Thursday, March 29, 2007

True Confessions

Our parish had its annual pre-Easter Penance Service last night. Although why they call it a "service" I don't know. It bore no resemblance to the "penance services" of my college days, where everybody sang songs, watched liturgical dancers doing a "reconciliation dance"- you know, the one where they wear purple leotards (that was pretty penitential, I guess), and then attended a "poor people's supper." This last meant we shared soup and bread to show our solidarity with the truly desperate. A regular Calcutta.

But like I said, Holy Family's penance service was nothing like that. Instead what they had was nine, count 'em,nine priests, stashed behind screens in every nook and cranny of the little church. This was why the side entrances were closed off with yellow "Police Line" tape. They were using the vestibules for confessionals.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation- formerly known as the Sacrament of Penance, more colloquially "confession"- holds a certain fascination for some people. A few months back some jerk in Britain went to a dozen different priests, confessed bogus sins and then taped the priest's responses. HIs groundbreaking report- that different priests said different things- made headlines around the world. Which proves that even in an age of Islamic terrorism the world of journalism is still hard up for headlines. Go figure.

Ask a dozen people what they think of the practice and you will probably get a dozen different answers. The idea of confessing one's personal sins to a priest strikes people as anywhere from therapeutic to just this side of kinky. Personally I've always gone along with Ernest Hemingway's assessment: it isn't as interesting as it sounds.

You can have all sorts of experiences in confessionals. Every Catholic has his stories about the priest who was hard of hearing ("Speak up!" "I SAID I HAD AN AFFAIR!-oops..."), or the one whose command of English wasn't so great. This is where Opus Dei comes in, by the way. And it can make them a popular choice at times.

Actually one of DIH's most memorable experiences in the confessional was with an Opus Dei priest. This was at a time when I was pretty thoroughly out of/fed up with the Church. A well-meaning friend begged me to go with her to an Opus Dei meeting, I went just to be polite, then she threw a wailing fit in the chapel when I said I wasn't interested in going to confession. Really wailing. People were staring. And she wouldn't shut up. "Okay, okay!" I rasped as sotto voce as I could. "I'll go!"

Three minutes later I found myself in the booth. The little door slid back, and a priest with a heavy Spanish accent began the ritual. I interrupted him. "Um, Father, I don't mean to be rude but- I'm really just here to hide from someone."

"Hide? Why?"

I explained.

"I see. And who are you hiding from?"

I told him.

The light dawned. "Oh- oh, her! yes, yes I see. Very emotional girl. Well. Why don't you just stay here for a few minutes, she should be leaving soon. So, what kind of work do you do?"

We chatted amiably for a few minutes, Then the padre said, "I think she's gone now. It was nice talking to you. If you ever feel like coming to confession for real, I'm always here on Tuesdays. But if you do decide to come? I wouldn't tell your friend out there. Have a nice day!"

As I recall, I did end up having a very nice day. I'm not so sure about the friend who dragged me there.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

An Unstoppable Force

Good Lord, they've arrested Marge Congdon again.

Or, to be more precise, they've arrested Marjorie Congdon LeRoy Caldwell Hagen again. It's funny, because I just finished reading a book about her.

Marge's story in a nutshell:

Elisabeth Congdon was the daughter of Chester A. Congdon, a Minnesota mining magnate (try saying that three times) who was one of the wealthiest men in America in his day. He built a 39-room mansion in Duluth overlooking Lake Superior called "Glensheen." Of all his children Elisabeth was the only one to live there her entire life. She never married, but adopted two daughters, Jennifer and Marjorie.

Marjorie was the problem child. The kid who was always throwing tantrums and making scenes, the pathological liar, and by the time she was a teenager, the officially diagnosed "sociopath." She had six children with her first husband, Richard LeRoy, who finally divorced her after years of bad temper, bad checks and very bad spending sprees.

Roger Caldwell was her second husband. The spending sprees continued- horses, real estate- but the income still wasnt' there. The Congdon family trustees were getting fed up with bailing Marjorie out of trouble, and the checks from the bank got rarer.

One morning in June 1977 the bodies of Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse, Velma Pietila, were found at Glensheen. Velma had been bludgeoned to death; Elisabeth, who was partially paralyzed, was suffocated with a pillow.

