Monday, December 31, 2007
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Those people I've given this award to are encouraged to post it on their own blogs; list three things they believe are necessary for good, powerful writing; and then pass the award on to the five blogs they want to honour, who in turn pass it on to five others, etc etc. Let's send a roar through the blogosphere!
Here are my three things that make writing powerful:
1. Resonance. Charles Gramlich, a fellow Shameless Lion winner, did an interesting post on this subject. He writes of resonance: "The power of this approach is that it is all about the “reader” and not the writer. The reader feels the currents passing underneath..." Resonant phrases remain with the reader. In an example I mentioned in a recent post, Leo Durocher actually said, "The nice guys over there are in seventh place." It had no resonance. The sportswriters eventually changed it to "Nice guys finish last." That, Charles commented, had resonance.
2. A lack of pretension. George Orwell, in his essay, "Politics and the English Language," decries "pretentious diction," and goes on to translate a passage from Ecclesiastes into modern English:
“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
And Orwell's modern version: “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”
The King James translation is resonant; Orwell's parody demonstrates the kind of pretentious diction that seems to dominate business and political writing.
3. Personality. Even in nonfiction writing, the personality of the writer comes through, or ought to. It's why Norman Mailer's coverage of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention is so readable, even when we're not comfortable with some of his views. In fiction, the writer not only needs to present his or her personality, but that of the protagonist, and of other characters.
Here are five blogs which roar with powerful words:
Oliver's Offerings: Jana Oliver, whose time travel novel Sojourn contrasts a dystopian future world with Jack the Ripper's London, writes of the conventions and forums she's attended as a fantasy writer. Her rants on the political scene are not only entertaining, but well-reasoned. Jana was a classmate of mine at University High School in Iowa City, but she makes the list on the strength of her writing.
Simply Wait: Patry Francis, author of The Liar's Diary, is a writer of elegant prose. Her most recent posts tell of her recent battle with cancer, and what we all hope and pray is her victory over it. Her writing has been an inspiration to me and to many others,, including the author of:
Eudaemonia, Lisa Kenney's blog is just a delight to read. (The current post, "When Kids Get Life," is more sobering than her usual posts, but she bravely addresses a controversial subject.) While I've never heard her voice, I can hear a gentle, compassionate, yet persuasive presence when I read her work.. Her site also features artwork by her very talented husband, Scott Mattlin.
Slow Reads, by Peter Stephens, is just that. You need to read his posts slowly, but you'll almost always be rewarded. Check out "freshman comp" for a devastating critique of the way schools teach writing. And his Blogstroll links to interesting posts on many different blogs.
The Virtual Journey belongs to Julie of Kent, formerly of the English North Country. It's a blog with a very British accent. Scroll through the photographs of Britain's landmarks and countryside, and find fascinating essays on subjects ranging from Blenheim Palace to the Book of Ecclesiastes. Actually, Julie has four connected blogs, which can be reached through VJ.I'm sorry I'm limited to five. Quite a few blogs deserve it, including Karen's Beyond Understanding (Sustenance Scout), Rebecca Burgess, and a new blog on my blogroll, Stress Management and Other Things, ( Tea N. Crumpet). In fact, I'd give it to every other blog on my roll if I could.
The green lion above is in thanks to Szelsofa, "the tree that stands on the edge of the forest."
One more thing: No obligation from any of the recipients to pass on the awards. I hope some do, but one or more of them may not be in a position to prepare such a post.
From the records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony May 11, 1659
I've been known to say "The Puritans were right," after being overwhelmed by the commercial demands of Christmas. Of course, the Massachusetts court wasn't complaining about commercialization. Any gift-giving would occur at New Year's. I learned the reasons for the Massachusetts ban here. What the Puritans didn't like was excessive drinking, merrymaking, and wassailing. The wassail--a sort of adult trick-or-treating, in which people would go from house to house and demand food and drink--could become violent if the wassailers did not get what they wanted. A familiar wassail song echoes this:
Come master, give us a bowl of the best,
And we hope that your soul in heaven may rest.
But if you do give us a bowl of the small,
Then down will come wass'lers, bowl and all.
The ban, which lasted only 22 years, really had nothing to do with Christmas as it is celebrated today. While I may still say "Bah, humbug" occasionally, my wife did things to make Christmas more meaningful--if just within our family.
She reminded us that the month leading up to Christmas is not the true Christmas season, but Advent--a time of hope and expectation. We light Advent candles at dinner, and sing a vese of "O Come Emanuel."
When the children were young, they would put their shoes outside the door on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, December 6, and we'd fill them with candy. St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, was known for gift-giving. A legend about him says that he anonymously gave three bags of gold to three girls in a poor family, so that they would have dowries for marraige and not be forced into prostitiution.
On December 13, St. Lucia's Day, we adopted the Swedish traditon of baking the braided St. Lucia bread. And for a while, our daughter Sarah presented it wearing a wreath of lighted candles. Anne made the bread last night--it's different from the one on the link, but it's very good.
And on Epiphany, January 6, Kathleen would make the Spanish Three Kings Bread. You had to be careful with it, as there was a bean (for good luck), a penny (for wealth), and a ring (for love and friendship) baked into it.
This was, I'll have to admit, a lot of work (mainly for Kathleen), but it did help put Christmas into context as a religious holiday in contrast to the commercial extravagnza that it has become.
Sunday, December 09, 2007
1. You have to post these rules before you give the facts.
2. Players, you must list one fact that is somehow relevant to your life for each letter of your middle name. If you don't have a middle name, just make one up...or use the one you would have liked to have had.
3. When you are tagged you need to write your own blog-post containing your own middle name game facts.
4. At the end of your blog-post, you need to choose one person for each letter of your middle name to tag. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.
C--Children: Anne--back home right now, waiting to go to India to be the official representative of the family at Sarah’s wedding. She’ll be resuming her studies once she gets back--most likely in Museum Studies. Sarah will be marrying Vainateya Deshpande in January. She’s at the University of Maryland right now, working on a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. James--high school senior, who’s also planning to study creative writing in college. Chronology--No “H” for history, so it’s the closest I could get. I’ve always been fascinated by the past, and spent two years in graduate school before quitting and finding a career in the travel business. Someday I hope to write a biography of Edward Bonney, the miller and hotel manager who became a celebrated bounty hunter in the 1840s, and who tracked down the killers of Colonel George Davenport, for whom the Iowa city is named.
R--Railroads. I loved trains from an early age. In the 1950s my parents would take me to the Rock Island Lines depot in Iowa City to watch the trains. I became an avid railroad fan during my high school days. I’ve worked for U.S. offices of the French National Railroads and the Italian State Railways before being hired by Amtrak. I recently published “Time Passages” in Remember the Rock Magazine. Rexroth--Kenneth Rexroth, who spent his early years in Elkhart, wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in the twentieth century, but is not well-known.
E--Episcopalian. Even though my work schedule makes it impossible to attend Episcopal services, I still count myself an Episcopalian. And I am very sad at the efforts to break up my church--and upset with such non-Anglicans as megachurch pastor Rick Warren who have aided and abetted the schism. Anglicans have always (well--almost always) been able to tolerate our differences. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the brilliant theologian Richard Hooker argued that the Church of England should be a “middle way” between Puritanism and Roman Catholicism. A church that could accommodate Puritan evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics ought to be able to live with a disagreement on the role of women and homosexuals. Elkhart--I’m still holding on to the fading hope that I can get a ticket clerk position in South Bend and live in Elkhart full-time. The city has fallen on hard times, but it’s been the home of so many creative people--Ambrose Bierce, Kenneth Rexroth, architect Marion Mahony Griffin, and Pulitzer Prize Winners J.N. “Ding” Darling, Howard James, and Charles Gordone (the first African American to win the Pulitzer in drama). I have a real love for the place.
W--Writing. What I’d really like to do for a living.
S--Spouse Kathleen Crews Wylder, the bright, lovely, and funny young woman I met in college and who is still the center of my thoughts and concerns after nearly 35 years of marriage.
