Monday, January 28, 2008

Modern Music and Television

I just watched this most recent podcast from TED and found myself rolling with laughter at David Pogue's songs. It's wonderful-- and accurate!


One of the films we saw this weekend was There Will Be Blood. The movie intrigued me in two ways.

The first was because of Eli Sunday, the character who was setting up his own church (played by Paul Dano). Watching the way the church developed around Eli’s personality made me think about the changes in religion over the last one hundred years. Eli didn’t have to go through any Committee on Ministry to legitimize his call or worry about getting someone’s permission to set up a new congregation. The people of Little Boston had very little concern for whether or not what Eli was teaching was orthodox as long as he provided charismatic preaching and healing. The film was an interesting chance to reflect on the pluses and minuses of modern mainline Protestantism. Today while individual parishes may be influenced by the personalities of their pastors, the uniqueness and quirkiness of Eli’s congregation rarely exists anymore because of our connectionalism (both in terms of denominationalism and communication technologies).

But even more intriguing was the acting of Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis stays in character for the entire period (often months) during which the film is being shot. He immerses himself in the time period of the film and the character’s life, spending his days and nights in the way that they character would have. The effect is clear in the vivid, powerful way the character—in this case Daniel Plainview- is brought to life on the screen. Day-Lewis’ way of preparing by becoming his character made me reflect on styles of learning. We’ve known for years that experiencing things rather than just passively learning about them. But short immersion trips to places like Plymouth Plantation, Williamsburg, Vesuvius or Ostia Antica—while upping the educational experience beyond what people would have from just reading about the time periods—don’t quite seem enough. Neither do the more modern forays into such experiences that Second Life and other virtual worlds are providing. Yes, I can go to Second Life and step into ancient Rome or into the reconstructed Second Temple, but my avatar only spends a short period of time there so I never really step from one world into another no matter how actively I might be involved during my time there. Instead, perhaps what we really need are occasions to spend long periods of time in a specific culture and era –either by creating and living in such a setting (as Day-Lewis seems to do) or, since in many cases that would be impractical, by using technology to create holodeck-type settings in which we could immerse ourselves over a period of days or weeks.

Friday, January 25, 2008

How's This for a New Course?

Now that I've got all three of my spring courses set to go , I've begun to think about the new philosophy course that I may be teaching this summer. The description of the course material will be something like this:

What makes us human? Is it our minds, our emotions, our genetic makeup, or something else? Are humans different in any way from animals and androids (like Commander Data in Star Trek Next Generation)? What are human rights and who should be protected by them? How is our individual human identity embodied in virtual worlds and online games? What impact will genetic technology, with the possibilities of human enhancement and cloning technology, have on human identity and embodiment? This course will use movies, online communities (like Second Life), reading (both popular and scholarly), and discussions to explore these and other issues raised by recent and developing technologies.

The course will probably be divided into four areas of material:
1. What makes us human--looking at standard western and eastern philosophical views, as well as issues of personal identity;
2. Humans, animals, and androids-- focusing on human rights and who should have them
3. Humans in virtual worlds-- looking at issues of disembodiment, "trying on", avatars as human reflection, and human rights in virtual communities of various kinds
4. Humans and biotechnology- Will genetic technology change the definition of human and, if so, how?

Since I haven't taught any of this material before, it'll be a huge amount of work and I haven't yet come up with decent possibilities of textbooks, but the description at least seems a start.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Entanglement Theory

