Saturday, July 31, 2010

WA Senate Race! Whoo-Hoo!

Why in the world have I received my mail-in ballot for the upcoming state-wide primaries when I have not yet received my Voter's Pamphlet?  While I was marking my choice of Dino Rossi to replace the worthless Patty Murray, my eyes traveled up the list of candidates to see that my old friends Goodspaceguy and Mike the Mover are back on the ballot.  Oh, Dino, what should I do? 

Of course, I will vote for Dino Rossi -- our best chance to unseat the bovine Murray in November.  But, as I was just reminded in moving my old Singing Sparrow stuff over to Adorable Trivialities, much mirth and hilarity can be extracted from the WA Voter's Pamphlet.  How strange that the ballot should have arrived before it!  Were I Mike the Mover or Goodspaceguy, I should surely cry "Foul!" -- as how many ballots will be reflexively marked by those of a Democratic turn for the dull, blank mind of Patty Murray, when there are far more interesting views and positions held by MTM and GSG lurking twixt the pages of the pamphlet?  Any discerning voter will want to be fully informed.  What's the deal King County Department of Elections?  Afraid that your witless darling will be overshadowed by the sheer awesome intellectual heft of Mike the Mover?  Afraid that your vacuous pet will be out of her depth in the crucial subject of intergalactic diplomacy when matched with Goodspaceguy?  What are you hiding?

Washington deserves better than the vapidity of Patty Murray.  We (and the U.S.) desperately need the level-headed, common-sense conservatism of Dino Rossi, and we're lucky that he has chosen to run.  Thanks, Dino! 

UPDATE:  Received my Voter's Pamphlet in the mail today! Let the hilarity ensue!  (Actually -- frighteningly -- Goodspaceguy has some good ideas.)  Now, where is my Dino Rossi bumper sticker I requested?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Whoa, Dude! Not Cool!

From Design Toscano, makers of The Zombie of Montclaire Moors Garden Statue and Bigfoot, The Garden Yeti, comes this stunner -- Hercules and Diomedes in a grapple of uncomfortable intimacy.  I invite you to scrutinize the statue at their website; I couldn't bum the code for the -- ahem! -- enlarged view.  But, as far as I can tell, my original suspicions were correct, and I can't think of anything else to hang onto down there.

If you find that you long for this sculpture, but cannot stomach the view, there is a draped version available as well. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Sparrow Falls

I have decided not to renew my domain account with Go Daddy this year.  I almost never use it, and rarely think of it.  So, The Singing Sparrow will be no more.  I have transferred the published posts from the blog there to Adorable Trivialities, and you can find them all published here on July 1, 2010.

Thanks to all who came by and read my stuff on that site and took the time to make comments.  I appreciate you.  Your comments have, unfortunately, not been saved in the transfer to this blog; but, feel free to re-read and re-comment, if you'd like.

And thank you to all who continue to make it here and read the new stuff (such as it is) and make comments.  I treasure your readership and contributions.  I came back from Barnabas a-rarin' to write, so look for more content soon.  It may never get back up to 2005/2006 levels, but it will get better.

Blessings and gratitude to all!

Cell Phones: Modern Electronic of Convenience and Wonder? Or Demon Message Receptor from Hell? (You Know It's the Latter)

OK, I am willing to admit that my beef is a lost cause.  We are a Cell Phone Nation.  Seniors, soccer moms, and kids -- not to mention power players in the world of business suits -- walk about, phone to ear or nose to screen, fingers flying all over the damn things.  I hate them.  Of course, I have one.

I never wanted a cell phone, but, back in 2000, Jason told me I was getting one.  "I don't want one," I protested (see, I am consistent).  "I don't care," he replied in his inexorably Jasonish way, "You're getting one for safety reasons.  I don't like to think of you out driving late at night without one."  "Oh pooh," I sighed, and dutifully accepted the wee silver fold-over phone.

There are exactly two people in the world with whom I like to talk on the phone -- one of whom I did not even know until a few years ago.  This is not to insult anyone else in my beloved circle of friends.  I'm just not much of a talker (on phones).  Get me settled in with some coffee or adult beverages, and you know I'll chaw on with you until daybreak.  But phones are just so . . . blah.  No gestures; no expressions; no comfortable silences between inspiration.  Who needs it?  Give me face-to-face whenever possible.

Also, I guess my hatred of cell phones relates to my recent decision to reject all the social networking sites. There is such a thing as being too connected with too many people.

Anyway, about three years later, after discovering that we never really used the things enough to justify the $60/month we were spending on them (and I was home with the baby and not doing much in the way of late-night driving), we switched to a pre-pay plan through Virgin Mobile.  Got a cheap, little fold-over phone again, began to pay $20 every three months (savings!), and continued along the path of rarely turning the thing on, let alone actually using it as a communication device.

Then, in 2007, I started watching little Rylee, and -- all of a sudden -- having a cell phone was part of my job.  Her parents -- understandably -- wanted to be able to reach me at their convenience.  So, I dug the dusty machine out of storage and re-charged it.  I used to make fun of people with cell phones attached at the hip; now I was one.  Of course, in the meantime I had become strangely deaf to the cell phone.  For some reason, probably psychological, I simply could not hear the ringer most of the time.  I remember one time, sitting in a Mexican restaurant with a margarita in one hand and my cell phone in the other, waiting for an important call -- and I missed that call not once, but three times.  Yikes.  So, I learned how to use the vibrate code and kept the thing in my pants pocket for a little jolt whenever there was an incoming call.

