Saturday, June 28, 2008


Last weekend I was at a gathering of poets for a Board Meeting of a local poetry circle. We were discussing what to do about some stock that the group was recently given, whose price has been dropping rather dramatically over the last few months.

All of these people are liberals.

Most of them are upper-middle class. Most of them are retired.

When one member said, "I think we'll see a change in November, an increased optimism," I knew he fully expected Obama Barack to be elected as the next President.

When one member talked about the "recession we're in," I pointed out that, by definition, we're not.

"You don't think we are?" he asked, surprised.

Not wishing to get into a big debate about it, I shrugged it off.

How can these otherwise intelligent people see that, overall, life is actually pretty good? Home prices are down, but many of those prices were overinflated. Teachers and police officers and firefighters can now afford to buy homes in the communities where they work. Isn't that a good thing? Home ownership is the highest it has ever been and 94% of mortgage holders are not in default and not late with their payments. Unemployment is still historically low (although I've now got two brothers looking for jobs).

Yes, gas and oil is expensive. But, if you factor in inflation, the price of gasoline should be around $3.00/gallon anyway. Last year, gasoline was actually cheaper than it was during the 1970's.

Does anyone remember the '70's? I graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1975 with a degree in biology and I was competing with Ph.D candidates from Stanford for lab jobs that were basically washing dishes. Oil prices were all over the place and changing daily. We had odd/even rationing with stern warnings "not to top off" our tanks. But we did anyway because the gas station may have run out by the time our day came. Home mortgages were 13-14% and many experts predicted the days of single-digit rates was over.

Does this economy look anything like that?

Iraq seems to be stabilizing, North Korea--under pressure from China--may be coming to its senses, plots by terrorists to play havoc in Europe seem to be discovered every day, fortunately before they are carried out.

There are many reasons to be optimistic now. Why wait until November? And why would the election of a man who has limited experience (Caroline, take note: even your father had more legislative experience than Mr. Obama) and whose philosophies and friendships change with the polls (did he study at the feet of Bill?) bring optimism? I haven't been impressed by the knowledge, skill, or finesse of his advisors now--I should be optimistic about his potential Cabinet appointments? He guessed wrong on the constitutionality of the D.C. gun ban law--and he's going to appoint judges?

The worrisome part is these fellow poets mean well. They really, truly want a Utopian Society, where there is no strife, no want, no disease. Ironically, without challenges there would be no poetry, no art. They don't seem to recognize that. But it seems so self-evident to me that I'm not sure how I can (if I can) change their point of view.

And The Message Is?

I'm supposed to be 40 miles away from here at a Girl Scout camp near the coast. I'm supposed to be at a mandatory Staff Training weekend. Instead I'm in bed with my computer, waiting for Hubs to come home from Boy Scout camp with DS#2 and DD#2.

Last night I made the fateful decision to take the small car to training instead of the van. The small car gets better gas mileage and, frankly, I prefer driving it. I loaded up my gear, gassed up (and noted that I'm getting 32 mpg--YES!), and headed off. Because of the fog and smoke, I had my headlights on.

The first weird thing I noticed: I couldn't see my headlights reflected in the back of the car in front of me.

The second weird thing: my radio cut out.

Okay, I figured a wire had come loose somewhere. It has happened before and normally I just have to jiggle a wire to get everything cooking again. Only the Bay Bridge is not exactly the place to do this. Nor is I-80 heading through The City. But when I took the exit to get to Highway 1 and the coast, I began to lose power. I exited and ended up in my old home town.

So I called AAA. My cell phone wouldn't connect. I had juice, I had bars, I couldn't ring anyone. Below me was a shopping mall. I went off in search of a pay phone. Inside there was a cell phone kiosk for my particular carrier.

"Can you take a look at this?" I asked. The young gentleman complied. He informed me that they had upgraded their SIM chips recently and that perhaps that was a problem. I was eligible for an upgraded phone. Did I want to do that?

Uh, no. I do want a new phone, and I know which one I want, but I'm not ready to get it yet. Especially if I'm going to have another repair bill.

Well, there wasn't anything he could do, so I set off in search of a pay phone. Found one and did the only logical thing I could do: called Mom. The connection was horrible, but I finally got her to understand what the problem was. I gave her the number of the pay phone and then I waited. She ended up calling BIL#2 who called me...on my cell phone. Mirable dictu! Whatever the guy in the kiosk did while he was poking around the innards of my phone, it worked.

