responsible for all the problems in the Muslim world.

Meanwhile, I'll be carrying ID when I walk during lunchtime. I'm sure Popal is not the only paranoid person with a driver's license in the Bay Area.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Lone Terrorist

I often walk around The City during lunch hour. I generally don't carry any identification--partly to avoid the temptation to buy something, but mostly because I don't like my stride impeded by a swinging purse.

Yesterday was no different, although I did notice that the firetruck from the fireboat station was called out. There's only one truck at that location, so they're not called out very often.

I managed to avoid the news all evening and all the way into work this morning because that's when I found out about the rampaging Afghani and his SUV.

And I didn't hear that his chase ended near the Jewish Community Center until I read Michelle Malkin's blog. Oddly, I never thought about there being a particular Jewish neighborhood in San Francisco. There's Mt. Zion Hospital, the Jewish Home for the Aged, and the Jewish Community Center, as well as several synagogues. But a neighborhood? There are no signs like there are for North Beach (historically Italian) or Chinatown or Japantown.

How could a 29-y.o. Afghani from Fremont know where to go when I don't? Did he just get lucky? Head for the most prominent synagogue? In this City of churches (and, yes, there are lots), how did he know that Temple Emanu-El was socially and politically connected (it's the home temple of Sen. Feinstein) and where it was, exactly? San Francisco is very loosely based on a grid--emphasis on the "loosely." There is major freeway construction with off-ramps constantly closing or redirecting drivers to unexpected places.

This episode smacks of some planning to me. At least, a quick look at Mapquest before he left home.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Question of Faith and Conversion

The Anchoress has an article up about the recent forced conversions of Steven Centanni and Olaf Wiig. They "converted" to Islam at gunpoint because they didn't know what else to do.

Let's face it: the survival instinct is very strong. And we live in a time and a culture where, I suspect, many of us had not had to make tough life-or-death choices about what we want and what is right. Nor have we had many examples.

When I was growing up, the threat of Communism was very real. The Irish Sisters who taught us would talk to us about martyrs who died rather than renouncing Christ. We were suburban kids and Vietnam hadn't yet taken over the Nightly News. But the Sisters had missions in what was then known as "French Indochina." They saw what happened in Russia, in Poland, in Cuba, in Hungary, in Greece. There were Communists in Italy, on the very doorstep of the Vatican. The Soviets looked invincible and the U.S. looked to be the only country strong enough to stop them.

So we had to be strong in our Faith. We had to Believe. We had to be willing to lay down our lives for our God.

Then Vietnam became a debacle and the Sisters moved back to Ireland. The Communists were defeated in Greece and became just another political party in Italy. Poland, China, Cuba, Russia--well, they weren't much of a threat. We turned our focus inward--to the injustices in our own society (and there were--and are--many) and to our families and to ourselves.

We "cocooned."

Events are dragging us, kicking and screaming, out of that cocoon. I don't want to be a martyr for my Faith, thankyouverymuch. I want to live long and see my great-grandchildren. I don't want to worry that somewhere some maniacal imam is stirring up the discontent of his congregation and they're planning on blowing up a commuter train or bus or airplane or building. I just want to live my life and worship God in my own church.

Instead I am faced again with the question: "Would you die for your Faith?"

And I find myself answering, like I did when I was eight, "I hope so." I hope my Faith is strong enough.

The Anchoress, however, throws another question into the mix: Would I sacrifice one of my children?

I could get into all sorts of legalistic hair-splitting. If conversion is forced, is it a true conversion? (If I "convert" with my fingers crossed, does it count?) Can I be a "Christian for Allah," much like the "Jews for Jesus"?

Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac at the behest of God. (There's no record in the Bible if Allah made a similar request that he sacrifice Ishmael. I don't know about the Koran.)

Would sacrificing my children for my Faith be analogous? Would I want my children to live in a society where their lives would be spared only if we were of the "correct" faith? (I'm not so sure I'd want to live during the Spanish Inquisition.) And can we all agree the Inquisition was not the Church's finest moment and move on? How many Popes have to apologize for it before we can all agree that the Inquisition, at least as far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, will never happen again? The next Inquisition is shaping up to be a Moslem Inquisition and just as barbaric as Torquemada's, only this time captured on video and broadcast worldwide.

Jesus never said being a Christian would be easy. But He did say we would never be alone.

Update:See also Don Singleton: Gunpoint Conversions and Martyrdom.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Movie review: The 40-Year Old Virgin

As I watched this movie (on cable) I realized that I just don't think Steve Carell is funny. I don't like his character in The Office and while I felt somewhat sympathetic with his character's plight in Virgin, I just didn't think the movie was funny. It could have been. Maybe.

Andy Stitzer is 40 years old. He doesn't live with his parents (one cliche avoided) and he does have a real job at a tech store modeled after The Good Guys or Circuit City. But he rides his bike to work, collects action figures, and plays video games. He doesn't have any ambition. He doesn't have any real friends.