So, about three months ago, I accidentally washed my cheap, no-frills, fold-over phone with my pants.  Jason went to get me a replacement and found, much to my consternation, that they no longer make that simple receptor device.  Oh no.  Now, you have to have a camera -- and texting capability -- and Internet capability.  He bought me the cheapest phone they had, and I hate it.  It does not fold down, so the buttons are constantly exposed which makes it hard to slip in my pants pocket.  Plus, whenever I look at the darn thing, it's always half-way to texting some gibberish over to Timbuktu or some-such.  I loathe and despise the wretched appliance -- and may just throw it in the next laundry load for spite.

Now, Jason is saying that he needs to upgrade our cell phone system because of his work.  His company would reimburse part of the plan.  So, I will soon have to adjust to a new phone.  Again. I hope it will at least fold over, even if I have to submit to a camera inside.  And, I guess, just because a phone can be used for texting doesn't mean that I have to learn how to use it.  You can lead a land-line-lover to satellite reception, and you can even make her use it; but you can never, ever make her like it.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Have you forgotten who you are? 

Carolyn Arends loves to tell the story of St. John of Kronstadt, a Russian Orthodox priest of the late 19th century who would -- in a time of great political and social upheaval and devastating poverty in Russia, when most priests would stay separate from the masses and wait for the lost to find them -- walk the streets of the slums and approach the destitute living in filth and despair.  As Carolyn tells it, he would cup his hand under their chins, look into their eyes and tell them, "This is beneath you.  Do you not know that you were created to house the fullness of God?"  Everywhere he went, revival broke out.

I was reminded of this beautiful story recently at Barnabas, when I heard Carolyn speaking again about "Resting in God."  Blessed was I to have heard this before, when Carolyn came to our church to speak at a Women's Retreat last November.  Blessed was I to hear it again.  Really, it is a subject about which you cannot hear too much.  "Come to Me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest," said Jesus.  And yet, in this age of leisure and pleasure unknown to any other generation, we find real rest so rarely.  So, the first part of her presentation was looking at what steals our rest.  And the first part of that is the issue of identity -- who we are. 

We are such forgetful creatures.  No wonder that, throughout the Bible, God implores us to remember, remember, remember.  We forget who God is, what He has done, and who we are in Him.  How can you find rest if you do not know who you are?  We work and strive to make ourselves acceptable, and then -- exhausted, stressed, at the end of our ropes -- we find that we were already accepted from the first.  Because of who He is, we are made who we are -- the only earthly beings to house the breath of God within us.

Carolyn uses stories and songs to illustrate her teachings.  One song she used was her own "Who You Are" from the album Under the Gaze.  One of the stories she used in depth was the "Woman at the Well" from John 4.  In that story is contained our great fear and desire to be known.  After examining the story from the Bible, Carolyn showed this brilliant and emotionally-charged clip:

Wow, huh?

While I sat and watched that video, I thought about the recent excellent production of Man of La Mancha by Taproot Theatre that I had seen just before leaving for Barnabas.  Man of La Mancha is a musical based upon Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote.  I am reading Don Quixote now, and it is quite different in style from the musical.  The musical is unabashedly romantic -- not only in the sense of highlighting the love story, but in the genre sense of portraying reality through the lens of the ideal -- and paradoxical.  Cervantes, in the musical, is entertaining inmates in a prison while awaiting interrogation under the Inquisition by fabricating a vision of a man whose madness makes him the most sane, or at least most humane, character of the play.  Don Quixote (Jeff Berryman) bursts forth on stage as impoverished gentry turned knight-errant.  He acquires sidekick and squire, Sancho Panza (Don Darryl Rivera), and sets forth to battle giants (tilt at windmills) and seek lodging in country castles (a rustic inn).  At the inn, he encounters tavern whore Aldonza (Candace Vance), in whom he finds the gracious and pure lady on whom he can lavish his chaste and chivalric vision of love.  He renames her "Dulcinea" -- Sweet One.

At first, Aldonza is confounded and bemused by his courtly overtures to her.  Then, she slowly starts to share his vision of her -- to see herself in a new way, as a beautiful and beloved woman.  Then -- oh how it tears at my soul -- Aldonza is brutally raped.  When she next sees Don Quixote, she directs all her anger and disillusionment and heartache at him.  He had given her a hope that had been murdered in the most violent way.  She tells him who she is, that she is Aldonza.  He says she is Dulcinea.  She screams at him and flies at him in rage, "Look at me!  Look at me!  I am Aldonza!"  He stares back at her in bewilderment and says, simply, "You are Dulcinea.  You are my lady." 

This video of a powerful, lyrical retelling of the Samaritan woman at the well repeats over and over: To be known is to be loved; to be loved is to be known.  We think we know ourselves well -- every nasty, sinful detail of our failings and our not-even-tryings are the ones we turn over and over in our minds during those wretched, sleepless 3 AM's.  And maybe, maybe when the tsunami of Christ's overarching love first washed over our lives and silenced in the awe of His sacrifice our doubts and our fears, we began to believe that we were His sweet ones.  And then, we fall and fall and fall again.  So, we yell and scream at the Maker of the Heavens and the Earth to look at us -- look at us.  And He does.  And, because nobody knows us like He does, nobody loves us so well; we are still His Dulcineas.

And, because embedding YouTube videos is fun, here are Carolyn Arends and Steve Bell singing "Who You Are":

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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Happy (Belated) Birthday, USA!

Truly, you do not look a day over 225!

