Sunday, January 31, 2016

Blogging the sources: Matthew 6 -- Hidden things

To sum up the first half of this chapter: when you give alms, pray, or fast, do not do so publicly or with ostentation. "Like pagans and hypocrites." Rather, do them quietly and in secret, so that God only, "your Father who sees in secret," sees. (The Our Father prayer is inserted here.) He will repay you, "openly" the King James translation assures us. "Lay up treasure in heaven."

Well and good. Next, what of the strange verses about the eye being "the lamp of the body"?

"If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be."  

This seems flip-flopped. In our health-obsessed age, it seems more obvious to say that if your body is sound, your eye will be filled with light, in other words that it will reflect your good health. Just because a person's eye is "bad," his "whole body will be in darkness"? Really? Are the blind or, good grief, the nearsighted then full of darkness, spiritually? For surely it's that, implied.

Once again the King James Version helps. It translates "if your eye is evil," not just bad. Earlier this week my children (they're grown up) and I were talking about the stupid or degrading stuff you can see on Facebook sometimes, and of the unpleasant habits and consequences of life in general you see in hospital emergency rooms. My kids have interesting jobs. The latest video on Facebook is of the clown throwing a pie in a woman's face while both pass each other on a pair of side-by-side, up and down escalators somewhere. While he goes down afterwards, she in a fury tries to chase him even while her escalator is carrying her helplessly up. Of course he makes large faces, gestures shock, and such. It's meant to be funny. I like to foresee the next chapter, in which one of the clown's victims does something to send him to an emergency room. Or even better, puts on greasepaint and a red nose and sits in a chair outside his apartment building for, oh, I don't know -- years. Yes, an eye that takes in evil things can seem to fill the body with darkness. Perhaps that's what the Master meant.

Now about God, mammon, food, clothes, and worry about the future. If "mammon" means money and we're told we can't "serve" both God and mammon, isn't that what modern pundits call a false choice? Why is money bad when money not only buys food and health for me, but also constitutes alms for the poor? As for not being "anxious about what you will eat or what you will wear," it's passages like these that require annotators to assure us, in the fine print, that "Jesus does not deny the reality of human needs." Thank goodness. True that worry will not add a moment to one's lifespan -- "one cubit to his stature," the KJV says, which I like better -- but though the birds of the sky may not sow or reap, leading us to take comfort in the fact that they go on living, it's not exactly the case either that "your heavenly Father feeds them" just magically. They do spend most of their time scrounging for food. Are we supposed to do that, too? He just got through telling us we're better than they are. An odd thought in itself, in these days of PETA and our really sentimental love of animals. No clown would throw a pie in a dog's face. That would be mean.

Not to harp on the King James Bible, but I do think its poetry clarifies bizarre spiritual instructions like these better than firm modern prose. Besides, in using the KJV you can also enjoy spotting trivia. While we try to understand why not to worry, below, please find 1) the title of an old Sidney Poitier movie, and 2) a favorite Bertie Wooster quote, about the members of the Drones' Club, Freddie Threepwood and all, "toiling not, neither do they spin." Bertie is always nattering on about how he won a Scripture Prize in school.

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: 
And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

"Shall he not much more clothe you" implies spiritual care a bit more readily than "will he not much more provide for you." To provide for is workaday. One can be clothed with many things, even ye of little faith. Pro-vide comes from the Latin, meaning "before seeing." Clothe is all English, cloth, back to Old English clath and clitha, poultice, from an Indo-European root meaning to stick or adhere. "See CLAY." The matter of man.

Hidden prayers, hidden darkness in the body, hidden needs perhaps. Needs beyond the obvious, shared by mere birds and "pagans." And then about that. Isn't Jesus, Mr. Compassion, a little judgmental?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Blogging the sources, skipping ahead

We left off with Matthew chapter 5, in which we noticed "it begins" -- Jesus demands perfect behavior. But now we are going to skip ahead just a little, because amazingly, since beginning our project the West's sources have already shown through in two episodes, one out in the world and one under my own observation.