Desperate to make up a complete table for poker night, three guys at work invite him. He admits to being a virgin, which is, of course, unbelievable. And he cannot be allowed to stay that way. So the guys decide to "help" him. Of course, one is cheating on his girlfriend, one is pining away for a girl he broke up with two years ago, and the third is just plain weird. Of course, none of their suggestions work.

Meanwhile, Andy meets the owner of the E-Bay store across the street. She finds him cute and gives him her number. Is she the one who will finally relieve Andy of the Curse of His Virginity? Will he admit that he's a virgin?

There is one funny scene where he's trying to put a condom on, with no success. And the woman's daughter walks in.

There's one heartfelt scene where the woman tells Andy that he collects toys, rides a bike, and has a dead-end job--when is he going to grow up? But the movie ignores it. Why does Andy ride a bike? And not a high-end road bike, but, really, a balloon tire kid's bike. Why is he just the stock supervisor? He reluctantly agrees to be a salesman and we're told he's doing better than the rest of the guys, he "has the best numbers." But since we never see him selling, we don't know if that's true or if it's the store manager's way of making a play for him.

And the scene at the Health Clinic was painful to watch.

Instead of really looking at the values of remaining a virgin versus playing the field, the movie ignores them all. Andy's gentlemanly ways are derided and played for crude laughs. Frankly, I thought The Wedding Crashers made many of the same points about sex versus commitment with more subtlety and humor (even gross humor) than this movie.

Or maybe I just find Owen Wilson funnier than Steve Carell.

On the March Hare scale: 1 out of 5 Golden Tickets.

Book Review: Everybody Into the Pool

In her introduction, Beth Lisick writes, "I loved my normal upbringing. I just think the fact that I had a stable childhood was precisely what let me stray pretty far away from it without ever landing in therapy, rehab, or jail or having an identity crisis, eating disorder, drug problem, or prescription for antidepressants. I inherited my parents' sensible, traditional approach to living, which kept me grounded when their Midwestern openmindedness and acceptance got me into a lot of nontraditional situations."

And "nontraditional situations" they were. Her father worked for Lockheed Air & Space, known as "The Bomb Factory" during the Vietnam War. She was the homecoming princess her freshman year of high school who didn't care what she wore, only that she got a date with the incredibly cool Kyle Anderson, who was a senior. There's the annual Christmas Ladies' Luncheon hosted by a friend's mother each year. Beth helps serve until the first Christmas that she's graduated from college. Now she's a guest and has to buy a gift for the Great Gift Exchange. The weekend before leaving for U.C. Santa Cruz, she is a hair model for a Beverly Hills salon that's participating in a trade show in Santa Clara. She earns $50.00 and comes out with bleached hair chopped into vertical chunks and Blade Runner makeup.

She writes a column about the "alternative night scene" for the website of a major San Francisco newspaper and meets her future husband at a performance. She recites poetry at open-air street festivals, tours with a punk rock, all-girl, spoken word circus where she is the only straight woman. Her in-laws treat her to a past-life regression therapy session--and she fails. She lives in various places, none of them in areas that would make this mother feel safe for her daughter.

Life just seems to sort of happen and Beth is along for the ride. And we're passengers. Or voyeurs.


On the whole I found her stories interesting. She has a great sense of the ironic, which contrasts with her generally cheerful outlook. I recognized many of the areas and many of the situations she described (DS#1 was into the Gilman Street punk rock band scene in high school). And I've never been part of the alternative performance art/alternative music/artistic fringe scene in the Bay Area. But there's very little depth to these stories. There's very little why, very little introspection. She has an abortion almost casually. She has a son almost as casually. There is nothing about her decision to marry Eli--they're living together, then they're married. Ms. Lisick is almost too flip, too insouciant about her experiences--almost like a too-hip, too-cool Erma Bombeck, but without the heart. I don't feel I know anything about Ms. Lisick nor do I feel that she's grown in any significant way--although there is a hint that she actually might have at the very end of the last story.

There are also the careless mistakes: referring to the "Girl Scout Association of America" instead of just the Girl Scouts or Girl Scouts of the U.S.A (the formal title) and talking about saying "The Apostles' Creed" at Mass instead of the Nicene Creed. Both of those are details that would take two minutes to verify on the Internet, but Ms. Lisick doesn't bother. Did she write this book in haste? (I thought perhaps these stories were a collection from columns or short articles, but there are no indications that they have been previously published.) Did she just not care? Did her editor not care either?

IMHO, Ms. Lisick could become a very good writer if she works at it, if she's willing to bare a bit more of her soul and get beneath the surface. A more demanding editor might help. But I'm not sure there are any left.

On the March Hare scale: 2 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

My Last First Day

Today was the first day of school for DD#2. She's an 8th Grader, so it's her "Last First Day." That's kind of what 8th Grade is all about--the ending of so many things and the beginning of the rest.

