Saturday, May 29, 2004


We've had this discussion in our parish and have come down on the side of a reserved and thoughtful silence. Once, somebody gave a gift to our matusha, a woman who deserves our respect and, yes, applause, if anyone does. But people talked to the priest about it. I didn't hear the comments, but I can just hear the comments: "not dignified," "church isn't a theatre," "it's not entertainment, Father."

Well, along comes Seraphim to inform us that in the time of St. John Chrysostom, it was indeed Entertainment!:
It was a longstanding custom for the congregation to applaud in church, or to shout out signs of their disapproval, when bishops preached to them.

(This from Fr. John McGuckin's book St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts).

Applause, like a lot of things, is cultural, but Seraphim puts the "entertainment" of theology into its context in the glory days of the Golden Tongue.

I'm going to send his post off to my priest.

Doesn't sound like apocalypticism to me

The Touchstone Magazine blog relates that when Pres. George W. Bush was "asked whether he believed that modern Israel is the land promised to the Jewish people by God, he said, 'I view it a little differently.' Israel is a 'friend, ally, a democracy' in 'a rough neighborhood.' 'We will stand by her if someone tries to annihilate her.' He also supports the existence of a separate Palestinian state."

Of course, they will not be persuaded who believe his loyalty to Israel is part of "the support offered by fundamentalist Protestants [who] interpret the bible’s [sic] prophecy to explain the unfolding events of the Middle East and the world" (book review of Made in Texas in The Globalist).

No, you don't have to have a specific view of Bible prophecy to consider a liberal democracy, however imperfect, a better friend and trustier ally than hooligans, death worshipers and kleptocrats.

New holidays in Atlantic City

Atlantic City's 560 Muslim public-school students will have two of their sacred days affirmed as the entire school district takes off Nov. 15 for the end of Ramadan and Jan. 21 for Eid al-Adha. Even before the addition of the holidays, Muslim students, like students of other religions, could take excused absences on holy days.

This reduces the number of emergency school closures from six to four. Perhaps Atlantic City's snow days will fall on Nov. 15 and Jan. 21.

Certainly, then, the district takes off Western Good Friday, for its Catholic students, who are many more than its Muslim students, right? How about Eastern Orthodox? Does the school district already take off Eastern Holy Friday? And considering Atlantic City's substantial Jewish community, then naturally Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana are already a district-wide holidays.



Oddly enough, there are no current or even complete school calendars on the web, nor even a calendar showing city days off. The Egg Harbor School District's calendar is online (Egg Harbor is 15 miles from Atlantic City). The only religious holiday is Yom Kippur; the two weeks at the end of December are called "Winter Break."

Allahu akbar. The star and crescent rises over New Jersey.

Progressive legacy: starvation

BLUE GOLDFISH | Surface has compiled history and photos of the devastating effects of high-sounding idealism (Marxist dictators) and their apologists at the beginning and the end of the 20th century.

Lenin and Stalin, with the aid of Walter Duranty, and Mugabe, with the aid of and later of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, together have laid waste probably some 50 million people, all in the stated interest of power to the people, giving the means of production to the masses, bringing down the powerful, ultimately of course to concentrate power in the hands of Lenin, Stalin and Mugabe.

The post is well written and beautifully assembled. See it for yourself.

Friday, May 28, 2004

I am such a geek

I spent hours last night updating to OSX, moving my files from the System 9 documents to System 10 documents folder, discovering the joys of the OSX browser, Safari (I haven't ever read the well-known Little Green Footballs weblog because it took too long to load, and now it just appears. And my Power Structure software is System X optimized.

Even the preview button on the Blogger "create post" shows what the post is really going to look like.

So I don't have anything to blog for nongeeks, but fellow geeks will appreciate my "waste" of time.

UPDATE: Boing Boing posted this gem:
Audio tour of the MacPlus

Patrick sez, "Digging through his cassette tapes last weekend, this guy came across 'Macintosh Plus: A Guided Tour' and decided he should archive it onto CD for posterity (being a pack rat by nature). It's especially interesting in that it gives a good glimpse of the level of user education necessary at that point in Computer History: it patiently goes over how to interact with icons, how to use the mouse, etc..."
Put the floppy disk into the internal disk drive. Put it in with the metal end first...and the label up. Push it all the way in.

"For a real today-meets-yesterday experience, throw this on your iPod."

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Is music more culturally translatable than humor?

I think so.

A Ethiopian man, Haile Amde Haymanot, signed the guest book over at the Onion Dome thus:
besime ab, weweld, wemenfes qidus; ahadu amlak; Amen!

Hello there! Yes, the Orthodox might not be laughing about themselves... It's because we take our religion very seriously. Our religion is theocentric and not anthropocentric as some other denominations are.

Mr. Haymanot conflates two distinct things here: laughing about ourselves and laughing about our religion. I feel safe in speaking for all the writers at the Onion Dome that we don't laugh at our faith. Mr. Haymanot is right; we are centered on God, and though I'm sure that God laughs at us, I don't laugh at Him. He is not ridiculous.

The same cannot be said of Orthodox Christians. We are the oddest, quirkiest and most frequently ridiculous of all the Christian groups, and I will hold us up in that regard against the craziest Catholics, the looniest Lutherans and the battiest Baptists you can find, as well as the most aggravating agnostics and the most irritating Unitarians.

But Mr. Haymanot continues:
And for us Orthodox people it is a gift of God that we could keep our faith to this very day. Some of us were under the rule of foreign non-christian empires and others had to retreat to isolation and defend whatever they had against others who attacked us. That probably had a certain effect on our 'humor' in religious things...

