Thursday, January 22, 2009

A War Movie Worth Watching

The face of civilian fear

Director Ryan Little's recreation of the scene at 1944 Malmedy Massacre
I am not a fan of war movies, but this independent film is worth watching, and, in the context of historical studies of the 20th century, and World War II in particular, is suitable even for young people. It follows the attempts of a British paratrooper and four American soldiers to survive behind enemy lines with no food and few weapons in the freezing central European winter. Their mission is deliver intelligence on German troop movements to the American forces that will soon meet the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. The four Americans are survivors of the infamous Malmedy Massacre of December 1944, which occurred when Nazi gunners opened fire on 140 U.S. prisoners of war outside the village of Malmedy, Belgium, killing more than 80 of them. It was filmed for less than $1 million in the forests of Utah, and won more than a dozen awards for best picture of the year following its 2005 release.

The four Americans and their British companion survive in no small part as the result of the succor of a Belgian woman and her daughter, who are the only female characters in the film. Ready to stab the sergeant when he first enters her home, she willingly provides food and shelter when she realizes that he is an American. Once again, we have an answer to the question “what if troops were marching into your neighbor: What flag would you like to see flying over them?”

The Motion Picture Association of America originally gave Saints and Soldiers an R rating, citing a desire to protect younger viewers who might identify with its American heroes from the trauma of seeing their bloody deaths on film. Director Ryan Little reports that he “went to war with the MPAA to find out what it was that we did that constituted an R rating…. And again, it came to personalized violence. They said, you care about these characters, and you see them die in a horrific way [so it] is worthy of this rating.” Ryan edited the film to garner a PG-13 rating for commercial release. It remains realistically, though not gratuitously, violent, and therefore does require parental guidance. However, the emotional range of the film, which moves deftly across themes of guilt, remorse, faith, courage, and redemption, carries the viewer far above the horrors of war that it depicts.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Getting Ready for a Wedding: The Gown

Many a bride, the experts say, hurries to purchase her wedding gown as soon as she becomes engaged. I have to admit that when my daughter announced her plans to marry, the first thing we both wanted to do was to go dress shopping. On the very coldest day of January 2008, we drove more than 100 miles round trip to attend a bridal sale, and found just the gown she wanted. She looked gorgeous in it, and I’m confident that we made the right decision.

In retrospect, however, I would advise taking the gown selection process a tad more slowly than we did. Ladies—this is the most expensive dress you will ever buy. And, unless you break into the movies or run for vice president, it is likely that more people will see you in your wedding gown than in any other garment you will ever own. So it’s worth while to take a deep breath, exhale, and really enjoy locating the perfect dress.

Wedding dresses are Big Business in the United States. American women spend nearly $1 billion annually on their wedding gowns, and another $400 million on bridesmaids’ gowns. There are more than 200 bridal design companies in the United States, but the industry is dominated by several “full service” bridal shops. David’s Bridal is the leader among the behemoths—it caters to more than two-thirds of all brides. David’s Bridal really wants to get you in the door, and promotes itself largely on convenience: If your bridal party is spread out across the country, there is likely a David’s Bridal shop somewhere in the neighborhood of each of your attendants, so getting the same dress for all your maids and matrons is logistically simplified. The company also maintains a lively Web site, that lets your fingers do a lot of the walking.

But before you go to David’s or any other salon, for that matter, take the time to imagine the gown of your dreams. The Perfect Wedding Dress by Philip Delamore and Weddings by Martha Stewart are beautifully written and illustrated books with lovely details on the history of gowns and other nuptial attire, and wonderful places to begin your search. Let your mind and eyes take in all the possibilities: Shall it be beaded satin, ruffled taffeta, or silk shantung that, transformed by the designer’s vision, expresses the feminine grace and beauty you will embody as you walk down the aisle? Consider all the options: Do you want to design your own wedding dress and commission it from a seamstress? Eleven percent of brides do. Is there a beautiful vintage gown in your family? Two percent of brides chose to wear a family heirloom gown. Another particularly talented 2 percent make their own!