I've spent a good part of the day working to update the 'religion and science' section of my Contemporary Issues in Religion course. Part of the time was spent working on sorting out truths from untruths in Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, updating developments in things like antimatter research, and listening to a "Speaking of Faith" interview with theoretical physicist Janna Levin. From there I've gone on to read some of what CERN is hoping to do to explore the big bang theory and the issue of "missing dark matter" using its Large Hadron Collider. And, since most of my students seem to have almost no updated physics knowledge when we get to the topic of religion and the big bang theory, I've spent the last part of the day listening to the first lectures on Quantum Entanglement that Leonard Susskind, the father of string theory, has given at Stanford University. How physics has changed since I studied it formally more than 30 years ago! And how, the more I study it, the more it seems to go beautifully with a spiritual view of life!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I've got two of my three classes for the spring semester ready to go and spent most of the long weekend doing some of the "reading updates" on the third, my Contemporary Issues in Religion course. (Who could possibly imagine that so much stuff would be written on religion and biogenetical issues in one year!) In between reading articles on stem cell research and Michael Crichton's Next (one of this year's required books for the course that I'm 1/3 of the way through rereading), Kathy and I did some garden planning. We decided that, while we'll cut back on the variety of potatoes this year and plant only three kinds--Onaways, Cranberry Reds, and All-Blues-- we'll double or triple the number of hills we'll make.

We're also going to put in more tomatoes this year than last because I really can't stand the tasteless "fake" ones they sell in stores and serve in restaurans during the winter and spring. With more of our own, we'll be able to can some and make sauce from some so that we'll have the real tomato taste during these colder months. We'll go mainly with traditional types--Burbank, Brandywine, Calabash, and Chadwick cherry-- though I ordered a Tigerella (a variety on the Green Zebra that disappointed me last year) and a Yellow Perfection plant (both of which are heirlooms) for some variety and a Stupice so that we'll have tomatoes early in the season as well as late.

We're going to skip cucumbers this year, since no one really liked the ones we grew last year. Instead we'll expand our lettuce varieties. Rather than just green Romaine, we're going to try to grow Red Iceberg, Savoy, Red Romaine, and Formidana-- and we're going to try to start them from seed. We're also going to put in more peppers than last year-- mainly sweet varieties in orange, red, and purple--so that we can freeze some for winter and spring cooking. All of this will mean probably doubling the amount of the tiny back yard we give over to gardening, which I find really exciting!

On top of that, since Kathy would like to grow some berries, we're also going to try to do some container gardening as well, planting Ozark Beauty strawberries and Top Hat blueberries in medium sized pots and keeping them on our back porch.

Now to begin the two month countdown until I can begin to prepare the soil!

Friday, January 18, 2008

My Brain

So I finally decided to do this test and got orange. I wonder what most other folks I know would get. (For those who want to try it, the test link is at the bottom.)

Your Brain is Orange

Of all the brain types, yours is the quickest.
You are usually thinking a mile a minute, and you could be thinking about anything at all.
Your thoughts are often scattered and random - but they're also a lot of fun!

You tend to spend a lot of time thinking about esoteric subjects, the meaning of life, and pop culture.

Friday Five: Read any good books lately?

For this week's "Friday Five", RevGalBlogPals asks five questions about books. Here they are with my answers:

  1. What book have you read in the last six months that has really stayed with you? Why?
    Three very different books stand out from the past six months.

    They are Cormac McCarthy's The Road (for the stark beauty of the relationship between the father and the son), Shane Claiborne's The Irresistable Revolution (for its challenge to all of us about the role that Christians are called to play-- and could really play-- in today's society), and Geoffrey Thorne's Sword of Damocles (for its presentation of a universe that represents real diversity).

  2. What is one of your favorite childhood books? One? You've got to be kidding.
    Among favorites would be James Garfield's Follow My Leader (about a boy who is blinded and his seeing eye dog), Ruth Gannett's Elmer and the Dragon, Ethelyn Parkinson's series of books about Rupert Piper, and the Nancy Drew mysteries. And then there are my favorite books from my children's childhoods-- Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, and The Clown of God.

  3. Do you have a favorite book of the Bible? Do tell!
    It'd be a toss up between Jeremiah, Job, and the gospels (though over the past year or two I've become more and more fond of Acts as well).

  4. What is one book you could read again and again?
    I reread lots of poetry, especially by Mary Oliver and Adrienne Rich, as well as books by Nikos Kazantzakis, Elie Wiesel, Annie Dillard, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

  5. Is there a book you would suggest for Lenten reading? What is it and why?
    During Lent I often dip into the writing of Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and Rumi.

