Thursday, October 23, 2014

In search of an authentic Fair Isle

The following is from today's The Morning Sun.

LERWICK, Scotland — Just about anyone who follows fashion will know Fair Isle sweaters have been trending for the last couple of years.
The iconic fall and winter sweater worn by both men and women alike never really went out of style. Rather, this is more a case of 20-30-something hipsters simply discovering the sweater first popularized in the 1920s by a future king who would go down in the history books for abdicating the throne to marry the woman he loved.
The intricately patterned sweaters get their name from Fair Isle, one of Scotland’s Shetland Islands, a cluster of islands located where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, about halfway between Scotland and Norway. Folklore says the locals adopted this style of sweater from sailors stranded on Fair Isle when the flagship of the Spanish Armada wrecked there in 1588.
However, unlike Harris Tweed — the handwoven cloth, also from Scotland and synonymous with quality tailored clothing — there are no legal or trademark protections for Fair Isle sweaters.
As a result, few of the sweaters marketed by retailers as Fair Isle on this side of the Atlantic come from anywhere near the Shetland Islands, let alone are knitted out of genuine Shetland wool. Most of the imitators are mass-produced in an oriental sweatshop with wool — sometimes cashmere, but often wool blended with nylon or acrylic — of unknown provenance.
This inspired me to set off last month in search of an authentic Fair Isle of the very kind worn by the Prince of Wales, the man who later became King Edward VIII and then the Duke of Windsor.
Once my flight landed at the airport near Lerwick, the main city on the aptly named Mainland of the Shetland Islands, I had hoped to immediately begin my search for the prince’s Fair Isle.
However, I had the unfortunate luck of arriving in the midst of an epic storm. It rained all afternoon, all night and well into the following morning. I ended up missing a flight on the 8-seat turboprop plane that makes a few trips daily to Fair Isle, which is even more remote than the rest of Shetland Islands.
With limited availability on later flights, it looked as if I had come all this way for nothing, or so I thought when the internet suddenly stopped working in my room at Lerwick’s Queens Hotel.
I went down to the front desk to ask the duty clerk if she could reset the wireless router, as I needed to look up some information.
She told me the internet goes out when there is bad weather because of the underwater cables. Fair enough, I suppose. After all, it’s an island. She then proceeded to ask if there was anything she could answer for me.
I explained my plight only to learn from her of a shop called The Spiders Web, located literally right outside the lobby and across the 18th century street.
This caught me by surprise because I didn’t know Fair Isle sweaters come from across the Shetland Islands. In fact, it turns out many of the knitters are older ladies who learned the artisan craft at a very young age. (Some won’t even knit on the Sabbath!)
While younger Shetlanders have taken it up, demographics are a serious problem.
“In 20 years real Fair Isle sweaters may probably be a thing of the past,” Barbara Mitchell, the proprietor of The Spiders Web, told me.
I asked, “Do you mean, extinct?”
“Yes,” she responded, quite directly.
It doesn’t help that very little money is actually made for the 100 hours it takes for a Fair Isle sweater to be fully hand-knitted, despite a price tag as high as $400. (Machine-made, hand-finished sweaters take half as much time and sell for less.)
I tried on a few of Mitchell’s sweaters, but none fit. She said to come back the following day, as a smaller sweater was just about done. I agreed, but at this point, my search for an authentic Fair Isle wasn’t going too well.
I spent much of the next day touring the mainland, driving down country lanes barely wide enough for a single car let alone two driving in opposite directions. I saw the famous Shetland ponies, came across more sheep than people and took in the impressive sights during a walk across St. Ninian’s Isle and along the seaside cliffs of Eshaness.
I also visited a range of other knitwear shops. Knitwear — and not just Fair Isles — is a major export here, though as with Fair Isles much of what is marketed by famous brands as Shetland abroad isn’t actually made here. I particularly liked Laurence Odie Knitwear (+44 195/043-1215; no website) in the hamlet of Hoswick, which sells lovely Shaggy Dog-style sweaters for a lot less than preppy haberdasher J. Press.
A day later, I was back to see Mitchell, who seemed genuinely surprised by my interest in Fair Isles. She even confessed to never having visited the sweater’s island namesake, which I found to be beyond odd.
She handed me a Prince of Wales patterned Fair Isle, which was just finished the night before by a 90-year-old woman named Barbara Reid.
After trying on the crewneck in the back fitting room, I knew right away it was the one. Sure, it was a tad too long, but the fit of the chest and sleeves was almost perfect.
I had finally found my authentic Fair Isle.
And it was literally mine and only mine because the odds of coming across someone wearing this sweater elsewhere was impossible.
The incredibly high-quality craftsmanship of Reid meant the sweater might even outlast the last of the knitters.
Flybe offers daily commercial flights to Sumburgh Airport from Edinburgh and other Scottish airports. Round-trip fares from Edinburgh were as low as $276 through March of next year with flights from Aberdeen averaging $188, according to searches on the airline’s website.
Saginaw to Aberdeen from Thanksgiving through December starts at about $1,200 with connections on Delta and partner KLM, according to searches on Google Flights. For Edinburgh, airfares out of Detroit are about $1,100, also with multiple connections, again according to Google Flights.
If you have extra time on the bookends, consider the overnight Aberdeen-Lerwick (and back) ferry service.
Be sure to rent a car, which is super-easy through Bolts Car Rental. Rentals include insurance and unlimited mileage. Automatic transmission cars are also available.
Getting to Fair Isle can be tricky, especially if the weather doesn’t cooperate. Still, it’s worth the attempt for those making a sweater pilgrimage. Promote Shetland, the local tourism office, is a comprehensive resource for all things Shetland.
The worst part of the Shetland Islands is the complete lack of quality hotels, which is unusual considering the steady flow of short-term and long-term workers coming to and going from the North Sea oil rigs off the coast.
I stayed at the Queens Hotel. This very old hotel — it dates to the 1860s — should be an upscale, Old World-style boutique hotel, but regretfully it has been neglected over the years. Staff was friendly, but service was so-so. Rooms, however, were very clean. There aren’t many other hotels on the Shetland Islands, so you might consider one of the many bed-and-breakfasts.
 — Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Plight of Idaho clergy new reality with gay marriage