A few years ago, a Canadian youth, with all the candor and innocence of a twelve-year-old, asked me which country I liked better -- America or Canada?  Well, I do love Canada -- especially British Columbia, whose geographic beauty is really a more-magnified, overwhelming version of Washington's -- but, as I pointed out to the young fellow, I am an American.  I will always love America best.  And, in 2010, even though for the first time Canada has been ranked as more economically free than my paterland in The Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom, I still love America.  Were it only for the sake of Grover C., I would love America.  Were it only for the sake of Isabel Paterson -- American by choice -- I would love America.  Were it only for the sake of Flicka Spumoni, Chris Christie, Sarah PalinAllen West, and a whole host of other patriots and truth-speakers, I would love America.  And so I do.  And for more reasons than those as well.
On this day -- two days after the Day and one day after this year's official government holiday of the Day -- I ask you to consider, not only Philadelphia in 1776, but also early 19th century Germany and a rather obscure writer named Heinrich von Kleist.  Read if you can a novella of his entitled Michael Kohlhaas.  This is truly one of the most exceptional stories ever told -- both in manner and content.  Contained within is the sum message of the Revolution -- that justice and liberty are more important, ultimately, than life itself.  

Michael Kohlhaas was, as the author informs us in the first paragraph, "most upright," "the very model of a good citizen," "benevolen[t] and fair-minded," bringing his children up "in the fear of God to be industrious and honest."  His fatal flaw was "one virtue" carried to excess:  his sense of justice.  Typical of von Kleist, we are immediately plunged into unremitting action and drama.  His narrative carries us from incident to incident with scarcely time to draw breath.  

Dealt an injustice by a petty bureaucrat, Michael Kohlhaas seeks at first reparations through the lawful, customary measures.  When these efforts fail, he becomes an incendiary -- the leader of a band of brigands -- a murderer.  If this seems extreme, it is supposed to.  The narrator is aloof from the action, dispassionate, as he details the desperate path of a man driven to desperation by a situation both within and without of his control -- that is, the situation originally is beyond his control; his reaction, of course, is not.  And yet, as page after page turns, and Michael Kohlhaas finds justice elusive -- and, surely, without an accountable system of justice and reliable, universal law, can there ever be true liberty? -- the weight of the action becomes oppressive and Michael Kohlhaas himself turns from a character of almost comic extremes to a great, tragic figure.  

When the end of his story finally arrived (in my copy nearly 100 pages later) and the denouement was masterfully achieved by a master writer, I laughed.  It was that sort of laugh that escapes involuntarily when a great tension is lifted -- not because you are finding humor, but because you are finding relief.  A short bark of a laugh and a sigh.  For, without spoiling the ending, I can safely say that von Kleist managed to bring about the only possible satisfying conclusion to an extraordinary tale.  I'll leave it to you to find the details out for yourself.

So, why is this an Independence Day read?  There was a time in this nation's history when ideas were more important than comfort, than reputation, than wealth, than life.  Independence Day is, ultimately, a celebration of the power of ideas over the power of the sword.  Yes, 234 years ago a fight was begun and blood was poured out for those ideas, but it was the ideas themselves that won the Revolution.  And, if those ideas recapture the minds of the American people, they will win again.  They are the same ideas that drove the action in Michael Kohlhaas.  Surely Heinrich von Kleist, born in 1777, grew up in an era of big ideas and cultural revolution.  The ideas that man is sovereign unto himself and God, accountable for his actions, subject to natural law and God's law before any whims of man, and that he has the right to seek out justice, to seek out liberty no matter what cost to himself and, to a certain measure, society at large --  these ignited the extreme actions of a man whose horses were detained illegally and ill-treated in their detention to burn down villages; and these ignited the extreme actions of a group of colonialists to go to war over a few cents tax on paper and tea.  In the end, the Revolution was no more about paper and tea than Michael Kohlhaas was about the pair of black horses.     

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

Extract, Extract Baby!

OK, I made myself giggle this morning, when it hit me that I had been completely wrong about a news story I saw on Comcast's home page yesterday.

Under the "Top Videos" section yesterday, there was a still of this mugshot:

The headline beneath it was "DUI for Vanilla Extract."

So help me, when I saw this yesterday, I thought, without any inner attempt at humor, that this woman had been a little known white rapper in the 1990's named "Vanilla Extract" (a la Vanilla Ice --see appropriately patriotically-garbed pic to your right -- who was a male white rapper in the early 1990's for you whippersnappers out there) who had just been busted for DUI.  Wow, I remarked to myself -- again with no thought at all of making a funny -- what a stupid name for a rapper.  No wonder I've never heard of her.  OK, who am I kidding -- it's a freaking GREAT rap name!                                                                                                               
Fortunately, the headline under the same still shot this morning on Comcast's home page is "Woman gets DUI for Vanilla."  A little more clear, wouldn't you say?  Turns out this poor lady actually made herself drunk on Coke and vanilla extract.  Yikes!  Do you know how much vanilla extract that is?  I'm surprised she didn't throw up before the cops arrived. Read her tale of weak will and the mighty lure of baking components here

Now, of course, anyone over the age of thirty is recalling to mind that episode of Family Ties where Alex P. Keaton's (played by Michael J. Fox) drunky Uncle Ned (played by Tom Hanks, forsooth!) steals a snifter of the evil bean juice in the middle of the night.  Watch the video -- if you dare -- but it gets pretty real:

Happy Fourth of July, y'all!  This is Vanilla Extract, signing out!  Peace, yo!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

From Sparrow: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O'Toole
Penguin Modern Classics (2000)
It's pretty sweet when an author can find an introductory quote as gnarly and kick-ass as this one that John Kennedy Toole used to begin his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces:

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.Jonathan Swift -- "Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting"

To use the great 18th century satirist and social commentator's words to introduce a novel so brilliantly satirical and pointedly critical of society was a stroke of genius that aptly foreshadows the upcoming romp with a singular character, Ignatius J. Reilly, and a whole host of seedy and undesirable cohorts.

