Friday, December 16, 2016

Think again

My fatheads! What, in your opinion, is more significant:

  • the belief of one people, the Jews, in their witness to one God and his personal presence and judgment in the world and in history; after all it has been four millenia of that;
  • or, the belief that the forgiveness of sins and eternal life is extended to all people through the death and resurrection of Jesus? After all, "your sins are forgiven" would likely be what most people would want to hear....
It may seem rather turgid -- or no, that's the wrong word ("bombastic, grandiloquent"), let's say it seems rather screechy and killjoy-ish perhaps? -- to broach such a terribly serious topic. I think of twelve-year-old Harriet in Louise Fitzhugh's The Long Secret peering at her new summer-vacation friend, the hyper religious Jessie Mae Jenkins, and thinking 'what kind of a pill brings a Bible to the beach?' What kind of a pill brings a Bible anywhere, into anything?

Yet after years of contemplating Bible things, trust me, years, I find it can all be pared down to a few queries like these above. Whether or not the answers matter much to you will be for you to decide. And in what impoverished world is the Bible not important? In our own, often, regrettably. Even at Christmas. And then here come the Muslims, with a far different holy book prompting in them far different behaviors. This is mostly why we're asking.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


My fatheads! What, in your opinion, is more significant:

  • that the Jews should deny the resurrection of Christ as a fact, even though it was testified to, to the death, by men who knew him and saw him; and even though this testimony became the basis of Western civilization;
  • or that the Jews should bear probably the best record of moral behavior across four millenia that I know of, precisely because they do not believe in a vicarious redeemer? -- in other words they accept no safety net? Isn't moral behavior across time after all the point?

Think about this.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Flexicore and neighbors

It's funny. When I first moved into an apartment complex, I was instantly introduced to the Neighbor Problem. I believe I have chronicled it here. Awakened by strange loud slapping sounds, which had entered my dreams as a little girl (why a girl?) in flip-flops running to catch the bus with her father on her first day of school, I came to slowly, looked bleary-eyed at the clock, saw 2:00 -- and realized no child was going to school at that hour, talking to her father; I awakened a bit more and realized my young asinine neighbors were having a loud vigorous conversation on their porch -- one of them slapping a cigarette pack against the palm of the hand, which I guess is a thing --  at 2:00 am. So I put on my white robe while shaking with adrenalic fury (I thought this was my future, forever), went out on my porch, and leaned on the railing and stared across the fifteen foot gap between us, until they noticed. They looked abashed or "creeped-out." They shuffled inside.

The next day I complained officially to the management of the complex. My neighbors were sent a letter. Or so I was promised. For the whole following year, the noise directly on the other side of my bedroom wall, and on the porch outside, seemed to get better. I also grew somewhat accustomed to the fact of having neighbors directly on the other side of my bedroom wall. When the video game thumping started on the occasional Sunday morning ... ba-ba-BA-BA-BOOM...BA-BA-BA-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM BOOM! -- I reasoned, it's Sunday. I suppose they must have their fun.

Then the complex was sold and the new regime raised rents drastically. I dug into the savings and moved to a condo building. We are all owners, not renters. Granted the units themselves are glorified apartments. Granted people move like crazy no matter where or what they "buy." Still you feel you have a "stake in the place," because at least on paper we have, all of us, vowed this will be home for the next thirty years. Somehow you surmise therefore it won't be as noisy at night. The association even has bylaws: the right of silence after ten o'clock. (I haven't heard of that since my school trip to Europe more than thirty years ago. We were scolded about disturbing people in the hotel. At that time my teen friends and I could not imagine such an outrageous, fuddy-duddy demand.) But why surmise that owners are quieter than renters? Perhaps it's really because there is no buck-stops-here landlord, for whom conflict resolution among probable transients is a very low-priority. We just keep quiet. Good fences make good neighbors because no landlord oversees the fence.  

(As an aside, thank God that when I unthinkingly watered my orchids on my old apartment porch just by sloshing water through them, and it all ran down in floods to the next two balconies, -- thank God  those units were empty by that time, with no one in them to complain about me.)

At least we mostly keep quiet. It happened, and this is what's funny (odd), that when I was awakened one dark early morning, here, now, by what I thought was the sound of raucous laughter above, from two people perhaps watching a movie, although startled enough to really feel the deep weakness in all one's limbs that comes from being jolted out of an absolutely sound sleep, I nevertheless wasn't as enraged as I had been before. Maybe renter's transience makes neighbors' habits seem more threatening, just because there are so many of them and you don't know your or anyone's future there. But, when I meet this one on the stairs ...I can sleepily vow... there are only twelve of us. When I go to the next association meeting ....

What seemed like laughter turned out to be sobbing. It went on and on, and moved from room to room above, varying with shouting. The f-bomb dropped frequently. It was entirely the woman making the noise, so exclusively that as I sat up and listened I thought she might have been on the phone with the ne'er-do-well. Certainly, there was a ne'er-do-well in the picture. Someone was the f-ing idiot and f-ing animal. Someone was told "I don't do that. I do not do that," a strange and serious thing to abruptly tell someone over the phone, weeping, at 4 in the morning.

After about half an hour, the noise stopped. If I had met her on the stairs anytime soon after, I might have asked -- somewhat nettled -- whether she had passed a bad night; or I might have said, my dear, it's none of my business but I know much more of your business than I should. You might want to keep it down. Only I have not seen her since.

There is nothing sinister or Hitchcockian, nothing murder-mystery going on. I think she may have thrown him out. More weeping resounded from above on a few odd afternoons the following week, and once when she and I were leaving our apartments at the same time, she took care to hold back her dog and stay on the third floor out of sight until I had gone. A week later still, the man upstairs, I'm almost sure it was him, pulled up in the dark of night, and seemed to trudge upstairs and down carrying bags. Then he drove away. Then, curiously, he returned. For there he was again, I'm pretty sure, taking the dog out himself one bright morning.     

What am I to make of it all? One of the selling points of the condo was the building's "Flexicore construction," the same as in parking garages I was told. "It's not going to come down," if the upstairs neighbor has a flood you won't be the first to know because the water won't go anywhere. "Practically soundproof." Yes, almost, except for serious and outraged, non-renter's sobbing. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

At long last! Lemon cake and cloves, again

From the Nahe region of Germany: Paul Anheuser, 2000 Kreuznacher (" --er" indicating the town of Kreuznach) Kahlenberg (the vineyard, a site "first mentioned in 1499") Riesling (the grape) Spatlese (the harvest designation, in other words, second pass through the vines to pluck riper grapes). It proved a happy chance, to find a sixteen-year-old riesling on the shelves, for a retail price of only about $20. The color was golden amber, the aroma at long last --- after so many charming German rieslings that are all "racy" and zingy acidity and not much scent -- the lemon cake and cloves I remember from my first trade tasting ever. A supple mouthfeel balanced the sweetness. 

I always like to add a story to my wine thoughts, so there is this: I am trying Wuthering Heights again, for the third time in this life. Now I remember -- now I have reached the spot that annoys me. Unfortunately it is early on. The first narrator, Mr. Lockwood, gives place to the second narrator, Mrs. Dean, and then you must grapple with which characters in her telling are Hindley, and Hareton, and Heathcliff, and Cathy, and which were how old when the story begins in her memory, and which were how old or long dead from the first page of the first chapter. In real time, so to speak. In her introduction, Charlotte Bronte admits to the flaws in her late sister Emily's work. "How so?" you think. "It is a classic. Charlotte must be looking back on it very firmly, holding it to very high standards." But then, in that introduction you are also so distracted by the horrible brief chronicle of her two sisters' deaths from consumption, in a little more than five months from Christmas 1848 to spring 1849, that you resolve to overlook all flaws.    