And because we all love bonus questions, if you were going to publish a book what would it be? Who would you want to write the jacket cover blurb expounding on your talent?
Over the years I've imagined writing lots of books-- among them a book exploring the early 13th century and how the lives of Francis of Assisi, Rumi and perhaps the Jewish mystics of the time interacted with religious institutions of the day, a novel that leaps off from a family mystery that's never been solved, a murder mystery that takes place in both a virtual world and the "real world" at the same time-- but I've never had the luxury of undisturbed time to write any of them, much less thought of who would do the blurb for the jacket cover.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

When It's Over

I've spent most of the afternoon working on a memorial service for a couple who were married for more than 50 years and then died within 9 hours of each other (without being aware that the other spouse had died). They were the parents of someone who was in my class when we were in junior high, so I only knew them briefly and in a very general way.
As I've been writing for their service, I keep having the following words from Mary Oliver echo through my head:

"When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

2008 Bucket List

We went to see The Bucket List this weekend. Despite having two wonderfully skilled actors –Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson—in it, the film was mediocre at best. The story is that of two older men who are each given only six months to live and decide to make a list of the things they should do/want to do before they “kick the bucket”. A lot of things on the list were predictable and, though there were great photographic scenes of the Pyramids and the Himalayas, the storyline was at times boring and predictable.

Yesterday when I was sitting waiting for Con Ed to finish its work in my home so that I’d have heat and access to my computer, I grabbed a piece of paper and did my own bucket list. Until two years ago, I’d done something fairly equivalent during the week before Christmas—a list of things I hoped to do in the upcoming year, the upcoming ten years, and at some point in my life. In 2006 and 2007, we were traveling during that last week of the year so I’d let the habit drop. Yesterday’s bucket list takes the place of the 2007 list, though without the three category breakdown.

Much of what I put on the list continues to be in the same three or four categories-- travel, music, water activities, gardening, and the arts—as when I used to do the old list. And a lot of the specifics are even the same because family responsibilities, work obligations, and money issues continue to make many of the items on the list impractical, if not impossible.

New this year would be my desire to be able to grow enough vegetables to sustain our family through a year, though having a greenhouse –even a small one—remains right next to that on the gardening part of my list because I’d still like a chance to raise African violets and orchids. Travelwise, my first choices of places I’d like to see still remain Greece, Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef (which I’ve dreamed of snorkeling since I was a kid), and Poggio Rusco (especially during Carnival in February). The activity I’d most like to learn is to sing well, and then to improve my guitar and flute playing to go with it. As bad as I am at it, making music (along with being in or on the water) continues to give me more delight than almost anything else. The bucket list has a lot of water- related activities on it—keeling a catamaran, swimming through an underwater grotto, kayaking surrounded by a pod of humpbacks, and of course building the sailboat that I dreamed about when my mother and I bought her the place up at the Cape way back in 1981. And then there’s hang gliding, and riding horses on a beach, and acting, and learning to make stained glass, and learning to fence. There’s probably not enough time in one lifetime—no matter how long I live or how healthy I remain—to do all the things I want to try.

But of course there are also the more mundane things to enjoy. Right now I've got bread baking and stew bubbling away on the stove and the house smells wonderful from them—so I’m more than content!


I recently saw Paola Antonelli’s 2007 TED talk, in which she described heaven as a place where your curiosity can be satisfied and then went on to talk about how some of that heaven is already a reality for her, especially in her work as design curator of MOMA. I think she’s right on target in her definition of heaven on earth though I prefer the way in which W.B. Yeats puts in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”:

I am content to live it all again

And yet again, if it be life to pitch

Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch…

I am content to follow to its source

Every event in action or in thought;

Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!...

