Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Creche vandalized

Today's Valley News Dispatch has a sad story about the vandalism of the nativity display of the First United Methodist Church of New Kensington.

Here at Central in Tarentum, we feel a connection to First United Methodist because our church secretary is a member of that congregation. But this act of vandalism affects all churches in the area, as it reminds us of the opposition we face in announcing good news to people who are not yet ready to hear it.

Churches have been using creche scenes for centuries to explain the nativity of Jesus Christ. According to many sources (here, for example) St. Francis of Assisi first used a creche scene in 1223. St. Francis is the one credited with saying "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, with words." Long before churches discovered overhead projectors or PowerPoint, St. Francis used the creche as a visual object lesson to illustrate his message as he proclaimed the Gospel.

The creche at First United Methodist was intended to give people hope and help them understand that life is not measured by consumption or by how much one can purchase. God gives meaning to our lives through the One who entered into the world with the vulnerability of an infant intended to be a servant to all.

One of the discouraged church members is reported to have said, "Now we've got the manger but nothing to go in it." In fact, although the surroundings were destroyed, the figure of the Christ-child was safe inside the church waiting to be placed in the manger on Christmas eve. Although we annually re-enact the story, the real gift of Christmas is already inside the Church.

Update: WPXI is carrying a video story that the vandals were three boys in the neighborhood and were turned in by their mother.

File under: New Kensington, evangelism

Seminary to offer public lecture on early alphabet

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary will offer a lecture that promises to be fascinating on December 8, 2005 at 7:30 in the Hicks Memorial Chapel Auditorium, according to this press release. The lecture by Prof. Ron Tappy and Dr. P. Kyle McCarter will tell about the discovery and study of a stone engraved with what may be the oldest known securely datable abecedary, the letters of an alphabet in their traditional order.

It may not be about the holy grail, but the discovery of this stone "may be the most important find in the Holy Land in a decade" according to Lawrence E. Stager, a Harvard University archaeologist quoted in this article.

One of the reasons this find is significant is that some have challenged the accuracy of Biblical histories. This discovery is evidence of a literate society in Israel in the 10th century B.C.E.

There is more information about the dig here.

The Advent season is a very busy time for the churches, but this free lecture sounds like it will be a wonderful early Christmas present to the community from the Seminary.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

Pittsburgh Magazine articles about Paola Corso

Pittsburgh Magazine, December 2005Lisa Kellar reviews Paola Corso's book, Giovanna's 86 Circles and Other Stories on page 112 of the December 2005 issue of Pittsburgh Magazine.
"Readers should hope she will continue to enchant us with forthcoming stories of our region."
Kellar also reports on "Talking with Author Paola Corso" in an article on the same page.

It is good to see the Pittsburgh region taking note of the Tarentum native.

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Email subscriptions

I've just added the option of email subscriptions to this blog. This is in addition to the other subscriptions options I wrote about earlier. This service is through www.feedblitz.com.

In order for you to subscribe you would need to register with FeedBlitz, then you would be able to sign up for a daily email summary of any feeds to which you choose to subscribe -- even if the blog publisher does not offer email subscriptions! So if you prefer to read news through your email this might be the tool to use.

Once a day you would receive an email with additions to my blog. The email would be from FeedBlitz@mail.feedblitz.com, so that address should not be on your list of blocked senders. Each daily email would include a link to unsubscribe from the various feeds, as well as to end FeedBlitz email completely.

There is one privacy concern that you should know about. The publisher of feeds to which you subscribe (such as, for example, me) would by default get to see your email address. Once you have registered with FeedBlitz, you can set your email to anonymous by editing your profile and checking a box marked "Private." If I understand the FAQ correctly, all I would see in place of your email address on my list of subscribers is "Anonymous".

If you want to subscribe by email, find the box in the bottom right corner of the blog, enter the email address that you want to receive the updates, and click the "Subscribe me!" button

Saturday, November 26, 2005

"Roman Arches" at the Waterworks

Paola CorsoToday at the Barnes and Noble Booksellers in the Waterworks Mall, Paola Corso read a portion from one of the stories in her new book Giovanna's 86 Circles and Other Stories.

The small crowd gathered for the reading included some of her old friends and extended family, some people like me who have discovered her through her writing, and some people who stopped at the edges of the event when they realized something wonderful was being read.

The Tarentum native read a portion of "Roman Arches," the final story in the collection, one that includes within it another story -- an Italian folk tale about a peasant with fallen arches. With magical hyperbole the story describes the villagers' changed perception of the peasant when he receives the free gift of lovingly handmade shoes with giant arches.
As he stood up ... the arches lifted him like a springboard. He soared into the sky, disappearing into the clouds. By then the villagers got word of the man's ascent and all eyes were in the heavens. There was nothing to see except white clouds sculpted across the sky like a lace tablecloth until suddenly the clouds dissolved in the sunlight. They spotted the man flying above their basillica as though he were hanging on the cross atop the church dome. The villagers threw themselves to their knees and bowed their heads on the cobblestone. When the peasant landed on the ground, they took turns kissing his feet.
It is a true gift to be able to receive a deepened perception of the dignity -- the magnificence -- of a person one might be inclined to write off as insignificant.

When the reading was over and people were greeting the author, I happened to overhear one woman tell her in a quiet voice, "You make us proud to be Italian." I suspect that this pride comes from more than merely recognizing Corso's accomplishments as an Italian-American woman. The stories she has written draw attention to the inner strengths and values that have formed people raised in working class river towns like Tarentum. By showing her readers who they are, Corso draws attention to the many reasons they have to be proud.

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Global connections through pancakes

When I drove into Tarentum for the first time in my life back in the summer of 2002, one of the sights that warmed my heart announced the presence of Pollock Lodge. I'm not a Mason, but all my life people have been mangling the spelling either of my first name or of my last name; it was refreshing to see my last name spelled correctly, even if the sign did not refer to me or any of my known relatives.

Charles Korman and Charles Korman at the grillThis morning the Pollock Masonic Lodge hosted a pancake breakfast to support the People to People Student Ambassadors program. Dwight D. Eisenhower founded the Student Ambassadors Program in 1956 and the program has enjoyed Presidential support ever since. It helps young people explore the world and build international relationships.