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

It was bound to happen. It was a just a question of when and where.
A marriage chapel in Idaho finds itself in the national spotlight after federal courts across the country have more or less made gay marriage the law of the land.
The two ordained ministers who operate the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel, located in Coeur d’Alene, a town about the size of nearby Midland, could face misdemeanor criminal charges and even up to 180 days in jail if they refuse to preside over now-legal gay marriages.
At issue is Coeur d’Alene’s non-discrimination ordinance, which as with similar ordinances adopted across the country, including here in Mt. Pleasant and other Michigan cities, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and other grounds.
The two ministers, husband and wife Donald and Evelyn Knapp, only preside over marriages in line with their Christian religious beliefs, which for them means one-man, one-woman marriage — the definition of marriage since time immemorial.
This issue will hardly go away, especially with a federal court expected to strike down Michigan’s voter-approved constitutional definition of marriage any day now. Similar threats of criminal and civil legal action will undoubtedly occur elsewhere.
While many argue clergy and houses of worship are exempt from performing, solemnizing or otherwise recognizing marriages that go against the tenets of their faith under the First Amendment, the reality is far different as evident by the Idaho situation.
Many clergy supplement their ministerial pay by presiding over marriages outside of their church. Some come from well-established Christian denominations. Others have less respectable credentials that amount to self-ordination over the internet. Regardless, all are ordained ministers.
The catch is all of these clergy are also agents of the state, as the acts of marriage they preside over would have no legal significance whatsoever if they were not vested with authority by the government to conduct what also amounts to a state ceremony.
And that’s where the legal quagmire begins.
While the religious liberty of clergy and other men and women of faith is constitutionally protected, under both the state and federal constitutions, the situation becomes much more difficult because the clergy are in essence no different from notaries public, who also make certifications in accordance with state law.
Thankfully, the solution is quite simple: Get the government out of marriage.
Marriage has always been, at its core, a basic religious ritual in much the same way as baptism is for Christians.
If government cannot define who can be baptized then it certainly cannot define who can be married at the high altar. Yet that is exactly what will happen if marriage remains defined in the statute books, as evident by what the Knapps face in Idaho.
Some houses of worship may decide to — actually, some are already doing so — allow gay marriage. Others may affirm their traditional definition.
Either way, this is a decision for priests, ministers, bishops, rabbis, imams and their respective churches, temples, mosques, synods and sacerdotal or ecclesiastical institutions.
— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

