Friday, September 22, 2017

The twenty-parts-water rule?

So I have just started my subscription to Horticulture magazine, and spent a relaxing evening this week going through it from cover to cover. (I promised you the occasional houseplant or cocktail theme, remember, while we dip our toe into the ocean of Gregorian chant.) In a short article called "Air Plants Aloft" by Frank Hyman, September-October issue, I find he makes use of "the dregs of leftover beverages" like coffee or sodas, mixed one part beverage to twenty parts water, as a substitute for expensive commercial air-plant (Tillandsia) fertilizer. But he pours it into other houseplants as well.

I like this. In an old houseplant care book from the '70s I once came across the suggestion to use the rinsing-out water from milk jugs as a fertilizer for a particular purpose, I forget what, and then not long ago in a wine book -- I forget which -- was it Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Trail? -- I think maybe -- the writer admired the chic French lady winemaker who made beautiful wine and poured the tired dregs into her outdoor rosemary plants and potted lemon trees, of course this was in Provence or someplace romantic and hot, and they were beautiful and healthy too. As to Mr. Hyman's specific twenty-parts-water-to-one-part-beverage-dregs rule (mind you the French lady used pure wine), that is interesting because in his Vintage: the Story of Wine Hugh Johnson retells the Odyssey's tale of strong Thracian wine being normally diluted with twenty parts water. Odysseus gives it full strength to the Cyclops: the Cyclops passes out and Odysseus gouges out his eye and escapes.

But I am asking whether I ought to try the twenty parts water rule with my leftover wine, for my houseplants. They need nutrients, no? Why should a meek teaspoon per gallon, of some blue-green store-bought tincture that has been under my sink in a yellow bottle for a year and a half, burst more with good properties than a 6 ounce splash of a stale Rhone in that same gallon? Only it looks so odd to water your philodendrons and things with reddish water. What if it kills them? What if it attracts bugs in this early fall heat? What if it works great?


Meanwhile, chant: Three minutes and 42 seconds. Modern people (good looking people), modern dress. Twelfth-century music from our twelfth century friend, Hildegard of Bingen. I don't have the exact text handy, but it's Ave Maria and you will note the melismas, the long fluttering singing of many notes on one syllable. Of course you can also upload all sorts of very serious videos accompanied by Renaissance art full of flailing arms and legs of angels and spiky crowns, but then people think you are some sort of holy roller and all you want to show is that this is possible.

The soprano is Geraldine Zeller, the recorder player, Helge Burggrabe. Concert in February 2010. No applause! You're in church. 


Monday, September 18, 2017

Dipping a toe in new water

My dear things -- my fatheads, remember? -- I hope you won't mind, but I want to dip my toe into a new ocean of a topic. I might carry on with a houseplant or cocktail from time to time, and no I didn't forget my decision to immerse myself in the 12th century -- almost the very day I started a new job, so sorry! -- but now, what with one thing and another, I have decided to learn about Gregorian chant.

I kid you not. You may recall I've delivered myself of scattershot opinions about music before. I am just coming away from a nice little vacation from retail work, therefore from the awful music that serves as retail's background noise almost everywhere; so the norm of awful, inescapable music is somewhat on my mind. I never noticed this soundtrack to all of American life until some years ago struggling into a French language textbook full of first-impression essays on the country. A writer in this book marveled at it.

Unfortunately, and here already we're talking about One Thing and Another, the modern Mass is similarly so well known as so full of poor music that I feel impelled to try to know what came before. We will certainly consult right away the fine and good-humored article "Can Bad Catholic Music be Stopped?" at Catholic Herald, and probably go on consulting it frequently and happily.

I should clarify. The topic of Gregorian chant is perhaps ninety per cent out of the blue, but not one hundred per cent for me. I read Rumer Godden's novel In This House of Brede a long time ago, too. In that alone lay a cursory education in the Divine Office, and its music, music, music. (The nuns get a new young postulant with a great high soprano voice. The choir mistress is thrilled to report to the abbess. " 'Mother! We can sing Gaude Maria Virgo again! Oh, Mother!' ") To be impelled: let's add it to our slowly growing list of twenty English words. Impel has the sense of being driven forward, unlike compel, which suggests driven together. From the Latin pellere, to drive. 

Now to begin I must assume you have made for yourself  a " 'Gregorian Chant for the Seasons of the Year' radio" on Pandora. If not, there is always YouTube. This is how we must begin our learning, in bits and pieces. Only it's a bit immediately discouraging, when you load in something random having used just those keywords Gaude Maria Virgo, to see the comments from the exhausted young people that pop up below your result. "OMG, had to listen to it for Music Appreciation class." "For real nothing like old white people music..."

What I had got from my keywords was the above clip, Alleluia, O Virga Mediatrix, the composer, Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179 -- the 12th century!). It is meant to be chanted at a certain time during the Mass: after an Old Testament reading and sometimes a New Testament epistle, comes a reading from a Gospel; before the Gospel the congregation prepares itself by standing and singing  "Alleluia." Or it used to. More often we sing "Hah-lay, Hah-lay, Hah-lay, LOOOOO-yah!" to a kind of foot-stompin' hoedown tune with crashing honky-tonk piano accompaniment. Gracing her much nicer, medieval Alleluia, Hildegarde wrote a short acclamation of the Virgin Mary, perhaps to be sung on a Marian feast day. Note the title is O Virga, branch, not O Virgo, virgin.

Alleluia! O virga mediatrix,
sancta viscera tua
mortem superaverunt
et venter tuus omnes creaturas
in pulchro flore de suavissima integritate
clausi pudoris tui

Alleluia! O branch and mediatrix,
your sacred flesh
has conquered death,
your womb all creatures
in beauty’s bloom from that exquisite purity
of your enclosèd modesty
sprung forth.

 The Latin and its translation are taken from The International Society of Hildegarde von Bingen Studies, which is also where we find the sheet music and a short reflection on the complex interweaving themes of words and music. Medieval people, the author writes, knew Biblical references to Aaron's flowering rod and the flowering branch of Jesse, and saw "the similarity of the two Latin words, virgo (virgin) and virga (branch or rod) ... [also] the illustration of salvation history as a tree of life rooted in those patriarchs and blossoming into the Virgin and the fruit of her womb was popular in medieval art."

Not only must we new learners address ourselves to that sort of background, it appears already we must learn some basic music. Like what a melisma is. "A succession of notes sung upon a single syllable," from the Greek melos, song. I did know one small thing about chant already, namely, that the more important or dense the meaning of the text, the more elaborate the singing will be. It's on purpose. You see how the last word orto, "sprung forth," is honored, by my count, with forty-seven notes thanks to its religious significance. That is going to require some memory skills, practice, and breath control.  

And all this in the 12th-century Rhineland, which we shouldn't think of as some sort of Dark Age impenetrable green forest but we probably do. (Were they drinking riesling yet?) Given the professionalism of the soprano in our YouTube example, from whence -- we must ask -- could a 12th century German abbess expect to recruit the farm girl, wattle-and-daub nuns to sing this daunting material? Our cheerful author of "Can Bad Catholic Music be Stopped" has something interesting to relate.

In Britain and most of the West, we’ve lost the habit of communal singing. The only people required to sing together are primary school children, but it’s been decades since they were encouraged to stretch and develop their voices. As a music teacher told me the other day: 'Modern adults just can’t reach the high notes that the old hymns demanded. So they don’t even try.'
If medieval farm girls were presented to convents at the trainable age of ten as Hildegard of Bingen was, though granted she herself hailed from a manor, that might explain where the voices came from to sing Alleluia O Virga Mediatrix in 1150. How do we replicate that custom? For our part, we grapple only with hoedown Hah-lay-looo-yahs, or "Let There be Peace on Earth," its old sexist references to God the Father dutifully purged. And yet, encouragingly, who leads us in a cappella "Immaculate Marys" (the Lourdes Hymn)? Who even introduces the Latin Agnus Dei sometimes ("qui tollis peccata mundi")? The priest who is either quite old, -- or quite young.

On YouTube the bored very young roll their eyes at Hildegarde's "old white people music." They may never know what Dark Age peasants knew it meant. Meantime there are those few good-humored if testy blogs out there, commiserating on the singing of bad songs and the loss -- temporary, pray, a "Babylonian Captivity" -- of a heritage, an ocean, of complex Catholic musical beauty. The testiness and humor are encouraging too, in themselves, for in them are passion and wisdom. As a returning prodigal to the Mass, I read the testy warnings about "All Are Welcome" before being asked actually to turn to it in the hymnal. Frequently. "Probably what the devil sings to welcome souls to hell," a frustrated commenter had snorted. At the same website a man fumes about it all being traceable to the smarmy 1970s, "that kidney stone of a decade."
I like that, too. (They pass.) Only the English language could express that. Kidney: from the ME kidenei; < ?. Strange. That means no known derivation.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Testimonies, doors, buildings

Part 7, and the wrap up. 

