Thursday, February 25, 2010

At last...

I have finished reading Jeff Sharlet's book The Family. I always list "The Top of the Pile" book--that is the book I am currently reading--along the sidebar of this page.

Sometimes, a book stays up for a good long time, until I either finish it or set it aside for another day. For a while, I had the biography of Andrew Jackson--American Lion--gracing my sidebar. That one I gave up on, at least for now. I will no doubt return to it. I gave up on it, partly because the contentious interaction in Washington while Jackson was president sounded too much!

I then went off and read a bunch of easier reads--such as Marilynne Robinson's Home. Then, I tackled Jeff Sharlet's
The Family. The subtitle tips the content--The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

I first heard about the subject of Sharlet's book while watching MSNBC's coverage of the Governor Sanford story. You remember Governor Sanford? He went missing around Father's Day last year to . . .hike the Appalachian Trail. Um, no. To fly to Argentina to spend time with his mistress. He had an affair with an Argentinian woman. Following his return to the U.S., and his rambling tearful admission that he really wasn't hiking, Sanford sought spiritual guidance and counsel from fellow political folk at the C Street house in Washington, DC.

What's the C street house? Well, so glad you asked. Here's where The Family enters the picture. The C street house is owned by a secretive group called alternatively the Family or the Fellowship. The house is listed as a church, and thus is tax exempt property. It is also the place where, in addition to Governor Sanford, Senator Ensign was counselled about his on-going affair with the wife of his chief of staff. As if that wasn't bad enough, Senator Ensign then tried to buy off the woman and her husband. It is indeed a sordid story.

As if that twosome weren't enough, it is also where Representative Chip Pickering lived, while he had an affair. Interestingly enough, all three of these politicians thought it proper that President Bill Clinton should be impeached for his affair.

The story of the Family (or the Fellowship) is the subject of Jeff Sharlet's book. He did the kind of research that is almost unduplicatable--he lived in one of the Family's houses where they sort of indoctrinate people into their tenets. They do not advance a specific church theology, but they advance a specific Christian point of view--they hold Bible studies and prayer sessions. They seek to influence American, and for that matter international, politics.

That doesn't seem too bad, does it? Or does it. This is the group that is behind the recent bill introduced in Uganda that has made international news. Basically, the bill called for the death penalty for people who are found out to be gay. After the news began to emerge about this draconian bill, U.S. legislators affiliated with the Fellowship began to fall all over themselves disavowing any connection to the Ugandan bill.

It might to tempting to think--what's the problem with a group, even if it is secretive, that wants to infuse Christian concepts into our legislative process. I have thought long and hard about this question. And here's what I have come up with--first, I put forward the notion that a democracy and a theocracy cannot co-exist. If we were to be guided in all our legislative dealings with strictly Christian ideals, we would no longer have room for the portion of our population which is not Christian, or guided by Christian ideals.

Second, whose definition of Christian ideals would be used? Not all Christians agree, even on some essential tenets of faith. So who would decide? The current leaders of the Fellowship that Jeff Sharlet writes of eschew traditional organized religion. Instead, they call for Jesus + nothing. What does that mean?

Yes, it took me a long time to finish this book. Part of the reason, in addition to somewhat confusing content, was the dense writing style that Sharlet has. But, I made myself read through to the end. After all, a secretive group that has as its goal to change the fundamental way that we govern ourselves in this country is not something to be taken lightly. And it certainly isn't something that my wandering inattention should deter me from knowing about.

For the record, I am now reading Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. Much lighter reading, I assure you.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Memory, the Warder of the Brain*

Yesterday, my husband and I spent a fruitless hour searching for my glasses. I try to be very methodical about stowing my bifocals, with their attachable sunglasses. Yet, earlier in the day, we went to the grocery store, and when I went to extract my glasses, they weren't there--not to be found in my eyeglass case.

So, I began replaying the events of the previous day--where had I been when I last had my glasses. When we returned home, we both began looking for my glasses: in the car, on the floor of the garage, in my purse (turned completely inside out--remember the lost camera?), in every other glasses case in the house, under beds, down inside couches...get the picture? EVERYWHERE. Nothing. . .until, suddenly, my husband appeared in the garage. I was out there once more. Here they are, he said. Where, I asked sheepishly. Next to the laundry hamper. OF COURSE, I had taken them off to remove my sweater, laid them down, then left the room.