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

One thing leads to another

One thing leads to another. Buying, packing, moving, and unpacking has meant houses and (balcony) gardens are on my mind; the last thing I was reading before commencing this particular five mile trek was Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire's The House: A Portrait of Chatsworth (MacMillan, 1982). I found this book because the search for decorating color scheme ideas led me to google "eighteenth century" in general. (I seem to remember instructions about combining black, ice blue, red, sage, and lemon yellow, and dubbing it vaguely "Regency.") There, amid links to eighteenth-century matters, including the career of the very famous, scandalous Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and some scholarly articles about this and that, cropped up several links to obituaries for the more contemporary lady whom we might call our Duchess. 

It turns out that our duchess Deborah, nee Mitford, sister of the (not very interesting) authoress Nancy, was not scandalous at all. In in fact she was quite the respected chicken-keeper and country house chatelaine, enthusiastic reverser of staircases and preserver of rotting historic velvets and "slub" silks. Writer, too. Altogether she was just about the perfect person to happen to fall into respectful responsibility for an English stately home. It's a curious thing. She became a duchess of course by marrying a man who became a duke. But he had an older brother who would have inherited if he had not been killed in World War II, and that older brother was actually married to a Kennedy -- Kathleen, one of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's huge family and therefore sister of the future president. What a "Duchess Kathleen" would have made of Chatsworth, who knows, perhaps something marvelous, too. Although one suspects the Kennedy money might have made "the House" a bit too shiny and new. I must mention that my copy of The House, to my surprise, proved to be signed by her -- Deborah-ed -- Grace.

I was saying one thing leads to another. In the middle of the book she quotes a nineteenth-century predecessor duke's inventory of his statuary. This included busts, full figures, and medallions of everything and everyone the West found fascinating, like mythic heroes or Napoleon's scandalous sister Pauline posing as Venus, back in the days when young gentlemen made the Grand Tour and bachelor dukes bought entire, ancient marble slabs for flooring, "at Rome."

That name, Pauline Borghese (nee Bonaparte), struck me. Perhaps she could be a candidate for our "celebrity historic personality" column here? I know we had been studying Tancred of Hauteville for a while. "... for the Princess Borghese, when compelled not to talk about dress, was extremely entertaining, and full of the histories of her times" (p. 186).

But I began reading a little about her elsewhere and thought, well, perhaps not. Pauline may just have been famous for being famous. One doesn't begrudge a woman her private life, but what interest can one take in her whose first lover was a certain ghastly French revolutionary, Freron, a signer of orders for mass executions? Biographer Hector Fleishmann (Pauline Bonaparte and her Lovers, 1914), thinks that Napoleon scotched the couple's marriage because even he, no stranger to bloodshed, would not have the wretch allied with his family. Wikipedia says it was Madame Mere, mother of the brood Laetizia Bonaparte, who opposed.

All this returns me to a thought I have had before. Pauline Bonaparte Borghese only had a famous life because her brother was Napoleon. She pretended to no other significances that I know of. After Freron she was married off, and reluctantly took ship for Haiti because her husband had just been appointed provincial governor there. When for her second marriage she treated herself to, or was proffered to or if you like was able to catch, one of the superbest names in the Italian aristocracy, a Borghese! -- she got the villas and the title "princess" and she made sure to get a promise of "the use of the Borghese family diamonds." Meanwhile the lovers came and went. If you wish to see her body you may look at Canova's Venus. People who have reason to write about her always parrot the same story here: that when asked whether she did not find it 'difficult' to pose nude for Canova, la divina Paola lightly replied oh no, it was no trouble. His studio was heated.

All in all, she seems to have ridden the crest for one short life. She died at 45, "full of the histories of her times." Unlike her first lover, she did no harm. The question she prompts is, how do we make art out of history, when the founding characters to be dealt with are merely Pauline-esque? Or worse, Freron-like? In our own era it seems we have still another type which will one day be fodder for art but which is least worthy of all. These are the little, cocooned authoritarians who risk nothing, glide into power, quietly sever three or four arteries, and then when confronted perhaps glide away. I am thinking of Lois Lerner, and of what sort of great speech or aria could be written for her. There's no question of sculpture. Valerie Jarrett, the same, except there's no question of her being confronted and gliding away. A composer or a playwright of talent will want to make these people complex, changeable, chasten-able, if only by their own fates. But how so, unless future talent just makes stuff up? In life it's difficult to imagine these women understanding the meaning of the word "chasten." And because of that, it's offensive to imagine art, in the future, plumping them up and making them characters with a capital C.

If your politics or your interests are different you might substitute other names under "cocooned little authoritarian," besides La Lerner. But it is helpful to consider what eras artists tend to mine for material, and which historic figures in them pop up most often. The Tudors are the never-ending franchise for romance novels, television dramas and, years ago, operas. Among them Anne Boleyn stands very high in interest, Jane Grey hardly at all; yet both were young women of the same rank and both suffered the same death. Why the difference in attention? As far as exterior lives, action, goes, the one lived a little longer, married, and had children, so there is more "there." But romance loves also to mine the life of a virgin martyr from another time, Joan of Arc. Lack of children and a teen death are not an insuperable obstacle to a character being interesting. It seems Jane Grey was a superb person who went to the scaffold with eerie resignation. Anne Boleyn, truthfully, was probably a sort of boring high school prom-queen shrew. At the end she kept twisting about and looking behind her for the king's messenger bearing the pardon which never came. That's not a black mark against her, being no more than what we would do. Perhaps just that sort of behavior accounts for the difference in attention these two get in art. We want to see normal people, like us, on the stage or in our novels, not perfect doves. And not necessarily giants. Speaking of Pauline (remember?), where are the plays and operas about her brother?

Perhaps what we want to see above all in art is risk, risk-taking. (Not the same thing as "conflict." And not risk among giants.) As far as interior lives go, -- the source material to be perhaps plumped up -- Jane Grey, superb person, saintly scholar, walked through life an obedient dove reading Greek, and was sacrificed. Anne Boleyn, sometimes rather awful, reached out from safety to get something more, and was sacrificed. Joan of Arc seems to have been a combination of the two: a superb person who marched through life an obedient dove but also reached out from safety to get something more. For other people, not herself. And was sacrificed. Risk makes the second two interesting. Likewise, what makes it offensive to imagine La Lerner or La Jarrett given arias and complexity is the absence of risk in anything they do. Simply rather awful ... and marching through life ... and reaching out from safety to get more for themselves ... they seem merely to succeed. Perhaps "the Bullen's" half-despondent enemies thought exactly the same thing, until the morning of May 19, A.D. 1536. What does art, after all, do? What historical figures are immortalized deservingly, and how would you pick and embellish yours?

Deborah Devonshire's The House -- remember? -- has proved to be one of those delightful books that I return to and dip into from time to time. In it you get a bit of relatively recent country-house diary keeping, startling information on real servant life back in Downton Abbey days (shared bathwater for six laundrymaids once a week -- "the head laundrymaid was the first to get in, followed by her five helpers in order of seniority. More hot water was tipped in as the bathing progressed. Imagine the horrible grey soapy puddle the last one must have got into"), and the general sense that as far as The House physically is concerned, it is a massive stone square so solid that anything at all may be done to its interior without danger of its falling down. Hence the enthusiastic reversing of staircases or the transforming of rooms into corridors and back again. Parts of it look regally eighteenth century, with enormous checkerboard marble floors and football fields-ful of ceilings covered in rococo nudity. In other photos you see huge, tatty historic royal thrones like red and gold fringed dinosaurs pushed up against some wall, or what the Duchess acknowledges a French visitor called "le desordre Britannique." In a huge library there might be a television set thrust almost into a disused fireplace, and then magazines and farm equipment ads piled over lovely old gold inkwells carved with roses. Surely they must once have been caressed and dipped into, on a far tidier desk, by the scandalous but thoughtful Georgiana.