A word here about the name Jesus. Do you also find yourself uneasy saying or writing the name repeatedly? It seems flip, unthinking, to do so. Yet what else can one do? You may know the little joke about the Catholic priest who attends Protestant worship services for the first time with a Protestant friend. As the service goes on and the pastor warms to his sermon, Father grows more and more uncomfortable. Finally he leans over to his friend and whispers, "he could at least call him Mr. Jesus." To write "Christ" seems better, but so far in our reading of Matthew, that is not his name. What did his disciples call him? Often "Lord," as it happens.

We left off with Matthew 5. Here is the first distraction that is going to make us skip ahead: a terrible story about a young Muslim woman beaten to death by a mob last March in Afghanistan. At long last, in December 2015, the trials of her murderers and all the bystanders and all the police who did nothing for her, were finished. The results were essentially either straight acquittals or slaps on the wrist for everyone. She had been falsely accused of burning a Koran -- by "a fortuneteller" and by the caretaker of a local Muslim shrine -- and that was that. The last paragraph of the story, which Breitbart relayed from the New York Times, uncovers the real reason for the woman's lynching. "An investigation found she had confronted men who were themselves dishonoring the shrine by trafficking in amulets and, more clandestinely, Viagra and condoms."

The sources of a civilization matter. Here, in Afghanistan, is a culture whose men have no knowledge of the story of Jesus driving the moneychangers from the Temple. It's not that their knowing it would have spared this woman's life, or that Westerners don't get up rabid mobs sometimes. But if the condom-peddlers she confronted had had the story of the moneychangers in their backgrounds, they might -- might -- have reacted to her with some kind of shamefacedness. They might not have been there at all. If she had lived to press charges, her account of their unsavory practices at a holy place might have rung bells of memory and of righteous association, even in the courtroom.

The men who killed her also don't know the phrase "let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone" -- the words Jesus speaks to the mob when he saves the adulteress from stoning. Again, it's not that the murderers' merely knowing the phrase would have spared her life, or that Westerners don't get up rabid mobs. But a civilization that has that story bred into its soul has some kind of respect for life and especially for the lone woman surrounded by howling men. I don't know exactly where in the Gospels these stories occur, I could look it up in a moment and so can you; the point is, the stories are in my head and the death of Farkhunda Malikzada appalls because in my civilization, thank God, her death is offensive and not normal. My parents sent me to Sunday school. Men and women who don't have these stories in their heads, in their souls, behave in ways we still, for the moment, find shocking. (Consider. Why did a Westerner report on the condom-selling?) They think they are just.
As for the second distraction that makes us skip ahead, the one under my own observation -- well. Let's just say, you shouldn't tell people what you earn. Especially don't tell your co-workers. The reaction is going to be deeply human. Everyone is "upset," but as they lean over and share the gossip, the feeling you sense is rather a joyous and fascinated rage. Maybe it's what the Afghan mob felt, on a much more deadly scale. "He makes X dollars, and I've been here longer, and he does nothing."

And yet Jesus gave our civilization the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20). Summarized, the story tells of a landowner who hires three or four sets of day-laborers to work for him. Some he hires at dawn, some at noon, some still later. When they all come for their wages that evening, he pays them out beginning with the last-hired. They get the same money as, and for far less work done than, the men hired at dawn. These latter complain about unfairness. The landowner sensibly points out, "you agreed to your wage when I hired you. What if I choose to be generous with those whom I hired last? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?"

The point of the parable is of course something more than money -- the first shall be last and the last, first, in the "kingdom of heaven," whatever that is -- but on a literal level it's still eerie. Did Jesus, then, understand capitalism? Did he understand contract law? I seem to remember Sunday school teachers (CCD, we called it) emphasizing only that the Master was tolerant and non-judgmental, loved the poor, was long-haired and kind. Almost by definition, a '70s hippie. Or is the upshot of this story that, when you are upset, you the retail staff, you the Afghan mob -- you must nonetheless control yourself?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A civilization of crowned women, or -- yes, tiaras matter

Before I begin, let me acknowledge my great debt to the delightful blog, Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor. Faithful followers call it "OoS" for short. 

