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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween 2010

Halloween is probably my favorite holiday. From the liturgical angle, there's All Saints Day, which is always very meaningful to people as we remember those saints who have departed in the last year. My real love, though, is the creative craft of Halloween.


From the time Ian was little, I loved making him costumes. One year, he was a violin. Another, he was the Statue of Liberty. Another, he was a winged dragon. All of the costumes were, of course, hand-made by me. These days, Ian takes care of his own costumes, more or less. This year, he had planned on dressing as Neo from The Matrix, but we couldn't find him a black trenchcoat (and he and I both refuse to buy a costume...), so he's opted for a reprise of last year's costume, which is just Ian in a kilt.


And then there are the Jack o' Lanterns! I just love carving the things. Over the years, I have carved scary ones, silly ones, fanged ones and freckled ones. When we lived in New Jersey and were forbidden by town ordinance to have political yard signs, I used to carve political pumpkins, including the 2008 masterpiece 6-pumpkin set : (Vote) (O) (b) (a) (m) (a).


This year, I found a wonderfully warty pumpkin that just wanted to be carved into a grumpy old guy (probably a Tea Party supporter) who would yell at someone to get off their lawn.


Happy Halloween.
(and don't forget to vote on Tuesday)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Church Newsletter Column: November 2010

Every so often, the Christian church is faced with uncomfortable realities when we realize that we’ve been on the wrong side of an issue. In 1632, Galileo was placed under permanent house arrest for his “heretical” view that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice verse. At the same time, our Congregationalist ancestors were busy burning “witches” in Salem. As Charles Darwin proposed the theory of evolution, many Christians dug in their heels, preferring to believe that all of those fossils found in layers of rock were not evidence of biological change, but that they were placed there by Satan as a way to tempt people away from faith. Over the years, the church has supported anti-Semitism, defended slavery, and relegated women to second-class status – and used the Bible as the justification for all of these things.

The good news is that, despite periods of ignorance and denial, we have been able to come to terms with reality and to adjust to new understandings of science, culture, society, and faith. Each generation of the church has been able to look at the mistakes of the past, overcome them, and move forward. Having a strong, mature and honest faith requires that each generation continue to do so.

The current struggle within the Christian church is to come to terms with issue of homosexuality, a topic which has come to the front of our consciousness in recent weeks, with the suicides of six gay young people as the end result of their having been bullied by their peers. In my sermon on October 10, I reflected on the tragic deaths of Justin Aaberg, 15, Billy Lucas, 15, Asher Brown, 13, Seth Walsh, 13, Tyler Clementi, 19, Raymond Chase, 19, and how their sense of despair stemmed not only from the acts of individual bullies, but also from a wider social isolation and the sense that they couldn’t even find a safe place in the church. In my sermon, I went on to ask:

And where would they get that idea? They get it from churches like Westboro Baptist Church that famously pickets the funerals of AIDS victims, carrying vile signs declaring whom they believe God hates. They get it from televangelists who blame natural disasters on gays. They get it from groups like “Focus on the Family” that oppose anti-bullying legislation because they believe that it will promote what they call, “the homosexual agenda.” They get it from churches that declare “All are welcome,” on their sign, but indicate otherwise by their actions when a same gender couple sits down together. They even get that idea from churches like ours where, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning folks would, and do in fact, find welcome, but where the church has yet to stand up, speak out, and declare boldly to the world that “These doors are open to you,” doesn’t have an asterisk and a list of exceptions. [The front doors of the church have large signs declaring "These Doors Are Open to You"-- ed.] I believe that there’s no asterisk – and I believe that you believe that there’s no asterisk – but how will they know if we don’t tell them?

After worship, I was mobbed by people who offered their support, many saying that it was time for the church to complete the Open and Affirming process that the church had begun prior to my arrival. They are, of course, right. It is high time for us to get around to formally deciding what we already know to be the case about our congregation, and then telling the world. After all, it doesn’t do anybody any good if we keep God’s inclusive love a secret that we only whisper within our church’s walls.

In the months ahead, our church will begin formulating a vision statement, looking at what we believe to be the unique ministry that God has called our church to undertake in this place and time. Part of that will certainly be making a formal statement about our belief in God’s boundless love and how we envision embodying that love with radical welcome and inclusion of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, national origin, physical ability, age, gender, socio-economic status, or any other factor. I’m looking forward to it!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pig Redux: Pozole Rojo

Back in August, when I celebrated my 40th birthday, My church's Fellowship Commission and I hosted a "pig pickin'" at church. I enlisted the help of Bill Solder from the Norwalk Exchange Club (who had been a Barbecue Pit competitor at last year's Oyster Festival) and he provided a 100lb hog (which he stuffed with hot sausages!!!) for the occasion, which attracted visitors from as far away as five hundred miles.







There's a "pound of pig per person" rule that generally applies to such events and we ended up with 98 people showing up for dinner. There were lots of pot-luck side dishes and a tray of fried chicken for those who might find it daunting to look their dinner in the face, so we actually ended up with a couple pounds of pork left over. I took the leftover pork and a bunch of the bones home, cubed up the pork, made stock from the bones, and froze the lot in a pair of gallon zip-lock bags, with a plan to make pozole rojo at some point in the future. After two months of waiting for the right time, the future arrived yesterday! I took out the two bags that had been filling our freezer and started making dinner.


The pozole, itself, is whole-kernel white hominy (corn kernels that have been soaked in lye and, if dried and ground, become the Southern US staple, grits). When prepared as pozole rojo, it is a festive stew made with some sort of meat (traditionally pork or chicken) and red chile peppers. There are also pozole verde (green) and pozole blanco (white) variants. I have this recipe printed out and saved in our family's recipe box but, as my mother always taught me, "Recipes are merely suggestions." Having been so well instructed as a child, I played fast and loose with the recipe.

I ripped open the bag of pork stock and started melting/simmering it in the big cast iron dutch oven, then diced up five good-sized onions and sauted them in olive oil, along with about a half a head of peeled and minced garlic, thinking the whole time that lard would be a tastier and more traditional choice than the olive oil but, alas, I had no lard.



A Word on Lard: Contrary to what you may have always been told, lard is no worse for you than butter. Anyone who tells you differently would probably also tell you that red wine, dark chocolate and sunny days are hazardous to your health, too. All lard is not equal, however, and you need to choose your lard carefully. American style lard, which is easily found in any supermarket in boxes that look identical to one-pound butter boxes, is the product of overengineering. The pork fat is rendered and then all of the good bits are filtered out, leaving behind pure fat that I'm sure is good for making pastries or something, but that doesn't really have any flavor that is useful for Mexican cooking. Mexican-syle lard (manteca), which you will have to search out in your local mercado is the real deal, made from rendered pork fat, but without the filtering that removes all of the piggy goodness from American lard. If you can get good manteca, which has a brownish color and contains bits of crispy pork from which the lard was rendered, then you'd be a fool to not use it. Either that or a vegetarian. Or both.