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
While the National Review is a very conservative journal, it is a thinking person’s conservatism, and Lowry’s piece provokes a lot of thought. It’s right-wing revisionism, of course and actually a review of Jim Piereson’s book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution. Piereson argues that the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath marked the end of the optimistic and patriotic liberalism of the postwar years and the beginning of a new cynicism on the left:
Until this point, 20th-century liberalism had tended to see history as a steady march of progress. Now, the march had been interrupted by the country’s own pathologies. “Kennedy was mourned in a spirit of frustrated possibility and dashed hopes,” Piereson argues, and that sense of loss came to define the new liberalism.
American history no longer appeared to be a benign process, but a twisted story of rapine and oppression. “With such a bill of indictment,” Piereson writes, “the new liberals now held that Americans had no good reason to feel pride in their country’s past or optimism about its future.”
I haven’t read Piereson’s book, so what follows is based on Lowry’s article. My own take is that the Kennedy assassination was not the impetus for turning liberals into pessimists and progressive historians into revisionists, but the Vietnam War and the events of 1968: what journalist Jules Witcover called “the year the dream died.”
Lowry portrays Kennedy as a conservative, a sort of George W. Bush with charisma: “From a distance of nearly 50 years, the liberalism of 1960 is hardly recognizable. It was comfortable with the use of American power abroad, unabashedly patriotic, and forward-looking.” He goes on to say that Kennedy was “friends with Joe McCarthy… vigorously anti-communist, a tax-cutter and a cautious supporter of civil rights.”
And he’s right--or half-right. JFK had been a friend of McCarthy, but distanced himself from the Wisconsin senator after McCarthy had accused the Army of Communist leanings. His tax cut was in line with Keynesian economics; it was nothing like Bush’s massive tax cuts for the very wealthy. While he was cautious about supporting the civil rights movement, he embraced it wholeheartedly in 1963. As for using American power abroad, Kennedy had sense enough not to use American troops to invade Cuba. And if his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is right, Kennedy was planning a gradual withdrawal of the American military advisers from Vietnam.
Liberals are and were patriotic. It's more of a perception problem. In the early 1960s, civil rights workers wore American flag lapel pins. Segregationists wore pins with the Confederate battle flag. It was only later, in protests against the Vietnam war, that some radicals not only abandoned the national symbol, but desecrated it. Theirs was a stupid and foolish action, which hardened the resolve of those supporting the war. (Those of us who oppose the Iraq war have, for the most part, embraced the U.S. flag. A popular button in 2003 read, “Peace is Patriotic.”) When radicals desecrated the flag, or used the German spelling “Amerika” (to identify our nation as Nazi), liberals bore the onus of these acts (probably because we argued, on very American First Amendment grounds, that they had the right to do so). But we foolishly allowed the right wing to claim the flag as its own in the late 1960s--not during the civil rights era of 1964-65.
For Richard Goodwin, who had been a Kennedy aide, the Sixties ended with Robert Kennedy's assassination. His memoir, Remembering America : A Voice From the Sixties, is a fascinating book, which takes us from the quiz show scandals of the Fifties to 1968. Witcover makes the same point in The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America .
Lowry's point about American history deserves its own post. I plan to deal with trends in history in a more personal article about my two-year stint as a graduate student in history.]
For a nation of “rugged individualists,” we Americans look to leaders as much as anyone else. JFK captured our hearts and imagination and made us proud of our country. We liberals have not elected such a leader since. Robert Kennedy had the potential to unite America, but he too was cut down by an assassin. Lowry concludes by writing:
One day a Democratic politician will emerge who is compelling enough to vanquish the foul spirit of JFK’s assassination from the left. [One of Lowry’s points is that Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist--to reinforce his idea that Kennedy wasn’t a liberal. For me, the motives of this disturbed young man, which we‘ll never know, are not relevant to a discussion of Kennedy‘s politics.] Until that happens, JFK has to be remembered, in Piereson’s words, as “the last articulate spokesman for the now lost world of American liberalism.”
With, "the audacity of hope," I believe Barack Obama may be that Democratic politician.
Friday, November 30, 2007
My birthday cake won't be until next week. Kathleen didn't have time to make it, mainly because she's had to drive our son all over the place. Jim fractured his fifth left metatarsal (what the doctor called a Jones fracture) at a Halloween dance party. He and his girlfriend were dressed up like characters from Grease, and Jim was trying to dance like John Travolta. He was wearing a pair of my old Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars shoes, and when he came down on his left foot, the shoe just turned with his foot. So he's got one of those plastic boots on his foot for at least another two weeks.
But next week I'll have the cake--Rigó Jancsi, a Hungarian pastry from that wonderfully decadent world of the Austro-Hungarian empire of the late 19th century. It was named for a Hungarian Gypsy violinist who managed to seduce an American heiress who had become a Belgian princess. More on that later.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
In this final sentence in the Declaration of Independence, is Thomas Jefferson also declaring independence from the British language? The last word is honor, not honour. Spelling in those days was not consistent, so it probably was not a deliberate attempt to Americanize the word. But since 1776 the differences between American and British English have grown. Yes, Americans have adopted British terms, such as kiosk and queue, and the British have picked up quite a few Americanisms. But the difference remains. I am reminded of it nearly every time I read Julie's blog, The Virtual Journey, or one of her other blogs. Her posts are always interesting and always well-written, but the language is distinctly British.
In a wonderful description of a meal at an English inn, Julie writes: "In the centre of the plate, a field mushroom nestles in a bed of rocket and green salad; it is topped with spinach, grilled cheese and crisp lardons of bacon." There are no guided missiles here; rocket is British for arugula. (It made me wonder--excuse the groaner of a pun--if British botanists who specialize in arugula could be called rocket scientists.) And Americans just don't eat lardons of bacon, which I believe are small cubes. Our bacon comes in strips, or what the British would call streaky rashers.
I was reminded of an article I read more than thirty years ago. I dug out the Summer 1975 issue of Horizon Magazine and reread "Of Panda Cars and Pantechnicons, Biros and Blimps," by Ian M. Ball. Ball quotes Oscar Wilde as saying, "the English have really everything in common with the Americans, except of course language."
"To begin with, " writes Ball, you might pick up the Times Educational Supplement and read the following: 'A fifteen-year-old Croydon boy has been suspended by his head since last September because of his long hair.' No, this is not the British belief in corporal punishment carried to sadistic lengths. Head is an acceptable abbreviation for headmaster."
Then there's the simple sentence, "I was mad about the flat." For an American, it expresses anger about a punctured tire: to a Briton, it means being crazy about an apartment. Ball goes on with a paragraph to test the reader's understanding of British:
I was wearing a bespoke suit, with gongs, and was sitting in a bath-chair in a lay-by in the arterial road, when I first saw a panda car, then a milk float, followed by a pantechnicon and an articulated lorry. The driver of the lorry, oddly enough a real blimp, stopped, got out, and asked if I was carrying a biro. It transpired that he was carrying a load of geysers, immersion heaters, and loofahs for the ironmonger on the front. He said he had heard there was trouble locally in the mains in town and he was searching for a blower. I told him there was a kiosk ahead, just past the pillar-box.
While I'm sure Julie understood all the references, most Americans wouldn't unless they had spent quite a bit of time in the United Kingdom.
Here's a glossary:
Bespoke suit=custom-tailored suit
arterial road=main highway
panda car=small police patrol car
milk float=milk truck
articulated lorry=tractor-trailer truck
blimp=a pompous, elderly man
biro=ball point pen
geysers=over-the-sink hot water heaters
mains=electric power supply
Kiosk, of course was more general term even then, and has since crossed The Pond, as the British are wont to call the Atlantic. You can buy loofahs at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, but biros, pantechnicons, and geysers haven't made the journey.
