A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Sunday, September 30, 2012

That Glorious Old Dominion

Without reserve, I do hereby declare that my favorite jurisdiction* in the union of states known as The United States of America is...Virginia.  I know, you're shocked, right?  As I mentioned last Monday, I took a vacation to see some old and new historic sites in Virginia, a.k.a. the Old Dominion.  The trip lasted about 8 days and was wholly SELFISH.  I am ashamed to say that (a) I did nothing for my church responsibilities, (b) I did not call *any* of the friends I planned to call during the long drives, (c) I ignored 99% of work emails, and (d) I ate whatever I wanted and did not go to the gym once.  All terrible, I know.

Nonetheless, 'twas a glorious trip.  So, if you have an hour or two to spare, let me recount "Tales from the Trip."  FYI, this is a super long blog post, and full of random thoughts about random topics.  At many points, I may (perhaps speciously?) draw conclusions about current political situations based on past events. Also, you should note that I have a tendency to overuse words like "awesome," "beautiful," and other "glorious" adjectives.  All the pictures are from my cell phone, so apologies for the quality (some of which is due to user error).  You have been forewarned!  Proceed at your own risk.

Forest Road during Church Retreat - such a beautiful forest :)
Also saw a deer family!
I started off the trip with a stop at my church retreat in a beautiful local forest.  Minus the lumpy mattress, it was fun - I had never been to one before, and even though I am anti-social, I managed to have a spot of fun with others before escaping to my solo road trip.

Next stop was Charlottesville, where I made my brother a birthday cake (aha, you are thinking I was not selfish in this - you are wrong...I just like to eat homemade cake).  Cake decorating is not my strong suit (I make cakes taste good, not look pretty) but I attempted to decorate it in UVA colors - blue and orange.  I used this cake recipe, and it was delicious.

Next morning, I forced my brother to get up "earlier than he had all semester" to go visit Montpelier (in case you were wondering, that was before 8 a.m.).  We did a special "behind the scenes" tour and it turned out that we were the only ones there at 8:30, so we got a personal tour of James Madison's house and could ask as many questions as we wanted!  Our tour guide escaped two hours later, no joke.  I learned a lot about Madison.  One of the coolest things was that he was an environmentalist (well, sort of).  He was big on preserving trees, stating "Of all the errors in our rural economy none is perhaps so much to be regretted, because none is so difficult to be repaired, as the injudicious and excessive destruction of timber."  I like to think that means that he would have been for the protection of the rainforest, in favor of recycling, and against the clear cutting of old growth forests.  There is an old growth forest behind his home, and I posted a picture of that in my previous post.

Madison's Temple.  No recommend required.
 I liked this "temple" that Madison constructed, it's a beautiful little spot to look out over his glorious view of Virginia farm country.  There is something restorative to the soul about the beauties of nature!  Madison (and Jefferson) were also big on religious freedom.  Madison had some pretty radical views on this for his time, and believed that separation of church and state benefited both the state and the church, thinking that state-sponsorship of churches would corrupt them.

That night, we also got to go to a great concert at the UVA amphitheater - a bunch of great Broadway tunes, including medleys of "Guys and Dolls" and "West Side Story" - I love it when unplanned things like that turn up, it was one of the highlights of the trip.

Dome Room at Monticello
The next day was devoted to re-visiting Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.  I think the last time I went was when I was in Girl Scouts.  For the record, the best tour of the three that I did there was the garden tour - thank you, volunteer docent Elaine for sharing your infectious enthusiasm about Jefferson's plants!  When planning the trip, I was very excited because I got a ticket to go "upstairs"!!!  Something I had always wanted to do.  In case you are wondering, Jefferson's stairs are insane.  HOW in heaven's name did they get any furniture up those stairs?  Ridiculous.  Jefferson considered stairs a waste of space, so he didn't ever have grand staircases.