We must laugh and we must sing,

We are blest by everything,

Everything we look upon is blest!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

In Defense of Food

Last year, I slowly made my way through Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and learned a lot as I read. I followed it up with Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. All of it seemed to go hand-in-hard with our move into making our own jams and cheese and our addition of new vegetables to those grown in our garden. So, when Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto was announced for an early January 2008 release date, I preordered it. On the day it arrived, I sat down and read it—and was a bit disappointed.

It’s not that the general content of the book isn’t good; it is. And it’s not that Pollan doesn’t raise important issues; he does. It’s just that a lot of In Defense of Food contains simple stuff that we already know—don’t snack, eat food your great-grandmother would recognize (as opposed, for example, to Gogurts), and eat at the dining room table. Pollan may be right that people “would not have bought this book and read this far into it if your food culture was intact and healthy” but I’d hoped that, while adding its pragmatic focus, In Defense might have a bit more of the depth to it that Ominvore’s Dilemma did.

In his earlier books and essays on food, Pollan has often been called an elitist and some of that view continues to be felt in this book. At one point, for example, after arguing as Kingsolver does that it’s important to return to local, basic food, Pollan suggests we foragein the wild for our salad greens. Where in Westchester, for example, should I do that?

And yet, despite its shortcomings, In Defense of Food calls us back to some important truths—that trying to reduce food to its nutritional components misses a lot of what matters about eating, that we should “eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”, and that we should restore civility to the traditional idea of the meal, replacing fast food and eating out with the time and money it takes to cook and share a meal around a home dinner table. Such reminders, coupled with Pollan's enjoyable and easy-to-read style of writing makes the book entertaining and worthwhile.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

My Favorite Spot in Portugal

My favorite part of our trip to Portugal was the visit to Obidos, late on December 30th. Until the 15th century, Obidos stood on the coast. (The coast has now shifted about 14 miles west to where Peniche currently is.) It contains a 10th century castle and ramparts that encircle the entire village. (Thus the name “Obidos” from the Latin oppidum for walled in city or fortress.) Until the middle of the 12th century it was the property of the Moors. In 1148, as part of the Reconquista going on in Portugal and Spain, Christians took it. Beginning in the 13th century, Obidos became the traditional wedding gift given by Portuguese kings to their queens.

The town is surrounded by farmland, vineyards, and (though it was twilight as we arrived) I think I even saw an old fashioned windmill or two. Inside the walls are narrow, cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses with the traditional terracotta roofs we saw in most villages we explored. Several of the houses seemed to be lined with the beautiful tiles of the 17th and 18th centuries, though the crowds made it impossible to stop and look carefully at any of them.

As you approach Obidos during the Christmas season, you notice that the castle and ramparts are all encircled in lights. The main street which cuts through the town, goes through the praca that houses the Igreja de Santa Maria, and ends at the castle, has strings lights suspended overhead, huge varieties of decorated Christmas trees along its way, and periodically other types of Christmas decorations. When we arrived, the police were directing vehicles away from the town, which was packed to overflowing. But, because so many people wanted to see the special decorations and be part of the Christmas-New Year’s celebration, they were parking along the main roads outside of the town and hiking into the area. We were pretty sure that all we were going to get to see was the outside of the lit village walls but Joachim, our driver, told the police that we were Americans who had traveled to Portugal specifically to see Obidos during this special event. We were not only allowed through the barricades but allowed to park right next to the beginning of the “celebration walk” down the main street. Go figure!

We entered the city through the Porta de Vila, the southern town gate which was decorated with tiles. Along with the rest of the jostling crowd, we moved quickly through the lit main street, glancing at the decorations as we went and enjoying the smell of the roasting chestnuts coming from several venders’ booths along the way.

At one point we all paused because Becca wasn’t with us anymore. I made my way back a block or two and found her stopped as one of the turns in the road, shopping and talking in a combination of French and Spanish with a local man who made some earrings she was interested in buying.

We continued toward the castle, stopping along the way for the traditional Christmas drink of "Ginjinha de Obidos" (a liqueur similar to sherry made with Ginja berry), which is served in cups made of chocolate.