An episode such as my lost eyeglasses is what I call the coffee cup syndrome. No doubt, you are familiar with it--you pour yourself a cup of coffee (or tea), walk into another room, get distracted by something, put the cup down, walk away, and then...Then you can't remember where you put that cup. So you walk around, trying to recreate your last series of activities to figure out where the coffee cup is.

I don't know if my short term memory is becoming less efficient as I get older. Whatever the reason, it's frustrating.

A friend of mine recently invited me to accompany her to a live performance by Garrison Keillor. He opened his two hour monologue referencing sonnets--he went on to reminisce about memorizing sonnets in school. And promptly began reeling off strings of poetry.

The requirement to memorize poetry has pretty much fallen out of favor. In some ways, that's sad. I know just a few poems entirely by heart, but wish I knew more. My grandfather had committed many poems to memory--and when he was blind, he could recall them at great length, even trading lines of poetry back and forth with a friend of his.

Oh, I can't really claim that if I had more poems committed to memory that I would not misplace my glasses, or even that I could track down my coffee cup immediately.

I just want memory to be that warder of the brain. Or, maybe for the brain to be the warder of memory!
Macbeth, act 1, sc. 7, l. 65.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

R-I-G-H-T ! !

Remember the old Bill Cosby routine on "Noah"?

Watch the routine, if you have never seen it.

At one point, Bill Cosby, as Noah, receives a directive--his response: R-I-G-H-T ! !

Well, if you go to the previous post in this blog, and look at comments 8 and 9 (the really long ones; you'll know which ones I mean), you will see why I say R-I-G-H-T!!!

Not convinced, folks. NOT convinced at all.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Don't Get My Irish Up

I won't claim credit for this one--all the credit goes to my husband and his eagle eye--but it's the type of thing that gets my Irish up.

Our monthly telephone bill came today. Since my husband handles the bill paying in this house, he checked it over carefully. What he noted was something strange--there on the Veriz*n bill was an additional $43 charge from something called ILD Teleservices. It was for services provided by Id Lifeguards and for other services provided by 1-800-321-CONTACT, all under the ILD Teleservices name. I don't mind including these two entities by name and telephone number because what they are doing seems patently illegal to me.

They informed our telephone carrier, Veriz*n, that they had rendered services to us. Since Veriz*n is our carrier, they are obligated to pass along the bill for these services.

Here's the hitch. We neither approved nor requested these services. Ever.

So, my husband called ILD Teleservices. With something of a nonchalant attitude, the service rep said--oh, you didn't request these services. OK, we'll take off that charge.


Then my husband called Veriz*n to verify the reduced charge AND to complain. Our hands are tied, said Veriz*n. We have to pass the charge (even if it's bogus--my words) along.

Alrighty. You see why my Irish would be up? When folks pull stunts like that, I call that a scam.

What really concerned my husband--and I agree--is the possibility that some people glance over their bills, see inexplicable charges but assume they are legitimate and pay. NO NO NO--never pay something that looks bogus. Challenge it.

Can you guess which bill is going to get a very thorough review from now until forever? Yup.

There's a name for what ILD Teleservices is doing--it's called cramming. Oh, just for the record, it looks like we aren't the only folks who have had this happen: check out here and here.

So, join me--let's all get "our Irish up" and defeat these bast*rds.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Big One

I mean...the really big one.

We count our lives in decades, mostly. So, 15 years ago when I turned 50, my husband (with conspiratorial assistance from a friend and our daughter) rounded up a group of friends and surprised me. We celebrated, complete with a lute player. Nice touch.

Then 5 years ago, my husband again arranged, but opted not to surprise me (can't be too careful with older folk, you know) a party. And once again we celebrated. I do love a good celebration.

But neither of these decadal celebrations was really THE BIG ONE. Today is. Yes, folks, I turn 65 today. This is the age when people are supposed to retire. Well, I did retire from full time work, but some years earlier, and not at a time of my choosing.

Sixty-five was set as retirement age in the mid-1930s. The reason 65 was picked had to do with that being one of two prevailing ages in use--the other was 70. You can read more of the Social Security history at their website. Of course, as we American live longer and longer, the age at which one can collect full retirement benefits has been pushed back a bit. So, I don't actually begin SS payments until next year.