On the practical side, keep these pointers in mind:
· You will know when you try on the gown of your dreams—it will seem perfect the minute you look in the mirror. Don’t however, try on any gowns without tags; you shouldn’t buy one of these, as it has no “documentation,” so why even try it in the first place?
· You probably don’t need the fancy undergarments—slips, strapless bras, garters, and other accoutrements—that many retailers will press upon you at the time you select your dress. These are high-profit items for all bridal shops and not worth the extra expense.
· Budget for all the line items associated with your gown, including dress and alterations, veil, shoes and hose, jewelry, accessories, and cleaning and preservation. Your veil or veils may cost nearly as much as your gown if you buy it (them) on impulse from a high-end salon. A beautiful veil is also one of the easiest items to make or borrow.
· Before visiting any bridal shop, small, medium, or gargantuan (such as David’s) check by telephone on the shop’s policies regarding refunds for deposits; damaged merchandise (what they will do if your gown is delivered with snags or spots a week before the wedding?); discontinued styles (several of my daughter’s maids almost ended up without dresses, as the style and color of the gowns selected was extremely popular and the manufacturer ran out of cloth); possible “browsing fees”; the costs of gown alterations (can they give you an estimate in advance, or do you just have to pay through the nose if the gown doesn’t fit?); sharing of customer information (will you end up on 100 mailing lists for wedding trinket vendors?) and so forth.
· If a salon will not make an appointment for you with a specific person who will work with your wedding party from ordering through alterations and cleaning, consider choosing another one.
· Consider setting a “dummy” wedding date two to four weeks before your actual wedding, and using this as the deadline in all your dealings with salons.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Getting Ready for a Wedding: The List

Yes, it's Elizabeth Taylor crying over the guest list in Father of the Bride

Did I mention in an earlier post that there are ups and downs in planning every wedding? I’m sure I did, and I’m back to tell you that one of the “downs” may very well be putting together the guest list.

Everyone has a stake in the guest list, and sometimes the interests of one party do not completely coincide with the interests of others: The bride and the groom naturally want their families at the wedding, but the bride’s idea of which family members must be invited may not agree with her mother’s and/or her father’s. Her parents, for example, are likely to have uncles, aunts, cousins and second cousins who feature much more prominently on the list of loved ones who should be in attendance than the bride may ever imagine. The bride’s mother is very likely to have old friends that she hopes to be included—the bride, and certainly the groom, may know little or nothing about the relationship between these friends and the mother-of-the-bride, though it is not unlikely to have included many intimate exchanges on the trials,
tribulations, and rewards of parenting these young people for decades leading up to the Big Day. The bride’s father may be eager to include his closest connections from school, business, or church—the retired pastor who baptized the bride-to-be (but with whom she has had little contact since childhood) for example, or the partner who paved the way for her acceptance to the college of her choice—and these individuals may not rank as high on the bride’s list. Together, the bride and groom may be thinking of the “party hearty” atmosphere they want to create at the reception, and wish to invite dozens of their contemporaries. Add to this the need to incorporate the wishes of the in-laws, and the assembly of a final guest list that makes everyone happy may be a formidable challenge indeed.

The conventional wisdom is a good starting point: Decide on the number of guests you can afford and work from there. If the bride’s family is financing the wedding, this number is set at their discretion, according to their budget, and the couple’s preferences as to the size of the crowd they wish to host. The bride’s family then decides on the specific number of guests from this total that may be accommodated from the groom’s family, and requests a guest list with titles, names, and addresses from the mother of the groom. If the groom’s family steps forward with an offer of financial participation, and a request that more guests be accommodated from their side of the family, the bride’s family is free, though not obligated, to expand the list at their request. Most guest lists break down into thirds: one-third for the bride’s family, one-third for the groom’s family, and a third for the bride and groom’s contemporaries.