Of course our own libraries don't keep these sorts of books on hand anymore. Neither do big contemporary bookstores, so I get them from Amazon or the used book warehouses which I am glad to see have popped into existence and seem crowded with custom. By sheer chance the most recent half-forgotten English woman writer of the mid-twentieth century -- I believe it was a little silver age of literature, really -- whom I have come across, and whom I must investigate, is one Dorothy Carrington. She wrote about Corsica, Granite Island (1971), coincidentally the land of Napoleon.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Tchotchke (it means "free trade")

Like a character in an Agatha Christie "Miss Marple" novel -- like Miss Marple herself -- one begins to understand large things that have taken decades to happen. "Buying on credit," Miss Marple muses in the early pages of The Mirror Crack'd, left modern young people (circa 1950) chronically "in want of ready money." Whatever the couple earned was all going to pay debt, and so the young wife Cherry had to go out to work to earn a little extra.

Today, circa now, one walks into a store like the marvelous Pier 1, and sees thousands of dollars' worth of inventory of adorable pretty things. Always seasonal, always changing. I like the glass and bead autumnal wreath above. I like pretty things, don't we all. Only it is all made in China, except the white pumpkins which are grocery-store real, and the problem is there were very few customers in the store to buy any of this. I fear this pattern repeats, endlessly. Even eight years ago, I remember being shocked at how abruptly empty a big box like Kohl's was. Now the emptiness looks normal. Everybody might be at work, I suppose, in the middle of a Tuesday. Or it might be that too many Americans don't have the jobs to give them the disposable income to buy the tchotchke whose manufacture "free trade" sent to China anyway. One begins to understand. And it is not, as Miss Marple self-deprecatingly sighs, only "that one is growing old."

Isn't it ironic that we've been scolded about empty consumerism for decades, and now it's just hard to do, actually? Remember the protest songs about "houses made of ticky-tacky" and the horrors of a "Pleasant Valley Sunday"? When you have one free trade professor among the Marxists and the anti-ticky-tackyites in college, he stands out as a conservative. You wonder how they hired him, if he spouted Adam Smith during his interview .... Later you begin to understand. Just because he defended ordinary people's attraction to nice cheap comforts, and just because he made the point that we don't want a Bill Gates "manufacturing" computers, we want him fulfilling his talents and doing something more, -- doesn't mean he understood the nation's future.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Tiny recipe (I still cook, sort of!)

Oooh... a few squares of mushroom stuffed ravioli. A little sauce of melted butter, fresh garden tomatoes, chopped leftover bacon, and a spoonful of pesto. You will serve it with a glass of 2011 Principe Corsini "Le Corti" Chianti Classico, a wine it seems to me at the peak of its life. It's just beginning to "brick," or turn reddish brown with maturity. I'm not much interested in vastly overworked  fruit basket metaphors, but it was delicious. All of a piece, "all through." Just wine.


Friday, September 23, 2016

Tiny, real world update

I was talking to a youth who mentioned Hillary Clinton's health problems. How did you know about it? I was going to ask rather snarkily, since I gather Facebook and Twitter have prevented the topic from 'trending.' But I didn't get a chance to ask, because the nice youth launched into an obedient recital of her official history. "She had a concussion in 2012, and then pneumonia -- "

I made the 'pshaw' sound. "I don't believe a word anyone says about her. I mean, anyone from her camp." The youth giggled nervously. Then we talked about what might happen if, God forbid, she is ill enough to withdraw from the race or too ill to serve if elected. Not that I want her; I simply don't want the Democrat party troweling in Elizabeth Warren to replace her.

"In that case," the youth said, "Obama would probably just sign an E.O. postponing the election, and say, 'Hey, I'd like a few more years anyway.' "

"Ah, well, he can't do that," -- I did not snap, but only said -- I think. The youth's utter, easy seriousness and his tossing out of an abbreviation for "Executive Order" annoyed me and yes, shocked me. This is an American? And he wants to be a lawyer? I went on, "There are laws about that, at least for the moment. Of course you know about that," delivered not snarkily but pleasantly (I think) -- "you're going to law school." Then, musingly, "that's what it means to have a government of law, not men."

The youth giggled nervously. We carried on to neutral ground, talking about how there must be protocols -- laws? -- for situations where high elected officials or those running for election are sick or get sick. Remember the president who caught pneumonia and died three months after his inauguration? Yes, we both knew of that, the youth and I, but neither could remember his name. Garfield?

No, Harrison, William Henry (1773-1841), as it turned out. Last president to have been born a British subject, first to die in office; grandfather of another president, Benjamin Harrison. And he died only one month after his inauguration, not three. He lived an interesting and full life: soldier, farmer, representative in Congress, Senator, territorial governor, ambassador to "Gran Colombia" for eighteen months. What were the stages of travel from Washington D.C. to Bogota in 1828? The mind reels.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

It's not "powder of antimony"

Even after At First Glass' and Pluot's many incarnations and designs and re-boots, and subsequent plunge into comparative obscurity -- did I once get 12,000 hits one Thanksgiving week? -- I still from time to time am offered a sample bottle of wine by nice people at nice publicity firms. It's not Insignia or Troussard anymore, and of course this summer with the hullabaloo of my move to a new house I could not respond to a surprising glut of invitations. Besides, "Dear things!" I want to exclaim honestly. "You know I have no readership to speak of. But thank you!"

Now as the hullabaloo moving dust has somewhat settled, here comes a delightful bottle of something from Sicily. I found the time to say yes.

The maker is Lamuri, the grape Nero d'Avola, the wine a darkly succulent, whiff-of-cherry-and-mocha bargain that would pair well with what you might call strong, lantern-jawed Mediterranean foods. Remember when archetypical handsome heroes were called lantern-jawed? A recipe in the "Wines of Sicily D.O.C." booklet that came packed with the bottle seems perfect: the fine print says that Victor Rallo, host of Eat! Drink! Italy! devised a Grilled Lamb Chops Scottadita, lamb with spicy Sicilian almond red pepper sauce, to go with our robust red Sicilian sample.

Delicious, but I can't help raising a question. I just looked at the news this morning. Shouldn't Eat! Drink! Italy! read Eat! Drink! [Muslim] Italy!? "UN chief: 235,000 more migrants in Libya ready to embark for Italy," to add to the 300,000 already arrived (in Europe) this year.

I often want to broach this same question to the Old World vendors, or winemakers and distillers, who come to the store to show us their latest products. No one says a word because to do so would, I suppose, mark one as an embarrassing killjoy. A Chicken Little, the-sky-is-falling type. But I want to ask, of them, of Sicily, of Chef Rallo: you do realize these people, these newcomers in the hundreds of thousands forbid alcohol, yes? They remain for the moment a minority and yes, perhaps those who come are the type not to like their religion's strict rules and to be glad to reach the wine-lands. On the other hand, judging by the look of those young, strong men, they may be the type to like their religion very much and to be eager to impose it on the winelands. I am glad -- I want to go on saying, to the vendors, to Sicily -- glad all of you are making such strides in trellising and quality clone selection and things, but do you never wonder if you might be forced to sketch a Plan  B or even C for your life and for the land?

No one wants to be a questioning provincial killjoy. Google a bit and you'll find there are vineyards in majority Muslim Lebanon. There are some in Morocco and Tunisia. I don't think it takes too much breath, however, to acknowledge that these are outliers and that my question still stands. It stands because of more than immigration. We must expect not only that, but that the gates are opened by our own leadership, against our will, as an ideological act. That's a new thing in history, isn't it? It accompanies one of the most important marks of our age: we vote, but eighteenth-  or nineteenth-century election cycles move too slowly to keep up with progressive rule by fiat, or to accommodate any of our changes of civic mind. It all gives a pointed freshness to calm schoolbook-style descriptions of "cultural influence of successive waves of Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Arab," etc., say in a place like Sicily. In a pamphlet about Sicily. And that was when kings did defend their own shorelines.

Hence the idea of winemakers being forced to sketch a plan C. I don't see why it's inconceivable that a vineyard or a region could be overrun, or be told to cease production, before the good people in it could vote for a leadership willing to close the gates, or otherwise leave them alone. Why not? The Muslim mayor of London -- itself a phrase once inconceivable in my lifetime, and I'm not old -- wants to banish any billboard and bus stop advertising showing pictures of scantily-clad women. That's a little wavelet of cultural influence, wouldn't you say? Why shouldn't I worry about the wine? Because that would never happen, because it can't happen here?   