One more testimony you must give, which might seem pusillanimous too, is that Christianity does supersede Judaism after all. It must, to have any real meaning. As in the Christmas carol, if there is a way to be good, and happy, and free of the errors of your time, and pardoned of sin and even yes immortal in your body, it is because he appeared, and the soul felt its worth. But this won’t make much sense unless you begin with the background of a (most extravagant) God who has loved and had a teaching plan for humanity for all time, slowly selecting one patriarch, family, tribe, and nation, to lay the vital ground work. Without the groundwork, Jesus is just another holy man from a certain place and time. There would be no reason why a Christ might not come from ancient Luoyang. But if he came from one nation, whose rituals and studies are fine but insular, whose moral laws are excellent but lead on to no daily mystic comfort and no personal promise except a sort of group satisfaction at the end of time, then it makes sense that his gigantic life must burst out of that nation, and supersede it. That is painful. We are back to the God who breaks promises – or to precious recastings of bewildered prophets. But if not, then Christ was not whom the apostles and martyrs knew. Truth has to matter. And it has to be somewhere, yes in a building.

We come to the act of re-opening the door. Having decided it’s pusillanimous not to acknowledge that the Gospels built your world, besieged by the Gospels’ enemies, I don’t know how to explain walking through a door at all except to say that sitting at home intellectually assenting seems not enough. It’s always personal. As for the choice of door, I was never a seeker in a vague way. Pageantry and ritual beckon, as do the familiarities of childhood. (Once or twice I watched the Mass for Shut-ins, partly to forestall explanations to people. It is just as I remember. And it is much like Jewish services, too, in the ineluctable presence of middle aged, musical women. They do everything, especially sing. “What have we done for the homeless?” they warbled carefully one Saturday. I wanted to shout at the tv. What have you done about Islam?)

But which door, and why? It’s almost as if cradle Catholics have a choice of Catholic doors. That must startle the potential convert and I am glad I’m not one. If I had started from nothing and plunged into my style of unabridged-books, natural-fabric research, I might have been in for some very intense and unsatisfying years. Because you see you can go to YouTube and find anything.

There are priests who regard our Vatican II, fifty years on, as the disaster from which only God can save us. They argue well. Try meeting the late Father Gregory Hesse, or the then-young Fathers Donald Sanborn and William Jenkins, discussing indefectibility and magisterium on old serious talk shows uploaded from a television station in Ohio in the 1980s. “The Novus Ordo is an anti-Mass – everything stripped in it, reversed – you’ve never heard of the Ottaviani intervention because the revolutionaries did not want you to.”* There have cropped up in the last fifty years alphabet-soup traditionalist Catholic societies, SSPX, FSSP, in communion with Rome or possibly not, scattered around the world conducting Latin Masses without lay help or crashing jamboree music. Father Sanborn is now a bishop – of what church, by whose authority? – Father Jenkins still has an actor’s voice, not golden or silver but maybe bronze, and an actor’s looks.

I listen and learn a little. If I were truly a convert I might worry. Which Catholic church? I might worry about joining people who consider themselves the saving remnant, and are in Ohio besides. I would balk at having to hunt out the occasional Latin Mass in grand old churches in bad old neighborhoods, curiously also where one finds old courthouses and hospitals, other relics of order in a different time. And yet I would also want the truth and I would probably be busy consulting old jettisoned books, diving down the rabbit hole of authenticity.

It must have to do with one’s overdrugged vision, drained of color, but none of that for me. I’m back at the church that is available to me, in the parish where I live, because at this strange time in history one wants to have chosen sides honestly but mostly it’s a relief to accept a birthright, and anonymity in it. The jamboree music will surely pass.

In the Catholic Church, alphabet soup sects and all, one pursues the most outlandishly courageous and heroic attack at life, at one’s allotment of it on this speck in the cosmos, that could ever be. From creation to apocalypse to every book and every saint and to every extravagant notion (pick one), God as bread in every church, personal immortality, and so on – there can be no structure more crazily designed for our profit. The soul feels its worth.

But I pause over the seekers, the converts. I was going to write a short story about a middle-aged woman, maybe diagnosed with something bad, who has all these jumbled thoughts in her head but still wants to sign up for what is true. I was going to call it “You Boys Will Never Get This Figured Out in My Lifetime.” It’s a rude title, I wish you wouldn’t make me write it.

And that's how the summer intern essay ended. Of course, bless her heart, there is no way she got this far.

*Letter to Pope Paul VI written by Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani,, in June 1969, accompanying a study outlining objections to the Novus Ordo or New Mass. "The faithful never, absolutely never, asked for changes in the liturgy to make the Mass easier to understand."   

Thursday, August 3, 2017


The summer intern essay, part 6.

He teaches a ferocious morality, laws pared down to a perfect core. Child, your sins are forgiven, but mind the details. Not just murder but anger is wrong. Not just adultery but looking is wrong. Love your enemies. Forgive since you are forgiven. Be perfect. The combination of moral ferocity and forgiveness from another quarter – himself – must mean an eternal protection from the insane new rules of any era. The state or your neighbor or professor is not your master.

He is shrewd. No it would not make sense for him to drive out demons by the power of Satan, for why would Satan drive out himself? If then he drove them out by the spirit of God, then yes the kingdom of God is upon you (Matt. 12). Spooky scenes ring true. The only people who recognize him even as he approaches are those “possessed by demons.” I don’t understand this, but it makes sense that evil knows its enemy and must testify. They answer him as evil would. “What is your name?” “Legion.” 

 Investigating for the first time in decades the Gospels’ teaching stories cannot be the end of it. After them comes Passion and Resurrection. I don’t quite understand the logical jumps from moral teachings to: Child your sins are forgiven to: crucifixion equating to: future pardon if you believe all the foregoing: circularly, forever – a perpetual motion machine? – but the Resurrection also brings with it eyewitness avowals. The old proofs never change. Why would eyewitnesses to a dead man risen, go on later to their own executions affirming a sad lie? And the affirming and the testifying go on and on, century upon century, echoes of the big bang. Even if you timidly insist on the “Resurrection story,” it still built the West. It codified all the teaching and mercy and spookiness that made the soul feel its worth, as “know thyself” and even Sh’ma Yisrael did not. 

You may have thought it noble and truthful to wait to say I told you so at the end of time, to continue to live in the civilization that Christ and his Christians built. “This really wasn’t ever sound – what an unfair turn – but I’ll accept it as background.” But I came to think that’s kind of pusillanimous.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Yes, it probably would be like this

Or, what didn't get past the summer intern, part 5. 

If given all this you return to the Gospels as perhaps the plinth of the civilization, even if you don’t like the whole god-from-a-young-maiden trope, what do you find they are about, and what did the main character say or do? He is at minimum the most important person who has ever lived. Here are eyewitness records. It would be as if someone had been around to chronicle the Big Bang, and all its echoes. If you like origins and authenticity, well here you go.

As you read, even from the first few chapters of the first gospel, what starts to build is a sort of backward-assembling mental apparatus that reaches into the books and muses, well – yes – if a god, if God, came to earth, it probably would be like this. He doesn’t hover massively over the Roman Forum, telling Caesar what to do, although that might have been useful. Anyway why not Alexandria, why not Luoyang? Rather, he comes to an impoverished speck of earth on this speck of a planet whose smallness and greatness we do and do not grasp. He does the most important thing he possibly could, which is be human, like wonderful us. He knows family and friendship and death. He lives all except marriage, which also makes sense, since one God even in his full humanity cannot have a spouse. (But then why a mother?) A wife would imply children, and the one God cannot … oh wait.

Still the Gospel record rings true. Heedless people would flock to him for healing and then walk away in joy, often not bothering a whit about his teachings. Crowds would frantically rush, unled, to block his escape across the lake because they wanted their chance to be cured. Normal people would sit around and expect to be fed. His friends would deny him at the crisis. Of all reasons to die, well yes, what is worse or more typical than the human way of execution by “authority,” which is mortal itself. And what gift would humanity like to be given, if not absolution from wrongdoing, from guilt, and then bodily life after death? “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

I say blandly it would be like this because I have two more ideas in mind as background. One is the Christmas carol O Holy Night: “He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” I wonder if that line alone does not sum up Christianity and its good news. Does Islam teach the soul its worth, or the authoritarian tatters of Western liberalism either?