I think he's hit on the difference. It's a gift of God even to us Americans that he and the other persecuted peoples have kept their faith even to this day, and I suppose that in the crucible there may be no time or opportunity for laughter, just as for the first three centuries of the Church, there was not much opportunity to deal with heresy.

Heresy--and the theology that answers it--grows in times of safety, and the important arguments that must take place in the cool shade of religious freedom need humor. Satire channels anger; it substitutes ridicule for venom; it points up odd correspondences; it points up odd divergences.
This is my personal view, that I wanted to share with you. It's not a hate post or anything like that. I neither say that what you do is 'bad', it's your choice and if you have another understanding of humor or religion than I have, then keep on doing your work here and may the Almighty bless it.

May God bless you on all your ways...

It's too kindly worded to be quite a "Disgrunt™," but I can tell he's not quite pleased. And yet with all respect to him, I say that writing for the Onion Dome is one of the best things I do. So I suppose it comes down to a different understanding of humor and religion.

But here's the thing. Go to the Tawahedo Spiritual Song Shop and listen to the music he has there. Click on one of the links in the list. They play on RealPlayer on my Mac.


Tuesday, May 25, 2004

National Council of Churches kisses up to Kofi Annan

A group of National Council of Churches delegates met with UN General Secretary Kofi Annan yesterday "about the role of the U.N. in the transition of control in Iraq from military to civilian leadership."

No indication that they asked him about the money he and his son collected from Saddam's Oil for Kofi program. Instead, their spokesman told reporters, "One of the key messages we conveyed was our support for the secretary general's leadership and the critical moment for his exercising strong leadership in the world today. We expressed our confidence in his leadership."

Attending the gathering (aside from denominations I'm not following) were Bishop Vicken Aykazian, ecumenical officer, Armenian Orthodox Church Diocese of America, Washington, D.C., and Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky, ecumenical officer, Orthodox Church in America, Syosset, N.Y. I've met Fr. Kishkovsky and respect him. I think he's trying to maintain ties of communication with the other Christian and formerly Christian bodies in the National Council of Churches. It's not an easy job, and I don't envy him.

I hope for his sake, though, it was uncomfortable to be part of such a slavering, lickspittle statement about a man who is probably among the least qualified to administrate anything and whose leadership has been an embarrassment to the United Nations and the idea of "peace" among humankind.

The price of freedom

I don't often read Pat Buchanan, but his lead on his piece "What Do We Offer the World?" caught my attention:
"So, how do we advance the cause of female emancipation in the Muslim world?" asks Richard Perle in "An End to Evil." He replies, "We need to remind the women of Islam ceaselessly: Our enemies are the same as theirs; our victory will be theirs as well."

He goes on to point out all the places where Westerners proclaim dreams of freedom and moral vision and all the places where we fall short of it: abortion, pornography, political correctness that muzzles political speech, strictures on religion and on and on. I could probably name some that he didn't think of or didn't have space for.

Ultimately, I think, Buchanan doesn't get it:
If [Pres. Bush] intends to impose the values of MTV America on the Muslim world in the name of a "world democratic revolution," he will provoke and incite a war of civilizations America cannot win because Americans do not want to fight it. This may be the neocons' war. It is not our war.

The price of freedom is that some people will use it to do evil and self-destructive things. It's the same freedom God gave Adam and Eve and the same freedom he continues to give us every day.

It's part of our task on earth to urge and persuade people to use their freedom to choose life (in many forms of decisions). It's also part of the task of societies to make laws that make space for those good choices and for different societies to experiment with different ways of doing that.

We cannot outlaw the evil that lurks in every soul. I don't mean we ought not but we can't.

In the world right now are people who would destroy us, not because of MTV, not because of abortion, not because of Hollywood, but because of our freedom. No, you don't get MTV, abortion or Hollywood under the Taliban, but you also don't get Miles Davis, widows working to feed their families or Shrek.

If you have a garden, you're going to have weeds. You pull them out, but let the flowers grow. The Taliban and the Islamofascists would poison the whole garden to keep out the weeds, and Pat Buchanan's position seems to be that the garden is not worth preserving because of its weeds. The two positions seem remarkably similar, even if one is less developed than the other.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

I guess it's bad news for somebody

The Associated Press reports that Christian bookstores are suffering because of the mainstreaming of Christian books. "Victims of their own success" is the idea, though not put into those words.

What's happening is that enough people are buying Christian titles to make it worthwhile for WalMart, Barnes and Noble and Costco to carry them, at discounted prices. That means that people don't go into the Christian (read that, Evangelical) bookstores to buy the other stuff they sell.

I have a hard time feeling a lot of sympathy. The Evangelical bookstores in our area have about 25% of their floorspace dedicated to books and the rest to kitschy little knickknacks. ''The problem for Christian booksellers is that best sellers are what we call 'traffic builders,'" says Bill Anderson, president and CEO of the Christian Booksellers Association. "So it isn't just a matter of losing sales on a few high-profile titles. It's the additional items that don't sell because people aren't coming to the store.'' Never once in the story does he mention that the "other items" are mostly Precious Moments (TM) figurines. Erg.

At the same time, the "Christian" booksellers narrowed their selection Christian books to such a narrow band of ideology that if I wanted something--Vinita Hampton Wright or Christian classics such as Dickens or Dostoevsky or something published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press--I had to look elsewhere ("religious fiction" at Borders; "literature" at any standard bookstore; a specifically "Orthodox" bookstore--or the Internet for any of them).