All in all, it occurs to me that in this extraordinary era when, to pick another marker, the Pope in six months might variously condemn murder in God's name as "Satanic" having humbly washed the feet of the people who tend to do it, possibly the most useful thing the Westerner can do for his tattered civilization is to support the liquor industry. To work in it may be to really man the towers. By the by, I am always encouraged when I see a woman in a hijab buying a bottle. She buys it as a present for someone else I presume. If a Muslim man buys one you can't tell, but of course the women stand out. I have seen it happen twice in two years.

Here may be what it will come down to. Whether you care about voting or religion or music or art or those same women having their private parts cut up, or not, if it comes to it -- will you give up the booze? Or might "they" be satisfactorily seduced by it? So far, outliers aside, their rejection of it has been firm. Won't it be remarkable, if in time alcohol -- an Arabic word, originally meaning for them "powder of antimony [kohl]" and for us, alcohol -- is the last hill we turn and stand on.  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

" 'Judge ye' "

But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye; for we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard. Acts 4: 19-20.

Sometimes you do come across the most remarkable things on the interwebs. Last night PJMedia posted an article about the state of Massachusetts now forcing " 'LBGT accomodation' " on churches in that state, in other words, the churches like any other institutions with buildings and bathrooms must deny that men are men and women, women, and ensure that the bathrooms are open to all. More, congregants are not to be permitted to criticize the matter. Churches tolerating such "harassment" could be sued under anti-discrimination laws.

Down in the comments section, which yes are full of sad angry trolls, as on every site, bickering at each other, nevertheless I found an extraordinary bit of information. You do find those, too, written by your talented fellow citizens who probably should be in elected office or running newsrooms but who, for many reasons, are not. This one commenter said, regarding Massachusetts demanding obeisance about our apparatchik-run insanity du jour, that "the great Christian response is Acts 4:19."

I looked up the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 4, verse 19, and found the quote above. "Whether it is right in the sight of God to obey you more than God, you decide; but we can only say what we have seen and heard."

Peter and John were answering the authority figures of their day, who demanded they stop talking about Jesus even though an entire crowd in Jerusalem had just seen them heal a paralyzed man, in (the resurrected) Jesus' name, and walk with him into the Temple precincts. But even that background story is less striking, for our purposes for the moment I think, than the utter subtlety and truth of the Apostles' response to authority's eternal demand: which in the end always seems to be, Shut up and obey. Their answer, "whether we should listen to you more than God, you decide. But we must say what we have seen and heard;" is simply an announcement of reality; of truth, because God has not made an absurd world. To look about you and see and hear, and to testify, is to testify to truth, and therefore to God. It's also to testify to the ordinary person's ability to see truth. And therefore to have authority. G. K. Chesterton notices that this is one of the things Christianity's critics dislike about it. Orthodoxy tends to stick with you even if you didn't like his sing-song paradoxes as you drove to work listening to his book on tape a few months ago.

In these two sentences in Acts, the Apostles also put the onus on authority to declare whether or not it deserves Godlike hearkening. "Judge ye." Authority must either shamefacedly say, No we do not, which negates them; or, pompously, Yes we do, which is false. Peter and John thus give us a refreshing dismissal of the webs that authority so often catch us in -- especially our modern liberal world's teaching, nanny state authority, coolly eliding, um, "God" -- when it insists that we sit up before its demands and discuss and explain why we think we should remain in error as in the bad old days, when people had unjust thoughts. No, no discussion. "You," authority, "judge" your rank. Of course it does, shamefaced or not. Don't forget the apostles must have known the risk they were taking. Authority executed every one of them except John just for a start.

So the interesting problem of authority hating truth, and hating the ordinary man's testifying to it, seems to be very old. Our quandary seems to be, what risks we take in refusing debate, but throwing truth in their laps, to do as they like with. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

I think I'll just have a Brunello in the garden

It takes years before you begin to understand, that is, unless (I suppose) you make a frantic study of it, in order to become a "somm." We have a new staff member in the department, promoted yesterday God bless him, and I can only imagine what the tossing sea of shelves crammed with bottles looks like to him.

To refresh our memories, re: -- oh, I don't know, pick one. Italy. The simplest thing is to imagine a map of that country, with two spots highlighted, Piedmont in the northwest and tourist Tuscany in the central west of the peninsula. In Piedmont, we have the wines Barolo and Barbaresco, grandest of the grand. Both are made from the nebbiolo grape.

In Tuscany, we have that slew of wines all made from sangiovese or its close relatives and clones. Chianti, Chianti Classico. Brunello di Montalcino. Rosso di Montalcino. Whenever a fine Italian wine has a sort of humbler little brother, it's called Rosso, "red." Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Rosso (ah!) di Montepulciano. Still Tuscany.

It takes years, sans frantic study, just to get that straight. Then comes the tasting. In sum, know that Barolos and Barbarescos (back to Piedmont, or da capo you might say) are magically silky, startlingly brownish, but are also so acidic and full of tannin that, after one swallow, they can seem empty and disappointing. The lady buying her birthday treat from our cellar last weekend described to me just such a Barolo. I knew, and could confirm for her, exactly what she meant. You must drink them with great food, or else wait until your bottle is twenty years old or you are on vacation in Milano before opening it, or all three. For a sure thing right now she chose Verite La Muse instead, all plush merlot velvet and Sonoma-cult price (circa $400 a pop).

Brunellos, now. Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany. They are different. At least they seem so to me, but you know my Barolo problems ....

Brunellos also are among the grandest of the grand. In starting to like them, in noticing "they are different," one's years of experience are, perhaps, beginning to tell. They are silky, again, but they suffer less tannin and acid, and give more agreeable depths of fruit flesh; in a Brunello the sangiovese grape that makes a Chianti of  black tart berries and dry sandpaper, and a bit of olive brine and horse stable thrown in, remember? -- in a Brunello this same grape and this same region (did you remember? Tuscany) make a lovely, light, complete and liquid thing inexpressible in mere and discrete greengrocer's metaphors. Similar to a Rioja -- that's in Spain -- it's just wine. And it's the kind of thing you look forward to coming home to and planning a meal around. Almost like a person, no? A guest.

2011 Sassetti Livio Pertimali Brunello. Retail, about $40.

Now moving on, to the garden. It's best not to have your Brunello there, really, since in this late summer we find ourselves again in the season of the yellow jacket or "meat bee," hungry for any and all food and drink. They will pester you and your picnic right indoors, although Wikipedia tells us that Vespula maculifrons is a valuable predator of other annoying insects.

One of the attractions of this particular condo building, otherwise no different from the several tucked along a quiet street here, and all backed by their parking lots, open land, and walking path beneath the huge high tension wires, is the garden. Somewhere in the details of the condo association's thirty-year-old bylaws I saw something about every owner having approximately an 8 percent stake in everything. I thought, "won't it be nice if that means we all get 8 percent of the garden, to do as we like with?"

One evening my gentleman friend and I approached. The sun was setting. Everywhere were red cannas, yellow Black-eyed Susans, and purple phlox; and huge lavish green prehistoric-looking leaf clumps that turned out to hide butternut squash, hanging in modest salmon-hued glory in the shade, and acorn squash too, sitting modestly green on the earth beneath more yellow blossoms of the same, shaped weirdly like elegant drooping half-clenched yellow hands. Gentleman friend is a grower of cannas and begonias and a tender of tomatoes, too. This gives him an almost professional interest in everything. (An ex-girlfriend taught him to garden. He still shakes his head. "I never thought I'd like it. If anyone ever told the guys...." ) "There's someone who can tell us," he now remarked. A middle-aged lady had straightened up from her work in the really huge plot.