 The other idea I have in mind comes from a beautiful coffee table book I used to own about astronomy. It was full of gorgeous pictures, color tinted, from the Hubble telescope. Galaxies, clouds, clusters of clouds of galaxies incomprehensibly huge, incomprehensibly far away. Half way through the book, I thought, “It only has meaning because we know. It’s just information – pictures on a page.”

The great universe is focused only on us and it has no meaning except that we are here to live and think about it. Have you any indication that the pictures in the coffee table book amount to anything else? In Renoir My Father Jean Renoir quotes his father the painter as scoffing, “that fool Galileo. Tells us we’re not the center of the universe, and no one behaves as if it were true.” Our backward-assembling mental apparatus returns to the Gospels to find out, after healing and feeding heedless clamoring people, what the Son of Man said about behavior.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

No one's fault: what didn't get past the summer intern, part 4

Years go by. Christmas always beckons. The Our Father remains the most perfect of prayers. The ritual words of the old Nicene Creed beckon. Large fragments of it still lie in my memory. “God from God, light from light … We believe in the life of the world to come.” I like ritual. I used to like bowing to the open Ark, and touching one’s Siddur to the Torah scroll in respect.

 Islam returns, as it has not done since Muslim slave ships cruised into Irish coastal towns and stole people from their fields, or imprisoned American sailors in the Enlightenment-era Mediterranean. Facing it, for our vanguard, we have the tatters of Western liberalism, white-eyed and gibbering, administering abortion and new sexes. It hates intolerance, and wants to change the world.

And you, personally again. Life goes on, you’re not 25 or 40 or 50 anymore. It’s no one’s fault that your grandmother’s old Sunday Missal, flipped open to remembered garish pictures of Scourging or Assumption, is something you can hold in your hand that is not foreign. It’s a true memory.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Curious changes (more of what didn't get past the summer intern)

Part 3

What is there actually in it, apart from its large abstract attractions? I joined having read old books and expecting therefore to meet old stereotypes, characters out of Tales from the Hasidim, filled with joy. I met nice ordinary people heroically fitting their children’s b’nai mitzvot preparations into their busy lives. I met mostly the very elderly.

 For me for a while there was a lot in it. When you consult only your own right reason plus personal study to make a dramatic interior change in life, you can hum along for quite a while thinking “I’ve joined.” I’m now authentic, doing new things, cooking new foods, deciphering the base text under all the others. I now believe what is true. The new experiences and the learning resemble slow-growing technical proficiency at a job. You can be reassured you will build memories, which is exactly what might be said to a new hire anywhere.

However, years of observation and even very enthusiastic participation taught me what my grandmother, anybody’s grandmother in any previous Western era, could have told me instantly. Judaism is for Jews. It exists as a perpetual motion machine to keep them Jewish, united, and practicing, which is fine. But if, by any chance like me, you find after all that you do not wish to keep kosher or observe what seem rather bleak holidays, largely unrelated to the seasons; if you do not have a Jewish family and lack the memories, the “support networks” and anyway the desire, to name one item, frenziedly to prepare for and then rest on every Sabbath; if you find you instinctively and even childishly believe things which Judaism does not very vigorously address (“we believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”); if in sum you learn a sort of negative print of the convert Ruth’s lesson, that to convert must be to marry and go to the land, no more and no less; if you learn also that most of the rest is fierce liberal politics, to the point of such moral bankruptcy that you sit in a sanctuary knowing that while God may be loving and everywhere and these are excellent people, you would never dream of consulting this denomination’s authority on any question; then you might find you have had enough. Remiss though it was not to explain yourself, you might slip gradually away.

A curious change did come, just shortly before. The Reform movement jettisoned its old prayer book, Gates of Prayer, for a new one called Mishkan T’filah. I got to see firsthand what it looks like when a group of far off intellectuals, who know thoroughly the language and the rubrics they are changing, impose their changes on a faithful who lack the tools to understand what’s been done. It was kind of like seeing a little Vatican II imposed on someone else. “It’s memory-erasing,” even I, who had no real memories, commented to another woman as we looked at the open book. “You’re right,” she said. Not that anyone except the very keen knew much what the old prayer book had been about. Thick lines of Hebrew stood mystifyingly over translations you trusted were accurate. “I want to know what the Hebrew says,” an old lady once complained. The English made for “a synopsis,” her scholarly man friend replied carefully, of a still older prayer book. She wasn’t satisfied. Palimpsest upon palimpsest, dilution after dilution. Will a future time look back on this as the era when intellectuals and priests stood like angels with flaming swords, blocking the peasants’ path to religion? Except Muslims, who open the gates wide and want all crammed in.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What didn't get past the summer intern: how to be a religious badass

Part 2. Of course there's more.

Believers will leer in turn at this fresh groping after truisms. “Of course it’s Christianity.” But for me it makes a new thought, that what has been lost is an ability to credit the Gospels with what we have. People call Western civilization Judeo-Christian, but most Westerners are not Jews. We have also a great heritage from classical antiquity, but we’re not reading Aristotle all day. If there is any legacy that churchgoers at any rate are exposed to regularly, it would be the Bible. For churchgoers that means the Gospels. In turn we mean the life and person of Jesus, not mere compassionate teacher and nice man but Lord and Savior.

Who was he, yes what did he teach, that Islam did not, such that Christian or even Christian-informed Western (liberal) men respectfully open doors for women, and Muslim men shroud them? What groundwork did he lay, such that tearing it up means a new culture based on the holiness of abortion and gay marriage?

As for the personal side. (It is still there.) What the individual seeker wants, even if he knows enough to know things like Buddhism would be too foreign to pursue, is to “sign up for what is true.” The phrase comes from a Prager University video.

For a long time I thought Judaism must be it. The Old Testament’s stout evidence of the God who does not change his mind appealed. So did the fact of patriarchs and prophets saying things which already had a meaning for centuries, before anxious and sometimes it seems, precious recastings into a new they secretly meant Jesus mold. I liked its healthy freedom from the main pagan trope, tales of gods fathering gods on mortal women. And I have a great yen for origins, for authenticity. Show me always natural fabrics, from-scratch recipes, unabridged books. I desire to peer through the palimpsest. What was the first writing? Why was it erased?

I am sure a Catholic high school education circa 1980 helped to chop off at soil-level what was naturally a religious personality, and might even have remained a Catholic one. There is a lot to enjoy and be proud of in the supernatural pageantry of the Church and in its tactile pleasures too. All those saints’ days and litanies and solemnities; holy cards, angels, the rosary. Gregorian chant, next to which I sometimes think all music is cacophony.

But gardeners call it damping-off, when seedlings fall over and die in a moldy soil. Damping off happens, I should say, when you learn that all the Gospel stories were made up years later, to make Jesus seem like a god. Our Vatican II stands, all of it, like a break of scorched earth itself. When the liturgy admires Jews as “first to hear God’s word,” you reflect. Very well, how are they wrong? Especially when the record seems to show Jewish behavior as a group across millennia is very good, even without belief in vicarious redemption. Judaism can seem more humane than Christianity. No Jew proclaims “no man can come to the Father except through me.” There is a freedom to it: the new convert likes the expression “Israel will be vindicated at the end of time.” You can look forward to being that speck in space then, shouting “I knew it all along!” God is not Jove, to mate with women. God does not change his promises. Notice the only people of antiquity whom a Greek or a Pharaoh would recognize are, spookily, still here.

Let me add something that only occurred to me very recently. Even with these religious sums and, if you were ever a convert, more of your own added up under the credit and not debit column, almost no one would convert to Judaism today, were it not for the existence of the state of Israel. I am glad the state lives – having been brought into being without a Messiah, mind you, which was once the crux of it – but we converts and ex-converts cannot deny that Medinat Yisrael with an army and everything makes the Jew badass. That’s fun. I am talking about a generation like mine, children of World War II veterans, grown up vaguely aware of Israeli heroisms like Entebbe and the Ethiopian airlift. Further generations brought up on college BDS campaigns may never darken a temple’s door. A hundred years ago, splendid credit column or no, the Jew in turn might have seemed only cringing and Oriental and weird. For the bulk of history before that he would have seemed much worse. Unjoinable. I wish it had all been friendlier back in those days, but it was not.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Changing and changing about, or -- what didn't get past the summer intern

Part 1. Well of course there's more. 