I keep jumper cables in my car because this one does not have a reminder chime if I leave my headlights on. Consequently, I've done that more than once, so now I carry cables. BIL#2 gave me a jump, then followed me to Mom's house. DD#1 was home and came over to pick me up because I didn't trust the car to make it either to home or to Camp.

It's either the alternator or the battery because it doesn't seem to be holding a charge.

Our van is home. I could have taken the van and driven down to Camp this morning (or really late last night) and then dealt with my car on Sunday. Hubs is due home this afternoon, probably around five or six o'clock. He should be receiving a text message to call me once he gets cell phone reception himself. And there's probably nothing we can do about it tonight.

On the other hand, maybe there is. Or we can get an early start on the problem tomorrow--because there's no cell phone reception at the Girl Scout camp either. (I called the Camp Director and left the abbreviated version of the problem on her voice mail.)

So... which decision was better? Was I supposed to make a heroic effort to get to Camp Training? I hate missing it because this is where we meet fellow staff members and plan our events and activities for the week. We get a feeling of the strengths, weaknesses, and overall philosophies of the women we're going to be living with for ten days. I'm going to be going in "blind," as it were.

On the other hand, come Monday, I need my car. (I've also noticed that next weekend is a "make up" weekend. We had talked about going to visit Hubs' family, though. Which I don't really mind if I miss. But I feel guilty about sending him up there with the kids by himself. Unfortunately, visiting his family falls into the category of "duty visit" rather than pleasure.)

At least the car broke down in familiar territory. If I had called AAA, I might have tried to get to camp and have broken down in the middle of nowhere. I was safe, the car was safe, and my mom gets the benefit of having a car in her driveway for a couple of days, discouraging the neighbors from parking there. And I got to spend time talking with DD#1, discussing philosophy and life and plans. She's an interesting young adult and we don't often get time alone together. I worry about that. I worry about her, although she doesn't like the fact that I do. (I'm a mom--what can I say?)

I know God often has to use a "clue-by-four" to get my attention. If this was one, it was a dandy! On the other hand, the car is 18 years old and has over 180,000 miles on it. Breaking down at inconvenient times is what older cars do.

Guess I'll have to wait and see...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Remembering George Carlin

I first noticed George Carlin back in high school in the late 1960's-early 1970's. He was the "Hippy Dippy Weatherman," the "Stupid Disc Jockey," and the cousin of one of my classmates. Of course I didn't hear his routine about "The 7 Words You Can't Say on Television" until much later, when I was an adult and married and we had HBO. I remember thinking it was raunchy and outrageous and funny.

Then there was his routine about "Stuff." Hubs and I had just bought our first house and were in the process of consolidating our old "Stuff" and accumulating new "Stuff" (a process which hasn't stopped). His routine about the differences between baseball and football was dead on, even though I'm more of a football fan, myself. I loved the way he "ran home."

I'm not surprised to hear that he had issues with the Catholic Church. Most comedians of his era had problems with authority of any stripe and, of course, God is the Ultimate Authority. I was a bit surprised to hear he'd been married only twice--his first wife died of cancer. So however misanthropic and nihilistic his public persona was, he must have been different in private. I think some of that private persona came through in Jersey Girl, where he plays the gruff-but-loving father and grandfather. (I found it interesting that the granddaughter goes to Catholic School, although the family is never seen going to Mass.)

As for Carlin's anti-Catholicism... Personally, I thought his turn as the cardinal in Dogma was funny. The cardinal is trying to re-market the Catholic Church by introducing "The Buddy Jesus" and making the Church "hipper" and "more relevant." His character reminded me a lot of the early-post Vatican II days, exaggerated for comedic effect. And Carlin played it, I thought, like someone who had been raised in the Church, who knew about the dashboard Jesus and St. Christopher medals and who wanted to skewer that kind of obsession with symbols. Was it more vicious than that? Possibly. But I hadn't seen any of Carlin's recent stand-up routines or interviews, so I don't know.

In fact, I haven't kept up with George Carlin in recent years. He was not a comedian I sought out, whose routines I listened to regularly. Until I read the tributes to him, I didn't realize he was still doing stand-up and that so much of it was angry. But he was part the milieu of my adolescence--his death is another reminder that I'm getting old.

R.I.P, George.

crossposted at Catholic Media Review

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Book Review: The Secret Life of Bees/The Mermaid Chair

Sue Monk Kidd has a way with words, evoking scenes and smells, drawing idiosyncratic characters who seem perfectly plausible. Her writing style reminds me a lot of Pat Conroy's--if she's not a native Southerner, she's one who loves it all, the people, the land, the food.