The good news (so to speak) is that there are a lot of books being written from a Christian worldview, and the writers are growing more proficient at their craft. More good news is that that the secular bookstores are willing to sell a good story or a popular title, regardless of ideology.

But who smites sleeping proofreaders at the LA Times?

Important rule for headline writers, especially at one of the top metropolitan dailies in the country: Don't use a verb unless you're sure about the difference between the infinitive form and the past tense:
They're Called to Smote Typos From the Good Book
Proofreaders prevent such errors as 'thou shalt commit adultery' from making it into the Bible.

Unfortunately, they sometimes fail to prevent other stupid-looking errors from making it onto the website.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Where are the readable books about books?

Writing in the London Review of Books, James Wood takes a pen to this question in his review of The Oxford English Literary History, Vol. XII: 1960-2000: The Last of England? by Randall Stevenson:
This absence of a general, non-academic literary criticism is the speaking void which tells us that writers, though apparently closer than ever to academics, are actually miles from them. The void is the public space that might have been. Many contemporary writers are familiar with the procedures of post-structuralism and deconstruction. They can talk about decentred texts and self-reflexive narration; they acknowledge that a text has an unconscious, and that it can be read against the grain of its author's apparent intentions. They see that Eminem's lyrics might be a 'text' in the way that Middlemarch is a text. They are often keener than many scholars to open up the canon. But they diverge from most academic critics, theoretical or otherwise, in two massive areas: intention and value.

Wood does a good job of providing the kind of writing he wishes there were more of.

OK, I'm the silly goose

Turns out that Elena the Chernobyl motorcyclist is a hoax.

I hope none my readers took her advice about riding motorcycles through a death zone. Apparently, Elena herself did not.

Cue laugh track.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Only five years and two months late

Lawrence Uzzell of International Freedom Watch, writing about Kosovo in the Christian Science Monitor:
The ethnic Albanian Muslims who dominate that strife-torn Balkan province have been pursuing what a NATO commander recently called "orchestrated and well-planned ethnic cleansing" against minority Christian Serbs. In mid-March, Kosovo Albanian mobs destroyed 30 churches in two days. (The mobs were inflamed by reckless reports in local media, presenting as fact a rumor that Serb teens had drowned three Albanian boys; NATO officials now say they believe the drowning was accidental.) Some of these churches had been places of Christian worship since the 14th century, jewels of medieval architecture treasured by art historians worldwide. Today they're ashen ruins. Thousands of their former parishioners are now refugees; some are dead.

Imagine the outcry if these had been Baptist or Roman Catholic churches, or synagogues. But Eastern Orthodox Christians seem to have almost no sympathizers in the US except among fellow Orthodox--and among the few human rights advocates who pursue freedom not just for their own co-religionists, but for everyone.


Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Who're you calling a loser?

Portland's alternative weekly steps in it this week, calling Portland's Catholic Archbishop John Vlazny a loser:
Portland Archbishop John Vlazny roiled the waters last week when he proclaimed that Catholics who vote pro-choice should not take communion. Vlazny, whose diocese has lost millions of dollars in the pedophile-priest scandal, may have pleased conservatives but probably didn't win many new converts.

My question is what do they care who goes to Communion in the Catholic parishes of Oregon? It makes no difference whether the archbishop is right or wrong or whether "conservatives" or "converts" are pleased. Willie Week doesn't like the Catholic Church anyway.

Willamette Week has more of a stake in the theology of the Church of Elvis.

Cousins "Left Behind" Hatfield and "Harry Potter" McCoy

Steven Waldman at Slate finds essential similarities between the Harry Potter series and the Left Behind series. I think a number of them are overdrawn, but he finally has a point worth considering.

Waldman observes that people who like Harry Potter don't like Left Behind, and vice versa; in fact, the people who like Harry Potter don't like the people who like Left Behind, and vice versa.

I've read a couple of the Harry Potters and none of the Left Behinds, though I read 666 by Salem Kirban years ago (which Left Behind is reputed to be a knockoff of) and found the characters flat, the dialoge wooden and the situation laughable, the same critiques laid on Left Behind before anyone gets to the theology of it. Still, I know a man, who is no fundamentalist, who told me he'd gotten hooked into the Left Behind story and stayed up all night reading it. Any book that sells that many copies must be doing something right; I just don't happen to know first-hand what it is.

Here are some of the correspondences Waldman found:
  • "Most obviously, in both cases, we see not a fight between individual good guys and bad guys, but a Manichean struggle between good and evil." Sorry. This is not a correspondence between these two; it's a convention of the science fiction and fantasy genres.

  • "The good guys are not believed." Kids are never believed when something big is happening (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Client), and for adults it's a common convention (The Matrix).

  • "The evil one cannot stand on his own two feet. In both series, the bad guy must occupy a human 'shell.'" Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

  • "Bad guys' wormy sidekicks." This one's more unusual, but Waldman points out that they may have been influenced by C.S. Lewis's Wormwood or Grima Wormtongue in J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. And both those Medieval scholars were likely influenced by deeper themes.

  • "Corrupt authority figures." Probably 80% of the fiction written now.

  • "Political agendas." Steinbeck anyone?

  • "Romance cannot wait." Every disaster movie.

His most interesting point is that Harry Potter is Catholic and Left Behind is Protestant. Harry Potter has to take right action. In Left Behind, a spokescharacter "explains that church leaders had led so many people astray because they merely 'expected them to lead a good life, to do the best they could, to think of others, to be kind, to live in peace. It sounded so good, and yet it was so wrong. How far from the mark!'" Left Behind is Calvinistic in its pre-ordained future; in Harry Potter, "Dumbledore explicitly tells Harry that even though he carries some of the essence of Voldemort in him, he has the power to do good because he has the power of choice."