I have received many well-wishes from friends, and have a lovely round of gifts to celebrate. From my husband, a new computer and a rebuilt computer center. We had wires leading to and from... nothing. Now, all the wires have been cleaned up and the desk looks GREAT.

From my son and his wife, I received a lovely HUGE bouquet of spring flowers--makes the winter day so much brighter.

From our daughter and her husband, an early present when we visited London. They had gotten tickets for all of us to go see a revival of the play Le Misanthrope, Moliere's comedy of manners making fun of high society. The play had been updated to the present, set in modern London. The play was also the stage debut for Keira Knightley.

From Uncle Sam, I got a Medicare card. Yes, it's true--I now qualify for the government run universal health care program that is untouchable in U.S. politics, but yet which too many politicians are falling over themselves these days to say--WE DON'T WANT A GOVERNMENT RUN HEALTH CARE SYSTEM...what hypocritical fools.

Would anyone in their right minds REALLY say that what we in this country had the courage and foresight to provide for senior citizens--universal coverage for health care--we should NOT provide for all citizens?
For children? unemployed? for ... well, everyone? Really?

(Oops, sorry--I was celebrating a birthday. Step down carefully from soap box.)

Well, the big one has been a pleasant day, thus far.

Sorry to repeat myself, but I will use again the story (whether apocryphal or not) of Ingrid Bergman: They say that when asked how she felt now that she had reached the "advanced" age of 60, Ingrid Bergman replied: "I like it just fine, considering the alternative."

So, I have reached the big one...and I like it just fine.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

There'll Always Be an England

As someone who grew up in a country that was still under the active colonial influence of England, I confess to being something of an Anglophile. I have visited England more than any other country (excepting Canada) and I continue to enjoy the opportunities to visit. I could spend a year in London and not see all that I am interested in seeing.

My Anglophilia cranked up a couple of extra notches when I chose to major in English literature which meant that I had to learn a fair bit of English history.

The expression "there'll always be an England" rings true for me. With surprise, I learn that this expression has not always been around--it was written in 1939 as England on the verge of war. It was England's dogged determination to survive, and even triumph, in World War II that really exhibits something special about the English character--whatever that is. I have to caution myself that the English spirit I admire had/has its dark side. For example, the effects of colonialism in the various countries that made up the far-flung British Empire were not always beneficent. But this post is not about what England has done wrong.

It is about a Christmas present I received from my daughter on our recent trip to visit her and our son-in-law. I received a wonderful coffee mug displaying a single image--

This simple message--Keep Calm and Carry On--was what was printed on millions of posters prepared during World War II. Like the song "There'll Always be an England" the posters were also prepared in 1939. But--they were never used. Copies of the posters were discovered in 2000 in a second-hand bookshop, and they became an instant rage.

Now, there are posters, shirts, coffee cups, bags, and even cuff links with the sentiment printed on them.

In this time where we too face a seemingly interminable enemy, where we are engaged in a battle that defies reason and mystifies me, the words "Keep Calm and Carry On" strike exactly the right note. I refuse to alter my life out of fear of what could happen. Of course something untoward could happen. But that is true anywhere I go, anytime.

I think you get the drift of my thinking without my having to go on and on.

I will leave you with just five words--KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Pilgrims All

Our reason for going to Canterbury was not only to see the cathedral. Rather like Chaucer's pilgrims, we too wanted to see the sights. I am not one to adulate a person, or ascribe deep feeling to standing on the spot of one's martyrdom. If I felt anything, it was a sense of history, not of religious reverence.

I did enjoy the journey and the destination. Chaucer would have approved.

I have referenced Chaucer's Canterbury Tales several times. This work is one of the most important in all English literature--it was to English literature what Dante's Divine Comedy is to Italian literature. In writing Canterbury Tales, Chaucer struck the first modern note in literature to that time. He wrote it in the vernacular--the language of the common folk-- where up to that time literature had been written in the scholarly language of Latin. His subject was also wholly approachable by the common reader. His characters are drawn from every day life--a mixture of society of the day complete with a chivalrous knight, church folk, and a bawdy wife from Bath. As one analyst points out, these characters represent the three dominant classes in society of the day: those who fight, those who pray and those who work.