Though my recipe called for using some chile powders and some whole chiles, I stuck with dried chilis, using three different kinds: anchos (5), a couple chipotles (2) and some chiles de arbol (5), with each one providing a different flavor. The anchos, which are dried poblano peppers, gave some sweetness to the pozole, with just a bit of heat. The chipotles (which may be my favorite pepper on the planet and without which chicken quesadillas would be a sad shell of what they should be) are smoked jalapeños and impart a rich smokehousey flavor, and the chiles de arbol had a bit sharper heat. Rather than toasting them and grinding them to a powder as some recipes call for, I just de-stemmed them and threw them in, seeds and all. As they cooked, they broke down just fine.



I set the stock, onions, herbs, peppers, cumin and garlic to simmer in the big stock pot and added four 12oz cans of hominy to simmer and then realized that I had two major problems. First, I didn't have enough hominy to balance out the amount of pork that I was going to use and, second, I didn't have enough dutch oven to hold everything. Problem one was solved with a quick trip to one of our neighboring Mexican markets and the second problem was remedied by a trip to the garage, where I rooted out the big 20quart stock pot that I had bought a few years ago for brewing beer.

With all of life's major problems solved, I transferred my pozole to the big pot, added the newly acquired extra big can of hominy, and the gallon-bag-full of cubed Wilbur and left things to simmer for a couple hours while Ian was at band practice.


Since we've got the pozole simmering, let me tell you about the first time I made pozole several years ago. Pozole was one of those dishes that I had encountered maybe on a menu or on a cooking program on television, but had never eaten. Said I to myself, "Self, you should make some of that allegedly yummy pork and hominy stew," so I did. The problem was that I had failed to realize that, as good as pozole is by itself, it shouldn't be served by itself. It NEEDS mix-ins. Traditionally, these mix-ins include things like diced radishes, cilantro, slices of jalapeño peppers (fresh, not pickled), finely sliced cabbage, white onion, lime wedges and avocado pieces. These items add layers of texture and flavor that transform the pozole from a rather nice stew and turn it into a spectacular one.


So, last night, while I drove to school to pick Ian up from band practice, Kimberly got out the chef's knife and started chopping. On the way back from getting Ian, he and I stopped at a second Mexican grocery to buy a pound of queso fresco as an additional mix-in for our pozole rojo. After all, I didn't want to stop in at the same mercado and have everyone talk about "the gringo who couldn't get his shopping done in one trip," did I? Finally we made it home. I poured a nice black lager for myself and the whole family finally got to eat what turned out to be a fantastic meal.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Restaurant Review: Mexican Road Food in New Haven

This past Friday, I picked Ian up at the bus stop after school and we hit the road for North Stonington, CT, where my friend Eric and I were playing a gig at the North Stonington Congregational Church as a benefit for the United Church of Christ's Neighbors in Need offering.

As luck (and a little bit of planning) would have it, we reached New Haven at 4:00 with enough time to get off at Long Wharf Drive (Exit 46), where we stopped for lupper (you know, like brunch, only later...). Not only is Long Wharf the home of New Haven's information center and the pier where the schooners Amistad and Quinnipiack dock, but it has two parking areas where a variety of food trucks do a brisk business. I've always been a fan of lunch trucks, probably because we never had an ice-cream truck drive down the country road I lived when I was a kid or some similar deprivation.

New Haven has an embarrassment of riches, when it comes to trucks lining the harbor and, during the summer months, the food vendors are joined by trucks selling flags, kites, oriental rugs, and just about anything else that could be sold from a truck. Even on this cold and windy October day, there were no fewer than four trucks in the parking area waiting to sell us food, and another several trucks in a second parking area just about 1/4 mile east of where we had stopped. Ian and I passed the hotdog truck and two apparently identical "Ixtapa" trucks (who were selling tacos for $1.50 each) and made our way to the bargain truck, "Santa Apolonia," for the $1.00 tacos.

Ian ordered three tacos de res (beef tacos) and I got an assortment of four: one beef, one enchilada, one chorizo and one pork, with a couple tamarind Jarritos, of our favorite Mexican sodas, to wash them down. Prep time was longer than seemed reasonable, but that may have been due to the cold wind and little spits of rain that kept Ian and me literally holding on to our hats.

When we were given our food, it was carefully wrapped up in a single styrofoam container, with the plates neatly stacked inside, along with some lime wedges and two salsas - one red, the other green.

Food in hand and jackets zipped up to the collar, Ian and I walked across Long Wharf Drive to a picnic table by the water. As we unpacked the food, the wind caught Ian's plate and nearly blew it off of the table, tacos and all. Somehow, my son, the taco-ninja, managed to snag his plate full of beefy goodness before it went completely airborne. The four-inch tacos were delightful, especially the chorizo, accompanied with the salsa verde and lime juice.

Next time we pass through with a bit of time on our hands, I expect that Ian and I will stop to try some of the other offerings, either from Santa Apolonia or one of the other trucks. It is a great way for some comparatively quick and tasty eats and, at just a dollar each, there's no reason not to try a bunch of new things.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Brien McMahon Marching Senators: First Field Show of the Season

For reasons of not giving away competitive advantage, this post has had the video removed at the request of the band director at Brien McMahon High School. The video is of the band's first field show at the 9/24/2010 football game. If you'd like to see the video, email me and, if you aren't too much of a security risk, I will give you the code so you can see it at YouTube.

I'm such a proud dad!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Band Geek Dad

I am the father of a member of the Brien McMahon High School Marching Senators. Sure, Ian's attending the Center for Global Studies at Brien McMahon High School, where he's learning to speak Mandarin, but it is the marching band that is filling up every waking hour these days.

Band camp started two weeks before school did, with daily rehearsals that went from 9:00am to 8:00pm, with break for the kids to eat their lunch and a two-hour "dinner" break from 3:00-5:00. Since school started, practice has been Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 5:00-8:00. It has been easy to see that summer is ending, as the sun sets earlier on the band practice each week. The long hours have really paid off with a show that, though I've only seen it in rehearsals, looks like it should be very good.

Kimberly and I have done our part to be good band parents. For Kimberly, it is because she is a good person, as she was never in the marching band. For that matter, she's never even been to a football game. For me, it is pay-back time as I think back to all of the hard work that the band parents put in to make my own experience in Patrick Henry High School's marching band such a success. That plus, if I'm honest, a chance to relive my "glory days" vicariously through my son.

