Friday, February 26, 2010

Striking at Cultural Roots

Before there was Dick Cheney, there was this guy.

With the current turmoil in Greece, I found the following Kissinger quote (1994) to be of interest.

"The Greek people are a difficult if not impossible people to tame, and for this reason we must strike deep into their cultural roots. Perhaps then we can force them to conform. I mean, of course, to strike at their language, their religion, their cultural and historical reserves, so that we can neutralize their ability to develop, to distinguish themselves, or to prevail; thereby removing them as an obstacle to our strategically vital plans in the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East."


A h/t to Liturgical Energies for this quote.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Life Without Television

Our television set died last weekend. Oddly enough, its demise occurred unnoticed and unlamented, in the midst of a crowded house. One minute there was the overture from Doctor Zhivago on Turner Classic Movies and then next time we checked, just a horizontal white line, a faint buzzing and the odor of burned electronics. How such a death could go unnoticed requires some explanation, as there were 12 of us in the house at the time--myself and wife, our son, and an assortment of 9 in laws. Our den is in a separate room off a hallway, so that one would have to go to that room to watch television, and more importantly, the noise from same does not intrude into the rest of the house. After the meal, my wife and her family remained in the kitchen, engaging in one of their favorite past times--nostalgia. From their telling, the golden age of our little community apparently occurred during their youth, and they never tire of revisiting their schooldays. While I have a passion for history, at some point in my life I realized that I have absolutely no appetite for sentimental nostalgia. And as I now know these stories better than they do, my son and I quietly slipped off to the front of the house where there are books and armchairs. It was during this period--our eyes averted--that our television gasped its last.

Faced with a dead television on our hands, I suddenly realized, as I approach the shady side of middle age, that I have never actually purchased one. My parents bought me a set when I left for college, I think. It sat on one of those metal rolling stands. This set got me through college, bachelorhood and well into early marriage. At some point, my in laws decided we needed a better television and presented us with a new set for Christmas. My sister-in-law was incredulous that we did not have a VCR player, so one of those ended up under the tree, as well. Thus endowed, the wife and I sprung for an old-Englishy-looking console to house our new technology. As we lost the remote within the first year of ownership, we continued to change channels and volume the old-fashioned way--by pushing the buttons. I suppose these buttons were not meant to be pushed, for they all fell out after about 10 years or so. We discovered that you could stick a pencil in the hole where the button used to be and that this would work just fine. During the Christmas of 2000, my nephew brought Fiance' No. 1 down from Virginia, on a meet-the-family visit (Sadly, neither she nor her successors have been able to transition from fiance to Mrs.) I think he was a bit embarrassed by his eccentric uncle and aunt who changed the channels on their television with a No. 2 pencil. So, that Christmas Eve they went into the city and returned with new television set, the now lately-departed.

In theory, my wife is much more of a television person than I am. In actual practice, however, I am more culpable. She enjoys relaxing on the sofa in front of the television before bedtime. She also enjoys watching the Hallmark Channel, Lifetime Channel, or that perverse channel that seemingly shows Grey's Anatomy 24 damn hours a day. None of these channels were meant to be watched by men, so I usually return to the study and my books. My wife watches one of these channels before she falls asleep--which is 10 minutes at best. (She is the same way on airplanes, being sound asleep before we can even taxi to take-off position.) So all told, she logs slightly over an hour a week with the television.

My television time is mainly in the mornings. I enjoy watching Joe, Mika and Willie go at it on MSNBC's Morning Joe. I catch snippets of this show, while sitting in my wife's grandmother's rocker, all the while balancing a newspaper, coffee, oatmeal and toast. During the 2008 election, I watched far too much talking-heads on MSNBC, but since then my enthusiasm for this sort of thing as fallen off markedly, now confined basically to Joe and Mika. I follow the Glenn Close mini-series, Damages, on FX. I am also a sucker for Masterpiece Theater on Sunday nights, though their historical adaptations are increasingly rare. So, in a week's time, I probably spend more time in front of the televisional box than my wife does.

Our interests converge when it comes to classic movies. We spent the night of "Superbowl Sunday" watching one of my all-time favorites, The Pink Panther, on TCM. If we watch anything together at all it is usually along these lines--that sort of thing, and of course Diners, Drive-inns and Dives on the Cooking Channel.

I have been interested to see how our schedules have changed these last few days by the absence of the box. There's clearly more conversation and more reading by each of us. The first night we were both in bed early, she reading Pat Conroy and me reading Boris Akunin. Last night, I seemingly had endless time. After my prayers, I read an entire book. I could get used to this schedule.