The Secret Life of Bees is her debut novel. The main character is Lily Owen, whose life has been defined by the death of her mother. Lily was four when she accidentally shot her mother who was having an argument with her husband, Lily's father. Lily's father, whom she calls T. Ray, seems indifferent to Lily, leaving her in the care of Rosaleen, a black woman he's pulled out of his peach orchard.

Lily has found a box containing a few items that belonged to her mother. One is a picture of a Black Madonna, with the words "Tiburon, South Carolina" written on the back. When Rosaleen runs into trouble on the way to register to vote (it's 1964), Lily springs her from the hospital and they run away and they head to Tiburon. On her way in to town, she finds the Black Madonna--it's a label on a jar of honey, made by a local beekeeper, August. August (who is also black) lives with her two younger sisters, June and May. She lies her way into staying with the sisters, learning about bees and "The Daughters of Mary," the religion the sisters practice revolving around the Virgin Mary. Coincidentally, Lily also receives the mothering she needs and Rosaleen finds a place for herself as well.

Of course, the idyll cannot last. Lily is a white girl living in a black household and her father has no idea where she is. The situation comes to a head and Lily learns about her mother, her father, and herself.

Unfortunately, the ending is implausible and a disappointment. (Interestingly, DD#1 had the same reaction, but phrased it much more elegantly: "Ms. Kidd is a good writer but not much of a storyteller.) I enjoyed the book in kind of a lazy, laid-back way. It's a good summer read: pleasurable, but not enthralling.

The Mermaid Chair is another novel. Also set in South Carolina. This novel has more overtly Catholic themes, involving a saints, monks, and women. Jessie has been married to Hugh for 20 years. Their daughter, Dee, is off to college. Jessie is feeling restless, but doesn't know why. She has learned to live in "the smallest space possible." Then she gets word that her mother has chopped off her right index finger. Jessie returns home to Egret Island, to her mother and her mother's best friends, Kat and Hepzibah. And to the Monastery of St. Senara, home of the Mermaid Chair.

And home to Brother Thomas, who, in his previous life, was an environmental lawyer, happily married and expecting his first child, when his wife and their unborn child were killed in a car accident. Father Sebastian, the monastery prior, suspects that Brother Thomas is running away from life. Father Dominic has written the story of the Mermaid Chair which Kat sells to tourists in her store, The Mermaid's Tale.

Because the island is small, all the characters are intertwined. Brother Thomas and Jessie feel a strong attraction, a deep connection. And the island itself--its heat, its mud, its tides--is as much a character as the people involved.

Again, though, lyrical writing but weak story, especially the ending. Both The Mermaid Chair and The Secret Life of Bees have a lot of detail about Catholic traditions, but apparently Ms. Kidd was a Southern Baptist. Before writing novels, she was known for her writing about spiritual matters, including her journey to the "sacred feminine." Her novels reflect her world view.

On the March Hare scale: 3 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks overall. Fine summer reading, not too mentally challenging, but not enough of a guilty pleasure either.

crossposted at Catholic Media Review

Monday, June 23, 2008

Summer Intermezzo

My internal alarm clock woke me up, even though I stayed up late watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix last night. Not only do I have no children to hustle off to school, I have no Hubs either: he and DS#2 and DD#2 are at Boy Scout camp this week as part of our Troop and our new Venture Crew. The Venture program is co-ed, which is why DD#2 can go. I have mixed feelings about that, but the camp fee for a new unit is incredibly cheap. And I am the type of parent who is always pushing her children to stretch their wings, try something new, be outdoors.

While they are gone the remote is mine and the television has mostly been off. I can read when I want, eat when (and what) I want, and write without fear that someone will walk in wondering, "Whatca doin'?", startling my Muse, causing her to flee.

This is an amazing freedom.

DS#1 is in his college town, in his apartment, having found a summer internship there. DD#2 is working and taking two classes at community college--she decided that since she's been there so long, she might as well get her AA. Later this summer and early in the Fall, the intensity will begin as both DS#2 and DD#1 apply for universities and colleges. She will probably get in; he probably will not. (DS#2 is smart enough; just not book-smart. He's people smart, but California state universities and colleges do not have personal interviews.)

The house is very quiet, especially at night. The Dog is lonely, although since there is only one human around, the decision where to sit is much easier for her: wherever I am. The cats only find me if they need to be fed or decide they want a lap.