Today was my "Last First Day," too. After 16 years, this is finally our last year at our local parish school as parents of a student. I am an "8th Grade Mom," the top of the food chain. I know where most of the bodies are buried, although I can't really tell anyone about the faculty--there's been a lot of change over the years.

And, yes, I did get a bit verkemplt, especially when they had the new students stand up. The entire Kindergarten class stood, a bit dazed, in brand new pants and jumpers, bright red sweatshirts that are slightly too big for them. In contrast, there are the 8th Graders, whose sweatshirts are a bit faded, whose skirts are a bit short. They know where to put their backpacks and bags of tissue boxes and paper towels.

My daughter was quickly surrounded by her buddies. Most of them came to her birthday party just last month and they've all kept in touch via MySpace, Gaia, IM, or even, most anachronistically, by phone. I hardly recognized the boys, though. They've grown taller, developed Adam's apples, lost their chubby cheeks. There are shadows of mustaches on their upper lips. Their voices are deeper.

Mr. Caurant was remembered. Many of the 8th Graders wore orange "rubber band" bracelets in his memory. The Student Council will be sponsoring some events. One of the moms who is trained in grief counseling is doing some activities with the Middle School classes and is available if any kids simply need to talk. I'm glad the faculty decided to acknowledge Mr. Caurant's death openly and simply, which allows the students to move to celebrating his life.

So, now all four children are back in school. The carefree days of summer are done. We're back to schedules and bedtimes and homework and projects and reports and being responsible and accountable, albeit with new shoes, new binders, new pencils.

Unfortunately, High School doesn't have a Welcome Back Coffee on the first day. I'm going to miss laughing and commiserating with the other parents next year. I'll have to come up with a new ritual!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Still No Word on Kidnapped Newsmen

Kidnapped more than a week ago in the Gaza Strip, there is still no news on the whereabouts of Fox News reporter Steve Centanni or freelance cameraman Olaf Wiig.

So far, no one has claimed responsibility.

Please keep these men and their families in your prayers. And maybe a little pressure on your local media to focus on this story, rather than JonBenet.

Book Review: The Devil Wears Prada

I bought this book because I enjoyed the movie and I wanted more background, insight, information on the characters.

However, this is one of those rare occasions where the movie is better than the book.

Miranda Priestly, Editor-in-Chief of Runway magazine, is, if anything, more impossibly demanding, more obnoxious, more over the top than in the movie. There are no humanizing moments whatsoever, although there is a bit more about her background and where she came from. But no explanation of how she became so powerful and so demanding.

Andrea Sachs is a newly graduated from Brown and lands the job as Miranda's personal assistant. When offered the job on a Friday, she tells Human Resources that she can't possibly start on Monday because she has nowhere to live in New York City. That was my first, "Huh?" moment. Why couldn't she commute, like almost every other drone I know?

Be that as it may, Andrea finds a room to sublet and begins her new life. Miranda is on "vacation," so her impossible demands are not quite as intense as they will be when she returns. Andrea has about a month to learn the ropes before she meets Miranda and learns, first hand, what "demanding" is all about.

Unlike the movie, this Andrea doesn't ever buy into the idea of high fashion. She takes delight in getting back at Miranda and the publishing company in small ways, such as taking a cab to work and tipping the cabbie more than generously, then writing off the fare. Or by purchasing coffee for the homeless on the street when she buys Miranda's lattes.

I found myself getting angry with Andrea's boyfriend. He has chosen to teach disadvantaged children in Brooklyn public schools, which makes his job morally "better" than hers. Near the end of the book, Alex tells Andrea, "My Andy would have never even entertained the idea of choosing a fashion show or a party or whatever over being there for a friend who really, really needed her. Like, really needed her."

Like, Andy chose to go to the parties or the fashion shows. Sorry--it was part of her job, just like going to faculty meetings or classes or awards dinners are part of a teacher's job. I've done my share of business dinners and going to dinner with customers or clients is nothing like partying with friends. Especially if it's your company giving the party and your responsibility that everything goes well. Did Alex understand what Andy did and why? Did he even care?

On the other hand, did she tell him that Miranda had contacts at The New Yorker and would be able to get Andy the writing job that she really wanted?

And then there's Lily, Andy's best friend and a graduate student. Lily is a free spirit, but her drinking and her life begin to spin out of control. Why? We're never told.

There are a lot of "flashback" scenes which often confuses the timeline of the story.

There is also the assertion throughout the book that Andrea will learn more from working at Runway in a year than she will in five anywhere else. What she learned, other than how to bite her tongue, balance several lattes, and throw her boss's name around, is not quite clear. And how it will help in the magazine business--especially writing for them--still puzzles me.

Meryl Streep brought some humanity to her Miranda Priestly. Anne Hathaway is more believable as a new college grad from the Midwest than the Andy Sachs as written. (C'mon--she's from Connecticut and she graduated from Brown! And she acts as if she doesn't know anything about Manhattan, including the idea of--oh, I don't know--getting a street map?)