For me, the test of a novel is in the characters. Plots and themes and settings mean nothing at all when paired with sub-par, lifeless creations. If a protagonist (or antagonist) stays with me, haunts me, forces me to consider his or her future long after I've turned the book's last page, then the author has used my time well. Ignatius Reilly was drawn in such a way by Toole that I could see him, hear him, and even smell him as he burped and belched his way through the pages, constantly struggling both with his recalcitrant valve and with every person who had the misfortune to cross his path. This was a worthwhile read, indeed.

Confederacy is set in New Orleans in the early 1960's. Ignatius is a thirty-year-old college graduate who lives with his widowed mother in reduced circumstances. He relishes their fringe status in society and whiles away his days scribbling grandiosities on Big Chief yellow tablets, wolfing down cakes, and drinking Dr. Nuts. His mother's opinion of him fluctuates between reverence and fear. Then, one day, their lives change forever when his mother crashes her car into a building. All of a sudden, Ignatius's lifestyle is put into jeopardy by dire financial straits, as his mother pledges to pay the property owner's damages in installments. Irene Reilly finds her backbone and insists that Ignatius find gainful employment and help her pay off the accident debt. The story is, therefore, the tale of what happens when an idiosyncratic crank with the sensibilities of medieval Europe is thrown into the vat of humanity that bubbles outside the realm of his particular Weltanshauung.

Toole parades a varied cast of characters before the reader. From the depths of New Orleans underworld, to the struggles of lower-middle class workers and retirees, to a terse marriage of the idle rich, Toole astounded me by his ability to give each creation a distinct history and personality and room to shine. Each individual introduced plays a vital part in the progression and denouement of the plot. No one is inconsequential or an accident. The artistry here is such that, without the reader's becoming aware, the parts played fit perfectly and the end is seamless, absurd and utterly, ironically logical. Given these characters and these situations, the end becomes a fait accompli that not only takes the reader by surprise, but leaves him nodding his head and saying, "Of course." To create that kind of inevitability without falling into triteness is one of the novel's great accomplishments.

Perhaps the novelist's greatest accomplishment, though, is Ignatius himself. His character is so polarizing that every reader must have one of three reactions: they find him completely abhorrent; they find him riotously amusing; they find him intriguingly dumbfounding. My reaction was the latter. In fact, I find him much funnier in retrospect than I did in the actual reading, because he is so unlike anyone I'd ever seen created in fiction before. Again, though, his character is so completely developed that, once you accustom yourself to his unique worldview, his actions and conversation are entirely consistent. What an amazing act of writing! To imagine such a peculiar individual so entirely that he becomes a real, if unsettling, person is Toole's literary legacy.

It is difficult to say much more about this novel without rubbing away some of the magic of that first read. If you let yourself be swept up into this world, if you accept the author's terms and allow yourself to be carried along on the ride, I think you'll enjoy it. There is a lot in there that struck me as prescient, considering that Toole wrote this in the early 1960's. It was fun and fascinating, but not fluffy. There are a lot of prickles and irritations, but they made the journey more fulfilling for me. It struck me that this novel is rather moral. The struggle between good and evil is narrated in a less-dramatic form than we would have seen in a novel written a hundred years previously, because, even in the 1960's, those lines were beginning to blur. Ignatius, in particular, is morally ambiguous, but the author is not. The conclusions of the characters' stories are satisfying, because the deserving find reward and the undeserving find punishment. This quirky tale will make you mourn the author's early death and limited output.

John Kennedy Toole must have been surrounded by dunces his entire life, for this work truly reveals a work of genius.

Note: If you have read the book, do you agree with me that Ignatius's favorite actress is Doris Day, with the circus-musical's being Billy Rose's Jumbo and the sophisticated comedy's being That Touch of Mink?

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From Sparrow: Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt
Random House Trade (2003)

About half-way through my reading of this book, I was talking with my husband, Jason, extolling this work and trying to explain how delightful an old dog I was finding its subject, Cicero. Except, you see, I was calling him "Kee-kare-roh," and that was driving Jason nuts.

"Look," he said sternly, "If you're going to keep talking to me, you need to stop saying his name like that. It's 'Sis-ser-oh.'"

"But Henry Beard said . . ."

"I know all about your 'Henry Beard' and his guide to pronouncing Latin correctly, and I don't care. In this age and time we call him 'Sis-ser-oh,' and I'm not going to listen to you any longer if you keep saying it the other way."

"May I still say, 'Iulius Kigh-Sahr'?" I meekly asked.

"No!" he thundered. "His name is 'Julius See-zer,' understand?

It is intolerable not to live among those who adhere to the classic Latin pronunciations. I died a little that night.

Ah, but Cicero lives on, no matter how you pronounce his name. And he is quite the character. Anthony Everitt has written a conversational treatment of Rome's greatest politician that never alienates the reader. In fact, the thoughts, motivations, and actions of the movers and shakers living in the last days of the Roman republic are breathtakingly modern in this presentation. Mr. Everitt has inherited something of Ezekiel's gift in taking dry bones more than two thousand years in stillness and resurrecting them into a marvelous dance of words and history.