During the Norwalk Oyster Festival two weeks ago, Kimberly and I supported the band by working security and making sure that nobody with alcohol entered the alcohol-free zone where the rides were. This Saturday, we're going to be working at the Celebration of Sound, the band festival hosted by Brien McMahon. Kimberly will be working the stands and I'll be the understudy for the guy who has been the festival's announcer for the last many years. Next year, I'll be all alone in the press box as the "Voice of the Senators" or something like that. I can imagine greeting the crowd, "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Celebration of Sound. This is Ian Bryant-Smith's father. Ian is the clarinet player who is turning beet red from embarrassment...."

First, though, is tomorrow night's football game: the first of the season, the first of Ian's marching band carreer. I'm excited and so is Kimberly. I've promised to explain the rules to her and I think that she's planning to play her vuvuzela every time one of McMahon's players gets a home run. I bet that she'll play extra-loud if they do it from outside of the three-point line.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

9/11, Eid-al-Fitr and Truth

Like many people of faith, I celebrated the news a couple weeks ago when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee unanimously voted to allow the Cordoba Initiative to build a community center at 47 Park Place, a former Burlington Coat Factory location. I was pleased for several reasons, chief of which is that the LPC made its decision on the basis of facts and not on prejudice.

The center, much like a YMCA or JCC, is there for the community at large, not only for Muslims, and will have performance space, classrooms, and a gymnasium complex. The center will also include dedicated worship space -- yes, a mosque: a mosque that is led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a leading American imam who has a long history of opposing the radicalization of Islam and who has an extensive track record of working to foster religious pluralism in the United States and abroad. It will also include a memorial to the victims of the September 11 attacks.

Both before and since the decision, there’s been a lot of press about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” especially from radio and television talk-show hosts on the far right, who claim that the fifteen-story community and cultural center -- which is actually two blocks away from ground zero -- is an affront to the victims of the September 11 attacks and a victory for radical Islam. It is sad (and rather scary) that so many people believe these distortions and outright lies, and that ignorance and misinformation so easily lead to fear and hatred of our neighbors.

We live in a nation that is increasingly diverse, where people of different languages, cultures, races and religions work together, learn together, play together and live together. Even our own families often reflect this American cultural diversity. None of us can any longer afford to draw lines between “us” and “them.”

Here in Norwalk, we are learning what it means to live in a religiously pluralistic city. People of all faiths, as well as people of no particular faith, share equally in our civic life and, while many people still refer to the United States as “a Christian nation,” that description is much more historical than a reflection of our current reality. We see this religious pluralism expressed in the life of the Norwalk Clergy Association, whose president is a rabbi and whose members include not only Jews and Christians, but also Imam Azzeim Mahmoud and the Al-Madany Islamic Center. Last year, we experienced the richness of interfaith worship as the three Abrahamic faith communities joined together in our church for the community Thanksgiving service.

This is the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daylight hours, focusing on the spiritual disciplines of patience, humility and prayer. During Ramadan, Muslims take part in acts of generosity and charity as part of their spiritual practice. After sunset, the day’s fast is broken with a communal meal, Iftar, which the Al-Madany center has invited clergy from Norwalk’s Jewish and Christian communities to share. This month of spiritual discipline ends with one of the year’s biggest celebrations as Muslims celebrate the three day feast of Eid-al-Fitr.

The Muslim calendar is a lunar based calendar and not solar, like the Georgian calendar, so the dates for Ramdan and Eid-al-Fitr cycle throughout the year. This year, Eid-al-Fitr falls on September 9, 10 & 11. One doesn’t have to be particularly clairvoyant to be able to see that a major Muslim festival falling on September 11 will be misinterpreted by those who do not understand that this is an accident of the calendar, while others will intentionally spread misinformation in order to sow the seeds of conflict.

In the weeks ahead, I’m certain that we’ll all hear conversations about “those #%*@ Muslims celebrating September 11th.” It would be easy to stand by silently and let those conversations happen around us but, as Christians, it is our duty to be truth-tellers and peace-makers. Even though it may be unpopular, it is our job to defend our Muslim neighbors from slander and to stand with them as they live out the right to free expression of religion that is enjoyed by everyone in our nation. I’m sure that you’ll do your part.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Day's Worth of Urban Adventure

On Friday, Kimberly, Ian and I took Metro North into Manhattan for the day. We started the day off at the American Museum of Natural History's exhibit on the Silk Road, which connected Xi'an, China and Baghdad and served as the major east-west route for trade in religion, technology, and philosophy as well as for trade goods.

By mid afternoon, we had seen everything we wanted to see at AMNH and went off in search the second part of our day's quest: the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck. Ian discovered the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck online some time ago and has signed up to follow the BGICT on Twitter and Facebook, so it was no trouble finding out that the one-of-a-kind ice cream truck was at Union Square, at the corner of 17th & Broadway.

While I knew that the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck was something of a phenomenon, specializing in exotic topics like wasabi pea dust, bacon, cayenne pepper and olive oil, I was surprised to see a crew from the Food Network Canada was there, interviewing the guys running the truck and several of the customers. I was also surprised at the 20 minute wait to place our orders. When we got to the window, Kimberly and Ian both ordered the "Salty Pimp" cone (vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, sea salt, and a chocolate coating). When she placed her order, Kimberly managed a bit of an embarrassed giggle (both rare and priceless) which the guy at the window picked up on and teased her about in a truly fabulous way. I picked the "Monday Sundae" (nutella lined waffle cone with twist ice cream, dulce de leche, sea salt and whipped cream). We were all thrilled with our ice cream and proceded to eat it as we wandered through the Union Square Farmer's Market for a while.

Having finished our ice cream, we stopped to buy some pear cider from one of the vendors, then found a park bench to sit on while we enjoyed it. As we all sat chatting, a couple filmmakers came up and asked if they could interview us for a project they were working on about relationships. Kimberly and I agreed and Ian didn't object too loudly, so they started interviewing Kimberly and me about how long we'd been together and where we met. We laughed as we discussed the junior high school Latin Club banquet where we met and how Kimberly was frying squid when I met her and how I was wearing a bed-sheet toga (which was the unofficial uniform for the evening). After signing a couple release forms, the three of us walked up to 32nd St. and 5th Ave. to poke around Koreatown for a place to eat.

The block between 5th Ave and Broadway is a Korean restaurant paradise, with an embarrassment of riches. The first place we looked at was a mandoo (dumpling) restaurant, with a delightfully smiling woman rolling out the mandoo right in the front window. It looked like an inviting place, but we were looking for something a bit more meal-like and made our way up and down both sides of the block before settleing on NY Kom Tang Soot Bul Kal Bi, (32 W. 32nd St.) which claims to be the oldest Korean restaurant in NY and NJ.