Personally, I love learning about the differences in American and British, as well as the regional variations. (The Kensington and Allegheny, or K & A dialect of Near Northeast Philadelphia may be grating to my ear, but I'm glad there are still those who speak it.) But it must be difficult for my Hungarian friend SzélsőFa , who must not only deal with the sometimes bizarre rules of English spelling and grammar, but then have to sort out peculiarly American and British usages. And I haven't mentioned Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Jamaica, and so many other nations which have taken English and made it their own.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Monday, November 26, 2007
"Much of the humor in their songs requires at least a passing understanding of Amish and Mennonite culture and small-town Indiana to comprehend; thus, their popularity is quite regional."
Last Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, I was thankful for another sort of Electric Amish. I started off on my usual return to Bloomington from Elkhart, but I had to take an alternate route because of the lake-effect snow. That's one of the hazards of living around the Great Lakes. On winter days, when dry, cold air passes over the Great Lakes, it draws up evaporated water, and then drops it in the form of snow. It's why places like Cleveland and Buffalo are so frequently snowbound. I normally drive on U.S. 20 and Interstate 80 to Joliet, then take I-55 down to Bloomington. But that night, there was lake-effect snow from South Bend westward, so I drove straight south through Nappanee and Etna Green, then southwest through Rochester and Logansport, and west on U.S. 24, to avoid the big snow.
That put me right in the middle of Amish country. And they were out that night, in their buggies. But while the Old Order Amish eschew automobiles and electricity, the Amish in Indiana have battery-powered lights along with the big triangular Slow-Moving Vehicle (SMV)signs on their buggies. So, in a sense, they were electric Amish, and those lights and signs prevented me from hitting them. Even in drizzle and light snow, I had no problem seeing them.
Extremely conservative Amish sects in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota have gone to court to for their "right" to drive their buggies on public highways without the SMV signs. To do so at night is a virtual death sentence for the Amish travelers and their horse, and serious injury to the driver who hits them. But the Indiana Amish--at least those around Nappanee--have the sense not only to have the SMV sign, but to use a little electricity to make their black buggies visible at night. Were it not for those lights and the signs, I almost certainly would have hit a buggy that Thanksgiving night. So I'm thankful for Indiana's electric Amish.
Friday, November 23, 2007
I've been doing some research on the 1968 Democratic Convention for a time-travel novel I'm working on. Malier's account isn't the most comprehensive or the most informative, but it's the most well--written. Here's a paragraph from his description of Chicago from Miami and the Siege of Chicago (New York: World Publishing Co., 1968):
"Not here for a travelogue--no need then to detail the Loop, in death like the center of every other American city, but what a dying! Old department stores, old burlesque houses, avenues, dirty avenues, the El with its nineteenth century dialogue of iron screeching against iron about a turn, and caverns of shadow on the pavement beneath, the grand hotels with their massive lobbies, baroque ceilings, resplendent as Roman bordellos, names like Sheraton-Blackstone, Palmer House, red fields of carpet, a golden cage for elevator, the unheard crash of giant mills stamping new shapes on large and obdurate materials is always pounding in one's inner ear--Dreiser had not written about Chicago for nothing."
None of the other descriptions of 1968 Chicago could match that one paragraph.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
And Ulrich doesn’t have a problem with her quote as a slogan, for she’s written a new book outlining the lives of women who were not well-behaved, at least, according to their time and place, and showing how they did make history. You can guess the title.
Ulrich’s recent appearance on The Diane Rehm Show reminded me of another quote taken out of context, but with unhappier results.
In 1964, Jack Weinberg, an activist with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, was interviewed by a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Weinberg, then aged 24, got the feeling that the reporter was trying to label the student protest movement as Communist. As a gibe at the reporter, and to separate the movement from old-line Communists, he said, “We have a saying in the movement that you can’t trust anybody over thirty.”
In “Nice Guys Finish Seventh:” False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), Ralph Keyes writes:
“Among the few sixties radicals to stay active in social causes (Greenpeace, most recently), Weinberg was chagrined that his most lasting claim to fame is this puerile remark. ‘It’s a bit disappointing,’ he has observed, ‘that the one event that puts me in the history books--the one thing people ask me to comment on--is an off-the-wall-put-down I once made to a reporter.’ To make matters worse, the reporter he was trying to discredit as a reactionary turned out to be a veteran of progressive causes.”
And Weinberg often doesn’t even get credit for the quote, which is more frequently attributed to the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Which brings us to Keyes’s axioms of misquotation:
1. Any quotation that can be altered will be
2. Famous quotes need famous mouths.
Ulrich’s line is pithy enough that it isn’t altered, while Weinberg’s gets shortened to “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” a minor change. Axiom 2 applies more to their lines. For a good example of the first axiom, let’s examine Keyes’s title, which is itself, a misquote.
“Nice guys finish last,” is probably Leo Durocher’s most famous quote, or rather, misquote. Keyes tells us what he really said. It was July 5, 1946, and Durocher was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers, who led the National League. Their crosstown rivals, the New York Giants, were in seventh place--next to last. Keyes describes an impromptu press conference that day:
“Although the Giants had beaten his team the day before, Durocher ridiculed their pathetic record and dinky home runs. Red Barber, Brooklyn’s radio announcer why he didn’t admit that the Giants’ home runs were as good as anyone’s. ’Why don’t you be a nice guy for a change,’ needled Barber.
“Durocher leaped to his feet. ’A nice guy?’ he shouted. ’A nice guy!’ I been around baseball for a long time and I’ve known a lot of nice guys. But I never saw a nice guy who was any good when you needed him….’
“Durocher pointed at the Giants’ dugout, saying, ’Nice guys! Look over there. Do you know a nicer guy than [Giants’ manager] Mel Ott? Or any of the other Giants? Why they’re the nicest guys in the world! And where are they? In seventh place!
“’The nice guys over there are in seventh place. Well let them come and get me.’
“He waved contemptuously toward the other dugout. ‘The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place.’
“That’s it, folks. That’s the genesis of ’Nice guys finish last,’ as reported by Frank Graham of New York’s Journal-American… When Graham’s original column was reprinted in Baseball Digest that fall, Durocher’s references to nice guys finishing in ’seventh place’ had been changed to ’last place’ and ’in the second division.’ Before long Leo’s credo was bumper-stickered into ’Nice guys finish last.’”
If you’re interested in quotes, and how they came to be, find a copy of “Nice Guys Finish Seventh.” But be prepared to find that the quotes of such greats as Benjamin Franklin, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, Winston Churchill, and many others, were not always original.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
During much of the 1980s I was a member of St. Martin's Episcopal Church on the West Side of Chicago. I wrote the an early version of this essay for its newsletter. A few years ago I reworked it for The Winged Ox, the newsletter of the Memorial Church of St. Luke's in Philadelphia. I've tweaked it a little since then. I honor St. Martin not for his legendary miracles, but for his actions as an elderly bishop, when he tried to prevent the church from executing heretics.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote British historian Lord Acton. The feast day of St. Martin of Tours, November 11, celebrates a man who fought the corruption of power in the church.
Until the fourth century, the Christian church had little or no power. When the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 314, the church was endowed with great, if not absolute power.
Martin was born in 316, in Pannonia (modern-day Hungary), of pagan parents. At the age of 15 he was conscripted into the Roman army, where he was eventually stationed at Amiens, in Gaul. By this time he had become a catechumen, or inquirer into the Christian faith. One winter day, according to legend, he met a half-naked beggar outside the city gates. Moved with compassion, he cut his military cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. In a dream that night, Christ appeared to him wearing the half cloak.
Martin then appealed to be released from the army. When he was accused of cowardice, he offered to face the enemy armed only with the cross of Christ. Before the battle began, the enemy sued for peace, and Martin was allowed to leave the army. He might be considered the first conscientious objector.
Martin eventually made his way to Poitiers, in southern Gaul, to become a disciple of Bishop Hilary. He lived as a hermit, but attracted so many followers that he had to establish a monastery. Legend says that he did not want to become the Bishop of Tours in 371, but was persuaded to visit the city to give last rites to a dying woman, and was there made bishop by acclamation. As bishop, Martin had no qualms about destroying pagan shrines. But he would not accede to the taking of human life.