There are protocols once the final number has been agreed upon: For example, if the bride or groom’s family invites one of the bride or groom’s aunts and uncles, it is considered polite to invite all of the maternal and paternal aunts and uncles. This tradition does not hold down the generational line, however: a bride or groom may invite one or more of his/her maternal/paternal cousins, without insult to other cousins who are not included.

Once the list is assembled, the mother-of-the-bride is responsible for ensuring that everyone on the groom’s family’s list is sent an invitation. She receives and collates the responses, and keeps the groom and his family up to date on who will attend. These responsibilities may fall to the bride, if she is organizing the wedding on her own. For the bride and groom, and new in-laws, the process of working on the guest list and keeping tabs on responses offers a welcome opportunity to get to know the wider family circle.

Professional wedding planners agree that approximately 70-75 percent of wedding invitations extended will be accepted. So, if you are shooting for a celebration with 100 guests, it is probably safe to assemble a list of 130 invitees. Some couples put together an A list, and a B list of guests; when they receive a decline from the A list, they mail an invitation from the B list. This is considered to be a risky practice: A guest on the B list may by chance ascertain his lower designation, and be insulted. The preferred practice is to invite everyone you truly wish to include in the celebration—up to 130 percent of the total that you would like to attend. The numbers are likely to settle just about where you want them.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Winton's Children

Nicholas Winton with children on board his Kindertransport from Prague.

Winton with one of his young evacuees.

In the late 1990s, the small town of Leesburg, Virginia began receiving unexpectedly large gifts from the philanthropist Irwin Uran, who had relocated to Leesburg after a successful investing career in New York City and fallen in love with the town. Before his death in 2007, Uran had donated $3 million for the construction of the first synagogue to be built in Loudoun County that is now home to Congregation Sha'are Shalom on Evergreen Mill Road south of Leesburg. He made numerous other donations to local fire companies, the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center and the Loudoun County Animal Shelter. Many of Uran's donations were not publicly announced.

Uran’s donation of $3 million to the Loudoun County Public Library funded a program to promote “better relations between all people.” This gift has enabled the library to build an exceptional collection of scholarly and popular works on the Holocaust, among them several dozen documentary DVDs. All My Loved Ones (Vsichni moji blízcí [1999]) by the Czech director Matej Minac, is included. This is a good film for adolescents and young people studying the Holocaust, and a good starting point for a classroom or family discussion of how one individual can choose to go good in the face of evil.

All My Loved Ones tells the story of Nicholas Winton, an English stockbroker who saved the lives of nearly 700 Jewish children by arranging their emigration from Czechoslovakia during the early days of the Nazi occupation. Winton, however, is not the story-teller: He, in fact, discussed his exploits with no one in Britain, not even his wife, who discovered his heroism decades after the fact by looking through his old scrapbooks. This film, part documentary and part historical reconstruction, was written based on the personal account of 11-year-old David Silberstein, who was sent by his family out of Prague on the last departure of the special trains Winton hired at his own expense to evacuate Czech-Jewish children--his Kindertransport. David left behind a loving family, no member of which survived the Nazi occupation of Poland, and his childhood sweetheart, who he never saw again.

Survivors of Winton’s Kindertransport call themselves Winston’s Children. Among them, they have over 5,000 grandchildren.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

More Neat Things at Suzanne's Shop

Our neighbor Suzanne started her business in the barn and sheds in her backyard more than 10 years ago. She soon came to appreciate the charm of "shabby chic" and now has a galaxy of shops offering just about everything for the home and garden. From table accessories.....

To cabinetry, lamps, artwork and seasonal decor....
Entire rooms of furniture designed for the up-to-date country home....
Benches, weather vanes, chairs, tables, urns, and arches for the garden....

Including some hard-to-find pieces like this imposing pooch.

If you need a funky chandelier, you can probably find one here, in the main shop. Check out the Lucketts Country Store. If you make the trip, plan on an afternoon.