According to the reviews at, Lisa Weisberger, the author, actually worked for Anna Wintour at Vogue, who was the model for Miranda. (Ms. Wintour has a brief cameo in the book as well.) While I sympathize with her plight and I'm glad I never had to work for a boss like that, I never really felt much for Andy. This book has no heart. Surprisingly, the movie does.

On the March Hare scale: 2 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks. An okay book for beach or plane.

Clean Water, A Village at a Time

I often feel the problems of the world are overwhelming: poverty, pollution, war, injustice, homelessness. The root cause is deep and complex; there are no simple answers.

And then comes a priest, a Benedictine no less, Fr. Pirmin Ngolle, from St. Pius X Church in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He has been sent by his abbot from St. Maurus Hanga Abbey in Southern Tanzania, East Africa, to raise money for a simple project: to bring clean water to the villages. According to Fr. Ngolle, 35-40% of the local youth die by age 12 because of poor water and sanitation.

This is not a huge government project. The total cost is expected to be $500,000.

The idea hit home with me, hard. We take clean water so much for granted. We drink it, wash in it, irrigate with it. We even use clean, potable water to dispose of our waste. Access to potable water and proper sanitation is probably the most basic way to prevent disease and ensure a healthy population. And a healthy population is attentive, to intellectual and spiritual education, and productive.

The project is simple in concept and scope. It is the most basic of corporal works of mercy.

So I donated. And I'll probably donate more.

Their website has more information:

A parishioner in Oregon has issued a challenge to match every $500.00 raised. A shipping company has provided discounted rates. (Shipping to Tanzania is not cheap.) The villagers are providing the labor.

In the midst of the complexities of Islam versus the West, of Right Wing Nuts and Left Wing Moonbats, this project simply is. All villagers will benefit. And I can help.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Blogging at the End of the Long Tail

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Chapter III: A Caucus-Race and A Long Tale
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll

In her post, Blogging: An Innocent Fraud?,LaShawn Barber links to technology writer and blogger Nicholas Carr's post The Great Unread. He discusses those of us who are in the "long-tail" of the blogsphere and how we must be disillusioned because we are seldom read. The "long-tail" refers to the power law distribution curve--for a good explanation, read Clay Shirky's article, Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality.

The discussion of the "long-tail" reminded me, of course, of the quote from Alice in Wonderland that opens this post. Alice is sitting around listening to the mouse explain why she hates cats so and has mixed up the homophones tale and tail. And it also reminded me that this tale, like so many others, was originally written for an audience of three: Alice Liddell and her two sisters.

According to the theory of power laws, it will be quite difficult for me, rather a latecomer to the blogging world, to rise to the A-List. The "good"news is that it will be even more difficult for others who enter later. So am I discouraged? Will I stop blogging?

Well, if I don't blog, no one will read me. If I do blog, there is always a chance that someone will read me, find what I say interesting, and link to me. This will, of course, attract more people to my blog. Such a thing happened when Michelle Malkin linked to me during the Dubai Ports World incident because I had an understanding of the situation that helped clarify what was going on. This led to a couple of other links and a brief rise of my blog in the TTLB Ecosphere.

LaShawn Barber has also been kind enough to give me a shout out and the occasional reader has found me through comments I have left there. As I have found them.

Writing is, essentially, a lonely occupation. The writer usually needs some space and time (and I find, in my case, solitude) to compose his/her thoughts and get them down on paper or computer. I live inside my head--a lot. I can understand why writers frequented bars or taverns or pubs, anywhere lively where there were a lot of people and a lot of social interaction. The blogsphere is kind of like a non-alcoholic version of the pub, a place where I can throw an idea or two out there and see if anyone agrees. I usually receive enough feedback to keep me going, to write one more day.

Okay, that last sentence was misleading. I can't not write. I am addicted to writing, much as I'm addicted to reading. The great thing about the blogsphere is that I indulge this addiction and find others who share it.

Would I like to be an A-List (or even a B-List!) blogger, one whose opinions are taken seriously by the Powers That Be? Well, yes. The prestige and the recognition would be nice. And no. By hiding in the tail, I am much freer to write about what interests me. I don't have the pressure of success. I don't have to hit a homerun every time at bat. Heck, I don't even have to hit the ball.

With the slow death of truly local newspapers, magazines, and other traditional media, there really are fewer places where writers can practice their craft, publish it, and get reactions. This is my practice space. This is where I hone my voice, make my voice unique. And find my niche. Perhaps there will be a payoff, big or otherwise, in the future. Probably not. Meanwhile, I'll take my payoff from the comments that are left and my status in the TTLB Ecosystem.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Book Review: The Glass Lake

A co-worker once described books like these as "chewing gum for the eyes." What an apt description of this book! Charming, interesting, easy on the brain, long, available in paperback. Maeve Binchy has an easy, conversational style which makes this the perfect book for beach, hammock, or plane. Best of all, I picked this up for 50 cents (in paperback) at a used book sale.