The police, along with the entire Congdon family. were convinced Marjorie was behind the murders, probably to speed up collecting on her inheritance. Both Marjorie and Roger were arrested and tried for the crimes; Marjorie was acquitted, but Roger went to prison. While he was there Marjorie got involved with another man, Wally Hagen. Wally was a widower. His wife, Helen, died in a nursing home a few days after being hand-fed her dinner by her dear friend Marjorie.

Marge married Wally in 1981. She did not trouble to divorce Roger first. There is still a bigamy warrant our for her in North Dakota. (Roger died in 1988, a suicide.)

Desperate for cash as always (what is it with these heiresses?), Marjorie turned to arson and insurance fraud. In 1984 she was sent to prison for burning down a house in Mound, a suburb of Minneapolis. When she was released she and Hagen moved to Arizona where, whaddaya know, a new series of fires broke out. In 1991 Marge was convicted of arson a second time. On the day she was to be sent to prison, Hagen died at their home. Marge was arrested for this one, too, but the charges were dropped when officials concluded it was possible the death was another suicide.

Marge was sentenced to 15 years in an Arizona prison. She was released in 2004 after serving 11 years. Last Friday, she was arrested again on suspicion of theft, forgery, fraud and computer tampering. She is 74 years old.

Marjorie Congdon's long, bizarre story is spelled out in detail in "WIll To Murder: the True Story behind The Crimes and Trials Surrouding the Glensheen Murders." That's a very long title for a frankly too-long book by Gail Feichtinger, with John De Santo and Garry Waller. Waller was the chief investigator, on the Glensheen murders. DeSanto was the prosecutor.

The book, like I said, is too long and- I realize this is a strange thing to say about a true crime story but it's really true in this case- way too detailed. But it held my interest, if only to find out what Marjorie would do next. There's something fascinating about an unstoppable force like sociopathy.

Friday, March 23, 2007

In Vino Gaudium

Wow. That St. Peter's Square webcam is dangerous. DIH has been lost in happy contemplation of the Colonnade for days.

Today DIH bids a sad farewell to one of her favorite haunts. Napa Jack's in St. Louis Park was everything you'd want a wine shop to be, except maybe really, really cheap but you can't have everything. It was pleasant and attractive to browse in, had a really fun tastings bar, and was not a "wine snob" kind of place. Just lots of interesting wines from all over the world, and the owners' dogs on Wednesdays.

I got a kick out of reading the labels on new California wines that were clearly being marketed with the under-30 set in mind. "Screw Kappa Napa" was proud of its no-cork bottle, and "Aquinas Merlot" brought out the Aristotelian in everyone. I learned to love Sicilian reds there. I learned to eschew "bargain" pinots noirs. And I was introduced to New Zealand wines there. Nice stuff.

Anyway, today I went and bought what I have decided to call my first wine cellar in Napa Jack's closeout sale. This only amounts to two cases of vino but they are almost all wines I've never tried before, so let the adventure begin.

I love wine for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is that it does the same thing that browsing in the "International Cookbooks" aisle at the Barnes and Noble for me: it's like doing some imaginary travelling. I can't look at a bottle of Australian wine without thinking I've got to learn more about Ula Roo, or at a case of Chilean red without thinking of the Andes, and how it's summer down there when it's winter here... I suppose that's true for Australia too, but I didn't think of it til just now. Wine reminds me what a big, interesting place the world is, and renews my desire to see more of it.

Of course, it also makes me think of Italy. Which makes me think of Rome. Which reminds me, there's always that St. Peter's Square webcam to turn to for a short mental vacation.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Business Wisdom

From my engineer friend.

Sometimes I think about how I’m a white collar worker where most of my siblings are blue collar. They work with their hand while I work with my head. And I was thinking that with one hand injury they could be out of a job. But with one brain injury I could be management."

So true.

Now That's What I Call A "Buon Giorno"

Has everybody tried this?

Live webcam of St. Peter's Square. If you listen carefully you can hear Italians yelling, plus a lot of pigeons.

Incidentally it's overcast in Rome today.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Designing Housewife

I am longing for a different look for this blog. You know, something with a little, I don't know, zip to it. (I was going to say "pizazz" but I realized I dont' know how to spell "pizzaz.") Something eye-catching, something with at least a whiff of "fabulous" to it.