I suppose I will eventually have to replace the television. There is a satellite dish on our roof and a monthly payment for same. In time, my wife will probably insist upon it. Me....I am holding-out for someone to buy us another one.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Good Reading

Some favorite readings, of late:

The powers and principalities are no longer represented by uncouth tyrants like Stalin and Adolph, Mao and cannibals like Pol Pot and Idiot Amin: they are sophisticated patrons of the modern arts, faceless combines and congeries, publically held and traded, destroyers, like Shiva, of nation states and family farms, sponsors, like the old Caesars, of celebrity prostitution. And besides, we Older Sons know that the jihad is the new Assyria – a historical moment that calls not for the Arms of Cheney so much as for repentance, justice for the poor and creation, salvation for the fetus and embryo, the old and alien.

This plucked from the midst of Fr. Jonathan's latest, here.

It is difficult to say whether birth doles out to us an equal need for friendship. It most certainly does not dole out an equal capacity for it. Coleridge had both, and the need sometimes crushed the capacity. Dr. Johnson had the capacity. Jonathan and David apparently did. Horatio, never passion’s slave, proved he had it when he said, “you will lose this wager, my Lord,” and for it a sweet Prince held him in his heart of hearts. All of these and all the great friends that song and story bequeath to us knew well what another in that noble lineage understood: “No mind was so good that it did not need another mind to counter and equal it, and to save it from conceit and blindness and bigotry and folly”—so Charles Williams, again from The Place of the Lion.

On Friendship, by Jason Peters, here.

In so many areas of life today, it is obvious that our problems derive from our incapacity for self-governance, in the formal discipline of self.

What we need today is not a generation that is “spiritual, not religious.” I would argue that what is needed is the studied capacity to be “religious, not spiritual.” Let’s make that the new buzz.

Patrick Deneen, here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

To listen to talk radio, to watch TV pundits, to read a newspaper's online message board, is to realize that we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe.

I submit that any people thus handicapped sow the seeds of their own decline; they respond to the world as they wish it were rather to the world as it is.

Leonard Pitts, here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Georgian Monastery Tour

The Fifth Annual 2010 Georgian Monastery Tour is now taking applications (details, here.) I have never been a real "tour person," and I generally still hold to my reservations about them--but this undertaking is the shining exception. I highly recommend the monastery tour led by my friends Luarsab Togonidze and John Ananda Graham. Those who have had the great fortune to visit Georgia are invariably changed by the experience. In one sense, my own life can be divided into 2 parts--before I visited Georgia, and then everything afterwards. We are all suffering through some very tough economic times. But Georgia remains one of the best travel bargains around, and this tour is simply the best of the best, in my book. I'd better stop now--I'm starting to gush.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

On Forgiveness Sunday and Great Lent

It may not be appropriate to express a preference for a favorite service of the church year. Even so, for me it must be Forgiveness Vespers, from which I have just returned home. And while I am in great need of all the services of the church, by the time this one comes around, believe me, I really need it.

I recommend Aaron Taylor's recent article on Great Lent published here in the Guardian, no less. Congratulations, Aaron.

I also recommend Fr. John Parker's homily, here, in Glory to God.

Also from Glory to God, Fr. Stephen on the Great Fast.

Forgive me, my brothers.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Ruth's House

This picture was drawn 100 year ago this month, by a 13-year old girl named Ruth. This depicted her home, which she drew and colored in her mother's autograph album. Ruth was my grandmother.

I never knew my grandmothers. One died in 1934 and the other in 1947. The two women could not have been more dissimilar. My paternal grandmother comes across as an almost sainted figure in the family saga: a light-hearted, joyous and compassionate Christian; musically accomplished, a woman who sang in the kitchen; who was first in the community with food for the sick. She and my granddad made a good team--her practicality and management being a needful brake on his pride and enthusiasm for risk. The Depression caught up with them, and they lost the farm and everything they owned, quickly followed by her sudden, tragic, far-too-early death. The children were soon out on their own, supporting their dad, infant brother and each other. Growing up in the egalitarian Hill Country of central Texas, it was only then that my dad realized that they were actually poor, for the quality of their lives had been anything but. Never did they see themselves as victims, or pitiable. This was my grandmother Lillie's legacy to her children.

But that is not the story I am telling. My other grandmother, Ruth, was another matter altogether. She grew up poor, and never saw herself as anything else. Her dad was the illegitimate youngest child of a 40-ish widow whose husband had died in the Civil War 4 earlier. With no known father, he was orphaned young and raised up among older half-siblings. The only thing my mother ever heard about him was that he was a "hard man," and that he had been "brought up hard." He married a local girl from down on the Lavaca River, whose circumstances were somewhat better by comparison. But it made no difference, the dye was set, so to speak. She bore him 12 children and buried 5, as they moved around the state, seeking greener pastures. By 1908, they inexplicably found themselves in East Texas, far from their previous homes and connections. Here they settled-in and sharecropped for a large landowner who owned a gin, store and some 900 acres of good cotton land.

