Monday, March 12, 2018

Trump and evangelicals

This is a fascinating long-form article from the Atlantic on Trump's relationship with white evangelical voters.  I thought this quote was particularly striking:

"It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity and dismiss decency as a dead language."

Monday, February 12, 2018

Christmas in a workaday world

I recently made a quick trip to Chicago, and among other things I visited the Our Lady of Sorrows basilica (before trying for the first time a delicious meal at the soul food institution MacArthur's, which I also highly recommend).  Our Lady of Sorrows is a breathtaking church built in 1874.  Visiting it is like visiting one of the historic churches in Europe.  Elegant artistry throughout, and some 10 or 14 side chapels, each with intricate sculptures, paintings, stained glass, and floor mosaics dedicated to one saint or another.  And it's all right in the middle of a pretty blighted neighborhood in Chicago, East Garfield Park.

We picked up one of the newsletters published by the Franciscan order that runs the church, the Friar Servants of Mary or Servites.  It had an article that I liked, and that links to a recent reflection of mine about how often we are so harried and rushed by the Christmas season that we don't manage to enjoy it or to get into the Christmas spirit.

Quoth the Servites (one Robert Warsey) about the Christmas season:
"At no other time of the year are so many expectations placed upon the season.  And at no other time of the year are so many people frazzled, frustrated, and depressed because those expectations have not been met in a lasting or life-giving way.
"As much a tradition as anything else of this season are the religious reminders to keep Christ in Christmas, to wait with Advent hope and to maintain the true spirit of the season.  All of these admonitions are true and valuable--but when they do not happen in our lives at this time we may feel a tinge of guilt, a sense of hollowness.
"But let us consider the Christmas story from another perspective, apart from the serenity presented by the scenes on Christmas cards and the sentiments of the carols.  When we look carefully at Luke's account of the birth of Jesus, the world is in turmoil and people are on the move.  The Emperor has decreed the census and the roads are crowded with travelers returning to their hometowns--not for holiday festivities but for purposes of taxation and bureaucracy.  Without an advanced hotel reservation, you are lost.  Amidst all of this chaos and personal business, who has the time to really pay atention to another poor couple looking for shelter?
"And what about the shepherds?  The breathtaking announcement of Jesus's birth by the angel did not happpen for the shepherds while they were on a thirty-day retreat or attending a workshop on 'How to Prepare for the Coming of the Messiah' -- they were working the nightshift, guarding the flock against predators. 
"As Luke unfolds his telling of the story of Jesus, we see a very specific pattern develop:  the extraordinary moments of divine encounter erupt in the ordinary moments of our workaday world.  People are surprised by God's message in the midst of their daily lives.  In this great season celebrating the Incarnation, maybe that can be the message we try to carry in our minds and hearts:  that we try to recognize and bless those people and moments that challenge us to be a little more patient, a little more aware of others, a bit kinder.  Like Mary, we are invited to take these treasured moments and reflect on them in our hearts. ...
"... During this seaons that may place so many demands on time and energy, maybe we can bring some of that awareness into all that we do and to all that we may meet so that there may be fewer frazzled edges and a little more hope."  

Friday, February 9, 2018

Black comic book characters

This is an interesting article from my hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune.  It explores the recent prominence of black characters in comic books, both mainstream and independent.  I thought it gave a good summary of the difficulties of black representation, not just in comics but in any media.  If it's a non-black artist depicting blacks, does he or she have the right to do that?  Conversely, would it be okay if only black artists took the initiative to depict black people?  Should a black character be specifically focused on helping blacks, or addressing black issues?  If the black hero takes on a more global issue, he or she might be criticized for not addressing black issues.

Anyway, it's a good read.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The American Mission

I am a voracious reader, and though I am quite critical, I am also a bit undiscerning in that I am happy to read a fair amount of junk, as long as it's entertaining junk.  In fact, I often need a break from the "good" reading that I feel I should do (important novels, history and nonfiction of places I should learn more about, etc.).  I obtain such a break through either trashy thriller/spy novels (what I call airport novels, a la Dan Brown), or increasingly from British period pieces like Somerset Maugham or GK Chesterton.  John LeCarre is the perfect combination of these, and actually a highbrow novelist to boot, but I've unfortunately run through all his novels, except for his latest, which I'm saving for a rainy day.

In this vein, I just devoured a book called The American Mission, by Matthew Palmer.  He is perhaps the only writer working in the Foreign Service Officer thriller genre, meaning that his heroes are diplomat-bureaucrats in the United States Foreign Service.  I know quite a few Foreign Service Officers, and much of what Palmer writes rings true to their descriptions of work and life.  Anyway, the book was great, a nail-biter but well-informed.  It takes place across a number of places I'm very interested in--Sudan, Guinea, and the DRC.  I was also pleasantly surprised at his normal, human treatment of African people.  Most of the characters in the novel are African, both heroes and villains, and they are complex, talking, thinking, critical, conflicted human beings.  They aren't just savage warlords, or noble innocents, or deprived waifs.  This nuanced characterization is a rarity in thrillers written by non-Africans.