In search of inspiration I've been blog-browsing. You never know when you might find something worth stealing- uh, emulating.

The Achoress. ( A nun in a crisp white habit stands on the parapet- at least I think that's a parapet- of a grey stone medieval castle, looking out over some soft green British Isles countryside. A classy, soothing picture, You don't even notice the nun's wedgie, at first.

Ace of Spades. ( Well, everybody likes a pirate theme. Nifty quote at the top too. Pity it comes from that gasbag Mencken.

Power Line ( Love the electronic look but wish they didn't have to resort to a black background. Or maybe the glaring white of the headline is the problem.. Anyway it's kind of harsh on the eyes.

WSJ's Opinion Journal ( Ew. This one looks like an online manual for your laptop. Not appealing.

Independent Women's Forum ( If this wasn't specifically a "women's" blog I would think all that lavender was someone's idea of a joke.

Amy Welborn ( I wish I liked the picture at the top better. For some reason I find references to "chop suey" depressing. This probably stems from those long Sundays at Grandma's when I was a kid. Oh God, I'm having a flashback... I see the LIE, I see Lefrak City, I see Queens Boulevard!!! I think I feel carsick!!!
But she picked my favorite bit of Flannery O'Connor for her trademark quote, so I guess that makes it all right.

Get Religion ( has a cool, classy look. I don't think I qualify for cool-classy.

Hot Air ( Now that's more like it. Brevity is the soul of wit.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Wastin' Away Here In Minneapolis

My kid's school has off this week for spring break. I didn't get a spring break untilI was in college, and even then we all spent it cramming for exams or cobbling together term papers. Childhood has certainly gotten better since I was a kid.

Anyway, in honor of Spring Break I decided to make some frozen strawberry daquiris. After all we do have that souped-up blender we got at Costco last fall. About time we put it to a good use.

I was going to do margaritas. Mainly because "margarita" sounds less girlie than "strawberry daquiri." But then I read the ingredients on the margarita mix bottle. I'm no tree-hugging, organic-food-eating hemp-wearing hippie, but I just couldn't get past the mention of "gum." So, back to daquiris. I could use real strawberries, and wouldn't have to spring for a bottle of tequila.

Back in New York the spouse and I were on this theater mailing list. We could see any number of off- very, very off- Broadway productions for free. One night we saw a play that was set in a bar. The whole play was about who would get to eat the worm when the bottle of house brand tequila was finally empty. I swear. And that was one of the better plays. Richard called it "Trust Fund Theater." That was the only possible explanation, we thought, Unless it was "State Art Grants Theater," but to tell you the truth there wasn't nearly enough homosexuality involved for that. Unless I missed some kind of symbolism about that worm.

Anyway the daquiris turned out great. I almost felt bad the kids couldn't have any. I must make them again soon. I still have one Costco-sized bag of frozen strawberries left. Need more rum though.

Friday, March 09, 2007

How Long Until Easter?

Man, this Lent stuff is driving me nuts.

Bad enough I've given up talk radio. You know what you get when you give up talk radio? NP freakin' R. Between their newscasts (I still listen to All Things Considered- drivel does not count as "talk") and their looping of classical music warhorses with avant-garde crap nobody would listen to except as a penance, I'm ready to toss the boom box out the window.

But that leaves me with my other Lenten problem. I have also given up talking to myself. So the house would be silent except for the dishwasher.

This probably sounds appealing to some people. But I am writing a book, remember? And I realize this will probably mean something weird, but I have to talk to myself when I'm writing. Otherwise who would encourage me? "Keep going, Sue, you're doing great." "Whoa! Nice word play!" "Proust, feh! I snap my fingers at Proust."

And you know why I have to encourage myself? I mean, besides the obvious. Because if I didn't tell myself to keep writing that would leave me with things like "Writer's Digest" and "Creative Screenwriting" and all those other aspiring writers' rags as my cheerleaders.

What's wrong with that, you ask?

Let me put it this way. A few things you will never read in any writers' magazine:

"Everyone is going to want to publish your book."
"Everyone is going to want to buy your book."
"Many who buy it will actually read it."
"As the pressures of success mount you may want to consider taking a long vacation. Maybe in the South of France. The Amalfi Coast is also an option."

So magazines are out as far as I'm concerned.