Waldman sums up: "Both provide a roadmap for how to live a good life, but in one case the key is morality, and in the other it is faith."

I think the comparisons must have been necessary to get the article in Slate, but the contrasts were more interesting to this reader.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Poem in the style of a troparion to Mother Maria Skobtsova (Tone 3)

The poor found in your face the love of Christ, O Mother Maria,
And your compassion washed the streets of Paris like rain.
You stood with God's little ones chosen for death
And set aside the Now for the Eternal.//
Therefore, O saint who shone in Ravensbruck, pray to Christ our God to save our souls.

Around the time of this post, our choir director challenged me to write a troparion for Mother Maria Skobtsova. I was quite taken with her story--still am, in fact--and wrote the song above.

For those who don't know Orthodox terminology, a troparion is a short poetic hymn related to the feast of the day. If the day is a saint's feast day, the troparion is in praise of the saint.

There are good troparia and not-so-good ones. St. Nicholas, for example, one of the most colorful characters in Church history (and that's saying a lot), has a one-size-fits-all troparion (tone 4):
You were revealed to your flock as a measure of faith;
You were an image of humility and a teacher of self-control.
Because of your humble life, heaven was opened to you
Because of your poverty, spiritual riches were granted to you.
O holy Bishop Nicholas, we cry out to you: pray to Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

The main problem is that it seems like every fourth bishop-saint in Church history has the same troparion, just changing the name in the last line. They all deserve better, I think.

On the other hand, the troparion to St. Herman of Alaska is a beauty:
O blessed Father Herman of Alaska,
North star of Christ's holy Church,
the light of your holy life and great deeds
guides those who follow the Orthodox way.
Together we lift high the Holy Cross
you planted firmly in America.
Let all behold and glorify Jesus Christ,
singing his holy Resurrection.

The melody fits it well, too, and I love the way the line falls in "you planted firmly in America."

The next one isn't a troparion, but a "Lord, I Call" sticheron (a verse sung at vespers) to All Saints of North America, but it shows some of the characteristics I love in hymnography:
Rejoice, O mountains of Pennsylvania,
Leap for joy, O waters of the Great Lakes,
Rise up, O fertile plains of Canada,
for the elect of Christ who dwelt in you are glorified,
men and women who left their homes for a new land.
With faith, hope and patience as their armor,
they courageously fought the good fight.
Comforted by the beauty of the Orthodox Faith,
they labored in mines and mills, they tilled the land,
they braved the challenges of the great cities,
enduring many hardships and sufferings.
Never failing to worship God in spirit and truth,
and unyielding in devotion to His most pure Mother,
they erected many temples to His glory.
Come, O assembly of the Orthodox,
and with love let us praise the holy women, men and children,
those known to us and those known only to God,
and let us cry out to them:
Rejoice, All Saints of North America,
and pray to God for us.

What I love about it is that it's personal--it's got setting and hints of the story and glimmers of things beyond.

I've wandered far away from my own little poem in the style of a troparion, but now you know what I was trying to approximate with my hymn to Mother Maria Skobtsova.

Christian terrorists

Here's something I've wondered about: why Middle Eastern Christians make common cause with the Islamofascists when they must know that they will be as poorly treated, when they cease to be usable, as the Jews.
It appears that Lebanese Christians, not Muslims, were responsible for the firebombing of the Jewish school in Montreal. I am in extensive daily contact with Lebanese Christians, and they are a deeply divided community. Many manifest the dhimmi mentality, subscribing completely to the jihadist agenda, with all its anti-Semitism and fanaticism.

Dhimmi Watch attributes the phenomenon to pan-Arabism; these Christian Arabs are hoping for a place at the Islamist table. The founder of the Baath Party, Michel Aflaq, was an Orthodox Christian who converted to Islam. "Islam is Arab Nationalism," he said.

On the other hand, the site continues, "Aware of this, and also aware that the Islamic Sharia called for by Islamic radical groups would subjugate them as second-class dhimmis no less than it would the Jews of Israel, many other Lebanese Christians reject any common cause with Islam."

A little history close to home

At 160 years old, Oregon City is the oldest town in Oregon. For those who read this blog in other, more ancient places, that's laughably young, and yet it has some oddities about it that make it unique in the United States.

First, unlike many of its contemporariess among the U.S.-settled cities west of the Mississippi River, Oregon City's first industry was not in primary resources, such as ranching or mining. It began as a town of merchandise and industry. The End of the Oregon Trail website says that soon after its 1844 incorporation, Oregon City had 500 residents, two churches, two saloons, a newspaper, 75 houses, two blacksmiths, two coopers, two cabinet makers, two hatters, two silversmiths, and four tailors. It's never been a cowboy town; we've got no exciting tales of gunfights in the street or cattle drives through the saloon or miners betting their last dollar on a gold mine out in the hills.

In fact, when the California Gold Rush broke in 1859, a number of men left their wives in charge of the new homesteads to go south and make a little cash to get started on. When they came home years later, with a lot of nothing to show for their efforts, they discovered that their wives had put away a tidy stash of cash by selling wool or knitting socks or some other domestic occupation. The California gold, which eluded so many miners, came here in search of stuff the miners needed.

By 1889, these falls at Oregon City were supplying electricity to run the street lights in Portland, an upstart town 14 miles downriver.