The highlight of upstairs was the "dome room" - a beautiful gem of a room.  I had to laugh though, because it was typical Jefferson.  The room was beautiful, but also completely impractical.  It was too cold in the winter (no fireplace) and too hot in the summer (too little ventilation), so it never really got used for anything.  Jefferson just wanted it because he wanted his house to have a dome and follow the classical rules of his architectural hero, Palladio.  Reminded me of Jefferson's impractical idealism in the political realm.  He refused to see the excesses of the French revolution and continued to be a committed Francophile even during the Reign of Terror.  After his presidency, he advocated that slavery be spread to new western states, and he thought that by doing this, slavery would peter out and die, and the former slaves could be returned to Africa.  He didn't believe that whites and blacks could peacefully co-exist in the same society.  I'm glad we are proving him wrong on that.

Also visited James Monroe's house, Ashlawn-Highland.  Did you know that he and his wife attended Napoleon's coronation as emperor?  They were the only Americans invited.  Monroe ALSO died on July 4th, just a few years after Jefferson and Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  Love stories like that!
The main section of the memorial, which has water
jets to simulate the flying bullets
Crossing a few centuries of American history in a single bound, I visited the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, VA.  Your first question, of course, is: where is Bedford, VA?  Once you learn that it is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, your next question is: why is the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford?  Turns out it is because, of the 30 "Bedford Boys" serving in the Army on June 6, 1944, 19 of them died in taking Omaha beach on the Normandy coast that day.  Proportionally, because of its small population, Bedford suffered the heaviest per-capita losses on D-Day.  I thought the monument was really interesting and well done.  This statute showing a soldier carrying his wounded friend has a real gold wedding band on the soldier's hand.  The wedding band is from a D-Day survivor, who promised a dying comrade that he would return the wedding band to the dying soldier's wife.  The survivor searched for the wife but was never able to find her, so he donated the wedding band to the memorial.  I liked that story.
See the wedding ring?  It's real gold.

During my tour of the memorial, several of my fellow tour-goers made really derogatory (and incendiary) remarks about President Obama.  Unfortunately I have a lot less courage than a D-Day soldier, so I didn't call them out on it.  Nonetheless, I left the memorial with a feeling of gratitude for all those brave veterans who fought on D-Day and who still fight to protect liberal me.

Near Bedford is another, less-visited home designed by Thomas Jefferson, called Poplar Forest.  It is GORGEOUS.  Designed as a perfect Octagon (until Jefferson realized he forgot stairs - he added those to two sides of the Octagon later...slightly less narrow and high than the stairs at Monticello), almost each room in the house is also an Octagon.  The awesome thing about this house is that it is so full of LIGHT.  Lots of floor-to-ceiling windows, a skylight in the central dining room, and glass doors in between rooms mean that there is a really beautiful feel to the house (which is almost totally devoid of furniture right now - they are still restoring it).
Poplar Forest - Jefferson later added the kitchen wing on the right
You may have noticed from the pictures so far that I don't have any pictures of myself on this trip.  This is what my phone did the first time I tried to take one, which was at Poplar Forest, no lie.
Apparently my face is bad voodoo for cameras...

I used that as an excuse to not take any more pictures with me in them for the rest of the trip.  Trust me, it's better this way.

Final note about Poplar Forest: even the outdoor privies were octagonal.  Jefferson didn't mess around when it came to his favorite shape.  He really, really, REALLY liked Octagons.

McLean House at Appomattox Court House
Fast forward to the end of the Civil War, which occurred at Appomattox Court House.  Here's the McLean House, where the surrender happened.  So much blood shed during that war, and so many lives destroyed.  Grant was very merciful to Lee's armies, allowing them to get food and rations from the Union army, and providing parole passes for each man which allowed him to travel home on union transports.  The union soldiers had to stay up all night to print over 30,000 passes for the soldiers.  As the Confederate soldiers walked in to surrender their arms, Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain ordered his Union men to perform the "marching salute" with their guns held at attention.  The Confederates were so moved by this gesture that they reciprocated with their own marching salute.  Chamberlain described it as "honor saluting honor" (read his full quote about this experience in the Wikipedia article here.  Also, Chamberlain is featured in the excellent book "Killer Angels" for his role in holding Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg.).

Give me Liberty or Give me Death!
Next was Williamsburg.  Williamsburg is an extra special helping of awesome if you are a history nerd (and, as you probably know by now, I am).  I helped storm the governor's palace, watched the news arrive about Lexington and Concord, and marched with the fife and drum corps down Duke of Gloucester street.  When I retire, maybe I will be a history actor at Williamsburg just for the sheer fun of it.  One highlight was hearing a talk by George Wythe.  He's a founder I didn't know much about, but made me want to learn more.  Got to tour the House of Burgesses - my skin prickled to walk where Patrick Henry railed against the British.  Went to a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence and heard the thrilling words "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal"!