Mr. Everitt has chosen the most dramatic moment of ancient Roman history since the suckling of Romulus and Remus on that she-wolf (oh yes, I've seen the statue replica at Caesars' Palace in Las Vegas, and, yes, it is rather off-putting) with which to open his story. It is a scene which the modern reader believes he knows well: The now familiar conspirators are gathered to enact what they see as a last desperate measure to save the Republic from a despot. Caesar enters the Theater of Pompeius with nonchalance, holding in his hand an unread message passed to him at the entry way by a friend that begged him to be on his guard, for duplicity and murder were afoot. The conspirators attack, only one dagger making a fatal wound, but, as it is in these cases, one was enough. Caesar shields his lower half from embarrassing exposure in death and sinks to the ground, his last words of wonderment and accusation on his lips, "You too, my son?"

But, what the reader may not expect is the next turn of events: Brutus, to whom Caesar's words were spoken turns to the stunned gathering of Senators, brandishes his dagger, and cries out, surprisingly, to Cicero. He congratulates the stunned statesman with the recovery of freedom upon the death of the tyrant. As Mr. Everitt writes, "Hitherto scarcely able to believe his eyes, he could now scarcely believe his ears. It was almost as if the assassination had been staged especially for him -- as a particularly savage benefit performance" (p. 6). Marcus Tullius Cicero, famed orator and superannuated politician, whose days in the limelight seemed long past was suddenly held up as the symbol of Republican values and traditional liberties. Thus began the last stage of this remarkable life, as Cicero came back into public prominence when it was one of the most dangerous times in the history of Rome to assume such prominence.

"To understand Cicero's life," Mr. Everitt writes, "which spanned the first two thirds of the first century BC, it is necessary to picture the world in which he lived, and especially the nature of Roman politics" (p. 9). What follows is a remarkably lucid description of the structure of Roman government and the personalities inhabited therein. Cicero, we learn, was a relative newcomer to the scene of Roman politics, which was dominated in a large part by the optimates, the "best people" whose ancestors had filled the Senate since the founding days of the Republic. Cicero, though an outsider to the machine, quickly rose the rungs of influence by sheer skill and hard work; yet, despite his lack of political pedigree, he tended toward the conservative system that protected the interests of the patricians, instead of those of the plebs (whose supporters were known as the populares).

The biggest boon to a biographer is first-hand information about the subject, either from the subject's journals or letters. Too few of history's most illustrious characters have left behind such tantalizing material. Fortunately for Mr. Everitt, Cicero was one of those few. Preserved for over two thousand years has been his copious correspondence with his dear friend, Atticus. From these letters, as well as Cicero's published works and contemporary accounts, Mr. Everitt has culled the cream to bring the reader into the world of both the man and the public figure. And what a man! It is difficult not to be charmed by this fascinating Roman who is presented as urbane, insinuating, sardonic, and forthright -- a man who valued highly the good of the Republic, but always had an eye on which side his bread was buttered. To his friend, Cicero was free to comment on wide-ranging topics, both personal and national in scope. This contributes to an exceptionally thorough and free-wheeling portrait of the final years of Republicanism in Rome.

Cicero turns out to be the exemplifier of both the strengths and weaknesses of that ancient governmental structure. As Rome grew into an Empire, it outgrew its limited scope of government that Constitutionalists held so dear. There was no overriding voice of authority in Rome. There were co-equal Consuls and various groups that made up the Senate and regional governments, but, by law, there was no strong central figure to keep control over the ever-expanding boundary lines that were the result of conquest. When Caius Julius Caesar stepped forward with bold leadership and a vision of empire that united and constrained divided factions, Republicans like Cicero were alarmed. Much like the loose structure of the unwieldy empire, Cicero's talents were soon outgrown when politics as usual was swept away by civil wars and tenuous peace. For Cicero was a great compromiser and flatterer, able to convince opposing sides that he was in their corner. He practically invented politics as we understand it -- a combination of charm, personality, and persuasion. In the last years of his life, when he made an unmitigated stand against Caesar's successors, Cicero's silver tongue failed him, and he fell from favor and into danger.

One of my disappointments with this book was that Atticus, Cicero's life-long friend and correspondent, remains in the shadows. I found myself curious about this man who received a steady flow of letters from Cicero, both in the stateman's glory days and exiled days; who offered steadfast friendship when it might have been controversial or dangerous to do so; whose sister was married stormily to Cicero's brother, Quintus; who was wealthy and stayed that way though many landowners were robbed of their estates to pay governmental debts; and who, amazingly, survived the final, deadly proscription that cost Cicero his life, despite Atticus's close ties to the condemned politician.

Mr. Everitt has done an admirable job in bringing Cicero to life for the uninitiated but curious Roman historian. This author is currently working on a biography of Augustus, which promises to be another intriguing glimpse of a bigger-than-life personality in the context of his culture and times. I await its publication eagerly.

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From Sparrow: A Buffet of Buffoonery (Thoughts on the WA 2006 Primary Voters' Booklet)

Have you ever come across something so heartbreakingly sincere, utterly preposterous, and frankly scary that you only wish your powers to magnify the absurdity were equal to the material at hand? How I wish there were a P.J. O'Rourke or Isabel Paterson or Stephen Cox to convey to you the pain-filled pleasure of perusing the Official Local Voters' Pamphlet for the Washington State primary elections coming up on September 19! Unfortunately, an examination of this parade of parlous pandering political parasites is left to me. Jason keeps looking at the options in brief segments, so as not to burn out his eyes with their unholy glare, and puts down the pamphlet each time with a sigh, a swear and a muttered, "I hate politicians."