Don't get me wrong, this is still a trashy novel, it's just that it's a good trashy novel.  Where Le Carre can offhandedly mention a small detail like the cut of someone's clothes or an affected accent, and with this detail convey a whole series of things about a person's social class, upbringing, values, who they are and who they want to be, Palmer has lines like, 'He wore stylish tortoiseshell glasses that gave him a vaguely professorial air."  Palmer tells you, he doesn't just show you, but he's still a cut above a lot of thriller writers, who wouldn't even mention the tortoiseshell glasses, or might just blurt out that someone looks like a professor.  With reason the bevy of thriller novel writers cited on the cover give glowing praise to Palmer's book, though a Dan Brown knockoff's quip that "Mr. Palmer is far better than John Le Carre," is certainly stretching it.  Anyway, I highly recommend The American Mission.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Third World Green Daddy 72: Christmas

I've long wanted to write a blog about the traditions my nuclear family and I have developed in some ten years of shared existence.  For much of this time we have been itinerant, often in economically precarious straits, and sometimes without a fixed place of residence.  We've had Christmases that were subdued and contemplative as we mourned loved ones we'd lost in the prior year, other Christmases with a more reduced family circle sharing with us and a corresponding feeling of simple intimacy, and we've had years that were more boisterous and full of family and guests.  Some years we put together a makeshift Christmas tree in one or another of our houses, and other years we're just too busy to get to that.  My mom's arrival to Colombia usually has marked the beginning of the Christmas season for us, but some years she hasn't been able to make it, and in other years, I've gotten into the Christmas spirit early if my office or other social circles happened to be particularly festive.  This is increasingly the case as my kids have elaborate school events and parties for Christmas.   
Despite all this variation from year to year, my family and I have still managed to slowly craft some meaningful traditions that mix constancy with evolution and adaptation.

Some of these traditions for me:
  • Walking my town in Colombia, where we dutifully report almost every year for Christmas.  My town is packed with people at Christmas, doing last-minute shopping, going to novenas at their families' houses, and above all watching a major parade and wild nightly concerts in the main plaza.  Many of these days I'm alone with my boys, going to the library or the playground, as my wife runs errands and visits family out of town.  Increasingly, my boys are altogether alone, playing with neighborhood kids in the park in front of our house, while I putter around inside the house with my myriad projects.  This freedom for the boys is so special to us; in a lot of places in the world, including the modern US, it's no longer so common for kids to just be outside and entertain themselves.
  • Christmas cassettes.  I have a few cassette tapes of Christmas music that I used to listen to with my parents and cousins in Chicago as we decorated the treat or ate Christmas dinner.  These include a rendering of "What if Mozart wrote 'Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas'", and a wonderful tape of traditional English carols by the Alfred Deller Consort, which tape came to be known in our household as the Castrati Christmas.  Part of the modern tradition is that I always intend to take these to Colombia for our Christmas trip, since we have a cassette player there but not at our permanent residence, and I always forget to pack them!
  • For a few Christmases after we'd stopped living permanently in Colombia, it seemed like part of the yearly Christmas routine was frantic running around on my part, trying to take care of things like updating my ID card, or fixing up our house as it had fallen into disrepair every year.  But as we've become more economically secure, more logistically organized, and set up working systems to take care of these other maintenance needs, it seems like I'm not so harried anymore during our trips.
  • A lot of what we do for Christmas consists in just hanging around the house, getting groceries, cooking, and being with family.  We get a full house, with cousins, in-laws, older kids and their partners, all staying with us on different schedules, coming and going.  I like the warmth of being around so much family, though we also relish the few moments in between visits when we have the house just for our nuclear family.  One of my fond memories is an evening of just my wife and my two kids and me, watching a movie and going to Mass.  Just before we left one of my prodigal older kids came to visit, and so while we were at Mass he was in the house shucking and grinding corn from my brother-in-law's farm.  By the time we got back, he was gone, but everything was ready for us to make home-made arepa corn pancakes!
  • Our typical Christmas meal is Midwestern-style roast beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes, tomatoes with pesto, and sometimes spinach-stuffed mushrooms. But contrary to the tradition growing up in Chicago, my Colombia family celebrates on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.
  • We go to Mass either on the night of the 24th, as we're waiting for the food to cook, or on the 25th itself.  We used to do Christmas Mass in cold, half-filled Bogota parishes, but more recently it's been in the 16th-century hermitage of our neighborhood.  This latter church is literally on the same plaza as our house, so we drift in a bit early or a bit late, often standing just outside the packed church to hear Mass.  There are even pit stops when one of the boys has to go pee; we take them back to the house and then back to the grand porch of the church, without missing a beat.
  • I usually spend a few days after Christmas at my father-in-law's farm, working to clear and plant trees in an abandoned lot that we've taken over, with the eventual intent to set up a small shade-grown coffee plantation.  It's a chance for me to sweat and do the hard physical farm work I so enjoy, even if for only a few days every year.  Here are some photos of the pseudo-terraces I've installed.