Ian wasn't particularly hungry, so he got a large order of mandoo gui (fried beef dumplings). Kimberly and I were both attracted to the kimchi jigae (spicky pickled cabbage soup) and she ordered a combination meal with bulgogi (a Korean beef barbecue) and I had a combination with Kalbi (short-ribs). Seven or eight ponchons (small side dishes) rounded out the more-than-filling meal. Everything was fresh and flavorful. The prices were good. Even better, the restaurant isn't that far from Grand Central Station, so it is an easy place to get to when we're taking the train. We'll definitely be back.

The day finished up with a train ride back to Norwalk, with us arriving home before dark. Not a bad day for the first day of July's vacation!

Silver Lake Report


For many children, this is the season for summer camp. Here in Connecticut, we have a long tradition of reaching the lives of young people through outdoor ministry. In 1957, the same year that our United Church of Christ was formed as a denomination, the Connecticut Conference began using the property now known as “Silver Lake” as a summer camp and conference center. Since then, thanks to the volunteers who give of their time and the pastors and conference staff who work there “on alternate assignment,” thousands of young people have experienced outdoor recreation coupled with Christian education.

When I served Connecticut Conference churches back in the 1990s, I always made a point of spending a week each summer as a dean up at “the lake.” Back then, I ran a conference called “The Clown of God,” named after the book by Tomie dePaula, in which Giovanni, a traveling juggler who has seen better days takes refuge in a church on Christmas Eve and offers the Christ child the only gift that he has. During those weeks at camp, my co-dean and I would teach our kids the skills that they would need to be clowns: juggling, make-up, and skits. We taught them more than that, though, as we discussed the unique gifts each of us can offer to God and in service to all people.

When Ian was old enough to go to summer camp, even though we were living in New Jersey at the time, we brought him up to Silver Lake, knowing that he would not only have a good time at camp, swimming at the waterfront, making s’mores around the campfire and going on hikes, but that he would also find a place where his spirit was nurtured and his faith encouraged.

A couple weeks ago, from July 5-10, I got to be a part of Silver Lake’s summer program for the first time in ten years, when I went up to be a counselor for “Rhythm of the Saints,” a conference that focused on drumming and the rhythms of spirituality. It was exciting to be back at SLCC, working with our conference’s young people, but it was also a lot of fun to spend time with old friends. I got to see other pastors and members of churches that I served years ago, including some of my kids from the Naugatuck church who are now all grown up and leading programs at camp.

Norwalk was well represented, too, with John Ramos, Jr. and Sienna Dryden being on staff this summer, but I also got to spend some time visiting with Nellen Dryden and Minnie Yordon, who came by to visit with their “camp family.” Kat Mulvaney was leading another conference. Beth Yordon was working on the cabin I was staying in and, of course, Tim and Ann Hughes were all over the place, just as you’d expect the camp directors to be.

Highlights of the week were drumming with the kids on water-cooler jugs and various found objects, tackling the high ropes challenge course and climbing Bear Mountain with a group of kids who weren’t all sure that they would succeed, but did. It was a delight to be back at Silver Lake and I’m already looking forward to next summer and spending time with the children of the Connecticut Conference in God’s back yard.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Round Hill Highland Games

Today, Kimberly and I went to the 87th Annual Round Hill Highland Games at Cranbury Park in Norwalk. Last year, the games took place on the Saturday after July 4, so we were away in the Adirondacks. This year, we weren't about to miss it, especially since my mother-in-law recently put in so much hard work altering a kilt that I had somehow mis-ordered. (Thanks, Chris!!!)

So, this morning, after a leisurely breakfast of fresh-baked blueberry muffins and coffee (Thanks, Kimberly!!!), I suited up: Kilt, kilt belt, sporran, hose, garter flashes and sgian dubh, with a clergy shirt and a Tilley hat. I was stylin'.

We arrived at Cranbury Park about 11:00, in plenty of time to get parked and onto the property before the opening ceremony, with a parade of pipe bands and procession of the clans. Norwalk's Mayor Richard Moccia, who was a member of last year's Saints and Sinners Barbecue Team, issued a proclamation and the Rev. David Van Dyke, of the First Presbyterian Church of Stamford offered a first-rate invocation. Each of the clans represented was invited to offer a "battle cry" (which seemed to be each clan's Latin motto) and to come forward and receive a ribbon for their clan flag. Then the festivities really began.

Kimberly and I wandered through Clan Row, where representatives of all of the clans had booths with genealogical information, tartans, and miscellaneous other things of interest. Then, we turned the corner to the vendors' section, where kilt-sellers, bagpipe-purveyers, tartan-traders and plaid-pushers plied their trade. I scoped out all sorts of stuff that I really don't need and managed to withstand temptation -- at least until later.

We made our way to the food vendors, where Kimberly and I bought some pretty good fish and chips, complete with a liberal dosing of malt vinegar, of course. I also got some rather dubious deep-fried haggis balls. ("Gee," you say, "I didn't know that haggises even had balls..." That's very clever of you. Can we please move on, now?) The haggis itself was fairly good, but the deep-frying left the whole thing unpleasantly greasy. In the future, I'll continue to eat my haggis in the traditional way.

After lunch, it was time for us to head back to the games area, where the hammer throw and weight-for-height competions were taking place. The hammer throw makes my shoulders hurt, just watching it, as the competitors stand with their feet firmly planted and whirl the hammer around several times before releasing it, unlike the Olympic hammer throw, where the competitors spin their bodies and use the centrifugal force to propel the hammer. The weight for height just makes me afraid that one of the atheletes is going to misjudge and have the weight come down on their heads. They're both impressive games, but they also both leave me thinking that I've got no business signing up to compete.

When we had had enough of the heavy athletics, Kimberly and I sauntered over to the lemonade stand and then over to the pavilion, where the highland dance competition was going on. We sat and enjoyed the shade as we watched young teenage girls performing the highland fling and the sword dance, then it was back tot he main field to watch several of the pipe bands compete.

After a while, one of my church members, Nancy, showed up and we retraced our steps, while she took in the sights. As the day was drawing to a close, a couple more church members wandered by, including an expatriate Scot who was there with her husband. Helen seemed pleased (amused?) to see me in a kilt, though she opined that a real Scot would never wear a kilt on a day like today because it would be too hot. Of course, they don't even have Summer in Scotland, so the point is moot. Personally, though, I thought the kilt was rather comfortable. The clergy shirt, on the other hand, was awfully warm in thRe afternoon sun, so I guess it is just a matter of relative discomfort.

We stood around, marvelling, as we watched the caber toss, and then the day concluded with the a mass performance by all seventeen pipe bands that had been part of the day's competition. They marched onto the field in two large units, playing "The Minstrel Boy," and concluded with a earth-shaking performance of "Amazing Grace." Kimberly and I are already looking forward to next year and I expect that Ian is, too.
Seventeen pipe bands playing Amazing Grace
(Taken with a really crummy cell-phone camera. Sorry.)
((Did I mention that I hate my cell phone?))