But how can you hate Michael Goodspaceguy Nelson (the middle name is not in quotations, by the way)? He is a Democrat running for United States Senator. Most of his platform is about colonizing outer space. He calls our planet, "Spaceship Earth," for crying out loud. He has a blog (of course he does!) at Colonize Orbital Space. Space colonization is not his only issue though, he is also very concerned with ending unemployment. He writes: "Let us use our unemployed people! Unemployment is a huge waste! Our government should back its minimum wage by employing those who apply (including people with problems)." One presumes that "people with problems" should also, in his studied opinion, be employed in the most august branches of Federal government, like the Senate. But, you'll be begging for the wisdom and temperance of Mr. Goodspaceguy should your November election choice become this next candidate.

Mike the Mover (I'm not making this name up) has the wild, glinty-eyed stare of one of those people who would not have been picked up while hitchhiking even in the carefree, pre-serial killer-hype of the early 1960's. But, inside the mind of this apparently axe-wielding mountain man lives the soul of a poet. The first paragraph of his profile statement is in rhyme (or, perhaps, in rap):

Listen to the thunder, hear the Governor roar;
Mike the Mover's loose again, and knocking at the door!
Load up the cannon, call out the law,
'Cause it's the biggest calamity folks have ever saw.
Girls run and hide, brave men shiver,
Every time they think they hear the name of Mike the Mover.
Courtesy of Disney Productions 1958.

The libertarian inside of me appreciates his irreverence toward running for political office, but the concerned citizen next to her worries that maybe he's in earnest. Mike the Mover (MTM) then goes on to list his election year beefs. He wants Saddam Hussein put back in power. He cites an 1859 altercation between Great Britain and the U.S. over the killing of a pig on the San Juan Islands that nearly resulted in war (according to him), and he links that somehow to untreated waste water allegedly poured into the Straits of Juan de Fuca by Victoria, Canada. He then challenges Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska to a boxing match in Key Arena. He ends with what could be a poignant plea for a missing child to contact his campaigning headquarters, or simply a weird non-sequitur.

Actually, Mike the Mover doesn't seem too bad. It's interesting to see someone sniping at Canada from the left side of the political spectrum. Our neighbors to the north are often mocked -- and often unjustly -- in U.S. libertarian and conservative circles for what is seen sometimes as their smug, tidy, whitebread socialism. But it's kind of refreshing to see them taken to task for environmental reasons -- whether legitimately or not. I'm not sure about putting Saddam back in power -- seems like a slap in the face to our fighting men and women -- but, I never thought he should have been removed from power in the first place (at least, not removed by us -- had the Iraqis removed him, then bless their freedom-loving, tyrant-disposing hearts). And, I would LOVE to see political differences settled once in a while by "three rounds of fisticuffs." Political rhetoric is a dead art -- no one seems to be able to talk in a meaningful and persuasive manner anymore -- so why not go mano a mano?

Mike the Mover would be a blessing compared to the next candidate listed, Mohammad H. Said. This guy's entire profile statement is a polemic against Israel. You know what would be truly exciting? A candidate named Mohammed (or any variation of that prophet's name) who didn't use the space granted on a voter information pamphlet to rail against Jewish people and the sovereign nation of Israel. I'm uncertain whether it is a glorious anthem to freedom or a frightening commentary on our times that someone can write their entire goal in seeking office as being dedicated to the dismantling of Israel and the implementation of a new state altogether. This guy probably would have done well not to submit a photograph for his profile, as I would be inclined to "profile" him, if you know what I mean.

Hong Tran is the fourth candidate listed on the two-page spread. She comes off as bland and innocuous, after the previous three stand-outs. Immediate withdrawal from Iraq . . . universal health care . . . clean environment . . . more money for social programs . . . yadda, yadda, yadda. Boring!

Maria Cantwell, our current senator, gets her own page, away from all the crazies. I'll be quite frank here and state that I find her quite annoying. Perhaps not as annoying as our senior senator, the dim-witted Patty Murray, former P.E. teacher and the consistent recipient of the dubious honor of being voted the least intelligent member of Congress by congressional staffers, but annoying nonetheless. She is very pro-abortion, which makes me sick to my stomach. I hope she loses her seat, but I doubt she will.

In comparison, the Republican candidates for Senate come off as dishwater dull as they are often purported to be by admittedly daffy, but always entertaining, Democrats. The front-runner, Mike McGavick, has a profile so riveting and inspiring you'll want to stand up and, well, stretch and yawn. Blah, blah, blah, too much partisanship, blah, blah, independent voice, blah, blah, new leadership, blah, blah, blah, common sense and civility. Man! Where's the promise to go at fisticuffs with Mike the Mover, should they both win their parties' primaries? "Sunday, Sunday, Sunday at the Key Arena! Come see the battle for Spokane to Seattle! It's Mike vs. Mike in the pennant for the Senate! Demoncrat vs. Repulican't! Be there or be taxed without representation!" Wouldn't that be GREAT?!

There are some bright spots in the other Republicans' profiles, though. Gordon Allen Pross has written a convoluted essay on 100 people and 100 red headed Lincoln pennies somehow using a formulation for taxes with a 90% to 10% ratio that needs to be turned on its head. I read it with much confusion, though I was, admittedly, listening to "The Michael Medved Show" on my headphones at the same time. Maybe I should go back and give Mr. Pross my full attention. Or, maybe not. Life is, after all, rather short.

Jason's favorite candidate is William Edward Chovil, who looks like Anna Nicole Smith's departed billionaire husband. He has one of those things on his neck that indicates that he has lost his voice-box -- you know, the ones that people are always wearing in anti-smoking ads while inhaling a cigarette through them. This is not surprising to see, when you read in his profile that he is a follower of Ayn Rand (famous and joyful smoker) and, get this, John Galt (also a prodigious smoker, though a fictitious one). I think my husband likes Mr. Chovil's constant references to communism, since that is Jason's favorite epithet for just about everyone in government.