Priscillian, bishop of Avila, preached asceticism: vegetarianism, teetotalism, and celibacy. His call for the renunciation of marriage brought him the censure of Church authorities. The Council of Saragossa condemned his teachings in 380. After unsuccessfully appealing to Pope Damasus and Ambrose of Milan, Priscillian and six of his followers appealed to Emperor Magnus Maximus at Treveris (modern-day Trier, Germany). It wasn’t a good move. Maximus, at the urging of Bishop Ithacius of Ossanova, had Priscillian and his disciples condemned to death.
For Martin, excommunication, not execution, was the proper punishment for heresy. He made the long journey to Trier, where he persuaded the emperor to remove Priscillian and his companions from imperial jurisdiction. But soon after Martin left Trier, Ithacius prevailed on the emperor to have the men beheaded. They were the first, though sadly not the last religious dissenters to be executed at the behest of church authorities.
Martin refused to communicate with Ithacius after learning of his treachery. But later, when Martin returned to Trier to plead for the release of two rebels held by the emperor, Maximus would agree to the pardon only if Martin would make peace with Ithacius. Martin did so to save the lives of the men, though he later reproached himself for his weakness. For me, Martin’s compassion was his greatest strength.
Martin is the patron of soldiers and beggars. Because his feast day coincided with the pagan feast of Bacchus, he is also the patron of drunkards and innkeepers. But he also needs to be remembered as a man of Christlike love, who stood against the abuse of power by church and imperial authorities.
Friday, November 09, 2007
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, there was some hope that all his anti-Semitic rhetoric was just that--rhetoric. The Nazis purged the Jews from the civil service, but they sent the Communists to concentration camps. And few in the West cared about the Communists. Hitler was distasteful, even threatening. But after the night of 9 November, 1938, there was little doubt about Hitler's plans for the Jews. That night, the SA (Sturmabteilung or storm troopers) and the SS (Schutzstaffel--literally "protective squadron') attacked and ranscked about 8000 Jewish businesses, destroyed 1668 synagogues, and arrested 30,000 Jewish men, who were sent to concentration camps. About 90 people died in the attacks, though hundreds more died in the aftermath.
The Times of London, in its November 11 edition, wrote: "no foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday."
The term Kristallnacht refers to the shattered glass of the shops--many of which had windows of leaded crystal glass. But it was, in many ways, the beginning of the Holocaust.
So today is a day to remember the victims of the other 9/11, and and to remember that in spite of the Allied victory over the Nazis, we have not yet stopped genocidal attacks.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
Here I go again
crossing the country in coach trains
(back to my old
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Starting from San Francisco”
Jack Kerouac, in his Beat Generation classic On the Road, describes U.S. Highway 6 as “one long red line that led from the tip of Cape Cod clear to Ely, Nevada, and there dipped down to Los Angeles.” One early morning in June of 1969, I headed down that red line on my Raleigh Sports bicycle, riding east in preparation for a trip west.
During my senior year of high school I had worked as a stock boy at Scott’s Variety Store in Iowa City, and had saved up enough money for my trip. I’d be going out to the Grand Tetons to visit my high school sweetheart, who, with her mother, was working at a ranch near Dubois, Wyoming. I would take trains as far as Victor, Idaho, then bicycle over Teton Pass, through the park, and over Togwotee Pass to Dubois. But the Rock Island had eliminated checked baggage service to Iowa City. The nearest place to check my bike was Rock Island, Illinois. So I was riding east to go west.
Across much of Iowa and Illinois, U.S. 6 follows the Great Rock Island Route. The tracks were out sight on the first leg of my ride, from Iowa City to just outside West Liberty, where I struggled up a humpback bridge over the railroad, then pedaled hard on the way down to build up momentum. Biking up the gradual rise into town, I crossed the old Zephyr Rocket route. One U.S. 6 landmark, a favorite of Iowa Writers’ Workshop students, was the Frigid Queen. Its soft-serve cones weren’t any better than those of Dairy Queen or Tastee-Freez, but in those days, every budding writer had to drive out to that place with the Freudian slip of a name.
I rode on through West Liberty, and up and down the rolling hills of eastern Iowa. At Atalissa (named for Atalissa Davis, the first white child born in the village) there was another humpback bridge, this one with a bend in the middle. Both the West Liberty and Atalissa overpasses have since been replaced with grade crossings.
Just beyond Atalissa, U.S. 6 drops into the Cedar River valley, with a long level stretch of road along the bottomlands. I shifted into high gear for the downhill, trying to keep up the momentum until the inevitable climb back out of the valley. Also inevitable were the red-winged blackbirds who swooped down at my head to defend their roadside nests.
Once out of the valley, I followed Route 6 to the left and once more over the Rock Island tracks, then turned right into Wilton Junction. The branchline from there to Muscatine had long since been abandoned, but the town had yet to change its name back to plain Wilton. It had a respectable brick depot, but no trains stopped there.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Yet my experience suggests he may be right, at least in part. During most of the 1980s, Kathleen and I lived in the Village of Oak Park, a suburb bordering on the West Side of Chicago. (Even though it has over 50,000 residents, it's legally a village.) During the 1960s and '70s, much of the West Side, including the Austin neigborhood abutting Oak Park, experienced the Chicago pattern of resegregation, with white businesses fleeing along with the residents. And of course there was no time or opportunity for black-owned businesses, like those of Bronzeville, to replace them. Virtually all the urban sociologists assumed that Oak Park would folow the same pattern.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
A little more than eleven years later, moderate Communists in Czechoslovakia displaced the Stalinist regime there. The "Prague Spring" of 1968 did not begin with student demonstrations, but with a decision in the nation's Politburo to oust First Secretary Antonín Novotný and replace him with Alexander Dubček . Unlike the Hungarian revolution, the Czech reforms began at the top. Dubček tried to reassure the Soviets that he was still a loyal Communist and a Soviet ally. He did not withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, as the Hungarian government did. (Actually, Hungary withdrew from the Warsaw Pact after the Soviets decided to invade, so that didn't affect the outcome.) And for a few months in the spring and early summer of 1968, Dubček's "socialism with a human face" promised a new birth of freedom for Eastern Europe. But it was too much for the Soviet Union's leadership. This time, the invaders were Warsaw Pact troops from Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and East Germany. Dubček urged people not to resist the invaders, and the suppression, though brutal, did not result in the heavy casualties of the Hungarian uprising. And Dubček continued to serve in the government, as ambassador to Turkey. Later he was expelled from the Communist Party and worked in the forestry service. He had a better fate than Nagy, who was executed after the Hungarian uprising was put down.
As the Eastern European nations broke from the collapsing Soviet Union, it seemed there might be a rebirth of "socialism with a human face." Dubček was rehabilitated in Czechoslovakia (which later broke into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), while Nagy was reburied with honors in Hungary.
But with the rise of the European Union and the Euro, the ideal of socialism with a human face has faded. While most of Europe has more of a social safety net than the United States, Europe seems to be moving toward more privatization. American-style laissez-faire capitalism seems to be the goal. And American corporate capitalism has no human face.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Thinking about Hungarian history reminded me of my favorite song by the Malaysian singer-songwriter Pete Teo: "Budapest, " with the explanation, "inspired by Krudy, 1896." Gyula Krudy was a Hungarian journalist and novelist who is not well-known outside his home country--it's amazing to me that a Malaysian singer would have read him, But Pete isn't just any Malaysian singer. (I haven't read him, though I'd like to. I only learned of him because of Pete Teo. ) While looking at Pete Teo's Wikipedia site, I clicked on the link, "The Music of Pete Teo," and found myself back on my own blog. Since my post about Pete Teo is a Wikipedia link, I updated it to include his latest video on You Tube. Thanks, SzélsőFa, et. al.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
-Decree of calendrical change on marble steles in the Asian temples of Rome and Augustus, quoted in John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991
October 18 is the feast day of St. Luke the Evangelist. Eusebius, in his fourth-century Ecclesiastical History, writes, “Luke, who was born in Antioch, and was by profession a physician, being for the most part connected with Paul and familiarly acquainted with the rest of the apostles, left us in the two inspired books the institutes of that spiritual healing art which he obtained from them. One of these was his gospel in which he testified that he recorded ‘as those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word,’ delivered to him, whom also, he said, and he had in all things followed. The other was his Acts of the Apostles, which he composed, not from what he had heard from others but what he had seen himself.”