During the trip, I finally finished reading an 800-page biography of Washington I have been working on since July, and it made me appreciate him so much more.  I'm not sure our country could have survived its formative years without him.  He was so wise!  Glad that he supported the constitution and served as our first President.  Patrick Henry, and many others of the revolutionary generation, didn't support the Constitution, calling it a betrayal of the spirit of 1776.  Also, made me realize that dirty politics is nothing new.  Did you know Washington was accused of being a Benedict Arnold to the British during the war?  This allegation was made during Washington's presidency - which is just so wrong and terribly untrue!

Marshy Jamestown Island on a perfect day!
Another gorgeous day dawned, and I was off to Jamestown!  I took a walk around the entire island - a 5 mile walk that was made pleasant by the presence of beautiful butterflies and lovely wildflowers.  I feel like I sweated where the settlers sweated - it was only about 80 degrees, but that was quite warm enough.  Still, it was a gorgeous walk through a landscape perhaps similar to what the first landing settlers saw.  Can you name the three ships which landed at Jamestown in 1607?  They were led by Christopher Newport, an expert sailor of the day. 104 men and boys set up a fort at Jamestown, but almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.  They arrived in the middle of a drought, had their food store rotted, were attacked by Indians, and struck down with disease.  Only 1/3 of the original company survived the first year!
Telling stories of
Indentured Servitude

Rachel, an indentured servant of 1620, showed us around the original site of Jamestown.  She was a hoot!  She told us of the travails and triumphs of the early years at Jamestown, truly making history come alive.  They have recently uncovered the site of the original fort at Jamestown, and recreated some of the walls.  The remains of the foundation of the first English Church in North America are still there, too.  This was where the first legislative assembly was held!  (One year before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts!)  Jamestown saw  the beginning of some of our most tragic history - arrival of the first slaves, and the beginnings of the intentional (by war) and unintentional (by disease) destruction of the American Indians.

And yet, as Rachel pointed out - even with the terrible survival rate and sometimes horrific conditions in Jamestown, English settlers kept coming - because it was still better than life in England, where the only plot of ground you owned was when you looked up at it from your coffin (as she put it).  There's a sort of theme park near the Jamestown site where they've recreated the entire fort, and all three ships that sailed into Jamestown in 1607 (the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery - doesn't it give you chills that one of the ships was named "Discovery"?  Love it!).  That was cool - they also had an Indian village.

Yorktown's Redoubt 9, taken by the French in an assault
on British Defenses
Visited Yorktown next, site of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis.  Yorktown always seemed anti-climatic when I studied it in school - it was your basic siege, nothing exciting really happened.  While at the site, though, I learned about the storming of redoubts 9 and 10 by American and French forces to move the siege line forward so they could shell British defenses.  Part of the American force was made up of Rhode Island infantry.  Rhode Island passed a law that any slaves who volunteered to serve in the continental army would win their freedom.  Some of the slaves which volunteered participated in the attack that day.  So, slaves working towards freedom were part of the charge to take the redoubts.  I'm grateful for their sacrifice and courage.  Redoubt 10 was taken by the Americans, led by Alexander Hamilton.  Redoubt 9 was taken by French forces (in a somewhat comical detail, both the British and French had German-speaking Hessian soldiers fighting against each other - apparently during the attack the German commands got a bit crazy because both sides had Germans!).

Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg
Last stop was the Fredericksburg battlefield of the Civil War.  Eighteen times, Union soldiers charged across a bloody field and tried to take Marye's Heights.  Eighteen times, Confederate soldiers held fast behind their stone wall and repulsed the attackers.  So many lives lost, and so sad.  I think we glorify war too much.  War is not glamorous or sexy.  War is a terrible terrible price paid by the few for the freedom of the many.

I liked what John Adams had to say about the American Revolution: "But what do we mean by the American Revolution?  Do we mean the American War?  The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the American people."  The revolution was about ideas - radical ones, like equality.  Those radical ideas continue to be argued about and discussed today.