I sit down for the third time in my life to write about my religious experience. This may be a dangerous thing, since each of the previous two times, I made a decision, announced on paper, which in fact so served to clear my head that I instantly turned around and did the opposite. At 25 I wrote about accepting my native Catholicism, got published, and turned Jewish. At 40 I at length digested my Jewish “journey,” got published, and found that after all it had become too thin a gruel to live on. And shortly left. With no pained or weepy explanations to my friends there, which was remiss of me. I did get a few phone calls, which I ignored. Which was remiss of me.

In The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom wrote that in his teaching experience, “students who had had a really serious fling with drugs, and gotten over it,” seemed emptied out of much ability to experience much else with freshness or enthusiasm. “It was as if their vision had been drained of color.” Religious experiments, changing and changing about, may be like that. I remember cleverly telling my journal, after all my efforts now it was over, that one might say the Master of all and I had agreed to shake hands and say no more about it.

That was ten years ago. I find I would like religion in my life again, or rather no, that isn’t quite how it begins anew. It is almost no longer personal. And I was never a “seeker” in some vague way. I never approached Buddhism or anything else. What has happened to the whole Western world has been two things, Islam’s rise and liberalism’s fall. (Now anything further that I write touching these two topics will be derivative, just other people’s observations and conclusions on politics or “elite agendas,” so you must excuse me if I seem to fling off the occasional truism.) Islam’s violence is an everyday shock and Western liberalism seems to have nothing left in its tank but a kind of leering, white-eyed boredom causing it to decide idiotic things like there aren’t two sexes anymore, and to administer the resulting lawsuits. If the latter half of this observation, about Western collapse, did not use to be so, what has been lost or forgotten and where did it come from?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Wow. Just, wow (or: the summer intern and me)

Of course. Of course. It's July. The season of summer interns.

Now it may be the essay wasn't very good, and it may be that summer interns also have strict instructions: we don't do personal spiritual journey stuff, that crap is a dime a dozen.

Which is fine and perfectly understandable. However, a response time of 48 hours is a new thing for me, even in this age of submissions by email attachment only. Remember the fun of manila envelopes, and the hand-writing of an address of a magazine or book publisher, usually including an exciting New York zip code? You waited ages for a reply. A thin little envelope meant no. Once in a great while a thicker SASE -- self-addressed stamped envelope -- held better, held most exciting developments. Yes, I have seen "galley proofs."

A no in 48 hours tells me that the essay was not read. (Can't you hear every amateur huffing just that complaint?) Perfectly understandable. No summer intern building her resume is going to forward anything from an uncredentialed person like myself. Or an old one -- I slyly mentioned that her very magazine had published me in 1992! I can almost see the "face palm" and the "eye roll." Before she was born, perhaps. I can almost hear what they have each been told. "You're the gatekeepers. It's summer.  Keep the crap off my desk and only send me stuff you can absolutely get behind." And I was honest in my "short bio," admitting to a day job in retail liquor and to blogging because that made me more productive than carefully composing obedient things for gatekeepers. I didn't phrase that quite so rudely.

And I was obedient, too. I cut amusing anecdotes, and a great deal of junk, to bring the word count within required limits. I had already learned a fresh lesson all on my own. Sometimes you have to write very badly to purge from your system topics you are not competent to write about.

So my options today are to put the essay here, a little at a time, or to hunt for another publishing platform. That means to unearth its unsolicited manuscript address -- they are devilishly harder and harder to find -- research "our needs," and present myself again to a summer intern. All the while they get younger, and oneself does not.

The thing was about religion. On a related note, I was reading St. Augustine on my Kindle at lunch yesterday. Do you know he went on and on about the pears he and his friends stole "from the tree beside our vineyard" (in North Africa?) when he was sixteen? I mean, seriously went on and on. I don't compare myself to him in the slightest, I only note, he perhaps would have gotten a face palm/eye roll from a summer intern too.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

What you want

What you want -- having already found Monstera deliciosa, or "Bette Davis plant" -- is lavender to grow in a pot on your south-facing balcony this summer. You also want true, clove-fragrant "pinks" or dianthus, not to be confused with the more showy but scentless grocery-store carnation (albeit still a dianthus). And a lilac bush, again to grow in a pot on your balcony.

Therein lies a tale. Your friend, or beau as your other friend calls him, bought you two lilac bushes as a springtime birthday present two years ago. He knew you loved them. You had the best of intentions to plant them in your old backyard, let them grow a year or two, and then dig them up and transplant them to whatever place, house, condo, apartment, turned out to be home, actually. You did plant them, and you planted protecting and obvious metal garden stakes at the site of each, and explained to the right people that these were to remind everyone not to mow them down. They bloomed the day you moved.

Alas, they got mowed down. They got stomped down, by the landlord who did not know the story, and who for the first time in twenty years chose that summer to fix up the side of the garage where the garden lay. Maybe all that time he had been kindly avoiding stomping the garden.

Unhappy at their loss and feeling remiss at the way I -- I mean, you -- treated the beau's presents, I waited my chance to make it up somehow. Two years, another abrupt move and some job changes intervened. Now at last I have it: a freshly purchased lilac bush, just about the right size to be two years old, placed neatly in a bright blue pot and ready to act the part of one of the very ones he chose. If pressed I am ready to say the other one didn't make it. Will he remember he did not choose "dwarf Korean," however? One trusts not.

Lilac in the foreground. The lavender lies at the cat's feet and the "pinks" behind her. It's a very small garden. Lilac: from the French lilas, via Arabic lilak and Persian lilak or nilak, meaning bluish; further, from nil, indigo, and Sanskrit nila, dark blue, indigo. The plant is a member of the olive family, Olea, imagine that! I almost bought a sweet olive, Osmanthus fragrans, from a grower out east, until I realized that $25 for a plant in a three-inch pot was in itself a recipe for horticultural disappointment.

What you also wanted were tulips to go in the real, outdoor garden your neighbor began planting, even without the condo association's permission twenty years ago -- remember? -- and so you slung a few closeout-priced bulbs in the ground last fall and here they are. Some are small and orange. Some are pink, and bigger. Tulip: from the Fr. tulipe, via Turkish tulbend, turban. 

She also has bluebells, more of a forest plant, but welcome.

Another English word I have learned lately is sedevacantism, but therein lies an entirely different tale. It is from the Latin, and means "vacant chair." You would almost have to enjoy theology.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Psychology -- a toast of water -- then again ...

Doesn't this say it all? I mean the silver sticker on a bottle of a little-known (surely) champagne, Forget-Brimont, boasting 91 points from Wine Spectator.

Of course I liked the wine. So biscuity, so almost almond-like, so light and bubbly and yet with a solid little buttery core of body or mouthfeel, too. Of course it was delicious. I should hope any normal person would like good champagne -- and be appalled, like me, at people who don't. I say this, remembering the poor soul who came to buy "champagne" over the holidays "just for a toast, because nobody drinks it." Many people do buy sparkling wine just for a toast but no one else has ever clarified the matter to me to that extent. Why not, then, sir, "toast" with water? Toast: "[n. from the use of toasted spiced bread to flavor the wine, and the notion that the person honored also added flavor] 1. a person, thing, idea, etc., in honor of which a person or persons raise their glasses and drink; toast from the Middle English tosten < Old French toster, < Vulgar Latin tostare, < Latin tostus, < torrere, to parch, roast, see THIRST."  

To be fair I'm no one to talk. I mean as far as blissful ignorance is concerned. I have been in the liquor industry for almost ten years, and yet up until two nights ago was not aware, off the top of my head, that the town of Calistoga is in Napa County. I may plead mea culpa, or I may riposte that here you see it is possible to be in the industry for ten years, and be competent, and yet not have any reason to know that the town of Calistoga is in Napa. What then must I know? "Where is the moscato? It's for my mom ... I don't know anything about wine."

Me neither, much. I had to fumfer around and act humble and charming (I hope), in my ignorance, for the young couple who didn't know Calistoga either, but who bought two thousand dollars' worth of fine wine in ten minutes anyway. They went for big points, big names, and big expense. Bless their hearts they ended up choosing the Napa Valley monster cabernets that tick all three of those big boxes. If only I had had my cheater eyeglasses with me, I could have spotted the name Napa clearly placed on a label of Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Calistoga cabernet. The wine got 100 points from Robert Parker. Incidentally I still say that gentleman has thrown out perfect ratings abundantly and meaninglessly since he retired from tasting Bordeaux in 2015.