The story is about Kit McMahon and her mother, Helen, who live in Lough Glass, commonly referred to as "Glass Lake," although the correct translation would be "Green Lake." (I'll have to take Ms. Binchy's word for it.) Lough Glass is also the name of the small village beside the lake where Kit and Mrs. McMahon live. The village has one road through it, with the boys' school at one end, the girls' school at the other, and everyone knows everyone else.

Helen is an outsider, originally from Dublin, who moved into the village after her marriage to Martin, the local chemist. She does not fit in. She spends a lot of time walking by the lake, by herself. She is restless, but it's the early 1950's and there's not much opportunity for women, especially in a small village.

Helen had a great love in her life, Louis Gray, who left her to run off with a wealthy young woman. Helen married Martin on the rebound after warning him he would never have her heart. Martin agreed.

One wild night, Helen goes for a walk near the Lough Glass and doesn't come back. The McMahon's small boat is found, untied and floating upside down. Helen is assumed to have drowned. But did she commit suicide? This is a mortal sin in 1950's Catholicism and means the deceased could not be buried on consecrated ground inside the cemetery. So when 12-year-old Kit finds a letter addressed to Martin on his pillow. Fearing it is a suicide note, Kit burns it, unopened.

Of course, Helen hadn't thrown herself into Lough Glass.

The novel follows the lives of Kit, Helen, their family, friends and acquaintances for the next several years. Lough Glass is populated with characters and we know them, of course, mainly through the eyes of Kit and Helen, but occasionally we hear their voices. The 1950's and early 1960's were the calm before the great social storm waiting to occur and there are hints and ripples of the changes to come.

I thought Ms. Binchy captured the friendship between Kit and Clio very well. It's a friendship based more on proximity and convenience than real understanding and compatibility. I had a few of those myself, growing up, though they were not quite as stormy as Kit and Clio.

There is really no great moral to this story. Actions have consequences and people have to learn to live with them, but that's nothing new. People have sex, or talk about having sex, but it's all quite discreet and when it happens it's behind closed doors. It's more like reading a chatty and somewhat gossipy newsletter about fairly ordinary folks who have a Deep, Dark Secret.

I was interested in what happens next, but I didn't quite care about what happened to Kit and Helen. I thought the ending was wrapped up a bit too neatly; there was a bit of deus ex machina about it. But by page 700, maybe it was just that Ms. Binchy was tired of writing about these folks. This is one book I'll lend around to my family and not care if it comes back.

On the March Hare Scale: 2.5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Book Review: Genpei, A Fantasy

Take The Lord of the Rings and move it to 12th Century Japan. Substitute a sword for the rings. Combine Shintoism, Buddhism, and a warrior ethic. Base it on a historical power struggle between three families, including a former human Emperor who has become a demon, the daughter of the Undersea Dragon King who became a mortal, and an Emperor who became a kami.

The stories of the Genpei War are to Japan what the Iliad is to the Western world--part myth, part fact, where gods and goddesses interfere in the course of human events. Or do they? For these stories illustrate a deeper truth: that it is all to often our human failings that lead to our destruction. Our pride, our hubris, our stubbornness, our mistrust, sometimes even our loyalty are more than enough.

Kara Dalkey has taken an ancient Japanese tale and, by her own admission, simplified the story line somewhat so that those not familiar with Japanese culture and history can enjoy it. I cannot boast any in-depth knowledge nor familiarity with Japanese culture, but I didn't need any for this story. A map at the front of the book allowed me to follow the movement of the different groups of people across the islands. The red torii gate at Miyajima, built in the water of the Inland Sea, plays an important role in Genpei as well.

The story concerns the rise and fall of two noble warrior families: the Taira and the Minomoto. They struggle to influence and control the Imperial Family, who have internal power struggles of their own. The Undersea Dragon King strikes a deal with the head of the Taira clan: the Taira will triumph over the Fujiwara clan, who currently have administrative power, and a Taira will one day be Emperor. In return, the Taira chief has only to do three things: take the Dragon King's daughter as his principal wife and let her advice guide him, build a shrine to the Dragon King at Miyajima, and return the sword, Kusanagi, to the sea.

Kusanagi is one of the three Imperial Regalia, which are more than mere symbols of the Emperor--they bestow legitimacy on his rule. (The others are the sacred mirror, used to call Ameratsu, the Sun Goddess, out of her cave, and the Imperial Jewel, a piece of jade. Ameratsu is the Goddess from whom all Emperors are descended.)

But the Taira are not the only ambitious clan, nor is the Dragon King the only kami overseeing the fortunes of a mortal family. The Minomoto clan have the great Hachiman on their side. Hachiman was a warrior and Emperor, renown for his bravery and wisdom, who became a kami after his death.

There is intrigue among the brothers of the Imperial Family as well. An Emperor may retire and become a monk, but that does not mean he gives up intrigue and manipulation. Retirement may be voluntary or forced and the legitimacy of whomever sits upon the throne is often suspect.

