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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Obama in Defense of Life

This is perhaps a confusing title to some of you. I know that when I heard him speak the words I am about to quote, I was momentarily confused. But it's remarkable how clearly our president has laid out a charge for those of use who would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned. This was not, albeit, his intention when he said what follows; it was said in response to the tragedy that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary. When those children were so brutally and viciously killed, it awoke in Americans an awful fear and concern that some of the most vulnerable people under our protection are not being protected. Whether this event is the impetus behind an eventual change in gun control laws is, in some respects, irrelevant. What it has unquestionably done is demonstrate in horrible fashion the irrationality and certain tragedy in the murder of children.

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the supreme court case that legalized abortion in our country and has since led to the murder -- yes, it is murder -- of approximately 55 million of our children. To put it in perspective, that is the equivalent of over 2 million Sandy Hook shootings. Those deaths were not only an offense against the children and adults killed; they injured the parents and families who are left to mourn their dead, left to cry and wonder in anger and confusion and sorrow why it happened. Just so, abortion does not only hurt the child; the mother, who might have been spiritually, emotionally or monetarily in dire straits to begin with, has to live with the scar of the death of her child. 55 million children killed -- 55 million wounded women mourning the loss of their children. If that is not a blight on our society, I don't know what is. Whether you habitually vote democratic, independent or republican, whether you consider yourself a conservative or a liberal, whether you are a theist or an atheist, you can look at Sandy Hook and know that that never should have happened. You can look at something 2 million times worse and know with 2 million times the certainty that it never should have happened either. Obama knows it too, which is why he spoke these words:
They had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, weddings, kids of their own. This is our first task: caring for our children. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That is how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we honestly say that we are doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm? I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and, if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. These tragedies must end. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true, but that can't be an excuse for an action. If there's even one step we can take to save another child, surely we have an obligation to try. Are we really prepared to say that we are powerless in the face of such carnage?

"The causes of such violence are complex." We all know they are; rape is the obvious case. But it's not an insuperable challenge. I know a young girl who was raped and somehow found the strength to keep her baby. It can be done. And great joy, incredible love, can come from such courage and sacrifice and trust. But what about another cause, one that I think is not given enough attention? What about the young girl from a conservative family and traditional background who fears being judged and ostracized by her family, friends or community in general? This perhaps sounds very Hawthorne-esque, antiquated and unrealistic in our modern day and age. But it happens. Fear of this judgement, judgement which is inappropriate and inexcusable (look at John 8:3-16), serves as yet another argument, and sometimes a very convincing one, for such a girl to do what she never thought she would. It is one of those complex causes, and one that must, like the others, be combated. "Surely we have an obligation to try." Mother Teresa, universally (that means by everyone, regardless of creed or political alignment) acknowledged for her kindness, compassion, defense and understanding of society's most rejected, once said, "A nation that kills its own children is a nation without hope." Let us not be that nation any longer. We are not powerless in the face of this carnage. Let us do our duty to protect those weaker than ourselves, those who require our protection, those who are so vulnerable that they cannot even ask for the help that they so desperately need.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Toilet Limerick

I promised light-hearted material a few posts back, so here you go. After a little red wine, silliness induced by Jasper Fforde, and frustration at yet again having to take the lid of the back of the toilet to stop it running (the chain holding the little lid mechanism thingy gets tangled on itself -- surely there's some sort of Dante-esque grotesque spiritual metaphor in that), I felt the need two nights ago to write the following for our downstairs bathroom:
Dear Guest,

Please pardon our troublesome loo --
There's a task we must ask of you.
For if we do not
The water won't stop
But run the entire night through.

If you would but open the lid
Wherein running water is hid,
And pull down the chain,
Thus stopping the drain,
Our toilet will do as it's bid.