Kayla KieszekAfter enjoying the breakfast I had an opportunity to talk to Student Ambassador Kayla Kieszek, who had participated in the program to go to Japan. She spoke enthusiastically about the experience and about the monthly meetings of the local Three Rivers chapter which have thirty to forty young people involved in service projects.

Local people talk about Tarentum as the crossroads of the Allegheny Valley. And sometimes they snicker at the grandiosity of such a statement. They shouldn't. When a pancake breakfast in the second floor meeting room of a Masonic Lodge on Lock Street can enable global relationships, Tarentum is far more than just a local crossroads.

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Friday, November 25, 2005

What is the PCUSA saying to McDonald's?

According to this news story, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) issued a statement on the day before Thanksgiving calling the McDonald's Corporation to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and pay an increase per pound for the tomatoes McDonald’s purchases and ensure that the increase is passed along to the workers who harvest, and establish an enforceable code of conduct to ensure safe working conditions. The statement took me by surprise because I had not known that the PCUSA had any issues with McDonald's.

Here is his statement, inset and in italics, with my comments appearing in normal text and with normal margins.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is proud to work as a partner with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a human rights award-winning, worker-led community organization of Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian laborers, to establish socially responsible purchasing in the corporate food industry, guarantee the human rights of farmworkers and end modern-day slavery in the fields. We do this because scripture calls us to be stewards of God’s creation, which includes our economic life, and because we follow Jesus Christ who, as a poor man himself, inaugurated his own ministry by bringing “good news to the poor.”

I affirm our partnership with the CIW, even though I was not one of those who joined in the particular strategy of boycotting Taco Bell.

The decisions and practices of large corporations have enormous impact on our lives. Through its work on animal welfare and environmental safety, McDonald’s has illustrated that it understands it has a responsibility to ensure that its practices build, rather than diminish, well-being.
However, McDonald’s reputation for social responsibility will be undermined if it continues to pursue the Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) program as if it alone were an adequate solution to the grievous conditions and sub-poverty wages of farmworkers. It is time for McDonald’s to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to directly increase workers wages and to put an end human-rights violations in the fields.

The abrupt introduction of SAFE into this letter leads me to think that this is more a statement to McDonald's than to the general public who have not been a part of any prior conversations in which SAFE has been mentioned. SAFE has a website here. SAFE is a certifying organization, and you can read more about their standards on their website.
In March of 2005, Yum! Brands, the largest fast-food company in the world and the parent company of Taco Bell, reached a ground-breaking agreement with the CIW which enhances the human rights of farmworkers. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its congregations across the country were proud to work with the CIW to achieve this historic gain. Taco Bell is now paying a penny more per pound of tomatoes it purchases and ensuring that this increase goes directly to the Florida farmworkers - nearly doubling their wages. Yum has also crafted a substantial Code of Conduct in partnership with the CIW which ensures expert and independent enforcement. The Yum!-CIW agreement is now being rolled out and workers are already receiving the wage increase and other concrete benefits.
I concur that the agreement between Yum! Brands and CIW was a groundbreaking step. The referenced policies put Yum! Brands in the position of proactively working for justice in its supply chain, setting an example for other restaurant chains.
For the last six months, the CIW and its allies in the faith, student, and NGO communities have asked McDonald’s to work with them to implement the principles of the Yum!-CIW agreement in McDonald’s own supply chain. But instead of building on this proven solution and working with the CIW to ensure just wages for farmworkers, McDonald’s has chosen to work with a grower-led initiative called SAFE that does not include any independent farmworker labor organizations, including the CIW.
I can't find any reference to SAFE on the McDonald's website, and would be interested in hearing from McDonald's about the corporation's view of the conversations with CIW and its relationship with SAFE.

SAFE does name the Redlands Christian Migrant Association as one of its collaborators. Although the RCMA does much laudable work among farmworker families, it does not appear to be an independent farmworker labor organization. Its mission statement says that it "creates and fosters opportunities for the children of migrant and other low-income rural families to maximize the choices in their lives." It began when a group of Mennonites in Dade County provided care for farmworker children.
A close look at the language of SAFE’s mission and code of conduct shows that its goal is to ensure that growers follow the law. Of course the PC(USA) believes growers should follow the law. It is such a minimal expectation that it is revealing that an organization should need to be created to make sure growers do what is already legally required of them.
You can find the SAFE Code of Conduct here. One does not even need to read it closely to notice that every time a standard for employment is stated it goes no further than requiring that growers abide by the law.
The Yum!-CIW agreement assumes compliance with all applicable laws but recognizes that corporations must go even further. Because of their high-volume, year-round, demand for low-cost tomatoes, corporate food buyers like McDonald’s and Yum actually have a hand in depressing workers’ wages as growers who supply them seek to contain costs. But corporations also have the power and ability to change these conditions as has been evidenced in the Yum! Brands-CIW agreement.
The Yum-CIW agreement does indeed go further than merely expecting compliance with the law. It included steps to pass a raise along to the migrant farmworkers and ensure that they received it.

Currentlym farmworkers picking tomatoes in Florida for McDonald’s are still earning 40-45 cents for every 32-pound bucket they pick and haul - the same wage they received more than 25 years ago. Further, farmworkers are explicitly excluded from the National Labor Relations Act which denies them the right to organize, the right to negotiate with their employers, and the right to appeal grievances to the National Labor Relations Board. Current law does not provide farmworkers with overtime pay or secure other benefits such as healthcare.
McDonald’s has a clear moral responsibility to take leadership to assure just working conditions and compensation for the very persons who provide the products which are at the heart of its operation. Any corporation which benefits through the exploitation of others is gravely implicated in such exploitation and has a moral and ethical responsibility to end that exploitation.

This paragraph is one point where I start to wonder where this statement is heading. This statement stops short of threatening a boycott of McDonalds. I am familiar with the rhetoric about benefitting through the exploitation of others, and I continue to question (as I did in the Taco Bell situation) whether a corporation puchasing tomatoes is implicated in the vendor's exploitation of its workers. This negative argument still does not carry the day with me. Nevertheless, the example of Yum! being willing to work with the employees of its vendor to achieve justice within the vendor's organization is a powerful example of what any corporation such as McDonalds can accomplish.