I like tiaras. I like fabulous jewels of all kinds, but I especially like tiaras.

Russian imperial tiara

A friend of mine scoffs at such trifles, for several reasons. He scoffs at the idea of any person being conceived as so superior to anyone else that he may crown himself with jewels. He resents the palpable fact that, whoever such persons are, they must be rich enough to buy the baubles for a start, and so that's unjust. And he's outraged at the thought of anyone wearing gemstones that must have been got -- mined, dived for, sorted, ported -- by the poor and the anonymous. To him that ruins it. Emeralds from Colombia, rubies from Burma, sapphires from Sri Lanka, diamonds from India or Africa, pearls from the Gulf of Mannar or the Venezuelan coast -- to him, all these stones cry out with suffering and misery exactly as "your brother's bloods cry out to Me from the ground" (Genesis 4:10  -- 'bloods' is plural in the Hebrew, which leads to all sorts of interesting exegesis). All this moral tainting is the worse the older the gems are, and therefore the closer to actual slavery.

I take issue with him on all counts. Go to Pinterest and look at the tiaras, and at all the women wearing them. It's not that they think they're better than we are. It's just that they happen to have been born into, or married into, families which own tiaras. For a special occasion, they haul them out and dust them off, and why not? It might be a wedding or some affair of state. In the latter case the jewel becomes a gesture of respect to the company assembled. If it were your family and your job, you would do the same. "Don't you buy suits and ties, and put them on for court?" I ask. He rolls his eyes. As for these families being rich enough to afford them, so what? I say. "You're rich enough to afford a couple suits and a car, and a house, and two vacations to the tropics a year. Plus all you spend on your garden. Plus -- " but he scoffs. "That's different."

As for many of the world's jewels being stained by their origins in exploitation and suffering, true, I have no good answer for that. "It can't be helped now," I sputter. He rolls his eyes. But really, -- is mankind morally obliged to chuck in the garbage these beautiful things, or any beautiful things, because they come to us marred by the cruelties of centuries past? By the time even our most (presumably) guilty emeralds and diamonds go into a parure (a matched set), they have been so transformed by the jeweler's art as to become a breathtaking homage to God's good world and to His pleasure in human handiwork, too. Mankind is never, ever going to stop "sourcing," as the verb has it now, superb jewelry. If you did chuck it all into a dustbin, the next generation of mankind would dive in and fish it all back out. How does it make you -- I am still, interiorly, hollering at my friend -- privately virtuous to dismiss it?

Tiara of Empress Marie Louise (or Josephine), second wife (or first) of Napoleon

He remains unconvinced. He sees display in general as a sort of symbol of man's corruption. I am not equal to that level of, what shall we call it, Savonarola-esque judgment. Besides, if we must wallow in vicarious guilt (as if that helps anyone), then ask yourself. Do you own any item whatever with a stamp or tag saying "Made in China"? We're told that sometimes slave notes, written in English, fall out of the packaging. And this for, say, a thirty-dollar, "Totally Ghoul" Halloween graveyard kit. If it is essentially wrong to own stuff, which is where the logic of the guilt-of-all-provenance takes us, I'd prefer the brazenness and the near-immortality of jewels over anything else.

"The Danish ruby parure" tiara. Dates from the time of Napoleon, who bankrolled his marshals' gifts to their wives when it came time to create an Imperial court from scratch.

And, besides. There is one more notable thing about all the glittery whatnot you can refresh your soul with on Pinterest. These spectacular creations were made to adorn women. Over and over again you read in the captions, "made for the princess So and so" -- "a gift from duke So and so to his wife on their wedding day" -- "designed by Chaumet" -- or Cartier, or Harry Winston -- "for Lady So and so to celebrate the marriage of her son" -- "a gift from This-city to the queen, in honor of Thus and such."