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Restaurant Review: Al's Hot Dogs in Naugatuck, CT


This past Saturday, Boys In Hats had a 1:00pm gig at a block party at the Mill Plain Union Church in Waterbury, CT. That morning, Ian and I loaded up the car with the BIH sound system and instruments and headed off up Route 8. As we rolled up the Naugatuck Valley, making better than expected time, Ian and I made a quick decision to stop for a slightly early lunch.

When I worked in Naugatuck back in the late '90s, Al's Hot Dogs (Exit 26 off of Rt. 8 at 248 South Main St. in Naugatuck) was one of my guilty pleasures. Al's son, Ivan, was one of my confirmation students, so I could at least convince myself that I was supporting a church family when I went there, even if I wasn't exactly eating health food when I was there.

Al's is one of the fairly typical roadside hotdog stands that one finds in this part of Connecticut. During the summer months, you stand outside and order at a window and, when your food is ready, they call your number over a loudspeaker. There are picnic tables out front and a porch around the side. There's also limited seating indoors, which makes winter visits possible.

While Al's is primarily a hotdog stand, they've got a fairly extensive menu and you can have almost anything you want, so long as it is fried. From my perspective, however, the main reason for wanting to go is Al's famous "Hippo Dog" which, as I understand the lore, is named after a regular customer who always ordered several of them. Said customer was shaped, so the story goes, much like a hippopotamus. While I'm certain that, if I were to eat enough hippo dogs, I, too, would end up looking like a hippopotamus, I figure that, at the rate I consume them, I'm not in too terribly much danger.

But what, you ask, is a hippo dog? Al's famous hippo dogs are foot-long deep-fried hot dogs, served with chili, cheese, sauerkraut and bacon. Al's has the usual condiments that you can put on them as well, plus two of their own signature relishes. The hot relish is spicy enough that I know several people (Sissies!!!) who avoid it. At some point in the last ten years, Al has added a Hawaiian relish to the condiment table. With a sweet-and-sour flavor, it is quite good, but I prefer the hot relish and some brown mustard to complete the flavor signature of the hippo dog.

Al's is the only place I know that has birch beer on tap. That, along with a side of onion rings completes what I consider the quintissential Al's experience. Of course, there's also the "Bulldozer" burger, which also comes loaded with all kinds of heart-stopping goodness, but it would be silly to have one of those in the same week as a Hippo Dog.
Ian enjoys a Hippo Dog at Al's

Monday, June 28, 2010

Conservative Conservationists??

I am not a Southern Baptist. Even when I was one, I wasn't a very good one. I tended to think for myself a bit too much and usually came to the "wrong" conclusion, at least in the opinion of those who held the strings of power in the Southern Baptist Convention. I tended to side with women, minorities, gays, and the poor, while my old denomination tended to side with straight white men who owned businesses. I tended to think that it was important to interpret scripture as being particular to a certain place and time, rather than "inerrant" or "infallible." I tended to think that it was important to teach science in a biology class, not creationism.

This past week, one of my parishioners sent me a link to a report from National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, where Dr. Russell Moore, Dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, was interviewed by Audie Cornish about the recent SBC resolution on the oil spill that is ravaging the Gulf coast.



That resolution (full text here) stated: "God has designed us with a dependence on the natural resources around us and has assigned us a dominion of stewardship and protection of those resources for future generations," and goes on to say "Our God-given dominion over the creation is not unlimited, as though we were gods and not creatures, so therefore, all persons and all industries are then accountable to higher standards than to profit alone."

The resolution continues with a call for the government "to act determinatively and with undeterred resolve to end this crisis; to fortify our coastal defenses; to ensure full corporate accountability for damages, clean-up and restoration; to ensure that government and private industry are not again caught without planning for such possibilities; and to promote future energy policies based on prudence, conservation, accountability, and safety." Wow!

This is a remarkable resolution, at least from the SBC, where the conservatives have long forgotten about conservation, and have simply become far-right-wing culture warriors. It serves as a spark of hope that the SBC may, at least on this one issue, be joining the mainline in having an understanding that a major part of our faith is manifested in protecting the world that God has placed in our care.

Younger evangelicals are less rigid in their positions than the previous generation. While many of their parents' generation still deny the reality of climate change, most younger evangelicals understand the scientific reality, and believe that care for the earth is an important part of their theology.

"Social Justice Evangelicals" like Pres. Jimmy Carter, who last year followed my lead in leaving the SBC and who has spent decades promoting justice through the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity, and Rev. Jim Wallis at Sojourners have long understood that even a conservative theology leads faithful people to progressive politics (see A Pledge to the Next Generation here). Care for the environment, concern for society's most vulnerable people, opposition to war: all these are core Christian values, which come directly from the Bible. Without drawing theological lines in the sand, Carter and Wallis have both worked to build practical partnerships, even among those who have broader theological disagreements.

While all of the other social resolutions passed at the SBC's annual meeting this year are the expected anti-gay, anti-divorce, pro-male-domination things that you'd expect, this one resolution is like a pinpoint of light in a dark night. It gives me hope that, maybe, there's something that Evangelicals and the rest of Christianity can work on together.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Steel, Leather, Ropework, Pine Tar and Marlin Spikes

Since coming back from Cuba, I've had the opportunity to work with Amistad on two occasions. First, I met the ship in New London, CT, for the formal homecoming celebration, which involved a lot of events in conjunction with the Customs House Museum. This past Friday, I was back with the crew for the Wooden Boat Show at Mystic Seaport, where we had more than 700 people visit the schooner over the course of the day.

Aboard a tall ship, the general rule is that you don't go on deck, whether you're on duty or not, without your rig. At its barest minimum, a sailors rig consists of a knife and marlinspike. Mine started out as a Myerchin fixed blade rigging knife and spike, which came with a (rather crummy) nylon sheath.

Over the years, my rig has evolved to include a bit more. I quickly replaced the right-handed sheath with a leather sheath that I made for myself. A couple years ago, one of the blacksmiths at Mystic Seaport made me a marlin spike, which has replaced the glittering chrome one that came with my knife. That, of course, required a second generation sheath to accommodate the new spike. I've rounded out the rig with a leather and brass lanyard keeper, a leatherman supertool, a mini mag-lite (with red lens for night vision), and a matching red carabiner for securing the flashlight's lanyard or other general uses. All of it hangs on a US Army "Class A" belt, though I'd love to replace the belt with a leather one, when I come across a suitable one.