Monday, January 14, 2013

St. Joseph Was Only Human

During this Christmas season (yes, Christmas isn't over till February 2nd -- keep the party going!) I've spent a lot of time learning Christmas songs I've never sung before and trying to introduce some of my favorites to my new singing-mates. One of these favorites, not surprisingly, was not entirely well-received. The Cherry Tree Carol, due to a somewhat unfavorable representation of St. Joseph, causes an amount of controversy that doesn't usually accompany the majority of traditional Christmas Carols. It's an old song; a number of different versions have been established over the 600 odd years that people have been singing it. Of course, while age and endurance is not necessarily a guarantee of quality, it does help to make one's case. So, why don't people like it?

The carol is a story about Joseph and Mary walking into an orchard, an orchard rich with deep-red cherries and berries. Mary, hungry and presumably moving a little slower than was her wont on account of her expectant condition, asks Joseph to pick her a single cherry. Joseph gets a little snarky, responding that whoever it was that got her with child can go get her a cherry; he'll have none of it. Then, depending on which version of the carol you're listening to, either an angel comes down and moves the cherry branch so that Mary can reach it, or the branch moves seemingly of its own accord when the unborn Infant commands it. Joseph, seeing divine intervention, is immediately ashamed of his unkind words, cheers Mary up, and they go home together.

My sister and I heartily disagree on the worth of this story. Clearly, it is not biblical; rather, it lies in the realm of tradition and legend or perhaps even just plain make-believe. She sees it as disrespectful and an unfair representation. As we don't have any record of St. Joseph being unkind or downright cranky, it seems rather presumptuous to put such words in his mouth. True enough. But let's think about his situation. Unlike Mary, he was not preserved from Original Sin. He knew temptation and knew what it meant to fall to it. He was human; he sinned. Now, let's talk about family dynamics. Guess who's fault it was if something went wrong in that household? Every single time. Poor Joseph. You just can't win when you're living with two entirely absolutely perfect people. Don't get me wrong. Of course part of me would love to live with people who were one hundred percent kind and perfect and humble and beautiful and loving and gentle and sweet and good all the time. But sheesh, I'm certainly not all those things, and I'm sure I couldn't help but get at least a little discouraged at my imperfections constantly seen in sharp contrast to their perfection. Yes, he was a saint. But saints are not born -- they get there through grace and hard work. He was human, and I'm sure he lost his temper at least once. To say that he didn't seems a little piously unrealistic.

Tying all this back into The Cherry Tree Carol, let's think about how the human man Joseph was living in close quarters, as a husband, to the most beautiful woman the world has ever seen. Helen of Troy is small potatoes, people. Not only does he have to stave off all the certain temptations regarding this exquisite creature that surely must have come over him from time to time, but he has to be all right with the fact that she is having someone else's baby, not his. It's easy enough for us to say, hey, it's the Incarnation. Lucky guy! Right? Yeah, not really. We still don't really understand it. Intellectually we might accept it, but that doesn't mean we really get it. Even with Revelation and all the studies and writings of theologians over the last two thousand years, we mere earthly humans are really never going to be able to understand it all the way. It's too big for us. So think of Joseph the handyman from nowhere-ville, without revelation and theologians behind him, trying to understand how his betrothed is pregnant all of a sudden. It's only natural that he'd assume what all the rest of us would in such a situation. Yes, he is kind about it, but don't you think he is a little miffed at least once?

The saints don't help us to be better people unless we remember that before they were canonized and living in the full glory of the beatific vision, they were imperfect, sometimes childish, occasionally deeply flawed ordinary Joe Schmoes like the rest of us. St. Lord-Make-Me-Chaste-But-Not-Yet Augustine, is of course one of my favorites. St. Therese of Lisieux was a spoiled rotten selfish little girl, by the way. St. Joseph was, I am sure, given oodles of grace to handle all the remarkably intense challenges he had to face, but it's far more down to earth, humanizing and realistic to think about the times he might have lost his temper than it is to pedestalize him as an eternally patient super-human demi-god. Sing on, little choir boys!

If you want to read a nice full length version of the story, complete with the verses often omitted when it's sung, Bartleby has a nice version here.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Defining Lambent and Eldritch

1. (esp of a flame) flickering softly over a surface
2. glowing with soft radiance
3. (of wit or humour) light or brilliant
[from the present participle of Latin lambere to lick]
This word was in a hymn last Sunday. All of us in the choir sang it, and then did the, "Do you have any idea what that word means?" eyebrow raise and collectively shook our heads. It makes me think of the artwork of one of my sister's college friends (once Bridget Sercer, now Sister Marie Pierre). Not the best image of her work, but hopefully it gives you some idea.