A little later, we arrived at the Igreja de Santa Maria, which was outlined in white lights and a large nativity scene set up in the praca.

Because it was getting late, rather than continuing through the main street to the castle, we decided to cut through side streets—in the process seeing a little of the rest of the village that wasn’t decorated for the holidays—and circle back to the car.

While I enjoyed the rest of my time in Portugal, Obidos will be what I will most remember about the trip. Being there gave me more of a sense of the history of the area than I felt in any of the places more formally set up to “capture” history—the Castelo de Sao Jorge, the winding streets of the Alfama, the Abbey at Batalha, or the Palacio Nacional de Queluz. And being in a crowd that was 99% Portuguese—who hadn’t come to the place as tourists, but to stand in this ongoing Portuguese tradition and celebrate the holidays together—also added to the special feeling of the place.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Cave

On the flight back from Portugal, I had the chance to read Jose Saramago’s The Cave, a novel that has a simple story with a predictable plot that’s set in the near future. It can, however, be read on a whole series of levels. The story centers around a 76-year-old potter, Cipriano Algor, who lives with his daughter and son-in-law in a simple home where he makes pottery in the same manner that his father and grandfather did. Unlike his ancestors, however, he sells his pottery exclusively to the Center, which Saramago presents as the ultimate corporation/shopping mall/ modern residential complex. The Center suddenly refuses to carry any more of Algor’s pottery, so he has to figure out some other way to support himself. As he’s dealing with that quandary, his son-in-law, Marcal, who is a security guard for the Center, is offered an apartment in the Center as part of his job promotion. But as he loses his connections with his pottery and his sense of himself as a potter, he gains new connections—with his daughter, with his recently met dog, Found, and ultimately even with his son-in-law. Algor struggles with whether or not to move with his family or carry on a new form of business until the Center pulls out of its offer on his new products as well. Feeling there is no other choice, he joins his family in their move to the apartment and then sneaks down to where his son-in-law is stationed one evening and makes a startling discovery.

The storyline, clearly meant to be an allegory, is not what stands out in The Cave. Instead it’s Saramago’s stream-of-consciousness style that captures the reader as he fills in the characters’ motivations and reactions to events around them or interrupts the story with side discussions about storytelling, family foibles, or the meaning of literature. Amidst it all there are retellings of creation myths, the story of Adam and Eve, and Plato’s myth of the cave, which is retold several different times in different contexts. In several places The Cave and The Matrix echoed off each other in interesting ways. All of this is going on while Saramago is of course also making a point regularly found in his writing, critiquing the evils of corporate capitalism and consumer culture.

If I was allowed to choose my own texts for courses I teach, The Cave would be ideal to assign to my introductory philosophy class that spends 2/3rds of the semester reading Plato as a postmodern reading of the ancient myth. It'd give them a sense of how the dialogues they've been studying continue to live in newer settings. With standardized texts, though, all I can do is mention it as worth reading when we get to the part of the course on The Republic.

Outside of Lisbon

We spent two of our days in Portugal doing tours of areas immediately outside of Lisbon.

On Saturday, we visited the Placio Nacional de Queluz, an 18th century palace with formal gardens to match.
Walking into the first room of the palace and then looking at the gardens afterwards, I was reminded of the Chateau de Versailles. From there, after dropping me back at the hotel to deal with an upset stomach, Kathy and Becca continued on to Sintra and its neighboring villages.

The writer Jose Saramago rightly describes the Palacio Nacional de Sintra as a “building whose individual components are characterized by fantasy, insensibility, bad taste and improvisation” with “the romantic excess of the exterior” not deserving “the bourgeois excess of the interior.”

Each exterior of the Palacio seems to have a different imposing exterior, some painted, some tiled, and some with turrets.

Balustrades and the domes on top of many of the turrets add to the Moorish feeling of the place. The town itself, with narrow streets, also reflected this mood.