We all, the nice young couple and I, kept squinting at the fine print of his review, on a paper "shelf talker" clipped to the shelf, to confirm we saw the word Napa. But at his level Parker is far beyond signaling something so basic given a fifty-word space. It was all cassis and graphite and sexiness. I was almost sure this must be a Napa wine, how could it not be? Only the nice young man with a young man's eyesight said the label didn't say. I thought, well it is very likely I am wrong. Until I can retrieve my glasses, I must fumfer. It might be Sonoma, it might be Paso Robles, it might be Santa Clara, Santa Rita, Santa Lucia, it might be mountains or counties or highlands or benches, or who knows how many other nomenclatures or subregions extant within the large state of California. A day or two later I had occasion to tell another customer so simple a thing as that Paso Robles is south of San Francisco. This was a fact I absolutely knew. But then I looked at a map and double checked distance, since I had a funny feeling. It turns out that Paso Robles is south of San Francisco in the same way the Mississippi River is west of Chicago. Way west -- way south.

All in all it is peculiarly satisfying to have just finished reading Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route (1988). Here, Kermit does France. And Kermit complains, thirty years ago already, of the big-point, big-expense uniformity, plus the legal tinkering with appellation boundaries, that makes knowing wine place-names -- even in France -- more and more an academic exercise. Cote Rotie (the northern Rhone) -- or Bordeaux or so by extension even Calistoga -- what matter? The consumer wants lush, fruit-pie wines, and if, say, wines called Beaujolais (a part of Burgundy) used to be light and fizzy enough to wash down Lyons' robust tripe-and-garlic cuisine and now no longer can, well then. It is done. Already thirty years ago Beaujolais had grown "fleshy," "supple," words Kermit considers profanities. He called what consumer taste and winemaker sellouts had done to this region, rather extravagantly, "genocide." "I cannot begin to communicate how profoundly the critics' embrace of such freak wines depresses me," because the critics' embrace persuades new wine drinkers that each new bosomy style is traditional. And so that's where they spend. Ah, the critics and the points, even then. We remember also Michael Broadbent's tired dismissal of the "global red" (Vintage Wine, 2003). And yet everyone is also trying to sniff out complexity, now! Like it's there.  

So that's half the theme of the Adventures: uniformity smothering terroir. The other half is that a handful of producers were or are still doing it right, and Kermit will find them. Full circle: Kermit Lynch's name on a back label now is an indication of a palate and a badge of this-isn't-"supple"-it's-what-it-used-to-be-warning:-probably-surprisingly-thin approval, just as much as are Robert Parker's breathless "100s" on reviews clipped to the shelf beside Calistoga monsters. Broadbent has his own selections, too. 

So back to the champagne at the top of the page. We could fumfer, and ask whether it's Ay or Epernay, and what was the precise dosage. But the silver sticker is the first thing we see. Do you think someday archaeologists will dig this bottle out of the ground and wonder what the sticker meant? We know the ancient Romans liked "Falernian" but we don't know what it was. We know the still more ancient Egyptians were serious connoisseurs, but can't imagine what swill must have come out of that desert furnace climate (see Hugh Johnson's Vintage). Would someone looking at this bottle understand, oh yes, they must have had a 100-point rating system for their wines, the points allotted by respected authorities in the trade who published their scores in famed magazines. Naturally a vintner whose product received such a "score" would want to boast about it, and so the business practice developed of affixing proof of the score to the actual bottle. It helped drive sales. Curious ... the archaeologist of A.D. 4017 will cock his head to one side, as he thinks alone in a windy field. The public themselves must have had little knowledge .... 

This is why I declare that the people and the psychologies in wine are far more interesting than wine itself. Though generally it tastes very good of course. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A grand day out

To begin your day with your nice tax lady, who in twenty minutes calculates that you owe the feds $36, and that the state of Illinois, I repeat actually the state of Illinois, owes you $84, is to begin a grand day out.

(Her office is a sight. It never changes from one year to the next. Carpet unspeakable -- not necessarily dirty, just unspeakable -- then see the ancient, leather, tufted, nail-studded couch in the "marsala" shade so popular a few years ago, the same shade I daresay we all once called maroon, when the couch was made. [Maroon: from the Fr. marron, chestnut; It. marrone, the same.] Two ancient wood-veneer bureaus stand directly beside each other to your right, of what use God knows. The lady's own desk is purely office-functional, carrying a huge flatscreen computer on top. Her chair is office-functional too, some kind of black mesh or black cushion or something; there is a fancier tufted sort of red leather nail-studded armchair for the client to sit in across from her, while he peers over at the computer screen at an awkward angle. Another bureau or two, or a filing cabinet, sit cramped to one's left on the other side of the tiny room. After that the eye is drawn to a waste of decorations. We see unused photo holders, their empty twirly prongs sticking up out of odd corners next to monkey sock puppets, children's artworks and children's portraits, and piles of envelopes and papers, and the crooked matched framed photos of nice nature scenes, the beach, the woods, a meadow, slung about on the wood paneled walls. Of course we are seated in a sort of inner sanctum, beyond the foyer, beyond the secretary's desk, carpet still unspeakable, past the ancient confusing double doors that seem not to open either out or in without a struggle, and the half-dead trailing pothos yearning at basement-style glass block windows. There are no windows at all here, in the lady's office. A diploma or certificate hangs on the wall. And lost in the mess is a photo of Mother (I have no doubt), smiling out from more dark paneling on some Occasion. Little do any of us realize what will be the picture of us that gets immortalized into a frame with a faux misty cloud accompanying, and a poem about our worth printed in some meditative font. I don't sneer, I simply take note. Meanwhile my tax lady herself is sharp as a tack, a pretty forty-five perhaps, with a complexion just going velvety with a bit of middle age, and bright brown eyes and bright brown hair a little differently styled each year. She has lovely small differently pointed teeth, which show when she smiles -- "wow, they've sold your mortgage already haven't they." I know, I answer, I thought that wasn't done anymore? -- wasn't that the big problem, in 2008? She shrugs, her pink lipstick softly gleaming. She wears soft purple or mint-green blouses, and this time a parure of greenish-moonstone earrings and necklace. Her right hand works the number keyboard at lightning speed.)    

Thirty-six dollars, plus eighty. I could have hugged her.

That done, let's go buy a Monstera deliciosa, a plant wrongly once called, it seems, a "split-leaf" philodendron. I have wanted one for a while, but never more so than since seeing, for the first time on the big screen at a real theater, All About Eve. Margo Channing has a huge Monstera in her home. I bought a tiny $5 specimen a week ago, labelled hopefully monstera but with its leaves uncut. Then today I turned a corner in my neighborhood big-box home improvement store and spotted three of the real thing. I picked the biggest. I now think of it as "Bette Davis plant."

Gardening books won't tell you why it is called deliciosa, except that it bears a fruit which is poisonous when young but sweet when mature. That takes a year. Perhaps the people who compile the books don't actually grow plants. I think the real reason it is M. deliciosa is because the roots, actually the roots, are sweetly fragrant. Fragrant enough, on the first day at least, to perfume a room.

Next, we'll go to the local woods carrying a friend's borrowed binoculars. I now live five minutes away from scenes that were a great treat to visit in childhood. When you look through binoculars, the grasses and water seem like a painting up close. I saw an American coot -- a duck, not a person -- and I may even have spotted a green-headed teal, another duck. The great heron, who quit flying when I arrived in my obvious white parka, stood still among the grasses, just a slim wash of blue-gray and a watching black eye in low beige thickets.

To return home is to see snowdrops -- surely? -- for the first time in a garden. This is the garden I was telling you about last summer, the one tended for twenty years by one woman who didn't ask permission of the condo association or the village or anybody, but simply started planting and kept on. Last fall I added tulip bulbs, which are sprouting also. If all goes well they should turn out orange. But these are snowdrops.

Last project of all was to carry on making my retro '50s art corner in my living room. At I found the art of Donna Mibus, who I assumed on account of her output must be some legend whom I, in my ignorance, was only just discovering. Not exactly, although to have one's art for sale at Allposters, and, and Etsy, and featured in the magazine Atomic Ranch, is something of a feat. She explains at Etsy that she is a grandmother and only began painting when she turned fifty. I -- and many other people -- love her "MCM" (mid-century modern, i.e., retro '50s, and isn't it great that in Roman numerals MCM means 1900?) love Donna Mibus' retro '50s art. It's all full of flat bright pastel colors, egg-chairs, and elongated cats and dogs gazing at elongated '50s-worthy visiting aliens. Pairing it with a garish Debra Paget movie poster for Princess of the Nile, and a pastel cocktail-shaker-with-martini print, seemed just right. I must tell her.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

The moon, and the modern mind; and things

Really. One comes across the wildest things in Barbara Pym novels. Here is page 2 of No Fond Return of Love:

"But at least it would be interesting, she told herself bravely, to share a room with a stranger."