Look at just a few of these faces, old and young, past and present. Observe the headpieces, yes, but that's not all. I'll even throw in a fantasy lady. See if you can spot her.

The Duchess of Manchester, early 1900s? The "Manchester tiara" was made by Cartier in 1903. Consuelo, the American-born her Grace who supplied 1400+ diamonds to construct it, died at the age of 51 only six years later, in 1909. The woman above, wearing ducal robes and the tiara, looks rather young and fresh-cheeked to be about 45 years old. But who else can it be? Perhaps Consuelo's charm of  personality preserved her: "The Complete Peerage quotes a contemporary who wrote that 'no one knows how gloriously beautiful a woman can be who did not see the Duchess when she was thirty.' " 

"Crown princess Mary of Denmark," nee Mary Donaldson of Australia, in the "Midnight Parure Tiara" -- moonstones, diamonds, rose gold, white gold, and oxidized silver. Its creator, Charlotte Lynggaard, designed it specifically for an exhibition on tiaras in 2009, and cannot sell it; the lady above has exclusive rights to borrow it. 

"Queen Margrethe (of Denmark)." These Danish ladies have a very fine collection. 

Queen Mary, grandmother of the present queen of England, in the early 1900s wearing the "Delhi durbar" tiara. It is set front and center with two massive "chips," Cullinan III and IV, cut from the legendary Cullinan diamond. They can be removed, switched out for emeralds perhaps, if desired. A jewel lover and a foundress of the present British royal collection, she looks supremely pleased with life. With that "weight" who wouldn't be?

We'll call her "Titania."

"Princess Ella of Hesse" wearing the "Yugoslavian emerald" parure. Circa 1884. Her tiara is a "kokoshnik," its crescent shape modeled on the traditional cloth headdresses of married Russian women. Extraordinary life: she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and married a Russian Grand Duke, thus becoming the Grand Duchess Yelizaveta Fyodorovna. Her younger sister, Alix, also married a Russian -- the last czar (thus becoming the last Czarina, Alexandra). "Ella's" husband was assassinated by a socialist bomb in 1905. She forgave the assassin, sold all her jewels, and became a nun serving the poor in the slums of Moscow. After the Russian revolution she was murdered by being thrown down a mine shaft -- followed by some grenades -- and left to die of wounds and starvation along with a score of other very high-status victims of the Bolsheviks. The tiara eventually ended up in the vaults of Van Cleef and Arpels in the 1950s. They sold the emeralds to an anonymous buyer and replaced them with paste; the tiara, thus denuded, is "occasionally displayed." 

Yes, observe these faces. Glowing out of them, excepting perhaps Titania's, who is a professional model, there seems to be a mix of emotions. I see sheer joy, pride of course, and sometimes a sort of rigid submission to history: hold still for the camera, the future must see this. There is also a twinkling wonderment, a sense of thankful custodianship, which I like to think the rigid ladies also expressed once the flashbulb popped and they could breathe again. What ... for me, now? A great jewel collector who was not born into families that owned tiaras, Elizabeth Taylor, put it well. "I adore wearing gems, but not because they are mine. You can't possess radiance, you can only admire it."    

Not because they are mine. What is theirs, these ladies', is the belonging to an entire civilization of crowned women. A little legend about Britain's royals' Koh-i-noor diamond is a propos here. A "Hindu text" supposedly tells of a curse on all owners of the "mountain of light," but also sighs, "only God or a woman can wear it with impunity." It used to be about eight times its current size, by the way. My friend who is upset by tainted origins or the fat cat rich or assumptions of superiority, does not dream of complaining about the crux of the matter, -- the long centuries of Western women, crowned. Who would?

