Armchair Travel
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
  Cool Houseguests

My friend Sony Stark has really cool houseguests. These guys are from a Russian dance troupe called Barynya.

Saturday, February 13, 2010
  Kimball Chen -- Small Steps

As I mentioned in previous entries, I've been trying to clear my house of clutter. The other day I picked up an old New Yorker, and it had an article about my friend Philip's book about Lincoln's Legacy. Couldn't throw that away.

Then I come to a 2003 edition of the Groton School Quarterly, the school I got kicked out of three weeks before graduation back in 1970. Surely I can throw that out.

Whoops. No, I can't. It has a chapel talk by Kimball Chen. I remember him well. In a school with 200 students, everyone knew everyone well. He was a year ahead of me, so he was a sixth former when I was a fith former

The sixth formers had a lot of authority over everyone else, and for some reason I recall that Kimball handled this authority with grace and good humor -- much more so than most of his classmates.

His chapel talk is about small steps forward, and it's a very inspiring piece. I'd like to post the entire text somewhere. He talks about a provincial governor in Brazil who formed close bonds with the people through small steps to make their life better, and about two clever clergymen who conspired to make the world better.

Kimball's Turkish goddaughter was to be married to a German Lutheran, and her imam met with the groom's uncle, a Lutheran minister, to design a service that would bestow the blessings of both religions on their marriage without alienating the quests of either party

"I asked the minister if he had been worried about dissonance between Islam and Christianity during the marriage rituals," Kimball writes. "He answered me, more or less, in the following words:

"'Both the imam and I wanted to ask God to bless the couple. We also wanted to assure them of our confidence that they, of two faiths, could sustain a good marriage. Therefore the imam and I spoke before the ceremony about how to set an example of mutual respect.

"'We decided that each could do justice to his religion while saying only those things that the other would feel comfortable saying.'

"These were two men with one goal:" Kimball continues, "to serve the happiness and future of a young couple. These were two men who took action, a small action that served a large purpose. These were two men who increased the world's spiritual bank account by a contribution of tolerance and understanding.

"I've have learned to take satisfaction in positive actions, no matter how small," he concludes. "I am not willing to sit motionless, thinking and wishing, but not acting."

"A good thought is a thing started, but a good deed, no matter how small, is a thing completed. Good thoughts can stir minds and souls, but good deeds remake the world. In your lives, I urge you not only to think the good thought, but also to do the good deed."

See why I can't ever get rid of anything around here?
Thursday, February 11, 2010
  Let's Hear It For Snail Mail
My daughter Sarah just took a trip across most of the country to the Sundance Film Festival, which I followed along with all her other fans on Twitter and Facebook and her blog Erratic in Heels, and her articles on Scalawag and Vagabond.

But now that she's back, I'm getting the postcards she wrote -- one is from the birthplace of Dwight D. Eisenhower in Abilene, Kansas. Ike is one of the patron saints of this blog, along with Ernie Pyle, Grace Metalious and Harriet Beecher Stowe -- and Pushkin and Dumas and the blind Greek guy.

Another is from Colorado, where she met up with her great friend Marguerite and they had a chance to catch up and chill before the festival.

I can tell on this overland trip she gained a new sense of the USA. She's been flying here and there with her Grumpa since she was little. And of course she flew to LA for the Tyra Banks model show.

But grinding it out mile after mile is something else altogether and gives you a much more concrete understanding of the geography.

And when the blogs and tweets are history, I'll still have these wonderful postcards to commemorate this exciting adventure.
Tuesday, February 09, 2010
  House of Cards

Tonight I'm off to watch some more BBC with my friend Catherine Stryker. We've been watching a trilogy based on novels by Michael Dobbs starring Ian Richardson: House of Cards, To Play the King, and The Final Cut.

The incomparable Ian Richardson play Francis Urquhart (pronounced UR-ket), known to his underlings as FU, a majority whip in the conservative party at the end of Margaret Thatcher's reign.

The conservatives have a new leader that Urquhart doesn't like ("no background, no bottom") and there are a lot of other guys that want the position, too. FU foils them all, all the while pretending to be an unpretentious "back-bencher" whose job is to "put a bit of stick about" and "keep the troops in line."

He opens the movie by breaking down the fourth wall and speaking directly to the viewer, explaining the ins and outs of parliament, and he is very witty, very well read, and extremely charming.

He reminds me of my grandfather. He has that same twinkle in his eye.

He does a lot of scheming and blackmailing, and he does murder a few people, but what can one do? It's a messy business, and somebody's got to stand up for the country.

One of the Conservative Party flacks, for example, has a cocaine problem and becomes unstable and threatens to blow the whistle.

FU invites him to his country home, gets him drunk, and puts rat poison in his cocaine. The flack takes off in the morning and stops for a toot at a highway rest stop. It's his last.

FU takes the young reporter Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) into his confidence with a little game that became famous in England after the series came out. Mattie would ask a question and Urquhart would reply, "You might think that. I couldn't possibly comment." It was his way of telling her she was on the right track.

His wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher) is very understanding about his affair with Mattie Storin, and after Urquhart is obliged to throw Mattie off the roof garden on the top of the Parliament Building, they both feel a twinge of regret as he relives the scene:

"She was so long in the air, Elizabeth!"