Warren E. Hanson looks like Greg's dad, Edward, from that late, great television show, Dharma and Greg. (Yes, I am a big fan -- shutty!) He echoes Mike the Mover by bringing up Victoria's dumping of untreated waste into U.S. waters, though he neglects to mention the crucial issue of the 1859 pig-slaughtering altercation that gives MTM's stance such historical resonance. He ends his statement of principles by assuring us of his excellent health (for his age, which I'm guessing is close to 150) and his physical strength. Could he be anticipating a bout with the formidable and feisty Mike the Mover? He lastly claims "no addictions" which might just give him the edge over MTM.

B. Barry Massoudi looks like a nice guy and wrote a sane statement of ideas and goals. He would probably get my vote, were I not already enamored with Brad Klippert. Please do not hold his name ("Brad" = ugh) against him. Brad Klippert is exactly the kind of man we need in the Senate. Yes, I said, "man." He also seems to have the brains necessary to bring the average Senatorial IQ representing the state of Washington up to normal levels (no easy task when partnered with Patty Murray). The only black mark against his name is when he states that he will work toward, "saving social security." How I wish someone had the testicular fortitude to declare Social Security immoral and unsupportable and recommend taking it behind the woodshed for a bullet to the stomach (its being without a brain, you see)! But, and this is a big issue with me, he has the endorsement of Human Life of Washington for being in complete agreement with their PAC's statement of beliefs. Plus, he at least gives lip service to those other areas of liberty: low taxes, property rights, free enterprise.

Our current Representative, Dave Reichert, is no one about whom I can get excited. I'll vote for him in November (he's running unopposed in the primary), because his presumed Democratic opponent, Darcy Burner, looks like a cipher and smells like one, too. Okay, sorry, the childhood addendum to the "Happy Birthday" song took over my insightful political commentary there. She's a "by-the-book" Democrat, without an original page in her ideological tome. Not that Dave Reichert is anything other than a smarmy Republiwimp, but I personally find the values of the Dems a bit more reprehensible than those of the Reps. It is mostly the full-throttle support for the wanton destruction of our littlest citizens partnered with the enslavement of taxpayers to a statist educational system for the children that aren't aborted that disgusts me most about the Dirty Dems. Sure enough, Ms. Burner is supported by the usual denizens of depravity, NARAL; the American Federation of Indoctrinators; village idiot, Patty Murray; and the evil troll woman herself, our illegitimate "governor," Christine Gregoire. With endorsements like those, who needs enemies? Of course, sadly, many in Washington would see these as positive supporters.

By far, the most exciting race in my opinion is that for Justice of the Supreme Court, Position No. 9 between Jeanette Burrage and Tom Chambers. I'll be voting for Ms. Burrage simply for this item brought up in her opponent's radio ad: [Ms. Burrage] is best known for once ordering female attorneys to wear skirts in her courtroom. I love that! It's little things like that that really riles up women's groups. "I should be able to wear hip-hugger jeans and a sports bra with a belt made of all my aborted babies around my waist into court if I want to. Ain't nobody going to stop me! I am a WO-MAN"

So, now my great dilemma is whether to ask for a Republican or Democrat ballot on September 19. I may have to abandon Brad Klippert simply to be able to give my vote to Mike the Mover. He is, after all, the only candidate who mentioned the dramatic near-miss pig-slaughtering war between the U.S. and Canada in his platform. You've got to respect a man who knows his history. Just don't give him a ride if you see him near the freeway on-ramp. (I think he's got an axe.)

From Sparrow: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
(Penguin Books, 1938)

Have you ever wanted to "tidy up" the world about you? Do you have a penchant for cool rationality and find alternately amusing and disgusting emotional excess? Well then, you may just have a bit of Flora Poste in you -- and I think that's a good thing, indeed.

Stella Gibbons apparently wrote Cold Comfort Farm as a parody of intensely emotional and darkly passionate pastoral novels that were popular in early 20th century England. I had no idea of this the first few times I read CCF. I have never read D.H. Lawrence or Thomas Hardy, but, without Ms Gibbons's light, tempering, satirical touch, I doubt I would want to. I loathe the sort of overt narcissistic emotionalism that permeates and plagues society today, and I cannot imagine wishing to read about it during my leisure time. Life is too short. But, you need not be familiar with the novels under fire to enjoy thoroughly Cold Comfort Farm.

Flora Poste, orphaned at 19 and left in financial straits, decides to ignore her friend's hints that she ought to train for a job, and decides to impose upon relatives instead. She chooses distant cousins -- the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm in the delightfully named "Howling" -- because she senses that she can amuse herself by "tidying up" their presumably dreary, lurid, inward-gazing lives. Her instincts were correct, and we find the Starkadders even more decaying, primitive, dank and oppressive than we could have imagined.

There is creepy old Adam, who loves his cheerless cows but never notices when their limbs suddenly detach from their bodies; Amos, whose love of preaching damnation overshadows any vestige of Christian love; Elfine, whose untamed, poetry-writing ways will never win her a county marriage and ticket out of Cold Comfort; Rueben, who is suspicious of any and all who would steal the farm out from under him; Seth, over-sexed and under-brained; Judith, who broods constantly and yearns unhealthily for her youngest son; Urk, who has an unwholesome attachment to water voles; Aunt Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was two, and uses that as an excuse to reign over all of them with an emotional iron fist. Jerry Springer would have loved to have this dysfunctional lot on his erstwhile show.