 We asked questions. Who started this, who participates, etc.? "Oh, no, it's just me," Carla said. She told her story of dismay at seeing nothing but a stand of dead, collapsed poplars from her third floor balcony -- with its view of the high tension wires -- when she moved in twenty years ago. So she planted a little plot of zinnias. And then, over the years, her project expanded.

"Just me." I should have guessed. How many people like to garden? I can only measure it in human terms. How many people like to garden, such that a plot as big as this, about forty-five paces broad and ten or fifteen deep, might be maintained by the enthusiastic common effort of an at least occasionally-changing cadre of owners in this one building, across twenty years? Count twelve units, times twenty years, plus or minus, let us say, three owners leaving and three more arriving per, let us say, -- every five years? Already the arithmetic is too complex to think about. Far more likely that it's just one person, everlastingly, who likes to garden. Just Carla. That explains the variety too. A group effort would have installed flowers by committee consensus, and you would have nothing but petunias and vinca vine ground cover.

"Things come and go over the years," she went on. The wagon wheel was an anonymous gift. "The bench is made of deckwood," so it proved too heavy to steal. She spotted it one summer morning, halfway across the greensward under the high tension wires, on the way to the woods beyond and to some other home and garden. But the thieves had given up. The beautiful heavy glossy brown bench returned, thanks to the efforts of honest condominium owners, to its rightful place. Carla's father built it.

Sometime during our evening talk, when gentleman friend and Carla were quite hitting it off -- he was telling her all about the feral parrots of the inner city, and they do exist, I have seen them -- I said, dear me, I would like to play a part in this garden, but I wouldn't want to intrude.

"Oh, it wouldn't be an intrusion." So kind, but I couldn't help but wonder. Really? Human nature being what it is, and considering her twenty years of effort, and never knowing whether or when the condo association, or ComEd under their high tension wires, might say Stop That, we're going to get sued for something or other, I couldn't help but wonder. No intrusion? You mean I could help clean it up, and get rid of the Welcome mats and strips of carpet keeping down weeds at the back? How about less dead brown vegetable growth and more interesting things? The cottage garden look is all very well, but then where are the foxgloves, delphinium, and hollyhocks? No lavender, no potted orange or lemon trees? I see a few remnants of lilies, but otherwise no glorious peonies, no spring bulbs? No cinder paths where one  may really walk, almost no bushes or trees (except Rose of Sharon, which I am sorry I do not like), "the bones of the garden"? And why the huge central bed of raspberries? I am glad to feed the birds and voles, but it looks a bit exhausted.

Then I had a fresh thought, which may seem soapy but I hope is not. Anyway "she'd probably appreciate the help," my friend had said. And I thought: the garden is a metaphor for the world, isn't it. You find it lacking; yet here it was before you arrived. Step back and look, and you may find suddenly you see, you metaphorical insect, that it is a privilege to participate.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

In a tearing hurry, again, but "ancora imparo"*

Sometimes Saturday nights are a tad slow at work, so I use the time to self-crash-course my way to more wine knowledge. Last night, what started out as a simple mnemonic project, with the computer and a couple of encyclopedias at hand -- write down all the names of the 61 Bordeaux chateaux from the 1855 classification -- turned into an interesting bit of sleuthing. And now I know a wine I want to try, but that I don't know how to get.

In the middle of the official list of the classified growths, right in the middle of the "Troisieme crus," is Chateau Langoa-Barton. I had never heard of it, even though being in charge of the French wine section for the past four months has left me with at least a working knowledge of Bordeaux. My plan for last night's self-crash-course was to focus on the chateaux I did not know, cross-reference them in our store's chainwide inventory, and, if it turned out we did not sell them, investigate if possible why.

This turned interesting quickly and it showed a pattern quickly. I really needed to look up only one or two names, here or there. (We sell a lot of Bordeaux.) Rauzan-Gassies was unfamiliar; turns out it is known as an underperformer. Same with Durfort-Vivens. Both are "second growths." Then came Langoa-Barton, as I say in the middle of the third growths. If you scroll down through its reviews at a site like Wine Cellar Insider, you see it gets a lot of scores in the high 80s or low 90s. We don't carry it, either. That's the pattern.

But Langoa-Barton is not regretfully labeled an underperformer. I took notes on its reviews because they, too, all showed a pattern: "tannic." Masculine. Strict, classically styled. "Classic personality." Tannic, classic, earthy, cedar tobacco. Tannic and firm. Tannic, classsic, old school. Austere, tannic, firm. Powerful, masculine, beefy, "well suited for fans of traditionally styled wine." And tannic -- did we mention tannic?

So it's interesting that this low-pointed wine, I should say this chateau's wines, high 80s and low 90s, is not faulted by its reviewers as unsound. Only they seem to struggle to give it fruit metaphors, while images of dryness and inanimate things, or vegetal things, abound. It's as if the wine is less like fruit and more like the wooden box the fruit came in. Yet they keep calling it classic and traditional, and thus my curiosity is piqued, all the more because my research tells me Langoa Barton is the only classified growth still owned by the same family as in 1855. That's good, surely, if you want to reach back in time and get your hands on a bottle of a cabernet-merlot blend (that is what we are talking about) not overwhelmed by the modern love of 95-point, blueberry-pie-with-caramel-fudge "monsters."  

I'll let you know where else my self-crash-course wine learning takes me. Thank God I found out what Abacus is before the nice man browsing the wine cellar pointed it out to me as one of his favorites: I was able to do something besides nod and smile about it. He left not with Abacus but with a three liter bottle of Chateau Giscours 2005 (Troisieme cru). That was fun. It's amazing how the store staff suddenly seem to lurk while a purchase like that is being gently cossetted out the door. I mean, we're not on commission or anything.

Now I have to pack up and move.

* "I am still learning," attributed to Michelangelo at the age of eighty.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

I entered the Hendrick's gin contest

Captain Tarquin Shakespeare met the great alien Zephirine Felicite immediately upon leaving the galaxy's edge. She was all wings and eyes, and did not understand time. "How is it," she asked, "that your planet, merely in orbiting its star, causes living beings to 'age'?" 

See here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A question of sight

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend another of the wine seminars which are, whether large and official or small and on the fly (because the sales rep dropped by with some new bottles), a permanent part of the job. As usual, they are as intriguing for the chance they provide to observe human nature as they are for the things one learns about wine.

A few points still stand out, seminar after seminar. About wines: they, especially reds, are getting more uniform in taste and weight, and dare I say, more scentlessly bland? even as Master Sommelier candidates are called upon to struggle fiercely with identifying their differences as a proof of  expertise. The official class yesterday treated of Oregon pinot noirs, and of the Court of Master Sommeliers' program. Delicious, and most interesting, as Miss Marple would say. Only, no longer will I breezily tell customers how different the Oregon "style" tends to be from the Californian .... 

Here are some more points. About people: people still want to be perceived as having innate grand taste, especially when they are sampling blind. Wow, my favorite was the Chateau Latour! But we also want to be perceived as non-snobs able to recognize a sleeper, $12 hit. So a group of fifteen or twenty souls tread very carefully when asked "what are we tasting in the glass? Any thoughts?" No one wants to say olive brine or tar when that might be wrong. But if you say olive brine, you won't be told you're wrong. "Good! What else? Anyone?" There is an almost audible sigh of relaxation as more guesses are proffered. This is the nub of it all, for it's not nonsense. There are specific things to be perceived and named in the glass, and they do have a chemical structure and an origin in the grape or the place. Most importantly they give pleasure. Someone chances to mention a scent you thought was crazy at first. Meat. "Yes! Savory!" Good! What else? 