Eusebius, writing at a time when Christianity had become Rome’s official religion, does not hint at the radical vision of Luke’s writings—a direct challenge to the mightiest empire the world had seen. The calendrical decree, which would have been familiar to anyone in the ancient Near East, bears a striking resemblance to a familiar passage in Luke, announcing the birth of a different kind of Savior: “But the angel said to [the shepherds], ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11, NRSV). While Matthew draws parallels with the story of Moses in his infancy narrative, Luke is purposely declaring that his Savior is greater than the "god" Augustus.
Luke's Christmas story, beautiful as it is, is not literally true. There was a census when Quirinius was governor of Syria, but it took place several years after Jesus's birth--that is, assuming Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. But Luke isn't writing history as we know it today. He shows Jesus as the child of a poor family. Dominic Crossan points out that in the first century, artisans like Joseph were people who had lost their land, and thus were lower in status than the land-owning peasantry. Mary and Joseph can't find anyplace to stay in Bethlehem, so Jesus is born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough. And the angels don't proclaim the good news to kings or princes, but to shepherds.
The adult Jesus is a radical defender of the poorest. Take the Sermon on the Plain. Unlike Matthew's Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, Luke's Jesus does not add the ressuring "in spirit" to :
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom
While it's hard if not impossible to live the kind of life Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Plain, Luke's Jesus is forgiving to sinners who admit they are sinners--the classic example being the unnamed woman from the city, who is most likely a prostitute. (Even the Catholic Church has admitted that this woman was not Mary Magdalene.) He even promises the man (probably a Jewish rebel) crucified next to him that he would be with him in paradise.
In Acts, we have a Christian community which is, in fact, a socialist commune. We see the conflicts in that community between the Aramaic speakers and the Greek speakers and the ordination of the first deacons. The deacon Stephen, after giving a fiery oration against the Jewish hierarchy, becomes the first Christian martyr.We meet Saul of Tarsus, who may have participated in the stoning of Stephen. He hears the voice of Jesus after being struck blind on the road to Damascus and becomes Paul, apostle to the Gentiles. Luke tells the story of the division between the Jerusalem Christians, who continue to worship at the Temple, and Paul's followers, who are both Jewish and Gentile. And when Paul begins his journeys, Luke switches to a first-person plural narative, and gives us some of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament.
Christianity has been an established or pseudo-established religion for so long that its radical challenge to the status quo is hard to imagine. Kierkegaard famously said that "when all are Christians, ipso facto, none are." But in the first century, its message was revolutionary. If we take Luke seriously, it still is.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
1. Hard cover or paperback, and why?
Audio-especially if there’s a good reader. Jim Dale reading Harry Potter, James Marsters’, reading of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, and Barbara Kingsolver reading her own work are examples of excellent readers. Otherwise, I rarely buy hardbacks unless they’re used or somehow special. I bought Patry Francis’s The Liar’s Diary in hardback, for example.
2. If I were to own a book shop, I would call it…
If I specialized in railroad books, perhaps "The Twentieth Century Limited." In Elkhart, I might call a general bookstore “The Cynic’s Book World,” a pun on Ambrose Bierce’s The Cynic’s Word Book, the original name for The Devil’s Dictionary. Or, perhaps, In the Midst of Life, the later title for Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Outside Bierce’s onetime hometown, “The Frigate,” from Emily Dickinson’s poem. In sailing days, the frigate was a fast, three-masted ship, used as the eyes and ears of the navy. When one could only locate the enemy by sight, frigates were essential for naval intelligence. Dickinson surely knew this when she wrote:
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
Owning a bookstore is strictly subjunctive mood, though. I have less business sense than a two-toed sloth.
3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is:
I’m going to cheat a little bit on this and use a poem. The ballad “Thomas the Rhymer” is in many anthologies. I first read it in Seven Centuries of Verse, edited by A.J.M. Smith.. And in this quote, weird is a noun, meaning fate. The Queen of Elfland has just dared Thomas to kiss her:
“And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your bodie I will be.”
“Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunten me”
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips,
All underneath the Eildon Tree.
4. The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be…
Bierce would probably bash me with the cane he carried for dealing with critics, so I’ll pass on him. I couldn’t count on Jack Kerouac to be sober, even in the next world. I’ll have lunch with Kenneth Rexroth. I’d love to talk with him about his childhood in Elkhart, Indiana, even though I can’t expect him to tell the truth.
5. If were going to a deserted island and could bring one book except for the SAS survival guide, it would be…
I’m going to cheat here, too. I’d take my HarperCollins Study Bible, (NRSV). That’s really a lot of books, as it includes both the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha, and a few books, like 3rd and 4th Maccabees, that are recognized only by the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Peter, of slow reads, often quotes amazing stories from the Old Testament, which I’ve never read.
6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that…
Puts the due date on every book , tape, CD, etc that’s checked out of the library. In the days before computers, you had a card in each book that clearly stated when the book was due. Now you get a receipt for everything that’s slipped into one of the books, used as a bookmark, and promptly lost.
7. The smell of an old book reminds me of…
For some reason, I thought of a small storefront bookstore at the corner of Seventh and Division in Davenport, Iowa. It was in a building that had seen its best days when the Seventh Street trolley was running. Kathleen and I went in there once; the next time we were in Davenport, it was gone. But inside it were multi-volume editions of Goethe, Schiller, and Heine--all in that old German Fraktur type. At that time, both of us knew enough German to appreciate something like that, but we couldn’t afford it, even at the really low prices the store offered.
And that reminded me of a story I had conceived of back in those days. It was a mystery set in Davenport in 1916, before and after the referendum on woman suffrage. The amendment to the Iowa constitution giving women the vote failed because of opposition in places like Davenport and Dubuque, where the Germans and Irish associated woman suffrage with prohibition. My protagonist, Friedrich Teufel (German for devil; thus, the Devil of Davenport), is a reporter for Der Reform, a German-language newspaper, and a first-generation American. He and his unlikely ally, suffragette Clarice Barteau, the widow of a British soldier killed on the Marne, solve the crime. I’m fuzzy on the details of the crime, but I know that Teufel, after a lot of soul-searching, decides to support the amendment. (Aside: I took the heroine’s name from what I thought was the name of one of Kathleen’s ancestors. After doing some genealogical research, Kathleen found that the good woman was really named Clara Bartow. I like Clarice Barteau better.) The story’s on the back burner, but it’s simmering again.
8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be…
Simon Morley from Jack Finney’s Time and Again. If you’ve read it, you’ll understand. If you haven’t, it’s a great read.
9. The most overestimated book of all time is…
I’ll risk being “left behind” and say the Book of Revelations from that compilation I’d take with me on the deserted isle. When the early Church was deciding on the biblical canon, Revelations almost didn’t make it in. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom argued against putting in the canon. A millennium later, Martin Luther said it didn’t belong in the New Testament; that it was neither apostolic nor prophetic. The Jesus of Revelations is not the loving Savior of the Gospels but a vindictive King who seems intent on throwing most of us into a lake of fire. It has some beautiful imagery, to be sure, but it’s caused more ill-will than any other part of the New Testament, save Matthew 24:25, “His blood be on us and on our children.”
Of course, we’re stuck with Revelations in the canon, and with wacky interpretations of it such as those of Tim LaHaye and other “rapture” evangelicals. But I still think Martin Luther was right about this one.