Anyway, Saturday was a celebration of 125 years of the locks on the Willamette River that provide boat passage around the falls. A local jet boat company gave free rides to the falls, and there we saw a three-foot-long sturgeon leaping out of the water, blue herons and one of a half-dozen or so sea lions who follow the salmon more than 120 miles upriver from the ocean to eat the salmon looking for the fish ladder up past the falls. The sea lion's head looked like a Labrador retriever's as it surfaced, and it had a good-sized salmon in its mouth. It shook the salmon the way a dog would shake a toy, then flung it across the water and dove for another one. The fishermen hate the seals and sea lions because they take one bite from a salmon and then grab another.

I told my 18-year-old daughter about it, and she said, "Mom, you sound like a kid." Maybe so, but how can I tell her--or anyone--the mystical feeling of touching something so old and so new, where the ghosts of the Indians netting salmon from the falls, John McLoughlin setting up a grain mill, 19th-century pioneer industrialists with their big ideas and their innocence of the consequences, and even us, pointing over the windscreen of the jetboat at a blue heron lifting itself out of the mist and spray, are so close that they all seem to be there all at once, layered like pages of a book. I'm glad I'm not so old as 18 any more.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Byzantine history lesson

Seraphim at Pensate Omnia offers "a tiny take-home Church history final response. Just the basic facts" about the Council of Florence, the 15th-century council that tried to bind Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches (there being no Eastern Catholic churches at the time) on a basis of same-words-different-definitions rather than a true unity of doctrine.

Since a lot of religious unification is being done on the same basis today, the reasons for the 15th-century debacle have always had me curious.

Seraphim's well-written foray into this fascinating period of history answers many of my questions.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Plot point or pinch point?

I wrote about this topic earlier, but it keeps coming up. Suddenly, when I face my own troubles, I find myself asking, "Is this a plot point or a pinch point?"

A plot point is when the protagonist comes to the end of his resources, when the goal he has been pursuing has gone irrevocably out of reach or his method of pursuing it has utterly failed. A classic story has two plot points: the inciting incident, when the protagonist's life as he knows it changes, as when the tornado takes Dorothy's house out of Kansas and drops it in Oz.

The second plot point comes when the character hits absolute bottom, then stands at the depths of hell and rolls up his sleeves and says, "I'm coming back." Working from this point of despair, the character tries a new tack, something entirely else, and attacks the problem anew. He will either succeed or fail, but it will be a final and irrevocable success or failure. The climax is the result of this final battle, and the denouement is the result of the climax.

Pinch points fall between the two plot points, events that show the protagonist's resources dwindling, conditions turning against him, that reveal the necessity, the reality of the despair.

In a story, the fall of an oak leaf can be a plot point, but in real life, these plot events are harder to read. So, in facing the negative events I'm facing right now, the question comes up again and again, Is this a plot point or a pinch point? The difference is that the response to a pinch point is to keep going. The response to a plot point is to find something entirely else.

Insights from the Profile page

The New! and Improved! Blogger! has added a profile page, which provides a piece of information that is at once encouraging and scary:

In the 7-8 months I've written this blog (since October '03), I've posted 52,932 words in 196 posts. If it were a novel, I'd be halfway through the first draft (they're not all my words, though; many are quotes, but still . . . .).

Encouraging, because it shows that with the same amount of effort I put into the blog (varies, but manageable), I'd make good progress on fiction.

Scary, because I haven't. The blog writing is good for me; publishing every day is good; the immediate feedback and learning the importance of expressing opinions boldly has been good.

Now I need to focus on efficiency.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

A novel without those tiresome verbs

A new French "novel"--more accurately a 233-page book of non-nonfiction--makes the news because it's written without any verbs: "I am like a car driver," the author said, "who has smashed the windscreen so he cannot see into the future, smashed the rear-view mirror so he cannot see the past, and is travelling in the present." (I add, using my modest brain capacity, that it looks like he's heading for a car wreck.)

Le Train de Nulle Part, English title The Train to Nowhere, is touted as being the Next Big Thing, after the book written without the letter "e" and its sequel with no vowel except "e."

A couple of quotes:
Those women there, probably mothers, bearers of ideas far too voluminous for their brains of modest capacity.

And just to prove that the author dislikes men and women equally:
. . . a "large dwarf or small giant -- a young buck with a gelled mop with ideas, at first glance, shorter than his hair, and not longer than the bristles on a toothbrush, perhaps shorter.

The reviewer in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur called the book "disagreeable" and said that its descriptions of women are misogynistic. I wonder if the reviewer mentioned that the descriptions in these two passages are simply lame--assertions of modest brain capacity are "telling, not showing," and the author can't seem to land on a metaphor.

Attention, M. Thaler: You can't have a story without verbs.

M. Thaler says, "The verb is like a weed in a field of flowers. "You have to get rid of it to allow the flowers to grow and flourish."

Notice that he had to use verbs to make his point.

OK. I'm cranky this morning, but why is this guy collecting royalties?

Source: Walloworld.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

About that trip to Ashland

I wanted to recommend a couple of plays from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. For those who aren't familiar with the festival, it happens from late February through October in Ashland, a town in the southwestern corner of the state. The 2004 season has 13 plays running in three theatres--large and small indoor theatres and a Globe-style Elizabethan stage that's open only during the summer, between the spring and fall rainy seasons.

We saw The Comedy of Errors, which sets Shakespeare's script in a 1950s Las Vegas-style Ephesus, with the Syracusians as Golleee! Texans. The juxtaposition of the modern settings with the old script, along with the fine acting and the few ad lib-style additions to the script, made the play more approachable for people not familiar with Shakespeare and his world--and uproariously funny.