The last week was hot, but the fog has come in and temperatures are returning to summer norms. The hills are August-dry, so there are several grass-and-brush fires around the Bay Area, tinging the fog a reddish-brown and leaving the faint smell of smoke in the air. If the burns are small enough to control, the local fire departments let them burn out to prevent larger, more serious fires. These fires rarely make the news--a burnt scar on the hillside tells the tale. The Fourth of July weekend will be a concern: more fireworks, more alcohol, more open campfires as people take to the mountains and lakes. Better to burn now.

The birds are singing. I can hear the traffic from the freeway. It sounds like it's going to be warm today. My bedroom window is open, but I'm not cold. I'll need a jacket for BART, but I'll park in the shade so I'll be able to touch the steering wheel of my car this afternoon without burning my fingers. I have to remember to stop by the cleaners and pick up my dress and DS#2's tuxedo. My schedule at work is light, but I never know.

I've read three books--novels--that I hope to review this evening. Summer novels, although one has left me feeling nostalgic and a little sad. Maybe wistful?

Now it's time to get up, take a shower, get dressed, and face the day. Put on my "game" face, my "career woman" persona.

Carpe diem!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

What the Frack???

So last night was the cliffhanger episode of Battlestar Galactica. I thought that this was the last season, but, apparently, there is a new definition of "season." Because the resolution of this cliffhanger won't be aired until January 2009.

In the parlance of BG, what the frack???

If you haven't seen it, I won't spoil it, but I do have a general question.

Here, the child of Helo & Athena, is important because she is a hybrid--half human, half Cylon. But the Chief's (Galen's) son is also a hybrid, although no one realized that one of his parents is a Cylon--including that parent. Why isn't he as important as Hera?

Well, to help tide me over until January, SciFi Channel is bringing back Eureka! This series is about a quirky town of geniuses, hidden in Northern California (I think)--"Area 51 only wishes they had our security." The only non-genius is U.S. Marshall John Carter (an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars novels?), who is now the sheriff. He may not be a genius, but he has common sense.

I love the characters in this town and the oddball problems they get into. The characters are well-developed and there are gizmos and gadgets galore. I got DS#2 hooked on this. It's a great summer series (the new season starts the end of July). I'm not sure if Season 1 and 2 are out on DVD yet, but SciFi Channel does show some episodes on the web--maybe they have some old ones available.

crossposted on Catholic Media Review

Book Review: Good Omens

The complete title of this book is Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. This is a joint effort by Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Terry Pratchett (Discworld series). Which means it's hysterically funny, but you can't explain to anyone why you're laughing out loud without reading several pages to explain the set up.

It's also the kind of book where a complete stranger, who noticed I was reading this on BART, said, "Great book! You'll enjoy it!" Book recommendations don't come any more spontaneous than that.

The story is about Armageddon. A demon, Crowley, and an angel, Aziraphale, who have been on Earth since The Fall of Adam and Eve, aren't really too keen to have this happen. They've grown rather fond of this planet and its inhabitants, along with wine, classic Bentleys, well-cut suits, and books. But the Anti-Christ is born and the Hound of Hell has been unleashed, so what can they do?

Meanwhile, there is a book, with Agnes Nutter's prophecies, currently in the possession of Agnes's direct descendant, Anathema. The "Nice" in the title refers to the original meaning of the word: precise. And Agnes's predictions are accurate and precise--it's just that her relatives have to figure out what she means.

Meanwhile, Newton Pulsifer, answers a rather strange ad in the local paper in an attempt to add some drama to his life. He finds himself in an odd kind of Army of two, where his main job is going through newspapers looking for odd happenings.

The Four Horsemen appear, but their "horses" don't have four feet.

There is much British humor, which Gaiman & Pratchett explain to Americans with helpful footnotes, although access to the Internet for British history and folklore was also useful to me.

The tone is, of course, entirely irreverent, especially towards the end. Can any of God's creatures truly know what He wants?

In the afterword, Gaiman & Pratchett discuss their collaboration. They talk about signing copies of this book that are swollen from having been dropped in the bath, taped together with massive amounts of duct tape, and talking to fans who keep purchasing copies because the ones they've lent out don't return home.

I can see why.

This book is not for everyone. But if you enjoy Monty Python, Douglas Adams, or Doctor Who, chances are you'll enjoy Good Omens. It's a great vacation book.

On the March Hare scale: 4.5 out 5 Golden Bookmarks

crossposted at Catholic Media Review

May Is Over; Summer Has Arrived!