I have an old picture from about 1912, with the whole family lined up on the front porch of this sharecropper's house. In fact, I remember the house--somewhat falling down--from my own youth. At that time, Ruth was about 15 or so, and there was already something a little disturbing and not quite right about the set of her jaw, as if she has already locked herself in against a world that she believed was set against her. The family had a deserved reputation for stubbornness and hard-headedness. But with my grandmother and her 2 sisters, it went somewhat farther. I knew my great-aunts. Between the 3, they ran the gamut from simply eccentric to wildly eccentric to crazy-mean eccentric. My dad never talked about his mother-in-law, but once let it slip that she was, in his words, a "hellcat." None of the stories passed down about her had any of that Norman Rockwallish grandmotherly sentimentality. One cousin remembered that she could be nice as you please one minute, and cuss you like a sailor the next.

Her father died in 1914, and within a few months, Ruth had run off with their landlord's grandson, she being 17 and he 16. She clashed with her mother-in-law from the beginning. the fact that her husband's grandfather was well-fixed was of no bearing, as there were about 30 grandchildren altogether. So, they set up house-keeping and sharecropped in the community, as she had done all her life. Perhaps things could have worked out--there are faded pictures of my mother in a white Sunday dress, wearing black buckle shores and holding a doll. But even these family pictures reveal part of the story. There were never any of those hard-backed family portrait-type pictures that nearly every family of that era--no matter how poor--insisted on having. A cheap Kodak was my grandmother's one extravagance. If there were to be any pictures taken, she took them with this.

Children came quickly--six while they were still in their twenties. And things never came together. Both of these grandparents were hard workers, but poor managers. They were simply never able to get ahead. And with the Depression, they were barely able to feed and clothe their children. I think the only way they survived at all was due to my great-grandfather's death and my great-grandmother's quick remarriage, which allowed my grandparents to move into his parents' house on the old home place.

But this in itself, does not explain what happened to the family. Lots of people were poor. My grandfather was a good, but weak man. Ruth was of a domineering nature and mercurial temperament. And as she got older, her eccentricities became more pronounced. After the arrival of the youngest 2 children, it was almost as if the oldest 4 were largely forgotten. The older children, particularly my mother and her older sister, suffered considerable abuse, while the youngest two were petted. I have long attributed it to mental instability on my grandmother's part. My mother rarely mentioned her, and would certainly oppose thinking of her in that way--but really, that is the most charitable face one can put on it.

Basically, all three of the daughters ran away from home--my mother being the only one with any respectability attached to it. My dad had come for her and was waiting in the yard. Ruth followed her out to the car, scolding her that "if she left with that man, not to ever come back." Of course she left with him. He was her ticket out.

Ruth never warmed up to my dad. About 15 years ago, I heard an anecdote which offered insight into both their characters. I had carried my mother to the funeral of a cousin. We were in the cemetery, and my mother--already very weak--was resting by leaning against her great-aunt's tombstone. While she was regaining her strength before walking back to our car, another cousin told me the story about Ruth. It was in 1937, and she was over at his parents' house, cussing-out my dad up one side and down the other. My dad and mom had moved back to East Texas, and my dad was jobless, with no prospects. Ruth had made him a cotton sack, so he could pick cotton. When she gave it to him, he looked at her and said, "No. I don't know what I am going to do, but I do know I am not going to do that." My dad realized that whatever the future held for him, it did not involve picking cotton. Convinced that my dad thought himself too good for picking cotton, my grandmother was still fuming when she visited my cousin's house. She noted with biting sarcasm, "I don't know what John is going to do. We already have a Governor and a President." My dad made his way quickly in the world, and in a few years time had built Ruth and my grandfather a new house. And during her long, lingering illness, they moved in and cared for her. Despite this, she never came around to liking my dad. And while my mother was caring for her night and day, Ruth talked on to visitors about her youngest daughter, the "pretty one."

But that is all water under the bridge, as she died so long ago. Except that it isn't. Ruth's way lives on, in varying degrees, in her progeny. The exception was my mom's next youngest brother--a thoughtful, studious and gentle man who died at age 31. On a superficial level, my mother's life was, I suppose, relatively "normal." And yet, she could be subject to the same extremities of temperament, the same paranoia, the same violent and suspicious nature that plagued her mother. The less said about the rest of the bunch, the better. My dad and mom supported all these siblings, in one way or the other, for the rest of their lives--and not a few of the next generation, as well. That was not resented on our part, but nothing good really came from it. It is a sad train wreck of a family, generation after generation.

From my earliest memories, I recall my parents having to deal with this alcoholic aunt or uncle, or to get a cousin out of another jam. It was always something. And as I came to better understand the family dynamics, I know I tended to blame it all on Ruth. And I realize I have been harsh in my estimation of her. Life can be hard, and hers was harder than most. But it is this picture that gnaws at me. There was a time in her life when Ruth had a vision of a happy home--a home with blue curtains in the window, and yellow and red flowers in the yard. What happened? The better question is--What happens to us all?