Second was The Royal Family, based loosely on the Barrymores. It was a portrayal of the Theatre as religion--not as burnt offering to the God of the Footlights, but as an organizing principle of life that defines meaning, ethics, purpose in life. The characters may apostacize, but they all return to the true faith of the Theatre. Only the wise old matriarch never loses faith. She's been kept away by illness, but she's always planning a return to the stage, even to go on the road, which with its difficulties of frequent travel, uncomfortable hotels in uninteresting towns is like a theatre version of pilgrimage.

Third was A Raisin in the Sun. Peggy Noonan reviews the play, which opened in New York with Sean ("P. Diddy") Combs playing the adult son. Noonan's review places the play in a social-historical context, but there was a difference.

Noonan says that at the performance she saw:
But I must tell you of the small moment that was actually a big moment. (There's a possible spoiler coming up, so if you don't know the story and mean to see the play, stop here.) An important moment in the plot is when a character announces she is pregnant, and considering having an abortion. In fact, she tells her mother-in-law, she's already put $5 down with the local abortionist. It is a dramatic moment. And you know as you watch it that when this play came out in 1960 it was received by the audience as a painful moment--a cry of pain from a woman who's tired of hoping that life will turn out well.

But this is the thing: Our audience didn't . . . understand it was tragic. They heard the young woman say she was about to end the life of her child, and they applauded. Some of them cheered. . . . They reacted as if abortion were a political question. They thought that the fact that the young woman was considering abortion was a sign of liberation. They thought this cry of pain was in fact a moment of self-actualizing growth.

That wasn't our audience's reaction. And this was Ashland, a town that makes Portland look as conservative as a suburb of Dallas. The matriarch stood there and said, "We're not that kind of people. We don't kill our children. We love them"; and the lights went down on the scene to dead silence, an appropriate silence, but they came up at the next scene to cheering. It was the only time the audience cheered the beginning of the scene, and they were cheering the performances of the scene before.

The other thing about that play is the young African's view of the future. The daughter, despairing at having lost her college money to a rogue, asks where it's all going to end. Mr Asagai says that she's unrealistic to expect it to end. The task is the task at hand. She says that when the colonialists are kicked out of Africa, the new African leaders will be just as corrupt; it was a moment of prophecy on the part of Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright, but Mr. Asagai responds that it doesn't matter. Every generation has to redress its own evils, and if he himself is the evil to be redressed by the next generation, so be it. He says it better than that, and without such danger of being misinterpreted as my summary, but it was a great point.

Wonderful theatre in a beautiful, but remote corner of the world. More than 300,000 people attend the festival every year--and maybe it's enough--but a lot of peopple are missing out, too, because they just don't know about it.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Note to junk callers: Enunciate

When I picked up the phone, a woman's voice started right into her message. I thought she said--though I'm sure I'm mistaken--"Stop the Catholic takeover. Vote 'no' on Measures [something] and [something]." I said, "Ooooookay," but the call was over.

What I think I heard is often way funnier than what was actually said. I haven't looked at the ballot measures for the upcoming election cycle, but I'll be interested to see which ones will forward a "Catholic takeover."

Fiction: Call Your Mother

When I got back from Ashland, I found a note in my e-mail box that my short story, Call Your Mother, has been posted at Literary Mama. It's a great site, and I'm pleased to be included.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Fr. Vasiliy holds forth on missionary dating

"Ask Father Vasiliy" in The Onion Dome has this gem:
In general I discourage this “missionary dating.” Was it missionary dating in Nineteenth Century Russia? I am meaning outside of Royal Family, of course. Actually I am meaning outside of Royal Family and heretitary priesthood families. Outside of Royal family, heretitary priesthood families, and persons of Russian heritage living outside of Holy Russia.

Anyway, the Oniondome is up.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?

I've been curious, not to say outraged, at finding the Russian Orthodox Church among beneficiaries of the UN Oil for Food scam.

Here's how it worked:
The scheme is alleged to have worked like this: individuals and organizations sympathetic to the Iraqi regime, or those just easily bribed were offered oil contracts through the Oil for Food program. These contracts for Iraqi oil could then be sold on the open world market and the seller was allowed to keep a transaction fee, said to be between $.15 and $.30, for every barrel of oil they sold. The seller was then to refund the Iraqi government a certain percentage of the commission.

Contracts to sell Iraq humanitarian goods through the Oil For Food program were alleged to have been given to companies and individuals based on their willingness to kickback a certain percentage of the contract profits to the Iraqi regime. Companies that sold commodities via the oil for food program were supposedly overcharging by up to 10%, with part of the overcharged amount being diverted into private bank accounts for Saddam Hussein and other regime officials and the other part being kept by the supplier.

According to the allegations, the involvement of the UN itself in the scandal began in February after the name of Benon Sevan, executive director of the Oil-for-Food program, appeared on the Iraqi Oil Ministry's documents. Sevan allegedly was given vouchers for at least 11 million barrels of oil, worth some $3.5 billion.

The idea of the Oil for Food program was to protect the innocent citizens of Iraq from the effects of the economic sanctions against Saddam. By bypassing the requirements of the program, the entities enriched themselves, took bread and medicine from the poor and may have helped fund terrorists around the world.

Claudia Rosett summarizes the scam this way:
It worked like this. Saddam would sell at below-market prices to his hand-picked customers—the Russians and the French were special favorites--and they could then sell the oil to third parties at a fat profit. Part of this profit they would keep, part they would kick back to Saddam as a "surcharge," paid into bank accounts outside the UN program, in violation of UN sanctions.