MIA Schauer only helps Snyder

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

DETROIT — Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Schauer did so poorly in his debate performance Sunday against Governor Rick Snyder that he skipped his only chance to frame the post-debate narrative.

That was the story to emerge from the debate on the campus of Wayne State University, where Schauer and Snyder shared a stage for the one and only debate in this year’s campaign.

As the winner of the pre-debate coin toss, Schauer was entitled to address the assembled press corps before the Republican incumbent.

But instead of clarifying the record and extending remarks he made during his one-hour tussle with Snyder, the former congressman and Democratic leader in the state Senate sent three Democratic partisans to answer questions and attempt to spin the media’s coverage.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well for Schauer surrogates U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, state Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer and Lon Johnson, the Michigan Democratic Party chairman.

The first question from reporters was, of course, “Where’s your candidate?”

Stabenow tried answering, but it was painful to watch one of the state’s most experienced politicians struggle to come up with something coherent and plausible all while trying to maintain a straight face. This must have given her unpleasant flashbacks of 1994, when she was the running mate of Democrat Howard Wolpe in a forlorn hope against then-Republican Governor John Engler.

Snyder was already in a strong position for re-election to the governor’s mansion — aided by the simple fact that no sitting governor has lost a bid for a second term since 1962 — but Schauer’s no-show can only help Snyder in the final stages of the campaign.

More importantly, it reinforced the narrative that many Democrat-leaning Michiganders are hardly excited about Schauer’s candidacy in the general election next month.

After all, Michigan is famous for its ticket-splitting, meaning voters who cast a ballot for candidates from both parties.

This would explain why several of those selected to ask questions in the town hall-style debate were Democrats, though all were undecided between Schauer and Snyder. One of the questioners even touted on Facebook her support of both Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 and the Michigan Freedom Fund, a center-right advocacy group.

This irony is a result of Snyder owning the political center in the same way as former Governor William Milliken, his political mentor.

Just ask yourself this: When was the last time both the National Rifle Association and Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, endorsed the same candidate? The answer is Snyder, who relished in calling himself “bipartisan” during the debate.

The absence of Macomb County Sheriff Mark Hackel and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at the debate was also telling, especially when Schauer criticized Snyder for his handling of Detroit’s bankruptcy and for alleged funding cuts to local law enforcement.

As good Democrats both have given Schauer their endorsement, but don’t expect these two powerful machine politicians to do anything to defeat Snyder.

— Dennis Lennox

Thursday, October 9, 2014

It's time to abolish secular marriage and replace it with civil partnerships

The following was published yesterday on

Gay marriage is the law of the land.

That was without a doubt the result of Monday’s non-ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which de facto legalized gay marriage in a majority of the 50 states.

Sure, Michigan’s constitutional ban against non-traditional marriage is still in effect, but the winds of change are blowing in the opposite direction, especially when gay marriage is now legal in uber-conservative West Virginia, Utah and Oklahoma to say nothing of neighboring Wisconsin and Indiana.

Unless a panel of federal appeals judges in Cincinnati, where the ban sits under judicial review, decides to go against the prevailing winds then the ban will soon be declared unconstitutional.

In the more than likely event that happens, state Attorney General Bill Schuette has said he would appeal to the same high court whose punt earlier this week, as well as back in 2013 on the California Proposition 8 appeal, legalized gay marriage.

Now unless Schuette and others see something objective observers do not, then this would be little more than a forlorn hope as the nullification of thousands of now-lawful marriages is extremely unlikely.