The idea of tasting and talking in a group is to train your palate, which is perfectly legitimate, too. But you can only bring to each seminar the palate you've developed so far; so that when everyone excitedly asks the moderator to "taste the next one blind," and we do, and you think it might be a Chianti (Italian, sangiovese) and it turns out to be a northern Rhone (French, syrah), you do stop and marvel inwardly. Good grief, I have probably only tasted three or four expensive northern Rhones in my life. No wonder I couldn't tell. Or else my faculties aren't good. Or else red wines are all the same. Meanwhile the man next to you, who had believed it was a Cotes du Rhone (mostly southern French, grenache-based blend), now breezily forgets that, and exults how he knew all along. "That classic northern Rhone profile. Syrah all the way. Beautiful." As an aside, and most curiously, we hear confirmed that when the blind tastings for final exams at the Master Sommelier level are done, the wines the candidates struggle over are never identified, not ever. In the film Somm the exhausted aspirants discuss their wildly divergent opinions. "You called Vacqueyras?" "I called boutique Sonoma gamay." They will never know. It must be a precaution against anyone's really developing a palate memory, and returning confident next year. I can't think what else it might mean.

So I drive home, marveling. Note how the seminar turns out to be much more about people than wine. My old WineStyles colleague's words come back to me -- he of the thirty-five years in the business, retail, wholesale, and crushpad, he who started out selling Paul Masson Cracklin' Rose and also tasted Chateau Petrus when young liquor store clerks still could. "Folks. Please. It's just wine." And I think, what other product, what consumable, has this bright-eyed anxiety attached to it? It's a sort of unintentional humbug, if there can be such a thing. Customers look for guidance in spending their money to people in the trade. We can provide some, but you see what goes on when we're together. Yesterday we also heard confirmed that Oregon and California pinot noirs are not getting more lushly alike, the proof being that the nice man who reviews Oregon for Wine Advocate is an Englishman steeped in the spare Burgundian tradition. When he first arrived in Oregon he gave the wines low points, in the 80s, but now he has "gotten his head around the style" and he routinely rates them 92 and 95. That didn't really answer my question, but the moderator wanted to move on. It was on thinking of that, driving home, that the word humbug occurred to me. 

What other product has this anxiety attached? Very gourmet beef? Orchids? Perfume? Maybe perfume. Another mysterious bottled liquid, been around forever, expensive, hard to describe, marketing is everything, capable of being very good or very mediocre. You have your iconic examples, like Chanel No. 5, and your cognoscienti treats, like Chanel No. 19. Germany has been making 4711 for two hundred years, in Cologne. There is a whole background world of the stuff that only sommeliers as it were know. One can imagine, at the perfume counter, a customer's same anxiety not to instinctively like a "cheap scent," or the same ready dismissal of what grandmother wore or what one liked in college. And remember in old Hollywood movies when the perfume counter girl is understood to be no better than she should be?

On the other hand, everyone can see an orchid and decide about it. "You like what you like." It must be a question of sight.     

The Fableist pinot noir, 2014

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

He's playing you like a fiddle

After you go and see and reject the tiny yellow house with its charming old neighborhood, retro clotheslines, and immense yard and snowblower-unfriendly gravel driveway, then, because you are still insisting to your realtor that you "want to try for a house," well, then you open up your email the next day to see the subject line, from him. "K ------- has sent you 78 properties matching your requirements." That is, they are all in your budget and are "detached," all houses. (A condo or a town home is "attached.")

Seventy-eight! Wow, you feared there would be, like, three! Unhappily they prove, all of them, to be way the hell out in the boondocks and they all need major if not catastrophic-level "work." One or two have actually been condemned and must be torn down. So it's the land that is valuable; whether or not you have the means to build is your affair, not K-----'s.

Still you trawl through all of them, all the pictures and all the information on all the houses. Just for fun, as Nana used to say. It's very enjoyable to imagine oneself inside these walls or looking out these windows to that backyard, and thinking, now this is mine. The lawn could be turned to native grasses -- the upstairs ramshackle porch could be a fabulous sort of indoor office/greenhouse -- look at the overgrowth of lilies beside the stone steps, already such a Michigan-cottage feel. You recall delightful movies and magazine articles in which some intrepid woman gets off the tour bus to buy, on the spot, a ramshackle Tuscan farmhouse or a trulli in Apulia, complete with crabby old gardener who turns out to be heroic and has a handsome middle-aged professor son also.

But chances are she, the impulsive heroine of the tour bus, was a well-to-do real estate broker in San Francisco to begin with, with money to pay the masons to relay the medieval steps, and the gardener to tend the olive trees. Here you are going to be -- you are imagining yourself -- in a ramshackle and badly carpeted old house maybe fifty minutes' drive from your job. You know perfectly well you do not, after all, want to come home from work to mow the lawn, relay medieval stone steps, or more likely hang on the phone to contractors asking for price estimates on what it costs to repair their modern concrete equivalent. Don't forget the neighbors are watching, concerned about weeds and their own property values. This isn't relaxed, eccentric- and ruin-friendly Europe. (Then again, is Europe?) "I don't know, Nance," a co-worker I'll call David shakes his head. "When you're a single person, it's awfully nice to come home from work and be able to sit down in a condo and not worry about maintenance. Maybe take a dip in the pool if there is one."

Oh, don't be so discouraging. On the other hand, go ahead, be discouraging. Why else do we ask advice? Besides, for all that Colette enjoyed her many-roomed villa in Provence with her cook and gardener and handsome boy, truly what single woman wants a midwestern Cape Cod that clearly calls out for a young family with children and puppies? What single woman wants to spend her days off vacuuming the silent upstairs bedrooms?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The tiny yellow house

So you plan to go with the realtor to see the little yellow house. Before the appointment at 6:45 you have of course been tapping away at your phone to sisters and other support networks, and when one replies "I can come with if you want," you text back "Sure!" thankfully.

She arrives. You drive back (it's your second visit of the day, the first one exploratory, solo) to the yellow house. The realtor pulls up behind you in his big black SUV whose license plates read REALTR1. He gets out holding a binder. He's young, stocky, somewhat wary-eyed, he puts you in mind of a polite but intense high school wrestling coach. He has the combination to the lockbox hanging on the house's front door handle. The box drops open to reveal the key to the house. That's how realtors get in. You go in.

It's very, very small. Six hundred and fifty square feet. That includes two bedrooms which seem to give abruptly on to each other, and to the tiny bathroom, simply as you turn around to avoid backing into an oddly-placed wall. Tiny kitchen, turn about, tiny laundry room. Now how is it possible that you are back at the front door already?

You really do try to look at the place, but it's difficult to do when you have no experience house hunting. Because I -- I am "you," it's me again -- because I spent lots of time clicking through photos of houses on line at Zillow and Trulia, including many times this very house, I see in life little more than what I saw in pictures: the decor, the yard, the color schemes. The portrait of Buddha in sage green and gray over the couch. The cats, who distract me. The daylilies. It's my sister the lifelong homeowner who wants to know where the electrical panel is. She noticed the wooden peg on a bedroom ceiling, which locks a trap door that descends and unfolds a sturdy ladder, Little House on the Prairie style, going up into the attic. Quaint. ("You're wearing a dress," Coach says. "If you want to go up and look I'll leave the room." Given the news we hear of other cultures every day, what a blessing the Western gentleman is ....) It's my sister the homeowner who asks "is your furniture going to fit?"

Then I realize. No. Of course it isn't. "Unless you put your glass-topped kitchen table and the chairs in storage ...." Certainly not. Strike the tiny yellow house off my list.

"Well," I say to the realtor, as we walk out the long, long summer gravel driveway towards our cars. That's a lot to shovel in the winter. I'm not sure if you can use a snowblower on gravel. "I have no idea what happens next. Do we look at more houses?"

"We sure do," he answers. "Do you think you want a house or a condo?"

"I think I'd like to try for a house. I look at condos online and they're pristine and beautiful, but it seems kind of sad to just own two rooms. Up to now I've always rented a house. I'm a gardener. I think I'd like a yard."

"Okay," he nods. He hands me his business card and writes down my email. I tell him that a bank has pre-qualified me for a mortgage, and I tell him that the figure they have pre-qualifed me for is much too optimistic because they seem not to have factored in property taxes to what they think I can afford. All this is a tale he could have told me I am sure. I, too, work in sales (of wine) to newbies.