One imagines this sentiment rendered into a work of art to be found for sale in the Acorn or Bas Bleu catalogs. Distressed wood, I think, unframed, or a canvas painted over in pink maybe. The words to be spelled out in blue, black, and sea-green; some of them placed sideways and some very much larger than others. Certainly interesting, room, and stranger would be written large. She told herself bravely might go sideways.

And then there is this, from the same novel.

" 'What does one do and wear?'

" 'I suppose nobody really knows,' said Dulcie. 'It might be like the first night on board ship when nobody changes for dinner.' "

So that's it. I have always wondered what it meant in the superb, old (dear me it is old, 1985. When  P.G. Wodehouse wrote novels in the 1920s featuring elderly gentleman characters who had been roustabouts in "the 'Seventies," we understand the young Wodehouse is talking about antiquity), I say, I have always wondered what it meant in the old Mapp and Lucia TV series, when Georgie admires Lucia's costume for their first dinner intime in holiday Tilling. He exclaims, "Oh yes, very chic! And I'm glad to see we think alike. Not dressed like the first night out on board ship." Since in this scene they are both smartly, if unfussily, got up, he must mean that they have each made an effort to look good. To not dress like the first night out on board ship. In other words, yes they changed for dinner.

I love little bits of knowledge like that. They are the peaks, perhaps the froth, of a civilization, capping the bulk or ocean of magnificent, fathomless, living achievement below. When the peaks and the froth are forgotten, when they are not thrown up anymore by the living bulk below or are not recognized, well it's time to worry.  

The same thing with the moon. Though the moon is much more basic.

I work with a man who is of those who say "I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but." Why does not only British literature but British comic television seem to have an answer for everything? -- for one thinks now of comic John Cleese, interviewed around the time of some Fawlty Towers anniversary or compilation. He noted that the character Basil Fawlty was one of those prudes liking to protest "I'm not a prude, but." What Basil really means, Cleese laughed, was "I am a prude, and."

What my friend really means, I fear, is "I am a conspiracy theorist, and." He entertains quite a few, the most recent of which was something to do with a great light seen at "the Arctic -- the South Pole," [sic, of course], over the length of a whole night. It wasn't a helicopter, and it wasn't a passing comet. It lit up everything like it was day, for hours, and they're not saying what it was because they don't want you to know. It was like another sun.

A second man in the warehouse had marveled -- as my friend told the story -- "so you think there's another sun?" "No, I don't think that," my friend said, testy probably.

I marveled at him too, but noncommittally. This technique of manners helps greatly in society. "Wow, I hadn't heard that...."

Then I did some searching at home because the internet is out there for you to do research on, and anyway isn't Christian love (remember we've been blogging the Gospels occasionally) all about "willing the good of the other --- as other"?

It turns out that the great light at the pole, whichever pole, that shone all night and wasn't a comet or a helicopter, and lit up the landscape like it was day, might have been the full moon. The full moon will do that, at the poles' (whichever one's) winter, when night lasts for months anyway. This in turn would correspond to my friend's story of "what they don't want you to know" having happened recently. It's been winter in the Arctic. 

But isn't it idiotic that neither my friend nor I thought at once of the full moon? Isn't it idiotic that I had to look up "light mystery Arctic" and only then learn? I told him, by the way. He said, "Ah, there's an explanation for everything."

Far more than shipboard dress, I sometimes think the moon should represent that great bulk and froth of civilization, all that is lost among ordinary people's knowledge of the world. The moon is very basic. Knowing what it does and how it appears is like knowing enough to boil unsafe water, or to avoid a wild animal .... The earth only spins one way. A half-moon overhead, in an indigo-blue, late winter dusk, is heading toward the west, like the sun toward sunset. This is literally just a phase. All of the moon's phases are regular and eternal. It will grow to full, and then shrink to a crescent facing the other way, and while it is doing that you will see it, in a week or so, weirdly in the western sky at 9 or 10 in the morning. It's setting then. After that, it will be a crescent facing the other way once more, only it will set -- in the west of course, we only spin one way -- but at twilight. You might even see the outline of the whole moon then, faintly, as if drawn with faint moonshine chalk from the guiding tips of the crescent. I believe this is called "the old moon in the new moon's arms." Things like that.

As for other things. Here at Pluot we have read Rex Stout's Please Pass the Guilt (1973). Excellent as always, even though the mystery is never such as to make Nero Wolfe lean back in his chair, close his eyes, and move his pursed lips in and out, which is the sign of real intellectual struggle for him. Author Stout deftly threads the modern world into what he might have kept, always, the pristine, postwar, somewhat gritty but never degraded "private dick's" Manhattan of say, the month of Sometime, 1952. Here in the late 1960s, Nero Wolfe fears his cleaning lady may be a Black Panther; the method of murder is a bomb in a desk drawer; there is an Arab terrorist false clue; and a liberated young woman studying etymology speaks the words pecker and prick. (And why does modernity always seem to equate with 'more degraded, more vulgar'? The '50s were modern too.) Wolfe still says " 'Pfui' " when exasperated, and cookery and orchids still feature.

As for still other things, well. Marvelous biography of Alicia Markova by Tina Sutton (The Making of Markova, 2013). At first one thinks the author could have cut down the bulk a little -- 623 pages -- by not reprinting every press clipping about the prima ballerina there ever was. But then, it does help recreate some of the excitement about her at that time. In Kansas City and everywhere.

Lastly (one must stop somewhere), what about interior decoration? An English manor called Barsham is for sale for millions of dollars. Henry VIII used to visit on country jaunts. So one longs to bring Tudor effects into the apartment, like steeply pitched ceilings, stone fireplaces, and random heavy wood mouldings and doorjambs. I may have to settle for "heavy, rich draperies -- nothing filmy or lacy" as online interior decorating guides suggest. But "MCM," mid-20th century modern, is also very chic: streamlined looks, low-slung plain furniture, colors of pink and green, and what I think of as those '50s advertising sparkles everywhere. There's even a giant sculpted one in the lobby of the Inland Steel building in Chicago. 1957. You can just see Cary Grant in a suit and thin tie walking in, on some very suave business. I'm sure he knew what the moon is.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Stories that are now moot; or -- Two women, one house; or -- Three English words: privacy, nice, and moot

Moot. From the ME [Middle English] mote, via OE [Olde English] mot, gemot, a meeting, and prob. ON [Old Norse] mot, both from the IE [Indo-European] base mod, to encounter -- "an early English assembly of freemen to administer justice, decide community problems, etc.;" ... "a discussion or argument ... subject to debate" ... finally, "so hypothetical as to be meaningless." As in, a moot point.  

Many years ago there was some kerfuffle in my family about my grandmother perhaps moving in with us. I was perhaps sixteen, my parents in their fifties. She did move in, briefly, but it didn't work out. When the mistake became inarguable my father ruefully and sympathetically sighed and said, as if it was the wisdom of the ages -- "Two women cannot live in the same house."

It was the wisdom of the ages. He was standing in the kitchen as he said it, so I think of him also as saying "two women cannot run the same kitchen."

I proceed carefully because the analogy I am going to draw will link ever so discreetly to the workplace, and I remember the famed blogger "Dooce" who got fired from her day job for just such writing. To be sure, that was in the primordial ages of the internet, when privacy still mattered perhaps, and when there were so few bloggers that all five or six of them stood out, and their bosses read them and got mad. Things have changed, completely, by now. Everybody blogs, or has moved on to Instagram and Snapchat. Privacy is unknown (from the ME priuace, pryvat, by way of the L privatus, "belonging to oneself, not to the state" (ah hah!); from privare, to separate, "prob. akin to the OL pri, see PRIME"). How do I know the dangers of blogging indiscreetly are less? Dooce herself, Heather Armstrong, relates breezily that now "blogging is so flush with money" that the writers of them, no longer five or six but numberless, simply skip over telling the "messy" personal stories which earned them their salaries at first (no kidding?), and instead "curate," "monetize" images of their lives, a la Instagram. I'll say. Remember the beautiful young fashionista who directed me to a fashion blog for seventy-year-olds? She had a baby. She now therefore understands all about refugees, through nursing her infant son and wondering how she would ever do that, and get fresh diapers and things, if she were a refugee. News reports seem to show that most of the strong young men who are refugees have other concerns, but we move on.

In sum I think I may link my dad's wisdom of the ages, from a girlhood kitchen to a current workplace, without worrying too much that it will be seen and will offend. Besides, my small tale of one woman coming into a job and supplanting another woman who thought the job was hers, can be quickly told. Here's the real interest -- is it possible to read someone else's thoughts?