This year I invited a friend to share Christmas Eve with us, and his outsider's view of our extended family made me appreciate how much love infuses everything.  He was amazed at how happy my kids were to see their uncles and cousins and play together, and how even divorced parents got along for the holiday.  When seen in this way, any petty quarrels within the family disappear into insignificance, and I realize that we're lucky to get along as well as we do.

I even got to talk to my college-age cousins  in Chicago this year, as my mother hosted my Wisconsin family for the first Christmas in a long time.  Between all my wife's family gathered in Bogota, and my family gathered in Chicago (many of whom are recently-coined adults), I felt above all a sense of generations pervading each other, pervading everything.  We spent this Christmas in a rented apartment, but despite this apparent rootlessness, I felt more than in other years connected to a whole web of history and customs and relations.  Yes, I'm still worried about climate collapse and apocalypse and all sorts of other bad things going on in the world right now, but for a brief shining moment I could just bask in the holiday warmth, enjoy the old stories, watch my kids play with their cousins. 

Perhaps one of our most enduring traditions has been to read A Christmas Carol as a family.  When my first son was newborn, and the rhythm of our life was a fair amount slower and calmer than it is today, we spent hours all arrayed on our bed one night, my wife, my baby, my mother, and I, and I read the entirety of the Dickens book in one or two sittings.  Since then I have read it almost every year around Christmas time to my two boys.  One year we listened to a classic radio play of A Christmas Carol.  Many years I'll read ETA Hoffman's Nutcracker to my kids over the course of December, and we've also at some point read Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, and Dylan Thomas's Child's Christmas in Wales.

A Christmas Carol has a maudlin tone that I like.  I grew up with it, and in a way almost everyone in the US did, since so much of the popular sentiment and customs surrounding Christmas have been molded by Dickens's story.  The image of a snowy London Christmas, of fog and bitter chill offset by cheer and good will, the moral idea of Christmas (beyond its purely Christ-centered roots) as a time of giving and solidarity and love and family, just the general feel of Christmas today was shaped in large part by Dickens's depiction.  This may not seem so evident or odd in the US context, where we already practice a lot of British cultural traditions, but it really strikes home when you see countries with no snow and even without much native Christianity, but that still get decked out a la Dickensian London (by way of a century and a half of US additions like Frosty and Rudolph) every December.

Every year I get bent out of shape as social obligations pile up in December, and work deadlines are created at year's end precisely when less and less work can get done.  It seems as if all the modern hubbub around Christmas is almost perfectly designed to turn you into a Scrooge.  By the time we've been on vacation long enough for me to relax, and we've finished our year's reading of A Christmas Carol, I'm inspired like Scrooge was to be a warmer, kinder person, and to keep Christmas throughout the year.  I go through his same epiphany, getting out of the Christmas spirit during December, and then being inspired by the visits of the ghosts to get back into it.  Though this epiphany invariably comes well after Christmas is over!  I always resolve that next year I'll avoid getting in a bad mood to begin with, but it rarely works out that way.  I feel like those heretical sects in the Middle Ages that had riotous orgies and committed all manner of sins, in order to repent and more fully embrace the saving grace of God!

I also like A Christmas Carol's vision of social justice, with Hunger and Want so deftly rendered as the wretched children of a heartless modern civilization.  Dickens's account is not revolutionary, but rather a modest call for modernity and capitalist growth to be tempered by charity and a concern for the common well being.  In this sense I feel that Dickens's vision actually hews quite closely to how the modern welfare state has evolved, for better or for worse.

I am always amazed at how prescient and relevant are Dickens's descriptions and interpretations of life in 1840s London.  Many of the things he describes--wonder at heretofore-unknown wealth and modernity, industrial wretchedness on a heretofore-unseen scale, the glory and the pathos of life in a capital city of a fast-industrializing country--are still relevant today.  I have been in a few Third World capitals, and many of the dynamics of Dickens's London are at play right now in places like Port au Prince or Kinshasa or Tegucigalpa.  One day my sons and I had passed through Bogota's Skid Row, where there are a lot of people living on the streets and abusing drugs.  That night, as we read about Bob Cratchitt's family and their poverty, my kid asked me if they were drug addicts too, or just poor for some other reason!