Ice Storm in Virginia

One afternoon, it was bright and sunny. By the next morning, all was covered in a solid inch of ice.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In Memoriam: Father Michael Kelly

This morning, our parish buried our priest, Father Michael Kelly, saying goodbye at a funeral mass attended by dozens of fellow priests, our bishop, and a crowd of worshippers that extended out the doors of the church and down the street. Father Kelly (shown here at a Civil War reenactment), was a good priest, a man who enjoyed life, and a kind person, a virtue that ranks very high on my personal list. In October, he concelebrated the marriage of our daughter, having completed her marriage preparation with her fiance. He shared many other personal moments with the family. He will be missed.

O time despised during life, you will be ardently desired by worldlings at the hour of death. The thought that they must very soon appear before Almighty God, to give an account of their lives, fills them with untold confusion and anguish. They will ask for another year, another month or another day to settle the accounts of their conscience, but they will ask in vain. To obtain a single hour they would give all their wealth and worldly possessions, but this hour shall not be given.
Let us therefore exert ourselves to the utmost to accomplish the work of our salvation while there is still time. Do now, what, on the day of judgment, you would then wish you would have done. For at the moment of death, the time of grace will have passed, the time of justice will have come.

--Saint Alphonsus De Liguroi

Monday, January 5, 2009

Getting Ready for a Wedding: Make the Cake

When my daughter and I began thinking about the cake for her wedding, we were amazed to discover that upscale bakeries in the Washington, D.C. area were charging as much as $15 per slice for a fancily turned out wedding cake like the one shown above. The price tag for this option included a white or yellow base cake, fondant icing, a choice of one or more flavored fillings, and custom decorations. Take it from me, however, you can make a wedding cake yourself with a little practice, and put hundreds of dollars back into your pocket or into the wedding budget as a whole. Moreover, you can make a wedding cake tastier than anything your guests expect to be served, and you can make it weeks or months in advance and stash it in your freezer waiting for the big day.

In the interest of absolute honesty, I did not end up making the cake for my daughter's wedding. We found a talented local lady who supplied us with a beautiful product at a fraction of the cost of the high-end bakeries in town, and were happy to decorate it with fresh hydrangeas to match the wedding colors. But the initial sticker shock sent me scurrying around the library and the kitchen, and, after a bit of experimentation, I was convinced that it was a project well within the capabilities of the home baker with the right recipe and tools.

I found just the right recipe in First Steps to Cake Decorating by Janice Murfitt. This little volume supplies everything you need to know about choosing, sizing, baking, decorating, and storing a wedding cake. Murfitt's recipe for light fruit cake, flavored principally with sherry and allspice, is superb. It stores for three weeks in the cupboard and up to two months in the freezer. The ugly duckling picture above is a 12-inch round of the light fruit cake; we are still carving little slices from the chunk of it that has been in our kitchen freezer since March! Murfitt's excellent recipe for dark fruitcake, designed to be soaked in brandy, can be stored for a month on the shelf and indefinitely in the freezer with no loss of flavor.
Both the light fruit cake and the dark fruit cake are intended to be covered in a layer of marzipan (almond paste) before they are frosted and decorated with buttercream. The most difficult part of this operation is rolling the marzipan to a sufficient diameter to cover each layer of the cake. Once the marzipan is applied, however, it's a relative snap to frost the cake and add the final decorations with a pastry bag.
If you can make a pan of brownies you can make these cakes! Are you still hestitating? Think about making the layers yourself, and find a local baking "pro" who can add the marzipan, butttercream and custom decoration. This approach would still save Big Bucks.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Welcome 2009!

Happy New Year to one and all! May it be prosperous and healthy for you and yours. We began 2009 with a sunny afternoon trip to our neighbor Suzanne's shops and garden stores.

Suzanne pioneered the "shabby chic" distressed white furniture look in our neck of the woods.

She now has a number of shops featuring garden and outdoor art.
Along with a beautiful cacaphony of new and used items for the home....
Vintage hats and jewelry....
Antique silver...
China and boudoir goodies...

Gorgeous furniture...
Lots of useful old junk...

Pretty things for the yard, the kitchen and every other room in the house. What fun!