As the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, on behalf of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I call upon McDonald’s to work with the CIW and
- pay an increase per pound for the tomatoes McDonald’s purchases and ensure that the increase is passed along to the workers who harvest
- establish an enforceable code of conduct to ensure safe working conditions

This is the most surprising paragraph in the statement for me. I cannot remember McDonald's being mentioned in a recent General Assembly action. I do not know when the General Assembly voted to call upon McDonald's to do anything, or when it authorized its Stated Clerk to issue this statement to McDonald's. The statement itself does not cite any specific General Assembly actions, but claims the authority for speaking to McDonald's is because of the Stated Clerk's position. I would be very interested in hearing what actions of the General Assembly the Stated Clerk had in mind when he called upon McDonald's to take these steps.
Recently McDonald’s announced that it will serve “fair trade” coffee in its restaurants across the Northeast, a development which we heartily support. If McDonald’s can do this in the coffee industry, it can do it in the tomato industry as well. Yum! Brands has already taken leadership to implement a substantial and concrete model, together with the CIW. It is time for McDonald’s to do the same.
This is a good approach to McDonald's, and one that shows appropriate respect for the ways in which the corporation is already taking steps to work for global justice. I hope McDonald's will follow the example of proactive leadership Yum! Brands has set.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Photos from Community Thanksgiving Dinner

These pictures follow up on this article.

Tables ready for guests

volunteers preparing desserts

volunteers mashing potatoes

Guests and dessert table


Bob Quinn playing piano

Complimentary Valley News Dispatch

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Blessings of Thanksgiving

What a blessing it was to have eighty-four guests for our community Thanksgiving Dinner! We were aided by seventeen volunteers from other churches who came to share thanksgiving with us and our guests. There were probably an additional fifteen volunteers from among the membership of Central Presbyterian, not to mention the many members who donated the food for the meal.

The people who came to share in our Thanksgiving Dinner each had stories to tell about why they were having thanksgiving in this larger setting. Some frankly admitted that they would have gone hungry. Others told about how changes within their families made it impossible to have the kind of Thanksgiving Dinner they had always done before. Some said that they had made plans for Thanksgiving Dinner with family members but that problems had arisen where they had planned to get together. Many people came alone and enjoyed the meal along with the conversation with other human beings sitting with them.

While the people ate, Bob Quinn sat down at the piano and started playing a wonderful selection of pieces that brought back memories for many of the guests and volunteers as well.

A good time was had by all. Pictures to follow.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Trepidation giving way to anticipation of Thanksgiving

Earlier this week I wrote about the fact that Central Presbyterian Church would be offering the only Community Thanksgiving Dinner in Tarentum this year.

The committee that organizes this dinner has made its best plans and preparations for scaling up the dinner. We've been asking for people to call in to make reservations so that we could have some estimate of how many to expect, and we now have 91 reservations. If the reservations can be used to estimate the actual turnout, we might see anywhere between 120 and 180 people.

The Allegheny Valley Association of Churches has made their van available to us so that we can transport the participants in the Interfaith Hospitality Network to the dinner.

The Tarentum Station Restaurant, that has in the past cooked the turkeys for the much larger Thanksgiving Dinner at Larusse Distributing, was willing to cook the turkeys we had gathered for this dinner.

Volunteers have been calling with offers of assistance.

Our small membership congregation is as ready as we'll ever be, and we now are anticipating a joyous time of service, fellowship, and thanksgiving.

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The snow was flying and blowing all day yesterday. This morning there was a dusting of snow over the Allegheny valley.

snow 2005-11-23

snow 2005-11-23

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Council approved public record of October 17

The Tarentum Borough Council last night held a brisk fifty-minute meeting that began at 6:30 PM. There was not much that was controversial in the meeting.

The Council approved a resolution to designate an agent for Hazard Mitigation. This was a significant action that will bring a close to some unresolved issues left from the Hurricane Ivan flood last year. Some of the houses in the Mill Street neighborhood damaged by the flood are not going to be repaired. The resolution makes it possible to demolish the structures, reclaim the land, and create some green space in the Bull Creek flood plain.

The Council hired Carl Garrett & Son to furnish and install space heaters in the water plant.

The Council accepted the Pennsylvania Niagara power allocation beginning September 1, 2007. This action is necessary for participating in the power grid, and does not modify the current contract with Dominion Energy.

The Council also hired Raimondo Contracting to repair walls at the Summit Hose Fire Hall. This action was urgent because a wall was bulging out and needed immediate repair.

In an earlier post in this blog an anonymous commenter asked "what [code] enforcement has been done." In last night's meeting the Code Enforcement Officer gave his monthly report for October. He said that there had been 32 occupancy inspections, 24 re-inspections, 26 complaints, 3 building permits, and 3 demolition permits. I am assuming that when he said there were 26 complaints, he was describing complaints that he had investigated. All of this supports my impression that, while there may be a need for more code enforcement, there is in fact code enforcement in the borough.

The motion to approve the minutes of the October 17 meeting passed without any debate. I was watching for this motion because of an earlier disagreement about what the minutes of this meeting would show (here and here). I have been disputing the erroneous claim made during the election campaign that there was a unanimous decision not to embark on the $2 million project with replacing water and electric meters and having Neptune handle the system for ten years. My memory is that no decision was made. The minutes that were approved report the remarks by a number of council members; there is no vote on the matter in the minutes, no recorded motion presented to the Council, only the following statement:
"A discussion was held."
You can now check that in the public record. No Council member who earlier made the erroneous claim that there had been a unanimous decision about the water meters even disputed the accuracy of the October 17 minutes; but you need to wait for the minutes of the November 21 meeting to be approved to verify that.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Tarentum native Paola Corso to sign books in Pittsburgh on Saturday

This Saturday, November 26 from 2 to 4, Paola Corso will be signing books at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore in the Waterworks Mall.