From Sintra, Kathy and Becca drove along the coast to Cabo da Roca, with its spectacular views of the coast. They traveled through resort towns and upscale fishing villages. Cabo da Roca is the westernmost point of all continental Europe. There’s a lighthouse and a monument there with the words of Portugal’s national poet, Luis de Camoes, declaring that this is "where the land ends and the sea begins".

The next day, a Sunday, we headed out to Fatima, the place where Our Lady of Fatima is said to have appeared to three peasant children back in 1917.

The esplanade at Fatima is huge –much bigger than Saint Peter’s Square, where we’d been the previous year on the same day--and could easily hold more than a million people with no problem.

On one side of the square is the Capela das Aparicoes, a simple building next to the oak three where Mary appeared. All that exists in the building is a simple altar surrounded on three sides with an aisle, where people who are taking vows to say the rosary on a regular basis move on their knees from one end to the other, and plain benches on which to sit and pray. To the left of the Capela das Aparicoes is a place of where large, five foot candles, can be bought and lit in honor of Mary. On the right of the esplanade is another small chapel, the Perpetual Adoration Chapel, where the host is continually exposed so that people can gather before it in silence and prayer.

But the largest building on the site is the basilica, which was begun in 1928 and finished in 1953. Mass was going on while we were there, so we only got to see a few of the fifteen altars it contains. The sanctuary itself didn’t impress me much, although I did enjoy the stained glass windows at the very top of the basilica walls. On the right side of the basilica are the stations of the cross, done in mosaic and reflecting a much more modern sense than is actually true. And of course, behind the basilica is a huge gift shop, where you can buy religious statues, rosaries, and just about any other kind of Catholic paraphernalia you could think of. Seeing it all, one wonders how many tears Mary has wept on behalf of the poor as the money was used to build this site. Or, as Saramago summarizes the area, “only faith can save Fatima, not the beauty it does not possess.”

We left the formal site of Fatima, drove past statues of the three children watching over their sheep, and went to the much, much poorer area of Fatima to see the houses of the three children involved in the appearances. First we saw the house of Francisco and Jacinta Marto, then the house and lands of their much wealthier cousin, Lucia dos Santos. I was surprised by the latter, since historically Mary appears to the poor, not those who are wealthier land owners. Joachim, our driver, suggested that Lucia was included in the vision because of her considerably poorer cousins. It left me wondering, however, why the poorer cousins died within a short time after the appearance, but Lucia lived to a ripe old age and only died a few years ago.

As we were looking at the statue of the angel’s appearance that’s been put in one of the fields that Lucia’s family owned, Joachim also gave us a lesson on cork trees and how cork is made. Somehow this struck me as much more satisfying than what I’d learned about Fatima.

From Fatima we headed in the direction of Obidos, the place I most wanted to see in Portugal.

We stopped at Batalha, where we saw the magnificent abbey cathedral with its Gothic pinnacles, spires and towers and soaring interior.

We all enjoyed both the church and the small square outside with its shops and sat in the square, enjoying a few of Portugal’s traditional pastries as our quick “late lunch” break. From there we drove through the Pinhal de Leira, a 700-year-old pine forest growing in sandy land that reminded me very much of the drive along the Pilgrim highway on Cape Cod. We sat in bumper to bumper traffic to get into Nazare, a small fishing village with local women, each dressed in a series of short skirts and selling nuts and dried fruit, lining the squares. The sun was beginning to sink as we drove out of the area and headed to Obidos, our last stop of the trip.

Monday, January 7, 2008


We spent two of our four days in Portugal in Lisbon, the first exploring the Baixa and the last walking through the Alfama and the Castelo de Sao Jorge.