Even if the Supreme Court does the unlikely and hands down a ruling leaving the definition of marriage to the states, it is almost a given that few bans will remain in place because enough supports exists in the electorate to pass amendments and referenda overturning the remaining prohibitions.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination come next year who also supported his state’s now-overturned ban, clearly did the political calculus when he said: “For us, it’s over in Wisconsin. The federal courts have ruled that this decision … is the law of the land and we will be upholding it.”

If Schuette wants to commit self-martyrdom then that is his prerogative, but he should re-think his stance if he wants to occupy the governor’s mansion when term limits force GOP incumbent Rick Snyder, who will easily win re-election next month, to vacate in 2018.

Instead, Schuette would be wise to take up the fight for religious liberty.

Lost in all of the debate over gay marriage is one simple, but critical point: If the government cannot tell a church who can be baptized then why can the government tell a church who can be married at its high altar?

Granted baptism has no secular benefits, unlike marriage, though both remain by definition fundamentally religious practices.

Still, it is difficult to defend the right of a church or of any faith’s house of worship to discriminate in the administration of its practices — essentially quasi-public services — when these religious institutions simultaneously execute temporal authority by solemnizing marriages on behalf of the government.

The best answer to this legal quagmire is to get churches, synagogues, temples and mosques out of the marriage business. In short: Abolish secular marriage from the statute books and replace it with civil partnerships.

Otherwise, individual faith communities — as well as clergy, lay leaders and believers — will surely face claims of discrimination and hate crimes by refusing to recognize, solemnize or celebrate marriages that in the eyes of government are lawful.

 — Dennis Lennox

Monday, October 6, 2014

In Detroit, city hall's last chance to make 'trains run on time'

The following is from tomorrow's edition of The Morning Sun.

After 18 months of Kevyn Orr, the emergency financial manager, calling the shots in city hall the locals are back in charge.

While Orr will remain in his gubernatorial-appointed position until the city formally exits bankruptcy proceedings in federal court, the day-to-day civil authority is vested once again in Mike Duggan, the elected mayor, and the nine members of Council.

In just about every place I have traveled over the past two years someone has asked me what is happening in Detroit. I remember being in Tallinn, the capital of the tiny Baltic country of Estonia, on the day city hall filed bankruptcy. Even there above the fold headlines proclaimed this sad moment in the history of the city that defines Michigan.

The story of Detroit's glorious rise to become the country’s richest city in 1950 and her shocking collapse over the ensuing decades — culminating in the unprecedented municipal bankruptcy — has been talked about the world over, as so many struggle to understand what really happened to the city that literally and figuratively made America. Perhaps only the scale of Greece's default comes close to the economic, fiscal and governing woes that plague Detroit to this very day.

History does not provide much encouragement that Duggan can actually overcome the monumental challenges facing the city, but the tremendous amount of attention and publicity he has received since taking office earlier this year puts him in a unique position to do so. Not least because Duggan was politically insulated from the tough decisions Orr made to fulfill his mandate from Governor Rick Snyder.

Moving forward this allows Duggan to benefit from all of Snyder's Orr-implemented reforms without having done anything to support them in the first place. In fact, Detroit's politicians have done very little to prove they have learned any lessons in the aftermath of bankruptcy.

If an uninhibited city hall maintains Orr's program of reform then maybe, just maybe Duggan can actually make the proverbial trains run on time.

That is about the best one can do given the simple fact that Detroit will never return to its former glory.

Even with all of the positive signs in Detroit's revitalization — almost all of it a result of innovators, entrepreneurs and job creators, not government bureaucrats picking winners and losers — the city continues to shrink with the latest U.S. Census projections putting population below 700,000 for the first time since 1910.

Moreover, the Duggan mayoralty just now beginning in earnest cannot be used as an excuse to look the other way, as too many out-state Democrats and Republicans in the halls of state government did for too long.

Even if city hall gets the fundamentals right again it cannot under any circumstance be allowed to return to the old ways that caused Detroit's ruin.

Simply put: This is Detroit's last chance. Get it right, Mr. Mayor.

 — Dennis Lennox