Richardson is so brilliant, and the rest of the cast is, too. No wonder the British Film Institute included the series in its list of the 100 greatest British television programmes.
Monday, February 08, 2010
  New Visitors to the Back Porch

The goldfinches love our new thistle seed feeders. They're not as colorful in winter.

And everybody loves sunflower seeds. My flash kept bouncing off the glass, so I had to open the porch door to take this guy's picture. He didn't care; just went right on eating.
Tuesday, February 02, 2010
  Sunshine, My Mom, and the Goodness of Life

We've had a little sunshine here lately, and it has been greatly appreciated. Everybody's lots more cheery.

I lost my mom last fall, so I noticed the direct connection between moms and sunshine. My instinctive reaction, when I see the sunshine, is this internal tape recording of my mom saying, "It's a beautiful day. Go outside and enjoy it."

All evening I've had an image before me, a photo from GoNOMAD of an orphan in Malawi with nothing but a tattered pair of pants, standing by the roadside, smiling a big broad smile.

I think too of the kids in Kent St. John's photos from Papua New Guinea, standing in the sunshine smiling.

There's a message here: GoNOMAD writers are funny-looking so they make children smile. Also, life is good, especially when you're standing in the sunshine, even though it's actually nuclear radiation from a fusion reaction 93 million miles away.

These images remind me of a transcendent experience I had as a substitute teacher in a fourth-grade classroom in the Hawlemont School (serving Hawley and Charlemont) many years ago.

Fourth graders are perhaps the most wonderful people in the world. They can round off to the nearest thousandth, but they don't know how to tell a decent lie.

I looked out at this one particular classroom and I was somehow able to see what would happen if every one of these children realized their full potential -- Mozarts and Martin Luther Kings and Jane Goodalls and Frank Zappas.

It's a staggering thing to see, but somehow, at that moment, I saw it, and it changed forever my ideas about humanity.

I experienced a power that's so far above and beyond everything I've ever known that I couldn't tell you the first thing about it, except that it's very, very good.

That's the only thing that can possibly save this sorry world, the promise of our children.
Monday, February 01, 2010
  The Bitter Tea of General Yen

I'm having enormous fun with The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Not the movie with Barbara Stanwyck; the book by Grace Zaring Stone.

It's set in the treaty ports of China, in 1911, I think.

Here we have troops from all over the European empires guarding the International Settlement -- Senegalese, Annamites, Sikhs and Durhams with machine guns

In the harbor you have gunships from England, France, Holland, Italy, Japan and America.

You have your collapsing Qing Dynasty and then your Nationalists, some of them communists, others not, and Russians, White and Red, supporting one side or the other

Then there are your religious missionaries and your medical missionaries and there's even a mention of Yale in China -- Boola, Boola!

Lots of room for international intrigue.

The story begins with the arrival in China of Megan Davis, who is from a small college town in New England (Amherst or Hanover?) who has come to marry her medical missionary fiance, but gets swept up in the capture of Nanking by Nationalist forces

She ventures out of the International Settlement to help a courageous doctor rescue some orphans, but they are set upon by a mob that doesn't like foreigners and the doctor gets knocked unconscious and she's getting beaten up, and then she gets rescued by the eponymous General Yen, who happens by in his private train and turns out to be a very amusing fellow.

Megan being a prospective missionary's wife, there are a lot of interesting discussions about Western attitudes toward the Chinese and vice versa. At one point she's giving the General a hard time because the mob set upon her and the doctor when they had a safe-conduct with his (General Yen's) signature.

"I see now your safe-conduct was worthless. But I did not know at the time. You see, I have lived all my life in a country where if a situation comparable to this were possible, such a pass would be effective. The whole temper and training of the people would make it so

[Pretty hypothetical and conjectural, if you ask me]

"Do you speak seriously?" General Yen replies. "Where is this country you are talking about that has no mob spirit, no race hatred, but only a perfect respect for law and authority? I had supposed that you were an American."

Score one for the eponymous general.

"Megan realized too late that she had been carried away," Stone continues, "and simultaneously that she must not be carried away again."
Literary gadfly Stephen Hartshorne writes about books that he finds at flea markets and rummage sales.

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Location: Sunderland, Massachusetts, United States

Stephen Hartshorne worked in newspapers and magazines around New England for many years and served as Information Officer in the New Hampshire Senate under Senate President Vesta Roy. He worked as a material handler for nine years at the Yankee Candle Company until the company was taken over by corporate weasels. He is currently the associate editor of, an alternative travel website, which gives him the opportunity to correspond with writers and photographers all over the world. He lives in Sunderland, Massachusetts, with his daughter Sarah, a student at Drew University, and their cat, Dwight D. Eisenmeower. This blog is dedicated to his mom, who made him bookish.

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Cool Houseguests
Kimball Chen -- Small Steps
Let's Hear It For Snail Mail
House of Cards
New Visitors to the Back Porch
Sunshine, My Mom, and the Goodness of Life
The Bitter Tea of General Yen
The Goodrich Foundation
The Lady Cardinal
The Dearly Departed

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