What will happen next, he says, is that he will send me email links to, and pictures of, properties that fall in my price range and meet my "requirements." Requirements! Good grief, who am I to have requirements, I who have rented for decades and most of that time in a beggars-can't-be-choosers emotional posture!

All right, so now this is me. I have requirements. The realtor/coach and I shake hands, and he and my sister shake hands, and then my sister and I get into our car and he gets into his. We drive away. The first comment out of our mouths, in private, is the question why did these people in this tiny house need three flat screen t.v.s?

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Step by step

So you are buying a house or a condo, after thirty years of renting through marriage and divorce? How interesting. Here is what happens.

Step one. Look at online real estate sites, endlessly. Zillow, Trulia, Plug in location and maximum price tolerable. You've been doing that for a while anyway.

Step two. Notice a stroke of luck. The owners of that promising little yellow house very nearby are hosting an "open house" on your day off. Set yourself two tasks that day, one, go see it, and two, go to the office of the realtor whose business card you saved just for the heck of it, back when his mass-mailing envelope stuffed full of information -- and business cards -- ended up in the mailboxes of everyone at the apartment complex last February.

Step three. Day off. Go to the open house. Wear a dress to impress the potential neighbors. (You've been watching three-minute instructional videos from advising on all aspects of home-buying, including when to look professional.) Imagine yourself living there. And mowing that huge lawn -- oh dear.

Why does it all look so impossibly perfect? Professional landscaping, wonderful, but why the everlasting stella d'oro daylilies? They are a mess to clean up when their bloomtime is finished, as you learned from gardening around the old rental farmhouse belonging to your ex-brother-in-law. Of course there are more important things to think about, but still. The lilies will be there too.

You walk around to the yard. How quaint. Actual clotheslines, as of yesteryear. It's very quiet. The neighborhood is charmingly of yesteryear, too. Now where are the owners of this cute little yellow house? The sign on the door says "Please knock." You do. A cat appears in one small window, and then another in the other. No one else answers. You begin to wonder. What if it's some psycho in there, who has not the remotest intention of "showing" the house? Seriously. What if it's a man, alone. Do you follow him in? One thinks not, somehow.  

Step four. After five more minutes, give this adventure up. Drive to the realtor's office, he of the mass business card mailing last winter. Explain briefly to his secretaries that you know nothing. Take a brochure, and give them your name, plus the address of the little yellow house.

Step five, and so on. Pretty soon you're going to forget what counts as a new "step" and what is simply unfolding with tumbling, not-quite-kaleidoscopic-but-still events.

In less than an hour the realtor calls. "I can show you that house tonight."

My goodness. Okay. I'll meet you at 6:45. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

A fine how do you do

Well! my fatheads. This is a fine how do you do. I am distracted because I have to move. I mean, actually move, change house, live in another place. Out of the blue. Granted I was not planning to stay here forever -- so true of all of us! -- but still, another year living virtually in the branches of a magnolia tree, with some leisure to plot my future, would have been nice. How often do we get a chance to look over at a new bird, a chipping sparrow, perched on a branch not five feet away? You can spot them by the reddish orange cap on their heads, and their delicately striped gray-brown wings, gray belly, and tiny size. That is, provided you live in the branches of a mature magnolia.

No more of that. Some sort of glamorous, hard edged property management company has taken over this rustic but agreeable apartment complex, so it's in with the remodeling and stainless steel appliances and charcoal-gray decor, and out with -- well, with the tenants who can't afford the rent for the upgrades. Not to mention that even if you wish to stay, they shall move you out of your unit in order to remodel that, and chuck you into a new one, and you never return to the third floor magnolia tree. So true of all of us.

This gives one the new experience, however, of house-hunting. (One makes the decision: good grief, for that kind of rent, I may as well try to buy.) One learns about mortgage pre-approval, and especially about property taxes, which in the end seem to be all that matter.  One meets realtors, and sees the inside of houses and condos. There is the constant mental grappling with trade-offs, which is of course the basis of all economics. The ease of a condo versus the work of a house; can a balcony substitute for a yard -- perhaps for quite a long time? What's the point of paying a mortgage just for an interior? Then again, who wants to come home from work and do nothing but serve the house? And how is it that Colette ended up in a stone-flagged cottage in Provence, surrounded by lavender and olive trees, all on a rock blown clean by the Mistral?

I believe she is the one who scoffed at Virginia Woolf's yearning for a room of one's own. No, she said, better a villa of one's own, with a cook, a gardener, and a good-looking man.

 She may have said "boy," in fact, but that is hardly an appealing image. I will let you know how the condo inspection goes today ....

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Got him!

"One of the most beautiful of all birds" (Birding, ed. Lindsey, Fog City Press, 1994), the cedar waxwing. Bombycilla cedrorum. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016


Star: from Middle English sterre and old English steorra; Indo-European base ster, meaning star; from this, the Greek aster and Latin stella, a diminutive (ster-ela, star). 

I don't know if there is anything more pleasurable than to sit out on a third floor patio on a balmy breezy dark May evening, and eavesdrop on the young people's modest get-together in a first floor patio's grassy yard below. One has all the vicarious enjoyment of a party: greeting new arrivals, gushing to the hostess about the food, going outside for a smoke -- if one is a man -- to get away, probably, for a moment from the female squealing. There was a lot of that, and some talk I couldn't quite make out, concerning which year everyone graduated, and who is having a hard time finding a job. Then a man arrived with stories to tell about having just got back from Paris. A woman exclaimed that she had been there recently too. She said how strange it was that Parisians had all this history around them, they had churches and statues from a thousand years ago simply as part of their lives. I longed to call over "did you see many Muslims?" but possibly it is true the tourist sites are guarded from that. Anyway it wasn't my party.

One has all this vicarious enjoyment, without the bother of actually having to go. No getting ready, no leaving things undone to get ready, no standing around listening to people whom one would rather not listen to -- and they the same when it comes to you, let's be fair -- no surreptitious glancing at watches to mentally note how long it will take to get home. And you can eavesdrop, one building over and three floors up, without seeming creepy. Far over their heads in the southeastern sky, Mars glowed. I only know this because a certain bright star had been equally as bright, equally as red, when it stood beside the rising full moon a week before. I had thought "that must be Mars" and had googled the matter then. It was. Mars has been in "opposition" lately, meaning that its orbit around the sun has aligned it with the Earth and made it easy to spot.

It so happened that on this night of the young people's party, the moon was gone, but Mars was still there. As the night grew darker, fainter stars in the same area emerged. One seemed yellow, and one, still fainter, for all its faintness seemed even redder than the planet.

Of course I had to google that too. I simply typed in "night sky" and learned that the yellow star is the planet Saturn, also in opposition now. The red star is a real star, Antares. It is "a red giant near the end of its life," which sounds alarming. It has been near the end of its life for a long time though; astronomers, I think, sometimes make a stunt of dealing professionally with vastness. Vast distances, vast epochs. The ancients knew Antares, of course they did what else was there to do but look at the sky at night and talk with Socrates all day, so it has been dying for millennia. They named it the anti-Mars, Ant-Ares, precisely because its vivid red color rivals the planet's. For the Persians it was "one of the four royal stars," for Egyptians "a symbol of the goddess Selkit." I quote one Elizabeth Howell from three years ago. She in turn quotes Richard Hinckley Allen's Star Names and Their Meanings (1899). Why not, in the life of Antares a 117-year-old reference is as current as any.

The star is 604 light years away. This means, if astronomers for all their stuntishness are correct, that the reddish light we see now burst out of that star in the year 1412, and has been traveling toward us at the speed of light ever since. And the people looking at it then, people like Henry V or the parents of the infant Joan of Arc, would have been seeing light that left the star in the year 808 -- not that they knew -- in Charlemagne's time. And so on, back to the ancients rather quickly.