I also listened to "American Creation" by Joseph Ellis on CD as I drove all around on my trip.  He emphasized the gradual nature of the transformation of the American mindset - it took a long while for the majority of Americans to come around to Independence.  Additionally, most people were against the adoption of the Constitution when it was written!  It really is a miracle that America exists.  But somehow, we have endured as an American people.  Through danger, despair, and desolation we have somehow overcome.  This entire trip reminded me of how much I love America.  Hip Hip Hooray!  Also, it reminded me that I have so much more to learn about!  So many of the places I visited reminded me that I know so very little about the fascinating history behind the sites.

*I couldn't say "state" here, because Virginia is technically one of four commonwealths in the U.S.A.  Bonus points to you if you can name the other three.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Today I got to look out over this:
Thomas Jefferson's beautiful Monticello on a gorgeous day!
You should be very very jealous.  I love Thomas Jefferson, and the Old Dominion.  Which is why I am taking a VAcation and touring history sites in Southern Virginia this week.  I'm sure I'll be back next Monday with insights into our modern day religious and political battles from studying the past centuries' conflicts and collaborations.  Maybe Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and the rest still have some wisdom to share.  I sure hope so, as politics seems so petty recently.

Wandering through the Woods at Monticello
I walked down from Monticello today through the forest, and it felt so peaceful and unencumbered.  Like I was whole, and life is good.  Sunlight filtered through the trees, birds called to each other, and bees danced lazily among the flowers.  IF I could write poetry, I would write it about moments like that.  I am a suburban girl, but I'm pretty sure that I would trade that all in to live in a broom cupboard at Monticello and ramble through the woods at will. In fact, during the behind the scenes tour, I spotted a few broom cupboards on the third floor which would just suit my fancy.

Old Growth Forest at Montpelier, home of James Madison

Honor Guard of pretty trees on the drive up to Ashlawn-Highland, home of James Monroe
Something about driving through the rolling hills of Virginia farm country has been restorative and enjoyable.  So far I've seen the homes of three Presidents, and enjoyed some truly spectacular autumnal weather.  Isn't "autumnal" one of the most beautiful words in the English language?

First one to comment gets a postcard :)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Apology Tour

Every six months or so, I feel compelled to admit: I'm not a very good friend.  Maybe someday, I will master that elusive "work-life balance."  I will figure out how to keep in touch with long-lost friends, return phone calls and Facebook messages, do my visiting teaching, actually *try* to fulfill my calling, and reach out to friends who I know could use extra love during the hectic tax accounting busy season.  But I find it really difficult, even when I do have time, to muster the energy for a long phone conversation or even a Facebook wall message, when what I'd really rather do is sit in front of the TV (or better yet, sleep).

But after every tax deadline, I have to say: I'm sorry!  It feels like an "apology tour" but instead of saying it to your face, I will just say it here and post this to Facebook.  I'm sorry I haven't responded to you, friends.  I will try to be a better friend, now that I'm FREE.

Happy Tax Day!  (Don't worry, individual taxes aren't due til October 15th!)

Monday, September 10, 2012

True Blue

Joseph F. Smith (a former President of the Mormon church - along with Joseph Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith) was once accosted by a group of drunken men who pointed a gun at him and asked "Are you a Mormon?"  Joseph responded "Yes siree; dyed in the wool, true blue, through and through."  The man was surprised and said: "Well, you are the … pleasantest man I ever met! Shake, young fellow, I am glad to see a man that stands up for his convictions" (quoted from "Lesson 20: Joseph F. Smith-A Voice of Courage" in  The Presidents of the Church: Teachers Manual).

I doubt very much that anyone will hold a gun to my head and ask me to choose a political party.  But, if they did, the political conventions over the past two weeks reminded me that I am a True Blue Democrat.  Lately I've been wondering if maybe I just wanted to join some kind of non-partisan group urging greater political civility.  But, I realized as I watched both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions that I am simply a liberal.  It's who I agree with, for the most part.  This was especially evident to me as I watched my favorite speech, linked below:

Now, my logical brain (and reading the fact checking websites) will tell me that there are points in the speech where Clinton stretched the facts (just as Obama, Ryan, and Romney did).  But my heart and emotional connection was with him the whole time.  I loved this speech!  So, yes, I'm a true-blue Democrat.  The problem is that there are Really Red Republicans too.  How can we ever hope to work together when we stand so far apart in political philosophy?  The end of this Washington Post article expresses the same frustration - it talks about the difficulty of fact checking someone's politics:

"One can question some of the specific claims, such as billionaires paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries. (The data show that is not especially common, just as the data suggest that voter fraud, a major concern of Republicans, happens only on rare occasions.) But it is virtually impossible — and probably foolhardy — to fact-check such deeply held beliefs."