By means of this scam, Saddam’s regime ultimately skimmed off for itself billions of dollars in proceeds that were supposed to have been spent on relief for the Iraqi people. When the scheme was reported in the international press--in November 2000, for example, Reuters carried a long dispatch about Saddam’s demands for a 50-cent premium over official UN prices on every barrel of Iraqi oil--the UN haggled with Saddam but did not stop it.

Here's where Russian involvement comes in:
The leaked Iraqi list of about 270 recipients covers just one year — 1999 — and relates to just one facet of the overall fraud: That is "vouchers" that could be sold by the bearers to legitimate oil brokers and shippers, who then would have the right to purchase and market the Iraqi crude.

Russia, which ardently opposed the war, has by far the most entries on the list, including 1.366 billion barrels allotted to the Russian government alone.

A score of giant Russian oil firms, several Kremlin ministries and even the Russian Orthodox Church are listed as having received the vouchers. The church and many of the companies in question have denied wrongdoing.

I guess that depends on what the meaning of "wrongdoing" is. Is Patriarch Alexei likely to travel the road of Martha Stewart? Probably not. DId the scam participants profit off Saddam's cruel regime? Yes. Did the participants, especially the churches ("At the Vatican, the Rev. Jean Marie Benjamin -- a French priest who is reported to have arranged a meeting between the pope and Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister of Iraq -- is listed as receiving the rights to sell 4.5 million barrels"), undermine their messages of "give peace a chance" with a subtext of "give us a chance to bring in a few more $millions before turning that barbarian out of office"?

With that question ringing, I have a hard time reading this statement from Patriarch Alexei without snorting:
The Russian Orthodox Church undertook efforts to establish dialogue with Iraqi leaders. Right before the beginning of the military campaign our delegation, together with Russian Muslims, made a trip to Baghdad on a peace mission. That trip demonstrated the solidarity of Russian believers with the Iraqi people and showed that the use of force cannot be explained in terms of Christian-Muslim tensions, that this conflict lacks religious roots. However, our efforts turned out to be in vain. The war machine had already been set in motion.

What's the connection, and how did the Russian Orthodox Church get into Saddam's pocket? Better reporters than I am are trying to get at the information before Kofi Annan and his cronies destroy it, but I note that Benon Sevan, UN undersecretary and the one who turned the program more and more to shady doings, is a Greek Cypriot (probably Orthodox Christian), who was invited, along with Sergey Lavrov, Russian ambassador to the UN, to speak at a joint SCOBA (American Eastern Orthodox) and Oriental Orthodox prayer service in 2002 (page 7 of the PDF file). I suspect that it's a small world among the Orthodox delegates at the UN.

So far, the Russian Orthodox Church has denied receiving anything from Saddam. It's possible, I suppose, and I hope it's true. But the source of the information, a handwritten spreadsheet in Arabic, found among Saddam's records, looks hard to evade:
The list reads like an official registry of Friends of Saddam across some 50 countries. It's clear where his best, best friends were. . . . Other notables include Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri (also listed separately as the "daughter of President Sukarno"), the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Russian Orthodox Church, the "director of the Russian President's office" and former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua. Some--including Mr. Pasqua, the Russian Church and Ms. Megawati--have denied receiving anything from Saddam.

A translation of the list has the Russian Orthodox Church receiving vouchers for 5 million barrels, a small portion of the 1,366 billion barrels that went to Russia, but a considerable amount at $25 per barrel. I find myself wondering who bought the Christ the Savior Cathedral. The restoration of the cathedral cost more than $200 million, and Nathaniel Davis at George Fox University writes a long piece about corruption, mismanagement and shady dealings in the Russian Orthodox Church. He's not Orthodox, but he's not hostile, and the "tribulations, trials and troubles" he lists are well documented and mostly brought on the Church by decisions of her own hierarchy.

I suppose it's unrealistic to expect the church of Sts. Boris and Gleb, St. Sergius of Radonezh, and the martyr Alexander Men, the church who gave America St. Herman and companions, to live up to its patrimony.

Stephen Sherman's Friends of Saddam blog is dedicated to following the Oil for Food scandal, and it will probably be years before we get to the bottom of it, if ever.

Monday, May 03, 2004

A game

Tag from Pensate Omnia:

Here are the rules:
1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.

And the winner is:

"By ten, the clientele was solid black and the cute redheaded piano player came down without her sheet music and played soul on and off until two A.M."

From Elmore Leonard's Ryan's Rules, the first hitchhiking Bookcrossing book I've ever picked up.

I like Leonard's crime fiction. Get Shorty was a comic caper movie about a small-time hood trying to get into show business. Ryan's Rules is about a couple of smart and capable robbers. I haven't gotten far enough into it to know where he's going or whether I like this one, but I closed my eyes and reached into my pile and that's the one that surfaced.

What's yours?

Margarita evangelism

It's a light day for readers, so I'll sneak in a story that may scandalize some people.

We had a great retreat at Cannon Beach this past weekend. Friday afternoon, the seven of us walked to a nearby restaurant for margaritas. We had a grand time and laughed enough to chase away the gloom that's been clouding my own mind for a while. We had one margarita or equivalent each, but were two-margaritas giggly. "That just shows we're a cheap date," said one of the co-conspirators (notice the etymology of that word before moving on).