Her recent book, Giovanna's 86 Circles and Other Stories, is a collection of short stories, either set in Tarentum or involving characters with ties to the small river town about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh on the Allegheny River.

Giovanna's 86 Circles was recently reviewed in Margin, where Tamara Kaye Sellman praised the collection as an example of magical realism, a literary genre often associated with writers from Latin America.

A podcast of Corso reading one of the stories from the collection is still available for a short time at the Pete's Candy Store Reading Series here. The podcast is 17 minutes 18 seconds in length. There are two versions of the podcast on the list; the enhanced version requires iTunes software, but the other version can be played on almost any media player.

Giovanna's 86 Circles has also been reviewed here and in the Valley News Dispatch here.

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A sign with an unintended effect

sign reading "CAUTION / MAY EFFECT (sic) / HEART PACEMAKERS"This sign appears above a microwave in a cafeteria that serves many of the better-educated people in Natrona Heights. I imagine that it hurts their eyes to look at it.

There is a good usage note on AFFECT and EFFECT here.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Approaching Thanksgiving with a bit of trepidation

I've been hearing rumors over the past week that LaRusse Distributing would not provide a Thanksgiving Dinner this year. Today the Valley News Dispatch confirmed the rumor with an article in this morning's paper entitled "LaRusse Distributing taking a year off in sponsoring meal."

The sidebar in the article lists the Central Presbyterian Church as the only location in Tarentum offering a Thanksgiving Dinner on Thanksgiving Day. Reservations for the free dinner are already running well ahead of previous years.

Over the next few days we'll be trying to estimate how many of the six hundred people who would have been going to LaRusse may be heading to Central. We need to be prepared to accommodate whoever shows up.

The dinner at Central has been a positive experience each year we have done it. It has been an opportunity for many people to have the traditional meal in the company of others. In preparation for this year's dinner we distributed invitations to the residents of Golden Towers and Rachel Carson Hall.

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If you have not yet voted to name the National Turkey ...

If you have not yet voted to name the National Thanksgiving Turkey and its runner-up, you have until noon Eastern Time, November 21, 2005.

Your choices are limited to:
  • Democracy and Freedom
  • Blessing and Bounty
  • Marshmallow and Yam
  • Wattle and Snood
  • Corn and Maize
You need to go here to vote.

Once the turkeys get names they will be ready to receive a presidential pardon.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Chalice at Central

CHALICEToday at 1:00 PM the Christian musical group Chalice (Lou Rhoades, Kris Rhoades, Keith Szirmae, and Gary Coddington) played at the Central Presbyterian Church in Tarentum.

This was the second time Chalice has been to Central Presbyterian. The first time was in March of this year when the McKeesport group came to Tarentum for our "Cabin Fever Pizza Party."

CHALICEThis time Lou Rhoades began the program by ordering some "fast, free pizza" on his cell phone. He had a bit of trouble telling the person on the other end of the phone exactly where to deliver it, but by the time he finished explaining that it did not belong in the bell tower (which we don't have) the pizza had arrived. Although it was the wrong size, he somehow transformed the small pizza to an extra large one. (He must have had the big one up his sleeve all along.)

CHALICEThe inspirational music they played came from a number of musical genres: Southern Gospel, traditional hymns, praise and worship, worship choruses, 50's sound, and their original compositions.

Interspersed between the musical pieces were a number of testimonies and words of encouragement, that were well-received by those gathered.

Pie social at Central Presbyterian Church, TarentumThe event at which CHALICE played today was a "pie social." There were enough pieces of pie for all present to have as much as they wanted, and for latecomers to eat their fill as well.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

The IMAX experience of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Poster for Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireToday I went to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at the local Cinemark IMAX theater. This was my second visit to the new local IMAX theater, and the first time to see a feature film that had been specially mastered for the IMAX viewing space.

This IMAX theater has a screen seven stories wide and five stories high, and boasts of its superlative sound system. Goblet of Fire was a good film to be shown in this format. A number of the visuals in the movie came off very well on the large screen, such as the scenes of the stadium in which the Quidditch World Cup was to be played, or the vast overhead panoramas of the maze in the Triwizard Tournament. On the other hand, close-up shots of faces were simply very big.

The powerful subwoofers immediately behind the projection screen added to a number of the scenes. I was not just seeing and hearing the action but was feeling it as well. The Hungarian Horntail dragon crashed into boulders and buildings with low frequency sounds that made my bones and clothing vibrate. The dragon came just short of landing in the seat next to me.

I agree with many of the comments Ed Blank made about the challenges of condensing a 734 page book into a single feature film.
Rowling readers, some of whom devour the novels multiple times, will catalogue the condensations and omissions, while folks content to settle for the film versions will feel like they're running at Pimlico as the picture zips through its exhaustingly busy fantasy plot.
Each new book in the series is longer than the last because Rowling recapitulates the stories that have already been told. This repetition is a great aid to a reader, but it creates a major hurdle for the translation of the book into film. Mike Newell successfully edited out enough of the book to create a movie that could be viewed in 157 minutes. The plot is internally coherent, but a viewer who is not familiar with any of the books or the preceding films will be somewhat handicapped in appreciating this film.

Even television miniseries will usually spend an initial five minutes or so telling a viewer what happened previously; this movie drops immediately into the story. It introduces the mystery Harry sees in his dream where a caretaker is killed by a group of men with a giant snake; a flashback to the dream is then repeated when parts of the puzzle fall into place. There is thus some assistance for a neophyte viewer of this film.

But the characters in this film are introduced with the barest amount of information, often just a name. A neophyte viewer would have very little understanding of the relationships between the characters, or clues to know which characters are new in this episode of the story.

Parents considering taking their children to this film should be aware that this is the darkest of the stories told so far. There is fantasy violence in this film, with scenes of Harry being cut and bleeding, and with the murder of a supporting character. Although Harry escapes the attempt on his life at the end of the film, the story ends with the emergence of a powerful evil force unresolved, with all of the implications that holds for future threats to the hero.

That being said, I enjoyed the film, and look forward to the next episode in the saga.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Many church events scheduled for Saturday afternoon

Following the Pie Social at Central Presbyterian Church this Saturday, November 19 from 1 to 3 PM, there will be a number of additional church events around the Valley that people might want to attend.