I very much like Dickens's view of Christianity (explored further in a book he wrote for his kids called The Life of our Lord) as being largely about acknowledging that each of us is responsible for taking care of everyone else.  In many ways this seems like a pretty anodyne conception of Christianity, indeed a pretty anodyne assertion in general:  be nice to others, take care of others.  But I've written in the past about how much hostility I've encountered when I try to assert to strangers that we're all in the same boat together, so maybe Dickens's vision isn't that simple or self-evident after all.  In any case, A Christmas Carol reminds me every year or so of certain of my most deeply-held beliefs.

I've long thought of God more as a faceless force than a personal, Western-style god, but at the same time I mentally talk with and pray to the personalized, human God of Catholicism.  I feel that Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, in its stress on love and social justice, makes God relevant in a way that speaks to me, a way no other religion does that I have encountered.  I almost feel more devout to the collective of humanity, more loyal to this Dickensian concept of God and religion, than I do to the details of the faith, which are for the most part not factually verifiable (and frankly, which often don't have a huge relevance on day-to-day life).  But I cling to the faith, and want my children to, because I value the idea of God as love, and God present in every person, and I especially believe in humankind's role to bring about a more godly world by fighting sin as injustice and oppression.  These are Catholic ideas, and while I can respect a more Eastern conception of God as all-encompassing, and thus somewhat indifferent to human affairs, I cannot accept "mere" earthly injustices and suffering as simply a neutral part of an indifferent whole.

Perhaps my favorite recent Christmas memory is from our last day in Bogota a few years ago.  I took my boys to the Gold Museum.  We saw all my favorite exhibits, with me doing my guide thing, and then we were treated to a special interactive kids' movie about shamans.  From there we watched skateboarders in a downtown Bogota park.  We cheered for them; in these young men and women I saw my own kids, instead of the listless thugs that I used to label them as.  After this we bet money on a guinea pig race in the street (this is a very Colombian thing, where a guy releases a guinea pig in front of a number of little houses, and whoever has bet on the house it finally runs into get a 5:1 payout).  We gave some bread we had left over to a pair of homeless guys, which prompted a long series of questions and proposals from my older son about poverty and homelessness.  We picked Andean cherries from a tree on the street, and got home on the wonderful Transmilenio bus system of Bogota.

Just before reaching my stepdaughter's house, we ran across more homeless people on the street.  My sons and I discussed how society might take care of the poorest among us, which prompted my son to reflect that helping a homeless person is like helping Christ who dwells in every person. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Young Indy raising my kids

With my kids I recently started watching the third boxed set of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the 1990s show that had its hero going about the world in the early 20th century, meeting important historical figures and having lots of adventures.  Watching this series with my boys has made we weepy, but in a good way.

I remember years ago, in my early 20s, I dreamed of seeing the Young Indy shows, which I'd largely missed out on as a kid.  At that moment in the early 2000s, the series was old enough to no longer be available, but not yet old enough to merit a nostalgic release or re-release.  A few years later, maybe when I was living in Spain, I learned that they had either come out or were going to come out as a DVD boxed set.  Still years later, I finally ordered a box to reach me in Colombia via my mother.  At that moment I was fixing up a house in our town, and my wife and kid were living far away in Bogota.  At night, after a long day of office work, followed by a few hours working on the house in the evening, I would settle down in my room amidst the rubble and dust of the rehab, and watch an episode of Young Indy.  The boxed set was excellently put together, in that each episode of the show was accompanied by two to four documentaries on subjects from Norman Rockwell to ballet to Jan Smuts and apartheid. 

As I watched these shows, I dreamed that they could someday be a major self-contained source of entertainment and education for my largely TV-free infant son, when he was older.  Starting about two years ago I finally exposed my two boys to the show, and we've been watching an episode every few weeks ever since.  It just makes me sublimely happy to have this thread running from my lonely days in a drafty abandoned house, to occasional reunions with my family in the elegant Parkway neighborhood of Bogota, to a precarious few years in our DC-area apartment, to our present, comfortable reality in Central America.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Reasons for hope in the new year

Here is an interesting bit from a website that seems to dedicate itself to reporting positive developments in world issues like climate, environment, health, and economic development.  In many raw indicators, the world got better in 2017 than it had been before.  I still worry about two juggernauts that don't necessarily manifest themselves in a one-year snapshot, but that could bring us all down in the years to come.  One is the rising tide of ethnic and other resentment, and the anti-democratic shifts in much of the world.  The second, and larger still, is the seemingly inevitable march of climate change, which despite the good news reported in the above article, has probably already reached a tipping point at which no improvements we make in CO2 emissions can reverse the phenomena of massive methane release from the Arctic that is already underway.

Stay tuned.