Anyway, after the margaritas, we walked over to a coffee shop called the Sleepy Monk to get Saturday morning's coffee. We filled the tiny coffee shop, tasting the samples, passing the cups back and forth, comparing Ethiopian, Guatamalen, Costa Rican and Monastery blends. The friendly couple who owned the place asked how we all knew each other, and we replied that we were church ladies. From there we went on to how appropriate it was to buy coffee at the Sleepy Monk coffee shop and then we somehow got invited to share the Paschal Troparion, which we did--in English, Russian, Greek, Arabic and English again. We also sang "Many Years" to the couple in English, Russian and Romanian. A Japanese couple and their translator sat at a table in a corner and beamed an isn't-it-great-to-travel-and-explore-strange-and-wonderful-customs smile. Someone popped in from the sidewalk outside and asked what all the singing was about.

On our way out with our coffee purchase, the owner took our picture on the front porch, and upon learning that he was Irish, we taught him the Gaelic "Christ is Risen!" "Indeed He is Risen!"--"Christos Eirgim!" "Eirgim!" (Please excuse if I've got the spelling wrong. I'm writing this on the fly and not stopping to check.)

We left the proprietor and his wife with an invitation to visit our parish sometime when they're in Portland.

The truth is that if we had gone into the shop without stopping for margaritas, we'd have bought our coffee and gone staidly about our business. So why does it take a margarita to share the joy of the Resurrection? I can name some reasons--discouraging past experiences--but they're just as true after the margarita as before. The reason, of course, is fear--the same fear of impropriety and disapproval and judgment and of paying the price for exuberance that makes me want to post this on a day when only close friends are reading my blog.

UPDATE: May 4: It looked like I'd had one too many margaritas when I wrote this: "just show's we're a cheap date." Yikes. Fixed now.

'Catholic' politicians and Communion

Not being Catholic, I probably don't have standing to weigh in here, but I don't think either side in the "Communion for proabortion politiians" hubbub is stating the issue well. One side is imprecise, and the other is duplicitous.

The Gannett News Service describes the issue this way:
While issuing instructions on Mass on April 23, a top church official said that politicians who publicly support abortion rights are "not fit" to receive communion, one of the Catholic sacraments, because their position clashes with church doctrine that holds abortion to be murder. A task force of U.S. bishops is trying to decide what that should mean for politicians like Landrieu of New Orleans, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential candidate.

We've all heard the duplicitous side. Nancy Pelosi's remarks at the recent march for killing the unborn: "I am a mother of five, a grandmother of five, and a devout Roman Catholic who supports a women's right to choose"; and John Kerry's "courageous stand" on receiving Communion: "Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry received communion from a Catholic priest Saturday, one day after a top Vatican cardinal said politicians who support abortion rights should be denied the Eucharist."

The imprecision is in the phrase "not fit," whether it comes from Catholic hierarchy or the Gannett reporter (probably the latter).

It's a matter of definition, not fitness.

Before I was Orthodox, I attended a Catholic Mass, and because of where I happened to be sitting, the bishop celebrating the Mass assumed I was Catholic and offered me Communion. I said, "No, I'm not Catholic." It wasn't a rejection of good feelings, friendliness or my rights; it was simply a fact.

When I discovered the Orthodox Church, I never had any problem with the "closed Communion" there, because I understood that if I accepted the Church for what she says she is, then I accept her on her terms. If not, then I am rejecting Communion.

What politicians like Pelosi and Kerry do, though, is--whether they acknowledge it or not--enter into a teaching position with the Church. For them, abortion is not a privately held belief--as in the case of a hypothetical parishioner who thinks abortion is a good idea but nobody listens to her anyway. For public figures, their position is a public proclamation: "I'm a devout Catholic, and abortion is just another issue." When the bishops say otherwise, Pelosi-Kerry-Kennedy, et al., reply, "We understand our faith. Vatican II says we're right."

Faithful Catholics may take the argument apart, but the reality is that the politicians have a larger platform to explain the faith to the Catholic and non-Catholic world than the bishops do. If the pro-abortion Catholic pols had the honesty to say, "I believe abortion is right. Here, I'm in conflict with my church," it would be better, but the reality is that they want to persuade Catholics and non-Catholics to share their opinion, which returns to Catholic politicians taking a "teaching" position in the Church.

And when the pro-abortion Catholic pols do go to Communion, over the objections of local bishops, the priests decide that they don't want to disrupt the Mass by refusing John Kerry at the Cup, with the TV cameras running and the punditocracy revving its engines outside. So Sen. Kerry emerges and says, "See? I'm as good a Catholic as the next one." And so, it appears to many of us, he is.

I don't envy the Catholic bishops, priests or the Vatican the dilemma they face. We Orthodox have our pro-abortion politicians, but they tend to go for the ethnic vote more than the "Orthodox" vote, one of the benefits of being part of a religion most people don't know or care that much about.

Sunday, May 02, 2004


We just watched the Afghan movie, Osama (available on DVD), which could be subtitled, "Mom, I told you it wouldn't work."

It's a very good film, the first released in post-Taliban Afghanistan, by a good Muslim who focuses directly on the corruption and cruelty of the former regime. In it, a 12-year-old girl cuts her hair and pretends to be a boy so that she can help support her widowed mother and grandmother, who are not permitted outside the house without a male relative accompanying them. Like many Afghan women, their male relatives have died in the country's devasting wars.

Besides the compelling story line, the filmmaker, Siddiq Barmak, shows himself to be a master of the cinematic image.

Most interesting fact learned from the bonus materials on the DVD: the burqa is not a traditional Afghan or Muslim outfit, but was a fashion import from India, which the Taliban used as a means of confining women. So many of them are blue because it's a beautiful color.