1. suggesting the operation of supernatural influences; "an eldritch screech"; "the three weird sisters"; "stumps...had uncanny shapes as of monstrous creatures"- John Galsworthy; "an unearthly light"; "he could hear the unearthly scream of some curlew piercing the din"- Henry Kingsley; strange, unearthly, eerie
 Etymology: c.1500, apparently somehow from elf (cf. Scottish variant elphrish), an explanation OED finds "suitable;" Watkins connects its elements with Old English el- "else, otherwise" and rice "realm." 
Do you all know that Goethe poem, Der Erlkönig? Back in the days when I was being foolhardy (so long ago -- I'm postively never foolhardy now) and thinking I would major in German, I memorized this poem. I pull out the bits I still remember whenever anyone tries to talk about how ugly German is. Just so we're clear, the only reason most people think it's ugly is because the extent of their exposure to the language is barking Nazis in World War II movies. English would sound pretty awful like that, too. Just say this verse out loud and see if you don't feel the softness and entrancement in it, especially in the second line. (In case you don't know how German is pronounced... say the sps like shp and pronounce the e at the end of schöne and Spiele (or any other word) as an uh sound. You pronounce an ie as an ee and an ei as an eye. So spiele, all things told, is said SHPEE-luh. The vowel sound in the middle of schöne is almost an euh sound; form your mouth to sound an oooo, and then bring up your lower mouth to flatten and widen the sound.)

«Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!“You dear child, come along with me!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel' ich mit dir;Such lovely games I'll play with you;
Manch bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,Many colorful flowers are at the shore,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.»My mother has many a golden garment.”

So, this poem is about a father riding home late one night through the wind, holding his young son fast and safe and warm in his arms. The elven king begins to speak to the child, who is scared, and tries to tell his father what is happening. His father comforts him, saying it is only the wind, and that the spirits he sees are only shadows in the trees. The boy becomes more and more frightened as the elven king continues in his wooing, for lack of a better word. The father rides faster, but by the time he reaches home, the boy is dead in his arms. Not the happiest poem in the world (Goethe was one of the first Romantic poets, by the way) but perhaps you see why I thought of it in conjuction with the definition of eldritch. It is creepy and ethereal.
I suppose it's about time I wrote on something comic or uplifting. I'll get on that...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Marilynne Robinson Failure

Two years ago I got 70 pages into Gilead and quit. One year ago I got 50 pages into Gilead and quit again. A week and a half ago I made it about 20 pages into Housekeeping and gave up in despair. Home is sitting on my shelf, and I don't suspect I will try it for quite some time.

Now, listen, lots of people I really like have highly recommended Marilynne Robinson's books. I read a page of her and think, yes this is my kind of lady. But, as happened with Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter, I find myself terribly bored and looking for a little more, I don't know, spunk or juice or color or something. It's all too... lyrical. Wait, is this me talking? Yes. I sort of want to poke the book with a sharp pen and see if anything changes. Perhaps, just perhaps, I should wait fifteen years and see what happens then.