The Baixa is the part of Lisbon that was rebuilt in the 18th century after an earthquake destroyed most of what was then Lisbon’s main center. It’s an area beautifully laid out with mosaic pavements and classical buildings of no more than five stories (so that they could withstand any future earthquakes) whose storefronts contained international brand shops and pavement cafes and have beautiful tiled facades. We entered it through the Praça do Comercio, a large square right on the waterfront. There are two important pieces of architecture—a statue of Dom Jose in them idle of the praça and a triumphal arch as you enter the Baixa’s main streets. On the Rua Augusta, no vehicles are allowed so street musicians, craftsfolk, and artists set up to show their work as you walk along the way. Becca was enthralled by the combination of places to shop and craftspeople. She bought jewelry from vendors, shopped for a pair of flats in one of the shoe stores,

and had her caricature done by one of the street artists. We sauntered through the streets, seeing the Elevador de Santa Justa,

resting for a while near Robert Indiana’s well-known Love sculptures that decorate Rossio Square, and getting our first glimpse of the Castelo de Sao Jorge from the Praça da Figueira, which was itself filled with what looked like a large indoor (roller or ice?) skating rink and some kind of XBox 360 game tent.

We circled back toward the Praça do Comercio. By then all the Christmas decorations in the area had been lit u p. Becca shopped a little more. We ate traditional pastries and then later that evening dinner at the Restaurante Martinho da Arcada, one of Lisbon’s most famous literary landmarks that has been open since 1782. There it is said that Fernando Pessoa (who Harold Bloom calls the most representative poet of the twentieth century and who has become something of an icon in Lisbon) wrote his epic “Mensagem”. And two other Portuguese literary legends, Almeida Garret and novelist Jose Eça de Queirós also used to hang out at this café. Once dinner hour arrived (7:30 is the earliest restaurants open for dinner in Portugal) the place filled up quickly. Our meals—we each had a different kind of fish—was very good, though by the end of the meal I was exhausted from the long day and was more than ready to get in a taxi and head back to the hotel.

On our last day in Portugal, we again headed back to Lisbon. We did a quick tram tour of the older areas of the city, then walked off in the direction of the Alfama. We made into several different churches, none of which struck as as amazing inside. But we spent a while at the tiny church of Santa Luzia. On its walls are panels made of 18th-century azulejos (the traditional blue and white tiles), one of which showed what the Praça do Comercio looked like before the 18th century earthquake and the other showed the siege of Lisbon (and especially the Castelo de Sao Jorge) in 1147. From the church’s gardened terrace are also great views of the Alfama and the Tagus River. We continued up hill a short while to the Miradouro das Portas del Sol, where a street musician was playing fado music on his guitar.

From its balcony there were even more stunning views of the Tagus and the old city of Lisbon as well as a statue of Saint Vincent de Fora (who is Lisbon’s patron saint) holding two ravens (the best-known symbols of Lisbon). Urged on by Kathy’s continual “It’s only three more blocks” (said after every three or four blocks we’d walked) we continued our walk up to Saint George’s Castle, stopping briefly to look at some ancient tiles and later to watch an artist actually making new tiles.

The Castelo de Sao Jorge was very busy on New Year’s Eve as people gathered to celebrate the end of 2007. We walked through the castle’s gardens and courtyards, enjoying glimpses of a different part of Lisbon (including many of the private home gardens) from its heights, and then entered the castle itself. I climbed one of the walls up to what the view from the turrets would be like but it wasn’t much better than from the garden below.

Later, to prove she could do it despite her dislike of heights, Becca also went up on one of the walls.

By then it was beginning to get dark, so we left the castle and headed back down through the Alfama toward the Baixa, stopping at one point to watch swarms of tiny birds (I’d guess a good 200 or so flying together) make unusual shapes in the sky as they rode the currents coming off the Tagus. By the time we arrived back in the Praça do Comercio, lots of people were gathered to hear the performing bands and await the fireworks that would go off nearby over the river at the strike of midnight as people prepared to ring in 2008.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Future of the Supreme Court