My leatherwork has had many people admire (and copy) it. I made my sheath out of heavy grade leather that I wet formed so that the knife and spike would both fit in it perfectly, locking in place instead of having to have a keeper strap to fiddle with -- a particular nuissance when working aloft. As a final step, I treated the sheath in the cuir bouili method, a technique I learned in college when I was part of the Society for Creative Anachronism and was interested in learning how to make leather scale armor. To do this, I immersed the completed sheath in melted paraffin. (See, folks, those old church candles DO still have some good use left in them!) The real benefit of the cuir bouili method is that the finished leather does not absorb moisture, so it never loses its form, even in the wet conditions that a sailor's rig is constantly exposed to. Finally, a matching lanyard keeper was a cinch to make. The lanyards are made of tarred seine twine, as old-style tarred marline is somewhat difficult to find.


This past Friday, I stopped in at the booth of knife-maker Capt. John Johnson at the Wooden Boat Show. His knives were fantastic and we got to talking about the sheaths that he included with them, which were only loosely fit to the knives. We discussed the wet-forming and wax-hardening techniques that I use on my rigging knife sheaths and I volunteered to bring my rig by later in the day so he could see the end result. Shortly after 5:00, I showed back up and we spent a good bit of time in show and tell.

As I was leaving, Capt. John, invited me to take one of the marlinspikes tht he had made -- out of the actual spikes of swordfish, with beautiful and functional knot work. (Go ahead and click on the picture so you can see a large version of his beautiful work, as well as the nice work that the Mystic Seaport blacksmith did.) Capt. John finished his knot work on this spike with pine tar, so it'll last forever and has a fantastic smell. As it doesn't have anywhere to attach a lanyard, I won't be wearing it as part of my rig, but it'll have a prominent spot in my ditty bag, right next to my ropeworking palm, sailmaking needles, whipping twine and cake of beeswax.


As it turns out, the marlin fish takes its name from the marlinspike, not the other way around. The fish, in fact, has only been referred to as a marlin since about 1917, whereas the name of the marlinspike (also "marlinespike") tool has been around since 1626. Marline, (also "marlin" or "marling") the two-stranded line, has been around since 1375 and owes its name to the Dutch "Marl," meaning "to twist" and "Lijn," meaning "line." Who knew???


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Imagine if the Tea Party Was Black

My good friend and colleague David Bocock at Cresskill Congregational United Church of Christ in NJ, posted an interesting link on his Facebook feed this morning. It was a blog post by Tim Wise entitled "Imagine if the Tea Party Was Black." I heartily recommend it to you. In fact, go ahead and read it now, then come back. I'll wait for you.

Have you read it, yet? Good. Now, let's go on.

Wise makes some interesting observations about the "Tea Party Movement" and the nature of race in the United States, particularly the phenomenon of white privilege in the way we perceive "threats" to our security. He leads me to wonder how our society become so,.. well... stupid that we can look at a bunch of lunatics carrying guns to town hall meetings and hold them up as examples of patriotism and support forthe second amendment? Have we become so accustomed to far-right-wing radio and television that we can't see spitting on legislators and hurling racial epithets at them as anything more than a legitimate use of the first amendment? Are we really so delusional as to believe that these extremists who carry posters of political rivals in the crosshairs of a rifle scope only mean it metaphorically?

That racism figures into all of this should be readily apparent, but Wise spells it out with such clarity that only those who have a vested interest in not understanding could fail to understand. Despite the fact that the President is black -- or, most likely, BECAUSE the President is black -- the radical right has become even more radicalized. We see this not only in the way that the far-right has branded Obama as a "socialist" but also in the way that xenophobia has resurfaced as a key plank in right-wing politics. One major case in point being the legislation that Arizona Gov. Janice Brewer signed into law yesterday, which subjects Hispanics to random stops by law enforcement officals and essentially makes it a crime for Hispanics in her state to fail to carry identification at all times.

It is time for us to say "Enough!" It is time for liberals and moderates and sane conservatives to stand together and call a spade a spade, to say plainly that the "Tea Party" has more in common with Germany's brown-shirts than it does with the Boston Tea Party, to denounce racial profiling and the creation of a police-state in Arizona, and to realize that White America's accusation that people of color are "playing the race card" is, itself, a form of racializing problems that we should all be working on, together.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Language of God

Six years ago, the United Church of Christ unveiled the "God is Still Speaking" ad campaign, which has featured the "Bouncer," "Steeples," and "Ejector Pew" ads. This morning, the United Church of Christ rolled out a new advertising/identity video, "The Language of God" as the next piece in this series.

Unlike the previous ads which were designed as 30-second television commercials, "The Language of God" is a YouTube style video, 90 seconds long, featuring a photo and video montage with snappy guitar music. The video is clearly aimed at Generation X and younger, but that comes as no surprise, as the 40-and-younger demographic is largely missing from most churches these days and is the population segment most likely to see church as irrelevant to modern life.

Content-wise, "The Language of God" is something of a hybrid of the previous entries in this campaign. Like the "Steeples" ad and unlike "Bouncer" and "Ejector Pew," the ad is not at all confrontational. It also opts against the sticky sentimentality of the "Steeples" ad, presenting, instead, the church in action. The photos and videos provide images of the church being relevant, with people protesting against discrimination, working for immigrant rights, and providing disaster relief. Ecology, worship, baptism, communion, prayer, and Bible study figure prominently into the mix, as well.

The faces are, of course, a cross-section of humanity with children and the elderly; black, white, and many shades of brown; able-bodied and handicapped. There's about a three second clip of a lesbian wedding and a picture of what one presumes to be an interracial gay couple and their son. Images of marriage equality are interspersed with images of racial equality. These images are sequenced and presented in such a way that they lead the viewer toward acceptance and celebration of the diversity of people and life experience shown.

As the photos and videos cycle, the "language" of God appears on the screen:


Compassion.

Love.

Community.

Justice.

Equality.

Praise.

Finally, the video ends with the tag-line, "Find your church, Find yourself." Inviting people to view the church as part of their journey of self-discovery may seem self-evident to people who are already part of a vibrant congregation, but it is a new idea for many who have never seen the church as anything other than a bastion of nostalgia and social conservatism. This is an important invitation and I wish that someone had come up with it for the earlier entries in the God is Still Speaking campaign.

I like this video. I like the way it highlights who we are as the United Church of Christ, how it interprets our understanding of God in a way that makes sense in today's world, and how it shows that our belief leads us to actually make a difference in the world. While I could wish that the pictures popped up more slowly so I could take it all in, I've satisfied my curiosity by watching the video several times and making liberal use of the pause button.

Kudos to the folks in Cleveland who put this together. It makes me proud to be part of a church that is so inclusive, active, diverse, and relevant.