But, you and I and Flora know that this is simply an unacceptable way to live. She descends upon them like a very bossy, manipulative angel of mercy -- dispassionately directing them all toward peace, happiness, and normal behavior. The burning question that I had when I read this book the first time is "Will she get her comeuppance?" Nosy little heroines usually do, you know. I'll leave that to you to find out.

The best thing about Cold Comfort Farm is the humor. It is a wonderfully funny book, with many quick, sharp asides directly from Ms Gibbons that are howlers. The pacing is quite fast -- no sooner does Flora arrive in her little room at the farm than she starts improving the Starkadders. Bumpity, bumpity, bump -- the author careens us toward the end at heartpounding speed; which, in after all, makes you feel a little cheated, as you would have liked a few more hassles for our intrepid heroine to prolong the magic and fun.

The only drawback to the book -- other than its brevity -- is that Ms Gibbons chose to set it in the near future. It was published in 1932, and the action takes place more than 14 years later (the fictional "Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of '46" are a telling reference). On one hand, this strange timewarp quality adds an unsettling charm to the story; on the other, though, it seems a bit out of place in such a level-headed, matter-of-fact book. Jane Austen never would have done that; and I think that, perhaps, Ms Gibbons ought not to have as well. A minor quibble -- what do you think?

"Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery," is the quote from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park that precedes the title page of Cold Comfort Farm. With such a credo, how could I not have loved this novel? The very fact that Flora Poste uses Austen novels, in part, as manuals for tidying up the Starkadders ensured my allegiance from the beginning. But, this book has merit enough to stand on its own -- and Flora Poste can certainly stand side-by-side, if not exactly with Elizabeth Bennet, then with Emma Woodhouse.

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From Sparrow: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair
by William Makepeace Thackeray
(Penguin Books, 2004)

I am currently re-reading Vanity Fair. It is one of those sprawling 19th century British novels that reminds you that many novels of that era used to be serialized in magazines -- and that the longer they could keep a story going, the more the authors got paid. Ol' Bill Thackeray must have made bank on this one -- my edition runs more than 800 pages. You might think this is a bad thing; but, that would only mean that you have not yet read Vanity Fair.

Scheming orphan, Becky Sharp, is one of the truly great creations in all of British Lit. She jumps off the page -- ungrateful, wicked, amoral, conniving, without conscience or qualms. Sounds lovely, right? But she is so vividly real, that her manipulative charms work on the reader (who, as Thackeray constantly reminds us, really ought to know better) just as they work on the hapless, feckless fools who surround Becky. Ah, Becky . . .

I was struck when I first read Vanity Fair with the idea that "Becky Sharp" could only work as a 19th century Briton. Transfer her to America, and she becomes irredeemably reprehensible. You see, Becky is smarter, quicker, more clever than anyone else; but, just because she was born into the lower class and is without any money, she is expected to lower her expectations in life and accept a working class marriage and life of respectable poverty. I guess that I am thoroughly American in my outlook, because I can see Becky's point of view. She would thrive in a culture that values initiative and promotes social mobility. Thwarted by birth from her due, Becky turns dark. She gets emeshed in a desperate dance to expand and improve her social circle -- but, for this reader at least, she never becomes completely unsympathetic. Or, as Becky herself muses at one point, with a sufficient income even she could have been respectable.

So, I confess, I like Becky Sharp. I do not love her, as I love Elizabeth Bennet. I would not trust her, as I trust Fanny Price. I can not approve of her, as I approve of Flora Poste. But, I sure as heck find her entertaining and charming.

The rest of the book is masterly as well. Thackeray clips along at a steady, energetic pace. Characters pop in and out -- some developed with the intricacy of Becky, many serving only to push along the plot. He writes mostly dialogue and pithy, satirical observations on the human scene -- without any of the tedious raptures of nature or philosophy that bog down far too many novels. You really cannot imagine 800 pages passing more smoothly or pleasantly than this.

I am only in the first chapters of this current re-read of VF. I imagine that, further in, I will have more to say. I shall post on this book again at a later date.

From Sparrow: Facts on File Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases

The Facts on File Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases by Martin H. Manser
(Checkmark Books, 2002)

Have you ever been at a loss to find the mot juste when writing? The je ne sais quoi that will elevate your prose from common to cultivated? Do you simply enjoy being a pompous ass with a veneer of erudition? Then, you need The Facts on File Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases, mon ami.

I love this handy little volume. It works not only as a quick reference book in the heat of creative expression, but also as an enjoyable sit-down read. It is hugely diverting to find that jeunesse dorée refers to "the wealthy, sophisticated and fashionable young; originally applied to the wealthy, young counterrevolutionaries who combined to bring Robespierre's Reign of Terror to an end in France;" and then reflect on who might fit that bill today in America. Who will bring our current Reign of (Economic) Terror to an end in this century? Mental exercises such as these abound when reading Foreign Words and Phrases.

Most of the words and phrases in this book are French or Latin. While that is not surprising, what may be is that so many more familiar words whose origins I have never stopped to consider have rather exotic roots. Did you know that juggernaut is Hindi? Or that kismet is Turkish? Or that spritzer is German?

My only reservation about this book is that it lacks an easy index to help you find that mot juste. You almost have to know what foreign word you are seeking to make the book work for you. At least, that is the way it is in my edition; perhaps this has been remedied in later editions.

If you are a writer of any sort, or a simply an omnivorous logophile, you really ought not to go any longer without this invaluable resource. Go on, give yourself un bon cadeau!