I’ve just finished Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, one of the books I’d asked for for Christmas. While I’d read his New Yorker account of the Martha Stewart trial, I’ve had no other experience with his writing before this. On the back of the book’s jacket, Doris Goodwin, whose writing on Lincoln I’ve enjoyed, calls The Nine “a remarkable riveting book… (where) the justices and their inner world are brought vividly to life” and she’s right. The book not only captures the history of key individual cases and the workings of the court, but also gives a strong sense of the personalities and quirks of each specific justice. Throughout the book, Toobin makes the ways in which extreme conservatism has shaped the justices’ decisions—in the 90s by causing Republican appointed Justices O’Connor and Kennedy to move further left in response to the extremism, but then, since 2005 and the appointment of the very conservative Alito and the almost as conservative (though clearly more personable) Roberts, by expanding the role of the executive and ignoring the principle of stare decisis in recent cases.

The Nine made me fonder of Tony Kennedy and his penchant for international law than I’d been in the past and upheld my appreciation for some of what Sandra Day O’Connor accomplished for women (though I still can’t warm up to some of her individual states’ rights rulings) while reinforcing my dislike for Nino Scalia. And it made clear how the only factor that will determine whether the Supreme Court will continue to limit and ultimately reverse such decisions as Miranda, Brown, and Roe is a political one. It makes this next presidential election even more crucial than before, since several of the justices— including the more liberal Ginsburg and Stevens—will probably resign during the next eight years.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Staying at Pestana Palace

We’re back from Portugal, beginning to adjust back from the five hour time difference, and catching up on the work that piled up from before Christmas.

We got into Lisbon early on the morning December 28th and went straight to the hotel that Kathy’s brother-in-law, who is a travel agent, booked for us. It was called the Pestana Palace and it turned out to be rated as one of the top “Best Luxury Hotels in the World”. Located on a steep hill in the Alto Santa Amaro quarter of Lisbon, Pestana Palace overlooks the Tagus River. The Palace was built in 1904 for the Marquis de Valle Flor and his three daughters, whose portraits can be found in many of the rooms. It has ceiling paintings and portraits by Carlos Reis, a great 19th century Portuguese artist, and has been carefully restored to its former Romantic Revivalist glory with room after room of opulence to sit in.

From the lights on the huge pine tree (to the right in this picture) as we rode up the driveway through to the Grand Ballroom (now the Valle Flor restaurant where we ate most of our breakfasts and one dinner), the place was decorated for the holidays. Even the chapel, which seats about 40 people and served as the site of a wedding on the Saturday we were there, was decorated for Christmas.

Our bedrooms were located in the modern extension to the room and, while they had a great view of the large private garden filled with subtropical plants and trees (several of which were still in bloom), they were otherwise very basic, especially in comparison to the rest of the place. Fortunately, except for the afternoon I spent in the hotel because of an upset stomach, none of us hung out in our rooms.

The food at the hotel was a different story. While breakfasts were very good with many different choices in the daily buffet, the rest of the food didn’t live up to the “Portuguese cuisine of the highest standard” which reviews say it serves. On the night that we ate in the dining room, as we were surrounded by ornate ceilings, windows, and marbled columns, the best parts of our meals were the rolls and one of the desserts, a crème brulee. My cod was overly salty, the waiter confused orders several times, and none of us were very happy with the food that we were given in exchange for the large bill at the end. But we thought maybe it was a fluke, so we tried again and ordered room service another night when we were tired from a full day of walking around seeing Lisbon, only to find that the food was equally bad and equally expensive.

Other amenities were so-so. The spa had a very small Jacuzzi and, while it was great to swim several evenings, the pool was small for the number of people who used it, especially on the weekend. The internet in our room didn’t work right so Becca had to make numerous trips to the Business Center to stay in contact with her friends.

The hotel wouldn’t have been my choice of a place to stay—I’d rather spend the money on the actual travel than on accommodations—but I think Becca loved all the glamour of the place, from the rose petals placed in the toilet bowl during bed turndown in the evening to the chocolates and raisins delivered to each room on New Year’s Eve to capture a Portuguese tradition of wishes of fertility and abundance for the upcoming year.