There is an answer, but before we get to it, this. It won't do to be provincial you know, for other cultures and civilizations do crown women. Paradoxically, you must surf the royal-jewelry-chronicling blogs, which seem at first blush the happy nadir of frivolity, to de-provincialize yourself. The young queen of Bhutan wears a silk brocade crown at her wedding; Japan's imperial family favor only diamonds and pearls, as they are white, the color of purity. (They used to favor a much different, and very beautiful, style of dress, with crown.) No more phantasmagoric set of jewels can exist in the world than those once belonging to the various rulers, and now to the state, of Iran. Among everything else now kept in Teheran's central bank, are simply bowlsful of loose emeralds .... Queen Saleha of Brunei wears emeralds and diamonds with her cerulean hijab. Even though it seems mean to correct her, we must. Surely the tiara is meant to adorn woman, not cloth. Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco's choices for her wedding point up the difference: a "meander" tiara and tumbling chestnut curls for one picture, and a thick white burqa for the other. Guess which look is "traditional," i.e., -- well, i.e. what? We know the answer, reflexively -- non-Western. Interested commenters, below those photos, hope that Morocco's king can fend off the infection of wahhabi Islam; no less a source than International Business Times hopes he can fend off ISIS.  

This brings us back to our question about who would object to civilizations of crowned women. It's not the same thing as objecting to royalty, royalty, royalty. Remember Elizabeth Taylor, who could afford to buy anything and did, wore it all, and still knew thankful custodianship. Our point is woman, crowned. And the answer to "who would object" is, Muslims would. The news of the hundreds- or thousands-strong Muslim gangs lying in wait for Western women all across Europe on -- meaningfully -- New Year's Eve is still resounding. Now we have a new term to learn, taharrush gamea, "collective harrassment," which seems a polite translation for thousands-strong Muslim gangs lying in wait for women in any public square anywhere. Why would they do this? Listen to what just one scholar, Christie Davies, has to say.
"Under Islam women are inferior beings who should be denied autonomy—particularly over their own bodies—[they are] sexual property, the property of their male relatives. If Muslim women step out of line, they are liable to be the victims of an honour killing. If they suffer a sexual assault, they are forced to say nothing, lest disgrace fall on their families, even when they themselves are entirely innocent.

"For Muslims, non-Muslims are in every way inferior and the freedom enjoyed by their womenfolk is the worst aspect of that inferiority. In consequence non-Muslim women may be attacked and exploited without compunction. There is a direct link between the insistence on the wearing of a hijab for those within the fold and the raping of those outside, between an obsession with modesty for those women who are family property and the utter disregard for the rights of those women who are free. They are the two sides of the same Islamic coin."  -- Rape, Islam, and the Deafening Silence, Quadrant online, October 20, 2015.

It makes us fear, among other things, that the crowns perched precariously on non-Western women's heads are perched very precariously indeed. And then what about us?

Given all this, my friend's ideas about tainted jewels -- remember? -- seem just quaint and far away. I can imagine one sort of person really living out the offense he takes. I can imagine some young lady somewhere in the empire of New Spain, and her retinue, getting lost one day on a journey from one provincial capital to another. She gets a glimpse of conditions in the Muzo valley, perhaps and is sick, and when she returns to her small palace, she puts away her gems in a box and never wears them again. Her father is perplexed .... She would have a right to take action that is not symbolic. Better to do what you could do in whatever way a moral question authentically touches your life.

Since we can't afford all these parures anyway, and vicarious outrage is dilettantish, we draw conclusions instead. We can reflect that the tiara, far from being problematic for us, may be a kind of little vaccine, inoculating the cultures that adopt it from the woman-hatred that thrives in Islam. But then we go back further. Where do the cultures that adopt the tiara adopt it from? How is it that one civilization, the West, crowns women to begin with while another loathes, fears, and imprisons them? It must have something to do with founding documents, yes? With sources.   

Further reading: 

Pinterest. Just type in "tiaras."  Also type in "the Persian jewels." 

Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor. Otherwise known as Can't say enough about how fun it is. 