The middle of the story drags, in part because so many palaces are burned so many different times by people whose names are so similar that it's easy to lose track. The main characters, however, are brought down mostly by their own flaws and I found myself feeling sorry for them as they moved to their inevitable fate. For one does not renege on a promise to a kami or play with demons without serious consequences.

The Genpei Wars marked the end of an era in Japanese history, so the ending of Genpei is bittersweet.

Hopefully, I'll be visiting Japan next year and will get to see Kyoto, which I suspect is Heian Kyo in the book, and Tokyo, which was Kamakura. I'd also like to see Miyajima and the famous red torii gate. I'm eager to compare the descriptions in Genpei and see if they match anything that remains in the museums and ancient castles today. So, anticipation of my visit has definitely heightened my interest in this story.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks. But this is definitely a "niche" book and not to everyone's taste.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Anything Exciting Happen While I Was Gone?

Sheesh--leave for 10 days and all manner of excitement happens!

I volunteered to be a counselor at a Girl Scout camp DD#2 wanted to attend. Because I took so long to get her signed up, it was the only way I could get her in. And this was the last year she was eligible for the program she wanted to do. So I left Hubs home with DD#1 and DS#1 for ten days. The house is still standing, although the new washing machine had begun leaking and Hubs couldn't find the receipt to exchange it--because I had actually filed it. And there was no cell phone service at camp.

So I was one of four counselors (two 21+, two under 18) in a unit with 17 middle-school-aged girls. We had a couple of field trips and I drove, but I didn't turn on the car radio. And the girls didn't ask me to. Instead we talked about their lives and their families, what they were interested in and what they expected the coming school year to bring. We went sea-kayaking and watched otters break open clams and abalones against rocks on their chests. We saw harbor seals lazing in the sun. We saw lots and lots of brown pelicans, who have been moved from the "endangered" to the "threatened" species list.

We talked to women who were doing research in marine biology. We rode roller coasters. We checked out tide pools. They buried each other in the sand and dug holes deep enough to hit water. They wrote a song and a skit, all on their own. They made their own sandwiches, set tables, swept floors. We cooked outdoors and hiked up the hill to our unit at least twice a day (usually more). We made bracelets and did woodburning and silk-screening and tried our hand at archery and volleyball. They talked and giggled until I reminded them how early we were getting up in the morning. Some of them tried to push my buttons. Some rolled their eyes when asked to carry garbage down the hill or pick up trash. But since I wasn't "Mom," that didn't get far.

In a hurry-and-grow-up, overly commercialized, overly-sexualized world, these girls--my girls--got a chance to be kids again for a week. No boys. No cliques. No fashion. No mirrors. They saw grown women play. We wore silly glasses and sillier hats. We hid during the counselor hunt and tried to escape. We sang songs about mosquitoes and kissing banana slugs.

I came home exhausted.

DD#2 had a wonderful time. We were in the same program, but in different units. I didn't nag her about wearing her retainers. Okay, I did ask once or twice. She tried not to call me "Mom." I tried not to worry about her having a good time or if she made friends. I didn't worry about if she was dressing warmly or what she ate. She did tell me that the other kids thought I was either "cool" or "crazy," depending on what I had done 15 minutes before. She didn't seem too embarrassed.

Turns out she did have a good time. She learned some stuff about Monterey Bay that she didn't know. She made some friends. We found some activities that we think the other girls in the troop might enjoy.

And I learned, or was reminded of, some things about myself. Especially about my leadership style.

They want us back. There are programs at other camps that DD#2 wants to try and then we've got the GSUSA/BSA Berkeley-Sakai Exchange program next year, God and the International Community willing. So I don't know if we'll be able to participate. (It would be fun, though!)

The Camp Director made an interesting statement at the end of camp. She feels that if the world could just come to camp for a week, they would learn to live and to work together. They would learn that we are not so very different from one another. That music can make doing dishes fun. That communication is key and talking face-to-face is important.

A very simplistic view of the world, I know. But camp reminds us of the essential humaness of us all: we share the gift of ourselves and build special memories with each other. We expand our "tribe" and include people we wouldn't have met in our everyday lives.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Talk Amongst Yourselves, Please

I'm off on an adventure through the rabbit hole. I will be gone about ten days, if all goes well. And Wonderland, as you may or may not know, does not have access to electronic communication.

I'm rather looking forward to that, actually!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Summer Means Time For The Book Meme

Julie D., over at The Happy Catholic, tagged me with this Book Meme. Somehow, I wasn't surprised. ;)

1.) One book that changed your life:
Fun With Dick and Jane. From thence, all other books were possible.

2.) One book you've read more than once:
As Julie D. complained, "Only one?" All right, then: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.

3.) One book you'd want on a desert island:
A really long one! Since The Bible is probably too obvious an answer, how about The (Annotated) Compleat Works of Wm. Shakespeare. (I've already read War and Peace.)