A Gospel Concert featuring the Abundant Life Choir will take place at 4:00 P.M. at the Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, 1150 Fourth Ave., New Kensington. This concert will benefit the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. & the Hightower Scholarship Programs.

The St. Paul German Evangelical Lutheran Church, 300 East 8th Ave., Tarentum will have a complete stuffed pork chop dinner from 3 to 6.

The Natrona Heights Presbyterian Church is holding a Spaghetti Dinner from 4 to 7 PM. This fundraiser is to endow the congregation's flag ministry.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

First United Presbyterian Church organizes mission trip to Gulf Coast

First United Presbyterian Church of Tarentum is organizing a mission trip to the Gulf Coast and has invited Central Presbyterian Church to participate. The trip will be in February 2006.

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Restoring the past

The print edition of today's Valley News Dispatch had a very nice photograph by Eric Felack on page A6, showing the advertising mural uncovered by the demolition of the Trackside Inn (see here or here). Apparently Carl Garrett & Son Heating have hired Harrison Brothers Masonry to clean the bricks and preserve the mural.

The photo in the print edition of the paper is far better than any of the pictures I have taken with my little camera.

Between Fifth and Fourth Avenues in Tarentum there are a number of these older advertising murals, that each have a certain fascinating charm.

advertisement saying "Chew Honest Scrap"

advertisement for Mail Pouch Tobacco in Tarentum

advertisement for Coca Cola in Tarentum
Now, if only the Valley News Dispatch made their better photos available online ....

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Everything makes way for football

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Yesterday I was honored to receive an invitation to participate in the 2006 Alle-Kiski Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Service. The service will happen on January 29, 2006.

While I was on the phone call about the service I asked why this major community service gets scheduled so far after Dr. King's birthday. I was told that the organizers have learned that it has to happen after the football season is past in order to be a success.

This is just another point on my learning curve about the culture here in Western Pennsylvania.

Central Presbyterian Church hosted the service in 2005.

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Graham cracker architecture

Tonight at Grand Central Station, the mid-week Christian education event for elementary school age children, we were using the Bible Venture Centers unit "Jesus: Manger Miracle."

One of the teachers arrived somewhat anxious because for the opening depot she was supposed to show the children a note card and ask them if they thought it was possible to cut a hole in the note card large enough for one of the children to step through. The curriculum said to follow a diagram for cutting the hole ... but there was no diagram she could find.

Fortunately, I remembered the basic idea for how to cut the hole, and had some time to practice beforehand. Also fortunately, none of the children had seen this trick before so they were all suitably amazed when I cut a 6 by 9 inch piece of construction paper with a big enough hole for each of the children to step through it. Then for good measure I stepped through it myself.

Graham cracker architectureThe main lesson we were doing tonight was about the nativity, so as Mrs. Guenther read the story of Jesus' birth, the children each made little stables and mangers out of graham crackers with frosting as glue. They then added some straw made from shredded wheat and populated the stables with animal crackers.

Each of the children found his or her own creative way to recreate the stable.

Graham cracker architectureAfter making the stables and mangers the children also made chocolate covered pretzels.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

People who have been around Tarentum

People who have been around Tarentum longer than I have tell me that the Valley News Dispatch does not publish stories that admit to the occurrence of crime in Tarentum.

So I astonished my friends today when I told them about the article on page A3 that described a recent "smash and grab" crime spree going on both in Tarentum and New Kensington.

The article suggests that the string of crimes has been going on for about a week. I suspect it has been going a bit longer. The "smash and grab" of which I was a victim on October 12, while my car was in the church parking lot and I was in a church meeting, seems to match the profile of the crimes described in the article.

As one of the victims of this type of crime, I need to admit that it is hard to come to closure about the wrong that was done to me. The repair to my car window cost me more than the value of what was stolen. I don't know who did it or why, and I don't even have the possibility of asking the person who violated me why they did it. I can pray for forgiveness for the person who hurt me, and for the grace to forgive, but the anonymity of the criminal is just another barrier to get past.

If this news coverage of local crime is genuinely a new development, kudos to the Valley News Dispatch for breaking with tradition.

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Pie social in Tarentum

This Saturday, November 19, 2005 from 1:00 to 3:00 PM the Deacons of Central Presbyterian Church of Tarentum are hosting a pie social.

Chalice, which is part of The Well Ministries will be providing music.

The event is free and there will be lots of pie.

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And sometimes the people preach the sermon right back to you

On Sunday I preached a stewardship sermon based on the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). I talked about being stewards of all that we are and have, and about the very limited view of the third servant who thought that he could precisely delimit what he owed back to his master. I was feeling somewhat distracted by the fact that there would be a congregational meeting following worship. The meeting itself was kind of bumpy, even though it was over quickly. So after the meeting I went for a cup of coffee.

When I headed back to the church for my car I met a parishioner who was showing a blind neighbor how to get from Calligan's Pharmacy (that he already knew how to reach from his home) to the Senior Center (that he did not yet know how to find).

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Monday, November 14, 2005

The worst misspelling of "Santa Claus" I've ever seen

Or maybe this local landscaping company was trying to say something about poinsettias. In which case, they have not inspired much confidence in their knowledge of their stock (or stock-to-be).

The popular name of Euphorbia pulcherrima comes from the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, who sent some of the plants to his plantation in South Carolina in 1828. (see this)

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Sometimes private talks are preferable

Last week the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) invoked an exception to the PCUSA's open meeting policy for the purpose of a meeting with leaders of Motorola, and for its own debriefing after the meeting, according to this article.

The open meeting policy, which gives the media (among others) access to meetings of units of the PCUSA, is an important way of ensuring transparency for the church. It allows private meetings for property negotiation; in this case the property is stock in the corporation.

I approve of this use of the exception, and rather wish there had been private conversations with each of the corporations named for "progressive engagement" in advance of their names being announced with some fanfare at the beginning of August. That would have given the corporations an opportunity to correct any misperceptions in advance of a process in which the two sides might end up clinging to ever more rigid positions.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Prepare to wait at Sears Grand

Tonight some friends of mine asked for a ride to the new Sears Grand in the Galleria at the Pittsburgh Mills. Apparently there was some kind of special sale for friends and family.