The Court Jeweler. Ditto. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

It begins: demanding perfect behavior (Matthew 5)

Another reason why we return to the Gospels as the source of Western civilization is because religion, Western religion, at least gives us an escape from the power of the unaccountable nanny state. The "divinized" state, as Jonah Goldberg calls it in Liberal Fascism, the state endlessly preaching, governed by an elite endlessly assessing our behavior and endlessly herding us through some new collective crisis for our collective good. If hatred of religion, especially Christianity, is in progressive/leftist DNA from the French Revolution on, what did they so hate and seek to replace, and why? Could it have been, in part, individual freedom and individual responsibility? Was it the simple threat to their own authority? 

Matthew, chapter 5: This is a little bit curious. Jesus sees "the crowds," goes up the mountain -- to avoid them? -- and sits down. His disciples come to him. "He began to teach them." What, the disciples only? It seems so. It seems they alone hear the Beatitudes, the assurances of "blessing" for those who are poor in spirit, merciful, meek, and so on. They alone also hear the last one, "blessed are you when you are insulted and persecuted because of me," and it's this plus the next paragraph comparing "you" to salt, to light, to a city on a hill, to a lamp on a lampstand, that seems to show Jesus speaking only to the disciples. He seems to be preparing them, not the crowds, to set an example. Next comes an assurance that he has not come to abolish "the Law or the prophets but to fulfill them," and then six injunctions to perfect behavior. Almost inhumanly perfect, really. You shall not be angry,* or if you are, you must settle your grudge with whoever it is quickly, because anger is almost as bad as murder. You shall not look at a woman with lust, because that is almost as bad as adultery. Divorce is not just divorce,** it is the cause of more adultery, peculiarly so for the woman. It is not enough to avoid "false oaths," rather you must not swear oaths at all. Here we are not talking about curse words but apparently about promises, vows that you will do or accomplish some task.

After the preceding four, the last two demands are the most impossible. Of course they are two of the most famed phrases in the Gospels, "turn the other cheek" and "love thy enemy." They seem downright suicidal. They follow the pattern that Jesus has been speaking in throughout the chapter: 'you have been taught x, but I say y,' or more accurately 'now I say x to the last and perfect degree.' Instead of the soberly calibrated justice of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the disciples are told to obviate the need for justice at all by behaving preemptively perfectly to those who, normally, would belong in a court of law for a start. "Offer no resistance to one who is evil -- if anyone sues you for your tunic, offer him your cloak as well." And, "you have been told to love your neighbor and hate your enemy" -- this is embarrassing, because the notes to this Bible translation admit the Torah contains no such command to hate -- "but I say, love your enemies and pray for them." Because, to love those who love you, and to "greet your brothers only," is "not unusual," being no more than what pagans or scribes or Pharisees do. The ultimate rationale behind all this is that the disciples must be like their Father in Heaven, who permits rain and sun to fall on both the just and the unjust, etc.

Well, yes, but when it comes to turning the other cheek, our Father in heaven doesn't have to worry about his capital cities perhaps being nuked by an enemy to whom He, being perfect, has offered no resistance. What then? And, the book of Genesis has covered this ground before -- no pun intended: I am the Lord thy God; Walk before Me, and be thou perfect (Gen. 17:1). Which, come to think of it, is curious.

*"without cause," the King James version adds.

**"unless the marriage is unlawful" the modern translation says -- or "saving for cause of fornication" the King James translation puts it. Two entirely different matters, no?


Friday, January 1, 2016

Eight years of blogging! and no book contract. Oh well

Those New Zealand scents of grapefruit and melon leaped from the very neck of the bottle as soon as it was opened. Upon pouring and sampling (and what a gorgeous color, how does one describe a sort of eau-de-Nil that is yellow rather than green?), I tasted a sensory whirligig of more melon, plus vanilla and something almost meaty too, a full and buttery texture. Lobster perhaps? I thought, here is my free gift to the food and wine business: some bright chef must fashion a recipe combining all of the above, grapefruit/kiwi/melon, vanilla, and lobster. I'm sure it can be done. Remember our own amateur efforts with the one-time, irreproducible, crazy-local gourmet recipe?