4.) One book that made you laugh:
Bridget Jones' Diary. Okay, I admit it--I'm easy!

5.) One book that made you cry:
Angela's Ashes

6.) One book that you wish had been written:
What to Expect When Your Child Reaches Legal, But Not Necessarily Emotional, Adulthood. Or How to Parent Your College Child Still Living at Home.

7.) One book that you wish had never been written:
Wifey, by Judy Blume. The only reason I finished it was because I kept waiting for it to get better. It didn't.

8.) One book you're currently reading:
Echoing Julie D. (again), "Only one?" Okay, Genpei by Kara Dalkey. It's about the Genpei wars among the three ruling families in 12th Century Japan, bringing in elements of Japanese fantasy, like their ancient gods. It's an interesting look at their culture before it opened to the West.

9.) One book you've been meaning to read:
Only one, again? Or the next one on the list? Seriously, though, Moby Dick or Richard Lattimore's translation of The Iliad. Mr. Lattimore's translation is written in verse and is supposed to be the closest translation in English to Homer's original.

10.) Tag five others:
Epiphany from Minivan Mom
Karen from The View From My Chair
Deb from Ukok's Place
Jay from Listen to Uncle Jay
Siggy from Sigmund, Carl, & Alfred

You Know You've Been Married a Long Time...

...when a "hot date" with your husband is going to the Sears Outlet store to buy a new washing machine.

Our washing machine sprung a leak. This is a disaster of major proportions, especially as DD#2 and I are leaving for camp at the end of this week. The faithful freezer is also dying. But the washer is the immediate priority.

Off we went to the Outlet Store. Since my washer & dryer live in the garage, beauty is not a concern. I had really hoped to get a front loader, since I understand they are more efficient, use less water, and put less stress on your clothes. They are also more expensive. $200.00 more expensive. For the small capacity washer.

So we bought a top loader. One thing my mother taught me was to "keep it simple." The fewer bells and whistles an appliance has, the less than can go wrong with it. And, I've discovered, the cheaper it is to fix. And the more likely it is that it can be fixed on the first visit by the repairman, if he doesn't have to keep swapping out computer chips. So our new washer looks very much like our old washer. Which looked very much like its predecessor.

Frankly, it washes clothes, quietly and efficiently. That's really all I care about.

The Outlet Store did have a couple of washers in designer colors, including a burnt orange. Hubs thought it was ugly. I kind of liked it, in a troll-doll sort of way.

"Why didn't you buy it?" DD#1 asked.

"Because it was over $1000.00," I answered.

"Good reason," she admitted.

They also had a commercial washer, the kind that takes quarters. I thought about that, too, as a sneaky way to inject a "reality check" in the life of my children. But they'd probably figure out how to jimmy open the coin box.

Hubs and DS#1 then moved the old washer out (it now graces the TV room) and set up the new washer.

"It's done. Do you want to do a load?" Hubs asked.

"Sure," I said. I went out to the garage to see him standing there, staring at the machine.

"It's not working," he admitted.

I thought for a moment.

"Did you turn on the water?" I asked.

He reached over, turned on the water. The washer began to fill up. He gave me one of his sheepish grins. I laughed.

So... how did you spend your evening?

Book Review: Ghosts in Baker Street

I discovered Sherlock Holmes when I was ten and have been addicted to detective stories ever since. Add the words "Baker Street" and you've got my attention.

In The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire," Holmes tells Watson that "...this agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply." So, of course, these ten short stories deal with ghosts. Or the possibilities of ghosts.

Each story is written in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories of his famous detective and each tries its best to remain true to the Holmesian Legacy. Some are more successful than others. A couple of the authors explained the apparently supernatural completely rationally. Others were ambiguous.

At the end are three essays about the effect Sherlock Holmes has had, either on the author personally or on the genres of the detective, mystery, and even ghost stories. What one writer pointed out was the wealth of characters that appeared in print around the same time as Sherlock Holmes: Dracula, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Fu Manchu. Sigmund Freud's writings were just becoming known. Jack the Ripper stalked the streets. I hadn't realized that all this was going on about the same time.

I also didn't know that Sir Conan Doyle was knighted for his history of the Boer War. And I confess I've never read any of his other works like The Lost World or The White Company. (Add a couple of more books to the list, I guess...)

My favorite short story of the bunch is "The Coole Park Problem," which takes place in a country estate in Ireland and brings together Irish folklore, Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Sherlock Holmes, and John Watson. The author kind of cheated at the end, but I found myself grinning. Holmes would not have approved, but Sir Conan Doyle might.

On the March Hare scale: 3 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks.