The store was well-lit and had a good variety of things to buy.

After looking around and finding one item for $1.39 that I needed, I decided to go check out and wait to meet my friends at the appointed time and location.

I waited 30 minutes in a short line to purchase this one item.

I had no reason to be impatient because I knew I'd be waiting for my friends anyhow. If I had had a reason to be impatient, I would have left my item and walked out after the first 15 minutes.

As I waited it seemed clear to me that even though the Sears Grand can beat downtown Tarentum on the variety of goods to be sold, the shops in downtown Tarentum are far better staffed to give customers a reasonably rapid checkout. If I shop at Sears Grand again, it will be when I have lots of time to spare.

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

A few ways to check whether your seasonings are fresh enough

Occasionally one discovers a container with unused seasonings and may be unsure whether it is fresh enough for use. There are a few fast tests you can run to decide not to use the contents.

1. Does the address of the manufacturer include a zip code? Voluntary use of Zip Code in the U.S. began on July 1, 1963. Mandatory use on 2nd and 3rd class mail began in 1967. The absence of a Zip Code on the package would be a good clue that the container may be decades old.

2. Does the package have a UPC bar code? The first package with a UPC bar code was scanned at a supermarket on June 26, 1974. The absence of a UPC bar code would be a good clue that the container may be decades old.

3. Do the contents smell fresh? A weak aroma would also be a good sign that the contents are no longer suitable for use.

We'll be obtaining fresh sage to use with the Community Thanksgiving Dinner at the Central Presbyterian Church of Tarentum on Thursday, November 24, 2005 from 1 to 3 PM.

Reservations are recommended but not required. Call 724-224-9220 to make reservations.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Rachel Carson's memory should be preserved

The print edition of today's Valley News Dispatch has a nice article by Tamara Simpson entitled "County Council may name span after Carson." The article is about a bill co-sponsored by Councilwoman Eileen Watt of Cheswick and Councilman Dave Fawcett of Oakmont to rename Pittsburgh's Ninth Street Bridge after Rachel Carson.

The article includes a good summary of background information about the worldwide recognition of Rachel Carson who was born in Springdale and did her undergraduate work at what is now Chatham College.

She is best known for her book Silent Spring, which in 1962 played a vital role in opening the eyes of many around the world to the importance of protecting the environment.

Given that the Sixth Street Bridge is named for Roberto Clemente, and the Seventh Street Bridge is named for Andy Warhol, it is about time for the Ninth Street Bridge to preserve someone's memory, and Rachel Carson would be the appropriate namesake.

Update (11-12-05): The article from the Valley News Dispatch is online here.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Lack of support in public record

First of all, congratulations to Mayor Wolfe on his re-election as mayor, to Carl J. Magnetta on his election to the at-large seat on the Tarentum borough council, to Tim Rapp on his election to the 1st Ward seat on borough council, and to Ginger Sopcak on her election to the 2nd Ward seat on the borough council.

Second, and following up on this post, I walked over to the Tarentum Borough Office at 9:55 AM today and asked for a copy of the minutes of the borough council meeting of October 17. I was told they were not available. I asked if they were not a public record and was told that they had not yet been approved, and that I would not be able to get a copy until after the next meeting of the Tarentum borough council approved those minutes. So much for Mr. Magnetta's claim that the minutes of that meeting were of public record.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Nigeria 419 email scams have a job vacancy variant

I've been bombarded lately with a variety of email messages that all look like part of the Nigeria 419 scam. Many are easy to recognize from the way the writer claims to have millions of dollars that he has to get out of the country and I'm just the person to help.

Lately I've been getting email offering me jobs with a UN related committee. It has taken a little bit of research, but these seem to be more of the same.

The email was sent from the IP of a company in Lagos Nigeria (

The email purports to be from the United Nations International Development Committee (UNIDC) announcing various job vacancies.

The claim is made in the email that the UNIDC has some relationship to the United Nations Development Committee, but the description of the mission of the UNDC in the email ("to improve the quality of life for millions of people around the world by promoting democratic governance, poverty reduction, rural development, crisis prevention and recovery, energy and environmental issues, and reducing the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic") does not match the role described on the UNDC website.

The email address of the sender is JOBS VACANCY [jobs_vacancy2@msn.com].

The email encourages a responder to write to jobs@unidc.it.st (located in Sao Tome and Principe).

Just one more annoying scam to watch out for.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Clarifying a few facts in Tarentum race, scheme or not

Today I was shown a copy of a letter Carl Magnetta mailed to voters of the First, Second, and Third Wards in Tarentum. With two years to go in his current term as the Third Ward councilperson, he is running against Ginger Sopcak for the at-large position on the Borough Council. There are some inaccuracies in the facts he reports in the letter.

The relevant portion of his letter reads as follows:

The citizens of Tarentum Borough recently received a note from my opponent, Ms. Sopcak about a so called "scheme" taking place by Tarentum Council.

I wanted to make things clear for the taxpayers. Two meter companies presented their plans at an open water committee meeting Monday, October 10th. The costs were way out of line.

At the regular council meeting on October 17th, a discussion took place and I said to start the discussion, "Tarentum Borough taxpayers cannot handle this debt, furthermore, we just simply cannot afford something of this magnitude. We simply cannot even entertain this idea." Everyone was in unanimous agreement and the issue was dropped. The meeting went on with other business. Closed subject.

Facts speak "loud and clear." Minutes of the meeting are of public record. There was also a reporter from the Valley News taking notes if anyone would need further proof.

I presume that the note to which Mr. Magnetta refers is the campaign flyer handed out by Ms. Sopcak as she has gone door to door. The relevant portion of that flyer reads as follows:

Can you afford higher taxes or higher water rates for a two million dollar water metering system?

Then you must cast your vote for a responsible borough government.

I along with several members of the community circulated a petition urging council to reject a scheme that we simply cannot afford.

