Saturday, December 27, 2008
The family gathered down in Mount Gretna for the holiday. Eating, visiting, playing games, singing Christmas carols in our usual complex of idiosyncratic keys and uneven tempos -- and staying out of a rain that washed away the snow. A Christmas eve ice storm was enough to cut us off from phone and internet for a few days, which was a nice bit of enforced virtue -- all the laptops lobotomized. The boys got piles of swag that only bordered on excess.
And the entire family in more or less good health and good spirits. And really, what more can you ask for.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
Now the days get longer. The northern darkness has run to its depth and the sun will be coming back.
Whatever the time of year in Ireland I would often stand with my back to a standing stone or settle within some hilltop circle and imagine the ancient Irish gathering for the solstice vigils. I wondered whether they treated the miracle of yearly resurrection with trepidation or with confident pleasure.
There's no way to know for sure, but one of the things that I learned in my scramblings around was that the pagan sites were nearly always in physically striking settings.
Exposed places with views and with drama or beauty -- not places for hiding. I like to think that the stone-setters marveled at the way the world ran along and took pride in their human abilities to see and to mark the patterns.
Lauren and Rob had invited friends over to their place for food and some solstice bonfire. Roast chicken, white bean stew, acorn squash and latkas. Red wine, candles and conversation by the Christmas tree. A vicious wind was freezing the day's slush into an icy gravel, so there was no pagan exultation by the fire. But there was tobogganing and a few wind-whipped fireworks to mark the occasion. Civilization's not so bad on such a night.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
In the last few months, trillions of dollars of imagined wealth has dissipated like sorcerer's smoke. Now people are trying to hunker down out of the draught to hold on to whatever they're to be left with.
The economic pain is real - there are kids going hungry, houses going dark, and cancers going untreated. But as we look for an exit I hope that we can seize an opportunity to imagine going somewhere other than just back to where we were before.
In the eyes of this anthropologist at least, our Earth-wrecking consumerism and the autophagic worker-consumer-producer nexus that we subsist within hasn't created impressive amounts of health and happiness.
And yet, I know from teaching my course on utopianism that we have tremendous - usually insurmountable - difficulties imagining that things could really be much different. At some level people truly believe in the brutal inevitability of the way things are.
(It's not surprising that elites desire to create an aura of inevitability about the status quo - a lot of cultural energy is expended on this wherever people squabble over power - but it's been startling to see how successful they've been in our otherwise relatively open and diverse society.)
So will our fear and pain drive us with even more fervor toward the over-worked and over-spent materialism that is being threatened - or will the scales fall from our eyes and let us see something new?
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Yesterday a warm, wet, drizzly morning turned crisp as cold air seethed in. It was Nico's 7th birthday. With help from Charles I brought him and 7 of his classmates back from school. They swarmed the treehouse and quickly found the zip line out of the climbing tree. I'd had some games in mind, but never got to most. We strung up a pinata up in the tree, and they made short work of it.
Inside, they rummaged the costume bin and put on a play, The Stolen Slipper. Nico was decked out in beads and red silks as the rich man -- Annabel in sparkly blue was a flute playing princess. Grace was the thief in prison stripes who would make off with the slipper. Jamie was the guard in gray armor with sword in hand. Anya was a wizard with a battle ax. Matteo made a racket with the musical instruments. Robin ran the lights, and Camille tried to direct. And it was all as chaotic as a real opening night.
Monica arrived with pizza and ice cream cake. Candles were blown out -- presents opened. And out in the windy darkness we built a campfire and toasted marshmallows. Finally, I drove them back to school, where the older kids were staging their own play, Charley and the Chocolate Factory. And there the parents gradually gathered them up.
Friday, December 5, 2008
On the days that I ride the bus into the city I've been reading Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. Each short story is a carefully crafted set piece. The characters, in Calcutta or Boston or London, circulate past one another, never quite in contact. The author only hints that the cool, enameled exteriors of people serve to contain magmatic emotions -- a vulcanism of feeling kept in check by every artifice of politeness, habit and culture. The stories describe a tension between, on the one hand, the fight against and resentment against the isolation caused by silence, indirection and artifice, and on the other hand, the desperate reliance upon this artifice and self control in order to make life livable and save oneself from emotional destruction or dissolution.
On my way home from Pennsylvania I stopped at a restaurant in Port Jervis on the Delaware river. It was an old-fashioned little place with uneven low ceilings that kept the sound in and made everyone an eavesdropper. I stared out the window into the drizzle. The 50-ish woman at the next table was eating with a burly and bearish older man, maybe her husband. Faded traces of a Germanic accent thickened his speech. As she fumbled distractedly in her purse to find payment she complained about having three checkbooks and the burdens of other people's finances. The old German didn't voice the sympathy she wanted and instead asked her why "Sue" couldn't look after her own money. The woman said with irritated defensiveness that right now she just couldn't deal with it all, and added wearily that anyhow she was never any good with money. As they debated back and forth I stared into the rain at the brightly placarded army surplus shop across the road and tried to imagine the dramas and comedies that had brought three checkbooks into her purse -- and this blunt, grizzled German to her table.
At the other table sat another woman in her late fifties, with a heavy, pouchy face and rough, yellowish hair. Her companion was an elderly man with reddened, watery eyes. I wasn't paying attention to them until she said to him with utter contempt and viciousness, "My god, you think I've never heard that story before? Every single time you tell me that." And I had to replay in my mind moments of conversation that I had only half heard. She had expressed surprise that the mannequin across the street was out in the rain, that she thought they would have brought it in. (It was an infantryman in camouflage fatigues crouching in front of the knife shop.) He had said pleasantly, "My son-in-law went to buy a knife there . . . " when she had cut him off so acidly. I felt a jab in my chest for the old man -- whose stock of stories had gone stale and whose life was now so circumscribed by age that he was not likely to add much to it. Certainly nothing to interest the embittered woman who shared his meal. But like the characters in Lahiri's tales the man and I both remained silent and said nothing at all.