Friday, April 9, 2010

A little more CNN coverage from Cuba

Here's a bit more of CNN's coverage of Amistad's arrival in Havana, along with some video about the "Ladies in White," who were protesting their husbands' incarceration as political prisoners. We passed this protest in our bus as we were arriving in Havana and making our way to our hotels, prior to Amistad's arrival in the harbor, though we didn't see the pro-government counterprotestors who appear from this video to have been further west along the Malecon.

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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Remembering the Maine



















While I was in Havana, I went searching for the memorial to the sailors aboard the USS Maine, the battleship that blew up in Havana Harbor in 1898, prompting the US to declare war with Spain. Nobody seemed to know much about where the memorial was located, but I finally found it at the extreme western end of the Malecón, near the iconic Hotel Nacionál, in the left of the photo.


It is interesting how the explosion aboard the USS Maine has been used for propaganda purposes by both the US and the Cuban governments. Though there was no clear evidence that the Maine had been blown up by the Spanish, the US declared war, with the slogan "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!" Now, the Cuban government, freed from both Spanish colonialism and US paternalism, tells the story of how the US government intentionally blew up its own ship and killed its own sailors to create a pretext for invading Cuba. It is likely, however, that the the USS Maine blew and sank because of a fire in her coal bunker, which was adjacent to her forward magazine.

These days, the monument is largely forgotten, with the fountain full of garbage and the original plaque, which named the 266 sailors killed, replaced with a plaque remembering "victims sacrificed to the imperialist greed in its fervor to seize control of Cuba." The gold eagle that was once at the top of the columns was removed in 1961 and is now housed in the American Interests Section building in Havana.

So, here's the raw video of a recording of the song "Battleship of Maine" that I made while we were in Havana Harbor. I'll let you draw your own message from it.

[N.B. This recording is entirely my own work and does not reflect the opinions of Amistad America, Inc., or the officers and crew of the Freedom Schooner Amistad.]

Friday, April 2, 2010

CNN Coverage of Amistad in Havana

Here's some good coverage of Amistad's visit to Havana, provided by CNN. Of course, they call Amistad a "slave ship" and refer to the Africans as "slaves," but the media almost always uses these shorthands instead of bothering to explain that the Africans aboard Amistad in 1839 were NEVER slaves -- they were illegal captives, kidnap victims -- and the schooner was not a slave ship, she was a coastal cargo schooner that happened to be carrying a human cargo in addition to the supplies for plantations in Puerto Principe.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

BBC Covers Amistad's visit to Havana

Of course we all know that Amistad was NOT a slave ship, but a coastal cargo schooner. Other than that, this BBC coverage of Amistad's arrival in Cuba is quite good.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Day 5: Los Calles de Havana

Some days are just better than others. Very few are better than today.

After all of the busyness of the last few days, it was good to sleep in until 8:00am, when the phone in the hotel room rang. After the morning ritual, Bill and I had one of the nicest breakfasts I've ever had in a hotel, as the Hotel Habana Libre puts on quite a spread, including just about everything from fruit to made-to-order omelettes to really good ham to just about anything that could be put on the meters-long buffet. After finishing our breakfast at about 10:00, I stuffed a banana and several rolls into my backpack then took off for a day of adventures in the streets of Havana.

Almost immediately, I found myself engaging in lots of conversations with people on the street and found that my Spanish is, indeed, quite good enough to survive with. Very soon upon beginning my journey, I found myself chatting with Javier and his wife, Emilina. Javier works at the hotel where I'm staying and was excited to show me around several interesting parts of Havana. We toured the Afro-Cuban area which is wonderfully colorful and features street decorations made of recyled found materials. We stopped at an art gallery owned by the artist who is responsible for all of the murals and street decorations in the area and I bought a painting of Yemayá. After that, we went to a club and had a couple mojitos while we watched some dancers practice Santeria ritual dancing.

Once Javier, Emelina and I parted company, I made my way down toward the Capitol building, walking through the Barrio Chino, Havana's Chinatown, and through several extremely non-touristy areas before arriving at the Capitol and the lovely parks around it. From there, it was on to the birthplace of José Martí, the "George Washington" of Cuba and author of some of the best poetry in the Spanish language, including the famous poem/song, "Guantanamera." After visting Havana's old city and the train station, photographing the old city walls and a park full of steam locomotives, I made my way back to the ship. Back aboard Amistad, I found the ship's guitar and had my Sierra Leonean friend, Sam Yokie, shoot video while I sang the cynically humorous song "Battleship of Maine." Then, I had a cigar and took a siesta to escape the heat of the day. This IS Cuba, after all.

After my nap, I continued my journey, walking along the waterfront and chatting with people, telling them about Amistad's presence in the city and discussing the commonalities between the American and Cuban people and our common hope that our governments might find ways to move past a half century of enmity.

As I made my way along the Malecón, I came across a trumpet player sitting on the wall, playing "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess. I stopped to listen and to photograph him and he made the not-unexpected request for some money. Since I had already managed to spend all of my pesos, I gave him an Amistad wristband and told him how much I liked hearing him play Gershwin. That surprised him, as he had learned the song by listing to Louis Armstrong's recordings of it and didn't know the composer, but it opened the conversation to our musical tastes and I mentioned that I also played trumpet, which brought a huge smile to his face. It also brought his trumpet to my hands and I took my turn playing trumpet on the Malecón, choosing a Dixieland style arrangement of Just a Closer Walk with Thee. Sorry, I don't have any video of that, but I really wish I did!!!

Moving along, I found myself at the western ende of the Malecón, where I found the one thing that I had been looking for all day: the monument remembering the souls lost when the battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor in 1898. Ironically, though the Spanish were accused of blowing up the Maine, and that was the official reason that the US began the Spanish-American war, it was later learned that the ship's destruction was most likely due to a faulty boiler. William Randolph Hearst, in the runup to the war told his photographer, "You supply the pictures. I'll supply the war." For me, when I "remember the Maine," it is a reminder of what happens when people allow the sabre-rattling media to lead in a rush to judgement, but I expect that that's a subject that requires its own post some other time.

When I get back to the US and a less glitchy internet connection, I'll add photos and video to this blog, so please be patient. It is midnight now and I've got to be up at 4:00 for the trip to the airport and home. Adios de Cuba.

Day 4: De Matanzas a Havana

It’s the bus.

Amistad sailed from Matanzas very early this morning. Those of us who were left behind were scheduled to leave the hotel in Matanzas at 9:00, but that was delayed due to our bus needing oil and having to wait until it could be delivered from somewhere else. We were on the road by about 10:30 and retraced much of our drive along Cuba’s northern coast between Matanzas and Havana. The countryside was still beautiful and it is still surprising to see such a mix of modes of transport: everything from oxcarts and horses to 1950s classics from Detroit to Soviet cars that were imported to the island at later dates. There are lots of new vehicles on the roads, too, but my favorite was when we saw Amistad sailing West toward Havana, her sails shining in the sunlight.