Unfortunately, council chose to ignore the clear expression of many in the community. No action or vote of the council was taken. This issue was brushed aside until after the election.

I was an observer at part of the October 10 meeting and at the borough council meeting on October 17. There were also reporters from the Valley News Dispatch present at each meeting (Susan Thompson at the meeting on October 10, and Misty Chybrzynski at the meeting on October 17). As relieved as I am to hear Mr. Magnetta put his views on the meter issue in writing on the eve of the election, I believe there are some inaccuracies in his description of the matter.

I did not write down Mr. Magnetta's words as he opened the discussion, but the words he used in his letter are in accord with my memory. However, I believe his memory is inaccurate when he says that "everyone was in unanimous agreement." I observed a very strong consensus, with one clear and vocal holdout. Joe Davidek voiced his distress about the fact that not accepting the $2 million dollar offer meant that accomplishing the upgrade would take too long for his tastes.

The meeting did go on with other business, but no motion had been made, and accordingly no vote was taken. The matter was not closed.

Mr. Magnetta claims that the minutes of the meeting are of public record. I believe that he is in error again. The council has not yet met since October 17 to approve the minutes that will be in the public record. There is not yet an official record that anyone can check to verify Mr. Magnetta's assertion. Neither the Valley News Dispatch nor I reported any closure on the water meter issue.

I believe that when the minutes of the October 17 meeting are approved they will not show that Mr. Magnetta cast a vote against the two million dollar proposal, although both he and Ms. Sopcak have now verbally spoken against it.

It is good for Tarentum voters to know that whichever candidate is elected to the at-large position, the person who will hold that position is someone with the clear thinking to recognize the unreasonableness of the two million dollar proposal.

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Synergy needed in Tarentum

What does Tarentum need? More code enforcement, attracting long-term residents, a merchant's association, state or federal redevelopment grants, and a better working relationship of the borough with local businesses are among the suggestions.

A string of articles in the Valley News Dispatch have told about the local election campaigns and the prescriptions offered by the candidates. In addition to this article about the mayoral race, there have been two articles that covered the races for positions on the borough Council on November 2 and November 6.

There is a limit to what local government can accomplish, and there may be very few limits to what positive developments a local government can stifle. I would go along with any of the suggestions that recognize that the borough can foster a climate in which local businesses can succeed.

If downtown Tarentum is going to thrive in the shadow of the Pittsburgh Mills, it needs a greater synergy among the downtown businesses. The local businesses need to function in a way that recognizes and affirms that each of their neighboring businesses are potentially a source of new customers. They need to find ways to make sure that the person who stops at one downtown establishment discovers a neighboring establishment that also has something to offer. Then going downtown can become more an event rather than merely an errand.

Last week I was having coffee at Corbet Street's Central Perk and got into a conversation with the manager of Harrison's Men's Wear. He mentioned a recent change in the provider of their rental tuxedos. I do about one wedding a year so I asked him if he had any literature on the new tux program. The next day he handed me a short stack of packets I can give out as information that might be helpful to couples planning weddings. There are many other possibilities for those of us who work downtown to work together, but not many regular forums in which we can network.

What would a visit to downtown Tarentum be like if a child accompanying a parent on a trip to the drug store could afterwards sit down with the parent and have a milkshake and conversation before leaving downtown? What if parents could drop their children off for dance classes and then relax over a cup of coffee and conversation before heading homeward? What if there were information available in local gathering places about upcoming ceramics or dance or pet training classes?

One of the candidates wants a merchants' association to work to attract niche businesses. Frankly, niche businesses are all we are going to attract. One thing that will attract them is a visible synergy among the existing local businesses. Every new business in town will open up possibilities for new relationships and networking, if the local businesses are ready to work at it.

That is not something local government can legislate, but government can foster a climate in which business leaders are encouraged to look for ways to work together.

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Church tour inspires

On Saturday, October 29, the Deacons of Central Presbyterian Church of Tarentum sponsored a tour of six local churches. This was the second time the Deacons have sponsored a church tour. Last year we had a tour through Molly's Trolleys; this year the Deacons themselves selected the churches to visit and then chartered a bus to follow the route.

About 45 people participated in the tour; some were members of Central Presbyterian Church, some were members of First United Presbyterian Church of Tarentum, some were related to the Tarentum Genealogical Society, and some were from the local Red Hat Society.

The full day tour was far more than merely an opportunity to observe architectural curiosities; each tour was an occasion for the representatives of the local churches to tell us about what was important to them in their path of discipleship. At each church we learned a lot. In fact, I would say we had the wonderful opportuity to hear six different sermons in the course of the day.

The tour started in the parking lot at Central Presbyterian Church at 8:30. exterior of Sts. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church in TarentumOur first stop was at the Sts. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Tarentum. This church is a Byzantine Rite Roman Catholic Church. Father Wesley Mash gave us the tour of the building. I had been in this church three years ago when I was new to the area and really appreciated the icons and paintings throughout the worship space.

Father Mash explained the mosaic stations of the cross that were found around the church. He also pointed out an icon of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. This picture was about a legend about Mary with which I was unfamiliar as a Protestant. Although the whole story is completely outside of the Scriptures accepted by the Church, Protestants might gain a clearer understanding of the role of Mary in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches from the legend.

According to this legend when Mary was about to die all of the apostles except for Thomas were miraculously brought to her bedside. There she fell asleep and died as any other mortal, but then Jesus himself descended from Heaven to take her soul. The apostles buried her body in a tomb. Thomas got there late and wanted to see her body, but when they opened the tomb it was full of flowers. This story makes it clear that Mary needed to be saved by Jesus the same as all of us, notwithstanding her central role as the "God-bearer." We would hear this legend a second time at the last church on our tour.

interior of the Springdale United Presbyterian ChurchThe next stop was the Springdale United Presbyterian Church. They were getting ready to celebrate a Heritage Sunday, so the paraments in the sanctuary were plaid. Although the church was filled with posters and displays telling about the history of the church, and the members of the congregation who gave us the tour were ready to answer questions about the congregation's history, they spoke predominantly about what the congregation is doing today.