10. I hate it when a book…
Is overly pretentious. I tried to read one of those long Robert Ludlum books once. The author miffed me right off the bat by having his hero take a compartment on the Rome-Venice train, the Freccia della Laguna. In the early 1980s I worked for the Midwest office of the Italian State Railways. I’ve ridden the Freccia della Laguna. (It was called the Marco Polo by then, but it was the same equipment.) It doesn’t have compartments. It’s set up like an American train, with open seating. O.K., getting trains wrong is pretty high on my list. But then Ludlum proceeds to quote a passage in Czech--untranslated. I’ll accept untranslated French, German, Spanish, or even Latin in a book. But Czech? Ludlum is telling most of his readers, “I’m smarter than you because I know Czech.” I didn’t finish the book.
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Titled, "Time Passages: Reflections on the last train home tonight," it's the story of a trip I took in 1978 on one of the Rock Island's last intercity trains. The title, of course, is borrowed from Al Stewart's 1978 hit song, with its refrain, "Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight." I try to go beyond railroad lore. As my train passes the neighborhoods and suburbs of Chicago and the small towns of Illinois, I reflect on history, literature, and film. For instance, much of the Rock Island line across Illinois followed the Sauk Trail, used by Black Hawk and his followers in the early 19th century.
I'm proud of my work, and I encourage anyone interested to buy a copy. And I can say I won't profit directly from sales. Remember The Rock doesn't pay royalties. I'm hoping, though, that Classic Trains Magazine, which already paid me for two articles, will take notice, publish them, and maybe buy more of my writing.
Saturday, October 06, 2007
If we remember George Orwell at all today, it’s for his dystopian novel 1984 and the fable Animal Farm. Perhaps some of us have read Homage to Catalonia, the recounting of his days as a Loyalist soldier in the Spanish Civil War, in which he finds that Stalinism and Fascism are, in human terms, the same. Or Down and Out in Paris and London, where he writes of his days working in Paris restaurants and living in the workhouses of England. But there’s one Orwell work that every writer should read and reread regularly: the essay, “Politics and the English Language.”
I recently tried to find it at the Bloomington Public Library. Shooting an Elephant, the collection of essays in which it appears, was not in the catalogue, but I had hopes it might be in another collection. So I went to the reference librarian who mentioned that someone else had been looking for the essay. It was in the public domain and available on the Internet. She found a site, and printed a copy for me.
Orwell quotes a passage from the King James Version of Ecclesiastes: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
He then renders it into modern English: “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”
“This is a parody, but not a very gross one,” he wrote in 1946. Today, it’s hardly a parody at all. Compared to much of what comes out of government and business, it’s remarkably clear writing.
“In our time,” writes Orwell, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification… People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic labor camps. This is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
In other words, the “Newspeak” of 1984 was not much different from the political speech of 1946. Today we’re hearing the same kind of language in defense of torture. The Wall Street Journal, in its November 12, 2005 editorial opposing Senator McCain’s anti-torture amendment, refers to such practices as “waterboarding” (itself a euphemism for a making the subject believe he is drowning) as “aggressive interrogation.” Kidnapping a suspect and sending him to a country where he can be tortured without any constraints is called “extraordinary rendition.”
But Orwell does not just comment on political language, but also implores all of us writers to be more clear and precise in our language. Orwell has six rules for the writer, which are as valid today as they were in 1946:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word when a short word will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive when you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous.
“Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.” The same can be said for my own writing in this blog. That’s one reason I try to reread Orwell’s essay at least every year.
Monday, October 01, 2007
Total Number of Books:
I’m going to assume this means the number of books I own. I probably have about 50 here at The Closet Over the Stairs in Bloomington. At the big yellow American Foursquare in Elkhart, we’ve probably got over 1000.
Last Book Read:
Charlie Wilson’s War, by George Crile. It’s the story of how a Cold War liberal from Texas almost singlehandedly made it possible for the mujahideen in Afghanistan to defeat the Red Army. Arming the mujahideen was a major factor in bringing down the Soviet Union, but it also paved the way for the Taliban and al-Qaida. Checking Wikipedia, I find it's been made, as they say, into a major motion picture. (I have yet to see "Now a Minor Motion Picture" on a book jacket.) This one really appears to be major, though.
Last Book Bought:
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams. A brilliant and funny science fiction explanation of why Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is a fragment. Ive also ordered a used copy of the cssette lectures, Self Under Siege: Philosophy in the 20th Century by Rick Roderick.
Five Meaningful Books:
An Autobiographical Novel, by Kenneth Rexroth. One of the most fascinating things about Elkhart, Indiana is the number of creative people who have lived there. Writer Ambrose Bierce, playwright Charles Gordone (first African American to win the Pulitzer for drama), and architect Marion Mahony Griffin are among many with Elkhart connections. While poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth spent only a few early years in Elkhart, his portrayal of his childhood there is spellbinding. Like many memoirs, it’s not always factually accurate. But his telling of life in 1910-era Elkhart, 1920s Chicago, and San Francisco in the ’30s and ‘40s is simply fascinating.
Philosophy and Human Values by Rick Roderick. The library finally discarded this one, but I’d check it out every few months. This four-tape set begins with Socrates, touches lightly on Roman and medieval philosophers, and then covers Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Nietszche, Kirkegaard, and Freud. Roderick intersperses his lectures with his West Texas humor and devastating critiques of America in the Reagan-Bush I era, when the lectures took place. Roderick’s courses are available over the Web at this site.
A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle. See below.
Twilight of the Great Trains, by Fred Frailey. It wouldn’t be On the Slow Train without a train book in here. The 1950s Handbook of American Railroads helped maintain my childhood passion for trains, and Peter Lyon’s 1967 To Hell in a Day Coach was a big factor in my advocacy of passenger train service. For a positive look at the future of rail travel, Supertrains by Joseph Vranich is a good one. (More recently, Vranich has been seduced by the Dark Side, or perhaps frustrated by Light side, and is now an ally of those who wish to destroy passenger train service. Vranich will tell you he wants privately-operated super trains instead of quasi-public Amtrak, but his right-wing allies would no more invest in high-speed rail than in dirigibles.) But for an understanding of the American passenger train, Frailey’s book is ideal. He looks at the last days of privately operated passenger train service over pro-passenger lines like the Seaboard Coast Line and anti-passenger roads such as the Southern Pacific. Most passenger trains, Frailey says, actually made money or broke even until the late 1960s, when the Post Office eliminated the Railway Post Offices (literally rolling post offices where mail was sorted enroute).
The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. He's another onetime Elkhartan, though I discovered Bierce long before I moved to Indiana. Some of my cynicism has to be laid at Bierce's doorstep. And yet underneath Bierce's cynicism is a romantic idealist. But the Devil's Dictionary is fun. Even the most happily married person would sometimes agree with his definition of marriage:
"The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two. "
Five Pople to Tag:
I'll pass on this one. I enjoyed doing the meme, but I'm not comfortable sending it on. If anyone wants to do it, be my guest.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Fantasy as a genre has not received a great deal of attention from academics. With the exception of the Center for Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, literary scholars have too often seen popular fiction as beneath them. One major exception is Michael D. C. Drout, professor of English at Wheaton (that's Wheaton in Norton, MA, not the Christian fundamentalist school in Wheaton, IL) College. While Drout's academic specialty is Anglo-Saxon language and literature, he also teaches a class on Tolkien every two years.
Luckily, we don't have to enroll in that elite school to experience Drout's wisdom. He has a course on CD for Recorded Books' Modern Scholar Series, called "Rings, Swords, and Monsters." I was lucky enough to check it out from the public library. While it's available through Recorded Books for about $100, Barnes and Noble has it, titled, "Of Sorcerers and Men," in the Portable Professor series for less than $30.
Drout begins by trying to define fantasy literature, though his initial definition is like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it." He then looks at some of th Victorian precursors of fantasy: Lewis Carroll, H. Rider Haggard, George MacDonald, and others.