When we arrived in Havana, the bus dropped us at the Hotel Habana Libre, which was once the Havana Hilton until Castro nationalized it in the 1960s. The Hotel Habana Libre is also the hotel from which Castro ran his government when he first took control of Havana. We were scheduled to meet the rest of the crew at 2:00 to drive down to the port where Amistad would later dock, but I made other plans to be dropped off at the harbor entrance, at the end of the Malecón, where I would have a good angle for shooting Amistad as she made the turn into the harbor after she made a pass along the Malecón. Since we were too early to check in, Bill and I had a great lunch of ropa vieja, a stewed beef dish whose name literally means “old clothes” because of the way the meat falls apart.

Finally, even though it wasn’t quite check-in time, the desk clerk managed to get us into our room on the 18th floor. As the bellhop settled us into our room, he opened the curtain onto the balcony and there we say Amistad making her final passage into the harbor – an hour and change ahead of schedule. I whipped out my camera and shot over 100 pictures as she made her way into the harbor and out of sight. The angle was good, but I hope that Wojtek, Amistad’s official photographer was able to get better shots, since I was shooting from more than a mile away.

Since we had missed being in the right place at the right time to photograph Amistad from up-close, Bill and I went ahead and met the group at the Hotel Nacionál, as we had originally planned, then we went to the commercial pier, where Amistad was already tied up, flying the United Nations, Cuban, United States, Connecticut, Mystic Seaport and United Church of Christ flags. We arrived just as the press conference was starting, but security wouldn’t let us in because we didn’t have the official invitations that were required for admission.

The group of eight of us stood around while our guide, Jorge, argued with the guards. Finally, in a bit of exasperation, I approached the woman who seemed to be in charge of the guards and, pointing out my crew shirt and hat, explained to her that I was a member of the schooner’s crew and needed to be inside. That, at least, got her moving and she came back a couple minutes later and declared that I was allowed to go in, along with two others of the group. Fortunately, before we could really start arguing among ourselves who the other two would be, the representative from the Ministry of Culture arrived with invitations for all of us and we were finally allowed to enter the cruise ship terminal where everything was already well under way.

The event was the typical dignitary-laden function where everyone stands up and says how happy they are and how great a historical moment it is to have Amistad in their port. This time, however, there was additional poignancy, as today is the 10th anniversary of Amistad’s launch in Mystic. It also marks the completion of her journey to the three points in the triangle of the Amistad story: Freetown, Sierra Leone; Havana, Cuba; and New London, CT. Today also is the UN Slavery Remembrance Day, celebrating the passage of the Wilberforce Declaration by the Parliament of Great Britain in 1807, which outlawed the international trade in slaves. The Wilberforce Declaration also influenced the policies of the United States, which banned the importation of slaves the following year, and of the Spanish Empire, which also outlawed the importation of Africans in short order, paving the way for the legal arguments about the status of the Amistad captives in 1839.

But back to the events of the day. After all of the dignitaries had had their say, an Afro-Cuban dance and music group presented a piece featuring Yemayá (the sea-spirit of Yoruba religion and Santería) dancing with several other orishas (the general name for the godlike spirits of Santería. Like the dancers at the UNESCO museum yesterday, they put on quite a show and I was sorry when they were done.

We finished up the evening with a recption hosted by the Ludwig Foundation, one of the major cultural foundations here in Havana. Again, we were surrounded by notable Cubans from academia, the arts, and political circles. Neither Fidel nor Raul joine us, but we had the next best thing in the person of the Cuban National Assembly Speaker, Ricardo Alarcon, with whom I'm chatting in the picture on the right.

Now, itis 1:30am and I'm just finishing up this blog post at the Hotel Nacional. When I'm done, I'm going to head back to my own hotel (where internet access costs $25/day) and go to sleep. Tomorrow, I'll do some sight-seeing.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Day 3: Shipboard in Matanzas

Breakfast this morning was accompanied by the disappointing news that the Cuban government seems to have changed plans on us rather precipitously so that, now, it seems that only the crew that sailed Amistad to Matanzas will be allowed to sail from Matanzas to Havana. I’m hoping that there might be another change in that decision and am lobbying as hard as I can for permission to sail instead of having to take the bus back to Havana. I’ve got my sailing gear and the résumé as past crew in my favor but, since I lack any formal accreditation as a mariner and wasn’t listed as part of the crew upon arrival, it may end up being the bus for me.

Since this morning’s bad news, however, things have been going well. Most of the VIPs (and I have ended up being classed as a VIP) have been off with some of the crew members, visiting a memorial to a failed slave uprising. As one of the only Spanish speakers – and a limited one at that – I’ve been with the ship, working with Carlos, the first mate, and Capt. Bill Pinkney (Amistad’s original captain) to lead groups from a couple local elementary schools, the University of Matanzas, and a dental school. We’re expecting a group of historians later today, which I expect will be a very interesting conversation as we share information back and forth.

Since arriving in Cuba, I’ve been surprised at the juxtaposition of the Cuban government’s position toward the United States and much of the rest of the international community, and the interest and even affection that the Cuban people seem to have for the United States. I’m looking forward to more interactions with regular Cubans and to learning more of the subtleties of the social and political situation here.

After a full day of giving tours of the vessel, we were al invited to the UNESCO Slave Route Museum, which is a fairly small affair, located in an old fortress which was, of course, built by slave labor during the Spanish colonial period. The museum, itself consists of two rooms, one of which contains a variety of artifacts: shackles, manacles and other ironwork that has survived over the years. The second room is dedicated to the Afro-Cuban Santería religion and to the various deities that are part of it. Santeria has its roots in the West African Yoruba culture and developed in Cuba because the Spanish slavery system tended to keep African tribal groups together, whereas the US system of slavery intentionally split up Africans from the same tribal and linguistic background. We were treated to a performance of Afro-Cuban music and dancing which was very impressive,

In addition to people affiliated with Amistad America, I’m also traveling with Katrina DeWolf Browne and James DeWolf Perry, who are descendants of James DeWolf, whose family transported more Africans to the new world than any other slave trader in the history of the United States. DeWolf traded via Havana, where he also established several plantations to produce sugarcane and tobacco to use in the slave trade, as well as being a place to “season” newly enslaved Africans and to keep them as a hedge against the rising falling prices on the slave markets. Katrina and James have made a film detailing their family’s history with the slave trade, Traces of the Trade, which they used as the basis for a panel discussion last night, which was quite interesting. We finished up the evening with another dinner like the one the night before and then came back to the hotel kind of early, since the schooner will be leaving Matanzas quite early tomorrow.