Of course you can guess people's thoughts by their behavior. The annoyed sigh, the rough picking up of a phone when the newcomer is not familiar with all the buttons; months later, the soft "tsk-tsk-tsk" (so faint I almost don't think I heard it), and the pointed walking away, when a certain plan is not what the Other would have allowed.

But can you read someone's thoughts merely through the air, when behavior is nice enough? (Nice: interestingly, a word derived from the Latin nescire, to be ignorant, as in ne, not, + scire,  to know, see SCIENCE. In ME the word nice meant "strange, lazy, and foolish," and has since gone from what I think of as eighteenth-century-novel meanings -- delicate, precise, subtle, "minutely accurate" -- to our own "generalized term of approval" for anything pleasant.) Is it, mind-reading, a vital human ability or is it just imagination? I remember learning somewhere the psychological opinion, the result of a survey perhaps, that most people perceive positive comments as neutral, and neutral comments as negative. We hear "you have a pretty houseplant" as houseplants are pretty and we hear "houseplants are pretty" as ... yes, but not yours. Now in my workplace we both of us have pleasant, light conversations about family or romance or the weather, and yet our hearts don't seem to be in it, not remotely. But am I right, and can I therefore read thoughts, and she the same? Or am I hearing positive-as-neutral and neutral-as-negative, and she the same? Of course the tsk-tsks and the pointed walking aways do linger in the memory. I'm sure whatever I've done lingers in hers. I exist, mostly.

One great proof of two people not getting on must be the absence of good-natured everyday mockery between them. There wasn't much of that sort of fun when Grandmother moved in. If you know someone well enough to see his flaws but still enjoy his company, happy mockery is possible. Lacking same, mockery is too dangerous a ground to tread on. I wouldn't dream of making light fun of my co-worker who thinks I have her job, and she the same. We're just nice. 

It matters because if something could be done to improve the relationship, if we could stop reading or sending thoughts or if we could dismiss it all as imagination, then that would be good. So much more relaxing, so much less silly. A certain amount of bitter, piquant excitement would be lost, which I am sorry to say does keep human feuds boiling doesn't it, whether between persons or families or nations probably. Love can cool, perhaps it matures, but hate is always fresh and fun, always righteous. We don't hate, my co worker and I. How else could we talk nicely? But I see workplace hatred elsewhere and so I see the freshness and the excitement of it every day. So do we all, if we look at the news.  

Which brings me to this: now don't blanch: we laugh along when Harriet the Spy asks "what kind of a pill brings a Bible to the beach?" (or lugs the Bible into everything) but this does shape our civilization. You have heard it was said, do not kill; I say, do not be angry at all ... you have heard, do not commit adultery; I say, do not even look; ... love your enemy, greet more than just your brother; be perfect. All this is from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 only. Here we have instructions not just to control our behavior but, almost ferociously, to amend and control our thoughts.

Why on earth? Unless yes of course they can be read, and they are the source of everything?

Years ago Grandmother eventually moved in with independent granddaughters, and later, when it was inevitable, to a nursing home. Two days ago co-worker got the news that she is moving on, too. So it's all moot. "An assembly of freemen ... debatable ... so hypothetical as to be meaningless."

Friday, January 13, 2017


You can keep your Cabo and your Florida. Most of the time.

Would they be as atmospheric as this? Would they inspire you to think of Yorkshire fogs -- all right, suburban Chicago fogs -- and ravens perched on bare branches, and footsteps echoing along the stone-flagged passageway to the ruined chapel?

Best of all is the knowledge, amid the weird January thunder, that you have the day off tomorrow. Let the freezing rain freeze as it may. You have Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, just bought this afternoon; you have a Bombay Sapphire gin sour in your glass -- two lemons a day plus that flu shot in September seem to be keeping you safe so far; you have a filet of salmon to cook, and Hildegarde of Bingen's chants from a thousand years ago on YouTube to listen to. How she would marvel! Or possibly not. She might take it as merely the good Lord's due.

My friend has lost a friend, moving to Miami because his wife leaped at the chance for a better job, with a better future than his seems to have. My friend actually introduced his friend to the wife to begin with. She was a waitress. "I know a young stud I want you to meet." I don't know how two tough guys, forty years apart in age, who have worked together for twelve years, say goodbye.

Then again, guys are different. They're already talking about the charter fishing business they will start. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

What we're reading -- books with beautiful covers

We're reading Spice, by Jack Turner (Knopf, 2004). The cover image is Conrad Witz' Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, ca. 1435.

Here are careful and wonderful scholarship; and hesitant prose. One thinks the book might have done well as a perhaps 30-page pamphlet. One senses a certain over-writing, as if a person who wanted to say "part of the appeal of cinnamon as an aphrodisiac was its great expense" instead labored on. As if he said,  at that time as throughout most of the beleaguered human story, the more precious a commodity, the greater its cost -- or rather, perhaps, the greater a commodity's cost, the more precious it seemed to become. And rarely more so than with the very thing everyone hoped must be useful in the bedroom of  emperor and slave, king and washerwoman: wonderful and wondrous -- and expensive -- cinnamon. Yet strangely, as it perfumed Cleopatra's writhing young limbs, so it also swathed the dead in their billowing funeral pyres .....

Like that. Reading young Jack Turner's Spice (he's thirteen years older now), one wishes for the relaxed, musing, confident style of those middle brow dons, male and female, of the mid-twentieth century, who kept, for example, an old magazine like Horizon in business. We remember J.H. Plumb, Morris Bishop, Henry Steele Commager. We wish for a story, even in a history. But there is a something in careful modern scholarship which tamps down stories. Over-writing occurs when the thrum of a story is absent. And stories can be strangled in their cradle anyway by modern liberal scholarship's command that, where the West is concerned, the story is bad. Mr. Turner knows this. "The real prize [this is a real quote, p. 26] in everyone's mind was the fabulous, far eastern Indies. Whom did they really belong to, Spain or Portugal? (The possibility that the Indies might belong to the Indians did not enter into consideration)."

Say you want actually to learn about spices. Why is it that Sylvia Windle Humphrey, in A Matter of Taste (MacMillan, 1965), can simply tell us so much more?
Ginger is a romantic plant. The beckoning perfume of its pure white flower leads needy man to its fabulous roots. According to Oriental legend, the flower lends some of its allure to whoever wears it. The plainest woman who understands the ways of the root of ginger will be sought by many husbands, for she will be the finest cook.  
Here we have pure information, the composure of lovely imagery, and an acknowledgment of the worth of a non-Western culture all in one breath. We have, in short, gusto.

(Cover image, Lorenzo di Credi, Portrait of Caterina Sforza, signora di Imola, ca. 1500)

What else we're reading is Elizabeth Lev's The Tigress of Forli (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), a very good if rather abstractedly clinical biography of "Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici." This was a minor Renaissance lady whom I had never heard of either. Born a Sforza (major Italian aristocracy), married to a Riario (minor Italian aristocracy, assassinated), then to a Feo (jumped up stable boy, assassinated) and finally to a de' Medici (very major Italian aristocracy, died of a fever), I don't understand why her name on the cover does not go chronologically "Caterina Sforza Riario Feo de' Medici," but that's unimportant.

If I give this lady more time than I give to spices it's because her story raises a personal moral question which spices do not. Except in the eyes of God I would say this lady's name and life were not historically important anyway. But because the fine old world keeps spinning around and the West is still standing if only just, there is always a market for new biographies of women, just as there always seems to be a market for new nuggets of romance fiction. The whole fine, Western world is romance's oyster, a few pearls of course being the biggest. When you've strung Tudor and Regency England and Eleanor of Aquitaine's France on the thread, who knows where you might not go? Byzantium, Rome, Greece, perhaps Sam Spade's 1940s L.A. are some of the smaller pearls. And surely this, Renaissance Italy? Yes. In fact, to glance over the mere three-star reviews of The Tigress on Amazon is to see the disappointment in readers who thought they were picking up a bodice-ripper only to find the book "reads like a textbook." It kind of does.  

Halfway through the Tigress' life -- the book takes its name from contemporary comparisons of the Countess to a mother tiger, reputed occasionally to eat its young; this was after she had stood on the ramparts of her castle, Ravaldino, and had delivered "the retort," defying a besieging army's threats to kill her children -- halfway through, my thought was: modern scholarship has to cope with a sort of Rubik's cube of intellectual and moral, or amoral, demands when it comes to past lives, most especially now women's lives. Jack Turner didn't have to cope with it so much because he did not concentrate on any one life.