In the meantime, there was at least one short passage that I liked before despair took hold:
She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace. She knew a thousand songs. Her bread was tender and her jelly tart, and on rainy days she made cookies and applesauce. (12)
That sounds like I should like it, right? But it's really just not doing anything for me. This is troubling, very troubling... So, I put it down, and re-visited first Richard Cory, which is twistedly shocking, and then The Wedding Gift:
Her father had been wicked, her mother a fool
who withered and then died, her chin besmeared by drool.
She grew with this resolve, held above all other --
she'd not wed a bastard, or become her mother.
Thinking it was love, she came when he commanded.
Starving for poor love, she gave what he demanded.
He did at first seem loving, kind and sweet and dear,
but soon she saw her trap -- he soured in a year.
He would come, this husband, so awfully late each night,
and her anemic heart would tremble at the sight.
She loved to wish and dream of places far away,
but he had caught her fast, and forced her there to stay.
A man came travelling by, with tales of times of old,
and told of lovely girls, of men both brave and bold.
And then her starving soul, so long benumbed and dark,
saw with wretched fury her future, drear and stark.
She looked with anger at her man, vowed against this death --
She'd not wilt and wither with her every single breath.
In their house she pulled out a wedding gift soon dear.
She placed it in her dress and safely held it there.
With once-forgotten, now well-hidden strength of will
she served him heavy food until he had his fill.
As he approached his wife, her mind was firmly set;
That moment now was near that he'd not live to regret.
Though she'd been as her mother, just a trembling wife,
With a knife she killed him, and so retook her life.
Gotta love those Appalachian ladies. On a similar note, Caleb Meyer, courtesy of Gillian Welch, an idol of mine:

Can the Coen brothers make another movie soon, please? Or does Patrick deWitt have another novel coming out, perhaps?

I am enjoying Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair. Thanks!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

On Booze, Byron, and Keats

Despite my efforts to branch out, I find myself happy to remain in my Fitzgerald rut. (I did, however, just purchase a Jasper Fforde novel, thanks to your recommendations; I will start it next.) When I was home for Christmas, I found this book:

As you might imagine, I was dee-lighted. I'm planning a jazz age party, costumes required, featuring cocktails found here, and have already enlisted one of my outlaws (ie, my brother's inlaws) to bartend. Naturally, as I feel I ought to be an authority on the subject before hosting such an event, yesterday I bought Fitzgerald's On Booze. It's not a novel; it's a collection of relevant snippets from his notebooks and letters and a few longer stories and essays. All together it's not even 90 pages, and so far I've thoroughly enjoyed pages 1-30. A few teasers for you:
Look here, you take a girl and she goes into some cafe where she's got no business to go. Well, then, her escort he gets a little too much to drink an' he goes to sleep an' then some fella comes up and says, 'Hello, sweet mamma," or whatever one of those mashers says up here. What does she do? She can't scream, on account of no real lady will scream nowadays -- no -- she just reaches down in her pocket and slips her fingers into a pair of Powell's defensive brass-knuckles, debutante's size, executes what I call the Society Hook, and Wham! that big fella's on his way to the cellar.
Turkey Remains and How to Inter Them with Numerous Scarce Recipes:
1. Turkey Cocktail: To one large turkey add one gallon of vermouth and a demijohn of angostura bitters. Shake.
 On page 27, Fitzgerald refers to Keats as "The Fiery Particle." I did a little googling and discovered what you know to be one of my favorite things: writers writing about writers. Apparently there was a rivalry between Keats and Byron, one that Byron was unaware of, which of course makes it all the more pathetic for poor Mr. Keats. Is this true? At any rate, Byron dedicates eight lines of his Don Juan to a reflection on how an unfavorable review of Keats' poetry killed him -- a rather macabre though perhaps not entirely inaccurate view of this sensitive soul. It is from this passage that Fitzgerald takes the description of Keats as a "fiery particle":

John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
Just as he really promised something great,
If not intelligible, -- without Greek
Contrived to talk about the Gods of late,
Much as they might have been supposed to speak.
Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate: --
'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.
                                        (Don Juan, Canto XI, 60) 
I confess, I wouldn't mind terribly if someone described me as a fiery particle, though I hope I've enough sand to avoid being snuffed out by an article. Byron elaborates on this thought in the following communication:
I know by experience that a savage review is Hemlock to a Sucking author -- and the one on me -- (which produced the English Bards &c.) knocked me down -- but I got up again. -- Instead of bursting a blood vessel -- I drank three bottles of Claret -- and began an answer. (26 April 1821 BLJ 8.102) 
No doubt Byron and Fitzgerald would get along fairly well. Perhaps, though, being in some ways so similar, they might despise each other. Keats would, I think, be excluded from the festivities.

I confess, it's pictures like this that make me realize why Byron was such a, uh, well, man of hugely appreciated spectacularly aesthetically pleasing physiognomy. Hot damn.