Advice for Bloggers (As Well As the Media)

"The freedom of public expression of one's own views is a great good for society, but it does not assure freedom of expression. Freedom of speech does not count for much, if the word uttered is not free, if it is a slave to selfishness, lies, deceit, or maybe even hate or contempt for others--for those who differ in nationality, religion, or point of view. The benefit of public speech and expression will not be very great if the words are going to be used not to seek truth and share that truth, but only to win a discussion and defend one's own opinion--perhaps even mistaken ones. Words may sometimes express truth in a degrading manner. It may happen that a person says some sort of truth in order to substantiate his own lie. Man brings great confusion to our mortal earth, when he tries to use truth in the service of lies. For many people, it is then more difficult to recognize that this is God's world. Truth is also degraded when it is devoid of love for itself and for man. In general, it is impossible to follow the Eight Commandment--at least on the level of society--if it lacks goodwill, a firm trust, and a respect for all the differences, which enrich our social life."

--Pope John Paul II
Discourse at Olsztyn, Poland, June 6, 1991
"A Year With John Paul II: Daily Meditations from His Writings and Prayers"

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Sometimes my mind wanders in mysterious ways…

I was on my lunchtime walk, thinking about the public outcry over Mel Gibson’s major meltdown. One article I read, Michael Medved in Townhall, pointed out that Michael Moore "declared in Liverpool (quoted in the New York Times, June 26, 2004) that the embattled Jewish state represented one of the modern world's centers of evil: 'It's all part of the same ball of wax, right? The oil companies, Israel, Halliburton.' Ironically, Michael Moore's agent, Ari Emanuel (brother of a Democratic Congressman from Illinois), is one of the entertainment industry figures leading the charge to demand that the show biz establishment blacklist Gibson."

The difference, of course, is that Michael Moore is an enlightened secular “liberal” and Mel Gibson is a conservative, knuckle-dragging, fundamentalist Catholic.

And Michael Moore used the word “Israel” instead of the word “Jew.”

Which led me wonder: is there a fundamental difference between Israelis and Jews? While not all Jews are Israelis, are there non-Jewish Israelis? The symbol on the Israel flag, the Star of David, is used by many Jews to identify themselves, much as the Cross is used by Christians. Can you take the Jewish identity out of the State of Israel? If you do, what is left? What would be left if you took the Papal symbol—and Catholicism—out of Vatican City? The identity of those two countries in particular is synonymous with a religion. Although Islam is the official state religion of many Mideastern countries (and quite a few African ones), there are strong factional elements that seem to be as busy tearing each other apart as they are fighting the Infidels, which isn't happening in Israel and the Vatican.

Thinking about Jews and Judaism led me to think about the most famous Jew of all: Jesus of Nazareth. A friend of my, who is very much against the War in Iraq and the Bush Administration, commented that the God of Bush and many of the neo-cons which surround him seems to be the God of the Old Testament—vengeful, quick to anger, stern, uncompromising—rather than the Father figure of God in the New Testament and the example of Jesus—compassionate, caring, forgiving. So, what would Jesus do in the Mideast? Would he “turn the other cheek”? Would he meekly let the Islamic jihadists kill him, hoping by his martyrdom to serve as an example and crack their hardened hearts?

Jesus was not a wimp. No wimp could have withstood the Agony in Gethsemane, the Scourging, carried the Cross, and the final Crucifixion. No wimp would have thrown the money-changers from the temple (money-changers who were there legally, by the way) or stood up to the local authorities, refusing to be taken in by their word games.

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

So, is this war a thing of Caesar’s or a thing of God’s?

“Whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren, that you do unto Me.”

Jesus had just listed what have come to be called Corporal Works of Mercy: feeding the hunger, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner. Would freeing the slaves count? Were the Iraqis slaves under Sadaam Hussein? Are the Lebanese slaves to Hezbollah? Do we, as a free people, have a moral obligation to free them?

Or is our job to keep talking, keep preaching the Gospel, keep turning our cheek and offer up our lives and our civilization to God? To trust in God and, if martyrdom be our lot, our deaths (and the deaths of our children) will not be in vain?

Which is the braver course? Which is the True Course, the path God wants us to follow?

I don’t know. I’m not one of those Christians who claims to have a direct line to the mind of God. Why do our choices as humans always seem to teeter between the parable of the Lilies of the Field and “God helps those who help themselves”?

I think Mel Gibson’s actions and words during his arrest were reprehensible. I think that Christopher Hitchens in Slate and the Hollywood establishment are condemning him a bit too eagerly, with a bit too much enthusiasm and a certain gleefulness, especially since they have allowed others to say much worse while sober.

I think that when a madman tells me that he wants to destroy me and my world and has the firepower to do it, I believe him. I believe that many of us in the West have played both-sides-against-the-middle and now it’s coming back to bite us. There are bullies, from the schoolyard to the highest levels of politics, who understand and respect only physical power. I believe that while Western Civilization does not have all the answers, we’re the only ones asking the questions.

This may be the End Times. This may be our Final Test, one way or another. How we comport ourselves, how we treat each other, how strongly we believe in our values and how well we live and proclaim those values will determine how we live. If we live.

What Would Jesus Do?

Probably get down on His knees and pray that this cup will pass, if it be the Father’s Will. Then get up face His Destiny, one step at a time.