I hate the month of May. It's the month when everyone is trying to "finish up" before the end of the school year. This year we survived two Junior Proms, one SAT test (the same day as one of the Proms), a Girl Scout bridging and Silver Award ceremony, a family gathering/reunion/mini-break, an AP Biology test, Back-to-School night, two major term papers, a plagiarism crisis, Boy Scout Camporee, a Girl Scout Leader-Daughter breakfast, the husband of a good friend rushed into by-pass surgery, and a good friend of DS#2 who is in the hospital with an allergic reaction to his cancer meds.

Last week was finals. And the week before was when the rest of the projects were due. DD#2 told us she owes $109.00 because of damage to one of her textbooks. And the weather has been beautiful--shirtsleeve warm during the day, cool enough at night to sleep.

The "marine layer"--aka fog--rolled in on Friday, which was the last day of school. That's the way it usually works around here: beautiful weather the last two weeks of school, followed by ten or twelve weeks of fog, and then several more weeks of great weather in September and October. It wouldn't be a traditional Independence Day without barbecuing with ski jackets on.

Next year, DS#2 will be a Senior. DD#2 will be confirmed. DD#1 will be transferring to a four-year University.

Hubs and I may just go to Disneyland. :)

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Movie Review: Iron Man

This is the latest installment of Marvel comics to come to the big screen and, I believe, it's the first to carry their production label. Iron Man is also the first of the summer popcorn movies to hit theaters.

And hit it does. The film opens with a tribute to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the genius son of the founder of Stark Industries. The senior Mr. Stark made his fortune during World War II, working on the Manhattan Project. Tony, who showed his engineering genius at a young age, has inherited the company after the death of his father, but has also inherited his father's corporate ethics: Stark Industries supplies weapons only to the U.S.

However, in his personal life, Tony's ethics are more lackadasical. He doesn't appear at the tribute to pick up his award. He seduces a female reporter who wants to interview him. He delays leaving for Afghanistan where he's due to demonstrate the latest Stark Industries weapon to work on his latest classic car. His old friend, Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and his assistant, Ms. "Pepper" Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), do their best to keep him focused, with moderate success.

After a successful demonstration of the "Jericho Bomb", the convoy heading back to the airfield is attacked. Tony wakes up with a car battery attached to his chest. He has been captured by terrorists and a fellow captive, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), has rigged a device to keep Tony's heart beating. The terrorists, who come from several countries, including Hungary and Yugoslavia, want Tony to build a version of the Jericho Bomb for them. Tony looks around and realizes that someone within Stark Industries has been selling munitions to these insurgents and Tony isn't happy about it. He's also not happy about being held captive. With Yinsen's assistance, Tony builds a small power source for his heart and then the ultimate in body armor. While building the armor, Tony learns about Yinsen's life--his family, his village--and comes to see how narrow his vision has been.

With the aid of his suit, Tony escapes and returns to New York. He is a changed man and announces that Stark Industries will no longer make weapons. He has a new vision, a vision that not everyone in his company shares. And he has to find out who is selling Stark munitions to the terrorists.

Tony confides his new plans to his assistant, Ms. Potts, and to Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) who was his father's closest confident and right hand man. He also shows Obadiah the power source that is keeping him alive. And then Tony goes into seclusion to work on and refine the design of the armored suit.

Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan, the Head Bad Guy find the pieces of the body armor and vows his revenge.

The special effects in this movie are awesome. There's a great scene where Tony Stark is trying out his new suit and is picked up by Strategic Air Command, who are getting ready to blow him out of the sky. He avoids that not through techno-wizardry, but through his friendship with Rhodey. And, for me, it was the characters that made the movie great, not just the special effects.

Tony and Pepper have a chemistry, but when their relationship threatens to turn personal, she refers to him as "Mr. Stark" and he refers to her as "Ms. Potts." Tony sees Obadiah as a mentor. Tony and Rhodey have been friends since they were kids. Yinsen touched Tony's heart, literally and figuratively. Tony is flawed, but capable of change--although his flaws, and his genius, are what get him into trouble.

The casting is excellent. I didn't recognize Jeff Bridges at first and Robert Downey Jr. shows the talent for characterization evident in Chaplin. Gywneth Paltrow is strong, resourceful, and sexy. The dialogue is witty and snappy without resorting to profanity. There is some innuendo, especially between Tony and Ms. Potts, but it's well done. There is the one sex scene early in the movie and several violent fight scenes. The destruction of the convoy is particularly shocking--I jumped even though I knew it was coming. Iron Man provides lots of topics for later discussion, particularly with high schoolers, including

Oh--stay through the end of the credits.

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

crossposted at Catholic Media Review