Is it somehow mentally healthy and restful to look at Antares (and eavesdrop on other people), rather than surf stupid old Facebook or watch another movie -- or is it just kind of dotty? Occasionally red Antares seemed to flicker and twinkle as if with real energy, with movement. Astronomy books will tell you that this is the way you distinguish stars from planets. Stars really do "twinkle," because they are balls of fire, while the five planets appear as glowing discs because they only reflect our own sun's light. To look at this strange tiny object in the sky above your building and to know that it is massive, and has a color, and is doing its own thing unimaginably far away beyond all the planets, is, well, yes. I've decided it's mentally healthy and restful.        

By the way. It turns out one of the young men is going to Greece on Saturday, to look for a wife. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

"The sky is red, dumb ass," or -- humor in Matthew (we found some!)

If you are reading it for the first time in twenty or thirty years, it may strike you as something out of a Seth Rogen movie. Just one small paragraph, seven verses. In fact, let's pretend it is a movie script, and we are millennial hipsters writing it.


(Working title: The Sky is Red, Dumb Ass)

Scene: ancient Israel, during the Roman Empire, about the year 30 A.D. The frenzy of Jesus of Nazareth's career is at the height of its -- well, frenzy. He travels about a smallish quadrant of a very small land, mostly staying near the sea of Galilee, preaching, telling the Jews their religious authorities are corrupt (a la James Kirk -- "your Bible is a lie!" though of course, not that exactly), and especially healing people. People being what they are, they mostly come out for that. In droves, in crowds, in throngs. Over and over again we are told "the crowds were so great," "great crowds followed him," "they brought him many" to be cured. Once they are cured they tend to go away. Or he sends them away, perhaps knowing what they are. We don't often hear "and the paralytic stayed and listened to what else he had to say." 

There have also been huge miracles and bizarre sights. He has calmed storms at sea,
 he has caused a few loaves of bread and fish to be enough to feed thousands, he has walked on water from shore to his disciples on a boat, pitching about in a storm on the sea of Galilee. 

Frequently, after some course of miracles and healings and teachings, the presumably exhausted Jesus goes away by himself somewhere. Usually when he comes back they all climb into a boat and cross "the sea," and the cycle of working the crowds begins again.

As this scene opens, not only is that new cycle beginning, but food and bickering about food is on everyone's mind. (Incidentally we're talking about a world in which hungry men eat grains of wheat off the stalk in a field, or pluck figs off a tree by the road. Memo to casting director, everybody is skinny.) In his most recent fracas with the religious authorities, Jesus has had to answer questions about why his followers don't wash their hands (ritually?) before eating, plus he has had to deal with the Canaanite woman who rebukes him about 'dogs eating the scraps from the table.' Then he feeds another several thousand with a few loaves and fishes.    


Dawn on the sea of Galilee. A few minutes of gray coolness, even mist, are left before the heat begins. The boat glides in to the bank, and the disciples splash wearily one by one into the water, to pull it all the way in. (Memo to set director, were there wharves and piers? Did guys just run boats up on to the sand? Is the shore of Kinneret sandy or rocky? Find out.) Jesus also gets out and helps pull. Well, he would. He is the farthest ahead of all of them.  

The last couple guys picking up their stuff from inside the boat, before they get out too, notice that nobody has brought any food. In all the everlasting hubbub that their lives have become, "they had forgotten to bring bread." Or, maybe they had been saving those last few loaves that he just used to feed the crowd
. Present are: Simon called Peter, and Andrew (brothers); James and John (also brothers); Philip; Bartholomew; Thomas; Matthew the tax collector; James "the son of Alphaeus;" Thaddeus; Simon "the Cananean;" Judas Iscariot. Jesus.

THADDEUS. (Still in the boat. Rummaging in a bag.) Ohhh ... (Did the disciples ever use oaths? They were, after all, ordinary guys before.)


THADDEUS. You're not going to believe this.


PHILIP. What's the matter?

THADDEUS. Let's just say it's a long walk back around to that bake-shop woman.

SIMON. Are you kidding? We don't have bread?

BARTHOLOMEW (breathless, working in the water). I'd go. She was cute.

JUDAS. (Furious.) Fuck. (Yes, he would say it.)

MATTHEW THE TAX COLLECTOR. (Looking up, knee deep in the water, a rope over his shoulder.) Don't. What is it?

JUDAS. It seems we've forgotten bread, because we're all so brilliant like that. (He jumps over the side, followed by Thaddeus, James son of Alphaeus, Philip, and Simon. The boat is empty. The men heave and push it to shore. One tosses the anchor up on the grass (the sand? The rocks? Find out.) They wring out the hems of their clothes. They would normally gather to sit and eat now. Judas stalks a little away, to get his bearings, to look for a road.)

BARTHOLOMEW (approaches Simon Peter.) We'll have to live on mutual admiration until the next town. We forgot the bread.

SIMON PETER (turning, then grins). At least there's no lack of water. 

ANDREW (the disciples have begun to gather in two knots; Andrew crosses from one to the other, drawing them together). I hear we have ...

JAMES. Yes, yes. Now what?  

JOHN (shrugs). Move on, find a town, buy bread. Or beg it. 

ANDREW. They'll love us.

JUDAS (returning). They might.

PHILIP. They often do by the time we go. 

JESUS (He has been standing a little away. Now he comes toward them, brushing the dirt from his hands). What is it? 

JOHN. Nothing too serious. Just annoying. We forgot bread.

JESUS. (Still slowly brushing his hands. His mind is always working at a different level. Food -- bread -- the Canaanite woman -- scraps for the dogs -- healing -- the sick, the sick, the sick -- why don't you wash your hands? why do you pick grain on the Sabbath? -- the crowds, the crowds -- the sea, the sea -- bread comes from grain, all you need otherwise is water -- but also leavening, yeast -- show us a sign.) Well. (He smiles, absently, a bit grimly.) Rather beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (He walks a little way off, up the rise toward the road.)     

THADDEUS. I'm sorry, what? 

JAMES. What was that? 

SIMON THE CANANEAN. Do you think he's mad? 

JUDAS. I don't think so. 

JAMES SON OF ALPHEUS. Who would forget bread?

THOMAS. We all forgot it, do you mind? 

SIMON PETER. It's those loaves he used the last time. The second time. That's what we packed for now. 

JOHN. Would you rather he not have fed hungry people? 

SIMON PETER. No. I'm just saying, we're not stupid, that was what we planned. 

JAMES SON OF ALPHEUS. Well then, we should have made adjustments in our plans. Look, what are we, a bunch of women here? Can we move on? 

THOMAS. I agree. I’m starving.


ANDREW. What about the boat -- 

JESUS (Suddenly he is just there, as if they had forgotten about him for years). What is it? 

JUDAS (After a pause). Nothing -- we're sorry we forgot --

JESUS. It's not the bread! You've seen bread. You've seen five thousand people fed with five loaves, you've seen four thousand people fed with seven. You've collected the leftovers yourselves. Have some faith. What I said was, 'Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.' You know, the powers that be? 

SIMON PETER (actually squinting). You mean ... the leaven...

JOHN. What transforms. A small amount changes everything.

PHILIP. All through the bread.  

JESUS. Yes! 

THOMAS. Makes it what it will be. You can’t unmake bread.

THADDEUS. Makes us what we will be. What we might be.

PHILIP. Their teachings are like leaven, in people.

BARTHOLOMEW. And, going forward ... because we'll meet them again. 

JESUS (Gestures a 'hello, dumb-ass' Yes, not to any one of them, but more to the day in general

(They all turn to go, Jesus first with Judas close behind, followed by the rest. As they walk, one disciple quietly explains to another, in snatches and whispers. "He didn't mean the bread. 'Leaven' is teachings, how they work in you like yeast works in dough ...." 

(The straggler is Andrew. Once or twice he looks back at the boat.) 

ANDREW. What about the boat? Should we just leave it? That's not our boat, right? 

They keep walking, and he runs to catch up. 



(Minor note: it’s amazing how often, if this were set in modern times, the characters would have said “Christ” or “Jesus” as a throwaway oath. Frequently had to stop myself from typing it in automatically.) 

Their faces move

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