In this case, the wine to be paired with the new dish will be Brancott Estate's "Chosen Rows" sauvignon blanc. I was lucky enough to receive a sample of this some months ago, along with a few other fine Brancott wines, for a blogger virtual tasting via Twitter. The wine samples don't come to my address so thick and fast as they used to, partly because At First Glass at least had a (small) reputation whose coattails Pluot has not quite been able to grasp, and partly -- probably -- because if I am going to blog things like the sources of Western civilization instead of wine, wineries are going to stop sending me wine. That's understandable. Only "Chosen Rows" retails for about $70, if you can even find it in the U.S., so I do rather regret the lost coattail effect. It was just about two years ago that Blogger pulled my domain name, and I was forced to panic and start Pluot at once. New Year's Eve, however, remains the anniversary of At First Glass' beginning, and so today I still tot up eight years of blogging, and I thank you all for stopping by from time to time. I wish somebody had offered me a book contract by now, but oh well. When the emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote things down that he reasonably expected no one would ever see, he called it "living for the gods." Let's say that is what we are doing. Nobody offered him a book contract, either.

But we have had fun, haven't we? We have gone beyond the world of wine to think about music, we have learned who invented the wine bottle, we have cooked quaint retro recipes. I am sorry there is less of that now, since I am no longer preparing meals for a growing family -- which gives one scope for experimentation -- but only for myself. And of course we have started our new, un-wine-like project, Blogging the West's sources. And the Twenty English Words undertaking, also. Once in a great while we venture into politics and world affairs but it always seems to jar a little. When that is not your forte you cannot be original, but only hem-haw-and-by-Jove over other people's reactions.

I'll just put in one tiny political thing, here at the close of a 2015 that seemed mostly ghastly for world and especially American affairs. Wouldn't it be ironic and delicious if 2016 were the year that Mr. Obama, our dear lord of misrule, got some sort of comeuppance? He's winging his way back from Hawaii soon, with more instructions for all of us. I know it's foolish even to imagine the following prospect, but consider: for all their adoration and protection of him and passionate affinity with him for eight years -- my goodness, for as long as I've been blogging -- nevertheless I think the mainstream press must have a sort of ur-memory of having dutifully destroyed a president, Nixon of course. I'm sure they think that is what they do when called to give of their best; when an emergency is so colossal that they must bravely face down ultimate power and ultimate corruption. Republican, of course -- usually. They are still kingmakers and kingbreakers, declining readership and ad revenue be damned. Even twenty-year-old journalism students must have sat at the feet of sixty-year-old professors who recite the story and perform the laying on of hands as it were.

Now here with Mr. Obama we have a president openly famed, for years, for what is politely called "lawlessness." Spying on Congress is his latest treat. After everything else it's pettily Nixonian. A pundit or two hem-haw-and-by-Jove about how this won't do.  That is what got my attention, and made me think about irony and deliciousness in the coming year. In fact it probably will do, like everything else. But he, even He, -- consider. The more protected and exalted he has grown, the bigger target he might offer. This is his last year in office. Wouldn't it be delicious and ironic if some young newshound, who maybe was in eighth grade when Mr. Obama addressed the crowds at Berlin, should realize that Woodward and Bernstein made history and fulfilled their calling by pursuing something initially minor? What was it? -- a janitor at a hotel noticed a suite door slightly ajar, and the rest was Watergate, right? And consider this. The kingmaker-media hate and are helpless before Donald Trump. One way to deflate him might be to step up, grimly, and preemptively do the work that the American  people seem to want him to do.

If it were to happen, it's precisely because Mr. Obama is an ur-Democrat, and his political life has been as wholly sacred as a Druid oak grove, that I think 'it' would concern something really wildly absurd and trivial, non-political. What beggars imagination, which is itself a bizarre commentary on the times. A young reporter noticed a blade of grass on the White House lawn, bent in a funny way ... and the rest was history.

No. But let's raise a glass to fantasy fiction.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...