Cheswick Presbyterian ChurchThe next stop was the Cheswick Presbyterian Church. It was a great pleasure for the members of Central Presbyterian to hear Dr. Bossers (who had been the interim pastor at Central before I was called) tell about what God was doing at Cheswick Presbyterian. He told us about children's ministries that had started because some members were concerned to fulfill the Great Commission. He also talked about ways in which God was leading the congregation to leave behind some irrational fears in order to embrace more fully the richness of table fellowship with one another.

lunch at Jimmy G'sFrom there we travelled to Sharpsburg, where we had an excellent buffet lunch at Jimmy G's Restaurant. Jimmy himself greeted us over lunch. The lunch was in the ballroom, and some of us took a look around the rest of the restaurant as we left.

stained glass window of Resurrected Christ at the First English Lutheran Church, SharpsburgOur next stop was the First English Lutheran Church of Sharpsburg. Part of the history this congregation told us was about the flood of 1936 (also legendary for Central Presbyterian Church). We had to go up a number of steps to get to the Sanctuary, and even that worship space had a couple feet of water in that flood.

This congregation had just recently finished a major restoration of their stained glass windows, so the tour included seeing photographs of the windows before restoration that we could compare with the restored windows. The difference was amazing.

stained glass window of Christ welcoming the children, First English Lutheran Church, SharpsburgNear the end of the tour they gave us refreshments while a member of the congregation gave a demonstration of making stained glass art. There were a number of recently-made pieces of stained glass in the social hall.

It's dangerous to have a second dessert right after lunch.

St Thomas Episcopal Oakmont.JPGOur next stop was the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Oakmont. The tour of this impressive worship space included a nice handout on the great variety of Christian symbols that could be found throughout.

dormition-exterior.JPGFrom there we went to the Dormition of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church, Oakmont. We learned that the Greek word for Dormition (falling asleep) is Koimesis. Theotokos is Greek for God-bearer or Mother of God.

The tour of this church began outside the baptistry. The function of icons was explained to us, making clear that the orthodox do not worship the icons themselves.

The baptistry was an entire worship space with the font in the center and an altar at the front. There was a series of icons along the wall near the ceiling that depicted the days of creation, each of them including a depiction of Christ as the eternal Word. Other icons showed Adam, and then Christ as the new Adam.

The main worship space was adjacent to the baptistry. As we entered we were told that behind the iconostasis we would see Christ on his throne. We were shown all the other icons in the room before the central door was opened and we saw an icon of Christ on the cross, depicting the Biblical image of Christ reigning from the cross.

At the conclusion of the tour of this church we were given refreshments, including baklava.

Ron CallanIt is really dangerous to have three desserts.

We returned to the parking lot at Central Presbyterian Church at 5:00 PM. We owe special thanks to our bus driver Ron Callan, who safely maneuvered our coach through some of the narrowest streets in the Valley.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

In which my eyes are opened about the meaning of education

Something happened yesterday that expanded my understanding of the local culture. For the last few years as I've read the newspaper articles during election season to try to decide how to vote, I've usually skimmed past the brief biographical information about candidates to get to the issues they find important and what they have to say about those issues. But I've also noticed how often the candidates will name the high school from which they graduated.

I've been making assumptions (that may still have some valididity) about why the candidates were naming their high schools. I've assumed that the information was to show or remind voters of the candidates' ties to the locality. Where there have been school district mergers, the name of the high school tells something about the era in which one went through high school and perhaps establishes a bond with others who remember walking to classes in the same hallways. At the very least it might explain why one cheers for a particular high school football team, or why one does not become despondent when the local team loses to one's alma mater.

I noticed this week in a recent newspaper article that one candidate had her college education listed while the other candidates listed their high schools. Still carrying my assumptions about what people were saying by naming their high schools, I asked this candidate about her silence about which high school she attended. The answer I received turned on a figurative light bulb.

The newspaper reporter asks for the highest level of education.

As Freud said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

A candidate's formal education is just one more fact to be viewed in the context of the whole person. Stereotyping is dangerous and often misleading, so I do not recommend a close reading of someone's academic pedigree for any other purpose than determining whether one meets the formal requirements of a position.

It is a genuine strength for communities when people with all levels of education, people who care about doing the right thing for their local communities, offer their time, gifts, skills, and experience in public service.

And I'll keep skimming the bio sections before I focus my attention on the ideas and accomplishments of the candidates.

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Documentary - Beyond the Gates of Splendor

Beyond the Gates of SplendorBeyond the Gates of Splendor is a new feature length documentary about the Christian mission work with the Huaorani in Ecuador. It tells how the missionary families came close to the tribe, and how the deaths of five missionaries by spearing in 1956 preceeded a deeper relationship between the tribe and the widows and children of the murdered men.

I just previewed this DVD for use in the church and found it to be excellent work, a very personal conversation with the missionary families, with insights into how the Huaroani understand themselves and outsiders.

Among the interesting pieces of trivia about this film in the Internet Movie Database is the fact that the tribe initially said no when asked for permission to film their story. After they heard about the school shootings happening in the United States they changed their minds and gave permission for their story to be told. They hoped their turn from violence to peace could be an example for others.

I am very impressed by this documentary and wish I had learned about it earlier in the year. I want to find a way to screen it at the church before January 8, 2006 (the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of the missionaries). I expect the session of Central Church to be supportive, but I wonder when we can screen it with all the events that are already being planned over the next couple of holiday months.

End of the Spear is a dramatization of the story to be released in theaters in 2006.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Mystery - joke or plea?

Graffiti saying "Help me"About three years ago I found this eerie graffiti in a utility stairwell at the Central Presbyterian Church.

This fall I came across another example of similar local graffiti in this photo of Dreshar Stadium which is among the photos by George T. Mendel appearing in Death by Renaissance by Paola Corso (my review here).

I wish I knew what motivated this inscription. It nags at me when I pass it. It purports to be a cry for help, yet the anonymity prevents effective action to help whoever wrote it.

Did the person who wrote it eventually solve his/her problem? Is the writer still trapped in a situation from which s/he needs to escape? Was the writer just playing a mind-game on readers who would come across this message in obscure places?

This inquiring mind wants to know.

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