How can we overcome this?  I guess by realizing that even if we are True Blue Democrats or Really Red Republicans, that there's an illogical and emotional component to our arguments.  By giving up some things we want to get things we need.  In a religious context, this is called sacrifice.  In political terms, it's compromise.  Either way, it means giving up some of the things we might really believe are good and doing what is necessary.

Anyways, I am EXCITED about this election, and excited about re-electing Barack Obama!  I'm True Blue, Through and Through!!!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Adult Themes

Being an adult is highly overrated.  You have to do your own laundry, cook your own meals, buy gas, pay utility bills, go to work, and generally do other "adult" things that do not generally make it into X-rated movies (not that I would know).  When I was a child, I thought that being an adult would be awesome.  I could do anything I wanted!  I could drive!  I could eat chocolate for breakfast (and sometimes I do)!  I could stay out after curfew!  Sure, some of these things are fun, but somewhere along the line, being an adult became less fun and more responsibility.

One of the most difficult things for me about gaining adulthood (at least in age, if not maturity) is learning to deal with nuance.  I like my world divided into black and white, with stark lines between good and evil.  Obviously, sometimes it is!  But as I grow up, I find that often, the world isn't as black and white as I would like it to be.  There is gray in the world, and it's learning to live with that and understand it that really makes you an adult, in my opinion.  I was reminded of this by a song from "The King and I" called "A Puzzlement" (YouTube video linked below).

The line "There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know" has resonated with me.  I can't speak for others, but for myself the world gets a lot more confusing when I try to see others' points of view or understand complex, non-black-and-white issues.  So often in politics, people seem SURE that they have the right answer and there is only ONE right answer.  We are right, they say, and the "other" party is completely wrong.  

Of course this was on display at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, and I'm sure it will feature prominently at the Democratic one in Charlotte this week.  Republicans blasted Democratic ideas and policies as failures and blamed them basically for everything bad that happened in the last four years.  Both sides seem determined to demolish the other party, and are not interested in governing or compromising with them.  However, by demonizing your opponents, you make both sides more ideologically entrenched and unwilling to give quarter.  This just further reduces the level of honest debate that we can have, meanwhile turning off people from the political process.

The truth is, this country is pretty evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and you are never going to get the other party to go away.  Ignoring them and assuming that their ideas don't count will not make them go away.  You are holding on to a black and white world in which all members of your party are saints and the other party is full of heretics and devils.  It's childish.  There was a depressing article in the NY Times Magazine recently - "Feel the Loathing on the Campaign Trail."  One of the anecdotes featured the author questioning the Democrats on what made them think that the Republicans in congress were any more likely to work with Obama if he won re-election.  Their response was to say "Our winning will teach them a lesson."

Somehow, I don't think either the Republicans or Democrats are likely to "grow up" and learn that lesson, no matter who wins in November.  Neither party seems willing to govern and compromise with the other side.  But instead of blaming the other side, let's work on our OWN attitudes.  WE can start by trying earnestly to listen to the other side and see the good in it.  By trying to accept that we don't have all the answers, and that there are plenty of good and bad ideas in both parties.  That's why I watched so much of the Republican National Convention over the past week - I really do think that some of the ideas they have are good, and I hope Obama will listen too.  

If you missed it because it wasn't in primetime (unlike a ridiculous, chair-wielding maniac Hollywood star who shall remain in the priceless hands of the late-night comedians), here was my favorite part of the convention, where some ordinary Mormons got to talk about how Mitt Romney helped them when he was their Bishop - I found it very moving.  It was nice to hear from some ordinary people who seem real.

Mitt really does seem like a good guy - which is why I'm not voting for him, I want him to have plenty of time to serve in his church callings (wink, wink).