About half the course is on J.R.R. Tolkien, with a brief biography and lectures on The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. The Tolkien sectin concludes with a fascinating lecture on Tolkien's scholarly writings and how they affected his fantasy works.
Drout then looks at Tolkien's imitatators: the Sword of Shanara series by Terry Brooks and Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever novels. Donaldson's work is especally interesting, as his work is a sort of anti-Tolkien. Thomas Covenant is a modern-day leper, who finds himself in "The Land," a world in which he is welcomed as a liberator and where he no longer suffers from leprosy. Yet he refuses to believe in The Land. He is also very much an antihero. In the madness which overcomes him in his transition from one world to another, he rapes a woman who has taken an interest in him. Even though he's far less appealing than Tolkien's Frodo, Thomas Covenant is still derivative of Tolkien, as the maps in the book and the description of The Land show.
A lecture on "worthy successors" follows, focusing on Ursula La Guin and Robert Holdstock. Drout goes on to discuss children's fantsy, including the Harry Potter books, Arthurian fantasy, and magical realism.
For anyone trying to write fantasy, or just to make sense of the genre, Drout's lectures are well worth the investment.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
-From the last paragraph of "A Bath in the Gas House," which I'm about ready to send off to a magazine.
I've been working on a mystery story set in Beat Generation Venice, California. If I'm lucky enough to get it published, it would be fun (and a lot of work) to have my reporter-protagonist go to work for JFK in a sequel. I did a little research on Salinger, just to make sure he was working for Kennedy in October, 1959 (he was), and also learned he was one of the few people who kept a promise to leave the country if George W. Bush became president.
Right-wingers have had a field day with actor Alec Baldwin, who made the same threat, but has yet to carry it through.
But Salinger, who said, "If Bush wins, I'm going to leave the country and spend the rest of my life in France," did exactly that. He died in France October 16, 2004.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
That is, until I read A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle . Here the heroes and heroines fight evil with love. And her characters are complex, flawed human beings, who had real emotions. They were modern-day American children who had to deal with bullies, gossip, and the stigma of being different. While Wrinkle is a children's, or young-adult book, I first read it as an adult. In fact, I read it aloud to my daughters.
After Wrinkle, I had to read the sequel, A Wind in the Door. While I love all of her Kairos (appointed time) books, for me, Wind was special. Proginoskes, the "singular cherubim," Blajeny, the tall, black, humanlike being, who is a Teacher, and the microscopic world of the mitochondrion are simply unforgettable. Meg Murry, who is also the heroine of A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, must find something lovable in Mr. Jenkins, the unlovable school principal. And the Echthroi (from the Greek word for enemy) come as close to pure evil as anything I've read in fiction.
Madeleine L'Engle died last Thursday, at a nursing facility near her Connecticut home. May Proginoskes greet her at heaven's gate.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
Al Lowenstein was sometimes known as the Pied Piper for his ability to charm young people into following him. In the summer of 1964 he recruited idealistic Northern white students to go down to Mississippi to register black voters. In 1967 he organized the Dump Johnson movement, persuading Eugene McCarthy to challenge Lyndon Johnson, after failing to convince Robert Kennedy that he should run. The students who got “Clean for Gene” and went door-to-door in New Hampshire and Wisconsin were often Al’s recruits. The New Left people, including Tom Hayden, despised Lowenstein because he was telling people to work within the system. When I met him he was setting up the Dump Nixon movement.
If I was charmed by Al Lowenstein, I was in good company. Journalist Steve Roberts, Senator John Kerry, actor Warren Beatty, and singer-songwriter Harry Chapin are among the many people he inspired. Edward M. Kennedy said of him: "He was a person of impassioned political conviction, but personally he loved so many who so often disagreed with his politics. Who but Al Lowenstein could claim among his best friends both Bill Buckley and Robert Kennedy?"
And conservative writer William F. Buckley, who disagreed with Lowenstein on most matters, said: "Of all the partisans I have known, from the furthest steppes of the spectrum, his was the most undistracted concern, not for humanity-- though he was conversant with big-think idiom--but for human beings."
On March 14, 1980, I tuned in to National Public Radio and was shocked and saddened to hear that Al Lowenstein had been murdered in his Manhattan office. The killer was Dennis Sweeney, a onetime protégé of Lowenstein who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Sweeney believed Lowenstein was plotting against him. After killing Lowenstein, he waited in the office for the police.
Some years later I discovered the book, Dreams Die Hard: Three Men‘s Journey Through the Sixties, by David Harris (New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1982). Harris is best known for going to prison for draft resistance and for his brief marriage to folksinger Joan Baez. But he, too, was one of Lowenstein’s protégés. Harris and Sweeney were both students at Stanford University in 1963-64 when Lowenstein was assistant dean. Lowenstein persuaded both idealistic young men to join the Mississippi Summer Project, where they worked to register black voters in McComb, Mississippi. McComb was one of the most Klan-dominated towns in the state, and the two men literally risked their lives for the cause of civil rights.
But while Lowenstein was a great inspiration to so many of us, he was also deeply flawed. Harris writes of driving for Lowenstein on a long campaign trip. They stopped at a motel and Lowenstein went in to register. He came back out to the car and said that the motel was booked except for a room with only one bed. Under the circumstances, Harris agreed to share a bed. Later that night Harris awoke to find Lowenstein hugging him. Harris said he was uncomfortable and Lowenstein ceased. Harris spent the rest of the night on the floor. It was something Lowenstein did regularly. Sweeney had the same experience. While the episode did not trigger Sweeney’s schizophrenia, it may have been the cause of his delusions that Lowenstein was trying to control him.
I have wondered what I would have done in such circumstances. I suspect I would have done just what Harris did--spend the night on the floor, but otherwise keep quiet about the incident, except within the circle of Lowenstein protégés.
Idaho senator Larry Craig’s arrest for soliciting sex in the men’s room of the Minneapolis airport and his subsequent denial that he was gay made me think about the confused sexuality of both Craig and Lowenstein and the cultures that led them to such risky behaviors.
I’m no psychologist, but it seems clear to me that Craig is and Lowenstein was bisexual--attracted to both men and women. Lowenstein was married for several years and fathered three children. But he channeled his homosexual impulses into these hugging episodes with his protégés. From what Harris says, they didn’t go beyond hugging. When Lowenstein encountered a protégé who was gay, he said he was not homosexual--he just wanted the intimacy of hugging. (Later in his life he most likely did have gay sex.) To be bisexual in the 1960s, even for an East Coast liberal, would be devastating to a political career. Today the openly gay Barney Frank (himself a Lowenstein protégé) is able to be reelected regularly from a liberal Massachusetts district.
Craig, a conservative Republican from a Mormon-dominated state, is in the same position now as Lowenstein was in the 1960s. Yes, his anti-gay rhetoric makes him a hypocrite. But to remain in Idaho politics, he had to hide the gay side of his sexuality. He appears to have done so through anonymous encounters in men’s rooms.
It’s difficult for me, a heterosexual, to understand the homoerotic impulse. But I know impulses and attractions, and it’s hard for me not to sympathize with Craig’s predicament, hypocrite though he is. Perhaps it’s because I still admire Al Lowenstein, in spite of his shortcomings.
Monday, August 27, 2007
-Widely accepted end to Lincoln's Lost Speech of May 29, 1856
Reading about the Lost Speech and its probable last, or nearly last sentence reminded me of the old distinction between will and shall. We no longer observe the usage, but Abraham Lincoln certainly did.
The will/shall rule was as follows: To form the future tense, you use the modal auxilliary shall in the first person, and will in the second and third persons. Lincoln appears to be violating that rule.
There is, however, an exception: to add emphasis, the modal auxilliaries are reversed. Thus, "we won't and you shan't."