No talk radio. No talking to myself. Sadly, I realize the latter resolution should probably be one of those "lifestyle change" deals.

I don't know if I'm up to that.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bombs Away

One week ago: assassination attempt on Vice President Cheney. Fourteen people killed when a bomb goes off. Cheney was in a safe place. Mainstream media dismiss the attempt as "symbolic- the Vice President was never in any real danger."

Yesterday: Vice President Cheney treated for blood clot in leg. Mainstream media are all over it. "This is what killed David Bloom!"

DIH does love the press. Really.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Beginning of the End?

Today's LA Times reports that the City of Santa Monica has made plans to inject the local squirrel population with a contraceptive.

"It's a cutting-edge approach," said Joe McGrath, the city's parks chief. "Pest control in general isn't usually very exciting or even controversial. That hasn't been the case with the squirrels."

Oh, Chief McGrath. You are so right. The thought of eliminating squirrels makes DIH's heart go pitter pat. Like the rotten little rodents' loathesome little feet on her roof.

"Breeding season runs from February to April," the Times continues, "but the inoculations will take place this summer when the squirrels are most active outdoors and easier to trap."

Can I come? Can I?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Come the Revolution...

From the Anchoress:

"Some Seattle school children are being told to be skeptical of private property rights. This lesson is being taught by banning Legos.

"A ban was initiated at the Hilltop Children's Center in Seattle. According to an article in the winter 2006-07 issue of "Rethinking Schools" magazine, the teachers at the private school wanted their students to learn that private property ownership is evil.

"According to the article, the students had been building an elaborate "Legotown," but it was accidentally demolished. The teachers decided its destruction was an opportunity to explore "the inequities of private ownership." According to the teachers, "Our intention was to promote a contrasting set of values: collectivity, collaboration, resource-sharing, and full democratic participation."

"The children were allegedly incorporating into Legotown "their assumptions about ownership and the social power it conveys." These assumptions "mirrored those of a class-based, capitalist society -- a society that we teachers believe to be unjust and oppressive."

"They claimed as their role shaping the children's "social and political understandings of ownership and economic equity ... from a perspective of social justice."

Now for an antidote.

From the "First Grade News and Notes" of Holy Family Academy:

"This week we learned that colonies are lands owned by other countries that are far away. The American colonies were owned by England. While learning about King George III taxing the colonists, we 'paid' taxes for a day in the classroom so we could see what it felt like for the colonists."

The first graders then composed one royally ticked-off letter to King George, telling him where to get off. Every child signed it.

Try messing with their Legos.

Two Words:

Girlie men.

That's all.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Silver Lining

Minnesota Public Radio has cancelled today's symposium on global warming, due to the blizzard.

Snow Job

Yesterday when I picked my daughter up from school she told me, "We might not have school tomorrow."

"Who told you that?" I said, thinking it was some rumor on the playground.

"Miss Gilbertson," she said.

I knew then that, although not a flake had fallen yet, there would definitely be a snow day today. Because if you were a teacher, would you tell your class there "might" not be school tomorrow unless it was a done deal? Can you imagine having to explain to the kids, as they take their seats glowering at you the next day, that it was a "miscommunication"? And this is a school that offers occasional seminars on firearms, mind you. As in how to use them.

So today we slept in. Probably not much more than three or four inches fell last night, but this is on top of a foot of old snow, and it's still coming down.

DIH would not mind any of this nearly so much if only she hadnt' had her hopes raised a few days ago. Last Sunday I came within inches of buying a used snowblower. I have been working on this for years. Every year the same argument with the spouse. "We need a snowblower." "They're too expensive." "So is a heart attack." "Shovelling snow is good exercise, everybody knows that." "So how come you never shovel it?" "Because I don't want to have a heart attack."

Lately my longing for a snowblower has switched form a practical preference to an aesthetic one. Have you ever compared the paths a snowblower creates to the handmade kind? The snowblower path is a thing of beauty. Clean, wide, chiselled like a passageway in a Roman ruin. A snowblown path says, Come and follow me, for my ways are straight and restful. A shovelled path says, Come on, chicken, let's see what you got.

In Minneapolis if you dont' clear your sidewalk you get an automated call from the city and a citation if you don't follow through. So I have no choice.

"Sophia? You're a big girl now. Get out there and shovel the snow."