It's like this. Since we are all good liberals, we understand that everyone is equal and that women used to be oppressed. (Grasp the cube.) Because they were oppressed, their stories and accomplishments have been unjustly neglected, so here let's dust off Caterina. (Shift.) There's a contradiction, since if women used to be oppressed then there can't be much accomplishment to unearth (shift). If it does exist, then they weren't so oppressed (and again). The liberal answer to all this for a long time has been not much better than "never mind," like when you were a kid and you gave up on the Cube temporarily.

The next shelf of the Rubik's cube that modern biography must grapple with, like the kid picking it up again, is Christianity: the reality of it in Christian people's lives in Christian Europe long ago. That includes Caterina. The correct modern mood about the religion seems to be, well -- as Christians they should have been tolerant liberals like Jesus and they obviously were not (they oppressed women), therefore the faith is meaningless to understanding them. They didn't do it correctly. Shift. And anyway Christianity, as a private matter, was always a bit like any old concurrent belief past people might have had, say in the efficacy of leeches in medicine. It was a part of their lives too big for them to see, but as we know now, absurd. We look with objectivity. (Shift, shift, shift. ...but howso?) Once in a while, biographer and reader together come across some quaint detail about a holiday or a procession, that's all, and we note it exactly as we note a death by doctor-bleeding.

An aside. Really even the most sympathetic and imaginative modern writers never seem to enter into the mind of a time, good or bad. By the same token, history-epic movies never show any historically correct abuse of animals, let the human characters be how bathed in gore soever. Not that we want to see animals tortured. Precisely -- we do not. Or, for example to read the actual letters of Lord Byron is to encounter reality in 1808. The teen aristocrat, in debt over women and liquor, goes to "the Israelitish tribe," Jewish moneylenders, for loans even while outraged that they dare dirty him with help.  

As for the mind of the Renaissance, there seems only one scene in The Tigress in which we do enter into it. The Rubik's cube drops from our hand.

Countess Caterina led a rather ghastly life, though with bravery. She was married off at age ten, her own father substituting her in the marriage bed of the Pope's nephew after another little girl, a cousin, was shielded from that fate by an outraged mother. (Ah, what then was "Costanza's" story? Now there is a romance.) For our Caterina there followed all those assassinations, and a general atmosphere more like today's drugland Mexico than anything sunny and art-filled, anything Renaissance. Talking of oppressed (or not) women, when a twenty-something widowed warrior-countess' lands are repeatedly invaded by neighboring men, what does that mean? That she kept her domains in such a plum state that they were always tempting? Or that she, busy mother of six, was incompetent to manage them? Or that it drove premodern, illiberal men mad to take a woman ruler seriously and so they battered pathetic Forli as they never would have each other's properties (but they did)? These are the truths it seems we cannot learn from modern biography, because the modern scholar must first address himself to the proprieties of his cube. Women were oppressed ....

Caterina's stable-boy lover was murdered. She caused anyone remotely involved to be hunted down and killed, including collateral wives and babies thrown alive down wells. I believe the grand total was thirty-eight dead. For our pivotal, mind-of-the-Renaissance scene the Countess, now at bay herself, bangs on a door and screams to have removed from her presence an anonymous priest who has warned her she may go to hell for her crimes (p.129). Elizabeth Lev treats this episode as though the "weary" Caterina was only appalled -- "horrified" -- by perhaps the man's bad taste. What can't be suggested is that she, fifteenth-century Christian in a Christian world, believed in him. Thus for a moment we enter into the mind of the time.

The curious thing is that later in her life and in the book, she seems to know repentance and some sort of peace of mind. Total defeat in war and a stint in the dungeons of a castle-prison she once ruled, helped. But because the modern outlook cannot cope with the true Christian roots of this -- Lev does tell us she met with Savonarola -- we still find, as with questions about her political and military management, we don't know her. Christian salvation in Renaissance Italy surely did not just give peace of mind to a weary, but justifiably outraged, but perhaps overvengeful (shift, shift, shift) and lifelong-oppressed-because-she-lived-before-liberalism murderess' conscience. Even if peace of mind did and does come, repentance, salvation for Caterina would have meant confession of sin and faith in the sacrifice and Resurrection of Jesus as having bought forgiveness for her immortal soul. It would also have meant donations for a purpose to her favorite convents. The monies were not just woman-to-woman supportive business transactions, which seems to be the way the author records the several dealings between the countess and the nuns she supported. The money, instead, said "pray for me (keep me out of hell)."

Here is where a biographer not beholden to his cube might step in and give us a deeper understanding of a human being long ago. Elizabeth Lev plunges heroically into fifteenth-century provincial Italian diaries and into the wasps' nests of Renaissance city-state family wars too, to build the Countess of Forli's story. What I find frustrating is this cool amoral skirting, this obedient skirting, of the very matter -- apart from survival, maybe -- that would have mattered most to this lady.

I don't ask that a biographer switch to theology in the last chapter. But: if you are in earnest about writing a life, could you not explore, a little, the soul? My understanding of Christianity tells me that yes, with repentance even Caterina's sins can be pardoned by God, because of the gigantic truth of Jesus' atoning for all sin for all time. My understanding of Judaism (and Caterina would not have dreamed of thinking this way, no more than Byron, but it is the only other meaningful moral code) tells me that you may ask God to forgive your sins, but if you have offended another person you must first ask pardon of him. If you have killed him you can't ask his pardon. His life and all that he might have been, even to that infant down the well, is lost forever. The point is not that a vengeful Old Testament God does not forgive. The point is, don't kill.

No I don't expect a biographer to switch to theology in the last chapter. But I scribbled this note while reading The Tigress --  

Without a moral reaction on the part of the chronicler, future generations cannot know the truth of what happened even if they know all the facts. Even the revelation of your prejudice helps toward the truth because it is also true.

Reader reviews of the book at Amazon tend to describe Caterina delightedly as "bold" and "dynamic." Those are adjectives to apply to anything. Colors, architecture, Hitler. They mean nothing about a human being possessed of an immortal soul, one of us, but shaped by her own era and by truth also. And what is truth? We think we are objective, but howso? Because we have exchanged a religion which understood sin, for a modern one that only asks you to hate intolerance? 

Her readers' reactions on Amazon are not quite Elizabeth Lev's fault of course. My question is, what could biography do today to more honestly bring past people to life? What could be done to call to life even the scraps of people's stories? -- like those explorers who shipped us cinnamon, even though we know they were intolerant? Modern biography makes such stick figures of the past. Stick figures are bold and dynamic too. To cease doing that biography, scholarship, would almost have to cease to be liberal, to drop -- for good -- the shifting, teaching cube. Which seems unthinkable. Which is why in my reading I hunt for publication dates before the mid 1970s. They tend to be better books, and to have uglier covers.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

"Inside baseball" talk -- about wine

In all the rush of the holiday season working retail liquor (yay! six weeks of six-day weeks!), I had forgotten to tell you about the attractive lady ambassador representing an extremely prestigious Napa winery, and what she told us.

She told us about her winery's experiments with biodynamic farming. It turns out that there is, the winemaker thinks (I emphasize: the winemaker thinks), not much in it. He tried the buried-horn-of-cow-dung, moon cycle rituals, and found that his best grapes were unimproved. Grapes in need of some improvement might have benefited by anything, so he sensibly did not try the practices on them. Hurrah for actual scientific thinking. And good question, from the man in the back row.

Yet the winery keeps on farming biodynamically. Why? The ambassadress' explanation seemed to me extraordinary. It's so honest that it almost can't be honest.

She said they maintain the rituals in the vineyard because the Mexican workers, "Mexican-American," she quickly corrected herself, like them. They are Catholic, she said, or "very religious." They believe in ... God, "or Mother Nature, whatever you want to call it." And so they like the ....

Her explanation couldn't help but trail off, because it was approaching on to attitudes that surely must be taboo to say. What, Mexicans like superstitious rituals? They like theatrical tasks which make them feel close to the land? Why, because they're primitives? Why is it all right to not tell them this labor is meaningless?

I hope the intelligent vineyard staff are in fact laughing up their sleeves at being paid to do crazy work. I suspect the truth under this startling honesty is that the attractive ambassadress, the winemaker and everybody else in charge of this wealthy Napa combine, farm biodynamically because they like it. They believe in "Mother Nature or whatever" and they like theatrical, close-to-the-earth rituals. Or they are selling their wine to people who like it, which is just smart business. At any rate we needn't blame the Mexicans, or worse, some vague idea of peasantry. The intelligent and laughing vineyard staff would probably prefer to skip the moonlight pruning and the dung horns, get home earlier, and go on Facebook like everybody else.  

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...