While contemporary English is simpler in this respect, it is also less precise. It reminds me that even more recent texts contain subtle distinctions that the contemporary reader would not notice.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
-Thomas Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and biographer, quoted in Elwell Crissey, Lincoln's Lost Speech (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967)
On the evening of May 29, 1856, at at the Illinois Anti-Slavery Extension convention in Bloomington, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech so powerful that no one in the audience wrote it down. The "Lost Speech" has become one of the great mysteries of American history: exactly what did the future president say at Major's Hall that night to inspire such praise as Herndon's? It's a mystery that's been debated for over a century.
While there have been several attempts to reconstruct the speech, most notably that of Henry Clay Whitney, who was at Major's Hall, but did not publish his reconstruction until 1896, in McClure's Magazine. Even if his reconstruction is close to Lincoln's words, it was Lincoln's forceful and emotional delivery which caused so many to remember the speech.
Wilson Tucker, a science fiction writer who lived in the Bloomington area, wrote a novel, The Lincoln Hunters (New York: Ace Books, 1958), based on that mystery. A team of time travelers from a dystopian world six hundred years in the future go back to 1856 in order to record the Lost Speech. It's not great writing, but it's quite good; the brilliance of the concept makes up for the less-than-stellar prose. The book, while out of print, is available. Amazon Marketplace has copies for one cent (plus $3.99 shipping and handling).
Tucker won't tell you what Lincoln said. It's still a mystery.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
And I've tried to follow church news, which almost always concerns the consecration of gays and lesbians to the episcopate, the blessing of same-sex unions, and the imminent breakup of the Church.. The Episcopal Church holds a general convention every three years. In 2003 the convention upheld the consecration of Gene Robinson, a gay man in a committed relationship, to be Bishop of New Hampshire. Three years later the General Convention elected Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who supported Robinson's consecration, to be Presiding Bishop. At present, my legal residence and home during during rest days and vacations is in the Diocese of Northern Indiana, while my workplace and workaday residence is in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois.
The bishops of my two dioceses are both very conservative on this issue, but they couldn't be more different. The Right Reverend Peter Beckwith, Bishop of Springfield, seems extremely eager to break with the Episcopal Church. In a radio interview, he referred to then-Presiding Bishop-Elect Jefferts Schori as "gnostic" and "New Age." In a June 30, 2006 pastoral letter, he repeats the name-calling, though expanding it to the church as a whole:
...as a Church we have adopted a Gnostic theology and a New Age spirituality; and, since relativism is the order of the day, we are unable to assent to the Lordship of Jesus and the authoritative teaching of Holy Scripture.
The letter is followed by a resolution of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Springfield. It accuses Jefferts Schori, "by clear statements... to be outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy and the clear parameters of the Christian faith, as understood from an Anglican perspective" and goes on to call for "our Bishop to intentionally and deliberately explore avenues for alternative primatial relationship, and, as appropriate, oversight, notwithstanding this Diocese's status as a constituent member of the Episcopal Church."
In so many words, Bishop Beckwith is calling for schism. He wishes an"alternative primatial relationship." In Anglican terms, that means he wishes to find a new primate, or leading bishop to serve under. (The Archbishop of Canterbury is the Primate of All England, while the Presiding Bishop is the Primate of the American Episcopal Church.) Presumably this means Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, who appears to be working to set up a conservative Anglican church in the Unites States outside the Episcopal Church.
Bishop Beckwith makes the unsupported accusation that the Episcopal Church has traded Christianity for "Gnostic theology and New Age spirituality." I'm not certain he has any idea what those terms mean. Gnosticism, condemned as heretical by the early Church Fathers, was not one single theology. We know more about Gnosticism since the1977 translation of the Gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, and the publication of The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels in 1979. Some of Gnosticism is compatible with orthodox Christianity, but Gnostics believed there was some secret knowledge necessary for salvation:
Jesus says: "The one who seeks should not cease seeking until he finds. And when he finds, he will be dismayed. And when he is dismayed, he will be astonished. And he will be king over the All."
-Gospel of Thomas, saying 2, tr. Stephen J. Patterson and James M. Robinson
One variation of Gnosticism involves an evil divine creator, or Demiurge, who is at war with the spiritual forces of Christ. Such Gnostics saw the Demiurge as representing the material world, and Christ, the spiritual.
Orthodox Christians have rejected both the need for secret knowledge and the characterization of the material world as evil. We believe the Creator is God, not the Demiurge. Bishop Jefferts Schori has no more embraced Gnosticism than has Bishop Beckwith.
The New Age label is essentially meaningless. Because New Age religion is eclectic, it embraces many different traditions, including some Christian ones. The fact is that one can find New Age in virtually every religious tradition, and vice versa. But just as with the Gnostic label, Bishop Beckwith provides no specific examples.
Bishop Beckwith's condemnation of the Episcopal Church, though , has more to do with sex than spirituality. In an address to the diocesan synod in October, 2005, he berates his fellow bishops for talking too much about helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina and too little about the Church of England's Windsor Report, which deals with the consecration of gays and lesbians to the episcopate and the blessing of same-sex unions:
Our presentation to the Anglican Consultative Council this last June was an embarrassment. Finally, with an opportunity to do something constructive, the House of Bishops met at the Ritz Carlton Resort in San Juan, Puerto Rico last month. All that was and continues to be needed is: 1) Recognize that the Windsor Report is the prescribed way forward if we are to remain a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion; and 2) Commit ourselves to adhering to and following its directives. But instead of doing that, most of the time and energy was given to discussing what our Church’s response should be to the hurricane devastation which occurred late this past summer. Certainly, that consideration is important and appropriate but not at the expense of dealing with what has been even more destructive to our Church, and that is the hurricane winds we created in the ’03 Minneapolis Convention.
Didn't Jesus say something about loving one's neighbor as oneself?
The Right Reverend Edward Stuart Little, Bishop of Northern Indiana, takes a different approach. (An aside, here: Edward Little became bishop at the same time the movie Stuart Little was released. It turns out that Little's father was a friend of E.B. White, and the book about the precocious mouse was named for him. He jokes that he's "the son of a mouse.")
Bishop Little, though he opposed the consecration of Bishop Robinson, is not threatening to break up the church. In a response to a Christianity Today article which appeared to favor schism, he wrote a reply, "Living With Tares." The title refers to the Parable of the Tares, (Matthew 13: 24-30). A farmer plants his field with wheat, but in the night, an enemy comes and sows weeds (tares) in the field. His servants offer to pull up the weeds, but the farmer says to let both grow, and at the harvest, the wheat will be gathered and the weeds burned. Bishop Little chooses to stay in the church with people he disagrees with, and let God sort it out in the end:
Yet I stay: not simply by default, or as a matter of blind institutional loyalty. I have decided to stay, and to throw my lot in with people with whom I am often in profound disagreement. The editorial dismisses John 17 as a basis for such a decision and says, in effect, that it does not pertain in our present situation. But Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper does not simply provide a rationale for unity: it also includes an implied warning. Jesus prays “that they may all be one . . . so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (v. 21). In other words, Jesus invites the world outside the Christian community to make a decision about him on the basis of our unity. The world is watching us, Jesus says. How we deal with one another in the midst of crisis has eternal implications – not simply for ourselves, but also for those who do not yet know him.
And he does not proudly say that his opponents are the tares:
Nor are our divisions as clear-cut as they may seem. It is not the case, in the Episcopal Church or in any other, that you’ve got believers on one side and heretics (or apostates) on the other. I know many in my church who love Jesus, confess him as Lord and Savior, believe the articles of the Christian faith as summarized in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and seek to follow Jesus in costly ways – and who, at the same time, affirm the decisions of the 2003 General Convention. As a matter of principle, when people claim to be disciples of Jesus, I will treat them as brothers and sisters in Christ, Bishop Gene Robinson among them. He is not only a colleague; I count him as friend and fellow pilgrim. I will commit myself to him, and to them, even when I am convinced that they are wrong. I will seek to manifest a godly forbearance, and ask that they do the same toward me.
Bishop Beckwith would do well to follow the lead of his colleague from Northern Indiana. And those of us who supported the consecration of Gene Robinson should also follow his lead, treating our opponents as brothers and sisters in Christ.