So off we too go to Canterbury. We traveled from London by train--where Chaucer's pilgrims would have walked--and stayed at inns along the way, where the various tales were told.

To enter old Canterbury, you go through a gate--even though the gate constricts traffic, I did see a large bus go through that gate. If you look closely, you can see it coming through.

The center of old Canterbury is all only for pedestrians--wonderful. We could stroll along, shopping, gawking, taking in the sights. The doorway above led to an old hostel type place, old enough to have housed pilgrims over the centuries.

A small canal cut through the city, offering a delightful view.

I regretted the boat with its inopportune blue tarp--I even considered "Photo-Shopping" it out, but decided not to. Note above the boat--is that a dunking chair?

I love the mixture of the old and the new. The lovely old windows--in two different styles no less--combined with a sign for an expresso bar below.

We went looking for a pub to eat in--and considered the one pictured above. But we weren't quite hungry, so we kept walking. Eventually, we came to this one. It, however, turned out NOT to be a pub, but a regular restaurant. We ate there anyway, and only saw the sign afterwards announcing how old the actual place is. Had I known that date, I might have gone looking for pilgrims long gone and missing.

The interior windows were yet another treat, offering a view of the aforementioned canal.

Finally, one photo of our fellow pilgrims--we were pilgrims all, and just as with Chaucer's travelers, we too were in good company.

I have one or two more tales from our London trip--saved for another day.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Wenden on a Pilgrymage

The guide books will tell you that Canterbury is the second most visited city in England. Since it is really quite a small place, that statistic--if accurate--is astounding. But then, Chaucer would have understood the draw.

When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales he did something quite remarkable. He wrote them in English. Now maybe, it is not English as you would recognize it--here, have a go at it. These are the opening lines of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The drought of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
Bifil that in that seson, on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.

How did you do? Not very well? Too many words that aren't easily recognizable? You are reading Middle English--which at times seems closer to German than modern English, especially in pronunciation, where you articulate all the consonants. So, "pilgrymage" (which we say as a three syllable word) becomes PIL GRIM MAH JA. Quite fun, reading and speaking in Middle English.

OK--what Chaucer was writing about was a group of twenty-nine pilgrims who are making a trip in April to Canterbury to visit the grave of Thomas Becket, who had been murdered in the cathedral. The remains of his body had been gathered up by faithful followers. Soon, miracles began to happen--and by the time Chaucer writes, two hundred years after Becket's death, pilgrims were traveling in droves to this site.

And they still go today--only, now they are called tourists. Maybe they don't expect miracles, but they can be awed. Tourists first go through a gate (not sure if pilgrims did likewise or not)--pictured below.

The cathedral that stands today would not have been what Chaucer's pilgrims saw. The soaring Gothic style of the cathedral (pictured below) was rebuilt in the 14th century, so it was not the cathedral standing there in Becket's day.

For 3 centuries after Becket's death, a shrine in Trinity Chapel was dedicated to Thomas Becket, who had been made a saint in 1173. But, with Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church, and his establishment of the Church of England, Henry ordered thousands of Catholic sites destroyed. Among them was the shrine of Thomas Becket. Today, a simple candle marks the spot of the Becket Shrine.

The actual spot where Becket was slain still exists, but is today marked by a modern memorial. This site is simply called The Martyrdom, with the jagged steel swords on either side of the broken sword hanging over a simple altar. Thomas was praying at the altar when Henry II's knights stormed in and killed him.

One part of the cathedral that would have been standing in Becket's day is the crypt. Below the quire of the cathedral, the crypt shows Romanesque architecture. The low arches are dramatically lit by small lights.

The window placements are wonderful, catching the afternoon light. This entire area is marked by signs calling for SILENCE (and no cameras--but I put mine on silent and no flash, and took a few discrete photos).

This small chapel in the crypt is called the Jesus Chapel--the ceiling is marvelously decorated.

Outside the cathedral, few old buildings stand.

There is a lovely small healing garden, with walls on three sides. It is easy to imagine people seeking solace here.
So, that is the pilgrim report. In re-reading the opening lines of the Prologue, I am amused to find those pilgrims started out in Southwerk (part of London). Why? Because we too began our pilgrimage in Southwark (the current spelling) as that is where our hotel was. Not the Tabard, but something a bit more contemporary.
With a next post, I promise to be more secular.